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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. 

Chapter Text

“Wasn't sure I'd be alright
Wasn't sure I'd be okay again
Didn't know how to take flight
Wings broken, couldn't seem to bend
Somehow you came in like the wind,
and picked me up for good.”
Hold Me By the Heart, Kehlani

February 14, 2017 - Seokjin

KAKOATALK
7:03 a.m.

MinYoongi: Okay, hyung. He is finally out of the house.
Jjin-Hyung: What took him so long????
MinYoongi: Sheer stubbornness?
Jjin-Hyung: He's still upset about me kissing Joon's cheek on the broadcast last night.
It's RapMon Kim: To be fair, you did write the penalty.
Jjin-Hyung: I know. I had my reasons.
MinYoongi: Yeah, yeah. No need to explain.
MinYoongi: Anyway, he's on his way to you, Monie. Which means, I am off to sleep, which means no memes from the likes of you, Park Jimin.
Jimin's Thighs: AAH!! Hyung!? You're thinking of Tae-Tae. I only send selfies. (-o⌒)
MinYoongi: You're telling me you didn't spam my chat with pictures of J-Hope's flower face Photoshopped onto every animal imaginable?
JeonJungkookie: To be fair, hyung, that was both of us. And they were really funny.
Jimin's Thighs: The ostrich one! ㅋㅋㅋㅋ
It's RapMon Kim: Come on, the giraffe was inspired.
JeonJungkookie: No, hyung... The manatee was the best.
Jjin-Hyung: Hope for hu-manateeㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ
MinYoongi: Do not forget, revenge is best when it is slow and unexpected.
Ho-ope: Okay, then. We're coming home.
Jimin's Thighs: And Hwarang tonight. Don't forget.
MinYoongi: How can I forget? You remind me every five minutes.
Ho-ope: Sweet dreams, Yoongi-yah. We'll see you soon.

Seokjin tucks his phone into his pocket and stares at the scuffed tread of the floor between his feet. Despite the drag of exhaustion in his bones, he permits himself a tiny smile. The train car rolls smoothly along the track, empty except for him and a handful of similarly sleepy service workers bound for jobs on the east side of Seoul.

The rising sun checkers a patchwork of amber light across the seat, igniting in him a swirl of excitement. He goes through his plan again, making sure he's scattered all of the breadcrumbs for Taehyung's secret mission.

Once Seokjin's settled, he sends the next clue to Taehyung:

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

Taehyung responds almost immediately, so Seokjin finishes with the second part:

Because of how you see the world.

Seokjin waits, imagining Taehyung on another eastbound train, sifting through his camera bag in search of his clue. Seokjin hopes he's brought a coat. From the train's window, Seokjin sees scrims of ice along the banks of the Han. At each stop, he gets a cold burst of frigid wind as passengers wince in and out of the car.

The February morning smells scrubbed clean with the scent of freshly fallen snow. The sky is bright and cloudless, seemingly infinite above the crosshatched scars of feathery clouds.

Halfway to Gapyeong Station, Seokjin receives his video call from Namjoon.

He's crowded with the others into what appears to be an elevator. The camera skitters as they huddle around the phone so that Seokjin can see them all.

“Okay, hyung,” Namjoon says. “He boarded the train a little late, but now he's on his way.”

“Yeah, don't worry, hyung,” Hoseok assures him. “He'll make it on time. What about you? Do you need anything?”

“Nope,” Seokjin says, unable to contain his smile. “I've got everything I need.”

*

Which is only a slight exaggeration. And in the spirit of the call, completely allowable.

However, as Seokjin leaves the train, his head down against the wind, he runs through his mental itinerary.

First on the list, he has to pick up the car he reserved on Saturday from the rental place next to the station. He's already paid the deposits and signed the forms, so it's a simple matter of showing his ID and taking the keys.

Or so he thinks. He stands at the front grill of the canary-yellow monster truck the rental agent has led him to and wonders if maybe he's being pranked.

“This is not the car I ordered,” Seokjin tells the young man, who is probably his age, slightly hungover, and several days without a shower. It's the end of the semester after all, and if this agent – Mr. Kang, as his name tag suggests – is a university student, then he's most likely been celebrating.

Mr. Kang consults his clipboard. “You ordered a Hyundai hybrid sedan,” he tells him.

Seokjin again stares up at the military-grade HUMV and agrees. “Yes, I would like the sedan, please.”

Mr. Kang sucks his lip. “Yeah, there's been a mix up.”

For the first time since arriving, Seokjin scans the area and realizes that this yellow monstrosity is the only vehicle in the lot.

“I need a small car,” Seokjin tells him. “I'm driving in the mountains today.”

“This is perfect for mountains,” Mr. Kang says, banging a fist on the front fender. “All-wheel drive. Snow tires. High visibility.”

“In that it's the color of the sun?”

The agent shrugs and looks genuinely remorseful. “Look, none of our other cars have returned yet,” he explains.

"It's a Tuesday,"  Seokjin says.

“I know," Mr. Kang says. "I can get you a refund, maybe refer you to another lot?”

“There's no time,” Seokjin tells him. He scrubs his forehead. “Is this at least an automatic?”

Mr. Kang nods but says, “Nope.”

Meanwhile, the time ticks steadily on, and Taehyung is already on his way.

With a shrug, Seokjin says, “This will have to do.”

At least Mr. Kang has the good graces to help Seokjin heft his bags and suitcase up into the cab before Seokjin plots his coordinates into the HUMV's GPS. The setback only costs him twenty minutes, which he figures he can make up as he inadvertently intimidates everyone out of his path on his way through Gyeonggi.

*

If Taehyung found the clue in his camera case, then by 9:30 a.m., he should be safely aboard the bus bound for Nami Island just as Seokjin rumbles up to the Plus Mart on Daegok Road. The HUMV takes up the entire lot – all four spaces – and Seokjin feels like he has to rappel from the driver's seat to reach the ground.

Seokjin tamps down his itch to message Taehyung, to make sure he's caught his bus. He also hopes the driver doesn't spoil anything. Bus Driver Mr. Yen seemed super eager to help when he and Minnie explained their plans to him on Saturday, tracing the same route that Taehyung's currently taking. The driver's granddaughter is a fan, so getting her name onto the guest list at their next show went a long way to sweeten the deal.

Pleased with himself over that part of the arrangement, Seokjin ambles his shopping cart through the quiet aisles of the Plus Mart, which smells faintly of boiled rice, shellfish, and perm solution. He and Minnie found everything Seokjin would need for Taehyung's feast, and so he's mildly alarmed when he finds the saltwater tanks bubbling away but devoid of fish.

He raps on the counter and waits for an older woman to toddle in from the back.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, nodding a polite bow to her. “My friend and I saw you that had lobster on Saturday—”

“—Yes, we sold them.” The woman scratches at the mole on her cheek. “Valentine's Day.”

Seokjin's heart sinks. “All of them?”

She splays her hands like What can you do?

And really, Seokjin has to wonder.

“Do you have any fresh seafood?” he ventures.

She pans a pointed look to the empty tanks and then back to him. “The truck comes around eleven,” she tells him. “But no lobsters until Friday.”

Seokjin shuts his eyes. First the car, now this... How can he make lobster ravioli without the lobster?

The woman wraps her chilly fingers around his wrist. “Are you making a special meal for someone?” she asks.

“My bo... best friend,” Seokjin says. “And his fiance.”

She scrunches up her lips. After a moment's thought, she leads him to the freezer section in the back. She noses around a moment before passing up a packet of pale pink meat, waving it at him like it's a buried treasure.

Seokjin skims the package. “This is imitation crab meat,” he says, trying hard not to sound disappointed.

“People like it,” she insists. “They buy it all the time.”

Seokjin doubts this if the centimeter-thick crust of ice on the package is any indication to its time in the freezer. But it does give him an idea.

“Well, how about real crab meat?” he asks.

The woman snaps her fingers. She hobbles to the refrigerator section and hands out a plastic tub of lump blue crab. Seokjin pops open the container and gives it a sniff.

“What are you, some kind of chef?” the woman asks, partly perturbed, but also partly amused.

Seokjin lifts his chin. “Something like that,” he says. He puts the crab meat into his cart and squares with her. “Please tell me you have strawberries.”

She squints at him. “Only the hothouse kind.”

Relieved, Seokjin says, “I will take them.”

The woman nods as if they've reached an understanding. “Right this way,” she says, and she proceeds to help him find everything else on his list.

*

Seokjin bundles all of his fresh ingredients into the floorboard of Giant Pikachu, the nickname he's given to the HUMV. He double-checks the list in his head before climbing back behind the wheel: Japanese pumpkin, crab meat, heavy whipping cream, strawberries, a loaf of French bread, butter, an onion and a garlic clove, eggs, and a half-bushel of ripe, red tomatoes. Everything else he purchased at eMart on Saturday and packed away in his suitcase so Taehyung wouldn't find it.

He rented the suite at the Pitch CoCo pension for two nights – the 13th and 14th – so that he would have no trouble checking into the room at 11 a.m., and that part works as planned. However, the size of his rental car means he must park across the property in the RV lot, warranting a mile-long trek through ankle-deep snow to get to their suite, a trip he takes three times as he unloads his cook pans, utensils, groceries, and finally, his suitcase into their room.

The room itself – also not bad. It's a quaint yet quirky bungalow, clean by even Hobi's standards, possessing all of his requirements for a romantic get-away: a whirlpool bathtub, a full kitchen with gas-powered cook-tops, and a bed the size of Finland.

Seokjin has one glass of wine with lunch. He sets Taehyung's playlist on repeat, unpacks his cooking gear, and arranges his utensils in the narrow kitchen. Then he decides that having a second glass of wine will only further soothe him. Half the bottle of wine later, and Seokjin's all but forgotten the HUMV fiasco and the supermarket's seafood deficiency. At which point, Seokjin goes merrily to work on the pasta.

Nevermind that Seokjin's never made pasta before. He bought the pasta maker on a whim during a late-night shopping binge with Yoongi. This was months ago, around the time of his and Taehyung's break up, when Seokjin and Yoongi spent many nights holed up in their bedroom, drinking and ordering random things from Gmarket.com. So he hasn't yet had the opportunity to use it, but it looks really cool.

And Taehyung loves food in the shape of other things. Animal-shaped cookies, sour worms, mushroom-capped mochi: he adores that kind of thing. Therefore, tonight's menu includes homemade ravioli – pasta in the shape of pillows.

He's elbows deep in flour-paste and singing at the top of his lungs when he receives a text in the group chat: a photo of Taehyung with a particularly handsome llama. Seokjin smears a smudge across his phone's surface into order to view the picture. As he stares into Taehyung's smiling face, he feels a whole complicated surge of emotions swell up inside him.

Lately, he's come to an understanding, that while Taehyung is far more affectionate publicly and among their friends, Seokjin's the one who's more desperately and more painfully in love. Until recently, he didn't even know the depth of shame he felt about his own feelings, about his inability to balance them or keep them under control.

Seokjin shakes himself. He has too much to do to worry about that now. He scrubs his eyes with the back of his wrist and continues to knead the pasta dough. He only has an hour before he must send the next clue, and by then he should have the pumpkin boiled for the ravioli filling and the pasta itself chilling in the mini-fridge.

He receives another selfie soon after: a sun-splashed Taehyung at the foot of the ice-fountain, waiting to board the ferry back to the mainland.

Taehyung's message reads, The only thing more romantic would be if we were here together.

Seokjin sighs. Holding Taehyung's hand and walking down the tree-lined path from Winter Sonata would be truly romantic.

And he wishes they could have that, too.

But he chooses to focus on the things they can have.

It's early yet – Taehyung's not even at Petite France – but Seokjin's too excited to wait. His fingers trembling as he types out the words, Seokjin sends his next clue: Because of the Eiffel Tower

*

An hour later, with Drake on the Bluetooth and a headband securing his bangs, Seokjin's got the diced pumpkin at a nice rolling boil. He's in the middle of measuring out ingredients for the sauce when he receives an unidentified call.

Normally, Seokjin never answers callers he doesn't recognize, but he gave out his cell number a few times over the weekend, so today, he makes the exception.

When Seokjin picks up, the woman on the other end asks, “Is this the young man from the other day?”

He wedges the phone between his shoulder and his ear. “Hello, yes.”

“Remember me?” she goes on. “You and your friend stopped at my shop. You told me your other friend would come here today.”

“Yep,” Seokjin says. He runs his tongue over his lip as he measures a cupful of vodka.

“Well your friend's boyfriend was here a half hour ago,” she says.

“That's good...”

“No it isn't,” the woman snaps. “Is he slow or something?”

“Wha—?” Seokjin swivels sharply, hip-bumping the bottle of vodka. For a moment he's paralyzed with panic as the bottle goes wobbling across the counter, gushing vodka down his apron and the cabinets. It spreads in a determined puddle toward the open burner flame before Seokjin snatches up a dishtowel and frantically swabs up the liquid before it hits the fire.

On the other end of the line, the woman goes, “Are you slow or something?”

Seokjin wrings the tail of his apron and adjusts the phone at his ear. The astringent smell of vodka saturates the small kitchen, and Seokjin has to gulp for breath before he can continue to speak. “No,” he says. “Neither of us are slow. What did he do?”

“Nothing,” she shouts. “He didn't do anything. He asked if we have lockers here, and I told him that we don't. Then he asked if I knew a Hansung, which I don't. And then he bought a cider and went away. He didn't find anything.”

“Oh, Taehyung-ah...” Seokjin chews his lip while he tries to think, but the odor of the vodka overwhelms him. The woman continues to run commentary about her short meeting with Taehyung while Seokjin hunts through the cabinets for something to combat the smell. Beneath the sink, he finds a bottle of lemon furniture polish.

He begins to spritz it around his work space and then down his apron front. It works more or less effectively in that now he smells like hard lemonade rather than a hardened Russian gangster. Anyway, it's an improvement, so he murmurs, “Perfect.”

“Not if you want him to find the thing before the bus leaves,” the woman spouts over the line.

Seokjin leans on the counter. He scratches along his headband. “I could message him a hint,” he ponders aloud. “But I really want him to figure it out by himself.”

“I really want my daughter to marry a billionaire,” she tells him. “Doesn't means she's gonna.”

True, Seokjin could send another clue, but he doesn't want to spoil Taehyung's victory. He has to have faith that Taehyung will solve this on his own.

And if he doesn't, then all of Seokjin's plans will unravel, and Taehyung will be stranded without knowing how to proceed to the final stage.

But no...

“He will figure it out,” Seokjin assures her. “He always does.”

“Well, what should I do? I have to do something,” the woman insists. Seokjin must admire her dedication, even if she's grating his nerves. He begins to mentally step through the plan, weighing how much time Taehyung has before the tour moves on to the Garden of Morning Calm. Then the woman goes, “Oh. Wait. Here he is again.” She pauses, then makes a wispy sound of frustration. “Oh no, he better not—yep, he's gonna climb it—” And then the line goes dead.

Seokjin chuckles. Taehyung's doing exactly what Seokjin did on Saturday, much to the shopkeeper's and Minnie's shared chagrin. Hopefully, the lady will go to Taehyung's rescue in the same way she helped Seokjin.

He makes a note on his phone to send a fruit basket or some flowers to the woman in the shop, and then continues with care to measure out his ingredients.

*

In preparation for this trip, Seokjin and Jimin conspired to pack Taehyung's suitcase by secreting items from their bathrooms and the laundry a few at a time over the last two weeks. Jungkook bought the film and packed Taehyung's camera, making sure to include the charger and the cleaning cloth—items Seokjin himself might have neglected. Hoseok helped him gather the kitchen items, Yoongi agreed to run interference, and Namjoon listened to Seokjin's rundown of the final plan, offering insightful tips for hiding the items or protecting them from rain and snow.

Seokjin knows he never would have made it through the last five months without them, and neither would Taehyung. They are as much a family as those of their birth, and his bond to them is an infinite source of strength and comfort.

Right now they're all maintaining radio silence on the chat so as to not give anything away. For Seokjin's part, it's been welcomely introspective as he's prepared each step of their dinner. He's mashed the pumpkin and sauteed the crab meat in garlic and butter, combining them into a pale, fragrant yellow paste which he stuffed into each ravioli.

Presently, he's boiling whole tomatoes to add to a vodka cream sauce, the recipe for which he got at Cafe Mona Lisa, the place he went with his hyungs on the night before he and Taehyung broke up.

Seokjin stands there, spoon in hand, momentarily struck numb by the hopelessness of that memory. At the time, he thought he would never make it through. But his body kept waking up, kept pushing him through the motions while his heart continued to stubbornly beat inside his aching, empty chest. At the time, he thought there could be no greater pain than losing someone but having to remain so close to them, day after agonizing day.

Then came his training for the jungle, followed the days he spent filming in Indonesia. Something rekindled in him during that time, returning him to the living along with his appetite for food and his desire for Taehyung.

As fate would have it, just when Seokjin was making up his mind to put up a fight for their relationship, Taehyung returned to him.

Taehyung would have found the last message by now, the one that will lead him to the final stage. Seokjin was so pleased at how perfectly the pieces pulled together, with the word LOVE in giant golden letters in the middle of a field for Taehyung to find. And how he and Minnie stashed the key card inside the letter V... Seokjin could not have foreseen a more fitting finale than that.

Like so many things in his life, it felt guided by the hand of fate. He doesn't feel particularly deserving of such benevolent fortune, but he's not about to take it for granted.

Seokjin scatters the chopped onions in a dash of olive oil and fries them until they're tender. He adds them to the tomatoes, douses them with vodka, and brings them to a steady simmer. Evening sunlight pours like honey through the window, which reveals the snowy sweep of a hillside sloping down to the creekbed.

He pours himself another glass of wine and stands before the window. He watches a family trundling along the riverbank, dragging up wood for their fire pit. The children wear goosedown coats and vibrant rubber wellies. The little girl has yellow mittens dangling from her sleeves, and they jounce and dance with every step she takes.

He thinks then, about their future, about the family he and Taehyung will one day have. It seems impossible right now, but he knows they both want it. The seven of them have this uncanny ability to manifest even their wildest hopes into reality, so lately, Seokjin has been daring himself to dream.

*

Dusk settles in the mountains. The family outside huddles around the first licking flames of their bonfire, their faces up-lit from the warm, amber glow. Seokjin glides around the hotel suite, pleasantly buzzed and appropriately proud as he lights tea candles along the windowsills, the counter-tops, and the tables.

Seokjin slices the strawberries and drizzles them with sugar. He whisks heavy cream into the simmering tomato sauce, then sprinkles the mixture with thyme and tarragon. He samples it and the taste blooms on his tongue – the bold layers of savory herbs perfectly balancing the sweetness in the tomatoes. He tastes the pasta and decides that the crab meat is, in his opinion, an inspired choice. The texture compliments the creaminess of the pumpkin without overpowering its flavor.

Plus, he knows Taehyung will appreciate every perfectly-crimped pocket of pasta and every sweet strawberry slice.

He's entertaining the possibility of a quick shower and the final glass of wine when he receives a call from the chauffeur. He's clutching the vodka-damp dishtowel in his hand as he answers.

“Hello, Mr. Kim,” the chauffeur says. “Sorry to say, but I've been waiting here a half an hour, and I have yet to see your friend.”

Seokjin checks the time. “It's okay. It's still early,” he says. “He has this tendency to get distracted by shiny things, so he's probably going to spend a while looking at all the holiday lights.”

The chauffeur clucks. “Lights?” he says. “What lights?”

Seokjin blinks for several seconds while these words click into place. He says, slowly, “What do you mean what lights?”

“The Jade Garden has winter lights now?” the drivers asks.

“The... Jade?” Seokjin splutters. “You're at the Jade Gardens!?”

The man stammers on the other end. Seokjin hears him shuffling before he says, “There may have uhhm—”

“—Don't say problem, there can't be a problem,” Seokjin cries. “The Jade Gardens are three hours away!”

Seokjin angles toward the window, and when he does, the corner of the dish cloth catches in the candle flame. It ignites with a soft fwoom! and Seokjin, screaming, flings it into the sink, where it begins to sizzle and hiss. He stands there, mute and gaping, as the kitchen swiftly fills with smoke. He feels a tingle at his wrist and glances to find that an ember has landed on his apron, and it, too, is steadily burning. He realizes then, with horror, that he is actually, physically on fire.

In seconds, the smoke alarm begins to screech. He doesn't know what happens to his phone as he strips off his apron and stomps it into a smoldering pile. Seokjin twists the tap to douse the sink with cold water, extinguishing the rest of the flames. Then he scrambles around, yanking open windows, careful not to add literal fuel to the fire by disturbing the lighted candles there.

The family around their fire pit watches him with mild curiosity. The little boy waves to him with a stick of skewered marshmallows. Seokjin gives him a halfhearted thumbs up before returning to survey the wreck of his kitchen.

The food is fine. His phone, which he chucked into the sofa in all of his flailing, is also fine. His apron and the dishtowel are destroyed, but he balls them up and stuffs them into the trash. When the smoke alarm ceases it cheeping, Seokjin goes back around to shut all the windows, but somehow, he's soaked to his elbows and the chill from the wintry air seeps beneath his skin. So he paces, knotting and unknotting his hands and shivering as he fights back his tears.

After a moment, Seokjin sinks into the sofa and burrows beneath a blanket. He picks up the phone to find a text from the chauffeur, assuring him that he will fix everything. But at this point, Seokjin wonders if that's even close to realistic. The whole day has been a series of disastrous mishaps culminating with him setting himself on fire... So maybe it's time for Seokjin to concede defeat.

All he wants to do is call Taehyung and cry to him about the miserable day he's having. But the even greater problem is that Taehyung's now stranded thirteen miles from the hotel on what will probably be the coldest night of the year.

With quaking fingers, Seokjin speed dials and presses the phone to his cheek.

Namjoon answers on the first ring with, “Is everything okay?”

Seokjin spills the whole story without even pausing for breath. He ends with, “And now, in spite of meticulous planning and the existence of GPS, the driver has arrived at the wrong place. And all I can think is... what was I thinking?”

“Well.” Namjoon takes a cautious breath. Then he goes, “You wanna walk me through that?”

Seokjin rubs his eyes beneath his glasses. Then he see his soot-grimed fingers, which means he's just smeared ash all over his face. With an exhausted exhale, he says, “Why did I send Taehyung on this ridiculous quest in the middle of winter when we have so little free time together in the first place? I mean, I make all these elaborate plans without even considering that they'll take at least eight hours for him to complete, and if one thing goes wrong, then...”

“Hey,” Namjoon cuts in. “You guys can't be together in public, and he knows that. So you sending him on this treasure hunt today, it's the next best thing. And honestly, dude... it's romantic as hell.”

Seokjin sniffs. “Yeah?”

“Seriously. I hope that someday I'll meet someone who'll do this kind of thing for me. Taehyung's a lucky guy, and he knows it, all right? He knows.”

Seokjin breathes out. He nods, even though Namjoon can't see him, and he starts to feel a little more calm.

“So okay,” Namjoon continues. “The driver's off in Chuncheon somewhere, but you have the rental car, right? You feel safe to drive it?”

Seokjin sucks air over his teeth. Most of the floaty cloud of his inebriation has burned off at this point, but he's still not confident of his ability to control the giant yellow beast that is his SUV.

“Yeah, probably not,” he admits. “But maybe there's another driver somewhere close by?”

“That's good thinking,” Namjoon says. “Send me the chauffeur's number, okay? Give me five minutes. I'll see what we can do.”

In the meantime, Seokjin cleans up the kitchen. Then he goes to the washroom and splashes cold water on his face, successfully rinsing away the last remnants of his wine-buzz. The mirrors shows his flushed pink cheeks and smoke-reddened eyes. They're too itchy and swollen to even attempt his contacts, and Seokjin knows he'll be grateful for the forgiving glow of the candlelight during dinner.

Restless, he returns to the kitchen. He stirs the sauce, samples it, and smiles. That, at least, isn't wrecked. It is, in fact, a masterpiece. If food is the language of love in his house, then Seokjin is a phenomenal cook.

Namjoon calls him nine minutes later. He says, “All right, I found an Uber driver who was already at the Garden. I prepaid him to wait for Taehyung. I sent him a picture and everything. And I went ahead and canceled the original driver—”

“—There were special instructions,” Seokjin interrupts. “I gave that driver a message, and he had a... a printed sign that said 'My VV' in English.”

“It's okay, he told me,” Namjoon soothes. “He feels really bad about his mistake, so he was more than willing to help. I told the new Uber guy about the message and the sign. It's all gonna work out, hyung. You'll see.”

“Ah, Joon-ah,” Seokjin sighs. “Thank you.”

“Oh, um... one more thing. You weren't going to watch tonight's episode of Hwarang, were you?” Namjoon asks.

“Uh, well, we were planning—”

“—Don't,” Namjoon cuts in. “Just don't, okay?”

“Hansung?” Seokjin asks.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. “We just finished watching it, and Hobi-hyung still hasn't recovered.”

“Aww.” Seokjin purses his lips. “Poor Hobi.”

“I think it's safe to say that for all of us here, Taehyung has ruined Valentine's Day.”

Seokjin chuckles and mutters, “Ha. Same.”

“Seriously,” Namjoon warns. “Save it for another time.”

“I promise.” Seokjin says.

“But you're gonna be all right, right?”

“Provided that I don't torch the place again?” Seokjin says. “Yes.”

“All right. I gave the Uber driver your number. He said he'll text you when he's picked him up. So remember,” Namjoon says. “Maybe things didn't go all that great on your end, but Taehyung's probably having the time of his life.”

Seokjin exhales and smiles. “I hope so,” he says. “And at this point, that's really all that matters.”

*

When the Uber driver sends his text, Seokjin boils the ravioli and toasts the garlic bread. He plates everything with the skilled flourish of an expert chef, and then, in a fit of pride, he takes pictures of the table setting to send to Minnie and his Mom.

There's a minutes-long moment between the time when everything is done and before Taehyung arrives. Seokjin hovers in the small foyer, his face flush with sweat and anticipation. This brief span of seconds is what Seokjin lives for. It's the same flutter of thrill he feels before a concert, waiting for the lift to plunge them onto the stage.

He hears the wheeled suitcase grating on the gravel. He hears Taehyung's footfalls at the door, and then the key swipe as Taehyung goes for the handle.

Seokjin can't wait that long. He hauls the door open and pulls him into the foyer.

Taehyung's tawny hair is wind-tossed. His lips have chapped a vivid cherry pink. His skin glows honey gold in the candlelight, and in Taehyung's eyes, Seokjin sees the same look of unafraid adoration that he always saves for him.

With trembling fingers, Seokjin works Taehyung's scarf free from his throat. He brushes his lips to Taehyung's neck and along his jaw, caressing his skin with his words.

As he kisses him, he feels a sudden swell inside, and he wants to just keep on kissing him. But he needs to pace himself. He has plans and must remember that he can't quite lose himself yet. Taehyung seems to read this, breaking away long enough to catch his breath while he removes his boots. Seokjin takes his suitcase and pushes the door closed.

“This is your best one yet,” Taehyung tells him. He's watching Seokjin like he's the archangel Gabriel, and his husky voice sounds gilded with awe.

Seokjin realizes that Namjoon was right. Taehyung didn't see all of Seokjin's scrambling and fumbling to pull this whole thing together. Taehyung sees the result, the grand finale. And he hasn't even tried the pasta...

Seokjin can't help but smile as he leads Taehyung inside. “This,” he tells him. “Is just the beginning.”

 

Chapter Text

“I'm so into you, this time I want to
Feel that sweet taboo you can bring me.”
Love Right Next to You, Karena

February 14, 2017

Seokjin

Seokjin has always understood that he is more vanilla than Taehyung. In fact, Seokjin's willing to bet that among the seven of them he's the most conservative, with the possible exception of Jungkook, who still seems fairly shy in his inexperience. Time may yet bear this out to a different conclusion, however, given that Jimin, like Taehyung, seems down to try damn near anything.

Which is why Jimin slipped handcuffs into the suitcase he “helped” Seokjin pack. Pink, fur-lined handcuffs to be exact, which Taehyung dangles from his fingertip, an expectant smile playing at the corner of his lips.

Seokjin touches the frame of his glasses. He says, “I don't even know where to begin with those...”

“Oh, I do,” Taehyung smirks, and he doesn't drop his gaze even as Seokjin feels heat prickle up the back of his neck.

“That would be the work of one Park Jimin,” Seokjin tells him. “He was in charge of... this.

“These?” Taehyung asks. He gestures broadly to their trusty array of toys, lubes, and dildos, all arranged in a provocative rainbow across their spacious feather bed.

“No, I did these,” Seokjin mumbles, sullen. “But not those,” he jabs at the handcuffs. “And definitely not those.” He sweeps his arm toward a cellophane-wrapped box proclaiming in Japanese that the heart-shaped biscuits inside are Sex Cookies. “Really, Jimin?”

Taehyung grins in the way that looks like a frown. Like he sympathizes with Seokjin, but he also finds his best friend hilarious.

“Oh you think he's funny?” Seokjin asks. He snatches for the handcuffs; Taehyung whips them out of reach.

And then he gets that look. The one that landed him the role of the seductive devil at the MAMAs, that whole 'I'm all innocent and sweet until you switch on some sexy jazz, and then I'll give you a hand-job under your coat at the movie theater in front of hundreds of people' look.

Not that they've ever done that.

Not that Seokjin's ever dreamed about it...

Taehyung eyes him side-wise. He says, “I'm beginning to think Jimin knows something I don't.”

“If this is about me spending time with him and Kook, don't even start,” Seokjin says. He knees onto the bed, and Taehyung inches slowly back, keeping the handcuffs safely out of Seokjin's reach. “You could go with us any time you wanted—”

“—And you know why I don't,” Taehyung cuts in. His shoulders bump against the headboard. Seokjin pins him there with one palm planted firmly against his chest.

Taehyung's eyes drop to Seokjin's hand. He licks his lip.

“You don't have to drink, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin tells him.

“Yeah. But being the only sober one among you three... not as fun as you might think.”

Seokjin pudges out his lip. “Aww, VV.”

“That's not gonna work,” Taehyung warns.

Seokjin knows a challenge when he sees it. He gives Taehyung his fullest pout, paired with his sappiest, most pitiable puppy-dog eyes. Taehyung seems annoyed for all of twelve seconds, but the moment he begins to break, that's when Seokjin strikes.

He swipes the handcuffs and swiftly snicks one around Taehyung's left wrist.

“HYUNG!” Taehyung shouts. “We don't know if there's a key.”

“Oh there's a key,” Seokjin says with mock confidence (he really hopes there is and that Jimin's not suddenly that kind of guy). But he juts his chin toward Taehyung and says, “Lay back.”

Seokjin feels Taehyung's heartbeat thrumming beneath his hand. Sometimes even the suggestion of something racy can get Taehyung going, so most days, they don't even get to the fantasy stuff. When it comes right down to it, Seokjin prefers to stick to what he does best. He doesn't mind a lack of variety or experience, so long as he can get the job done for Taehyung. For Seokjin, all this business about sowing wild oats and playing the field is just an oddly-mixed metaphor.

The only problem is... Taehyung.

Taehyung – sensual, mercurial Taehyung – changeable as the weather in the spring. He gets easily distracted, and Seokjin feels a nettling unease when he wonders how he'll ever keep him happy.

So far, their lives have been chaotic enough to keep Taehyung entertained. With the increasing demands of their schedules, he rarely gets restless or disinterested. But what happens when their lives becomes less tumultuous? Seokjin – stable, steadfast Seokjin – how will he ever be able to hold onto him?

“Hyung?”

Seokjin dips to nuzzle Taehyung's throat. Into his skin, he whispers, “Do you wanna?”

Taehyung's pulse jumps. He makes a strangled sound as he nods, so Seokjin tugs Taehyung's shirt over his shoulders before tossing it across the room. He nudges Taehyung into the pillows, gently guiding down him with his kisses, and then, before they can change their mind, Seokjin clicks the other cuff to the headboard, securing both of Taehyung's wrists over his head.

Already, Taehyung is panting. With his right hand, he tugs the collar of Seokjin's button-down, and Seokjin likewise gets busy on Taehyung's pants. Seokjin's quicker with the use of both hands, though, and soon has Taehyung naked and semi-hard beneath him, while Seokjin remains fully dressed.

He rocks back on his heels. Taehyung reclines across the duvet, his left hand curved beside his face like he's a model posing for Michelangelo. Seokjin has to wonder if he knows how goddamned sexy his expression is, and how the way he's slowly tracing his lower lip with the thumb of his captured hand is enough to send Seokjin right over the edge of sanity.

As Seokjin hurries out of his own shirt, Taehyung drawls, “Hyung, you should leave your glasses on.”

Oh yeah, he knows.

Seokjin strips out of his pants and shoves the sex toy smorgasbord out of his way. He's crawling toward Taehyung, peering up at him over the rims of his glasses, when he realizes... Taehyung can't touch him.

So he lingers, just out of his reach, and whispers, “Shall I wear them while I suck you off?”

Taehyung clears his throat. “Yes, please.”

“Maybe,” Seokjin says, but he doesn't move.

Taehyung's breathing quickens. He says, “You'll be like Seokjin the Sexy Librarian.”

Seokjin bites back a smile. He continues a slow, deliberate crawl toward Taehyung. Sliding astride him, he says. “Mr. Kim. Your books are seriously overdue. You will have to pay the penalty.”

“You thought I'd go with naughty police officer, didn't you?” Taehyung chuckles.

“Shh,” Seokjin says. He drives him hard against the pillows, caging him with his thighs.

“Oh, you should be a sexy English teacher,” Taehyung mutters, his voice low and silky in his throat.

“Mr. Kim,” Seokjin says. He slides his cock alongside Taehyung's, delighting in the illicit hiss that slips from Taehyung's lips. “Your diction is so strong. I love the way you tongue your vowels.”

Taehyung bucks beneath him. “I'll tongue your vowels,” he says. They realize simultaneously how weird this sounds and dissolve into quiet laughter.

Then Seokjin edges his voice with a sultry purr. He says, “Tell me in English how you'd like me to fuck you.”

Taehyung slides his tongue up the side of Seokjin's throat. Into his ear, he murmurs, in English, “Professor Kim. Please fuck me deliciously.”

Seokjin suppresses a groan, and then eases down Taehyung's body to take his cock, once, fully into his mouth. Then, staring up at him over the rims of his glasses, Seokjin growls, “Oh, Taehyung-ah. I'm gonna fuck you so deliciously.”

Yeah. Sometimes Seokjin surprises even himself.

Seokjin caresses the tip of him with just his lips, blinking up at him through his glasses before slipping all the way down. Taehyung hisses. He mutters a stream of unintelligible syllables heavily accented in Satoori.

But Seokjin takes his time. He braces Taehyung's hips as he takes almost his whole cock into his mouth. Then he slowly, slowly slips down the length of him. He traces his tongue along the hot, pulsing vein and then back up to the notch of the head. Then he softens his throat muscles, taking more and more with each downward sweep.

And Seokjin thinks it's sweet the way Taehyung fights against the words that swell up in him, but...

He noisily sucks off and says, “VV, you can say fuck if you want to.”

“Fuck,” he gasps, “Oh fuck. Jin-ah—”

Seokjin pushes down, all the way down. The tip brushes the back of his throat with every bobbing thrust. He builds to a steady rhythm, delighting in the wild, almost-whimpering noises Taehyung makes with every deepening push.

Then he exhales sharply and pleads, “I'm ready to come. Hyung, may I come?”

And that fucking does it for Seokjin. He feels himself go hard against the mattress. He growls a laugh but doesn't break connection. He continues to choke him down, swallowing a few times to get the full feeling of him in his throat. Then he presses deeper, sliding his tongue against the base to suck him nice and tight.

Taehyung bucks once and then he's gone. Seokjin gags but swallows most of it. Then, his eyes streaming tears, he peers up to admire his work, only to find Taehyung gazing at him, his hands cuffed over his head like it's a surrender, his eyes bleary and dazed.

“Fuck,” Taehyung moans again.

“Oh, we'll do that, too,” Seokjin assures him. He tongues the tip, reveling at how Taehyung squirms against the sensitivity.

“When?” Taehyung says, but it's more a wheeze than an actual word. He reaches for Seokjin, and the handcuffs rattle against the headboard.

“When you catch your breath,” Seokjin promises.

Taehyung nudges Seokjin with his hip, coaxing him up to hug him, where, breathless, they rest while they breathe themselves back to their senses.

 

Taehyung

Seokjin nestles beside Taehyung, one arm slung languidly across his chest. Taehyung snuffles his nose along Seokjin's collarbone and then up under Seokjin's jaw.

Seokjin lifts his chin. “Are you... smelling my neck?” he asks.

“Um-hm.”

“Ugh, why?”

“You smell like garlic bread,” Taehyung says.

“Eugh, no,” Seokjin says. He tries to pull away, but Taehyung snags him back by caging him with his legs. “That's gross, Taehyung-ah, I should shower.”

“Not without me, you don't,” Taehyung says.

“What are you gonna do? You're chained to the bed.”

Taehyung gawps. “You would leave me?”

“No,” Seokjin kisses him. “Never.” He angles to gaze down into Taehyung's face.

Pressing his advantage, Taehyung scowls up at him. “Not even for your other boyfriend.”

“Which one, there are so many—”

“—Jin-hyung,” Taehyung sulks. “You can't buy me off with pasta and a blow job.”

“It's always worked before...”

“I'm serious.”

Seokjin's eyes twitch.

“I just don't understand,” Taehyung picks at a scuff in the headboard with his thumbnail. “You're the one who wrote the penalty for last night's broadcast.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin says.

“Well why couldn't you put that you'd kiss me?” Taehyung says.

Pabo,” Seokjin says. “That wouldn't be much of a penalty.”

“Seokjin-ah, I'm your boyfriend,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin touches two fingers to Taehyung's jaw. “And if I'd kissed you last night, then everyone would know it.”

“So?” Even to his own ears, Taehyung sounds surly.

“So what we have is private,” Seokjin tells him. “It's for you and for me. I don't want to share it, not with anyone.”

“I guess I thought...” Taehyung writhes tightly against the headboard, rolling his shoulders to loosen the muscles in his still-bound arms.

“Here,” Seokjin says, “Let me get that key.”

And it helps, to have him sifting through the suitcase, so that Taehyung can take a moment to pull his thoughts around what he wants to say. “I thought after we came out that it would change.”

Seokjin looks more than a little relieved when he returns to the bed, twirling the small silver key from his finger. He climbs astride Taehyung again, this time grinding their hips together as he unhooks the handcuffs, releasing Taehyung from his bonds. Taehyung makes good use of his newly-freed hands to scoop up Seokjin's ass and flip him backward onto the bed. He hovers above him, nose to nose, his damp hair tickling against Seokjin's forehead. They stare hard into each other's eyes, each daring the other to move.

Until, after a moment, Seokjin whispers, “I believe it will change.” He traces his lips over the slight pink welts on Taehyung's wrists. “Someday, it will. But I'm only just now on speaking terms with my family again, and we still have our military service ahead of us and, Taehyung-ah... can you imagine what they'd do to us if they knew? I can think of a lot less pleasant things people do with handcuffs—”

“—But Jimin and Jungkook,” Taehyung says.

“I know,” Seokjin answers. “I know. It's a risky game they're playing, being so open like that. But, they're not us.” In the close space, Seokjin stares up at him, wholly and completely undaunted. “And I'm not sorry,” he says. “I love us.”

Taehyung reaches down to tenderly pluck Seokjin's glasses from his face. He kisses each eyelid and then the bridge of Seokjin's nose. “I love us, too. And I loved today. Every minute of it.”

Seokjin's nose wrinkles as he stifles a laugh.

“What?”

“If you only knew, Taehyung-ah...” He exhales. “Today was an almost total catastrophe. Nearly everything went wrong. I mean, I actually caught myself on fire—”

Taehyung breathes sharply in. “That's it,” he laughs. “That's the smell. It's smoke! And garlic bread.”

“Wonderful,” Seokjin says. “No more Versace cologne, I'll simply douse myself with vodka and set myself alight.”

Taehyung collapses and rolls to Seokjin's side. His stomach aches from laughter and the near-transcendent climax he experienced earlier at the hands (and mouth) of Seokjin. He buries his face into Seokjin's neck and inhales, despite Seokjin's protests and flailing efforts to shove him away.

“It's like with the cuffs,” Taehyung says, and Seokjin levels him with a questioning stare. Taehyung knows he's all over the place, that his thoughts are like scattered puzzle pieces and he's busily trying to sort them all out. But Seokjin is patient, and he knows him well. Better than anyone else. So Taehyung continues to try. “Like, they were fun and different and all, but...”

Seokjin begins to nod. “But they're not for us, right?”

Taehyung planes his hand over Seokjin's chest and across his broad shoulders. “I'm glad we tried them,” he says. “But, hyung, I like touching you.”

Seokjin tucks his chin into the hollow of Taehyung's throat. He whispers, “I love it when you touch me.”

And then suddenly, they're kissing again, and Seokjin fists his hands in Taehyung's hair. They struggle in a tangle of their legs, and Taehyung slides down to find Seokjin hard against him. He squeezes him, once, and Seokjin's breath tears ragged from his lungs.

“I know, by the way,” Taehyung gasps. “What you were trying to do.”

Seokjin scrambles to his side and clutches for a bottle of lube. “Really?” he snorts. “'Cause it's still kind of a mystery to me.”

“No, hyung.” Taehyung raises up. “You gave me this day—this amazing, beautiful, perfect day—so that,” he sweeps his tongue across Seokjin's lips, and Seokjin groans in the back of his throat. “So that I'll at least have that, if you can't go through with this. And you've made it into such a big deal—”

“—It is kind of a big deal,” Seokjin asserts.

Taehyung scrunches his nose. “Since you mentioned...” he skims the assortment of toys and then points. “I want that one.”

Seokjin palms the base of a sleek and gleaming purple anal plug. “This one?”

Taehyung's lips pull into a wide smile as he measures it alongside Seokjin. “Yep. It vibrates, too.” Taehyung winks. “Go slow.”

“Fuck,” Seokjin mouths. He pops open the bottle of lube and slathers it down the length of the toy, until the whole thing is slippery and faintly cherry-scented.

“Excellent choice,” Taehyung says. He slides his leg over Seokjin's hip and nibbles into his ear, “Put it inside me.”

“Maybe I should start with...?”

“If that sentences doesn't end with your tongue, I'm not interested,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin curls his tongue over his lip, “Aw VV, you know I'll kiss either end.”

But Taehyung's having none of it. “Later,” he hums. He glides his hand down the length of Seokjin's cock, smiling at the way it bobs, all hot and eager, against his palm.

“My penis has betrayed me,” Seokjin groans.

“Wouldn't be the first time.”

Seokjin balks. “You—”

Taehyung narrows his eyes.

“Lay back,” Seokjin commands for the second time tonight, and Taehyung, grinning, does as he's told.

And Seokjin is careful, maybe needlessly so, but Taehyung does appreciate the deftness of Seokjin's fingers as he pushes them inside.

“Yeah?” Seokjin asks. “You want more?”

“More,” Taehyung echoes. Seokjin adds a smear of lube and then another finger and then a third. He works slow circles to loosen him, and Taehyung shifts encouragingly to take Seokjin all the way in.

Then Seokjin trades his fingers for the toy, tilting it against Taehyung before pressing it inside him. Taehyung's breath catches tight in his chest, but he breathes through the pressure and pain. Seokjin angles the head, slipping it deeper, fraction by fraction, until Taehyung clamps down on his forearm.

“You okay?” Seokjin moans. Sweat beads along his forehead, and Taehyung knows Seokjin's thinking about this way too hard.

And speaking of way too hard... Seokjin is ready. He's so rigid against the inside of Taehyung's thigh that if he does come soon, he might just pass out.

Taehyung grips Seokjin's jaw between his fingers and tilts his face to meet his eyes. He does his best to maintain the momentum they've built, but he's aching with how hard he is, too, and it's getting more and more difficult to breathe.

“I'm okay,” Taehyung manages. “And we've done this before.”

“But the other times have been—”

“—Amazing,” Taehyung says.

“Scary?” Seokjin counters. “Intense? Embarrassingly brief?”

Taehyung swivels his hips against Seokjin, driving the plug down and drawing a light rasp from Seokjin's swollen lips. “Practice,” Taehyung bites out.

“Practice.” Seokjin swallows. “I can do that.”

Then he thumbs the button to turn the toy on. Vibrations shiver through Taehyung, all the way down to the soles of his feet. His eyes slide involuntarily closed. Even as Taehyung shudders against him, Seokjin maintains the pressure. His palm feels slick against Taehyung's ass as he works the toy in circles, and after god-knows-how-long, Taehyung's hand clasps around Seokjin's cock.

“Jin-hyung,” he growls, “I'm ready. I am so ready for you.”

“Okay, okay,” Seokjin mumbles. “I'm just going to pull this out and slide right in. Like a—”

“—Like a bait and switch,” Taehyung says.

“More like a masturbate and switch.” Seokjin and Taehyung both convulse with laughter. Seokjin bends his forehead to Taehyung's as they struggle to keep from losing it all together.

Then, still giggling, Seokjin goes, “Shhh. I'm trying to concentrate.”

Taehyung rocks against him. “Of course.”

“On three,” Seokjin says.

“Don't count.” Taehyung's eyelids flutter shut.

“Okay...” And then he does it. He yanks out the plug and slides inside him and Taehyung's suddenly blind with the tightness and the pressure and he's...

Unable to breathe. “Oh fuck, Jin-hyung, you feel so good inside me.”

“Are you okay?”

Taehyung arches against Seokjin. His response isn't much more than a low murmur in the back of his throat.

Seokjin sounds raggedly desperate when he speaks. “I'm gonna need more than that, okay? You need to tell me you're all right.”

Taehyung slips his legs around Seokjin's hips. “Jagiya,” he breathes. “I'm fine.” He digs his heels into his ass and moves against him, a slow, deep, and steady motion. And it's... definitely working for Seokjin. He's so fucking hot, and the way that he moves, it's just so much.

Maybe too much.

Maybe if he doesn't let Seokjin catch his breath, Taehyung will mess this up like he did last time, and Seokjin will come too soon and blame himself...

“Don't come yet,” Taehyung warns.

Seokjin links their hands and guides them to Taehyung's own cock, still curled and hard between them. “Think you can come again?” he asks.

“Ahhh, hyung.” Taehyung's head lolls back.

“Then I'll come when you do.”

Taehyung moves to match Seokjin's pace, and for weeks? – years? – there's nothing but a delirious blur of breath and sweat and heat. Seokjin lightly presses his palm to Taehyung's breastbone. With his other hand, he grips his shoulder to guide him. A familiar tightness wells within Taehyung's belly as they grind together and...

“Ah, god, Taehyung-ah...”

“Not yet,” Taehyung grates through his teeth. “Not yet.”

But it's...

Impossibly wonderful. This pulse. This connection. The fever of it. His breath on his neck, his legs trembling against his hips. His eyes flutter open and it's electric as they both just know.

They release together, Seokjin inside him, and then Taehyung, gushing a beautiful mess across Seokjin's chest.

And it's worth it. The struggle and the waiting, it's worth it to see this look on Seokjin's face. Wrecked and breathless, Taehyung sinks into the pillows. He gives Seokjin's shoulder a shove, and chuckling, he groans, “Hyung. Why are you so loud?”

Genuinely surprised, Seokjin goes, “Was I loud?”

“The family next door?” Taehyung says. “They definitely heard us.”

Seokjin grimaces. “Those poor children.”

“Scarred for life.”

Seokjin sucks air over his teeth. “That's too bad,” he says. Then, “I'm pulling out, are you ready?”

Taehyung cages him loosely with his calves, and Seokjin quivers again inside him. “If I could, I'd hold you here forever,” he says. “My Seokjin-ah.”

“But...” Seokjin says. “Food?”

“Mmm,” Taehyung agrees. “I'd miss it.” A few seconds later, though, he pinches Seokjin's shoulder, the signal to let him free. “Oh, but we do have Sex Cookies...”

“True.” Seokjin chuckles, softly. “Here.” He reaches to the table for their packet of wipes. “Let's get us cleaned up.”

Taehyung loops an arm lightly around Seokjin's shoulder, and Seokjin smooths the cool cloth over Taehyung's chest and around his navel, dipping low to swab the light, matted hair and his cock and the inside of his thighs. Seokjin's got a kind of sleepy-yet-reverent expression on his face, the same one he wears when they wake up each morning, curled together in their bed at home.

“You know what?” Seokjin tells him. “I don't care if they heard us.”

“Really?”

“We're in love. We had just had what historians will call fucking amazing sex,” Seokjin soothes.

“Historians now?” Taehyung says.

“Of course,” Seokjin explains, doing his best to clean himself up, too. “When we're really old and they write our biographies, these are the words they'll use.”

“Can I tell them how you set yourself on fire?”

Seokjin knuckles his shoulder. “No, you can never tell anyone. Except for Namjoon, he already knows.”

“Ugh, that guy again?”

But across the pillow, they exchange a smile.

“Maybe the world would be a better place if everyone had what we have,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung nods. “Yeah.” With every flick of his lashes, he can feel himself fading further toward sleep. But he wants to hold onto this for as long as he can. He wants to remember the rosy blush of Seokjin's cheeks, the glossy scarlet of his lips. “Definitely.”

Seokjin resignedly tosses the wipes into the trash. “That'll have to do for now. We'll save the bath thing for tomorrow,” he says. “And I cannot wait for you to see our rental car.”

“Yeah?” Taehyung asks.

“Yeah. It's, uh...” Then he shakes his head. “Yeah.”

They don't bother moving any of the items strewn across the bed, opting instead to snug the duvet over their shoulders to curl into each other's warmth.

Seokjin kisses him. He kisses him and he kisses him, until Taehyung thinks that his heart might burst, and then he breaks away to stare down into Taehyung's face.

“You're everything to me,” Seokjin tells him. “I hope you know that.”

“I do know it,” Taehyung murmurs. Then he says, “We're the lucky ones, you know. Because we've found each other.”

Seokjin's eyes are closed. His ear rests on Taehyung's shoulder. He whispers, “Because of us, Taehyung-ah. I am so glad we met.”

And as they lapse into sleep, Taehyung realizes that those are the truest words either of them will ever speak.