“What do you mean, ‘really,’” Jeongguk says, reading the expiration date on a carton of milk and making a face of disgust when he sees that it’s a week past already. “I told you I moved back to school today, this isn’t new information.”
“I thought it would take you a while to settle in, it always does,” Taehyung says. “Uhh, file it in black cabinet under M through Z and make sure you get it in the right one or we’ll never find it again,” he says off to the side. “Especially considering you have those two new housemates Bangbang and Yugyeom.”
“Bambam,” Taehyung repeats. “Where did you say he was from again?”
“Thailand,” Jeongguk says, digging through the milk for a newer carton. “I fear for my tastebuds.”
“He's going to do most of the cooking and Thai cuisine is hardcore. Have you ever eaten a Thai pepper?”
“Well you’re lucky we didn’t know each other when I did, because my mouth was numb for an hour. Not optimal kissing condition.”
“As much as I like to champion myself as a great supporter of partner communication and all that pizzazz, can we get going,” Jimin says flatly, holding a basket of what looks like vegetables. Jeongguk fakes a gag. “You’ve minutely examined every carton of milk on this goddamn shelf.”
“Go back first if you’re in such a hurry.”
“We came here in your Prius!” Jimin hisses.
“Okay, then you can walk.”
Jimin sighs and disappears out of Jeongguk’s field of vision. He is out of sight, out of mind for all of a few seconds before Jeongguk is wrestled into a headlock and dragged out of the eggs and dairy aisle.
“We’re leaving, dude.”
Jimin’s bicep digs into the back of Jeongguk’s skull. Truthfully Jeongguk has enough weight and brute strength against Jimin to throw him off, but he has one hand still pinned to his ear, holding his phone, and another one with a basket. The best he can do is yell, “Unhand me, tiny human!”
“What,” Taehyung says through the phone.
“You cannot ruffle me with names like—ow, what the fuck!”
Jeongguk straightens and picks at his shirt collar to adjust it, sniffing, as Jimin nurses the imprint of teeth on his hand. “Did you just bite me?” he asks in disbelief.
“You bit him? Babe, that’s gross,” Taehyung says. “I’m not really interested in kissing the dead skin cells of my best friend off my boyfriend’s mouth.”
“Sorry. I’ll Listerine before I see you again.”
Jimin looks murderous.
“I can come over after dinner?” Taehyung asks, sounding pleased.
“Yeah. I’ll see you.”
“Okay. I love you.”
Jeongguk coughs. “Yeah,” he replies.
Bambam does not set the apartment on fire.
Jeongguk, however, finishes dinner with watering eyes and a running nose. Yugyeom is already on his fifth consecutive glass of water by the time they toss the dishes in the sink and Bambam keeps swearing I made it mild but there is nothing remotely mild about Jeongguk’s tongue feeling like burnt carpet.
“What happened,” Taehyung says the moment Jeongguk opens the door. He answers simply by leaning over the threshold and kissing Taehyung on his parted lips, the soft, bland taste of his mouth welcome relief against the heat of the pepper still simmering in his mouth. When he pulls back, Taehyung grimaces. “Jesus Christ. You weren’t kidding.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Jeongguk laughs, feeling the hot puffs of his breath burn the insides of his cheeks. Taehyung’s arms have made their way around his neck and he looks over his shoulder. “You want to come in?”
Taehyung and Bambam clash well. Jeongguk does not foresee it but isn’t necessarily shocked, either—Yugyeom is a little more shy and takes more time to warm up, but Taehyung’s effervescence is infectious and he is laughing in no time. It feels different to be living with two people that aren’t Hoseok and Namjoon, who used to be mostly quiet save for when they played their music.
“I like Bambam,” Taehyung murmurs later when they’re snuggled into each other in bed. It’s still hot, the balm of summer unrelenting on their skin, and Jeongguk’s vertical fan oscillates lazily on his desk. The blankets have been kicked to the foot of the bed and Jeongguk is wearing nothing but a pair of basketball shorts and Taehyung just boxers, yet the places where their skin meet are still sticky. “He’s fun. How do guys know each other?”
“We were freshman floormates. After Namjoon and Hoseok hyung moved out, I needed housemates. He needed a house. Yugyeom’s his friend. They’re both in the same class as me.”
Taehyung shifts his cheek to a colder bit of Jeongguk’s bare arm. “Yugyeom is quieter than him.”
“He’s okay,” Jeongguk says, slurs, almost. He has his eyes shut already and fights sleep to stay up and talk to Taehyung, who moved back earlier to start up the opening tours of the year for incoming students. A yawn rises to his lips. “Maybe a little, but he’s nice. Neater than Bambam is.”
“Go to sleep,” Taehyung says. “You’re really tired from moving in today, huh?”
But Jeongguk falls asleep before Taehyung can finish his question, and the last thing he feels is Taehyung pulling a corner of the blanket over his belly.
Summer had been too short.
By ‘summer’ Jeongguk refers to days spent exclusively with Taehyung, as Jeongguk had spent the majority of his actual summer break in a high-rise building sitting at two monitors entering data and crunching numbers. The days he did spend with Taehyung, though, were blessedly sun-filled, a hazy soft white of day, followed by dark purple sunsets and soft gasping moans against his cheeks and ears by night.
But the sudden grind of third year and final year of university for both Jeongguk and Taehyung, respectively, hits them like an unwelcome blast of hot air. When Taehyung isn’t working, he’s writing his thesis, and when he isn’t writing his thesis, Jeongguk is working. It’s an unwelcome shift of focus that Jeongguk isn’t sure how to work around.
The honeymoon is over, he realizes sadly.
“You worry too much,” Taehyung says on an abnormally cold weekend, abnormal because it was only just pool weather two days ago, weekend because it’s the only time they can be together. He’s curled up in Jeongguk’s bed, typing on his laptop on his stomach, as Jeongguk rocks back and forth in front of his oceanography textbook on the floor. “Stop it.”
“I’m not worrying—”
“You’ve been reading that page for the last fifteen minutes. I know you’re worrying,” Taehyung says. “What’s wrong?”
There isn’t really anything wrong, per se. Conflicts of life and of interest happen all the time and yet Jeongguk cannot shake the feeling that he and Taehyung are run on two diverging paths. In his mind, the future looks bleak but Jeongguk would rather shut up rather than tie another bundle of concern to Taehyung’s shoulders.
“Nothing,” Jeongguk says. “Falling back into the academic environment is jarring and all.”
“Are you sure?” Taehyung yawns, and Jeongguk looks up to see him pillowing his cheek on his arms, smiling sleepily. “We’ve been so busy these days, I feel bad that I don’t see you more often.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s okay, really.”
When Taehyung dozes off in front of his laptop, Jeongguk stands to pull the covers over Taehyung’s shoulders. He wakes up immediately, shifting, making sleepy noises and reaching for his laptop but Jeongguk pushes it gently out of the way so it doesn’t get knocked off the bed.
“Hey, just take a nap,” he says.
“Okay,” Taehyung says, curling his hand in Jeongguk’s to tug him close. “Wake me up in an hour.”
That is the last weekend they get to see each other, at least for a while.
Taehyung picks up another job, from what Jeongguk understands, and his availability plummets. He doesn’t even explain why, just that he needs it, and Jeongguk sees Taehyung in the garage of the bike shop just off the edge of campus as he walks to class every afternoon, frowning over someone’s oily chain or popped tire here and there. Otherwise, he is home for as long as it takes to fall into bed and knock out like a light, and Jeongguk is lucky if he gets a text like
long day what about yours babe?
Jeongguk stops getting replies and he is busy too, but it gets him a little down to know that when Taehyung used to stay up far past any reasonable waking hour to talk to him, he can’t keep his eyes open to text Jeongguk back.
“You can’t be too hard on him,” Jimin says, wiping the sweat from his chin. The first practice of the year for their team takes place on a warm evening, the weather doing somersaults back into an Indian summer. The asphalt of the road had shimmered with oil all afternoon. “He’s trying to graduate, work two jobs, and send in graduate school applications all at once.”
“I know,” Jeongguk says, popping the cap of his Nalgene bottle open and closed. “It just sucks not to see him that often.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, though,” Jimin says. “But hey, he spent all of last year pining for you. Let him live a little, yeah?”
And Jeongguk doesn’t know how the idea drives such a deep wedge into his thoughts, but it does. Perhaps the nagging worry has been seeding darkly in the back of his mind all this time, and Jimin’s words only helped it take root. Of course, what did he expect? Taehyung is older, Taehyung is closing this chapter of his life whereas Jeongguk is in the hardest part of it. Of course they already run on different paths, ones that Jeongguk fears will not cross again.
“Babe,” Taehyung says on a chilly evening, pulling back. One of his hands has wandered into the collar of Jeongguk’s shirt and his lips are wet, but Jeongguk trails his hand down Taehyung’s side before he lets it fall away. “Are you with me?”
“Sorry,” Jeongguk says. He sits back against the couch and Taehyung drops his hands from Jeongguk’s face where they had been cupping his cheeks the way Jeongguk liked it. “Sorry, I’m here.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “I thought you—well, you asked me to come over and I had a few minutes so I—”
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk repeats. “If you’re busy you really didn’t have to come, I...”
Taehyung is frowning now. “You?” he prompts.
“You should go back,” Jeongguk says. “You’re really swamped, I know.”
“I am, Jeongguk, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you.”
“No, it’s okay,” Jeongguk says. He plants a kiss on Taehyung’s forehead. It’s well-meaning but feels a little out of place in the suddenly terse air between them. “I have work to do, too, so don’t worry.”
“Okay,” Taehyung says. His voice is mired with uncertainty but he still smiles and squeezes Jeongguk’s fingers where they are intertwined with his, briefly, before letting go. “I miss you.”
“Take this,” Jeongguk says, standing up and unzipping the jacket that hangs down to his mid-thigh. It’s so huge Taehyung is swimming in it when he puts it on. “It’s cold outside.”
“And even colder without you,” Taehyung says, chuckling. It is only when he’s out the door and gone that Jeongguk hears the sad ring to Taehyung’s laughter.
Jeongguk is transferred to the post office.
Kisum isn’t exactly mean, but she’s iron-willed enough to make Jeongguk scared of opening his mouth around her. She’s nothing like Jieun, quiet and easy to be around. At the same time, she likes music, and reminds Jeongguk of Namjoon, whom he hasn’t heard from in ages.
“Package pickup line is getting long, take care of it,” she says briskly one day as Jeongguk tries to sort new mail at lightning speed so that they get into student’s mailboxes before the new shipment comes in the afternoon. “We’ve been over this.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he mutters, stumbling around a tower of mail crates. “Here, package pickups?”
A small crowd of people shuffles forward to hand off names and mailbox numbers to him, and he pauses when he sees Taehyung’s name on one of them. He wonders vaguely what his boyfriend could have ordered and realizes that he doesn’t recall Taehyung mentioning it to him.
Jeongguk calls out the names on the packages when he get back laden with an armful of boxes, saving Taehyung’s for last so that he can maybe catch a quick word and perhaps a glimpse of a smile. “Kim Taehyung?”
“Hey,” Taehyung says as he takes the cardboard box into his arms. A textbook, Jeongguk guesses. “See you.”
“Uh,” Jeongguk replies, thrown off by how short Taehyung’s words are. “Yeah.”
hey are you free friday night?
Jeongguk’s phone lights up beside his laptop, and he looks away from his paper to reply to the text—one from Taehyung, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t surprised by it. It’s nearing two AM and Taehyung is usually asleep by now.
uhh i have dance practice :/
Taehyung doesn’t follow that up with anything else, and Jeongguk chews at his lip.
i can try saturday?
i have retreat this weekend
i will, i miss you
Jeongguk wipes his thumb down the screen of his phone. He hasn’t seen Taehyung in days. Last week he had called Jeongguk at midnight and asked if he could sleep over since his housemates were being assholes (Jeongguk decided not to ask, he and Jimin acted like five year olds on good days to begin with), and he had lay stone still in Jeongguk’s arms all night, sleeping like the dead.
Something between them seems to have broken. Jeongguk is afraid that he had been the one who, once again, was not careful enough.
“Are you really dating someone if you never see them?”
“I think you just single-handedly offended anyone who’s in a long-distance relationship.” Bambam looks up from the pot he’s stirring and Jeongguk stares at it contemplating how much of Bambam’s cooking he can stuff down his throat tonight before his eyes will water from the heat. It’s been two months and Bambam still can’t tone the spice level down. Jeongguk has just learned to take it. “But you’re not in one of those, are you?”
Jeongguk rolls his chopstick back and forth on the dinner table, sticky from old beer and breakfast remnants. It smells of sickly strawberries. “Never mind.”
“If you never see someone, but you talk, I don’t see why you couldn’t be dating,” Bambam reasons. He licks off a dollop of sauce at the end of the wooden spoon, smacks his lips thoughtfully, and reaches for more lemongrass. “But if you don’t talk to them and don’t see them, what’s the difference between that and being strangers?”
Is that what they are?
For what it is worth, Jeongguk thinks that this growing rift is for the best—what Jimin said, especially, about Taehyung leading a different life than Jeongguk is. He is not the only one who does.
“It’s just sad, you know,” Jeongguk catches himself admitting, and Kisum pauses while she’s straightening up from the mail cart. How are you and your boyfriend doing? she’d asked him, after a particularly quiet afternoon.
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says. “I’m not sure what it is but it feels like something has changed between us.”
The package that Kisum drops into a pile of boxes makes a thud on the floor. “Oh,” she says. “Sorry.”
“Is he graduating this year?” she asks. “Or is he younger than you?”
“No, he’s graduating.”
“Ah, well,” she says knowingly. “Then of course it feels like something has changed between you guys.”
“Don’t you know?” she says. “Almost all graduating seniors break up. It’s just how it is. You leave the world of the university campus and people change. People decide to just break it off now than to drag it out and watch it end in a mess.”
“Yeah.” Kisum crosses her legs on the floor, rests her hands in her lap. “Maybe he wants to let you go without saying it to your face.”
“I’m not saying what he would or what he wouldn’t do, I’m only trying to guess why.” She shrugs. “You know him better than I do.”
Jeongguk does, but he doesn’t know how much of Taehyung he knows anymore. He can’t say how long it’s been since he’s seen Taehyung properly, spoken to him about his day, never mind kissed; the last time they had was that evening Taehyung tried to bring Jeongguk’s attention to him as he pressed him back into the couch, straddling his lap. It had abrupt, an almost-clean fracture that Jeongguk can’t explain and wants answers to more than anything. Answers, he fears, that he doesn’t want to hear.
The truth hurts.
“Maybe you should talk to him,” says Kisum, surveying the troubled expression on Jeongguk’s face.
Jeongguk opens his phone to text Taehyung, but sees that there’s already one there that says
meet me at the study lounge on friday night?
sure, Jeongguk replies, but when he ends up in that lounge at the end of the week, Taehyung never comes.
From here, he can smell the ghosts of the afternoon coffee. They seep out from the closed doors of the little coffee shop with a little table by a little window that he had once gazed out of alone, just like this.
Taehyung had asked to meet him here. He is one of the last of the students to be there. Post-midterm slumps have arrived and anyone who tries to study on a Friday night is kidding themselves. In the almost-evening of the premature autumn nightfall, icy puddles shiver on the sidewalk, silver with lamplight. It is so quiet that Jeongguk, for a moment, can pretend that he is all alone.
He’s not sure why Taehyung asked to meet here of all places. He can’t possibly still be on campus at this hour, unless he had something come up that he didn’t tell Jeongguk about. He’s done this so much recently that Jeongguk wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Not that he has to tell Jeongguk where he is at any given point during the day—but Jeongguk thinks it weird that they have gone from inseparable to this. Whatever this is, a mildewed stagnation of what they had before. It leaves a bad taste in his mouth and a bruise in his chest.
hey are you coming soon?
His thumbs hover uncertainly over the keyboard as the message sends. Then,
i can come find you if you
But Taehyung has started typing, and Jeongguk pauses. The grey dots pop in and out of the window, until finally all it says is
yeah i’m at the university center study lounge
are you on the way i can come to where you are it’s pretty shitty weather
are you sure
did you have something to tell me???
Jeongguk chews on his lip. Taehyung reads it right away, says the notification, so he must still have his attention on the chat window. For several tense minutes, there is no reply. When the grey bubble comes up again Jeongguk’s phone has already dimmed, and he taps the screen just in time for the words on the screen to appear.
lets break up
lets break up
At first they don’t register in Jeongguk’s mind. He has played this scenario out in his head a million times, feared it coming for weeks, and yet he still isn’t ready when it happens. For a wild moment he wants to laugh and say that this is all part of a prank, right, this is just a prank. A prank, like the old days, ones that had been filled with laughs and yearning looks and quiet touches.
But pranks are over and this is reality, and this is Taehyung saying, let’s break up.
And what can he say? Why? The thought is laughable. Both of them know why, and Jeongguk can’t even be angry. Let’s talk, as if Taehyung even wants to hear Jeongguk stutter through his feelings. The bruise in his chest burns soft and black and he goes from feeling like a ball of tangled dread to nothing at all.
Jeongguk’s thumbs type by themselves and he doesn’t know how long he sits there or how cold it is on his face when he walks back home.
The thing about breakups is that it isn't all about the poetry.
It isn't all about the sad guitar chords, it isn’t about lonely flowers growing in hard-packed soil. It isn't about the black and white stock photos and the cloudy days. It isn't about sitting in bed alone and staring out the window. Jeongguk doesn't have the kind of time for that.
Poetry is easy. Poetry is shitty things in pretty words.
Instead, it's about oversleeping his alarm. He misses his morning class and fuck, it takes attendance. It's about accidentally ripping the mildewed faucet handle off while brushing his teeth. Later he holds two breakfast eggs so tightly in his fingers that they both break each others’ rounded sides, and all Jeongguk can do is watch and feel the cold strings of yolk and white drip through his fingers and wonder where unconscious strength like this comes from when he is so extraordinarily tired. He walks outside only to realize a mile away from home that the wind is cutting his skin, and he has no jacket, and no one to run after him with a red woolen coat shouting it’s freezing, are you crazy?
Suddenly it's not so much about the beauty of heartbreak—really, there is nothing remotely beautiful about washing bits of slimy eggshell off his fingers—but more of how strangely the world moves around him now that he’s been knocked out of orbit.
And above all it's about going on with life smiling, because that’s the only way he knows how to be okay. He pastes yellow caution tape over his lips and hopes that people get the message—move along, nothing to see, in time this mess will be something beautiful again.
Jeongguk runs into Taehyung on the big sidewalk that runs through campus, cutting through the soft roll of land. Pedestrian traffic is thick enough that is makes weaving unsafe, so he walks with his board beneath his arm. Realistically, Jeongguk shouldn’t have seen him at all, what with so many people around, but he does—two friends, lovers, not quite enemies, just strangers with memories.
Taehyung is wearing his guide tee, and a university hoodie embroidered with his name on the sleeve. Sticky adrenaline dips into Jeongguk’s stomach, and he scrambles for something to say—but Taehyung relieves him of that responsibility.
This time Jeongguk is the one who find himself standing stupidly alone in the middle of the walkway as Taehyung turns his back on him and walks back the way he came. His form is swallowed up in the throng of students, and the realization finally comes to a head—it’s over, it’s done. We’re done.
Time passes, and Jimin fills it up even if he doesn’t know it.
He doesn’t know it because Jeongguk doesn’t tell him what happened. The fewer people that know, the less real this is, and the easier it is for it to be buried under new laughs and dance routines. Of course, Jeongguk can’t control what Jimin hears from Taehyung, but just judging from the way he acts, he doesn’t think Taehyung brings it up to Jimin at all. Which is fine. It’s fine.
This is what Jeongguk tells himself and though Jimin doesn’t seem to believe it initially, with enough I’m fines and I don’t want to talk about its and even the stray I'm better off without him if I’m honests, Jimin reluctantly lets it go. Jeongguk doesn’t know if he truly believes him or if Jimin is smart enough to know that Jeongguk can’t put it into words, as he can't with most things, but he is thankful that Taehyung’s name no longer fills Jimin’s mouth anymore.
It’s better, and it’s worse. Jimin is his last connection to Taehyung. Jeongguk supposes cutting off that last lifeline is a good thing, but he looks back on this past year and more and he isn’t sure what he remembers—well, he remembers failing geological catastrophes, he remembers that dance showcase at a university across the country and the showcase they did for the hospital fundraising event. There are little acmes, little zeniths, and they stand proud and sparkling in his memory, but it is only looking at half of the picture.
“Are you feeling okay recently?”
Seokjin’s voice pokes at the edges of Jeongguk’s attention where he’s hunched over GDP charts and graphs on Jimin’s floor. Bambam and Yugyeom have some of their open mic friends over and Jeongguk needs to study for a quiz tomorrow, one that he can’t afford to fuck up or he’ll be in hot water.
“I’m fine,” Jeongguk says, and really, he is. “Okay, so maybe that finance quiz is going to put a boot up my ass, if I’m honest, but I did ace that oceanography midterm! Many bragging rights earned, Jimin was properly chastised. He said I was going to fail again, I’ll show him—and my paper for literature class came out as less of a train wreck than I had expected. Not that I’m saying it was a good paper, but—”
“I didn’t ask how well you were doing in your classes, but keep up the good work,” Seokjin interrupts. “I asked you, are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine,” Jeongguk repeats. “I’m feeling fine. I could do with more sleep but really, hyung. I’m okay.” He frowns. “Why, did Jimin tell you something?”
“He doesn’t need to tell me everything,” Seokjin says, and there is a haunting maturity in his words. Jeongguk remembers that Seokjin has done this too, as much of an adult as he is, and still works around people Jeongguk’s age every single day. He knows what he’s talking about.
“There’s nothing to know,” Jeongguk says offhandedly. He flips a page for the sake of creating background noise and wishes Jimin would come back from buying them all dinner already, he needs his infectious laughter in his ears. He dipped out almost half an hour ago and while it hasn’t been awkward talking to Seokjin, it’s been quieter than usual. “I’m single and I feel fine. Lighter, you know, less responsibility. Now I can do whatever I want. I don’t even have to look presentable if I don’t want to be.”
Seokjin doesn’t answer, turning back to his own work, but it’s a noisy kind of silence, one where what’s unspoken is louder than what is.
“Nothing, you said that there’s nothing to know,” Seokjin says. “And you said you’re fine.”
“I—yeah, I’m fine.”
“Well, that’s good. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll try to help, even if Jimin would probably be better at that.”
“Is he doing okay?”
Seokjin looks up from his laptop very slowly, as if giving Jeongguk time to take that question and stuff it back down his throat from where it came. Then, “Are you sure that’s a question you want answered?”
“You guys would not fucking believe what I just saw out there,” Jimin says, barging back in through the front door, laden with takeout boxes. “Some guy just—!” He senses the tautness of the air around him then, and balks on the doormat. “Everything all right?” he asks, plastic bags rustling quietly around him.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, getting to his feet. “I want my dinner, did you ask them for extra hot sauce?”
“As if I could forget,” Jimin says, toeing off his shoes. Jeongguk relieves him of some of the takeout boxes. “You’d hand my ass to me on a platter if I did.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, opening the styrofoam bowl of miso soup on Jimin’s dining table, “I’m not saying you’re wrong.”
“Thanks, babe,” Seokjin says as he gets up from the couch, pressing a kiss to Jimin’s cheekbone as he takes his order too. Jeongguk looks away quickly. “How much do I owe you?”
“It should be on your receipt,” Jimin says. “But if you don’t have any money on you right now, don’t worry about it.”
“I owe you twelve eighty-six,” Jeongguk says unnecessarily, and Jimin looks at him.
“Uh, yeah, whatever your receipt says,” Jimin replies, looking confused. “If you don’t have exact change right now, just get it to me at practice.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, sitting down, breaking open his chopsticks. He eats in silence as Jimin and Seokjin chatter, and it fades to white noise as Jeongguk spoons more hot sauce over his meat. He wants to look at his phone, even though he knows that there isn’t much to look at. It gives him something to do.
“You’d have to ask Jeongguk about that.”
“Huh, what?” he says, looking up from his Yikyak app.
“Gross, swallow your food, mongrel,” Jimin says with mock disgust. Jeongguk makes a show of sticking his tongue out before chewing and downing his mouthful. “Hyung was wondering what it must be like to get pepper sprayed in the face, and I said he’d have to ask you.”
“What the fuck. I’ve never been pepper sprayed in the face.”
“Didn’t you get cologne right in the eyes once? You said you couldn’t see,” Jimin asks. “That can’t have been fun.”
“Oh.” Jeongguk swallows and suddenly the taste of beef on his tongue is rancid. “Uh. Yeah, but those are totally not the same things, though. Also I was, like. Really high that night.”
Get out! Get out! Not fucking today, Satan!
“I remember,” Jimin says.
“Oh,” Jimin says, “sorry, I for—”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep. All good, don’t worry about it.”
And Seokjin looks like the only person at this table who does not believe Jeongguk’s words.
The rest of January is low profile if Jeongguk doesn’t count the part where two girls named Sorn and Yujin slide into their dance team for their new semester. The presence of two new members means that suddenly there is enough of them for him to lead his own subgroup and Taemin does not hesitate to approach him with the proposal.
“I don’t know, man,” Jeongguk says. “I’m not sure if I’m ready to lead a whole—”
“Howon and I can’t stick around forever,” Taemin says. “We are alumni and you already make all the showcase bookings for us, so it’s only right that you take the position if we’re going to leave.” He nods at someone in the rest of the group, still following in Howon’s lead to a sequence of particularly tricky footwork. “Besides, Hwasa already agreed to be co-captain with you if you took up the lead.”
“Hwasa?” She is two years older than Jeongguk and he won’t even pretend for a minute that he isn’t scared of her. “Isn’t she graduating?”
“She’s staying behind another year to finish up her triple major. I know, she’s insane, I just didn’t ask.” Taemin eyes him. “And Jaein and Yeri. Who else am I going to count on to see those two to the top?”
And that is how Jeongguk becomes one of teams captain-elects, and everyone seems to agree unanimously that he was going to take the position at the mantle after all. He laughs with giddiness when Hwasa gives him a hug of congratulations after practice and tries not to look at her spiked, five-inch suede pumps that she regularly practices in because his dick hurts just looking at them.
“I hope you’re ready to start creating choreographs instead of just learning them,” she says. “I got high hopes for you, Jeon.”
And the rest of the month quiets down until the last week of January, cold and snowy. The sleet is wet on Jeongguk’s clothes as he slouches into the post office for his shift.
“Oh, look what the cat dragged in and pissed all over,” Kisum says. “Help me sort the mail, we got a huge shipment of belated Christmas packages today. They’re all over by the carts.”
“Got it,” Jeongguk says, sinking into one of the rolling chairs and wheeling himself across the office. There really is a small mountain of packages, and Jeongguk sighs as he starts sorting them into piles and writing out slips for all the mailbox numbers.
The morning passes steadily. Jeongguk sees, with some relief, that the clouds start parting in the early afternoon before he’ll have to pack up and rush off for his class. Just as his shift starts winding down, the phone rings. He is the closest, so he reaches for it with a pencil and package slip still in hand.
“Hi, this is the post office,” he says briskly. Quiet static filters through the other end for a few moments longer than usual. “Hello?”
“Who is this?”
Holy shit. Jeongguk would know this voice anywhere—anywhere, across the soccer field at night, or just behind him accompanied with a rhythm of footsteps, or curled up against his ear, damp and ragged. But right now, this is work.
“This—this is the university post office.”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, I thought—sorry, I mistook you for someone I knew,” Taehyung laughs. It sounds so easy. “I’m sorry about that, it’s been a long day.”
“It’s no problem, I get it,” Jeongguk says, and he does. “How can I help you?” The words don’t come out fast and smooth as Taehyung’s do, but Taehyung seems to have moved on from that little hiccup and he’s jumping right into his request.
“I have a package coming soon, but since I didn’t order it online, there’s no way for me to cancel the order myself,” he says. “Is it possible that when it arrives at the post office you guys just redirect it back to sender? I’ve already contacted them so they’ll be expecting it.”
“Oh, uh, yeah, we can do that,” Jeongguk says as he reaches for the wrinkled memo pad jammed between the nightmare of a desk and one of the filing cabinets. “Where was it going and around when is it supposed to get here?”
“Around February fourteenth,” Taehyung says, and his voice is unreadable now. “It’s addressed to Jeon Jeongguk, Magnolia Court, East Tower, Room 604.”
Jeongguk writes it down and his bones feel so extraordinarily empty. The way Taehyung’s tongue had smoothed over his syllables of his name is something he didn’t know he missed so much until he has it again. His day has been alright so far but now there is an acidic burn in his nose, in this throat.
“Sorry, could you repeat that?”
And Taehyung does, softly, slowly, and Jeongguk moves his eyes over his own address as Taehyung recites it back to him again. He knows he should hang up now, before he does anything even more stupid, but,
this is work, and there is a protocol Jeongguk must follow. He is glad for it, glad for a script laid out for him to read when he doesn’t know what to say or do.
“All right,” he says, dragging the words out in the way people do when they finish up something and talk at the same time. “Something wrong? Got the wrong present for bae?”
“Ah, I think he would have liked it, actually.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, throat constricted. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it. Let me know if there are any complications or anything.”
“Of course.” Jeongguk says as cheerily as he can, and it sounds passable, even genuine.
“No problem, have a good day.”
Taehyung hangs up first and Jeongguk listens to the line go dead. Kisum bustles past him with an armful of returns packages in her arms, and all Jeongguk can do is watch the ink of his address in thick black Sharpie bleed through the paper.
Jeongguk’s slogan becomes, the best way to get over someone is to get under someone.
It’s been a while since he’s taken up this mantra. It’s been a while since he’s needed to.
Bambam and Yugyeom can’t stop giving him salacious grins over breakfast on the days they all get up around the same time and Jeongguk doesn’t have to heart to to explain that he’s a serial rebounder, and that those girls and the occasional guy deserve better. Even if it is just casual hooking up, they deserve someone who’s only looking for a casual hookup—not someone trying to fuck the sadness out of his system.
None of them ever come around again. Jeongguk doesn’t have it in him to give too many fucks about it. The girl tonight is really, really pretty, and Jeongguk doesn’t feel the immediate need to imply that he wants her to leave, and leave now, since she’d insisted on dropping by his place since it was closer than her own. He vaguely knows her, a classmate from his financial analysis class that had asked to look at his chicken scratch notes at the beginning of the semester. Still, her breath against his shoulder is strange and foreign. She shifts her body in bed then, and Jeongguk’s eyes fly open when he feels her mouth press into his clavicle where the tattooed dragon rears its head.
“No,” he says, voice as loud as gunshot in the sleepy air between them, his body jerking away reflexively. She lifts her head to squint at him, and there’s still a hickey on her neck where Jeongguk had sucked one red and angry, but she sits up in bed and stares down her nose at him for a moment longer before gathering up her clothes.
“Sorry,” she says tonelessly. Jeongguk doesn’t watch her go but he does say bye, half-hearted as he is. “See you around, Jeongguk.”
He lies there, feeling the bed cool. It’s already cold and this winter especially so, and Jeongguk doesn’t get up to shower for a long time. Then he rolls onto his stomach, shoving an arm under his pillow and propping his chin upon it as he checks his phone.
There are texts from his roommates and Jimin. Hwasa, too. He doesn’t open them and knows that at least this way they’ll think he hasn’t seen their messages. Aimlessly does he open his Yikyak app, watching as it loads, refreshes. On a Friday night most of the Yaks feature two kinds of people: those who stay in and watch Netflix and those who go out and get turnt. He reads through them, scrolling until he sees a particularly long one that looks halfway sober. It’s titled ugh.
hooked up with a really hot guy with bomb dick game but i could tell that he missed his ex so much i could feel him looking at someone else when he looked at me #byefelicia
She is the last person Jeongguk takes to bed for a while.
Jimin isn’t stupid, and it does not take him too long to figure it out.
It happens Jeongguk is rushing out of the post office, late for dance practice. Since Taemin and Howon have handed the reigns mostly to him and Hwasa, she’s going to have his ass for not being punctual. Taking the steps down two at a time while simultaneously trying to pull on his jacket and backpack isn’t one of Jeongguk’s brightest ideas, but he makes it down to the ground floor without faceplanting anyway.
He takes a moment to collect himself, slowing his step to adjust his jacket, and throws a cursory glance at the study lounge. It is comfortable, with its walls made of glass and a perimeter lined with a high bar table and matching chairs. No, it isn’t the person who’s playing some hardcore Hasee Bounce on Neopets (Jeongguk forgot that website existed until now) that catches his attention, but a familiar face that he didn’t think he would see again so soon.
Well, it’s not very soon. Months have passed, perhaps more than he’s aware of, but the sight of Taehyung’s face punches him right in the nose and he feels his heart drown in his blood. Taehyung is laughing at something Jeongguk cannot hear, with someone Jeongguk does not recognize, and he hasn’t seen that kind of happiness in Taehyung’s eyes in so long. The someone isn’t Sujeong, not any of Taehyung’s friends that he’s mentioned—he’s tall and broad and looks like he’d dwarf Jeongguk if he stood up from his seat.
Taehyung is happy, and that is all Jeongguk wanted. That’s what he has told himself, after all, for all this time. If Taehyung was happy then what was a little temporary misery on his part, right?
Jeongguk turns on his heel fast, then, and runs right into Jimin.
“Whoa, hey,” Jimin says. “What are you still doing here? Don’t you have practice now?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Jeongguk says, about to sidestep Jimin, but he can’t go with his voice sounding this tight and brittle. Not in front of the entire dance team. “Uh, what are you here for?”
“Oh, I’m going to introduce someone to T—” Jimin clamps his mouth shut, forgetting, and tries again. “Uh, I’m meeting some—”
“That’s great,” Jeongguk says. It shouldn’t hurt but it does. “Okay, see you—see you la—”
His voice cracks then, and he brushes past Jimin roughly before he can see Jeongguk’s expression crumble, one he has built carefully for so long. Jimin catches his hand, grip vise-like, but Jeongguk is stronger and yanks it away.
“Jeongguk!” Jimin says, jogging after him into the chilly air outside. “Shit, Jeongguk, I’m so sorry, I keep slipping up—I shouldn’t have said it, I didn’t realize.”
“I said it’s fine,” Jeongguk says, throat barely opening enough for him to force the words out. They are curt and clipped and shake under the effort of carrying his tears on their shoulders. “You should go, I’m already late.”
“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, continuing to jog a little to keep up with Jeongguk’s pace. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t—I didn’t know you were still—still sad about it, you really said it was fine and I began to believe you but I’m sorry, I forgot.”
This makes Jeongguk speak, and he’s made it to the big sidewalk, the same one that he had first turned tail and run from Taehyung’s open arms. “I said, it’s fine,” he repeats, and this time even as he says it the tears finally slip down his face, hot and traitorous, heavy in the way that tears are when they’re held in for too long. They streak down his cheeks and Jeongguk can see them dampening the soft red suede of his jacket, dripping from his chin. “It’s fine. Leave me alone.”
“You’re not fine!” Jimin insists, nearly skipping now to match pace with Jeongguk. “Jeongguk, listen—”
“No, you listen, hyung,” Jeongguk says. The salt of his tears smarts on his face in this cold. It makes his chapped lips sting. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“How can there be nothing to talk about when you’re literally crying?” Jimin says.
“There is nothing to talk about. You are going to go introduce him to someone. I am going to go to dance practice. Then I’m going to go home and do work and fuck around on the Internet for a while. Maybe if someone wants to, they can come over and fuck, but there is nothing to talk about here between me, and him, or me and him, or whatever it is you want to talk about.”
“You still love him.”
Jimin says it like it has dawned on him. He’s come to a complete stop, standing there dumbly as he searches Jeongguk's face with sad, sad eyes. He rounds on Jimin, eyes dry now, and his voice is colder than ever.
“Don’t,” he snaps, “say that around me again.”
“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, “You say you’re fine, but. I think that is your biggest pretend.”
“You’re lucky you called in when you did.”
It sounds like, you’re lucky I like you, and yeah, Jeongguk probably is. His tattoo artist is a tiny little thing, small enough, probably, for him to tuck under his arm with space leftover. Kwon Boa is punk rock meets pastel and has more piercing than ear, but ever since Jeongguk had come in twice to get the dragon on his bicep touched up she’s seen him as a regular.
“Sorry,” he says, pulling off his beanie and stuffing it into the pocket of his red jacket, a little damp on the shoulders from the drizzle. “But you said this is okay, right?”
“Depends how big you want it,” she says. The snap of her gloves is loud even over the gentle rain that patters across the windowpanes now, blurring the world outside into a runny wash of lights. “And what it is that you want.”
“I brought a picture,” Jeongguk says, unearthing the folded up piece of paper from his pockets. It is a little damp from being held against his body all day and Boa unfolds it, studying it with a slight frown.
“Another dragon?” is all she offers as an answer.
“Well, this one’s a little different.”
“That it is.” The paper rustles as she tacks it up against the corkboard and pulls the latex gloves on, motioning for Jeongguk to sit down in the seat. “It’s swallowing its tail. Any reason why?”
He sits. “It’s an ouroboros. The symbol of cycles and eternal returns.”
“I see.” She doesn’t ask any more questions, sensing Jeongguk’s reluctance to share any more. “Where do you want it?”
“Along the rest of this arm,” Jeongguk says, slipping his right arm out of the sleeve of his tshirt, lifting the hem until it rests on his shoulder. “You don’t need to make it a perfect circle around my forearm or anything, but as long as it is fills up the rest of the space and is swallowing its tail, that’s good.”
“Black and red, I’m guessing?”
“You know me.”
“This’ll take at least one more session, you know,” she warns him, and Jeongguk nods as she screws on the tattoo pen tip. “And it won’t be a short one.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jeongguk says. She rolls up to his side in her stool, wiping down his skin, nods at the one Jeongguk already has. The dragon’s head stretches over his collarbone, red and fierce. Jeongguk glances down at it.
“How’s that treating you?”
“Fine,” Jeongguk says. The prickling pain of the tip against his bare arm is unwelcome but familiar, and he tries not to feel the ghost of someone else’s mouth on blackened scales painted into his arm.
Jimin doesn’t approach Jeongguk about it again, and they both pretend neither of them remember it happening. It works, somewhat. Sometimes Jeongguk asks Jimin what he did for that day, and all he’ll say is, “oh, stuff, I guess,” and Jeongguk knows not to ask more.
Oh, but he wants to.
Jeongguk reasoned that forgetting would be easy. Really, he’s quite good at it, as he can look back at the things mentioned in class that very day and find that he can’t recall taking half of his notes—which is probably why he keeps failing those earth classes. And yet here he finds himself, once again, with blood on his hands from another broken heart. This time it’s no one else’s but his own.
He’s an idiot, but what else is new?
Not this, anyway. Jeongguk’s phone is cold in his palm. He never actually noticed how warm it always was, cradled in his hand as he and Taehyung watched anime curled up together on the couch, much to Jimin’s eternal chagrin.
It is a stupid idea, but Jeongguk isn’t exactly known for his social brilliance, and it isn’t until he hears the quiet puff when the message sends that he panics, and realizes what he’s done. His fingers had been aching to do it, maybe, tense and sore in the knuckles like he’s had too much caffeine. Now the sensation is replaced with cold adrenaline.
Fuck it. It’s too late to put his phone on airplane mode and wait for the cyberspacial dead-end, so Jeongguk just stares at the deep blue speech bubble. It takes everything in him not to scroll back up and look at the heaps of hearts and kiss emojis that Taehyung signed all of his texts with, but he does it. He puts his phone down and listens to the symphony of snoring from the other room, muted and rhythmic through the walls like rain and thunder.
Fuck him. Taehyung will see it, and Taehyung will wonder. Taehyung will overthink just like Jeongguk is doing now. Or, he won’t at all, but it will ruin his entire day. Jeongguk knows. He can picture it now, Taehyung walking under a dark cloud that he forces sunshine through for his job, and it’ll weigh on his shoulders like rain-soaked clothing.
Fuck this. Day in and day out Jeongguk gets through his minutes and hours congratulating himself on things he does well and things he does right. And he is honest with himself, he does quite a bit well and right, so much that Taemin and Howon will ask him to lead their dance team subgroups for upcoming performances. He got an A- on his public finance midterm. He likes his post office coworkers (this is an achievement any day of the week).
Fuck everything. Here he is, sleepless. The ceiling is maddening in its tranquil whiteness and Jeongguk makes a mental note to himself that he is going to pin his notes up there the very next day so if he can’t sleep, at least he can stare at his diagrams of ocean floors.
Something possesses him to check his phone again. He can’t sleep until he does. There are no new notifications, and he expected nothing else, but something catches his eye that leaves his lungs punched thin and sticky.
Read 3:54 AM
A package comes in at the post office on February sixteenth with Jeongguk’s name written on it.
Jeongguk’s arm is still a little sore from the last inking it took to get the rest of the dragon done, but now he sports a sleeve that he that he can look at, and remind himself that good things will return. He doesn’t recognize the penmanship or the return address. It’s an unassuming cardboard box with the standard air mail stamps and seals, but before he can turn it over in his hands some more, Kisum decides she isn’t having any of his spacecasing today. “Hey, can you grab me an overnight shipping label?”
So, for most of the day, Jeongguk forgets about it. He’s already forgotten that phone call that he’d pushed to the very back of his mind, because he shoves it into his backpack and doesn’t recall it again until later that night. His bag is unreasonably heavy and just for a moment he thinks with a sinking heart that he has a load of homework deserving of two midnight Starbucks runs, could I get a venti with six shots of sugar please, until he unzips it and the package tumbles to the floor.
It’s not like it has changed from the afternoon. The cardboard is still just as beaten up around the edges, tape still shiny with stray air bubbles caught in the adhesive. But the realization hits him now like a blow to the nose and it is the rudest wake-up call Jeonngguk has gotten since the one that screamed him awake the morning of his econometrics final, nearly a year ago.
Jeon Jeongguk, Magnolia Court, East Tower, Room 604.
“Holy shit,” he says aloud.
Whatever it is, every part of him screams not to open it. Are you stupid, asks his self-preserving side, as small as it may be. Respect Taehyung’s wishes, says his moral compass, cutting over the din of his thoughts.
And open it anyway, whispers the saddest, most selfish part of him. What difference does it make now?
It is soft and red, nestled in packing paper when Jeongguk gets the package open. At first he doesn’t know what to make of it, but when he lifts it out, his heart swoops something horrible. Never in his life has Jeongguk been so unhappy to see a red snapback, the one he has been wanting for ages, one that he couldn’t find anywhere. And yet here he is, with his heart in his stomach and a blank check of a brain. When he unfolds the back of the cap, a slip of paper flutters into his lap.
happy valentine’s day!!! ♡♡♡ the bike shop paid commission but then i had to work on days i had off instead of spending them with you :( :( :( but i hope you like this! you wanted it, right? i found it downtown but they were out of stock so the shopowner said he’d custom order it for you~ anyway since i’m done we can kiss a lot and a lot now ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ ♡♡ i love you!! ♡♡ taehyung ♡
The difference, Jeongguk learns, is a headache in his temples and a burn in his throat.
(The cheery sound of Taehyung’s ringtone shakes him awake by the shoulders. For a blurry, disoriented moment, he thinks it is morning, time again to wake up and face another day. Then he recognizes the noise, that it’s a call coming through, and it’s just past midnight on Saturday night.
“Hello?” he says blearily, picking up without even needing to look where he’s tapping on the screen. The life of someone who lives with his phone in his hand.
“I miss you.”
Taehyung feels his heart plummet past his ribs, tumbling over muscle and bone, into his stomach. He knows this voice. He knows it half-asleep and he would know it completely asleep, or drunk, or blind.
“J-Jeongguk,” he says. It doesn’t sound like a question.
“I miss you,” Jeongguk repeats, and the way his words run into each other from behind, tripping over each other’s shoelaces—Taehyung knows he’s drunk. He’s heard Jeongguk talk like this before, too. Jeongguk has said sweet things he’d never say sober with this voice, up against the shell of Taehyung’s ear or with his head in Taehyung's lap or holding his hand like he’s afraid Taehyung will disappear if he let go. “Taehyung, I miss you so much. I can’t feel my face and I don’t know if it’s the alcohol or if it’s because you’re not here to hold it and tell me I’ll be okay.”
“Holy shit,” Taehyung says, and the thick, suffocating feeling in his chest chases away sleep faster than an alarm ever has. “Where are you?”
“Home,” Jeongguk replies. At least he’s still answering questions. “I’m sitting home alone like a loser. Missing you. It sucks. It sucks because I think I finished the Ciroc Bambam and Yugyeom were saving—saving for this weekend? They’re going to kill me. It sucks. I don’t even like Ciroc. I want you here.”
Taehyung sits up in his sheets now, and the scent of Jeongguk wrapped around him, with his voice up against his ear like this—if Taehyung shuts his eyes, and lets the dreamy film of sleep slide back over his them, he can almost imagine Jeongguk here with him now, beside him. Like he used to be, once.
“Don’t just say those things to me,” he manages, swallowing around the thick, dry feeling in his throat. “Why did you call me? Why did you drink so much?”
“I’m sorry.” Jeongguk hiccups. “I wanted to. I wanted to hear your voice.”
Taehyung is silent. Then, “Okay, you’ve heard it now.”
“Wait, don’t go!” Jeongguk says. There is true, unadulterated desperation in his voice. “Taehyung, don’t go. Don’t go.”
“Hey, I’m not going anywhere,” Taehyung says, and hopes Jeongguk is at least drunk enough not to notice how hard he’s pressing down the urge to let the tears slip down his cheeks. “I’m here. Why did you drink so much?”
“Because I thought it would make me forget.”
“You. Us. How miserable I am without you. But it didn’t work, did it? I don’t know why I thought it did. I thought alcohol was supposed to cover pain up, not make it worse. I thought a lot of things and I’m wrong about most of them, because here I am. Here we are. I didn’t forget anything except that I’m not supposed to call you and the only things I can’t feel are my face and my hands.”
Taehyung hugs his blankets to his chest. “Jeongguk, stop drinking.” He has half a mind to hang up and call Jimin right now, even though it’s Saturday night and the chances that he and Seokjin are in bed together right now are through the roof, but someone has to slam sense into Jeongguk and it’s not him right now.
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says again. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to call you. Fuck, I fucked up again. Hey, that’s something I’m good at. I didn’t want to call you because I know it would make you sad. That’s something else I’m good at, huh? Making you sad. Fucking up and making you sad. That’s all I’m good at.”
“That’s not true, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and now the tears really do fall. It isn’t. It isn’t at all.
“Can you honestly say you were ever happy with me, though?” Jeongguk says. “Like, what did I even do for you? What did I ever do for you?” He laughs and it’s the farthest thing from happiness that Taehyung has ever heard. “All I did before we dated was make you sad. All I did after we dated was make you sad.”
“Jeongguk, you were so much more than that, I don’t want to hear any more of this.”
“I’ve never been this scared, Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, and there it is—falling into the stage where he’s starting to talk without really hearing what Taehyung is saying. “Even before, when I broke up with people, I was never this miserable. Or scared, I was never scared. I try to remember how long we were together but I can’t no matter how hard I try, because all I can think about is however long it was, it wasn't long enough.”
“Why are you scared?”
“Because I don’t think,” Jeongguk pauses, and Taehyung’s heart sinks further when he thinks he hears Jeongguk swallowing more alcohol, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to like anyone again, not the same way I liked you. Still like you. Because I can’t get over you. It’s been months. At night when it’s quiet enough, when the night is dark enough. When I’m alone. I think of you, and it feels like I can’t even breathe. Even if I do end up dating someone else, or many someone elses. Get it? Do you get it? Some part of me will never be able to forget you.”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and now a sob finally breaks through, and his body is wracked with it. “Jeongguk.”
“I’m not going to remember this in the morning, hyung,” Jeongguk says. “I’m sorry you have to. I’m sorry that you’ve always done more for me than I ever did for you.”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, finding his words. “Do you regret it, then?”
Jeongguk doesn’t answer, his labored breathing filtering through the line. “Do you regret it, meeting me? Dating me? If you’re here now, like this, more miserable than you’ve ever been?”
And all there is is breathing. Harsh, coming in fast, tired gasps. The tears drip off Taehyung’s chin, cold and salty, making dark streaks in the white hoodie as they dampen the cotton. He’s about to grit his teeth, hang up, maybe roll over and wait for the tears to carry him off back to sleep, back to dreams where Jeongguk only smiles, but then he speaks.
“How could I ever regret you?” Jeongguk coughs, in the way Taehyung knows that if he doesn’t stop drinking soon he’s going to throw up so hard he’ll see spots.
“Oh, look. The beast lives.”
“How’re you doing over there, buddy?”
Jeongguk’s surroundings bleed back into form slowly. It begins with the feeling of couch cushions beneath him and something warm and smelling faintly of weed draped over him. Then it’s the sunlight jabbing into his eyes, the breeze on his neck from the window. It’s calm and soothing against his temples, pounding like miniature snare drums on either side of his head. His mouth feels like he dragged his tongue across four miles of sandpaper.
He answers with, “Fine.”
“What a champ,” Bambam says, as if proud.
“Hey, you alright?” This voice is closer now, and Jeongguk groans at the bounce when Yugyeom sinks down into the couch around where Jeongguk’s knees are. “I got you some water. Are you feeling okay?”
“I want to die.”
“Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised,” Yugyeom says solemnly. “You really threw your liver to the dogs last night.”
“What happened?” Jeongguk asks. He reaches forward blindly for the water Yugyeom promised, and a plastic bottle meets his palm. He sloshes some over his chin but most of it makes it into his mouth, which is a #hangoverachievement for the books.
“You don’t remember?”
Jeongguk is silent.
“Damn, you don’t usually black out, do you? Still. I can’t say I’m surprised. We got back in around three or four AM and you were crying about—”
“Shit,” Bambam says loudly from the kitchen where he is set up with his laptop and what looks like enough paper and worksheets to kill a forest. “I accidentally clicked on one of those ‘fuck busty Russian babes in your area’ ads—”
“Well,” Yugyeom says.
“Dude, come look,” Bambam says, looking over his computer.
“Right,” Yugyeom cottons on, standing up and shuffling away from Jeongguk and into the kitchen, too, to join Bambam behind his laptop. Jeongguk is still too tired to call out this blatant secret hiding to care about design, so he sits up more slowly and asks,
“Was it about Taehyung?”
“Well,” Bambam says, right when Yugyeom squeaks “No!”
The silence is withering. Even with a headache as bad as this Jeongguk manages to look as exasperated as he wants, maybe even moreso.
“You were sad about him,” Yugyeom says quietly. “I mean, we knew that already. You fell asleep pretty soon after, though, so don’t worry. You didn’t tell us too much that you wouldn’t want us to know. Or that we didn’t already know. It’s okay.”
“Do you remember anything?” Bambam asks when Jeongguk sits there and stews in his misery with eyes closed. “Or, what’s the last thing you remember?”
“Maybe my eighth drink,” Jeongguk says. His teeth feel like they’re all wearing individual sticky alcohol sweaters when he runs the tip of his tongue over them. There must have been something else, too. Bambam and Yugyeom wouldn’t lie to his face, but Jeongguk remembers talking to someone. Perhaps his roommates had gotten back at the tail end of the film of memory, because he has no clue what he said. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. I’ll get you guys another handle.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it? Are you kidding? Ciroc is expensive—”
“Ciroc is overrated,” Bambam says evenly. “Mark hyung has this unreasonable boner for Ciroc but hard liquor all tastes the same fifty shades of regret.” Jeongguk has heard of this Mark, the skinny boy from California that looked like someone Jeongguk would fight in high school.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” Bambam, ever the meticulous when it came to repayment between the three housemates, is brushing Jeongguk’s offer off. He wonders how bad he really looks. “Just get us some sangria.”
Getting back on track isn’t that hard. Jeongguk buys the sangria and studies for his third finance midterm and lets Kisum and Hwasa tell him what to do for the rest of the week, not that he’s ever been a follower but being his own leader has never been more exhausting. Also, he finds, a life shaped by strong women doesn’t seem that bad.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, but don’t answer if you don’t want to,” Hwasa mentions on a warm Thursday evening. Jeongguk’s Stussy tank is damp and he has his bangs swept into his snapback to keep them out of his face, and the rest of the team is on the floor taking a break in their sweaty clothes. “Our year-end showcase is coming up. Is your...boyfriend going to come, or?”
Jeongguk brings his water bottle away from his lips. Well, at least Hwasa is old enough, or smart enough, to at least ask tactfully.
“We’re not together anymore. So I don’t think so.”
“Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no. It happens, you know.”
“Yeah,” she agrees, and something about the way she says it makes Jeongguk not want to hear what she has next for him. “Sorry to pry. I just noticed that you and Jimin don’t seem to talk as much anymore, and I didn’t want that to be cause of any animosity in the team. I wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with that.”
“He told you, didn’t he.”
“He might have mentioned something.”
Jeongguk can’t even find it in himself to be angry, or even annoyed. No, he cannot blame Jimin for turning away. Not when Jeongguk pushed him away first, but what could he do? Being around Jimin meant being around Taehyung. It was just an unfortunate reality he had to accept.
“Sorry,” he mutters, fiddling with the label of his water bottle. “I didn’t mean to bring my personal life into this.”
“Hey, what are we, business partners?” Hwasa says. “Friends are your personal life. We’re friends. We’re all friends, there’s no reason for you to hide this. It’s probably better, in fact, that we know. Or at least I know.”
Jeongguk grunts. “Thanks,” it sounds like.
The team’s chatter grows louder. Sorn’s voice pierces high over the others’ and then peals of laughter break out over them, bubbling around in the thin space between Jeongguk and Hwasa as they look out of the windows of the dance studio.
“Jimin’s graduating soon, so he’s really worried about you.”
“Oh, is he?”
“Even if you guys don’t talk much recently, that doesn’t automatically mean he no longer cares about you. That’s not Jimin at all.”
Jeongguk hasn’t considered it recently until Hwasa brought it up again now. Graduation. Soon Jimin is going to be walking that stage, and Jeongguk will be the last of them: Seokjin, Namjoon, Hoseok, Jimin. Taehyung, who’ll, come June, walk across the stage in a black gown and satin sashes and wave goodbye to the campus he’s so lovingly talked about for the past four years. And Jeongguk won’t ever have to see him again.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Jeongguk says, admitting it for once. He’s gotten good at that, accepting his fuckups. “But to be honest, he probably will worry about me forever unless I got back together with my ex. And I probably won’t ever be as close to him anymore.”
“Why? It doesn’t have to be like that.”
“Maybe one day,” Jeongguk says. “But being around Jimin is too hard for the both of us. He has to censor his words and I have to pretend I don’t hear it when he slips up. And I’m not going to ask him to leave his best friend because we’re not on good terms anymore.”
Hwasa is quiet now, mulling over something that, for a second, gives Jeongguk the feeling she’ll protest again.
But all she replies with is, “I’m sorry it has to be that way.”
“It’s okay.” And, for the first time, it sounds sincere. It doesn’t feel like a band-aid over a bullet hole. Maybe it is not okay just yet. But it will be okay.
“You’ll be okay.”
Jeongguk looks across the space at her, but she’s standing up already. “All right, punks, break time’s over. Up on your feet!”
There’s a collective groan but the members get up, shaking out their limbs. Hwasa is by the speakers, scrolling through her phone to find the right remix track, when Jeongguk catches Jimin’s eye across the room. His smile is small and sad as if he still has something left to say and knows that Jeongguk does not want to hear it.
The showcase comes and goes.
The theater is full to the brim as nearly every dance team in the school assembles one last time. Jeongguk doesn’t search the crowd for someone he swears to himself he no longer thinks about. Bambam and Yugyeom are there, and even Namjoon drops in to visit, and Jeongguk would be lying if he didn’t launch himself into his hyung’s arms and hold on tight. “It’s been too long, kiddo,” says Namjoon, laughing as he ruffles Jeongguk’s hair.
As summer starts tumbling in in poppies and pool parties, it isn’t hard to play spot-the-senior—the only students among the thousands that don’t look like zombies in the weeks approaching finals. Instead, they’re in the University Center where Jeongguk used to work, buying gowns and sashes and memorabilia before their time runs out.
So Jeongguk thanks his lucky stars that he was transferred to the post office this year, because he still doesn’t know how to feel about it, what Hwasa had said. Instead he hangs out with the last-minute packages in the mailroom, accounting for returned PO Box keys and doing filing in preparation for the summer slump.
“What are you doing over the summer?” Kisum asks, during some downtime in the late afternoon. Jeongguk is lying back in one of the ripped office chairs, the picture of ease.
“Summer school,” Jeongguk says. “If all goes according to plan I’m bouncing by this winter.”
“Damn, good luck to you,” she says, dropping one more returned key in the filing cabinet. The chair she sinks into creaks under her weight.
“Really, I mean, good luck,” she repeats. “You seemed really bummed this past winter. You don’t need to tell me everything that happened, but I hope it works out for you.”
“Jesus. Way to be gloom and doom. It’s not like I’m leaving yet.”
“But I am,” Kisum says, and Jeongguk looks up at this. “I don’t know who’s transferring down to the mailroom for next year, but I found work off-campus. This is the last year here.” She casts her gaze over the package and mail bins, almost empty at this time in the year. “I’m going to miss it here.”
“You’ll do good out there,” Jeongguk says. “Everyone will fear you. But why leave if you like it here?”
“I mean, I like it here, sure,” Kisum says. “But telling myself that isn’t going to change the fact that I’ll be happier elsewhere. This work is something I’ve wanted and waited for a long time, and I didn’t think I’d ever get it, but it never hurts to try again. I had to mess up to know how to do it right the next time. You know, making mistakes.”
The evening is warm when Jeongguk trudges back to his apartment, having foregone his board in favor of walking. The crickets are loud in the bushes and, as the sun turns the sky lavender, he remembers the lecture Namjoon had given him last year around this time that sounded hauntingly like Kisum’s. Maybe it’s a 94 line thing.
It’s a man-eat-man world. If you want something, ask for it.
That’s how Jeongguk had found himself hopping behind the wheel of his then-Hummer, feeling too exhausted to even buckle up, never mind drive. But he had did it, found himself in Taehyung’s front yard, asking for a second chance that he didn’t even know he had.
But Jeongguk has run out of chances and options. Jeongguk has run out of maybes and what ifs, and Jeongguk has run out of tomorrows to wait until. It’s nearly summer, but the breeze is cool against his bare arms, and he shivers as he takes the stairs up to his apartment door two at a time.
Someone is already standing there. At first, wildly, he mistakes the figure for Bambam, who locks himself out their apartment every other week. Then they turn, and Taehyung’s face is thrown into sharp relief in an unforgiving slice of setting sun.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, feeling the air evaporate from his body. “Uhm.”
“Sorry,” Taehyung says quickly, snatching the silence up in his fingers. He already moving, turning to brush past so fast that Jeongguk’s suddenly water-logged brain has to go into overdrive to keep up.
“Wait.” The word comes out of Jeongguk’s mouth mechanically. He doesn’t even need to look back or down to reach out and grab Taehyung’s wrist—he’s a bit out of practice so he misses and catches Taehyung’s arm more than anything, and a bit of button-up flannel, too, but Taehyung halts.
For a moment, they stand there. Then, “Let me go.”
“Let me go,” Taehyung repeats, shaking his arm a little now in Jeongguk’s grasp. Reluctantly, Jeongguk turns. He’s not ready for this, but he could live a thousand years and never be ready for confrontation.
“The last time I listened to you when you said that, I made the biggest mistake of my life,” Jeongguk says. The words tear the insides of his cheeks bloody as he says them but it feels, finally, like catharsis. “If I let you go this time I’ll never see you again and I don’t know if I can live with that kind of regret.”
“Isn’t that your own fault?”
“I never said it wasn’t,” Jeongguk says, and now he really does let go. Taehyung doesn’t bolt, and even turns around, but his gaze on Jeongguk’s face makes the words fall flat on his tongue again. “I never said I wanted you to leave.”
“You didn’t have to say anything.”
Jeongguk has always thought that the coldest people were the scariest. He’s learned some things in university, he supposes. And today he learns that he is wrong, and it is those who smile the brightest and laugh the hardest whose dry, scathing anger hurts the most.
“You never had to say anything for me to know that you were tired of us,” Taehyung says, in the way of someone who has this all figured out. Dry and rational, like he’s too tired to bring emotion into this again. “You told me from the very beginning you were shit at relationships. I didn’t expect you to magically get better at them just because you were dating me, so you don’t need to worry. It’s not like you were the first person I’ve ever dated, I know what it means to fall out of love. It happens. I’m just sorry it had to happen the way it did.”
“Taehyung, you don’t understand.”
Jeongguk meets Taehyung’s eyes. They’re guarded, more than Jeongguk has ever seen them. There’s a tired curve to his shoulders, propped up on stilts of caffeine, and Jeongguk fights the urge to reach over and pull Taehyung to his body like he used to.
“I never fell out of love. Even if you did, I—whatever you may think, I didn’t.”
“It’s pretty hard for you to convince me of that after,” Taehyung sighs, gesturing wearily, “everything.”
“The phone call.”
“The phone call,” Jeongguk says. “I got your present. The—the one you wanted to send me for Valentine’s Day, right?”
“You weren’t even supposed to get that,” Taehyung says, not missing a beat, but the color in his lips pales slightly. “Forget it.”
“I called you, didn’t I?” Jeongguk says. Sweat beads at the nape of his neck as faint recollection bleeds into the fringes of his memory. “I called you, it was you.”
“And I don’t remember what I said, but I can’t let you leave this place without at least letting you know once that I really—I really did love you. I still do. Even though I told myself every day that I didn’t, I never knew it wasn’t something you could just grind into the dirt and forget about. Maybe one day I finally, finally won’t anymore.”
Taehyung doesn’t say anything, and Jeongguk tries not to be distracted by the way the wind is running its fingers through Taehyung’s bangs. His hair is lighter, Jeongguk notices, and he looks even taller than he used to be—maybe taller than Jeongguk, now, but still just as thin-framed.
“I’m not asking anything of you, don’t think that, or feel any pressure, or anything,” Jeongguk says quickly, when the silence stretches out between them. “It—I know I was stupid. Somehow I got it into my head that you weren’t happy with me. You were always busy, and it just, I don’t know, it felt like you weren’t happy with me anymore. And I could understand that, too, since everyone I work with talked about graduation and you—you’re leaving this place and you don’t need to be tied down to me, you know. I didn’t know how to tell you that you didn’t need to stick around for my benefit, how do you even bring that up to someone? But now that I’ve said it—”
“You’re goddamn stupid.”
“I—yeah, I know.”
Taehyung laughs, runs his own fingers through his hair now. It looks like a habit he picked up from Jimin. “If you love me so much,” he asks, “why do you pretend you don’t?”
Because the easiest way to not have your heart broken is to act like you don’t have one. Jeongguk sighs. Twenty-one years on this earth and he still hasn’t learned the difference between being in a relationship and being single. Taehyung is right, really. He is goddamn stupid. There are so many excuses he can think of and so many roundabouts he could take to explain, but suddenly it seems so clear. It probably has been dancing in front of him all this time.
“I was scared,” he says. “I was scared, I am scared, and I’m cowardly. I’m not good at asking for things I want and I have no one else but myself to blame when I can’t have them.”
“What do you even have left to ask me?”
Jeongguk swallows. His throat is parched.
“Can you come back to me?”
Taehyung exhales through his nose. “Why should I?”
Good question. There are plenty of far more affectionate, far more vivacious people that could make Taehyung smile every moment of every day. Good question, why should he come back to Jeongguk?
“Because,” Jeongguk says, finding his voice in spite of himself, “because I—I know you were happy with me, once. Right? We were happy. I made you so happy, even if I wasn’t sure what I was doing. And I was scared that one day, when I couldn’t keep that up anymore, you’d tire of me. If it weren’t for how stupid I am, we would never have run out of that happy. And—if that’s not reason enough for you, that’s okay. It’s okay. But I just need you to know, Taehyung, that for me—for me, you made me happier than anyone ever has.”
Jeongguk can’t quite be sure. Maybe it’s a trick of the light. Taehyung’s eyes look a little glassier than they did just moments before and he looks away, like he doesn’t want Jeongguk to see the shift in his expression. Then, “You really don’t remember calling me at all, do you?”
“No...no, I don’t.”
“You asked me when you ever made me happy,” Taehyung says, and his voice chokes up on the last word. “As if that was what scared you the most, that I was never happy with you.”
“I mean—I, I couldn’t be sure—”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and the sound of Jeongguk’s name in his mouth is so soft and well-worn that Jeongguk shivers. “You idiot. It’s the people who make you happiest who have the power to make you the saddest.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry—”
“They said you were a shitty actor,” and now Taehyung laughs, one that is half relieved, half exhausted. “But I must say, just this once, you actually had me fooled.”
Jeongguk swears Taehyung’s cheeks are wet when he climbs over him in bed, straddling Jeongguk’s hips.
He feels the moisture on his own skin when Taehyung leans in to kiss him, elbows digging in the pillows on either side of Jeongguk’s head as they pull each other close, closer, not close enough. Even with Jeongguk’s arms wrapped like a vice around Taehyung’s middle, and Taehyung’s thigh slotting between both of Jeongguk’s, it’s not close enough.
If they’re both honest, it’s not the sex that gets both of them—even though Jeongguk has missed the feeling of Taehyung’s fingers tightening in his hair, and even though Taehyung comes so hard the second round that he has to curl his body around Jeongguk’s frame, breath ragged at Jeongguk’s ear. They both missed this, sex feeling so right that it just never got better with anyone else. When they lie together afterwards, listening to Bambam and Yugyeom stumble back home from unmercifully long days at the library, Taehyung leans over from where his head is resting on Jeongguk’s pillow to kiss the crest of the dragon’s head along Jeongguk’s collarbone. Jeongguk shivers at the touch, can’t help but smile.
“You got another one?” Taehyung says. He runs his hand down the length of Jeongguk’s arm, loose and gentle, until he can lace their fingers together and bring Jeongguk’s new tattoo up to his face for inspection. “Another dragon? You have a sleeve now.”
“I know. I’ll never be able to wear a short-sleeved shirt to an office job in my life.”
There’s a thud outside and a faint curse that sounds like it comes from Yugyeom. Taehyung shifts, as if to get up. “I should go. You have a lot to study for.”
Taehyung stops. Jeongguk doesn’t mean to sound so desperate, but he realizes it belatedly when alarm touches Taehyung’s eyes.
“What did you think I did all day after we broke up,” Jeongguk mutters. “I’ve got a bit to study for, yeah, but this is probably the first semester in my life that I don’t have to cram, since studying and working are the only two things I’ve been doing anyway.”
Taehyung stares blankly at him.
“I mean, unless you have to, don’t go,” Jeongguk says, even more quietly. But here he is, learning to ask for things. “Stay with me?”
Taehyung is still propped up on one arm, looking down at Jeongguk with a soft smile on his lips. “Okay,” he says, easing back down into the sheets, a little damp from their bodies. “I’ll stay.”
“You don’t have to go?”
“You asked me to stay, didn’t you?”
“And since you did, the answer is no,” Taehyung says, the hair at his temple tickling Jeongguk’s throat as he snuggles in close. “I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Jeongguk slides his arm up Taehyung’s bare back, feels the shiver of Taehyung’s body against his when he does. “Thank you.”
“I love you.”
It takes Taehyung a few heartbeats to answer that. After a few tense moments Jeongguk thinks Taehyung must have already fallen asleep, but then he replies, “Me too.”
Jeongguk finds, however, that he can’t sleep. Not even when midnight really begins setting in, and even Bambam and Yugyeom quiet down outside—not even then do any winks of sleep start settling over his eyes. It’s a strange kind of insomnia. It is not driven not by adrenaline or anxiety but one that makes him too scared to fall asleep for fear that his dreams won’t be nearly as great as his reality.
Not that he doesn’t doze, which he does. He jolts out of it each time only to secure his arm around Taehyung’s waist. Taehyung is a violent sleeper, one that tosses and turns and swims and saves worlds in his sleep, and Jeongguk has fallen out of practice with sleeping through an elbow to the neck. But Jeongguk makes it through the night and feels a watery, weak relief in his bones when the sun rises over Taehyung’s skin. He is still here and Jeongguk isn’t dreaming.
“Hey,” Taehyung says when he comes to, blinking open eye. Even early in the morning, it’s getting warm in Jeongguk’s room, and Taehyung doesn’t move to pull the blankets up higher to his chin. “You’re awake already?”
“Who said I went to sleep?”
Taehyung blinks, raising his head off the pillow slightly with a frown on his lips. “You didn’t sleep?” he asks, voice still sandpapery. “What the hell? Why not?”
“Because I didn’t want to?”
“Jeongguk, you can sleep anywhere in any position. You sleep under the goddamn dining table in your shorts.”
“What if I went to sleep and woke up and found that you aren’t here?” he bursts out, the exhaustion making him honest. “What if I wake up and I’m alone?”
Taehyung settles back into the bed, looking Jeongguk in the face seriously. “You’ve had this dream before, haven’t you.” His voice is soft, unquestioning.
“Go to sleep,” Taehyung says, pressing a kiss to Jeongguk’s forehead—mostly to his hair, but his mouth just barely brushes the space between Jeongguk’s eyebrows. “You’re starting to get honest, I know you’re tired. I won’t go anywhere.”
“Since when were you a fan of promises?”
“Sleep, babe, I’m not leaving.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“Stop it,” Taehyung laughs. “You sound ridiculous saying that so much.”
Jeongguk opens his eyes blearily when he feels Taehyung’s mouth on his. He is not sure how long they kiss, but the sensation of them carries him to sleep.
Jeongguk doesn’t know what wakes him up.
Nothing particularly loud, he thinks. Perhaps it is the heat, prickling at the back of his neck uncomfortably, but he has slept through hotter nights without trouble. But when he opens his eyes, he is met with the empty expanse of his bed.
He nearly laughs aloud. Of course. Of course. Who had he been kidding? His arm drags across the empty space beside him and it is just as cold—or as warm—as the rest of his mattress, and he is alone, just as he had predicted. It sucks, how long it’s been, and he’s still having this dream.
His door opens and closes. He hopes it’s not Bambam coming in to get more printer paper for his study guide because Jeongguk has no idea how to explain why he’s sleeping at the hour he is, which has to be at least something like the evening given the way the sun is orange against his curtains.
But a silhouette blocks out the light for a moment and slips into bed with him again, and Taehyung freezes when Jeongguk meets his gaze.
“Babe?” he whispers.
It is Jeongguk’s turn to lift his head off the pillow. Taehyung is wearing a too-big t-shirt, it’s Jeongguk’s, and boxers.
“Where were you?”
“I went to go pee, but Bambam and Yugyeom distracted me. They made too much Velveeta and told me to eat some.” Taehyung brushes sweaty bangs out of Jeongguk’s eyes. “Hey, are you okay? Why that face?”
“I thought you—I thought it was—you promised me you wouldn’t go anywhere.”
“I didn’t,” Taehyung says, confused. “I’m here. You mean you didn’t want me to leave your side at all?”
Jeongguk is silent, shoving his face into his pillow.
“Wow,” Taehyung says, voice full of wonder. “If I had known you would be so miserable without me, I wouldn’t ever dream of breaking up with you.”
“Then why did you!”
“You never said anything! You didn’t even say no when I suggested it.”
Jeongguk shoves his face into his pillow again. His pillow does not spill straight truth tea on him.
Taehyung’s hand is wide and warm between Jeonguk’s shoulder blades. “Jeongguk, Jeongguk, Jeongguk,” he sighs in one breath. “I left you because I thought you wanted to leave me. You have to use your words, babe, how would I ever have known?”
“You’d have to leave me first,” Jeongguk mutters. “I’ll never leave you.”
A stunned silence settles over them. Then, “You’re ridiculous.”
“But I’m telling you the truth—”
“I know,” Taehyung says, running his hands through Jeongguk’s hair, and he is here, here, here. “You told me a lot of truths over the phone that night.”
“Shit, well. How bad was it?”
“Hmm. It was like you were confessing to me for the first time.”
“But it sounded like I meant it, right?” Jeongguk asks. “Because God knows I can’t repeat it again.”
“You sounded so desperate,” Taehyung says, “that it was like you wanted to reach through the phone that very minute and make sure I heard you.”
Jeongguk’s smile is tentative, but Taehyung gives him, in return, the smile of the sun that he has missed so dearly. “Your circadian rhythm is going to need a lot of work, babe.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, toying with the hem of his comforter, “looks like we just have to get tired enough to go to sleep again.”
Silver-bodied mischief flickers in Taehyung’s eyes, and he laughs. “You got it.”
“Fuck off! If you blue shell me one more time I’ll blueball you for the rest of your life!”
“Uhh,” Bambam says, but the second he takes his eyes off the screen Yugyeom races past him in the chaos of Rainbow Road. “Wait, fuck—”
“Haha, bye, sucka,” Yugyeom says, tilting his Wii remote. Now Bambam is coming in at a grand tenth place, and Jeongguk absolutely will not live with himself if he comes in second, even to Taehyung.
“You won’t blueball me for the rest of my life, because then you’re blueballing yourself for the rest of your own life!” Taehyung singsongs, zooming towards the finish line in first.
Mario Kart, however, is dirty business, so Jeongguk doesn’t hesitate to use the lowest of blows. He’s a little sorry that Bambam and Yugyeom cannot be spared in this final joust for his pride, and he leans over across the space and presses his lips to Taehyung’s ear. The jolt of Taehyung’s body rocks through Jeongguk’s own, especially when Jeongguk laughs breathily and nips his earlobe—Taehyung’s eyes are huge and liquid when he pulls back, and in the moments his concentration is thrown off, Jeongguk triumphantly guns it past the finish line.
“Bro, that’s dirty, even for me,” Bambam says gravely, pulling in at ninth, and Yugyeom just barely before him in eighth. He eyes Jeongguk. “Now I remember why I don’t play this with you.”
“I let you win when you’re drunk,” Jeongguk protests, but his voice is positively dancing. He can hear it himself, but he feels a hand on the side of his face just then, yanking his gaze back so that he’s looking at Taehyung again.
“Okay, show’s over,” Yugyeom yells when Taehyung plants his mouth on Jeongguk in the middle of the living room, ablaze with light at three AM. Jeongguk laughs between Taehyung’s lips and teeth and tongue and the sound feels like home.
Commencement is unforgivingly warm, in the way where Jeongguk is worried that maybe he should have used his entire stick of deodorant instead of the half he already did use.
“You’re a fashion terrorist,” Hwasa had said to his face. “Who the hell wears a red snapback with a dress shirt?”
“Why are you even wearing a suit?” Sorn points out.
“I have a better question, why are you guys even here,” Jeongguk asks, glaring at Sorn in the mirror. She sticks her tongue out at him in response.
“If it has slipped your memory, Jimin happens to be on our dance team,” Hwasa says, examining a perfectly manicured nail. “And we stopped by to give him a lei and you were on the way back. And Sorn and I went to get smoothies together, so here we are.”
“Just you two?”
“She thinks your housemate is cute,” Hwasa shrugs.
“Which one?” Jeongguk demands. “Oh, God, don’t tell me it’s—”
The look on Sorn’s face makes Jeongguk look over his shoulder, and there Bambam is in his full shirtless, pantsless glory, wearing a pair of violently red boxers. Half of his arm is buried in a Pringles can. Jeongguk can smell the reek of a vodka night from here.
“Oh, God,” he says, turning back. “Please. Please, I beg you, you can do so much better.”
“He’s cute!” Sorn insists when Bambam slouches back out of earshot, probably to sleep off his hangover. Post-finals ragers at the end of the year really take a lot out of a human being.
Jeongguk points over his shoulder. “You thought that. Was cute?”
“Be nice, it’s not like you weren’t a crybaby this entire year,” Hwasa says, and Jeongguk sobers up. “Are you doing alright?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, at the end of all things. It’s a tired yeah, tired but happy. “I’m okay.”
Hwasa nods, smiling a little. Her lipstick is a deep plum wine and Jeongguk wonders offhandedly then if he’s ever seen her without it. It’s odd, how you think you know someone, and turn around and find that you really didn’t know much at all.
“That’s good to hear,” she says. “I’ll see you next year, punk.”
In a stroke of luck, Jeongguk runs into Jimin as he’s taking the stairs down two at a time to the street. Jimin is already dressed in his black gown, collar and tie peeking through the collar. His hat is in hand and the wind teases the edges of his sash, but his face lights up when he sees Jeongguk on the sidewalk.
“Hey, you,” he says. “I was hoping I’d get to see you.”
Jimin runs a hand through his hair. It looks fairly well coiffed for someone who, Jeongguk guesses, must have gotten cross faded out of his mind last night. “Heard the news,” he says, laughing. It’s a little nervous. “So, can we talk like friends again?”
“Well, that’s not what I was looking—”
“No, but I am,” Jeongguk says. He sighs. “I may not have owed you anything but I’m sorry I shook you off and shut you out.”
Jimin’s smile has faded to a softer one now. “You think I don’t know that’s how you deal with things,” he says. “Not that I’m saying it’s a good way, but I knew.”
“Taehyung called me the night after you rang him up in the middle of the night, crying,” Jimin says. “He didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do, either. He sounded like he was crying himself and he knew you’d never let him in if he showed up at your door. I was so scared for you that I almost asked Seokjin hyung to drive me across campus at that hour, but I realized you probably didn’t want to see me or let me in either, so I called your roommates.”
“I’m not asking for your apology, or your thanks,” Jimin says. “Just—Jeongguk, I swear to God. Open your heart a little and you’d be amazed at what comes in.”
It’s not often that Jeongguk is speechless from emotion, but perhaps this is one of those times. It’s also not often that Jeongguk initiates physical affection with Jimin, but this is definitely one of those times—he reaches out and Jimin pulls him into a hug that Jeongguk realizes has been delayed for far too long. Jimin pulls away first, laughing.
“Okay, this is getting weird. Aren’t you supposed to insult me around now?”
“You were the one who told me to open my stone-cold heart, fuckwad.”
“That’s better,” Jimin says. “Are you wearing that to the ceremony?”
Jeongguk adjusts the bill of the snapback, feeling a tuft of his bangs peek through the opening in the back. “Yeah.”
“You better,” Jimin says. “He worked his ass off to order that for you.”
“I’ll tell him to look for it,” Jimin says, clicking his tongue and winking. “I got you.”
In the end, Jeongguk can’t be sure if Taehyung hears his cheer or not.
It is probably drowned out in the roar that comes from the entire admissions department and the entire troupe of underclassmen tour guides that Taehyung trained his last year here at the university—they’ve gotten good at projecting, Jeongguk is sure, so that their tour groups will hear them over the bustle of the campus. But Taehyung’s gaze sweeps the crowd and he locks eyes with Jeongguk for a moment, and does a little hop-skip off the stage just for him. The tassel of his cap whacks his face but his eyes are glowing and he hardly takes notice.
When it ends, and when the newly recognized graduates are presented, it gets chaotic. It takes a few minutes for Taehyung to fight through the throngs to get to Jeongguk. When he does, eyes alight, he leans back and cheers, “I’m done!”
“You’re done!” Jeongguk shouts back in return, and laughs. “Where’s your family?”
“Way in the back,” Taehyung says, looking out over the sea of folding chairs and shading his eyes. “So I think it’ll be a while before they’ll make it through this crowd.” He looks to Jeongguk in the meantime, laughs again, and throws his arms around Jeongguk’s neck. There’s a rustle of flowers and paper when the money and petal leis are crushed between their chests but Taehyung just hugs Jeongguk harder, gasps a little when Jeongguk hefts him up so that his feet can’t touch the grass. “I’m so—I’m so glad you came, I’m so happy you’re here—”
Taehyung pulls back, cradling Jeongguk’s face between his hands—raised up like this, he’s blocking out the light so Jeongguk can look into his face properly. When his cap wobbles in the summer gusts, he reaches back to steady it. Taehyung is laughing again, framed in sunlight, looking as though he is at the top of the very world right here in Jeongguk’s arms.
And maybe, Jeongguk thinks, he is.