Chapter 1: pt. 3: like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky
A million dollar question, winner take all: can you miss someone even if you’re not thinking about them?
The easy answer is no, of course not. How could you? Missing someone, in the essence of the action, means that you think of them—the way the sunlight hits their hair when they fall asleep on the dinner table, the way their eyes move over the page of a book or a thread of text messages, the way their mouth looks when they laugh. All of that floods the forefront of your mind, plunges you headfirst into the pool of your thoughts in the way that missing someone feels like.
But there is a harder answer. The paradox, the answer that, yes, you can miss someone when you’re not even thinking of them. That to not think of something means that your mind has to run a race with no finish line until it is simply just too tired to go on.
When you think of someone in sadness, it is never quite the same way you do of them in happiness.
Instead it’s the glaring absence that you feel when they’re not there anymore, the way you see something funny and think of telling them right away only to realize that you can’t, the way that you’d reach out beside you to get their attention only for your hand to close around air.
Or maybe it’s not a hard answer at all. To be fair, it’s a yes or no question. But how do you explain the answer of yes, you can, you can miss someone without thinking about them? How do you explain that you feel it in the air, and in your bones, why it’s colder for longer and why you get tired faster, like your body bends under the weight of holding itself up without someone to cheer it on? How can you listen to the stories of hundreds of other people who live the same life that you do and still feel so extraordinarily alone?
Not thinking of someone, in the essence of the action, means that they’re the only person on your mind.
“Take a deep breath for me...again. Again. One more time.”
Then the hiss of leather when a weight comes down on it, and the sterile roll of wheels across linoleum floor. “You seem to be doing just fine, Taehyung, if not just physically exhausted.”
Taehyung opens his eyes. The examination room comes back to him, the yellow of the ceiling lights turning the doctor’s hands a sickly corpse-white.
“Any history of episodes like these?” she asks, looking away from the monitor at Taehyung, who dangles his legs from the exam table in a paper gown. “If so, any knowledge of them being related to substances?”
Taehyung shakes his head. “None like this,” he says. “At most it’s only been feeling unwell with a hangover.”
She turns in her rolling stool and crosses her legs, and Taehyung is distracted by the pleat of her floor-length skirt. It has the same floral pattern as the one his mother used to wear when he was younger, when Jongkyu had first been born. “How are you doing in classes?”
“I’m doing well.”
“Any struggles with professors or grades at all?”
“Not really. Well, I should be doing better in my independent research lab.”
“Have you been sleeping and eating?”
The sunrise had been purple this morning. Then it had torched the horizon red, and Taehyung was awake to watch it put on a fireworks show for what seemed like only him.
“I’ve been eating,” he says.
“I mean, aside from ramen and energy drinks,” she says. “Anything of nutritional value?”
“I,” Taehyung thinks hard. “Can’t remember.”
“What are your concerns, coming in here today?”
Well. It hadn’t really been Taehyung’s idea, to be honest. Jimin had woken up just after sunrise, dragging himself upright with a groan to see Taehyung still up and squinting at the screen of his laptop and its fifty open tabs. He’d tsk’d at Taehyung, reminding him “take a nap later, ok?” only for Taehyung to crumple to the floor in their bathroom, covered in a cold sweat, where they’d just been brushing their teeth side by side with bags as dark as dusk under their eyes.
“I’m exhausted,” Taehyung says, “but when I try to sleep I never feel rested when I wake up, and when I eat I feel nauseous no matter what I put in my mouth.”
“I see,” she says, frowning. “Is there anything that’s stressing you out, Taehyung? You say that you’re doing relatively well in your classes. Do you have any social support in your life?”
“I have great housemates,” Taehyung says. “My roommate is my best friend.”
“Do you feel like this exhaustion has no cause?”
“Yes,” Taehyung says. “I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
“It might be a good idea for me to refer you to the clinic downtown to get some tests done,” she says. “Bloodwork to check for any signs of illness that aren’t immediately apparent. How does that sound?”
“No, it’s okay,” says Taehyung, “I’ll try to get more sleep and eat better, and if I don’t improve, I’ll come back.”
“Are you sure?”
“In that case, have my card,” she says, handing him a crisp piece of cardstock with the school seal and her name and number on it. “You can email me or leave me a message that you want to be referred, and I’ll schedule an appointment for you so you don’t have to go through the student health system again. How does that sound to you?”
“It sounds great.”
“In the meantime,” she says, as Taehyung stands up to put his clothes on, “I know classes are important, but try to get some sleep, Taehyung.”
“I know,” Taehyung says, wiping the back of his wrist under his nose to catch the itch there. “Like, doc, you should know better than anyone that the idea of ‘getting enough sleep’ for a senior gunning for graduate school is like looking a millennial in the eye and saying, ‘Getting a job isn’t that hard! Just get your name out there! I ruined the economy and now anyone that struggles in the dregs of it is lazy and entitled.’”
“No, I mean,” Bogum pauses, bottle of bike oil in hand, “I didn’t know you had trouble sleeping.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Yeah, it’s a pretty recent development.”
“You know what’s good for insomnia?” The chain of the bike clicks as Bogum turns one of the pedals, dripping oil over the links as they mesh into the gears.
“I’m taking suggestions.”
“Sex,” Bogum says through the triangle of the bike frame, and Taehyung snorts. “Nature’s best sleep aid. You should try it, you know.”
“Fuck you, dude,” Taehyung says. “I tried that.”
“What, and it didn’t work?” Bogum shakes his head. “Shame. You’re fucking the wrong people.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Taehyung says, hefting the bike saddle in his hands as he lines it up with the teeth of the seat clamps. “Actually, no, that’s unfair. One of them is real great.”
“Oh yeah? And the others weren’t?”
“One other. Younger than me, did not have as much experience as they said they did. Cocksucking game on point though, I’ll give them that much.”
“Yeah? Guy or girl?”
“You remember Kim Minjae?”
Bogum drops his hands to his sides and laughs with disbelief. “You did not.”
“Listen, he was DTF, and I wasn’t going to say no. Guy’s hot.”
“You’re just into any tall, shapely guy with a deep voice, huh?” Bogum says. “You’re so predictable. Wasn’t the other one the same?”
“Okay, that guy was hot,” Bogum concedes. “I greenlight him.”
“What, and no greenlight for Minjae?”
“I’ll yield sign him,” Bogum says, and Taehyung’s shout of laughter echoes in the cramped bike shed where they work. “Are you sure you’re okay? The doctor’s got a point, Taehyung. Yesterday you tried tighten a bolt with a screwdriver until I took it out of your hands and gave you a wrench.”
“I didn’t come here for you to lecture me about getting sleep too,” Taehyung says. “Please.”
“I’m worried about you.” Bogum tugs at the chain, then reaches behind him for a clamp. “You said you took on this job to earn some extra money on the side, right? You already work as a tour guide, you have to finish your senior thesis, you keep talking about that research lab that you’re in. Maybe this is the most disposable part of your plate.”
“I like being here,” Taehyung says simply. “Fixing bikes is mindless. Being a tour guide means I have to put on my best self.”
“That explains why you’re so crude with me, huh,” Bogum says, and Taehyung laughs again.
“Fixing bikes gives me something to do,” Taehyung says, testing the saddle after it’s been tightened. “Even though I could be using the time to be doing my thesis or working in the lab with the post-docs, yeah, but if I have too much time alone doing something so sedentary I start—”
His throat freezes, the name like shattered glass in his lungs, and Bogum flicks his gaze towards him at the sound of the gurgle that comes out instead.
“You alright there?”
“Getting bored,” Taehyung finishes. “Choked on spit.”
“You’re a hazard to yourself,” Bogum jokes. “We need to put you in a cell made of bubble wrap.”
There is no sympathy for someone who does the breaking, only for the person who has to pick themselves up again.
Some days when Taehyung closes his eyes, he can still feel the weight of Jeongguk’s body beside him in bed. Heavy, rolling, the springs creaking beneath the curve of Jeongguk’s spine. Some days, meaning every day, and every time he closes his eyes. The darkness brings Jeongguk back again in hiccups and gasps and tears that find homes in the cotton of Taehyung’s pillowcase, but as someone who let go first, Taehyung is the last person that deserves to feel any sadness.
“Hey,” Jimin says the night they get back to school from winter break. “I have a question.”
“Why did you…” Jimin scratches at the corner of his nose, deliberating. “Why did you break up with him?”
“Oh,” Taehyung says shortly.
“If you don’t want to answer, please don’t.”
“No, but I owe you an explanation of sorts, right?” Taehyung rolls over in bed and Jimin’s eyes are two pinpricks of light in the dimness of their room. “He’s your friend too, and. I’d imagine it hasn’t been easy for you to be in the position you are.”
“It’s been okay.”
“You don’t have to lie to me, bro.”
“And neither do you.”
Taehyung reaches out onto the nightstand and picks up the first thing his hand closes around, something to fiddle with as he talks—a tiny mason jar full of origami stars and hearts, one that Jihyo had made for the tour department’s Secret Santa before Christmas break. They rustle softly as he turns it around in his palms.
“I didn’t know,” Taehyung says, “if he loved me the same way I did him. And when I tried to talk about it, he didn’t—he didn’t run away from it, exactly. It’s not that he ran away from what he felt. I know he felt, but. But he was so unaware. Unknowing of what he wanted himself.”
"He was weird about kissing me in front of people," Taehyung says. "Then he got weird about kissing me at all, and I just didn't know anymore."
“Meaning,” Taehyung says, “it’s not that I doubted that he loved me, but. I didn’t know if I wanted that love the way he loved me.”
“And you weren’t happy.”
“I guess not.”
“Then that’s what matters, right?” Jimin picks at the elastic of his fitted sheet, creeping up over the edge of the mattress again. “If you weren’t happy, then you didn’t have to stay in that relationship.”
“But what if he was?”
“What if he was happy?”
“And what if I took that away from him just because I wasn’t,” Taehyung says, tugging his blankets up to his chin, the chill of winter blanching the glass of the window white. “And what if I was, what if that was happiness disguised as adversity, and I just gave up too easily?”
This terrifies Taehyung the most—this belated realization that had come like fog, slow and unassuming until it was too thick to see through it. The realization that Jeongguk was the best thing in his life, and now that it’s gone Taehyung fills his hands instead with the rough edges of bike chains and the black grease of gear oil, trying to forget that he only has this job because he wanted to extra money to buy something for Jeongguk.
“Tell you what,” Jimin says. “If you want to meet someone else, just let me know.”
A rebound. What a bad idea. Taehyung loves the sound of it.
That ‘someone else,’ turns out to be someone that Taehyung already knows, and it’s a happy coincidence that actually brings a sincere bubble of laughter to his lips.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Bogum says as Taehyung slides into the barstool beside him. He lowers his hood, spitting out hair where the fur lining of his parka had been windswept into the corner of his mouth. “What business are you conducting?”
“My friend told me to meet him at the University Center lounge,” Taehyung says, resting his backpack in his lap and hugging it to his chest. Bogum’s hair is windblown too, standing up in wisps on the crown of his head, and he looks different without his grimy bikeshop apron and that signature smear of oil across his cheek when he always forgets his hands are dirty and scratches his face in thought. Handsome in a clean-cut way. “You?”
“Funny, because I’m in the same boat,” Bogum says. “Who’s your friend?”
Taehyung stares at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Know any Park Jimins?”
But Bogum only laughs, and Taehyung finds that he’s laughing along half in disbelief at the sheer coincidence—it feels like déjà vu, to be sitting here with someone that Jimin had sent with the scent of coffee clinging to their clothes, but Taehyung swallows hard and the knot in his throat smooths out.
“How do you even know him?” Taehyung asks. “He’s my roommate.”
“I’m a peer tutor for physics,” Bogum explains. “And Jimin happens to need a lot of help.”
“Holy shit,” Taehyung says. “All those times he said he was going to go to physics tutoring and it was with you, and I never fucking knew.”
“It’s right after my shift at the shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I don’t know how we missed it,” Bogum says, shaking his head. “Wow. So, I guess this is the part where I introduce myself and make myself look likeable?”
“Then you first, my friend.”
“Park Bogum,” Bogum says, a smile playing along his lips. “Senior, physics, I replace bike tires for fun.”
“Kim Taehyung,” says Taehyung, “senior, psychology, I advertise our school to hopeful high sch—”
A flash of red pulls Taehyung’s gaze away from Bogum’s face and his smile, and Taehyung’s heart seizes up and sputters. He knows the red of that jacket, the softness of the worn suede in his hands, the soft vanilla-peach smell that’s sewn into the satin lining. Taehyung knows that white beanie like the backs of his hands.
Jimin is talking to him. Jimin is talking to the boy in the red coat that Taehyung had worn on his own shoulders once, trembling in it with how warm it was, smelling the cuffs of the sleeves every so often and loving the warm sensation of a day-long hug from his favorite person in the world.
“I,” and there’s something heavy on his tongue. “Sorry, I thought I saw someone I knew.”
Bogum follows his gaze outside, where Jeongguk is charging away with a pace so fast that Jimin has to jog to keep up, and Taehyung wonders if he’d seen him. Some part of him wishes that he did, and some part wishes, stupidly, that he had had the chance to see more the back of his head.
In the time that Taehyung is away from Jeongguk, he says his name four times: once when Jeongguk asks him to, once when he’s drunk, once when he gets into an accident, and once (twice, three times) when he has no idea he’s saying it at all.
Bogum is there for half of those times. And, truthfully, Taehyung hadn’t planned to get so drunk, but a lot of things happen the weekend before Valentine’s Day that he doesn’t plan for.
“Are you two going to do anything?” Jimin asks pointedly. “Because our room’s going to be all yours.”
“Oh?” This prompts Taehyung to look up. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Seokjin and I are going up to the ski resorts before the last of the snow melts,” Jimin says. “I’m going to teach him how to ski and he’ll teach me how to snowboard.”
“Cute,” Taehyung says. “And—I don’t know. We’re not really labeled as anything serious so maybe, maybe not.”
“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “I told him I wasn’t sure about dating right now and he said that was fine with him and I could decide for myself how far I wanted to take things.”
“God,” Jimin says. “Why is he so nice? It hurts me. Like, more than you do.”
“Impressive,” Taehyung says. “But thank you for reminding me about Valentine’s Day, by the way, I have to make a call to the post office.”
“Oh,” Jimin says. “You’re welcome, I guess.”
Jimin leaves some time later—“gonna go learn how not to fail electromagnetics with your boyfriend now,” he gripes—and the house is silent. Sungjae and Sanghyuk said that they were going to the frat house right after class to celebrate the end of midterms, and Taehyung hazily realized that he, too, had just braved the worst of his midterms. It’s a strange feeling, though. No celebration comes at the end of it now, no dates out, no getting drunk out of his mind, no congratulatory kisses. Here he sits with his thesis on his computer and a jar of paper hearts by the lamp on his desk. It’s come to comfort him, somehow, the metallic sheen of the origami paper bouncing off the surface of his desk and scattering its handfuls of miniature galaxy on the grain of the wood.
His phone has just barely enough battery to make a call, and Taehyung searches up the post office’s phone number in his school directory. The call tone rings nearly four times before someone finally answers, and Taehyung nearly hung up, thinking that the office might have closed early today.
“Hi, this is the post office.”
Taehyung opens his mouth and no sound comes out. Fuck, that’s right. That’s right. Jeongguk works at the post office. He’d even handed Taehyung his social psych book at the beginning of the semester when he’d gone to pick it up. How could he have forgotten?
Perhaps that is a good sign.
“Who is this?”
Taehyung gnashes his teeth down onto his tongue, biting so hard he draws blood. The pause on the other end of the line is even longer than his.
“This—this is the university post office,” Jeongguk repeats, tripping over the words.
Then the speed of memory kicks in, and Taehyung’s composure snaps back into place again. His best self. The one that wide-eyed high schoolers have the pleasure of seeing.
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, I thought—sorry, I mistook you for someone I knew,” and Taehyung forces a laugh that he’s practiced so much that he can no longer taste the tang of bitterness. “I’m sorry about that, it’s been a long day.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Jeongguk, I’m—
“It’s no problem, I get it,” Jeongguk says, so brisk that Taehyung is almost hurt at how unaffected he sounds. “How can I help you?”
“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,” Taehyung 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.” There’s a rustle of paper in the background. “Where was it going and around when is it supposed to get here?”
“Around February fourteenth,” Taehyung says. It takes everything in him to keep his words from shaking. He takes a deep breath. “It’s addressed to Jeon Jeongguk, Magnolia Court, East Tower, Room 604.”
It’s the first time he’s said Jeongguk’s name since he left.
“Sorry, could you repeat that?”
Taehyung closes his eyes, and there he is—Jeongguk beside him in the darkness, his body solid and warm, asking Taehyung to repeat his name in that gentle way his voice would get when they were alone.
“Jeon Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and lets the yearning slip through his teeth this time, “Magnolia Court, East Tower, Room 604.”
“All right,” Jeongguk says, and he says it so slowly that Taehyung is starting to think that he’s doing it just for the sake of keeping him on the line. “Something wrong? Got the wrong present for bae?”
Oh, that’s definitely what he’s doing.
“Ah, I think he would have liked it, actually,” Taehyung says, eyes still screwed shut. I think you would have liked it.
“It’s no big deal, don’t worry about it. Let me know if there are any complications or anything.”
“No problem, have a good day.”
Jeongguk is hardly finished with his sentence before Taehyung hangs up, and his hands are shaking so bad when he sets his phone down that he can hardly feel them. Pins and needles stab at his fingers and they’re so cold when he drops his face into them that Taehyung might as well have pressed his cheeks into two slabs of ice.
His voice is exactly the same as Taehyung tries not to remember it. The sound of his laugh is still so sweet and echoes through Taehyung’s thoughts until they’re coated sticky and warm.
Taehyung’s phone vibrates, and he looks up, disoriented. There’s a new message in the group chat named The House of Unrecognized Talent.
come thruuu post-midterms turnip tonight
It’s from Sanghyuk.
yeah say you know us, you know the drill
Sungjae, this time.
i’m down!!!!!! when?
Jimin. Taehyung watches the chat bubbles move, thumb hovering over the keyboard. He’s not such a huge fan of getting drunk recently, but with the ghost of Jeongguk’s voice in his ears again, he would not say no to a good hard drink.
come over at 9
i’ll come, can i bring someone?
AYYYY FULL HOUSE
oooh are you gonna bring bogum taehyung
yeah sure if he’s with you then he’s with us
Bogum sounds overjoyed, at least over text, to come along—although Taehyung is learning that Bogum just sounds really excitable through text, much like him—because what second semester senior would turn down alcohol after midterms?
He shows up at Taehyung’s house first, looking even more dashingly handsome than usual, and Taehyung smiles at the little flutter that his heart does when he sees him. “You look good,” he says, and it’s the truth.
“So do you.” Bogum holds his hand out, a gentle offer, and something in Taehyung’s gut makes him take it. “Someone you’re trying to impress?”
“Not particularly,” Taehyung says, and feels a reassuring warmth brew in his fingertips. “But it’s good to see you.”
Taehyung doesn’t fight it when Bogum leans in; he’s tall, comfortably so, in a way that means Taehyung can fit into the curve of his chest if he wanted to. But Bogum is chaste and gives him a kiss that sits on the crown of his head.
“It’s great to see you too.”
The streets are loud with parties tonight, and Taehyung would be lying if he said that their energy wasn’t infectious. Jimin is already there by the time he and Bogum arrive, and Sanghyuk gives Bogum a scrupulously thorough once-over when they’re let in.
“Very nice,” he concludes.
“You say that about anyone with a good ass.”
“And he has a great ass! Obviously that’s what I’ll say!”
Taehyung snorts when Sanghyuk flounces away, and Bogum appears out of the kitchen, just narrowly dodging Sanghyuk brushing past. He holds a red cup in each hand. “Libations?”
“What’s in here?”
Taehyung looks at him apprehensively.
“I promise! Jimin’s ladling jungle juice out from the tub for everyone,” Bogum says, and he’s not kidding—Jimin’s standing somewhat tipsily at the end of an actual clear plastic packing crate brandishing a syrupy ladle, pink high in his cheeks. “He gets drunk pretty easy, huh?”
“You have no idea,” Taehyung says, taking a deep draught of the drink. The flavor of vodka is still a bit on the strong side, but the burn feels good in his nose when it’s followed by the aftertaste of Sunny D. “If he drinks anymore tonight, you’re in for a show.”
But Taehyung isn’t sure if that show ever goes on, because he makes his rounds around the house, taking shots with his housemates and friends he recognizes—Youngjae from the admissions department is here, sporting a battle scar on his knee where he’d fallen facefirst off his board last year. It’s the first time Taehyung is seeing it, since they have to wear black pants on tours. Jimin takes up to three shots, Taehyung loses count, with him, “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and Taehyung simply says, “Amen,” and they throw their drinks back.
“I was looking forward to Jimin,” says Bogum when Taehyung drops down onto the couch beside him, eyes alight with alcohol and whatever joke Sungjae had just told. “But I think seeing you like this is even better.”
“I’m not even drunk,” Taehyung declares aloud, sweeping his arm across the room at large, and Bogum reaches out to steady the hand Taehyung is holding his cup with so that the juice doesn’t slosh over the brim. “I can tell you everyone’s names here.”
“Oh yeah?” Bogum says, gently lifting the cup out of Taehyung’s hand. “Let’s start with Jimin.”
“Jimin,” Taehyung warbles, “Sanghyuk, Jeonghan—his hair is so nice today, what the fuck?—Sojung, Hoshi, Mingyu, Ming...hao? Minghao. Momo! And Yewon. And Ye—”
“What about me,” Bogum says. “What’s my name?”
“That’s easy,” Taehyung says. He reaches up and strokes Bogum’s face until his jaw rests in Taehyung’s hand, and he doesn’t even complain about how Taehyung’s fingers are still sticky from where he’d picked a slice of pineapple off the floor. It was in the jungle juice, and Taehyung’s then-tipsy self didn’t want anyone to slip on it and crack their skull open on the counter, so he closed his hand around it and wobbled over to the trash can.
“Okay,” Bogum says, clearly amused.
“Your name is Jeongguk,” Taehyung slurs, “and you made me so happy.”
He bursts into tears.
As a general rule, Seokjin does not make comments as to how much of a mess anyone looks when they come into work as long as they look presentable by the time the tour group assembles, and until or unless their evaluations come back negative. Wheein had dragged herself in on one of the coldest days of winter with a hickey so violent that Taehyung had been alarmed until Seokjin blandly suggested she keep her scarf on for the tour, excellent that it’s school apparel, did you get that at the twenty-percent off sale, because those go for nearly thirty dollars apiece.
Taehyung has done this too many times, especially with that grand fuck-up from last year, for his evals to come back less than stellar. So it comes as a shock that morphs quickly into dread when Seokjin says, “Hold up there a moment, Taehyung,” as the day winds down to an end and Taehyung is just about to book it home.
Seokjin checks his watch as he shrugs his coat on, not taking his eyes off of it. “And…time,” Seokjin says. “Five on the dot. Just off the record, how are you?”
“You a look a bit worse for wear,” Seokjin says. “I haven’t seen you show up to the job looking this tired in a while.”
“Ah, yeah,” Taehyung says, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at a point around Seokjin’s ear. “Sorry about that.”
“The evals will speak on it, not me,” Seokjin says. “Though I’m sure you did an excellent job anyway. It concerns me, is all. The end goal here is that you gain as much as you can from this job as the university does from you.”
It’s the same delicate question everyone asks, so carefully structured, a tower of glass built on a bed of eggshells. “Thanks for asking, hyung,” Taehyung says. “I could be better.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you going to tell Jimin?”
“I won’t tell him anything you don’t want me to tell him,” Seokjin says. “What you share with me is our business.”
“It’s,” Taehyung says, and runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “I don’t know. It’s everything at once and it’s nothing at all. I’m sorry to him. I’m angry at myself. I don’t know how I feel about what happened with—with my ex. Sad. Guilty? Angry at myself. Disappointed in myself.”
“Sorry to Jeongguk?”
“But why disappointed?”
“It feels like somewhere along the line,” Taehyung says, “to someone, I failed them. Many someones. Myself, too. I feel like I let them all down.”
“You’re very concerned with their happiness.”
It’s nice, for once, to hear someone that doesn’t ask him why he is.
“I guess my happiness,” Taehyung says, voice dropping, “comes from knowing I can make others laugh.”
Seokjin’s finger on Taehyung’s arm makes him slow his stride, and come to a stop. The days are getting shorter now, not so much for it to be noticeable, but the faintest dash of sunset throws a pink glow over the line of Seokjin’s shoulders.
“You do,” Seokjin says. “You might not see it as clearly now because you’re not making the person you miss the most laugh, but you do. There are so many people who smile every day because you are here.” Seokjin drops his hand where it’s found itself on Taehyung’s shoulder, and keeps on walking. “Jimin, for one, thinks you’re a riot.”
“He fucking better!” Taehyung falls back into step with Seokjin. “Which, speaking of, are you coming over later to pick him up?”
“Yeah, expect us to be gone by seven,” Seokjin says. “You have any plans for tonight?”
“Have fun,” Seokjin says, waving as he reaches into his pockets for his car keys. “Tell Jimin to be ready by seven, too.”
“Got it, hyung. And—thanks.”
Taehyung waits until Seokjin starts his car up and backs out of the parking lot before going on his own way again. Seokjin’s words wrap around him like an arm over his shoulders, and they are a small comfort that he didn’t know he needed until he has it.
There is a text waiting for him when he takes his phone out.
are we still on for tonight?
Taehyung smiles to himself, swiping to unlock his phone.
“You’ve got about two hours,” Taehyung says, dropping his backpack on the floor with a thud, and winces. That had to be the laptop. “Are you done packing?”
“Mostly,” Jimin says, rubbing sleep from his eyes and darting around their room, snagging things up in his hands. He’s got an armful of towel and a nice clean cardigan when he stops to stare at Taehyung, lying on his side in bed. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Are you going to be by yourself?” Jimin asks, softer now. Taehyung peers at him over the side of his phone.
“Don’t give me that look,” Taehyung says. “I’m a big boy.”
“Bogum’s coming over,” Taehyung goes on. “Now take your shower and get clean for Seokjin, he deserves to suck a supernaturally pristine dick.”
“Oh,” Jimin says, and smiles lopsidedly. “Like, a date?”
“I guess so.”
“That’s cute,” Jimin says. “I’m glad.”
The soft sound of running water filters through their room when Jimin runs the bath. The clock ticks on Jimin’s desk, buried under a mountain of notebooks, and his laptop is still open to a weather forecast of the ski resort. It’ll snow tonight, and will likely be the last blizzard of the season.
Taehyung should shower after Jimin does, freshen up for the evening, but he finds himself closing his eyes again. Sleep comes in like the tide, the foamy edge tickling his toes, but it pulls away just as quickly. The air around the head of his bed smells of stale Armani cologne, the bottle missing its cap on the nightstand, but even under the musk Taehyung thinks he imagines the scent of Jeongguk’s skin.
It had always been strong. Jeongguk was one of those people who you could smell simply just sitting beside him—the peach verbena of his body wash, ink and paper of the post office, and something Jeongguk. The sudden memory of it punches Taehyung square in the nose, and he turns onto his stomach to shove his face into his pillow where he can only smell himself.
When he slides his hands under the cool underside of his pillow, though, his hands close around a balled-up mass of fabric, the lining of it rough and pilled from too many washes. He lifts his head up, pauses, then tugs.
It’s wrinkled from being shoved against the headboard for so long, caught in the tiny space between the mattress and the wood, but Jeongguk’s jacket unfurls in Taehyung lap and it is glaring proof that Taehyung isn’t imagining things. He hardly remembers putting it here. Somehow, he’d just never given it back.
There are a lot of things that Taehyung didn’t give back.
He stuffs it back under his pillow when he hears the shower turn off. In hindsight, it’s a red flag, that he selfishly wants to keep this from Jimin, thinking that if he knows Taehyung still has it he’ll tell him to get rid of it.
“My turn,” Taehyung says, gathering up his clothes. “Thanks for not using up all the hot water today.”
“I figured we’ll have to shower again at the resort,” Jimin says. “No need to deep-clean.”
By the time Taehyung is out of the shower, hair blown dry, and nice clothes put on, Jimin is all packed up with a beanie on his head. Sanghyuk and Sungjae happen to swing by just as Seokjin pulls into the driveway, sectioned off by their rickety fence.
“Leaving?” Sungjae asks.
“I’m just stopping by to grab a change of clothes,” Sungjae says. “Frat’s having a mini retreat for singles awareness weekend.”
“Nice.” Jimin flicks his head at Taehyung. “But guess who has a hot date tonight,” he singsongs.
“Dude,” Sanghyuk says. “That’s great. Is it the guy with the globular asscheeks?”
“I have globular asscheeks, excuse me—”
“Yeah, Jimin, and we’re all aware Seokjin’s got your sweet ass booked for the next several eons,” Sanghyuk says. “Yay or nay?”
“You really need to stop with the astrophysical analogies, dude,” Sungjae says, stepping back into his shoes.
“Ass-trophysical,” Sanghyuk says, and everyone literally groans aloud, Seokjin included. “What? Some of them are just out of this damn world. If you had the chance would you not want to quantum smash Jeong—”
Sanghyuk’s words spike in a shout of pain when Jimin brings his foot down on his toes, and everyone jumps, Seokjin not included. Instead, he reaches forward and curls an arm around Jimin’s shoulders, collecting him to his chest.
“Taehyung, I’m sorry—”
“Hey, it’s fine,” Taehyung. “Sanghyuk. No harm done. Jimin, go frolic in the snow. Don’t catch a cold.”
“Not my bed,” Jimin throws over his shoulder as he leaves. “Double-check!”
“I’ll make sure it’s your bed,” Taehyung shouts, laughing, and Sanghyuk pauses one moment longer with his hand on the doorknob when Sungjae goes out to move their car so Seokjin can back out.
“You’ll be okay?”
Taehyung gives two thumbs-up.
Maybe not right now, but he will be.
Bogum looks very nice.
“You said sweats,” Taehyung bemoans when he steps over the threshold. Bogum’s not in full formal attire or anything, but he looks leaps and bounds more put together with his black dress shirt. “I look like a hobo next to you.”
“Lucky us we don’t need to go out, right?” Bogum says, and Taehyung hugs the tiny bouquet of tiger lilies and roses to his chest when Bogum wraps an arm around his waist and gives him a kiss on his forehead, easy and innocent. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of pizza on Valentine’s Day whether or not I’m single.”
Which is how they find themselves sitting on the living room couch together with two extra large Dominos pizzas open on the coffee table, and Taehyung cannot say he pictured a better Valentine’s Day. This is not saying much when what he pictured involved a lot more alcohol than this, but improvement is improvement.
“You want to watch something while we eat?” he asks around a mouthful of pepperoni.
“Good idea,” Bogum says. “What’s your favorite?”
“Oh, trust me, you don’t want to watch me watch my favorite movie,” Taehyung says. “The tears will literally spew forth.”
“What is it? Hachiko?”
“Good guess, actually,” Taehyung says, hunting for the remote. “Toy Story 3.”
“Oh, no, fuck that,” Bogum says, and Taehyung is about to be offended when he continues, “I cried so hard my sister had to tell me to shut up in the theater because I was embarrassing her.”
“Same!” Taehyung says. “Holy shit, story of my life, though.”
“Then how about my favorite?”
“What is it? We are not watching The Haunting in Connecticut.”
“Nah, I’m not really a horror movie buff,” Bogum says. “It’s Spirited Away.”
I thought your favorite movie was Step Up 2.
Well it is now, but when I was a child, it was Spirited Away. Wasn’t it for everyone? I remember my dream was to be Haku. He was so cool and he could turn into a dragon.
He was also severely cursed by a vengeful witch with a nose even bigger than yours.
It’s my favorite nose.
“Yeah,” Taehyung says, shaking himself. “I’ve—I’ve never seen it, actually—”
Never seen it? Do you literally live under several rocks?
I know! I know. But I’ve seen all the other ones!
No one I date should be allowed to go without seeing Spirited Away. Let’s watch it together sometime.
“Never seen it?” Bogum holds a hand over his heart. “You’ve gone all twenty-one years of your life and have never seen Spirited Away? We’re remedying this right now.”
Taehyung is sick of things reminding him of someone he’s not thinking about. Not thinking about. Not thinking about.
But Jeongguk had even torrented it, and it had been in his laptop just waiting for them to curl up together under the blankets. Whether or not they’d be able to keep their hands off each other for long enough to finish it would be another question, but Jeongguk had said for this one, they could. But that date never did happen, and now Taehyung can’t fathom watching it alone.
“Sure,” he says, tongue feeling like lead.
It’s a good movie—it is. And Taehyung can see why the little boy inside his ex-boyfriend would find a hero in Haku. When they get to the scene of Chihiro crying in a flower garden so hard she can’t even speak, Taehyung has to dry his eyes on oilstained, cardboardy Dominos napkins, and Bogum lets him cry.
“Do you want to stop watching?”
Taehyung wants to be happy again. Or, at the very least, he wants the constricting feeling in his chest to stop, one so tight that he can’t even eat half of what he used to. Bogum’s face hovers over his, too close, and Taehyung does the only thing he has left to bury hurt.
Bogum is good in bed, in the way that Taehyung can tell he’s done this a lot.
Taehyung knows it. It’s not like Bogum is the first one he’s ever had an adventure in the sheets with, but he can feel it. Bogum’s hands are strong around his hips and on his back, his tongue dragging up the heated skin of Taehyung’s cock, sliding his palm down the length of Taehyung’s thigh until he can curl his fingers around Taehyung’s calf and push his leg up so that his knee is bent. He knows what he’s looking for and, where Taehyung would normally playfully object and say to hand some reign over to him, it’s easier to mindlessly lie back and let Bogum have his way.
“Moan for me,” Bogum breathes against the inside curve of Taehyung’s thigh. Taehyung complies easily, the sound slipping broken and sincere from his lips, and the smile Bogum leaves on his skin feels good.
And it feels weird, but Taehyung grinds that feeling into the dirt. It’s almost like his body is saying this isn’t right this isn’t right and even on autopilot Taehyung’s thoughts are traitorously loud.
None of it feels wrong, though. It’s not wrong, and it’s not bad. Bogum seems to get the message that it is too early to stay the night, and that they have much to talk about before he can comfortably curl up around Taehyung’s body in bed afterwards. His dress shirt rustles when he shrugs it back on, doing the buttons deftly back up to his throat with long fingers that had been inside Taehyung hardly an hour before.
“See you soon,” he says, and Taehyung flutters his eyes closed when he leans in close. The lightest kiss on his mouth, and Taehyung is alone again the next time he opens his eyes.
The house is cold. Winter is leaving in a hurry, trying to escape out the backdoor before spring can catch it, but the chill tonight seeps under the blankets Taehyung is cocooned in. He doesn’t want to get up and put his clothes on, even for the few second it’ll take to gather them from where they are strewn around his room.
Lucky for him there’s a hoodie under the pillow. He lets his fingers close around it before he’s pulling it out and around his shoulders, telling himself it’s just for warmth, and not wondering why he sleeps dreamlessly for the first time in months with the smell of peach and well-traveled postage wrapped around him.
If Jimin knows it’s Jeongguk’s jacket, he doesn’t say anything, except—
“You were still asleep when I got up this morning,” Jimin says a few weeks later.
“Oh. Yeah, I guess I was.”
“I’m glad for it,” Jimin says. “It’s been too long since I got up to piss to hear you ordering cold noodles in your sleep.”
Taehyung swears he doesn’t want it to be, but that jacket is the only thing that can put him to sleep at night. With spring stretching its arms over its head in earnest, it’s become harder and harder to keep it on at night, and Taehyung opts instead to start shedding blankets instead.
It works for many days and many nights. He even laughs so hard he’s in stitches one day at lunch, sitting at one of the picnic benches outside the visitor’s center when Hoshi had been angrily waving one of his ebi furai in rage, because “I swear! What kind of eval comment is ‘I didn’t appreciate how much this tour guide sneezed’? I fucking had hay fever!” when a seagull had swooped down dangerously close and snatched the shrimp right out of his greasy fingers.
It works for a while, until one night when he picks up his phone and hears his name slurred in a way he thought he’d never have the misfortune of hearing again.
(Jeongguk is facedown on the couch, cheek smushed into one of the armrests, when Bambam and Yugyeom find him. His shotglass from Cabo looks dangerously like it will fall to its untimely death where he’s rolling it back and forth in his fingers, arm hanging off the edge of the couch.
“Hey, hey,” Bambam says, and even as buzzed as he is, he doesn’t look half half bad as Jeongguk—neither of them have seen, even at Jeongguk’s worst, anything as bad as this. He’ll start getting pink high in his cheeks when he’s drunk enough, but now is skin the off-white color of untreated ceramic and all he does is chuckle when Bambam shakes him. “Jeongguk. Are you with me?”
“He drank this entire thing.” Yugyeom holds up the bottle of their Ciroc by the neck, swilling the last drops of alcohol at the bottom.
“What the fuck? How much was in there to begin with?”
“It was up to around here, I think,” says Yugyeom, tapping his fingernail against the glass just below the logo. “That’s a lot.”
“Shit, you don’t think he has alcohol poisoning, do you?”
“No, no, he’s not foaming at the mouth—”
“What the fuck, Yugyeom, unnaturally pale or white skin is a sign too. Plus he’s—”
“I’m fine,” Jeongguk slurs, rousing himself enough to say something, because he swears to God if Bambam and Yugyeom send him to the clinic he’ll have both their asses strung out rods by tomorrow morning. “Leave me alone.”
“Why did you drink so much?”
“Miss my boyfriend.”
“Oh,” Bambam says, sitting back on his heels. His legs are starting to fall asleep where he’s kneeled down beside Jeongguk’s face. “Oh, no. I’m sorry.”
“But I thought you broke up with—”
“Yugyeom, shut up.”
“Me?” Jeongguk struggles up into a sitting position, dropping his shotglass now. It rolls onto the floor to a stop at Bambam’s leg. “Me? Break up with him? Why the fuck would I do that?”
“You said you were better off without him.”
“Why the fuck would you believe me, do you really think I look better off without him now?” Jeongguk snaps. He’s talking with his eyes shut, for the most part, but right here his eyelids flutter. “He broke up with me. He broke up with me. Why the fuck would I break up with him?”
“But you said,” Yugyeom whispers sadly, to himself, and Bambam purses his lips.
“Do you want to go to sleep or do you want to talk about it?” Bambam pushes aside the mess on the coffee table—half empty bottles of Evian and Yugyeom’s mammoth collection of sociology books—and sits down by Jeongguk’s head. It is rare to see Bambam calm and quiet. “Or do you want water?”
“I want Taehyung.”
“Not an option. Sleep or talk about it or water?”
“Let him sleep, Bambam.” Yugyeom reaches up to his throat and unzips his jacket. A strong whiff of weed comes with it when he peels it off himself, but Jeongguk doesn’t protest when he tucks it around his chin. “He might slip if he gets in the shower and he’s not going to talk any sense, so just let him sleep.”
“He’s going to have a hangover from Hell tomorrow morning.”
“And if you give him any water now he’ll throw it all back up. We’ll just stay in tomorrow until he comes around. I’m not busy until the evening, how about you?”
Yugyeom shakes his head. “He’s going to be okay, right?”
Bambam stands up, sighing. “The Jeongguk I know is always okay. But I don’t think Jeongguk I know is the same person he really is.”)
Jimin only hears Taehyung say Jeongguk’s name once.
He gets the call around five in the evening, just as he’s curling up in his bunk for a catnap. There is half a week’s worth of homework in his backpack due tomorrow and he could do with some shuteye before attempting to tackle it, but the universe has other plans for him.
It’s lucky, and probably fated, he thinks wryly, that he notices the call at all—his phone is on mute and his eyes just happen to be open and focused on his screen when it lights up with a photo of Taehyung mugging at the camera. He frowns. It’s unlike Taehyung to call people. It’s unlike people of their age to call anyone at all.
“Whaddya want,” Jimin says, propping himself up on tired elbows.
“Jiminie. Are you home right now?”
“Yeah, you interrupted my nap.” Jimin pulls his pillow under his chest and rests his cheek on it. “What’s up?”
“Can you come get me,” Taehyung asks. That sound of exhaustion is back in his voice now, after Jimin thought Bogum had chased it away. Perhaps it had never left, only buried itself deeper in Taehyung’s voice until it was inaudible in his words. “I’m sorry.”
“Whoa, what?” Jimin sits up. “Get you from where? Where are you?”
“I’m at the student hospital.”
“You’re—why? Again? Taehyung, what happened?”
“Can you come get me? I don’t want to walk home.”
“Yeah, hold on. Hold on, okay? Let me borrow Seokjin’s car.”
“Okay. Take your time.”
Take his time, Jimin’s ass. Seokjin greenlights his request to borrow his car without even asking what it’s for, and Jimin decides now isn’t the best time to explain anyway. He isn’t sure he has an explanation ready, even. It’s hard not to step on the gas as soon as the car rumbles to life under his hands. There are bikers and boarders and pedestrians everywhere but Jimin really can’t afford to send another schoolmate to the hospital.
Taehyung is dozing off in the lobby when Jimin finds him, slumped over in one of the cushioned, nondescript chairs lining the walls around the front desk. His backpack is in his lap and, at least in the position he’s sitting, he looks fine.
“Hey,” Jimin murmurs. Taehyung jerks awake, sucking air in through his nose in the way that people do when they’re shaken out of the place between dreams and reality. He sits up straight, only to wince right away, and Jimin sits down beside him. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing,” Taehyung says, voice thick with sleep. “Let’s go home.”
“Taehyung,” Jimin says. “You sleep in the same goddamn room as I do. If it’s some kind of injury you might as well tell me now.”
Taehyung looks at him, really looks at him, and only then does Jimin take in his face in the dim fluorescence. Particles of gravel cling to Taehyung’s hair. There is a speckled green-blue shadow spreading across the jut of Taehyung’s cheekbone. The way Taehyung is carrying himself looks pained, and the shift of his backpack away from his thighs makes Jimin look down.
“Oh my God, what did you do?” Jimin whispers, looking at the thick squares of gauze taped down to Taehyung’s knees, visible through the clean rip in the denim of his pants. It would be pretty idol high fashion if the soft edges of frayed thread weren’t stained stiff with drying blood.
“Bike accident,” Taehyung says. Athletic tape and gauze wraps around heels of his palms too, and Jimin guesses he must have used them to break his fall. “I ate some pretty epic shit out there. Flew right over my handlebars and everything.”
“Same thing that happened in the bathroom that one morning. Dizziness, cold sweating. I was leaving the visitor’s center after a tour and I was planning to go buy dinner, but I drifted in my lane. Ran right into the side of the curb.” Taehyung punches the knuckles of his right hand gingerly into the palm of his left, making an explosion sound. “I thought I saw my life flash before my eyes.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jimin says, voice weak. He can picture it in his mind’s eye, Taehyung’s frame sailing over the wreckage of metal on the pavement. “You could’ve gotten a concussion.”
Taehyung waves off Jimin’s concerns all the way out to the car. He’s limping, and he opts to carry his backpack in his arms since his shoulder is bruised—although Jimin suspects it’s a lot more than that. Taehyung always tries to downplay his pain so that Jimin won’t worry.
“Is there anything you want before we go back home?” Jimin doesn’t start the car right away, key in the ignition as he buckles up. “You want me to get you a Slurpee on our way back?”
“I want Jeongguk.”
Jimin pauses with the tongue of the buckle hovering over its clasp. “You what?”
But Taehyung isn’t looking at him anymore, facing out his window to stare at the overcast sky. The last bits of light in the evening are dappled in the cloud cover. “Did you mean you want Bogum?” Jimin prompts, clasping his buckle together with a click. Several shaky heartbeats pass between them, and Jimin counts the passing seconds by timing the ripple of puddles in the breeze on the street.
“Are you sure?”
“Then you want to go home?”
“Yeah, I want to go home.”
Bogum makes Taehyung smile, and for now, it’s enough.
It’s not everything, but it might be. He’s there when Taehyung finishes class and goes to the bike shop and they enjoy the spring heat together, sleeves rolled up as they fix bikes for stranded schoolmates. He’s there the day that Taehyung sees Jeongguk’s full face for the first time in ages, crinkled with a soft smile as he walks with two of his dance teammates, drinking a Jamba Juice, and Taehyung has to make a mad dash into the University Center and throw up everything he’s eaten that day.
“Where are you?” Bogum’s voice crackles with static. The signal is mediocre at best on the first floor of the University Center, where the only bathrooms had still been open this late.
Taehyung covers half his face with his free hand, trembling and damp where he’s rinsed his mouth out for a straight ten minutes in the sink. “First floor of the University Center.”
Bogum is there in no time, and Taehyung crumbles into his arms when he is. He’d been crouched by the men’s bathroom, head resting between his knees to will the nausea away.
“Hey, what happened?”
“I felt sick,” Taehyung says. “Really suddenly.”
“Let’s get you home,” Bogum says, taking care to not disturb Taehyung’s bad shoulder where it’s still bruised and tight from the accident. The blotchy purple on Taehyung’s jaw has faded to a sickly, bruised-banana-yellow, and yes, Bogum’s touch still feels more like a house than a home right now, but one day it will feel as lived-in and warm as a too-big white hoodie that wraps around his shoulders like a hug.
“Can I ask you something?”
Jimin shoves his battered notes into his backpack, ignoring the crunch of paper in the depths of the bag. “This sound ominous.”
“Do you know anyone that’s called Jeonggukie?”
Jimin’s grasp falters on the zipper, and it jams in the corner. “What?”
“Jeonggukie. Jeongguk, I’m guessing.”
“Well, you probably know this already, since you’re his roommate, but Taehyung talks in his sleep. A lot. Mostly random things, but just this week, it’s been different. Just that name, and actual, strung-together sentences. So much that he’ll wake me up at night and I think he’s carrying out a conversation with someone. He keeps talking to this Jeongguk. It’s not some vengeful ghost I should know about, right?”
Jimin laughs weakly, and there’s a look of amusement in Bogum’s face, but it’s a poor mask of what must really be eating at him. Doubt, uncertainty. Jimin doesn’t know what to tell him. The truth isn’t his to tell and he’s never been a good liar.
Jeongguk may not be a vengeful ghost but the weight of memory is as good a monster as any.
“If you really want to know, you should ask him yourself, it’s not even close to being any of my business,” Jimin says. “I’m a little surprised he never mentioned him.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Not worried, exactly,” Jimin says. “But I don’t know how he’ll react.”
“Yeah, he’s Taehyung,” Jimin admits. “But that doesn’t mean he’s impervious to feeling pain.”
“It fits you.”
“It doesn’t feel real,” Taehyung says, adjusting the shoulders of his graduation gown, liking the way it swishes. “Just yesterday I was just a freshman, but here I am, set to graduate in less than two weeks.”
Bogum flips the tag at the back of Taehyung’s neck down where it’s sticking up like a white flag of surrender. “Time flies, doesn’t it?”
Taehyung turns, and Bogum’s face is more reserved than he is used to seeing it. “Hey, even I haven’t started getting upset about it,” he says. “Why the long face?”
Bogum sits down on the foot of Taehyung’s bed, the spring creaking, and takes Taehyung’s hand in both of his. “Are your wrists better now?”
“Almost,” Taehyung says. “But is something wrong?”
“I had a question for you,” Bogum says. He rubs a thumb over Taehyung’s knuckles. “But you might get mad at me.”
“Okay,” Taehyung says. “I’ll try not to.”
It’s been a long time since Taehyung has felt the seize in his throat that comes with hearing Jeongguk’s name, and he jerks like he’s been electrocuted. Bogum drops his hand like he’d felt it too.
“I won’t be angry of what your answer is,” Bogum says, and his voice is strangely, genuinely calm. “Because whoever he is, I’m sure you know—we both know—that we probably won’t see much of each other after graduation.”
“And I’m sure you can agree that whatever we have isn’t something so special that we should keep anything from it beyond a friendship,” Bogum continues. “But—if Jeongguk is who I think he is, then that’s the person you should find yourself walking on the same path with.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I don’t. Enlighten me?”
“I broke up with him,” Taehyung says, and it’s the first time he’s hearing it with his own ears. Admittance, out loud. “My ex. I broke up with him.”
“You miss him more than anyone.”
“What kind of person would I be to have the nerve to ask him to come back?”
“Better to risk looking like a scoundrel,” Bogum says, “than to lose something that might have been, don’t you think?”
Taehyung stares at him, and Bogum smiles, the rueful, fond kind of smile that someone has when they don’t want to do something, but will do it because they have to. “Taehyung, we never called each other boyfriends, and you know it. We never said we love each other.”
“We—we weren’t, but—”
“I wanted, so bad,” Taehyung says, desperate to be understood, “To be happy again. To make the people around me happy again and feel that happiness and smile again. And I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to be sad. I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t want them to be burdened with this, and I wanted everything to keep on going the way it always had been.”
“That’s just it, isn’t it?” Bogum says. “When you break up with someone that meant that much to you, fundamentally, nothing will remain the same. You will destroy yourself looking for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“You looked for a happiness in me,” Bogum says, “that you’ll never find here.”
“But how can I find happiness in him,” Taehyung ask, “when I pushed him away?”
“Do you remember the night that you brought me to the frat house,” Bogum exhales, “and I told you you just fell asleep after blacking out?”
Taehyung’s heart sinks. “What else did I do?”
“That was the first night I ever heard Jeongguk’s name,” Bogum says. “You cried so much for him that I asked Sungjae if there was any way I could find him and bring him to you, but Sungjae shook his head no, that I shouldn’t.”
Bogum doesn’t pull away when Taehyung takes his hand, but he doesn’t reciprocate the touch, either. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What good would it have done?”
Taehyung hangs his head, and Bogum gives his hand a brief squeeze.
“Learn to laugh again, Taehyung,” he says. “And love someone, whoever it is, when you’re ready.”
“I’m so sorry, Bogum. I’m so sorry, I didn’t—I didn’t want this.”
“It’s okay,” Bogum says. “I know. Some people are lessons. I just happen to be one of them.”
“So are you saying I should talk to him again? Is that even a good idea?”
“When you’re trying to find something that you’ve lost, it’s never a bad idea to start from where you remember having it last.”
The walk to Jeongguk’s apartment is not so nerve-wracking as it is nostalgic, because somewhere deep in Taehyung’s heart he’s already resigned himself to the fact that Jeongguk will close the door in his face.
He broke up with him over text, for fuck’s sake. Taehyung laughs at his own idiocy, for not even having the gall to face someone and walk away from them. Yet here he is, walking straight back, perhaps to a place he never quite left.
The steel staircase railing is hot to the touch; summer is here, smoking out the seniors for a new catch of freshmen soon, and even just aside from Jeongguk, Taehyung will miss this place. He has one last tour tomorrow before the admissions department banquet this weekend, and he will miss this place that he’s talked so fondly about for three years now. He will miss telling prospective high schoolers of all the things he’s learned the people he’s met. And he will miss the things he doesn’t say—how he grew up into a person he can say he is proud of here, how some things he has learned and some people he has met that he will carry in his heart for a long, long time.
The numbers 604 glow a dull gold in the sunset, under the limescale and water stains that have tarnished the metal. Taehyung takes a breath in through his nose, raises his fist, and knocks.
A breeze picks Taehyung’s hair up, and when moments pass without so much as a response, Taehyung knocks again. No one is home, he guesses, and this is probably a sign that he’s chasing a dead end. He is just about to turn and leave when he hears footsteps coming up the cobbled stairs, the movement making the steel supports hum.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, looking dumbfounded. “Uhm.”
And the stupidity of all of this catches up with Taehyung. Why the fuck is he here? Why the fuck would Jeongguk give him the time of day?
“Sorry,” and Taehyung cannot meet the stunned expression on Jeongguk’s face, and ducks his own.
He’s almost made it past him when Jeongguk’s hand catches onto Taehyung’s wrist, and they stand like that, facing in opposite directions.
“Wait,” Jeongguk chokes, and to anyone else it might sound pathetic. A plea. To Taehyung, it sounds like hope.
Taehyung joins the tour guide hall of fame.
It takes three hundred tours to get in, and Taehyung, honestly, had lost count after his hundredth or so—it was a labor of love, but he’s still shocked when Seokjin announces that he too has been voted as the tour guide of the year. The award had gone to Jackson Wang last year, and Taehyung could hardly have imagined he’d be given the same honor.
“Every year, the heads of the tour department get together and lay out the work of all our guides,” Seokjin says. “If you’re an old hand, you know how long the process takes—we start considering a month before we even make a decision. But this year it was a unanimous decision, and unfortunately, we weren’t very good at keeping it all under wraps.” Wheein whoops in the front row where she’s wearing a sparkling wine-red dress, and lipsticked laugh is infection. “I had this one dawdling outside my office waiting to talk to me about something, and she overheard it that the tour troupe had been gossiping about it. And everyone knew it was going to be Taehyung.”
“Jesus,” Taehyung says, setting the trophy down on the podium when Seokjin steps aside to let him speak. “Well, I definitely only joined the department to get this thing, look at it—I could pass it off as an M.D. certification.”
A laugh rumbles through the audience as he gestures at it—a metal plaque with his name engraved upon it, with the school seal embossed beneath.
“I spend all year talking,” Taehyung says, and laughs. “But I’m—really at a loss for words, actually.”
Yoongi is beaming at him in a rare moment where he’s smiling so gently that Taehyung can’t match the Yoongi of every day to the one looking at him right now.
“My last year here has been…” Taehyung sweeps his eyes across the room. “One that I hadn’t expected. There’ve been some great things,” and he thinks of all the glowing letters of rec he has to turn in for his graduate school application, “and some real difficulties, and I somehow managed to still keep my chin up for to be a tour guide. Some days were hard, when it took so much to even smile, but to see a high schooler tell me that they’ve decided to come to this university after a tour I gave,” Taehyung shakes his head. “There’s nothing quite like it.
“And a lot of things have happened in the last four years because of joining the tour troupe,” he continues. “The people that left before me and the ones that I’ve taught. Some of them come in and out of your life in the blink of an eye. Some stay,” he says, and gives Seokjin a wink and a fingergun. “And I’ve learned that these four years might not see many things that last,” Taehyung says. “But I’m so eternally thankful for the things that do.”
“Hey, sorry.” Jimin is five kinds of disheveled, and he definitely hasn’t washed this shirt since last month. Not that it isn’t acceptable this close to finals week, but he’s not too much of a fan of feeling as crumbly as a Nature Valley granola bar. “I totally forgot we were supposed to meet until the minute I said I was going to be here.”
“It’s fine, I have to study for my own exams anyway,” Bogum says, closing up his textbook and sliding it into his bag. “Okay, let’s go.”
“How’ve you been?”
Bogum shrugs, sticking his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and Jimin has to admire his ability to yank on tight pants in weather like this. Summer has come in unapologetic waves, making the oil of the asphalt bubble to the surface black and shiny as they cross the street. “I’m good. Decent enough for dead week.”
“That’s true,” Jimin says. “But I mean, you know. About Taehyung.”
“Oh,” Bogum says, and he smiles. “No, I’m okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“I ran into them earlier, actually. No casualties then, no problem now.”
“What?” The words come out a sputter. How fucking awkward could that have been, Jimin thinks. Bogum doesn’t even know what Jeongguk looks like, to Jimin’s knowledge. “Both of them?”
“Let me reiterate,” Bogum says. “I met Taehyung, and I caught a glimpse of his boyfriend. Jeongguk, right?”
“Oh,” Jimin says. “Yeah. Jeongguk.” He swallows, but Bogum doesn’t seem angry that Jimin hadn’t answered him back when he had put him on the spot. “How did that go?”
“As well as post-breakup conversations go, I guess,” Bogum says. “I asked him about graduation, he asked me if you were giving me any trouble.”
“Wow,” Jimin says dryly. Classic Taehyung.
“I said you haven’t been, of course,” Bogum replies, winking. “He seemed really happy. I’m glad for it. I’ve seen him happy, obviously, but it was like I was talking to a different person. Someone I didn’t quite know.” He pauses. “Someone I never had the chance to meet.”
“Yeah, they’re,” Jimin rummages for the word, thinking of the way Jeongguk’s features would soften when he looked at Taehyung, when Taehyung wasn’t looking at him. “Smitten.”
“I’m kind of glad I didn’t meet Taehyung some other time, though.”
“He’s like a flame,” Bogum says. “And we’re just a couple of hapless moths.”
“We,” Jimin says, a question in his voice.
“I told you I had a chance to get a glimpse of Jeongguk.”
“Right, right. How’d that go again?”
“So, I said bye to Taehyung and headed off on my own way, but I turned around. I’m not sure why. I guess I wanted to say something more. ‘Thank you,’ maybe, since we’d skirted around the topic of ever being together. But someone else was there already, taking Taehyung’s sunglasses and snapback off his face and hair and putting them onto their own. ‘You wanna know why I wear my sunglasses down here?’ I heard him say. Taehyung had asked me that same question before, and he thought it was hilarious, and I just. Didn’t.”
Jimin slants his gaze up to Bogum’s face, the red summer sun turning the ends of his hair golden.
“Then I understood, I think, why he wanted me to play all those silly games with him. Guess the lyrics, guess the celebrity, acting improv. Or who he’d been thinking about when he’d lie awake at night like he was lost in his own head. And Taehyung laughed along with that person even though the sun was in his eyes. He looked at that person like they were the center of his universe.” Bogum shakes his head. “You can’t compete with that.”
“Damn.” Jimin is a self-proclaimed romantic, but he’s not quite sure what to do with all the baggage Bogum just unloaded on him. “Yeah, you met Jeongguk, all right.”
“Sorry, that was a bit much, huh? I’ll stick to talking about electromagnetics.”
“No, God, no. I don’t want to think about physics unless I absolutely have to.”
“I hear you.”
They walk in silence for a while, Jimin sidestepping a throng of gawkish tour-goers to avoid getting trodden on.
“How long have they been in love?”
Jimin does a double take before he glances at Bogum again, but there’s nothing but a small, easy smile on his face. It’s kind of a strange way to ask, how long have they been together? but Jimin decides not to point that out. “Mm. A little less than two years, I’d say.”
“Oh, that’s not very long.”
“No, not too long,” Jimin agrees. They walk in step for a while before Jimin feels like he should explain. “When it comes to them, though, you could call it—for lack of better term, you could call it a love story.”
“A love story, huh.”
“I’m not even really a fan of using those words unironically, at least not when I’m talking about my best friend,” Jimin says, wrinkling his nose. Bogum laughs. The sound is woven faintly with sadness, and Jimin wonders what it is about his senior year that he’s surrounded by distressed lovestruck fools at any given time of the month. “But yeah. A love story.”
“I like love stories,” Bogum says. An invitation.
Jimin makes a face in earnest now, a smile-grimace that makes his eyebrows knit together. “You want to hear a story about your ex-boyfriend? How is that supposed to help you get over him?”
“I’m not getting anywhere by myself, am I?” Bogum says. “You don’t need to worry about me, Jimin. Seriously. This isn’t heartbreak, just disappointment.”
Not heartbreak, just disappointment. There is a fine, fine line between love and like, and Bogum seems unafraid to pluck that thread.
“Full steam ahead, man.”
“Okay then, let’s see,” Jimin says. “So, the first time Taehyung saw Jeongguk, he fell on his ass…”
They say if you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s always been yours.
What they don’t say, is that someone who comes back is never the same person who left.
Jeongguk would be lying if he said he knew that from the very beginning, but it only makes sense. He isn’t the person that had sailed into Taehyung’s life in a grand jeté of red metal and polished kisses, so he shouldn’t be expecting the same Taehyung that he knew—the Taehyung that had left. He knows all of this, and in the last two years Jeongguk has known many things, yet he finds that he’s always surprised.
As the days of summer grow long and hot, and Jeongguk finds Taehyung in his arms again, he learns that forgiveness is just as hard to accept as it is to give.
“Aren’t you tired?”
Taehyung’s eyes are still watching him when Jeongguk opens his, feeling the burn of Taehyung’s gaze on his face. He remembers the feeling of it—searching, soft, like he’s trying to calculate what Jeongguk is thinking just by looking at the lines of his face.
“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “Long day.”
“Your eyes are going to go to shit if you keep staring at desktop monitors all day.”
“It wasn’t all day.” Taehyung chuckles, rubbing his thumb in the palm of one of Jeongguk’s hands where he has it cradled against his chest. It’s a little too hot to be lying face to face like this, even at two AM with the window open and fan on, but Jeongguk hardly cares. “Most of it, maybe.”
But Jeongguk knows Taehyung still hears the question he doesn’t ask. Why do you keep watching me, then?
Because Jeongguk hasn’t missed it, the way Taehyung looks at him sometimes, when he thinks Jeongguk isn’t looking. Or, perhaps he does know, and stares anyway. He doesn’t seem to have any problems with being caught. Not earlier, when Jeongguk had looked over the stovetop to see Taehyung watching him like he wanted nothing more to reach over and—do something, like take his hand or touch him in some way.
Something is different about the way Taehyung touches him. His whole body feels like an apology in Jeongguk’s hands, and he puts his fingers on Jeongguk’s skin with sorrys in his fingertips that Jeongguk can’t even chase away with it’s oks. It’s an apology that strains against something sadder, Jeongguk can taste it. It lines the insides of Taehyung’s mouth, and he knows that flavor only too well.
The smell of that one body wash that reminds you of easier, better days; the song that you played that winter you were so, so happy, that brings back a ghost of what that happiness used to be. Fabric feels different on his shoulders. The white jacket that Taehyung had brought back weighs down on Jeongguk’s shoulders like there are stones in his pockets. When he slides his hands into them, there is nothing but crumpled up receipts and a chalky, forgotten piece of gum, still in its wrapper. The mint tastes muted and thin when Jeongguk slips it between his teeth to chew. There is nothing wrong with this jacket, nothing wrong, if it weren’t for the feeling of quiet, gritty regret imbued in the seams and the hems and in the very purl of the cloth itself.
“Haven’t looked at you enough today,” Taehyung says, finally.
And somewhere, all of Taehyung’s I love yous had turned into I’m sorrys. It’s the ugliest variation of I love you, uglier still than I don’t know and infinitely worse than It’s me it’s you. But maybe somewhere they can find an It’s ok again. In the purse of Jeongguk’s lips when he’s nervous, or under the fried egg Taehyung ladles over Jeongguk’s rice in the morning. Under the bill of that red snapback that Jeongguk has taken to wearing to keep the summer sun out of his eyes.
“We had dinner together,” Jeongguk says, blinking lazily as Taehyung strokes the soft skin at the inside of his elbow. “Kissed on the couch until Bambam came home and threatened to use my clothes to wipe the comestains off of it the next time he used it.”
“Oh my God, stop. I’m still trying to forget about that.”
“I know, fuck. Me too. Congratulations, I played myself.”
Taehyung laughs in earnest this time, the sound reverberating through Jeongguk’s bones. “I really am tired.”
“Sleep.” Jeongguk gives his hand a squeeze. “Tomorrow, I don’t have class. You leave your lab early. I just have to do my taxation project, fun. We can sit in the grass by the psychology department. I’ll do my work until I fall asleep leaning on you and we can sit like that until it’s time to see the sunset.”
It sounds like a good plan, the same thing that they’d done a few days ago when Taehyung came down the steps of the psychology building, looking ready to denounce the idea of grad school as he does every day again. They’d settled into the shade on the lawn, the campus quiet in the sleepy summer months, and Jeongguk had worked steadily with his back to Taehyung’s chest until he’d fallen asleep with his face in Taehyung’s throat.
“I love the sound of that,” Taehyung murmurs. Slowly, he props himself up on one elbow, leaning over until Jeongguk rolls onto his back under him. “Jeongguk.”
“Mhmm?” Taehyung’s face glows orange from the light of the streetlamp outside his window, throwing tiny suns in his eyes into orbit, and Jeongguk reaches up to hold Taehyung’s cheek in his palm. Whatever Taehyung was about to say is put on hold long enough for him to turn his face, eyes fluttering shut, and press a kiss into the warmth of Jeongguk’s hand. “You love me, right?”
Taehyung’s eyes startle open. Jeongguk slides his hand away from his face, down to cup the shoulder where Taehyung said he had injured it taking a tumble off his bike. He’d sworn it hadn’t been a big deal, but Jeongguk sees him wincing some evenings when he picks up too many textbooks at once, careless. Jeongguk knows, though, that it had hurt, more than Taehyung is letting on, and presses kisses to the scars on Taehyung's knees and to the tightness of the ligaments in his shoulder. They both hurt more than they've admitted, but Jeongguk tells Taehyung of the nights he'd sleep around trying to punch the taste of him out of his mouth and Taehyung responds with his stories of how he'd curl up in Jeongguk's jacket after fucking other people. Jeongguk tells him of Kisum, of how Boa let him in after closing hours as Taehyung runs his thumb over the pearl in the dragon's mouth, an inky blue on Jeongguk's wrist. And Taehyung tells him of Bogum, and laughs at Jeongguk's retroactive jealousy, and wonders if he will only ever have one person's forgiveness at a time.
And maybe soon, home will feel like home again.
this was the original story intended for fake dating sequel. i wasn’t going to finish the work in this au, but 1) haha 2) a yak told me to 3) jeongguk told me to, and [nikkumeul voice] when the man himself tells you to do something you do it. if you’ve stuck around for three stories worth of shenanigans thank you thank you and i hope you enjoyed! it’s a wrap ☼