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“Three months,” he says. “That’s it.”

Taehyung hopes this doesn’t look like some odd kind of desperation, but it does—it’s exactly what this looks like, ugly and red-faced and tasting too bitter on his tongue where it soaks up all the moisture like backwash. But wasting an entire month searching for an accompanist that fit his rhythm, you could say he’s a little desperate to be met halfway.

“Why me?” Jeongguk’s saying, squinting through the frames of his round glasses. They’re statement glasses, the kinds that all the cool kids wear with the cool twenty-twenty vision, sporting them for the fashion and not because they’re fucking blind. Which Jeongguk apparently is, an ironic thing when they're prescription. Taehyung can see the magnified windows through them, warped and funny. Jeongguk swings his leg over and straddles the piano bench, easily swallows it between the thickness of his thighs. “The school’s music program is loaded with young talent. Lots of good fuckers out there looking to build a resume, promise.”

If he listens closely, Taehyung isn’t breathing.

On the first of day of March, Taehyung shuffles through the halls of his university with a forced determination that reduces everything around him to light buzzing and mutes every single instrument in all the rooms he passes. This, he'll realize, translates to nervous jitters.

There’s a ballet class in session that makes his footsteps feel clunky and shameful against the Mozart, crashing right through. The orange sunlight on his shoulders is neither warm nor comforting, but stopping in the doorway of the old music room and seeing Jeongguk among all those dust particles floating in the glow, Taehyung is wavering in comparison.

So normally he spends his lunch break trying to disappear, but today he is out of options.

“There’s not enough time to learn a whole new piece with someone else,” Taehyung explains, tightening his grip on the sheet music at his side. Time, that could be put into perfecting those measures that still make his fingers shake, maybe ease the nerves already trembling at his skeleton. The kind of time he simply does not have. “You’re the only person who knows Liebestraum and—”

Pause.

“And?”

His steps on the speckled tile, they go one, two, three, four like a quarter note at one hundred ten beats per minute.

“And you’re familiar with how I play,” Taehyung admits, glances at the crinkle at the front of Jeongguk’s hoodie, the fading ink of screenprint that forms the word Stussy. He says, “Enough to be able to accompany my cello.”

And that’s to say those times Jeongguk would quietly watch him from the tall doors of the music room, unnoticed, only to burst his bubble of concentration with some unwanted correction on his playing, stalking across to the marimba to retrieve his sticks. As if he actually had any say on someone else’s practice, as if he even played the cello, as if Taehyung needed to be told he needed more practice. His decrescendos are monotonous and his staccatos like molasses and sometimes he puts too much cream in his coffee or shampoo in his hair, so alright. He gets it. You practice to get better, but Taehyung practices to make it easier, and it’s all practice to hide the fact that he’s scared of the monsters beneath his bed.

“He’s kind of an asshole,” Taehyung had said once at the very beginning, watching Jeongguk from across the university cafeteria, drumming into the edge of the table with two pencils. “Like, big time.”

Attracting glances from the nearby lunchtime traffic, Taehyung had thought, show off, like some petty sack moping over wanted attention. Because maybe it’s the cockiness in his straight shoulders or the way he seems to think he’s good at everything (and is). Maybe it’s the way he so easily tosses those offhanded remarks at Taehyung that feel more like contempt than light jabbing, the way he seems to not give a shit about anyone and their feelings beside his own. Maybe Taehyung’s the dirtbag overthinking it all. Or maybe—

“Maybe that’s just how he is,” Jimin had commented, workbook in hand and pencil propped behind an ear. “City boy chic. Sort of an asshole all the time, but not actually an asshole. The type.”

Jeongguk’s laugh had rang through the cafeteria like bells, high-pitched and sharp, cutting through the air and stinging. Taehyung recoiled, the tapping of pencils against wood still in his ears, the upbeat laughter from across the room lilting over the roar of human sound. Jeongguk twirled the pencil in his hand restlessly, knee bouncing to an unheard rhythm passing through his mind with the itch to tap it out, everything about him screaming musician. He had one of those faces that mostly lacked emotion, aloof and cold and downright bitchy.

Tearing his gaze away, Taehyung slid forward on the table and propped his head up on his hand.

“So he can’t help it, basically,” he said. “Sounds like an excuse.”

Jimin snorted and rocked back in his chair, balancing on the rickety back legs. “Sounds pretty shitty when you put it like that.”

“Does.”

“C’mon, he doesn't seem too bad,” Jimin said, turning the page of his workbook with a flick. “Give him a chance, I guess.”

And now, standing in the doorway of this practice room in front of Jeongguk, feeling a nauseous deja vu flooding his stomach, purple and bubbly, Taehyung is doing just that. Giving chances and taking them.

“Just three months,” Taehyung repeats, running a palm down his face and feeling his pride shrink so small and frail, feathery. “Swear when it’s over, I’ll let you go back to doing your own thing,”

“You seem to imply that we’d become best friends otherwise.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Taehyung leans against the doorframe. “Will you be my accompanist or not?”

“Look, I don’t—”

“Please.”

Overstepping his ego like this sounds so dire.

And there he is, just sitting there in front of the wall piano, hood tugged over his head to hide the fact that he'd forgotten to run a comb through it this morning. Jeongguk cocks his chin up a little higher, a little more intentional, and it makes Taehyung want to smack that smug look right off, until his knuckles stand big and proud, reflecting all that confidence Jeongguk seems to wear so well.

“You know I specialize in percussion, right?” Jeongguk reminds. “I’m not, like, full-fledged pianist.”

“I know.”

Stuffing his hands into the front pocket of his hoodie, Jeongguk asks, “What’s in it for me?”

“Recognition,” Taehyung says easily. “It’s a big event, this cello contest. Judges aren’t only judging, you get me? Someone's always looking.” He shrugs his shoulder. “And well, there’s prize money for the accompanist, too.”

In one context, money is a hot tool for bribing. In another, he’s establishing mutual benefit and gain. Either way you look at it, he feels two feet tall with nothing to back him up.

They call people that live freely hippies but the reality is that the rest of us don’t live enough. You take three months out of context, and you’ll realize how much time is taken for granted—travel to Japan and live the days like a local, sign up for a fast course sewing class and fix all the holes in your old jean pockets, become acquainted with a coworker at your summer job, or commit your days practicing a piece with someone you never quite got along with. So sure, three months isn’t a long time, but when you’ve got a blind young love just waiting to see the horizon, time is nothing but a bottomless illusion.

But when you’ve got someone like Taehyung born on the dot of an hour, all you’ve ever known is that time is a signature.

“Fine,” Jeongguk says with an air of finality and reaches out his hand. “Did you bring the music?”

 

 

(“Seriously, what’s your deal?”

Closing the trunk of his car with a thud, Jeongguk glances around and spots Taehyung hopping down from the curb, messenger bag bouncing against his narrow hip.

“Excuse me?”

“Lee offered you a spot in Chamber, and you didn’t take it?” Taehyung says, murky halogen dusting his face golden where it glistens off the high bridge of his nose. His boots come to a gritty halt on the asphalt, these ratty things with the laces coming undone, like he’d thrown them on five minutes ago without caring to tie them properly. “Is it because you’re already in a band? Something?”

He’s probably the type that only wears shoes when he has to.

“I don’t fuck with the woodwinds,” says Jeongguk flatly.

“No, like a band,” Taehyung emphasizes. “What’s it, like, group of sad alt kids. The Taco Clowns? Cosmic Cunts?”

“Funny, considering we’re all learning a score from an indie film right now in Symph,” Jeongguk retorts. “You're no better.”

“I think the term you're looking for is ironic.”

“Nah,” Jeongguk shakes his head. “Nah, I know what I'm saying.”

There’s a halo of moonlight on Taehyung’s shiny hair that looks misplaced in Jeongguk’s spiteful mind, telling him he doesn’t deserve it, all that divine perfection. He’s equal parts soft and sharp, and it’s that clashing dichotomy that makes Jeongguk curious, his narrow eyebrows above his doe eyes, the low voice coming from his plump, wide lips. Jeongguk’s hair only shines when he’s greasy and unshowered.

“You know how many people work their asses off to get into that band?” Taehyung says, a shift in his expression.  And you’re just gonna blow it?”

“Blew it, yeah,” Jeongguk shrugs and pretends he’s an optimist, the way he says, “There’s always next time.”

It’s so blatant, this false modesty. They both know that in their world, there is no ‘next time.’ You’re either the best or you’re invisible, first chair or not.

“It’s one of the top five best college orchestras in the nation,” Taehyung continues. “Doesn’t that mean anything?”

Jeongguk belatedly notices that he hasn’t stepped any closer and that the cool metal of his trunk is uncomfortable where it presses into the small of his lower back. Yet speaking at a careful distance, Taehyung is still too close to overstepping his boundaries.

“Look, you don’t know shit,” Jeongguk spits, recalling that morning’s band practice. He’d gotten pulled aside by the instructor in the middle of warm ups, groggy and hungover and not giving a shit if anyone noticed. “Keep your nose out and quit barking, Kim.”

“I'm starting to believe you did everyone a solid,” Taehyung scoffs through his nose.

And Jeongguk says, “Probably someone.”

It’s the first time he’s ever talked to Taehyung outside of the university without the context of music binding them. Here, now, in a too empty parking lot, he’s lost some kind of purpose. The air between them is stiff and awkward, and Jeongguk presses his blunt nails into his palm until it stings, suddenly feeling very out of place in front of a boy with shiny chestnut hair.

“Why stay in Symphonic?” Taehyung asks, this time genuine. Jeongguk knows it's more motivational shoving than passive criticism, but it still rubs him wrong. “If you’re so good—

“It’s none of your fucking business,” Jeongguk cuts him off, opening the door to his car, very done with this conversation. He says, “Worry about yourself.”

But even after Jeongguk has turned on his car, Taehyung stands there like he’s contemplating something heavy. He sees Taehyung in the rearview mirror when he steers out onto the street, turning on his heels to head off in the opposite direction.

Jeongguk rolls his eyes.)

 

  

The first time Taehyung hears it is two a.m. on a caffeinated high that soars higher than the white noise in his skull. Pushing past the door into the empty laundromat of his complex, the electric hum of the tiny overhead fan buzzes around the static coming from the radio stuffed into the corner. It feels a lot like some pseudo ambience for dirty college kids, this classical music station, made to seem less shitty and more Romantic by the hands of dead composers. He quite likes these hours when the only thing judging him is the safe sex flyer on the bulletin board.

The scent of fabric softener too heavy on his nose and the driers too warm on his back, Taehyung scans the empty space before scooting his ass into one of the oversized dryers. Sitting in there with closed eyes, he hums along to the muffled sounds of Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3.

“This,” he’d said, not knowing what for, just why. He’d said, “This one.”

So call him spiritual, a wannabe philosophy student that never shuts up about the metaphysical with a closet full of flannels, but everyone gets those fleeting moments that feel right in a way beyond present knowledge. The ones that you can’t forget even if you’re drunk past self identifying, waltzing on your toes in socks ripped at the toe to your own silly rhythm. And one day, that moment will fall right into place and remind you just why you held on for so long. Because some things are meant for letting go, but some things are meant for the discovery.

One year later with peeling fingertips, leisurely playing the melody on his cello with thoughts about neon signs and eggshell linoleum, he’d met someone who hummed along to his strings by fated coincidence.

And now—

“You have to match my pace,” Taehyung huffs, trying to get this. “Don't overpower me.”

“Then get the counts right,” Jeongguk throws back. “That’s a fuckin’ sixteenth, see.”

“My ass,” Taehyung scoffs. “It’s ‘cause you’re playing like your dick’s on fire. Like chill, what’s your fuckin’ hurry?”

“You are so full of shit,” Jeongguk clips. “You're the one playing like it's an eighth.”

Taehyung’s head won’t stop swirling. His eyes are dry from reading music for so long, unblinking and not really tired, just weighed down by recurring mistakes. It’s the kind of heavy burden that makes him simmer with irritation that he is, admittedly, taking out on Jeongguk, but he can’t be bothered to feel bad. Not when Jeongguk’s caught up in this same cycle, using each other as punching bags in some lowkey reciprocal way they both acknowledge, all really shitty ways of venting.

Jeongguk slouches forward on the piano with a breathy sigh and props an elbow on the glossy finish, picking disinterestedly at some dried stain on the cuff of his sleeve and seconds away from tearing the sweater right off if not for the stubborn sloth of his human. Taehyung hates the sound of his nail scraping back and forth.

Gripping his bow, he’s thinking about how that stain looks just like come.

“Let's just go again,” Taehyung straightens back up and eases the strain in his tailbone. “At Tempo I. We’ll figure it out.”

Tension still there, a syrupy thickness fills up the spaces between them where music doesn’t occupy. Seeping past his teeth, heavy on his tongue. There’s this hole in the thigh of Jeongguk’s jeans that Taehyung can’t stop looking at, the frayed denim making way for the hardened muscles that seem to bulge from the restricting fabric. Something about it makes him want to press a palm there to see it tighten. Something about it makes him want to touch.

“Give me a note real quick?” Taehyung asks, pausing at the end of the measure.

Taehyung likes burying his face against clothes straight from the dryer, finding boba stamp cards in hoodies he hasn’t worn for months, and the color red.

“Still not in tune?” Jeongguk says but plays an A at the fourth octave, patiently watching Taehyung tune his string. “Slackin’, Kim.”

“I'm barely flat. You didn’t even notice.”

“Not my job.”

The words “loud as fuck!!!” scream back at him in red ink. He’d scribbled it along the side of his sheet after his part had drowned to the lower range of the piano accompaniment, and it was during that measure that Taehyung pictured three months from now in front of a big audience and bigger judges.

Humans used to walk on all fours until evolution had us walking on two to conserve energy. Babies learn to crawl before they learn to walk. One step at a time, you grow to adapt in hopes that things will become easier without realizing you just get better at standing up for yourself. These things never get easier, your skin just grows thicker, your heart colder, your teeth sharper. Because pain makes us more human than the people we were before, yearning to make new mistakes and not the old ones.

“You’re still my accompanist. Our sound needs to be together,” Taehyung emphasizes. “Not here to just sit there and look pretty, Jeon.”

Fidgety as he twirls the pencil in his hand, Jeongguk says, “But I follow you, remember?”

“And you also support me.”

Taehyung recalls the round face of his first ever accompanist, the curly tufts of hair at the back of his neck and the black-framed spectacles that always slid down his nose. A prick right from the start, Taehyung could see through the bullshit. The kind that spewed all kinds of self-assertion, entitled and mighty in that wicked way that made accompaniment feel like hierarchy. But he was good with his hands, even better with his emotions, and that was all that mattered until the lack of trust between them bled right into the music, sounding like a migraine cacophony of notes instead of the harmony Taehyung sought. He'd always felt like a shipwreck with splintered ends in comparison.

“If you put it like that,” Jeongguk says. “I’m gonna slit my own throat.”

“You’re just bitching—” Taehyung shifts the body of his cello between his legs, noticing the way Jeongguk glances down at his thighs. He tilts his head, correcting himself. “—just bitchy?”

“Shut up,” Jeongguk grunts. “You should be thankful.”

“I am.”

He is.

Because what Taehyung looks for in an accompanist isn’t picky, just particular—Jeongguk feeds that flavor quite right. He’s not asking for much, just for someone to be that constant when he’s fucked up halfway through the piece and doesn’t know where to pick back up, the kind of arms to fall back into when he’s stumbled forward too dizzy to stand. His guide and his foundation and his support when he’s lost it.

So he finds it interesting that his first accompanist was a fucking outlier to all of the above, with the five-dollar haircut and the drooping glasses and the perfect hands that made the performance feel like an aggressive race to the top, who’d come out sounding better, who’d come out sounding best.

I used to be so good at nailing pieces, Taehyung had told Jimin once. But Jimin, always so stable, had looked at him all blue and said, no, you just used to be confident.

But beyond the point of betrayal, Taehyung focuses on the lessons that came out of it and the scars that are already healing. Because when you’ve got a line of judges watching you from the front row, every man for himself,

—right?

If he listens closely, Taehyung is bitter sarcasm.

Just like any other night after practice, Taehyung quietly packs up his cello, clicking the metal clasps shut and straightening his legs with a pop. Jeongguk, at the other end of the room, stuffs his music into his backpack and shrugs it on, strong chest bulging when he slips his arms through the loopholes.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Taehyung says, almost sounding like a question because statements sometimes fall flat with Jeongguk, who doesn’t elaborate usually. He slings his own backpack over his shoulder in the empty hallway just outside the music room, cello case bumping against his thigh urging him to get his ass out of here. Unnecessarily, he adds, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk nods and starts off in the opposite direction, waving goodbye with his sticks in the air.

 

 

(Taehyung is smoking when Jeongguk walks into the studio, practicing scales near the open window with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Jeongguk dislikes the smell of musk disguised with heavy cologne, the burning lump in your throat when you're holding back tears, and cigarette smoke clinging to hair.

“Quit smoking in here,” he says, wafting his hand around. “It sticks in the carpet.”

“M’ stressed,” Taehyung mumbles, lukewarm and squinting at his music. He stumbles over a measure but somehow looks used to it, like he’s been doing it for hours. “Window’s open, see?”

“Smoking’s gonna kill you.”

“Exactly.” Taehyung turns to blow smoke out the window from the side of his mouth but finishes off the rest of it, stubbing out the end on the brick window sill and flicking it. “Gonna die anyway.”

“Should probably take a break instead,” Jeongguk says, pacing across the room to grab his sticks and music folder off the timpani. “Your technique is going to shit.”

Taehyung halts his bow over the strings, mildly annoyed with the interruption. “What was that?”

“Take a break,” Jeongguk repeats. “You’re forcing it.”

It’s not false—Taehyung just looks guilty for being so blatant about it. But when you’ve practiced past mental capacity, it becomes a dangerous hindrance where frustration starts to translate into the sound like irate insecurity even three rooms down the hall past these closed doors. Jeongguk can hear it, rough and accented where he knows poco allegro is noted, and it’s nothing like the confidence of Taehyung’s potential that he catches sometimes, rare but existing.

“I’m not forcing anything,” Taehyung defends, sounding unconvincing even to himself, like a very shallow puddle waiting to be stepped on. “I swear I’m this close to having it, so get off my ass.”

Jeongguk knows that feeling, the absorption into a state of mind where all he cares about is nailing that measure that seems to fuck him up, practicing until the skin of his hands are raw. But it’s okay, he always tells himself, because at least the memory of the rhythm is branded into the muscles, both external and internal and real. A kind of unparalleled satisfaction that makes the ache in his joints so worth it.

“It’ll still be there when you come back,” Jeongguk says. The soft plucking of the strings where the pads of Taehyung’s fingertips press down tickles his ears. “No one’s dying to steal Tchaikovsky.”

“I’m in a zone right now,” Taehyung mumbles stubbornly, lightly fingering through the notes and looking very determined for all the wrong reasons. “A really good one that I need to ride out. I won’t have to come back if I nail it now.”

“It’s just ten fucking minutes,” Jeongguk gives Taehyung a wary look. He pretends his hands are busy and runs them through his bangs, shoving them out of his face, something to do. “Seriously, it’ll feel a lot better.”

“You always this persistent about someone else’s practice?” Taehyung lowers his hands from the cello, a little stiff at the joints. “Or do you just like to hear yourself talk?”

“Just saying. Frustration and practice don’t mix well,” Jeongguk says, a bit snarky. “I could hear you from outside—doesn’t sound like you’re getting better any time soon.”

“Why do you suppose I’m practicing?” Taehyung says, discouragement staining the very undercurrents of his tone.

“To prove you’re not bad,” Jeongguk answers, reaching behind him to slide his drumsticks in the pocket of his backpack. “You shouldn’t do that, y’know. Practice to get better, yeah, but not that.”

“I know already, it’s—” Taehyung sighs, defeated and beat down by his own swelling insecurity. “I’m gonna fall out of this if I stop now.”

“You really think you won’t fall back into it when you come back?” Jeongguk snorts before stalking out. “We’re musicians, aren’t we? What else do we do but fall for the music each and every time it touches us?”

Something about that seems to change the look in Taehyung’s eyes because sometimes a ten minute break is the only solution you need. Not an escape, per se, just a breath of clean air to clear all the bad in your lungs.

Other times, he wonders if Taehyung just wants to be the guy that overcomes it all.

Ah—come on, I’ve got shit to do,” Taehyung urges, raspy against his shoulder a few minutes later when they’ve both managed to crash into the empty instrument storage room. Something subtle and unspoken but a very apparent agreement between them after Taehyung had followed Jeongguk out into the hall, tension rolling off each other’s skin in waves.

He lets Taehyung shove him roughly against the wall of lockers and slots their legs together just right, lets him bite the collar of his shirt before taking the upper hand and flipping them over, caging Taehyung back against the metal with his heavy body mass.

“I’ve got shit to do, too,” Jeongguk grits, squeezing Taehyung’s hips with bruising pressure. “You’re not special.”

Taehyung's entire body shudders at that.

It’s far from any context of romance when it’s this raw and aggressive, tasting so much like teeth and sweat. Jeongguk sucks at the underside of Taehyung’s jaw until it’s wet, shivering when he rakes angry red lines down his back in return. He’s already so out of breath, blitzed from this need for release that it hurts, but he doesn’t mind. He wants the scratches and the blotchy bruises and the salty skin, he wants it all and he wants it hard.

He wants them because they make him feel wanted.

Reaching behind, he gets a handful of Taehyung’s ass and easily hoists him up against the lockers.

“Then hurry up and fuck me,” Taehyung mutters through his panting. His hands slide up and grip the dusty top of the lockers, palms pressing tightly into the edge when Jeongguk rocks his hips against him. “Think you can do that, big boy?

“Shut up, Kim,” Jeongguk grunts into his neck, slams Taehyung against the locker for good measure and relishes in the shaky gasp he coaxes. “Fuckin’ music saint.”

He loves how wrecked Taehyung sounds. Loves the sound of imperfection when no one’s listening.)

 

 

Jimin is hardly one to hold back, and Taehyung knows what to expect before it even hits him.

“So you gave him a chance, huh?” Jimin’s saying, not judging, but his choice of words feel like they’re doing just that, right to his core.

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“Sure you did.”

Taehyung dips his yellow wand into the solution between them, just an empty styrofoam box from that morning’s breakfast filled a third of the way with bubble water. He found the bottle when he hopped out of the car earlier, some cheap thing discarded at the side of the dirt path toppled over on a patch of green grass.

“What if it’s a bomb,” Jimin had said skeptically, tapping cigarette ashes over the bottle, smoking one even then with his black lungs. They had been standing side by side for a good five minutes, staring down at the whimsical plastic and its shady irony. Fat letters and cartoon balloons staring right back at them like a very upsetting and anticlimactic showdown.

“It’s not a bomb,” Taehyung said. “They’re bubbles. It’s like, different.”

“You think?” Jimin finished off his cigarette, stubbing it out on the gravel. He flicked it at the bottle, regretting it a little, being the asshole from the city leaving cigarette butts all over mother nature. “If we die, I’m gonna eat your ass.”

Taehyung reached down to grab the bottle and the cigarette and said, “Ever heard of forest fires?”

Blowing soft air through his wand now, perched lazily on the hood of Jimin’s car, Taehyung watches the iridescent bubbles float into sunrise, wavering against the light breeze and refracting.

Taehyung says, “He’s good.”

Jimin says, “I figured.”

Taehyung’s hands are sticky but his insides stickier. Dipping the bottom of the disposable bottle he’d cut in half into the solution, Jimin brings the mouth of it to his lip. Some craft project he’d ducked his head into the car for when he was retrieving the pocket knife in the glove compartment and the water bottle in the cupholder.

“There’s this guy in my lecture that I talk to sometimes. Real stoney, this guy,” Jimin’s saying, taking a drag from his cigarette and exhaling into the bottle. He shakes out a gigantic smoke-filled bubble at the other end, watching it drift onto the hood and burst like a cloud. Too dense for any real heights. “Friend of Jeongguk’s named Yoongi. And I mean, real stoney. He said the kid’s a total softy on the inside. Can you believe that?”

Taehyung squints, doubtful. “Bullshit.”

Real shit apparently. He said Jeon never accompanies anyone,” Jimin bends his leg at the knee and rests his arm over it, rubber of his shoe squeaking against the polished metal. “Wouldn't even do a duet for a friend. He also said you must've wagered a mean bargain for him to say yes.”

“Uh huh.”

Jimin raises his palms in defense. “His exact words.”

Taehyung blows another burst of bubbles and drops the wand in the box, wishing his skin was rainbow and transparent.

“What do you want to eat tonight?” he says instead, suddenly deeply distressed by his own life’s consistency. “We've been eating kimchi fried rice with tuna for the past week. Gotta change it up, man. I'm losing sight of like, the beyond. Beyond kimchi fried rice.”

“Rice,” Jimin says uselessly. “You need to start putting more water when you make ours, man. I want, like—sticky, not crunchy.”

“Sorry,” Taehyung says sheepishly. “I suck at ratios.”

“You do,” Jimin nods and blows another fat bubble through his bottle. “How ‘bout spam?”

Taehyung thinks about that, canned meat, forced into tinplate and taking shape. Very relatable. Says, “Could work with that.”

“Then there you go,” Jimin fishes out another cigarette, gesturing towards Taehyung this time. “There’s your beyond business. Want?”

“I'm trying to quit,” Taehyung pouts but wraps his lips around the stick, waits for Jimin to light him. “But I guess if I want to die a prodigy, I better die early.”

Jimin hums and flicks the striker wheel. “Words to live by.”

“Spam and cancer, the good two-in-one.”

“Burn ‘em, kid.”

Rolling the stick between his fingers, Taehyung’s thinking about Jeongguk’s hands, big middle knuckles and pink around each nail bed, all the hangnails chewed off. When you’ve got someone like Jeongguk who plays the amount of instruments that he does, sure thing the skin isn’t soft. He’s thinking about callouses and then he’s thinking about the times he tried out for Chamber only to get stuck in Symphonic because that’s all his skills measured out to. Selfishly he thinks Jeongguk might have it so easy that it’s almost unfair. Selfishly he thinks his own hands are rougher,

—he knows it’s not true.

Taehyung dislikes waking up past noon still feeling tired, the aftertaste of coffee, and expectations.

“I can't complain,” Taehyung admits after the pause, back on topic and brings his cigarette to his lips. “Y’know?”

“Yeah,” Jimin exhales, white and cosmic. “‘Specially not when you’ve got history. All that backstory’s gotta add up somehow.”

Taehyung settles back against the windshield. “Define backstory.”

“You’ve touched dicks,” Jimin says simply. “And the sad part is that I know about it. Few dozen times, too. Cat’s been out of the bag, dude.”

“That was all stress relieving shit. Really angry dickage. I’ve never even kissed the guy on the mouth,” Taehyung waves his hand around. He hates the taste of cigarettes but doesn’t wonder why he puts his body through the torment. “That doesn’t make musician compatibility any better. Necessarily, not really.”

“You sure about that?”

“Look, let me go out on a limb for a sec,” Taehyung takes a long drag, remembering everyone he'd auditioned before asking Jeongguk, faces flashing through his head like an old movie despite being a fairly recent happening. He likes to imagine things in black and white. “What I mean is, it’s different with him, musicianship. Sounds gay, but I swear it’s never been this good.”

“Then good,” Jimin nods, smoke spewing past his lips almost liquid. “That’s good. I like seeing you like this, fired up.”

“He’s fuckin’ unbearable, don’t get me wrong,” Taehyung adds. “Salty like a winter road, but. He gets it, and—am I making sense?”

“Uh huh,” Jimin drops the butt of his cigarette into the bubble solution along with the bottle and lightly flicks Taehyung’s forehead. “Think you've just found yourself a good one.”

 

 

(The lull of lecture gets stale enough that Jeongguk picks up two of his pencils to improvise rhythms on his textbook, knee bouncing restlessly to an imaginary bass drum—forces of habit he can’t shake when his hands aren’t so busy.

There’s a documentary playing at the front on the gigantic projector that he’s really just looking at, processing nothing like the hollow, distracted skeleton he is. But he notices some things, for the grade because he has to, like how the sound quality is generally awful and fuzzy, blaring from the ceiling speakers like it'll bust any second. Or how the documentary mostly relies on natural noise, the solid clack of a knife’s blade smacking the cutting board each time it slices through an apple, papers shuffling when hands rifle through a stack, the bustle of city life that makes it easier for Jeongguk to imagine his own music scores with the pencils in his hands. Because at least in his thoughts, he can pretend he’s more important than he feels.

It’s all syncopation and compensation until Taehyung, sitting in the row in front of him with the messy back of his hair, twists around with a look that lacks amusement, just as stale as lecture.

“Enjoying yourself there?” says Taehyung.

“Time of my life,” Jeongguk replies.

“Well I’m trying to watch this really shitty documentary, believe it or not, and you’re,” Taehyung nods at Jeongguk’s absentminded tapping. “Being distracting.”

“Am I?”

“Very.”

One word floating at the forefront with an allure Taehyung seems to always carry, he says it in a way that makes Jeongguk feel pleased, like some warped appreciation where he’s glad to be distracting so much so that Taehyung’s tone comes out near sensual with that slightly aggressive quality. Jeongguk wants to tip him over until there’s nothing left to repress.

“Something you want, Daegu?” he twirls his pencil and catches it between his fingers, leveling Taehyung with a stare.

You,” Taehyung says with an intentional pause but treads carefully. “To stop tapping your pencils.”

“You’re not actually watching.”

“You’re right. I’m not,” Taehyung admits. “But you're still in my ear.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “You're just being a queen—”

“Can you guys take your very important discussion outside?” the professor suddenly calls from the front with his feet kicked up on the table and crossed at the ankle. “Wouldn’t want everyone else to miss this really shitty documentary.”

From behind, Jeongguk can see the tips of Taehyung’s ears flush red. A creeping, right up Jeongguk’s neck, all these tingles. Maybe, it’s a bit cute.

But it’s like this: two grown ass adults getting scolded in a class they're paying for. Jeongguk almost laughs at the situation, never too high on scoldings, but he knows a good opportunity to escape from class when he gets one. Taehyung seems to know it, too, seizes it with the same enthusiasm and follows him out of the lecture hall.

Which is how they end up back at square one—every single time.

“Jesus, you're sloppy,” Jeongguk says under his uneven breathing and doesn't notice the way Taehyung’s cock kicks in his boxers at the words. He breathes out a shaky a moan when Taehyung pulls off and digs his thumb through the slit to smear the precome there. There’s saliva dribbling down the side of the shaft that he laps up with his tongue, thick stripes from the base up that make it harder for Jeongguk to keep his hips planted in place.

But it’s a pretty sight, Taehyung dipping down for more. He wants to know what those pink lips look like stretched all the way to the base.

“Mm,” Taehyung hums lowly around the tip and laughs, breathy and hot against the sensitive head. “You love it, don’t lie. Wet and filthy.”

Jeongguk can’t even find a proper response to that because he can’t fuckng deny it, and his hand flies to Taehyung’s nape for lack of words when Taehyung chuckles softly again around the swollen length, vibrations shooting through him and ripping a guttural groan from his throat.

“F—fuck,” he chokes and comes all over Taehyung’s tongue. “Fuck you.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung rasps, throat wrecked. He spreads his legs wide and grazes a hand down his stomach to press hard on his dick, exhaling a very needy sound. “But come down here. My knees hurt.”

Jeongguk’s thinking maybe, he wants to rim him. For curiosity’s sake or as some weird way of saying thank you for swallowing. And because it might be chill.)

 

 

Somewhere along the line, it became less about the instruments—that slow aggravation that used to grate between them turning into something mushier, patient and budding. But he isn’t thinking much beyond the fact that they’re already halfway into three months and getting closer to the date of the competition. Other things, too, that he isn’t willing to admit.

“I’m emphasizing the affrettando at measure fifty-six,” Taehyung notes, marking his sheet music. “With that decrescendo at fifty-eight.”

“Mm,” Jeongguk hums distractedly around a lollipop, marking up his own music. Sounds of pen scratch filling the in-betweens, it’s a soothing constant that balances him.

“Get quiet, then an intentional pause to cue in Tempo I and on.”

“Mm,” Jeongguk switches the lollipop to the other cheek, not looking up.

The hour is late, apparent not by time but by increasing hoots of college roar past the windows of the practice room. Students getting rowdier by the minute, there’s no such thing as being too early for Friday night pre-game, more a concern of can we start yet above all else because adulthood does that. Makes you want to get fucked up until everyone looks the same so you don’t have to worry about letting them all down, until you can’t remember who you are in hopes that you’ll feel more alive.

When you’ve got youth at its prime in the first stages of independence, nothing could be wilder.

“Think that’s it,” Taehyung drawls, dropping his pencil on the stand along with his bow and heaving a sigh. He rolls the tension from his shoulders and maneuvers his cello out from between his legs, reaches for his open case at the side. “Don’t forget to practice. Lots of shit happening on campus this weekend.”

“You don't gotta remind me,” Jeongguk gripes. Standing at the side of the piano, he shifts his weight to the other foot and leans forward on the body to scribble down last minute notes and cues on the sheets strewn neatly over the surface. He twirls his pencil a few times, thoughtfully scanning the music. “Hey, what about twenty-five?”

“What about it?”

“We going for drama?” Jeongguk pushes his round glasses up the bridge of his nose with the butt of the pencil before tucking it behind his ear.

“Let me see,”  Taehyung gestures him over, having already put away his music. He shuts his case with the toe of his shoe and straightens his stiff back, pulling his shoulder blades tightly together with a satisfied sigh.

Listening to the approaching footsteps of boots on the speckled carpet, Jeongguk comes up from behind his chair and hovers over him with the sheets, warmth rippling off his skin feeling nice against his back with a warmth he wants to snuggle right into, the kind he’d favor any day over his blanket at home with all the loose feathers.

Frame blocking out the ceiling lights and swallowing the music in his broad shadow, Taehyung runs his eyes from the staff lines to the green and blue veins along Jeongguk’s thick forearm, back down to the lines of his palm. Soothing constants that remind him of the apartment laundromat on balmy summer nights.

“Twenty-five,” Jeongguk repeats, breath fanning across his hair. “At the beginning of the scale.”

His mind continues like that, graciously absorbing Jeongguk and all his qualities, how he smells like fading cologne and soap, something refreshingly clean in that boyish way Taehyung likes. Effortless and lazy and ‘I just jumped out of the shower five minutes late to lecture, but I need to not smell like last night.’ And Taehyung usually hates that, the smell of cologne once it’s fully absorbed into the skin and taken on a sweeter scent, more worn and skin-like, but on Jeongguk, it’s not so bad.

“Taehyung.”

“Hm?”

“Twenty-five.”

If he listens closely, Taehyung is counting the seconds in-between each response.

The way Jeongguk’s shoulders barricade Taehyung’s leaner frame makes him feel weak in comparison and dots his body with goosebumps, remembering the time Jeongguk shoved him against the storage lockers and left a lovely bruise on his lower back to remind him of the force of his hips even days after. Staring at all those notes on the sheets, he’s thinking about Jeongguk fucking him to no rhythm.

“Oh.” Taehyung blinks out of his nasty daze and swallows moisture back into his parched throat, wills his thoughts back to neutral and focuses on the music Jeongguk is holding out in front of him. It’s neater than his, cues in proper margins and organized with purpose from a meticulous kind.

“I think I'm slowing down a bit here, going into that scale. And then it's back to the original tempo,” Taehyung explains, squinting through his own glasses out of habit. “So you gotta cue me in with the tempo at twenty-four.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says and hesitates a bit before pulling away completely.

Taehyung thinks he feels the ghost of Jeongguk’s nose barely brushing the crown of his hair, but he shakes it off with a jumbled stomach and retracts the stand, folding the desk upright. Not really wishful thinking, just a tiny thing he notices that makes his chest flutter. So nothing, really. He bends down to pick his case up off the floor and pushes onto his feet.

“You staying?” Taehyung asks, watching Jeongguk gather his sheets. He slings his bag across his shoulders.

“Yeah,” Jeongguk heaves and shuts his folder. He reaches behind him to grab the drumsticks tucked in the waistband behind his leather belt, nodding towards the drum kit at the other end of the room. “Still got practicing to do.”

“Upcoming gig at the local indie bar?” Taehyung teases, leaning against the doorframe. “What’s it again? The Gluten Free’s?”

“Think you’re so fucking hilarious, Kim,” Jeongguk mutters, twirling one of his sticks, very drummer-esque, this aura. “Well you're not.”

“Well I am,” Taehyung clicks his tongue twice. “Anyway, don’t stay too late.”

“Don't tell me what to do.”

“Jesus, you’re tricky.”

Jeongguk tucks his sticks under his arm and holds them there. “Am I supposed to tell you to be careful getting home?”

Taehyung shrugs. “Sure, let's hear it.”

“Nah,” Jeongguk scrunches his nose. Instead, he says, “Get out. I’ll see you Monday.”

“Fine. See you,” Taehyung mock salutes and pushes off the doorframe. Pausing in the doorway, he turns on his heels. “Hey—Jeongguk?”

“Hm?”

“Thanks,” Taehyung says and realizes now that this sincerity may have been too spontaneous. “Y’know, for doing this. You really—really saved my ass.”

A moment passes where Jeongguk frowns in distaste, but there’s a softness to it that lets Taehyung know not to take it to heart, small reminders that they aren't as petty as before. All claws with defense and a strong will to fight, they've now been replaced with bare feet on new territory.

“This is weird,” says Jeongguk.

“It’s just a fucking thank you,” Taehyung rolls his eyes, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Don’t go over thinking it, Jeon.”

“Just a thank you.”

“I take it back. It’s actually a fuck you.”

“That’s more like it.”

This time, Taehyung really does leave, biting back a smile when he flips Jeongguk off on the way out, lightly swinging the case at his side. He’s disappearing around the corner when he hears Jeongguk call out to him, head peeking out from the room with a goofy lopsided grin. The first he’s ever seen so genuine on Jeongguk’s face. The first of many firsts.

“You’re not too bad yourself, Kim,” Jeongguk says and ducks back in.

Without the animosity, this all feels strangely playful for the mood he’s so used to, awkward at first but entirely redeeming. Because beyond what they were is something that they will be, and what he means is that he doesn’t believe in starting over, but he does believe in new chapters of the same story. Like a caterpillar going through metamorphosis, some things just take time to fly.

 

 

(Jeongguk likes to get away in the hours between classes and bum around the smaller practice rooms because detachment makes him feel whole. The piano here is missing three keys and sounds too mechanic for his taste, but it’s in tune, and the way it holds up despite having crucial flaws is something to admire.

Two years ago, he hated this practice room and wouldn’t stop talking shit about it, how Becky always got there before him with her lunch and violin and made the whole thing smell like soybean paste. Then she switched majors and dropped out of Symphonic, and immediately the day after, Jeongguk lugged one of the snare drums into the room and practiced for three hours straight.

It’s lonely in there, too, he told Yoongi back then, when he was a young mind starved for company—now he knows better because now all he wants is to be alone.

But he spends too much time harboring the idea that he is this piano but with skin and often finds himself staring at the old thing until his head is pleasantly blank. If it weren’t for the tiny heart carved into the wooden body, he’d feel very lousy and spiritually symbolic about it, which he’s not, and the concrete detail keeps him grounded. He feels safe knowing he doesn’t have love etched onto his bones.

Drifting with his headphones on like he does to temporarily put off his existence, he’s blasting SZA while staring at his sheet music when the door slowly opens with a gush of cool air against his back that makes the hairs on arms stand up.

“Can I help you?” Jeongguk says, pushing his headphones off one ear and turning to look at Taehyung,

“Can I borrow that?” Taehyung asks, pointing at the folded stand in the corner, Jeongguk's green bomber jacket carelessly slung over it like a piece of furniture. “There’s a class in session right now. Don't wanna bother them.”

“So you bothered me instead.”

Taehyung shrugs. “Take one for the team.”

“Well,” Jeongguk says. “I'm using it.”

“As a coat rack.”

“Still using it, aren't I?”

Jeongguk knows he’s being annoying as fuck but that’s just how they are, competitive and prideful even when none of it matters, testing just to see who’ll back down first. In this case, it’s Jeongguk, who reluctantly twists around on the piano bench and yanks his jacket off the stand. He tosses it over his bag in the corner along with his other belongings.

“Have it.”

Taehyung walks past him and grabs the stand around the neck, the faint smell of lotion wafting in Jeongguk’s face when he maneuvers his way back out. Something minty, not overwhelmingly so, the organic herbal stuff with the aloe and chamomile and calendula extracts—Jeongguk knows because those are his favorite kinds.

“Getting anything done in here?” Taehyung quirks a brow at his sheets, still on page one.

“Lots.”

“Sounded a lot like silence from outside. A good thirty minutes of it.”

“Maybe I’m just playing quiet ‘cause it’s a gentle piece,” Jeongguk retorts lamely.

“Bullshit. You’re playing Mozart,” Taehyung comments with a curious squint. “Sure you can handle him, big guy?”

“‘Course,” Jeongguk flutters his fingers and stands up. “Good with my fingers.”

Shuffling closer to Taehyung, he slowly backs him out of the room, toe to toe, chest to chest, nose to nose. Like this, he’s a few centimeters shorter, but he doesn’t let that intimidate him under Taehyung’s bold gaze, the way his perfect brows on his perfect face lift in amusement.

“Are you?” Taehyung taunts, finally crossing over the threshold.

“Stellar,” Jeongguk says and puts distance between them to close the door. “We both know I can reach all the right spots easy.”)

 

 

“Why are your hands always bandaged up?” Taehyung asks one day when Jeongguk isn’t paying attention.

Jeongguk’s fingers are covered more than usual today and flit stiffly across the keys from the edges of the bandages, restricting free movement and not nearly as flexible as elastic skin when he extends a pinky to reach for a high key. Some of them are already peeling at the corners, worn and flimsy from exertion, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. It’s not the skin that plays the instruments, and the bandages are only there to keep the blood from spilling.

Taehyung presses his own calloused fingertips into his palm, at his own pliant skin there that gives easily under his nails with little crescent shaped indents. Briefly, he's wondering what it'd feel like to hold hands with a percussionist, if Jeongguk's hands are rougher than his and in which places—along his thumb that curves into the pointer, maybe, or the bumps on his palms where the joints of his fingers are. But he’s got pretty knuckles that blush crimson when it’s a little below room temperature and nails cut too short out of habit, some etiquette he’d learned from a piano teacher years ago with branches as fingers.

Jeongguk’s got nice hands, is what he’s thinking.

“Blisters from drum practice,” Jeongguk explains, prodding at the curled ends of the bandages, creased and sticky. “I was working on my double time last night. Got caught up.”

“Till your blisters burst?” Taehyung says, doesn't really ask for the details. He figures they've all got their own levels of fervid determination for practice. “Gnarly.”

“Happens. Nothing new.” Jeongguk yawns massively and stretches his arms overhead with an obnoxious exhale.

“Tired?”

“As hell.”

“You look like shit,” Taehyung notes, leaning down to drop his music in his open case.

“Thanks,” Jeongguk grunts and slides his hand off the keys in a mesh of notes that hang heavy in the air. “I haven’t slept in two days.”

“What's keeping you awake?”

“Audio Production. Procrastination,” Jeongguk drops his head back and groans. “Being alive. The dumb shit.”

“Well, we’re good with practice for today, so,” Taehyung trails off. “Take it easy, smoke a bowl, go for a nap—whatever, it’s chill.”

“Later,” Jeongguk declares and waves it off, looking indifferent and very dead, like his eyeballs are going to roll right out of his skull if he moves too much.

Taehyung’s only now noticing the ghostly grey patches under his eyes and how his hands haven’t stopped jittering from caffeine overload. On the way in earlier, he’d spotted about three cups of coffee dunked into the trash bin with a Red Bull shoved into one of them but brushed it off. Connecting the dots makes this seem like a college cliche but still sadly unavoidable.

“Let me ask you something,” Jeongguk says, twisting around on the stool to face him.

“Shoot.”

“What are you feeling?”

“Right now?” Taehyung reclines in the plastic chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him and nearly kicks over the stand. “Or like, in general. ‘Cause that’s a lot of bitter sentiment you don't want to hear about.”

“No—the competition,” Jeongguk elaborates. “Less than two months away, you nervous?”

“It hasn’t kicked in,” Taehyung tells him and stands up. He lays his cello horizontally on the chair. “But when it does, I'm not gonna be able to stomach anything. I turn into fucking a vegetable when I’m nervous.”

“That’s reasonable,” Jeongguk fiddles with the torn corner of the leather stool, fabric loose and coming undone. “Nerves, y’know. Biggest killjoy.”

“How do some people just not get nervous? That shit’s gotta be spiritual,” Taehyung says like he can’t believe it. “Fuck ‘em, though. They’re probably too good for me anyway.”

“Yeah, probably,” Jeongguk teases. “Your bar’s pretty low.”

“Hilarious,” Taehyung says sarcastically, giving him a flat stare. “Trash me some more, Busan.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Jeongguk says with a sarcastic shrug.

“Swear that’s all you’re good for, too,” Taehyung smooths his hand over the lid of the piano, the black finish cold beneath his fingers. “Why do you always practice in here? This old music room. I don’t know anyone still using it since the new one was built.”

“I like it here,” Jeongguk looks around, reminiscent in a cute way. “Piano’s nicer, too, cleaner. The other one’s got mad hand grease on the keys from all the Concert kids playing ‘River Flows In You.’”

“It’s dusty in here,” Taehyung swipes his finger along one of the tables, blowing the dust off his finger like a dandelion. “Like you. Mister Jeon Dusty-Ass Jeongguk.”

“God,” Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “You’re dusty.”

“Yeah, kinda. You and me.”

Peering out the window, Taehyung watches raindrops scatter across the glass, gliding at a slant in long stripes that look like the veins on Jeongguk’s arms. The pavement is damp with a layer of moisture, water soaking up all the cracks and flooding the grass with puddles. Taehyung is already dreading the state of his socks, inevitable that they’ll get wet, knowing his luck. In this kind of bleary weather, he can never quite avoid going home without most soggy shoes.

“If I knew it was gonna rain, I wouldn’t have taken my bike today,” Taehyung laments, scanning the room for anything potential he can use to shield himself.

“You rode it with your cello?”

“Jesus, no—I left it here last night, remember?” Taehyung looks down at his threadbare shirt. “I'm gonna get soaked out there.”

“Here,” Jeongguk calls off to the side. “You’ll still get wet, but it’s better than nothing.”

Something soft hits Taehyung square in the face and drops into his arms. It’s Jeongguk’s black Stussy hoodie.

“You sure?” Taehyung straightens it out and holds it in front of him.

Jeongguk nods. “Yeah, go for it.”

“Okay,” Taehyung squeezes the plush material in his hands. “What about you?”

Tugging the hoodie over his head, Taehyung gets a huge whiff of Jeongguk's familiar scent on the material, nostalgic given their plentiful dick tugging history in cramped spaces yet still having a charming effect on him. It's big, no surprise, generously loose in areas and sleeves hanging past his hands, but Taehyung likes how it swallows him up and makes him feel like he’s drowning.

“I'm gonna stay for a bit,” Jeongguk checks the time on his phone. “Plus, I drove. I'd offer you a ride but—”

“Nah, this is good,” Taehyung says, satisfied, and pulls the hood over his head. “I’ll wash it and get it back to you.”

“Only if your detergent smells nice.”

“Well it does. Fresh and flowery and like, Tide.”

“‘Kay. Just make sure it doesn’t smell like you.”

“Like you smell any better,” Taehyung lies, surrounded in a lovely cloud of Jeongguk’s scent and bullshitting exceptionally hard.

“I do,” Jeongguk snorts. “You smell like cigs and ass.”

“Oh, so we’re being assholes now?”

“That’s only just now starting?”

“Okay, but you know I hate smokers that smell like smokers,” Taehyung points out, suddenly feeling insecure and sniffing his hands. “Don't lump me, Jeon.”

“Fine, not the cigs, but you still smell like ass.”

“Must be some grade-a ass then, shit.”

There’s something new to learn about people everyday, and one of Jeongguk’s is that he cares a big deal about hygiene. Which quite frankly, gets Taehyung riled up and tingly whenever Jeongguk so much as reaches over him for his music sheets or shakes the bangs out of his face, the gust air that wafts against Taehyung’s nose from Jeongguk’s direction.

But it gets harder not to think about how his cologne used to rub off on Taehyung even hours after they fucked, always more than just hickies and bruises left on his skin that sometimes stained his clothes, too. Back then they were just colors on his skin. These days, they are the ghosts that he misses.

Packing up his stuff, Taehyung pretends he isn't currently floating in Jeongguk’s hoodie and feeling so exclusive. The hair at the back of his neck stands up and tickles down his spine, and he turns just in time to catch Jeongguk's gaze on him, just watching with a small smile tucked into the corner of his lips that Taehyung doesn’t spend too much time looking into. But does anyway because he thinks too much and too large.

“What?” Taehyung says flatly, self-consciously running his tongue over his front teeth.

“Nothing,” Jeongguk shakes his head, playing off the fact that he'd been caught staring and crosses the room to where Taehyung’s standing, a short distance but feeling so long. He tugs on the drawstrings of the hood and ties a pretty bow, snickers at Taehyung’s dull frown when it tightens around his face. “Better cover up. It’s raining hard out there.”

“Psh. Thanks, I can see that.”

Taehyung likes fresh sheets on his bed after a hot shower, the sound of crackling ice when soda is poured over it, and Jeongguk surrounding him in every form he has to offer.

There's a scar on Jeongguk's cheek that Taehyung wants to run his fingers across and ask how he'd gotten, if it hurt and if he cried. Did he become stronger because of it, does he still think about the memories when he glances in the mirror, is it the first thing he sees when he looks at himself in pictures. Does it make him insecure him knowing the skin will never be the same the same way the scar at the back of Taehyung’s thigh makes him want to hide it?

“Hey, Jeon,” Taehyung says suddenly, setting his bow in his case and shutting it, movements lagging from a distracted, non-present mind. “You think I have a chance at winning? Be honest.”

What this boils down to is that someone is always better and context makes you important. When there’s no one else to hate, we start hating ourselves, because where else do we put the blame for all our shortcomings? The thing is that we all fight our own battles, but Taehyung is still trying to overcome his own. At least the bills, he can get away with.

But if someone is always better, then surely someone thinks you’re great. And if we’re all fighting our own battles, then we also sharpen our own knives. Every star you see in the night sky is bigger and brighter than the sun itself, and like those stars in our night sky, we are all greater than we appear. If one million earths can fit inside the sun, can you imagine, for a second, just how much you shine?

Jeongguk’s trailing his fingers along the bars of the marimba, silencing the vibrations with a flat palm. He isn't looking at Taehyung, but the way he avoids his eyes shows honesty in his words, still too shy to admit these things while meaning it.

“For what it’s worth,” he says, “I think you’re pretty amazing.”

In this context, Taehyung has already won.

 

 

(In the backseat of this car, Jeongguk’s got three fingers wet with lube and a lap full of Taehyung, sticky where their skin meets.

“I'm never letting you finger me again with long nails,” Taehyung grunts, thighs trembling when Jeongguk nudges at his hips to slip his fingers out. “Grown ass shit. What cheap shot pianist leaves their nails that long? Your nails are usually too short.”

“I forgot my nail clippers at home, fuckin’ sue me,” Jeongguk says, a little breathless. He circles his fingertips at the puckered hole and feels his cock twitch when a particularly needy whimper spills from Taehyung’s mouth. “They're not even that long.”

“You're not—nnh,” Taehyung moans at the slow drag of Jeongguk’s fingers inside him, rubbing over his prostate and digging in deep until the rim is stretched around his knuckles. “You're not the one with fingers up your ass.”

“Fine, you wanna do it yourself?” Jeongguk asks, genuine.

“No,” Taehyung quickly protests, voice tight. “Don't stop.”

Hearing the desperation lilt in his voice, Jeongguk stills the hand between Taehyung’s thighs, so excruciating, this timing. He repeats, “Do it yourself.”

“Fuck—just. Please,” Taehyung sighs into his neck, collapsed and hot all over. He’s so worked up his hips cant forward, and Jeongguk watches him grind his dick against the hard line of his abs. “Don’t be mean.”

"I wanna see you do it,” Jeongguk says with an assertive tone to make up for how badly he wants Taehyung and soon. He rubs his hand up and down Taehyung’s strained side, oddly soothing for what he’s asking. “Stretch yourself open with my fingers. Show me how much you want it.”

“I want it,” Taehyung begs, feeling his cheeks burn with embarrassment at the neediness in his voice. “God, I want it—”

“Then show me.”

Jeongguk almost expects him to put up a fight, but then Taehyung’s shifting his knees around to get comfortable, pushing back against his fingers and feeling the pads rub against his slippery inner walls where he’s most sensitive. He reaches down and wraps his fingers around Jeongguk’s wrist, steadying him while he works up a sloppy pace and getting them deeper with all these broken moans he doesn't bother tampering down. Jeongguk’s mouth goes slack at the sight.

“I'm—oh, I'm ready,” Taehyung finally huffs impatiently, squeezing tight around Jeongguk's fingers. “Dude, if you don't fuck me right now. I'm gonna kill y—”

“Jesus, okay,” Jeongguk cuts him off. “Be patient, or I won't.”

“Liar,” Taehyung manages, eyelids fluttering. “Fuckin’ bullshit liar, fuckin’.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Jeongguk grits and slips his fingers out with a filthy squelch.

Normally he’d go at this for much longer, teasing Taehyung to ruin, but time is scarce when you’re fucking between classes, and his dick is weeping for attention, pulsing with precome dribbling down the underside. He tears open the condom packet and rolls it on, falling back against the door and nodding down at his painfully hard cock covered in latex.

“Ride it,” he murmurs, head falling back against the window.

“Lazy,” Taehyung snorts but feels his entire body prickle at the blatant demand, being told what to do, obedient and complying. He lines Jeongguk up at his hole, tip easily catching on the rim and sinking in. Grabbing the hands Jeongguk rests on his thighs, he places them on his body and says, “Touch me.”

“Why?” Jeongguk weirdly asks, brain fuzzy but still smoothing his palms down Taehyung’s lean torso.

“Because,” Taehyung sighs and braces one leg off the seat to get more leverage from the car floor when he bottoms out on Jeongguk's throbbing dick buried inside him. “It makes me feel ruined.”)

 

 

“Eat good bread dear friend.”

“Every good boy does fine.”

Jeongguk pauses.

“Every good boy deserves fingering.”

“Erections get bigger during fondling.”

The auditorium looks like it could eat them at this orientation, upside down and laying on their backs with their heads dangling off the stage.

“Great blowjobs don’t feel amateur.”

“Get big dick for anal.”

Jeongguk looks at him, impressed.

“You’re good at this,” he says.

Taehyung snorts. “Anal?”

Mnemonics,” Jeongguk rolls his eyes.

An hour ago, Jeongguk walked in and plopped a sandwich on his chest with a soft thud and joined him on the floor without question, a free lunch that surprised Taehyung who never really expected anything of anyone unless he’s feeling especially insufficient.

“My instructor in high school bitched at me for using mnemonics to memorize notes,” Taehyung laughs, recalling the memory of his instructor’s ant leg eyelashes. “She told me to memorize them flat out, no bullshit. I'm a champ at sight reading now.”

“Bet you're a chump compared to me,” Jeongguk challenges. “Level up, Daegu—I play piano.”

“So?”

“So two lines at a time.”

“Pft. Your level is rock-bottom where all the other dusty con artists are.”

“I'm the real deal,” Jeongguk clicks his tongue, almost sarcastic and self-deprecating. “As good as they come.”

“Not as good as they could come.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Potential maybe.”

“You still riding me for saying no to Chamber?”

Taehyung scrunches up one side of his face. “A little?”

“Jesus. That was,” Jeongguk sighs. “I had reasons.”

“Yeah, we all do. We've all got—” Taehyung's playful tone borders on mocking. “Like, personal shit. Is that it?”

“Hanbin deserved that spot,” Jeongguk murmurs, staring at the empty velvet seats. “I fucked up so many times in the audition piece, you wouldn't believe. But Lee’s such a biased dickhole, he still chose me to join, so,” Jeongguk thoughtfully purses his lips. “I said no because I didn't think I deserved it.”

That's why you blew it off?” Taehyung pushes up onto his elbows and looks down at Jeongguk. The stage lights shining down on them make his round eyes look glossy. “To be the hero?”

“Such an ass,” Jeongguk laughs and shoves him. “I'm working on transferring over to Jazz Band, too. It’s why I've been staying late to practice. Auditions are coming up.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Telling you now, aren't I?”

Taehyung hesitates, not feeling guilty, just inconsiderate. “This competition doesn't get in the way of your audition practice does it?”

“No,” Jeongguk reassures. “There's still like, two months left.”

“Okay, good,” Taehyung plops back down. “‘Cause I wouldn't let you bail anyway.”

“You wake up telling yourself you’re gonna be the biggest asshole for the day or?”

“Just to you,” Taehyung chuckles and looks at Jeongguk then, hair tousled back all funny by way of gravity. He’s sure he looks just as silly. “So you really are the good guy, huh. Didn’t want to believe it for the longest time.”

“It's not about that, it's just,” Jeongguk shrugs. “Fair.”

“Lee’s such an ass sometimes. And his hair looks fake as fuck. Bet it's a wig,” Taehyung squints then shakes his head. “No, I know it's a wig.”

Jeongguk scoffs. “What’s wrong with wigs?”

His wig, just his. But look, I'm an ass sometimes, too,” Taehyung adds. “I admit.”

“Are we reconciling? Is that what we’re doing?”

“I’m just saying.”

“Nah, me too,” Jeongguk says lazily, knocking their shoes together. “That makes two of us.”

“But we’re good now,” Taehyung raises a brow. “We’re good, right?”

“Something like that,” Jeongguk says, then, “We're good.”

Taehyung feels content, touching on this subject. He smiles and says, “Good.”

Past all the lighting and stage equipment, Taehyung spots a pink balloon tucked into the corner near the red curtains with black initials printed across the front that he guesses spells out one of the university’s clubs. With an outstretched hand, he pretends he’s holding it in his palm with one eye winked shut to get the perspective right.

Jeongguk mimics him and stretches his hand towards the ceiling, covering one of the spotlights. He says, “My fingers are itching.”

“Then itch ‘em,” Taehyung squeezes his hand into a fist, imagines the thin rubber popping.

“No, like,” Jeongguk sits up straight and eyes the piano in the middle of the stage. “They’re itching to play.”

“Oh,” Taehyung sits up with him, crossing his legs like a pretzel. “You want to? Might as well, since we’re here.”

“Give me a song,” Jeongguk says over his shoulder, the rubber of his shoes sticking to the polished wood floor when he pads over to the piano.

“Like what?” Taehyung pushes to his feet and pulls up a chair at the side of the piano. He plops down in the seat and leans forward on the closed lid of the body, setting his water bottle to the side.

“Something, I dunno,” Jeongguk slides onto the piano bench and shoves his sleeves up to his elbows, glasses glaring a streak of light past Taehyung’s eyes. “Something that touches you.”

Watching Jeongguk’s fingers glide over the keys, Taehyung says, “Nuvole Bianche.”

“Ludovico Einaudi?” Jeongguk says, easily recognizing the song. “I pegged you for the type.”

There’s a response at the tip of Taehyung’s tongue that he swallows back the second Jeongguk presses down the first chords of the song, a rich, full sound that travels through the empty auditorium like it’s tangible, settling heavy on Taehyung’s ears and resonating solid against his skeleton. Closing his eyes without realizing, Taehyung rests his head over his folded arms and feels his chest tighten at the nostalgic tone.

They say pain writes good music, but for Taehyung, it’s the other way around. For as long as he can remember, he had always tried avoiding mellow songs in fears that the ugly thoughts inside him would surface and consume him entirely. Not because he disliked the sound or the genre or the sentiment behind them, but because they made him feel more than he wanted to let on. Triggering, in a sense, all the things he worked to suppress to pretend he didn’t harbor an entire sea of sad emotions and regret.

If he listens closely, he is trying not to cry.

And still he’s thinking about ninth grade and feeling so small after failing his playing test, tenth chair everyday that felt like last place. About winter and falling asleep one night with a broken heating system from unpaid bills, yearning for arms and a warm chest to tuck into but falling in love with his ex’s hideous drug rug instead. Or missing the last bus home and melting into a park bench overflowing in thoughts of low self-worth and how his body was probably the worst thing that ever happened to him.

And now, sitting here listening to his music partner play for him like he gets it without needing to be told, connected by some invisible string like those makeshift walkie talkies made of paper cups from his younger years—so powerful that by the end of it, there are fat, salty tears gliding down Taehyung’s cheeks that he doesn't notice until Jeongguk’s shutting the fall board over the keys, the last chord having ended minutes ago.

So maybe that was the last song he should’ve requested of Jeongguk, but it wasn’t an accident, either. Because what he's starting to learn is that you shouldn't bury your sadness at the back of your mind and leave them to rot, forever inside of you, toxic. You plant them, instead, in the lines of your palms, in the creases of your smile, in the dips of your scars, and watch them bloom into glory.

Because you are not something to be left in the dark or swept under a rug. You are growing limitless with outstretched arms towards the sun.

“You're crying,” is all Jeongguk says.

“I am,” Taehyung croaks, a little embarrassed. “Something, y’know?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk leans forward to wipe Taehyung’s cheek with the pad of his thumb. “I get it.”

Red faced, Taehyung reaches for his bottle to distract him from the sudden stillness, the aftermath of vulnerability that never really had a smooth transition back into reality without feeling choppy and misplaced. Tilting his head back to take a sip, he’s rewarded with a faceful of water that drips past the bridge of his nose into his bangs, water concealing his tears.

”Wow, fuck,” Taehyung says.

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, “Dumbass.”

 

 

(“Symphonic is up next! Get ready to head backstage in thirty.”

Jeongguk glances at the clock and quickly excuses himself to the restroom to freshen up, already working up a sweat under the layers of his suit in this overcrowded hole of people. He shrugs off his blazer and folds it over the counter.

Bangs damp and dripping with cold water, he leans forward and inspects the dark bags under his eyes, pupils blown from the steady but consistent flow of caffeine swimming through him from midterm hell. Pressing his fingers into the skin there, the door to the restroom swings open. Taehyung stares back at him through the reflection.

“Ready for your solo?” Jeongguk chides and runs his hands back under the water. It turns red, dry blood softening and swirling down the drain from the blister in the hook of his hand, just between the pointer and thumb. Reminders that he needs to change the bandage soon.

“At least I have a solo to be ready for,” Taehyung retorts, switching on the faucet and bending down to splash his face.

“Have it,” Jeongguk says, ripping sheets of paper towels from the dispenser and dabbing at the wound, paper blossoming pink. “It's just an open concert anyway.”

“Still has its benefits.”

“Some.”

The restroom smells like Lysol and rosin, sweet and gingery with its musky undertones. Taehyung’s hair always looks so soft.

Outside, there’s that voice again yelling, “Symphonic, fifteen minutes!”

At the same time Jeongguk glances away from the door, Taehyung does too, and something in the way their eyes meet seems to shatter.

“We gonna do this?” Jeongguk barely gets out before Taehyung’s already shoving him into one of the stalls. He stumbles backwards and lands seated on the toilet, ass hitting the porcelain. “Fuck, careful.”

Clicking the door shut, Taehyung straddles him and nips the tip of his nose, very kittenish and flirty despite the aggression.

“Condom?” he asks.

“Just lube.” Jeongguk reaches inside the pocket of his slacks and retrieves the small tube.

“Really? That’s what you carry around?” Taehyung snorts and reaches down to undo Jeongguk’s pants. “Not the conventional condom in wallet?”

“I used my last one this morning,” Jeongguk mutters albeit regretfully, hissing when Taehyung pulls him out of his boxers, cold air hitting his dick.

“They give out free condoms by the handful on campus,” Taehyung says. “They fuckin’ advertise it on blast—”

“Then why don’t you have one?”

“Because I have a solo,” Taehyung’s hands dig into Jeongguk’s biceps, self-indulgently admiring the firmness there and the way they bulge. “Been in the practice room all day.”

“Excuses,” Jeongguk breathes and pats Taehyung’s thigh. “Up.”

Taehyung slides off his lap and stands on wobbly legs, feet tangling when Jeongguk pushes his hips until his back hits the door. He undoes Taehyung’s buckle and shoves the black slacks and boxers down to his knees before twirling him around and bending him over. Face-first against the stall door, cheek smushed against the cool metal, ass up in the air. Just how he likes him.

“We have lube at least,” Jeongguk says, flicking open the bottle with his thumb and dribbling a generous amount into his palm. He reaches down to coat himself before doing the same to Taehyung’s smooth inner thighs, kneading the lean muscle and slowly teasing his way up to fondle his balls a bit, appreciating the stuttered gasp. “Put your legs together—tighter.”

Taehyung shuffles his legs closer until his sticky thighs are touching and glances over his shoulder at him.

“Keep your pants on,” he says, breath catching when Jeongguk rubs the tip of his dick along the backs of his thighs.

“There’s no time to take them off anyway,” Jeongguk exhales shakily, too turned on by all of this to think properly. The idea of a desperate, quick fuck in the restroom stall with their clothes still on. Something so raw and visceral about it that sends a hot rush of arousal through him.

Slowly easing himself into the narrow gap of Taehyung’s thighs, Jeongguk’s hips jerk forward into the tight heat, muscles tightening with each inch he pushes in. He chokes out a broken moan and reaches around with his lube-slick hand to wrap fingers around Taehyung’s cock, pumping the length a few times and feeling precome well at the slit.

“Tae—fuck,” Jeongguk mutters incoherently, building up a steady pace until his thrusts are frantic, still mindful of their short window of time.

“Yeah?” Taehyung coos, fingers circling Jeongguk’s wrist to feel the way the hand strokes him, the frantic flicks of his wrist hurriedly coaxing his release.

“Feels good,” Jeongguk grits, so overwhelmed his hips stutter. The rough sounds of their thighs smacking fills the restroom, and he hopes to God no one decides they need to take a piss right now. For their sake, really. He doesn’t think he can stop when he’s this close. “Wanna be inside you, Tae. Want it so bad.”

“Me too—ah, fuck—me too,” Taehyung whines, voice high-pitched and wrecked, shuddering when Jeongguk runs his thumb along the fat vein on the underside. “Fucking hate you for not bringing a condom.”

“Shut up,” Jeongguk says through his teeth and fucks Taehyung’s thighs faster, wanting so badly to come all over him. Without thinking, he brings his palm down, the one without the blister, and smacks Taehyung’s ass. Nothing too hard, but enough for the skin to glow red with the blotchy outline of his hand.

Mmh,” Taehyung whimpers, surprised, back arching all lovely from the force. “Holy shit, dude.”

“Ah—fuck you, quit blaming me,” Jeongguk’s voice breaks, pleasure boiling in his lower belly and burning. His belt buckle clacks loudly with each thrust, a reminder that they’re still mostly dressed and due for a concert very soon.

“Whatever,” Taehyung pants, hand gripping the fist around his cock tighter. “Both our faults.”

“God, your thighs are amazing,” Jeongguk braces a palm against the door beside Taehyung’s head. “M’ close.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung nods, free hand flailing around for purchase against anything solid he can find to ground him. Resorting with covering Jeongguk’s hand on the door and threads their fingers, too affectionate and misplaced and Jeongguk’s can’t help but notice it. “I’m gonna—ngh, I’m coming, fuck. I’m—”

Taehyung comes seconds before he does, all over his fist with his forehead pressed firmly against the metal door, body spasming beneath him. A few seconds after, Jeongguk’s muscles seize, and with one final thrust, he comes all over the backs of Taehyung’s thighs, sweat trickling down his temples and pooling in the collar of his shirt. Making him feel so dirty and spent and regretting it a bit, leaving their clothes on.

Rolling out some toilet paper, Jeongguk hands a wad to Taehyung and leans down to help clean him up, quickly dragging the soft paper up his thighs before the come can absorb in his slacks. Considerate post-quickie aftercare between non-friends that doesn’t feel awkward or overstepping.

Standing in front of the mirror again, side by side and fixing their tousled hair, Jeongguk looks at Taehyung through the reflection.

“Hey,” he says and straightens his tie, briefly glancing at his wristwatch.

Taehyung eyes him in the mirror through his bangs. “What?”

“Let’s stop doing this.”

Smoothing a hand down the wrinkles in his shirt, Jeongguk watches Taehyung puff out his chest and tuck the ends of his shirt into his pants. Then tightening his belt into the custom hole he seems to have punched into the leather himself, waist too slim for how the thing was already made.

“Okay,” Taehyung nods easily and leans forward to squint at himself in the mirror, making sure he’s performance ready.

Eyes flicking back and forth between him and Taehyung in the mirror, Jeongguk looks thoroughly fucked out in comparison, still a little sweaty and ruffled standing there all dead, but that hardly concerns him. He’s not the one with a solo.

Taehyung laughs through his nose. “Not falling for me, are you?”

“As if,” Jeongguk snorts and turns away on the heels of his fancy shoes. He pushes open the door with his back and cocks his chin up all smug. “Don’t mess up.”

Feeling a bit empty walking out into the hall, he doesn’t know why. Figures it’s the sex.)

 

 

“My dad's fifty-six. Not old old or anything, but,” Taehyung’s fingertips sting when he shifts them to the next chord. “He started guitar lessons again.”

“Because of you? String instruments and all,” Jeongguk says, watching Taehyung hesitate over the strings of the shared guitar, struggling a little with the bar on the first finger. “B minor, then G.”

“I don't think he even knows what a cello is,” Taehyung presses harder, chord finally ringing out on the down strum. “But it's been like, twenty years since he last played. My whole life, basically. This right?”

Jeongguk nods. “You got it.”

“He doesn’t remember any of it, though, nothing,” Taehyung slouches more of his weight against Jeongguk’s warm side, arms linked by the elbow and wedged tight between them. The guitar is the only real excuse for why he’s burrowing so close, but he’s not about to mention that. “He lost all the muscle memory. He’s like a baby now.”

“Twenty years does a number,” Jeongguk shifts the body of the guitar on his lap. “Why’d he stop?”

“Never asked. But he stopped when he married my mom.”

“No moonlight serenading? Sounds like a fuckin’ renegade.”

“He does now,” Taehyung makes an unhappy noise when the chord buzzes and adjusts his fingers. “Serenades her socks off.”

“That's hot,” Jeongguk says and looks at him then. “They’re still together?”

“Happily.”

Happily.”

“Shut up. They are.”

“No they’re not,” Jeongguk snorts. “That’s dark magic.”

Your daddy issues, not mine.”

Arriving to the studio earlier, Jeongguk had been sound asleep when Taehyung walked in mid-sentence, window propped open with his head resting on the sill. His bangs were brushing in the breeze then, tickling back and forth on his forehead and looking so serene with the sun in his hair Taehyung didn’t want to wake him. Like how dogs find patches of sunlight to nap in when there’s no one to rub their fur.

That softness had eventually fizzed out, though, into something more mischievous and inherently them, Taehyung quietly unscrewing his water bottle and filling the cap with water to drizzle down the side of Jeongguk’s face, startling him awake with a sluggish jolt.

Seeing him like that, sleepily out of his body, Taehyung laughed himself to tears and said, “I don’t deserve you.”

Now, Jeongguk pats the smooth wooden surface of the guitar. “I think you’re ready.”

”You clearly have too much faith in me,” Taehyung points out. “I’m gonna fuck up. I already know it.”

“If you do, just keep going,” Jeongguk prompts. “I’ll match your pace. The usual.”

The usual. Taehyung likes the way that sounds, how it implies that they do this all the time, the two of them. Connect through music beyond mere similar interest, methods and values of musicianship that they mutually see in each other’s craft. Soloist and accompanist by name but compatible by definition.

The first chords strumming from the guitar, Taehyung stretches his fingers to reach the strings, a feeling different from what he expected given his cellist background where the techniques don’t translate. Jeongguk repeats the intro a few times in a loop until Taehyung’s more settled and comfortable with the pace, small warm ups before they play into the first verse when Taehyung thinks he can handle it, the beginner he is. Like his dad or like a baby, because age has nothing to do with new beginnings.

“Ain't never felt this way,” Jeongguk starts singing, glancing over at Taehyung for reassurance. “Can't get enough so stay, with me.”

“It’s not like we got big plans,” Taehyung continues, voice low and smooth and ending in breathy laughter when he fingers the wrong string with his fourth. “Let's drive around town, holding hands.”

Then Jeongguk’s nodding encouragement at him when he stumbles some more, that crooked, toothy grin stretching across his face when Taehyung falls back on track and sings along, sounding shitty at this point. Some chords buzz here and there under his amateur fingertips, but for the most part, Taehyung picks these things up quick, enough to get distracted at how effortless Jeongguk is harmonizing to his voice.

And then, halfway through the song after many fuck ups. He can’t tell if his cheeks are burning from how much he’s laughing or if he’s shamefully embarrassed or, another likely option, if he’s bright red from the look Jeongguk keeps flashing him, like he’s proud and Taehyung likes that, maybe. Making him proud and wanting to do it some more.

“I can start jammin’ with my pops now,” Taehyung says, watching Jeongguk pluck the strings freestyle, still slouched leisurely against his side. “Real father-son bonding hours.”

“Don’t you just love me?” Jeongguk hums, gripping the capo off the headstock and clamping it a few frets down.

Feeling like he’s been caught red-handed, Taehyung says, “What?”

“For being such a great teacher?” Jeongguk elaborates slowly, raising a brow. “Bringing families together. Ain't that cute.”

“Oh.” Taehyung clears his throat. “Sure, yeah.”

If he listens closely, Taehyung’s heart is pounding like a quarter note at one hundred forty-six beats per minute.

Jeongguk nudges him. “You good?”

Shrugging it off, he pulls the guitar from Jeongguk’s lap into his, all excuses for the butterflies in his stomach that make him want to vomit, says, “Gonna teach me how to strum now?”

But it’s like this, Taehyung picturing his entire life as one big multiple choice exam, because at least then, he doesn’t need to find his own answers.

1. “Don’t you just love me?”:

a. Probably
b. Yes
c. I love you
d. So much

 

 

(Jeongguk is in the middle of practicing on his drum pad when someone clatters in and fucks up his flow, bumping against his shoulder where he’s seated on the floor. He lifts his head off the wall and pushes one side of his headphones back, jazz music spilling from the ear pad.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he says with a flat look.

It’s Taehyung. Of course it is. These run-ins nearly expected, Jeongguk barely bats an eyelash anymore. What’s a day without their usual bicker, is what he’s thinking.

Panting quietly, Taehyung ducks low from the window, as if not to be seen. Which is probably what he’s doing, hiding from someone after getting into a scuffle in the first place and giving them reason to chase him down. Very something of him to do.

“Just give me a few minutes,” Taehyung slumps against the wall.

“And why the fuck should I do that?” Jeongguk says.

“Because.”

“That’s not cutting it.”

“Because I told one of my professors I’d be out of town for awhile,” Taehyung whispers dramatically, like this is life or death and not something he should be dealing with like the grown ass man he is. He drops his head back against the wall with a soft thump and snorts. “He might’ve spotted me just now, and I have, like, none of the shit done for his class.”

Jeongguk straightens up to peek outside the window, but Taehyung yanks him back down by his sleeve.

Don’t—you’re gonna give me away,” Taehyung panics.

“Not my problem,” Jeongguk shrugs his hand off. “Look, I gotta practice, and you need to get out.”

“Okay, just five minutes,” Taehyung tries to compromise. “Just—”

“No.”

Five.”

Past the line of the window frame, Jeongguk spots a professor pacing past the entrance of the music room, only briefly scanning over the smaller practice rooms along the far wall that they’re currently occupying, Taehyung slouching lower beside him. Jeongguk’s still a little put off by the fact that Taehyung had interrupted him when his improvisations weren’t shitty, but he doesn’t have the heart to kick him out like that. It’s professors versus students in this dog eat dog college world, and Taehyung curled into his side is pleasantly distracting.

“Fine,” he says and stops himself from pushing Taehyung to the carpeted floor like he's so used to doing. “After that, you're out.”

Back to square one, every single time. But this time, with a little more feeling.)

 

 

Taehyung is at the wrong party. Which he only has himself to blame because if he traces back far enough to the exact moment that went wrong, he’s standing in front of the on-campus activity bulletin board and scanning over the wrong poster, noting down the location for the mime-themed party instead of the meme-themed party that all his friends were currently getting shitfaced at without him.

And it’s the fact that he’d managed to get himself stuck in this situation that throws him off yet still, unsurprised by the likely chances of a mime-themed party being held on a college campus anyway.

Making his way over to the side wall, Taehyung slips past a group of friends communicating in only hands, laughing from slack jawed, silenced mouths and occasionally scribbling in their pocket-sized, twenty-five cent notepads. Taehyung’s got one, too, handed to him right at the door when he’d shown up, one of those cheap, flimsy things that you can buy in a ten pack with an orange golf pencil shoved in the spiral at the dollar store.

He feels like he might be in an overrated indie film until he sees Donnie Darko playing muted on the television in the living room. And that seems to be his last straw into real apocalyptic, Urban Outfitters down-spiraling hell.

Taehyung fishes out his phone to call Jimin, who decides now not to pick up. Shooting him a quick text and praying for a speedy response while stalling around, he bumps face first into something hard, smacking his phone against his chin in the midst of collision.

“Sorry—”

“SHH.”

“Taehyung?”

SHH.”

“What—”

SHH.”

Jimin still hasn’t responded to his text, and someone’s walking by with a horned lizard on her arm that Taehyung recognizes. It’s already been three minutes.

Hey, Taehyung mouths.

Wrong party, Jeongguk mouths back, looking around.

You think?

Where’s—?

Taehyung shoves his phone screen in Jeongguk’s face, watching his eyes scan the text he'd just sent Jimin asking for his location. Jeongguk fetches his own phone from his pocket and shoots Taehyung a text, the notification pinging soundly from Taehyung’s phone and attracting another round of glares that Taehyung tries to ignore before silencing his phone.

 

Jeongguk

why not call

 

Taehyung

I did

he didn't pick up

 

Waiting for Jeongguk’s reply, Taehyung eyes the front of Jeongguk’s t-shirt, at the bold, white letters that make up Stussy, and realizes he still hasn’t returned the hoodie Jeongguk lent him. In fact, he’d thrown it on a few days ago on his short trip to the library to scan some sheets out of his textbook, grabbing it off the couch on his way out of the apartment without noticing it wasn’t his. He’s been wearing it so much it doesn’t even smell like Jeongguk anymore, replaced instead by the scent of his bedroom candle and a bit like chewing gum.

With ulterior motive, he doesn’t mention it.

 

Jeongguk

call again in 10 ish

 

Taehyung

yeah

ill call again in 5

 

Jeongguk

ok

let's go to the bathroom

 

Taehyung

why

 

Jeongguk

cause

I can hear myslf breathing out here

and I hate it

 

The edge of the bathtub digging into his ass, Taehyung is feeling tragically aged-up and has suddenly lost all will for partying.

“I thought this was a joke until I saw Jake Gyllenhaal on tv,” Taehyung says, checking his phone even though he knows Jimin hasn’t texted, now that his phone isn’t on silent. But he’s lowkey hoping Jimin doesn’t maybe, not in a fucked up way, just something of good fate and favorable timing. Wills his best friend telepathy at the strongest signal to not do that.

“Sad alt kids,” Jeongguk smiles loosely, nostalgic and curiously shuffling through the half-empty bottles of shampoo in the corner. He lifts one to his nose and sniffs. “Mostly theater. All mad rich, too, them.”

“Heard they get together and have orgies every weekend,” Taehyung scoots back until he’s seated inside the bathtub, legs dangling off the side, Jeongguk eventually sliding in next to him. “Real psychedelic stuff ‘parently.”

“Too much come, sounds like,” Jeongguk says, head thumping back against the white shower tiles. “And like, too many holes to please.”

Taehyung shrugs. “Could be fun.”

“You can find orgies all over this bullshit college town.”

“Not for the orgies.”

“You can find drugs all over this bullshit college town.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “The point, Jeon, is doing it with the theater kids.”

“For what?” Jeongguk snorts. “You can just do it with me.”

“You’d be the worst person to get fucked with,” Taehyung huffs a laugh and leans closer. “You’d start doing mad laundry in the middle of it, I imagine.”

“Well you suck at imagining, then,” Jeongguk turns to look at him, eyebrow raised. “I’m chill.”

“Uh huh.”

“Can’t deny it, Daegu. You’re still here.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung drops his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Guess I am.”

“And why’s that?”

At the average college party, there'd be music pounding outside of this bathroom so loud it threatens to kick the door down, whether from boosted bass or horny bodies colliding against it. By circumstance, the silence that replaces the usual happenings he's accustomed to makes Taehyung feel like they’ve got this whole house to themselves. It also makes everything seem closer than they appear, as if the bathtub was made to fit exactly two people of their exact contrasting body types or, that Jeongguk is breathing right against his ear.

“Because you’re nothing like me,” Taehyung says. “And yet, you’re exactly like me.”

Sometimes Taehyung wonders if the entire world is out to get him, and then he remembers he’s not that important. If he could die young but die a prodigy, he would, because at least his biggest downfall would be dying. He wants to tell people not to give up on him, but he can’t help but give up on himself, and what he means is that he is half empty of wishful thinking yet so full of solitude that he’s forgotten the difference between being alone and being lonely.

But then there’s Jeongguk who walks in disguised as a very bad decision and turns out to be everything but, touching Taehyung with the rough hands that make him feel holy. Pulling him apart and treasuring all he has to offer in even the smallest bits of him. So maybe the world doesn’t care now, but maybe that's okay. Because happiness is internal, and Jeongguk makes him feel like he's got an entire universe in him just waiting to happen.

“Let me ask you something,” Jeongguk’s saying.

“Go for it.” Lifting his head off Jeongguk’s shoulders, Taehyung notices him hesitate and adds, “Spit it out.”

This bathroom smells like burnt hair and baby powder, the lights a blue hue that make everything look pristine despite traces of toothpaste dotting the mirror and burnt stains on the counter from forgotten hair straighteners. Jeongguk’s chewing his lower lip raw, the skin glistening with spit and fluorescence. Then giving up on words entirely, he’s reaching into his pocket to retrieve the cheap freebie notebook and writing:

Can I kiss you?

Processing the messy scrawl, Taehyung looks past the four words at Jeongguk, who shifts his eyes nervously whenever Taehyung meets them, always a bit too timid with eye contact up close like this. He gently wraps his fingers around Jeongguk’s wrist, slowly lowering the hand holding the notebook onto his lap and bringing his other hand up to press two fingers to Jeongguk’s lips. Playing with them a bit, and then kissing over his fingers where they cover Jeongguk’s mouth, just a finger’s width of separation that makes this all too painfully tempting.

“Not here,” Taehyung whispers.

But it’s hard to hold back when you’ve wanted for so long, and in the quiet confines of Jeongguk’s apartment room in nothing but boxers and moonlight, Jeongguk holds his face in his hands and leans in to brush their mouths together, just enjoying the same air before pressing in completely and sighing through his nose. And now Jeongguk won't stop kissing him, but Taehyung's not one to hold back, either, loving the way he tastes sweeter than the angry hickies he used to leave on Jeongguk's shoulder during spontaneous jerking hours.

Backing Jeongguk up to the headboard of his bed, Taehyung grinds down on the thick thigh shoved up between his legs and shudders, loving the strain in his own thighs when he angles this just right so the heat of his crotch is flush against the solid muscle. Riding Jeongguk’s thigh like this, he already feels close to dying, trembling all over and grappling his shoulders for purchase. Loving the way his hips look rocking against Jeongguk and feeling kind of sexy.

“Ah—do you like that?” Jeongguk asks, smoothing his palm down his arched spine and resting against the small of his back.

“Nng, yeah,” Taehyung mewls, biting his bottom lip and nodding. “Feels so—mmh, feels so good.”

Taehyung kisses Jeongguk’s cheek, his nose, his chin, and Jeongguk does it right back, in the same order, with the same heart. He thinks about the prospect of a death by asphyxiation because they might be kissing too much yet still not enough because Jeongguk tastes like something he could miss.

Curling his hand around Jeongguk’s cock, Taehyung presses his thumb against the pulsing vein along the underside and reaches down to play with his balls, squeezing on the upstroke and pumping a few times. His body prickles with waves of pleasure, blaring white behind his eyelids with Jeongguk's thick thigh rubbing hard against the bulge in his boxers each time he rolls down with a shaky moan.

Craving more contact, Taehyung spreads his own thighs a little further. Nearly choking on his spit, or Jeongguk’s. Doesn't even know whose tongue is whose at this point but swallowing and tasting and biting until his thighs threaten to give out. Heat building up in the pit of his stomach, it coils tightly and burns through him.

But in the splotchy haze of it all, he’s remembering—

 

(—if you’re gonna punch me, then do it,” Taehyung says indifferently, shoulder blades burning into the brick wall where Jeongguk is pressing him. “I need to feel alive.”

“You can’t just give up ‘cause you failed an audition,” Jeongguk tightens his fists in the collar of Taehyung's fancy looking button down, stretching the material. “Don’t be a fuckin’ dumbass.”

“Look, I'm not in the mood,” Taehyung tilts his head back against the wall, lips trembling. “Not today. I’m really—I’m tired, so could you get off.”

Jeongguk hesitates but loosens his grip, dropping his arms to his sides. Taking few steps back, he nods at the hefty cello case sitting beside the dumpster amongst other broken, discarded stands and boxes of old music posters, out of place surrounded by all that trash.

“Go get your cello,” he mutters.

“What makes you think I gotta listen to you?” Taehyung raises a brow.

“Just—go get your fuckin’ cello, Kim.”

“And if I don’t?”

“I swear I’ll beat your ass.”

“Then do it,” Taehyung steps forward and shoves him hard at the shoulders. “Hit me.”

“Watch it,” Jeongguk grits, stumbling at the surprising force.

“Hit me,” Taehyung repeats and shoves him again. “C’mon, Jeon. Not scared, are y—”

Jeongguk feels heat flare up his throat and slams Taehyung back against the wall, raising his fist up high and threatening. Eyes closed, Taehyung looks like he’s praying.

But Jeongguk isn’t a physical fighter but still a fighter nonetheless in other senses of the word and doing that now without fists, fighting for Taehyung’s dwindling self-assurance like it’s all he’s ever known. Taehyung expecting pain, but Jeongguk gives him empathy and wraps his arm around his shoulders to pull him in for a hug.

He doesn't hug him back, though Jeongguk doesn't expect him to, but he drops his forehead on Jeongguk’s shoulder and leans close for the full effect, exhaling deep within his chest and deflating half his size. Neither friendly nor romantic, just platonic understanding in its rawest form.

“Look, I’m not perfect either,” Jeongguk teases after the long silence. “But shit, at least I’m not pretentious about it.”

That seems to strike a softer chord in him because Taehyung immediately pushes Jeongguk off with no intentions this time to start a fire, and stalks away to retrieve his cello, shoulders straighter, footsteps lighter.

“Says you,” Taehyung grumbles, bending down to hook his fingers around the handle of his case. “Pretentious my ass, dude.”)

 

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk’s voice brings him back, low and breathy. “You with me?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung nods and circles his hips. “Thinking—ah, about that time behind the music building.”

“At the dumpster?”

“That one.”

Taehyung works up a frantic pace, so close now, headboard thumping against the wall with the force of each rut. He can barely catch his breath, overwhelmed by the sensations that rack through him, when his entire body finally locks up, and he comes hard in his boxers.

Collapsing against Jeongguk’s chest in a sweaty heap, he thumbs at the slit of Jeongguk’s pulsing cock, squeezing hard beneath the head and groaning in appreciation when he shudders and drops his head back against the headboard. He looks good like that, jaw tensing and going slack a few times while Taehyung kneads the base and smears the bead of precome that slides down the shaft. Stroking a little quicker, he flicks his wrist once, twice in big strokes before Jeongguk comes hot all over his hand with a choked gasp.

Jeongguk looks good in every shade of moonlight.

And now that they’ve both come, dying to do it for so long, Taehyung leans in to swallow down Jeongguk’s post-orgasm sigh and ends it with a wet kiss. Sharp teeth and claws of their former selves tucked away on the top shelf with nothing but this, left in their wake.

Simple, saccharine things of body music.

“Your room’s a mess,” Taehyung says later when they’ve cleaned up, looking around the room with his chin digging into Jeongguk’s diaphragm. He reaches over him to pluck the red solo cup full of black sharpies off his nightstand, two stacked in one, and neatly dumps out all the markers. “There's mad shit everywhere.”

“Haven’t had time to clean,” Jeongguk says, glancing at him before going back to flicking through his phone and almost dropping it on his face. “But I will.”

“Good,” Taehyung hands Jeongguk one of the cups. “You wanna ditch this party and go to the other one? Jimin texted me the location.”

“Finally. It's been like ten hours,” Jeongguk plops his phone on the pillow beside him and grabs the plastic cup to hold pointlessly against his chest, like he’s nursing a bottle of beer. “Up to you, though.”

Taehyung considers his options and decides against all of them. “Yeah, that's a no for me, too.”

“Good choice,” Jeongguk murmurs, idly drumming his fingers against Taehyung’s nape. The brown strands there are getting long, Taehyung absently notes, he needs a haircut. “I vote for sleep.”

“Mm,” Taehyung agrees. “I’m down.”

“Then get in on this,” Jeongguk welcomes and lifts the covers for Taehyung to crawl under.

Taehyung shifts onto his side and plops down on the pillow with a small oof, accidentally crushing the cup a little. He tugs the covers higher over their shoulders, cozy and wrapped up in Jeongguk’s everything, bumping their knees together. Looking so silly in bed with mussed up hair and red solo cups in hand.

“Hey,” Jeongguk drawls tiredly, bringing the cup to his mouth to speak into. Taehyung cups his over his ear to listen and imagines a string connecting them. “You there?”

Taehyung speaks into the cup, “I’m here.”

“Let me ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

Taehyung watches Jeongguk watch him, cup loosely resting against his chin and hair fanned out magnificently against the pillow beneath them. His other hand rests in the dip of Taehyung’s side, fingertips gliding along the grooves of his ribs and raising goosebumps on the skin. Taehyung’s a little ticklish, but he likes it, these small touches that Jeongguk sometimes initiates to keep him within reach, scared that he’ll stray.

Sleep a heavy weight on his mind and slipping him out of a reality that already feels so surreal, Taehyung’s thinking I love you, I fucking do, but also I love you, too.

“Where’s—” Jeongguk yawns off to the side, cutely immersed in this makeshift phone call, before bringing the cup back to his mouth. “Where’s my Stussy hoodie?”

The way music tempo is measured is the same way human heart rates are measured, in beats per minute. They say your heart beats faster when you’re in love, and Taehyung’s beats fifty beats per minute faster when he’s with Jeongguk.

What he means is that Jeongguk is his allegro.

Taehyung laughs and says, “Mine now.”

And Jeongguk says, “Yours.”

 

 

(

Jimin

does guk bitch to u about tae as much as tae bitches about him to me

 

Yoongi

all th fucking time

like nonstick

*nonstop

jus tell him to stfu

ykno usually works, telling ppl to stf u

 

Jimin

is that sarcasm

are u being a dicc

I feel like he will cry

 

Yoongi

my dick

?

 

Jimin

Taehyung omg

chill the fuck out

like what if he hates me for awhile

 

Yoongi

then yuo jus gotta deal

lol tf

deductive reasoning

 

Jimin

hey

 

Yoongi

???

 

Jimin

u think theyll ever stop hatign each other

***hate-fucking each other

 

Yoongi

idk

things tke time or whatever

 

Jimin

im n ot talking shit, swear

but idgi tho

them

 

Yoongi

u always talk tje most shit

doesn't matter tho

us

no one understnds them bettr than they understand each other

 

Jimin

u make it sound like the good stuff

love

 

Yoongi

love / hate

theyre all the same shit anyway

)

 

 

“Stressed?”

Chin resting on the ledge of the open window, Taehyung watches as Jeongguk pulls up a chair beside him.

“Swear I’ve only been smoking for a few months,” Taehyung mutters, cigarette dangling lazily off his lip. “It’ll be easy to quit. Promise.”

“Uh huh,” Jeongguk plucks the cigarette from Taehyung’s mouth and replaces it with a toothpick, something minty and flavored and refreshing on his tongue. He stubs out the cigarette and flicks it outside against Taehyung's protest. “That’s what you'll say until your lungs are fuckin’ fried.”

“What’s this?” Taehyung rolls the toothpick between his teeth.

“Tea Tree,” Jeongguk says and snatches the pack of cigarettes from Taehyung’s pocket when he isn't looking, replacing them with the box of chewing sticks. “They’re supposed to help.”

“They taste good,” Taehyung hums. “But don’t throw my pack away, shit’s not free.”

“You’re not having it back.”

“Then give it to the kids at the high school nearby. They’ll appreciate it,” Taehyung nods ambiguously in a direction he assumes is the high school. “Give ‘em something to regret later on. Start early.”

“Fucked,” Jeongguk scoffs and shakes his head, spinning the cigarette pack between his thumb and pointer. “No one wants your nasty curse.”

“Just saying—anyone would appreciate free cigs,” Taehyung switches the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “Do I look cool? ‘Cause I feel like a badass.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Hey, I didn’t ask to be saved,” Taehyung props his head up on his palm and points a finger at Jeongguk’s chest.  “That was all you, you and your bougie soul. Master class moral goodness.”

“You didn’t ask to be saved,” Jeongguk says and sees right through him. “But you wanted to be.”

Practice studio stuffy with waves of humid heat, Taehyung hates these high, sizzling temperatures that make his skin itch and everything else the heat associates. But melting right against Jeongguk’s tongue and under his wandering palms, he makes an exception for the sweat sliding along his neck and the sun at his back. Like wading in calm, cerulean ocean water, too hot without it but perfect when it's touching your skin.

You take three months out of context, and sometimes you’ll take chances that end up changing you. But sometimes, you live step by step alongside all those leaps of faith because even if you don’t always land on both feet, you can always pick yourself up after the fall.

On the topic of saving, Taehyung’s finally learning to love himself.

Dropping the toothpick on the floor by their feet, he’ll apologize to Jeongguk later for wasting his very first one and not regretting it.

 

 

(“Three months. That’s it.”)

 

 

“Quit,” Taehyung twists around and shoves Jeongguk’s arm off his chair. “Tapping rhythms on my back.”

“Kay,” Jeongguk says but does it again.

Reaching down, Taehyung grips his upper thigh where he knows Jeongguk is sensitive, hand dangerously close to his crotch.

O—okay, I’ll stop,” Jeongguk startles and stops his hand before it can go any higher, flustered and red. He glances around for any wandering eyes. “Jesus, we’re in public.”

“Pft. That never seemed to stop us,” Taehyung says and laces their fingers between Jeongguk’s knees instead. “You’re nasty, I’m nasty, we’re both nasty—embrace it, my guy.”

Waiting in one of the seats backstage for their turn to perform, Taehyung's tongue feels like metal in his mouth, heavy and thick and all his teeth tingling like they might fall out. Jeongguk seems unfazed beside him, slouched a little in his chair and knee bouncing against his, subtle things Taehyung latches onto to soothe himself from possible death by classical music.

He'd been chill earlier, too, meeting up with Jeongguk at the front doors of the building and buzzing with positive energy that made his throat tight, very unlike the shit show he had expected—forgetting music, dropping instruments, falling down flights of stairs among other things.

Scanning the area, he'd watched dozens of pairs walk by with their cases in hand, soloists and their accompanists dressed in their best clothes, all performance ready for this formal event. He'd fidgeted with the single button to his suit jacket for minutes, hoping Jeongguk didn't get lost on the way there when that familiar head of hair appeared in the crowd, Jeongguk's hand casually tucked in his pocket and looking so stunning Taehyung felt his chest seize. Feeling so proud his face hurt, thinking, that's my accompanist.

“You’re looking extra fancy,” Taehyung whistled and smoothed his palm down Jeongguk’s silk tie. “You clean up well.”

“Surprised?” Jeongguk laughed.

“You live in sweats and oversized shirts,” Taehyung said. “I'm a little surprised, yeah.”

Jeongguk had affectionately ruffled the back of his hair then, walking side by side into the doors with their shoulders bumping and said, "You're looking good yourself, Kim."

But that excited high lasted a good thirty minutes before crashing down on him twice as hard, and now he wants to sink right into the floor in a cold, sweaty heap and forget that today needs to happen.

“Taehyung,” comes Jeongguk’s voice, always a nice distraction even above the fluid sound of the performer onstage. 

“What?” Taehyung says and rests his weight against him.

“What happens after this?”

It's hard to think beyond 'this' when his head's shrouded and jumbled, but Taehyung does, he thinks about that, having never thought about it before. But he figures he never considered an after because he never saw an end. Because all this time, they've been looking out for each other since day one.

“Three months will be up," Taehyung replies lamely.

"And?" Jeongguk's thumb taps against his palm at the same tempo as the piece ringing through the auditorium, the human metronome that he was.

“And I should keep my word and let you do your own thing?” Taehyung jokes.

“Could,” Jeongguk nods slowly. “Or you could extend the deadline.”

“Till?”

"Kim Taehyung and Jeon Jeongguk are up next! Get ready to head onstage in ten."

Jeongguk squeezes his hand tight, “I’ll let you know later—it's your time to shine."

 

 

(He never gets the chance, celebrating their first place award later under the sheets—)

(—but what he meant to say was forever.)