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Passion is slight, with hair as dark as rural sky and a voice like slow rain in the winter. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” is the first thing he says. The answer is, by the way, yes, but Taehyung is pointedly not doing that, and likely won’t be doing that for a while considering his heart rate has just skyrocketed through the roof at the sight of an uninvited stranger in his home.

“How the fuck—?”

“You needed me, so here I am,” he says. “Though usually people don’t start with me.”

“I—wait,” Taehyung says. When he sits up, chip crumbs tumble off his pajamas and onto the floor. “How did you get in here?”

“Fair question. I am Passion, by the way. If you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t, and you still haven’t told me how you got in here.” Taehyung pauses, and decides it sounds too mean. “Nice to meet you, uhm, Passion. Is that your actual name?”

“No. We’ll worry about that later. And as for how I got in here, well,” says Passion, “I’ve always been here. You just usually can’t see me.”

“Oh.” Taehyung frowns. “So you’re like a ghost?”

Taehyung decides he’s taking this too well for this Passion to be a ghost. He doesn’t look particularly threatening; though, granted, he also doesn’t look particularly passionate. Sitting with his arms spread over the back of Taehyung’s couch with one foot propped on the coffee table and the other crossed over his knee, Passion is the picture of lackadaisical calm.

“Kind of. Not really. It’s also not that important.” Passion, too, seems to realize that he doesn’t like the way his words are sounding, and adds, “This is what I mean when people don’t usually start with me.”

“Meaning there’s more of you?”

“Six of us,” says Passion, picking a chip out of the crumpled bag on the couch, crunching it between his teeth deliberately. “You’ll meet them in due time. You summoned us.”

Taehyung racks his brains in an attempt to recall if he’s participated in anything involving pentagrams or virgin blood and comes up empty.

“Try not to think too hard. Like I said, it’ll make sense when you meet more of us. They explain a lot better than I can.”

“So,” says Taehyung, “you are Passion. You’re always here, but I can’t see you. You’re not a ghost.” Passion nods along to all of this, and waits as Taehyung works himself through a frown. “Are you real?”

“Wouldn’t you say so?”

 

Taehyung attributes the encounter to stress, though he’s not sure if it’s something he should ignore if he’s having stress-induced hallucinatory episodes.

“Sounds like you’re like the Black Swan movie, except for real,” says Jihan as Taehyung warms his feet up the next day. It’s a cold, sleety morning, before first snow but with enough ice for it to already be miserable walking outside for too long. “Don’t go ripping any hangnails up to your knuckle.”

“Ew, hyung, no,” Taehyung complains. Jihan chuckles where he sits across from Taehyung, sewing elastics into the seams of his ballet slippers. “Don’t scare me like that, it felt really real.”

“Are you sure you’ve been getting enough sleep?” Jihan says. “You should’ve rested better for rehearsal today, you’ve been working too hard.”

“I know, I know.” Jihan doesn’t speak up even as Taehyung falls silent, flipping the hem of his slipper inside out to survey his handiwork. “I got into bed but I couldn’t sleep, so I got back up and turned the TV on. It’s easier to fall asleep on the couch with white noise.”

“Still not sleeping in bed, huh?”

“I will,” Taehyung says, forcefully, moreso than he intends to. Jihan only answers with a flicker of a gaze, nothing more than mere acknowledgement that he’s still listening. “I just. I’ll get new covers, and I’ll move it up against another wall. But after we wrap up the Nutcracker.” At least until after we wrap up the Nutcracker.

“Do you think we’ll get any new faces this time around?” Jihan breaks the the excess thread between his teeth and pins his needle back in his pincushion. “We always seem to get an army of them for Nutcracker productions.”

“Isn’t he new?”

Jihan looks up in the direction Taehyung jerks his chin at, pulling a length of thread from the spool as he searches. Taehyung had only just seen him now, sitting on the floor and rolling his ankles before warm-up class. He sits alone, the other dancers in the company brushing past without looking in his direction.

“Huh.” Jihan crosses his legs. “I guess he is.”

“As if there weren’t only one and a half roles for guys in the Nutcracker already, thanks a lot, punk,” Taehyung mutters. Jihan laughs.

“Maybe he’ll just be a toy soldier. Or a mouse? Although,” there’s a crisp snap as Jihan pulls his slipper snug onto his foot, “he’s got a face to be the sugar plum cavalier if he’s good enough.”

Whatever. It doesn’t matter hugely to Taehyung who the new guy is slated to dance, as long as he doesn’t barrel through the corps de ballet as if he’s the next principal. Taehyung’s met and bid goodbye to a number of them, danseurs and ballerinas alike, with how long he has worked in this company. He had moved steadily through the apprentice ranks, then through the corps, before toeing the edges of something like a demi-soloist. It’s a nice pedestal to stand on, but sometimes Taehyung enjoys the anonymity of the corps.

The schedules for today have Taehyung lined up for warm-up class now, stage rehearsal for Chunhyangjeon for two hours after lunch, then studio rehearsal for the upcoming Nutcracker for some four hours until the evening. The day is packed, back to back, and Taehyung is thankful for it. He can’t have time to think, recently, choosing to stay at the barre until his muscles want to give out.

“Jeon Jeongguk,” says Hyungsik when he joins Taehyung at the barre by the mirror. He looks up from where he’d been studying his feet.

“What?”

“The new kid. I heard you and Jihan talking about him, so I went and snooped around.”

“Hyung.”

“He’s younger than you, you know?” Hyungsik says. “Seems like he’s trying to join the company. Wants to start out in the corps. Transferred here from another company. I guess he didn’t like it there.”

“Has he ever been in shows?”

“Probably only as corps, so you won’t find his name anywhere,” Hyungsik says, sinking into a grand plié. “I talked to him outside, actually. He’s eager, if a bit shy. It’ll be nice to have another guy around.”

“You’re right.”

“Hey, you’re already the Nutcracker Prince,” Hyungsik says, sensing the hesitation in Taehyung’s voice. “Don’t worry about it. He’s not going to boot you out of a role you just got last week.”

As usual, Taehyung’s hyungs are right. Most of them have danced in this company for even longer than he has, and they know with even quicker an eye when a new danseur or ballerina will be a pain in the ass. Hyungsik says he won’t be. Jihan shrugs, over coffee, which is usually an indicator not to motherfucking talk to him until he’s had his afternoon caffeine fix. Yoonwoo hasn’t seen this Jeon Jeongguk yet.

“Be nice to him,” is what a stranger says, when Taehyung’s sitting in a dressing room shrugging out of his sweaty tights into his spare pair, gearing up for the grueling rehearsal with his Nutcracker partner for the rest of the afternoon and evening. He jumps so hard he knocks his shin into a chair.

“Fuck,” he hisses.

“I’m sorry, did I scare you?”

“Take a wild guess. And who are you?”

“Oh,” says the stranger. “Am I not the first this time?”

Taehyung takes gulping breaths. “Which one are you?”

“Time,” says the stranger. “But who came before me?”

“Passion,” says Taehyung, doing a little butt shimmy to get his tights on the rest of the way. “Or something. He said he usually isn’t the first one.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that.”

“Uh, so,” Taehyung says. “I’m going to go now.”

“You need me,” says Time.

The face Taehyung makes is less than friendly, mainly because he can hear somebody coming, and he wants to get out of here before they can ask any questions about the stranger in the dressing room.

“I don’t know who you are,” Taehyung says. “I think I can confidently say that I don’t need you.” Or anybody. But he can say that less confidently.

“Everyone needs me,” Time says, matter-of-factly, without an ounce of reluctance—or conceit. He doesn’t seem to be proud of this. “Everyone needs me, whether they like it or not. Whether they let themselves need me or not. First there is me. Then there is passion, and—”

Taehyung raises his eyebrows. “And?”

“You’ll see.” For the first time since he made his presence known, Time steps out of the shadowed costume racks. Taehyung is surprised by his size—how on Earth did he fit into that corner, all that height and breadth—but he is more surprised that he doesn’t feel afraid. Time wears a long black coat fastened up to his throat, double breasted with golden buttons. “I’m here to help.”

“You’re already being very unhelpful, because someone is coming and you’re going to get me in serious trouble if they think I let you in.”

“They can’t see me.”

“What?” Taehyung hisses. “Can you just—?”

The door opens and Taehyung comes face to face with Jeongguk, who makes an unthinking noise of surprise before saying, “Sorry,” and sidestepping him.

He stares as Jeongguk meanders through the dressing room, searching for his bag.

“See?”

“Why can’t he see you?” Taehyung says, staring after Jeongguk, who trails down to a vacant corner of the changing room and finally finds his belongings as the rest of the finished class comes trickling in.

“Would you say that you can see time?”

“Well,” Taehyung says, “only the effects of it.”

“The effects of me, thank you, I am not an it,” Time corrects pointedly.

“Then why can I?”

“Why can you see me, you mean? Some people can. The people who need to be reminded of us can. You’ll understand. I promise.”

 

So, as far as Taehyung understands, he is probably crazy.

The appearance of Passion, and now Time, brings his grand total of mental breakdowns up to two. He’d like to think he’d been doing pretty well after The Incident but it looks like that is not the case, and it’s back to the couch with a bag of honey butter chips and a bottle of Coke that he shouldn’t be eating in the evenings. He’s on guard, like he thinks Passion will just show up again with his feet propped on the scuffed coffee table and give Taehyung the same cryptic lecture about needing him or being real and after some nine hours of practice today, Taehyung would Really Rather Not.

The TV fades in as it turns on, and the living room is filled with the sounds of Taehyung opening a fresh bag of chips as he curls up under a thick fleece blanket. For a moment, he lets himself think. It’s a dangerous thing to, at the end of the day, after he has changed out of his slippers and tights and compression shorts. There is something so odd about the way the night lends itself to thinking.

Passion. Time. Things that no one can see, that not even Taehyung can see, except now. He bites down on a chip, enjoys the dry crumble on his tongue. There are four more of them, if Taehyung recalls correctly, and he had asked them to be here. Or so Passion says.

Passion, Taehyung is not so sure about needing. There isn’t a single danseur in the company that isn’t passionate about what he does. Ballet companies have no room for half-asses, especially not in a company as prestigious as the one Taehyung has the privilege of being a part of.

But Time, in his gold-buttoned, black-woolen glory. Time, perhaps, he needs.

 

Taehyung has some two days of peace. The next person to come up to him unannounced, thankfully, is real.

“Kim Taehyung?”

Jeongguk’s hands close around the barre where Taehyung is alone, straightening up from his stretch. For a moment, his face is in shadow, backlit by the high windows of the studio, but then his expression slides into view as Taehyung stands.

“Yeah,” says Taehyung. “That’s me. You’re Jeon Jeongguk, right?”

“Yes,” says Jeongguk, smiling. His expression is nervous, like he’d practiced this conversation in a mirror to himself already. Which, if he had, no judgment. Taehyung’s done it before. The thought endears him. “You’re the principal danseur, right?”

“I wouldn’t give myself such a high title, but for the Nutcracker, yeah,” says Taehyung. “That’s me. Nutcracker Prince and Hans-Peter.”

“The director, uhm,” says Jeongguk, “he tasked me with being your understudy.”

“Oh.” Taehyung brings both his feet to the floor now at this. “Really? For my part?”

“Yeah, and I was hoping it was okay if I rehearsed with you,” Jeongguk says, words tripping over each other in his rush to get them all out. Also relatable. “I’d really like to get an idea of this part, and how you dance, and what this company is looking for—I’m new here, and they said I was good enough for the corps, but not—uh, that I should—”

“Not good enough, huh,” Taehyung says, lifting his foot back up to rest his ankle on the barre. “Yeah, I’ve definitely heard that one.”

“I’m not trying to steal your part,” Jeongguk says. The words sound as if he’d been worrying them around in his mouth all day, like running your tongue over the space of a missing tooth. “That’s not my intention.”

“Thank you,” says Taehyung. “Though I wouldn’t fault you for trying, anyway.”

“Uhm.” Jeongguk shifts his feet. He’s wearing deep blue leg warmers that sag a bit around his ankles. “So is that a yes?”

“Oh, to practice with me?” Taehyung says. “Sure. You’d be the first understudy to do so.”

“Great!” Jeongguk lights up visibly. “But I have schedules already, actually to practice with the corps, so—it means I’d have to stay behind. That we’d have to stay late, that is. If that’s okay.”

Taehyung blinks at him. This stranger, essentially, is asking Taehyung to stay more hours at the company building than his standard eight or nine that he puts in every day to begin with, and his first honest answer is I think the fuck not you trickass bitch, but his second answer is one that Time would be proud of. Be nice to him, was that it?

“Of course,” says Taehyung. “I’d be glad to teach you.”

 

He is not glad to teach Jeongguk.

“What the fuck? You’re going to teach him your part? Isn’t the director or, I don’t know, an instructor paid to do that?”

Hyungsik pauses in his tirade to eat half his bento rice in one mouthful. “And you believed him when he said he wasn’t trying to steal your part? I mean, it’s not like they could switch you out now or anything, but Taehyung. Come on.”

“I’m just being nice,” Taehyung says blandly. “It’s the right thing to do.” He decides that it’s a good idea to withhold the fact that the physical embodiment of Time himself advised him as such. “I remember being a new danseur at this company. He’s serious about this craft, hyung, you shouldn’t fault anyone for that.”

“Just because he’s cute,” Hyungsik sighs. “Things are so easy when you are.”

“You’re cute, I guess,” Taehyung says, laughing, and Hyungsik puts a hand to his heart with an exaggerated gasp of surprise.

“I wish you’d take care of yourself better, is all,” Hyungsik says. “Though I guess if he wants to stay after schedules at the studio to rehearse with you, at least I know you wouldn’t be home alone on the couch eating chips.”

“Fuck off,” Taehyung says. “Jihan told you about the chips, didn’t he?”

“I’m not worried about the chips, just about you in general.” Hyungsik vacuums the rest of his rice into his mouth. “Ever since, you know. If it means you’ll be keeping someone else company, even if that entails teaching another danseur, I can worry less.”

“I’m fine,” says Taehyung. “Hyung, seriously. You guys need to focus on Chunhyangjeon and Don Quixote, please worry about your shows. I’m fine.”

“Okay,” Hyungsik says. “Sounds fake, but okay.”

 

Taehyung is in the Skydome Studio eating a mango sandwich when the door opens, and he doesn’t look up. He’s about to make some comment about not being late, decides to hold his tongue, and then realizes that it’s not Jeongguk who comes to stand beside him in the mirror.

“Oh,” he says. “It’s you again.”

“You sound delighted to see me,” says Time. He unravels the scarf from around his mouth so that his words aren’t muffled and pulls off his black leather gloves to store in his pocket.

“Does Time get cold?”

“Why wouldn’t I feel the cold?” He sits down cross-legged beside Taehyung, and nods at his sandwich. “Dinner?”

Taehyung shrugs one shoulder, unwrapping his sandwich further. “You want some?”

“I’m okay.”

“So Time gets cold, but doesn’t eat.”

“There are other things that I eat,” says Time. “You guys call it eating away at. But I promised you understanding about this all, didn’t I?”

Taehyung swallows his mouthful of too-sweet, syrupy mango. “You’re here to tell me about,” he gestures vaguely, “this?”

Time laces his fingers together in his lap. He wears a gold watch with neither numbers nor hands; there is nothing inside the small, lunar timepiece on his wrist. “Taehyung,” he says, and it’s the first time any names have been exchanged, “how long has it been since The Incident?”

The air stiffens like ice like Taehyung’s lungs, and he can almost feel the expression on his face shutter closed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I’m the only one that can talk about it,” says Time. “I am the first one you will talk to about it, honestly, earnestly, and the first one that will understand without question.”

Taehyung stares at him, this man with the gold-buttoned coat and a watch that doesn’t tell time. Something in him is constant and unyielding.

“Eight months.”

“And in these eight months, have you let yourself feel?”

“What?” Taehyung says. “Look, I don’t know what you think you know, but I don’t want to talk about how I feel. Or felt, about what happened. I need to focus on my work here.”

Time regards him with an unbroken, unruffled calm.

“Did you ever give yourself time?”

For the first time, Taehyung thinks he understands. He doesn’t immediately want to, but trickling realization begins at the top of his head, as if someone had cracked an egg on his skull.

“I—yeah, sure. I didn’t think about it. I put all of myself into this company, and all my time went to dance, and it made things easier.”

“All things need time, Taehyung.” Time smiles, and it is not as sad as Taehyung would imagine it. “All manner of beautiful, terrible things need time. Nothing happens overnight. Not pain, nor happiness. Not sickness or recovery. Won’t you let me help you?”

The door opens again, tentatively now, and Jeongguk’s face lights up when he sees Taehyung sitting on the floor alone, armed with a mango sandwich.

“How?” whispers Taehyung, even as Jeongguk strides across the gleaming hardwood floor. As Time had promised, Jeongguk seems not to be able to see him, nor does he register that Taehyung must actively be talking to something invisible.

“Start with him.” Time says. “Let time start with him.”

“Thank you,” says Jeongguk, sitting down where Time had been moments before. He’s nothing but a disappearing shadow now, closing the door behind him as he wraps his scarf around his face again. “For doing this. You work really hard every day, everyone says so, it means so much that you’d stay behind to help me.”

“It’s—” Taehyung blinks, focusing on Jeongguk’s face now, really taking him in properly for the first time. He seems young, naively eager, with a trademark streak of self-doubt and perfectionism that is common in ballet companies. A slanted scar sits on his cheek like a battle wound and Taehyung catches himself staring. “It’s no big deal.”

“The director said that it would be good for the both of us, actually,” says Jeongguk, throwing himself full force into stretching. “That you teach me the part. She says it’ll help you learn it better to teach it to someone else.”

“Glad to know she thinks I’m not learning it very well,” Taehyung says dryly.

“Oh, no—she meant—no, you’re really good, that’s not what I was trying to say at all.”

“I know, I know.” Taehyung lets himself chuckle. “I’m just messing with you. Do you want to start from the top, then, act two scene one? I’ve only learned the choreography all the way through a few times, been working on cleaning up scene one first.”

“Yeah, let’s start there.” Jeongguk waits for Taehyung to readjust his slippers and leg warmers over his heel tights, more conservative than Jeongguk’s compression shorts that leave essentially nothing to the imagination. “No music first, then with.”

Taehyung stands, arranging his limbs in écarté. “I start without music too,” he says. “Okay. Now watch.”

And he dances.

 

There are some things that are immediately obvious about people just watching the way they move across the dance floor. In the first hour of watching Jeongguk the danseur, Taehyung knows things about him that Jeongguk might never put into words even in front of the people he holds closest to his heart: he is a controlled perfectionist, he is an idealist. There is a deep-seated insecurity in the way he starts and lands his jumps.

“Struggling a little on the series of jetés, just a little,” Taehyung says, as Jeongguk pants, hands on his waist, face shining with sweat. “You’re falling short on every other one, as in, you’re alternating your jeté lengths long-short-long-short.”

“Show me again?”

“You’re doing it right, you know, you could just afford to bring your legs up higher for longer,” Taehyung says.

“I’m just trying to learn from the best,” Jeongguk says, so automatically that it doesn’t sound like a brownnosing compliment. He misses the dubious look that Taehyung gives him, but Taehyung takes one long breath before leaping into the first jeté.

He sees Jeongguk at the center of his arc around the room, out of the corner of his eye. There’s a wrinkle between his eyebrows, and Taehyung is already preparing some to give him kind of advice where perfection can keep you from success and attention to detail makes you overlook the things that may be most important, when he sees someone standing beside Jeongguk and nearly buckles on his last jump.

“Well, keep going,” Taehyung hears when he slows down, breath coming hard and fast. “You’re supposed to be teaching, aren’t you?”

It’s Passion, and this time he has a shopping bag full of string fairy lights and multicolored LED bulbs.

“What are you doing here?”

“Checking in on you, obviously.” Passion nods approvingly, looking from Taehyung to Jeongguk, who—isn’t frozen, exactly, not as though time has stopped. But he is watching this conversation silently, just as closely as he studies Taehyung’s every step and move. “Not unconventional, but not what I expected, either. You’re doing well. Is he new?”

“Thank you,” says Taehyung, figuring that he might as well not ask the questions and instead answer them instead. “Yeah, he’s new at the company.”

“Jeongguk, right?”

“Jeon Jeongguk,” says Taehyung. “He’s quite good, really. Hard on himself.”

“As all of you are.”

“I can’t argue with that.” Taehyung shuffles his feet. “I, uh. I met Time.”

This seems to pique Passion’s interest. “Did you? What did he say?”

“Do you all not talk to each other?”

“None of us have a chance to speak to Time that often,” Passion says, plastic bag rustling when he shrugs. “He’s a busy man. Not that I’m not, but he’s Time. But more importantly—what did he say?”

“To start with him,” Taehyung says, jerking his head towards Jeongguk. He looks at Taehyung wordlessly. “That time starts with him.”

Passion looks Jeongguk up and down before saying, “It doesn’t look like anything starts with him except trouble.”

“That’s not the most reassuring thing I’ve heard this week, thanks.”

“You should trust Time. He knows better than most of us do. Especially more than I do, as much as I hate to admit it.”

“Because time will always tell and passion dies after the heat of the moment passes?”

“Well, I’m not dead, homeskillet, let’s get it right,” Passion says. “But, for the purpose of your understanding, yes. You’re right, actually.”

“Passion doesn’t always die, though. Otherwise none of us would still be here in this company.”

“You’re not wrong. But passion died months before Seojun did what he did to you.”

Taehyung recoils at the sound of his name. “Don’t,” he hisses, and hates how weak his voice sounds. “Don’t talk about him, in front of me, ever.”

“It’s been months, Taehyung,” Passion says, and there’s a fierce glint in his eyes that Time doesn’t have. “And Time kept telling us, again and again, a little longer. Wait a little longer. He’s not ready to m—”

Passion shuts his mouth. He doesn’t seem all that happy to do it, then he takes a deep breath. “It helps,” he finally says.

“Not really your place to decide what helps me or not, is it?”

“No. But it is my place to tell you to be kinder to yourself.”

“I—”

“I’ve got Christmas lights to hang. Let’s talk again when you’re ready.”

The soles of Passion’s shoes slap on the studio floor as he walks out. He doesn’t slam the door, but the sound of the door closing makes Taehyung jump, and he realizes Jeongguk is staring at him.

“Are you okay?”

“I—yeah, I’m okay.” Taehyung blinks at him, watching Jeongguk’s face slide back into focus, and his expression is concerned. “Did I fall or something?”

“You finished your jetés,” Jeongguk gestures uncomfortably. “Spaced out for a second, looked at me like you just remembered I’m here, and here we are.”

“Sorry, I don’t know what happened,” Taehyung says, similarly shaken. The studio feels a little colder, as if someone had opened the door and let all the winter air in. “Did someone—did you see anyone just now?”

Jeongguk looks alarmed.

“No?”

“Okay, I just—never mind.”

“Is this company haunted?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Bummer,” Jeongguk says. “Because that would be so cool.”

 

“He’s a good dancer.”

“Good enough to make you uncomfortable?”

Taehyung opens his eyes to stare up at the ceiling of his apartment. The curtains are wide open, and the dotted lights of the city filter in softly now, but the sun will be an unkind clash of cymbals in his face in the morning. “I’m not sure if I’m a fan of this shrink-and-patient conversation right now,” he says, turning his head to see Time sitting next to his TV in a dining room chair.

“You left the restaurant really late, and alone,” Time says with a sigh. “I had to make sure you got home.”

“I always get back home, with my phone and my wallet, no less. You should have more faith in me.”

“You’re not exactly on our nice list when it comes to having faith.”

Taehyung frowns, a little tipsy, so his pout is more exaggerated than he would like. “You still haven’t told me what I’ve done wrong.”

“You haven’t don’t anything wrong. Do you think this is a punishment?”

“I wouldn’t call it a fun time, having you and Passion and the promise of four others invade my life unannounced. To each their own, though.”

Time watches Taehyung roll the cylinder pillow under the soles of his tired feet, up and down against the side of the couch’s suede armrest. “When was the last time you thought about Seojun?”

Taehyung frowns. He doesn’t want to answer this question. “This morning,” his mouth says, and he wants to yank his own tongue out. Time looks victorious.

“And when was the last time you talked to someone about it?”

“You’re shrinking me.”

“I could ask Passion to come around.”

“Still, you’re shrinking me.”

Time waits. Taehyung figures, along the way, that Time’s patience is truly not one that can be beaten. Time can simultaneously wait forever, yet move on indiscriminately, without so much as a blink in your direction.

Taehyung clears his throat and settles his head back into the pillow, rolling his feet again. “I haven’t talked about him to anyone since the night it ended. Last person to hear anything about it was Jihan.”

“Which was how long ago?”

“You asked me this already.”

“How long?”

Taehyung sighs. “Eight months.”

“You’ve been sleeping out here on a couch for eight months? Impressive.”

“Have not.”

“There’s a layer of dust on your bedspread.”

“Leave me alone.”

Time falls silent.

“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it,” says Taehyung. “I want to, but I don’t think I’ll hear what I want to hear in reply. Hell, I don’t even know myself what I want to hear in reply. What makes this kind of hurt better? It’s not words. It’s—”

Taehyung opens his eyes when he feels that trademark prickling sensation along his spine that people get when they realize they’re alone. The dining room chair is empty. He’s left to his own devices, coming off the edge of alcohol on his couch.

The clock ticks. It sings a merry song only Taehyung can hear.

 

“Sorry,” is the first thing Jeongguk says, bursting through the door. Taehyung brings his leg down in a clean arc where he had been stretching it against the wall, working out a grumble in his hamstring after one too many big jumps today. Mina, who plays Clara, had apologized over and over for insisting they practice their pas de deux in the second act for so long.

“What for?”

“I was in physio,” Jeongguk says. “My ankle’s giving me a hard time.”

“Oh, are you okay?”

“It’s not injured,” he says, setting his bag down. His hoodie looks big enough to swim in, and Jeongguk is hardly small-framed, unlike some of the other danseurs in the company. “Just catching in the front a bit, so I feel a sting when I plié.”

“You should be careful. You’re the one that has to dance in my place when I can’t, what will we do if you go down?”

“I know, I know.” Jeongguk looks chastised, not that Taehyung was really trying to. “I’ve been practicing a lot for the Russian dance, it feels like there are more leaps in that single minute than in any other role I’ve done.”

“Take it easy.” Taehyung holds his arms out and takes a breath. “Have you tried the pas de deux I mentioned yesterday?”

“Yeah—I sped through it really quickly with the director once or twice. Not enough to get it down.”

They’ve fallen into a routine of sorts. Taehyung appreciates this, having something he can expect every day. Jeongguk comes in, usually late, usually sweaty and tired. Today he’s in heel tights, dressed shoulder to toe in black with a too-big hoodie to Taehyung’s comparably less-dressed leotard and leggings. The pianist has gone home for the evening and they play recorded music off their phones. First they dance side by side. Then, well.

Taehyung’s not technically used to being this close to anybody since Seojun, and he’d be lying if he said it didn’t unsettle him in the first week. Close, even, is pushing it—he just stands, leaning against the side of the piano, calling out corrections and adjustments as Jeongguk dances alone until he seems to be satisfied with himself.

“You really are better than you give yourself credit for.”

Jeongguk is cocking his head back and forth to get the kinks out as they wind down for the evening and laughs. They’re perhaps the only ones left in the changing rooms, and Jeongguk steps into a pair of soccer pants as Taehyung pulls on jeans, denim stiff with winter chill. “Thank you,” he says. “You’re the first principal dancer ever to say that to me.”

“I’m not the principal dancer.”

“For the Nutcracker, you are.”

Taehyung chews his lip. It’s no secret that the relationships between principals and their understudies are often strained. He finds that he doesn’t want it to be that way with Jeongguk. Evenings filled with his infectious laughter are, Taehyung grudgingly admits, preferable to sitting on his couch alone with another rerun of Oldboy and a bag of chips, even if that means staying late at the company.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“You must have a hard time as an understudy.”

“You could tell?”

“I could guess,” says Taehyung. “I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure about you at first, but thank you. If I had to have an understudy, I’m glad it was you. Someone who seems to care as much about his roles as I do. Someone who doesn’t hate me because I am the principal.”

“Of course!” Jeongguk straightens, hefting his bag over his shoulder with a frown. “It’s frustrating, but I’d rather be frustrated now than be under-rehearsed and panicky if worst comes to worst and I have to get on that stage instead. It makes sense.”

Taehyung zips his jacket until the zipper meets the scarf bundled around his neck. That’s not exactly what he meant, but it doesn’t feel like a topic Taehyung wants to untangle right this moment. “You want to go get dinner?”

“It’s almost midnight.”

“I know. I haven’t had dinner. You want to come with?”

Jeongguk hesitates. Then, “Why not,” he says, bouncing his bag on his shoulder and opening the door out into the hallway. The carpets muffle their footsteps, the hallway dim and sleepy. The silhouettes of their shadows flicker across the framed photos of their company. “Where to?”

“The later, the unhealthier. The better.”

“Unhealthy? Unhealthy is my forte. Let’s go.”

“You have a place in mind?”

Not exactly. Jeongguk just seems to be really keen on getting fried chicken and beer, unhealthy at its best. They sit together, surrounded by the drunken shouting of hwesiks on a cold winter evening and Taehyung looks up and out the window of the bar seating to see a man across the street holding, this time, a bundle of white-blue snowflake string lights. He waits at the curb for the crosswalk light to turn green.

Then a bus roars past, and he vanishes.

 

Some days, out of self-spite, Taehyung will take some time for himself to get dinner alone before coming back to rehearse for the evening and into the night with Jeongguk.

There is a lot of merit to eating alone—no one judges him for what he wants to eat, what he orders, how long he takes. He doesn’t have to share anything either, though that’s admittedly a setback when he doesn’t like what he orders but feels to bad to leave all that food on his plate. It takes some getting used to. Thankfully there are little hole-in-the-wall ramen places now for people who are aggressively single, and he ducks inside one and into steamy warmth.

“Feel free to seat yourself,” a waitress tells him, so he does. The menu is laminated and shiny, set out right in front of his single chair.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

Taehyung looks up, then around, not recognizing the voice. He puts his menu down and leans back over the partition, set up like the ramen cubicles in Japan. The man seated beside him turns and smiles.

“Oh,” he says. He’s starting to get accustomed to this. “Thanks for announcing yourself more gracefully than the others.”

“Sorry about Passion. Time has a flair for dramatics, so he can’t be helped. I am Joy.”

“Joy?”

“Happiness was too many syllables.”

“Fair enough.” Taehyung notices his bowl of ramen, circles of reddish oil like lily pads on the surface of his broth. “They can see you?”

“They?”

“The restaurant staff.”

“People can see me more often than the others.”

“Because more people need you?”

“Everyone needs all of us. But people look for Joy more often than most other things, like Passion or Time.”

Taehyung looks back at his menu and pens in his order, slipping it to the waitress when she passes is table. “I’ll say,” he mumbles, mostly to himself.

“You’ve never really needed me at all, Taehyung,” says Joy. He rests his chin on the heel of his palm, ramen going untouched. His face is friendly, though thin with sharp angles, and something about his aura is more approachable. “Not enough for me to appear like this in front of you. What’s wrong?”

“I’m sure you already know all the details of that.”

“I do. But this isn’t about what I know, right? It’s about helping you.”

“So what?”

“Talking about it. I know you’ve been taciturn at best with the two that came before me. How do you think we know what joy feels like?”

“I don’t know.”

“We know what joy is because we know what sadness is. Not letting yourself feel one thing means you’ll never get the full picture of the other. You know?”

Somewhat. “Talking about it doesn’t make me happy.”

“It’s not supposed to. It’s only one step of it. You don’t throw flour in a pan and expect a cake to materialize. But you’re not going to end up with a cake if you don’t throw flour in a pan at all.”

“You like cooking, huh?”

“Actually, Time is the cook out of the six of us, but you hang out with him long enough and he rubs off on you. Like he does on most things.”

Taehyung snorts.

“Here, I’ll ask you some questions. Easier to get started that way, I think. And I won’t be all cryptic about it like Passion is.”

“Thank you.”

“When was the last time you were happy—and it doesn’t have to be perfect happiness. When was the last time, or what was the last thing, that touched you enough to make you smile? And don’t say ‘this is a dumb answer, but’ because I don’t believe in things being dumb if they make someone happy.”

And because he sounds so earnest, Taehyung thinks for real. He thinks and thinks.

“Two nights ago.”

“Ooh, what happened then?”

Taehyung nearly says, “it was so stupid, but,” and just barely catches himself. It was—stupid, anyway, in its simplicity, stupid how it’s enough to make him happy.

Maybe this is why people call things little joys.

“I went out to dinner really late with someone from my company.” Taehyung hooks the toes of his shoes over a rung on his bar stool. “We got chicken wings and beer. I hate beer. He said he’d drink it all for me. He said, ‘the ocean is made of beer.’ We didn’t have enough money left over after that to get desserts for the both of us and we thought it was a good idea to try splitting a melting mochi.” He pauses. “Saying that out loud sounds so lame.”

“Why is it lame?”

“Nothing exciting even happened. We just got dinner.”

“It sounds like you were happy, so why does it matter?”

“Seojun would have said it was lame.”

Joy’s eyebrows disappear under his bangs. He lifts his chin from his hand. “Is that how he would talk to you?”

Taehyung is already regretting letting it slip. A flood of thoughts hammers at the back of his throat. Was I not good enough? Am I boring? What could I have done differently? Why? What if?

“You really still hold on to how he would think even though he’s made it very clear he didn’t and doesn’t care, huh?”

“How is it that two people who were together can end up with one person who cares so much and one person who doesn’t care at all?” Taehyung asks.

“That’s not something I have jurisdiction to answer.”

“Then who is? One of the others?”

“Yes.”

“Then, what of joy,” asks Taehyung, desperation that he hates creeping into his voice. “What of feeling happy? How do you do it? What can you say about that?”

“I think the happiness that you create out of sadness makes that sadness worth it because it has made others smile,” says Joy. “To get through that sadness is a cruelty in and of itself. But to know you have made an irrevocable difference, no matter how small, well. I think that is where sadness ends, and happiness begins.”

“You think I’m capable of that?”

“Capable?” Joy asks, puzzled. “Aren’t you doing exactly that already?”

“What—no? How?”

“That understudy. Jeongguk, am I right? What do you think he feels around you?”

 

Jeongguk is happy when he’s around Taehyung?

It does not sound as ludicrous as Taehyung thinks it would, because the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that he, too, is happy for the ends of the days despite how exhausted he already is from rehearsal. It’s their own version of honey-I’m-home, but it’s almost always sorry-I’m-late or thanks-for-waiting-for-me. Instead of loosening ties it’s tightening shoes and, Taehyung should really give Jeongguk more credit, because he makes him laugh.

Some part of Taehyung is so scared to lose him, and another part of him is so scared to trust him. If he knew—if he knew about what Taehyung’s life is really like when he’s not dancing, what would he think? Wouldn’t he run?

Such as now. When was the last time Taehyung actually closed the blinds? He’s been relying on the slats of sunlight during sunrise to wake him. The city light filters into the living room in thin, green-blue slivers, scattering across the carpet. One slants across the length of his face, lighting up the tips of Taehyung’s eyelashes silver. His half-finished bottle of Coke lies just out of reach, and gather as he might Taehyung cannot find the energy in him anywhere to even lift a finger.

What time is it?

Time, conveniently, does not show up and announce it. Good lot of use he is.

A terrifying, all-consuming apathy settles deep in his bones. It’s not sad, not bitter. Not a petulant apathy. No, it’s an apathy that makes the bare ceiling fascinating. An apathy that feels like watching the world go black and white in his vision, a world viewed in greyscale. An apathy that makes him feel entirely invisible in his place in time.

“It’s people like you that remind me why I keep doing what I do.”

Taehyung’s eyes fly open. His couch his empty, his dining room chairs vacant, yet he’d heard the words loud and clear. Yet they had been in Jeongguk’s voice, and Jeongguk was real, not like Time, or Passion, or Hope.

“Jeongguk?”

He instantly feels stupid for asking, and also instantly stupid for making any noise if there really was anything to be worried about.

“Time?”

There is no answer. Outside, the distant roar of traffic surges on. Taehyung stands, on jelly legs, and turns on the lights before collapsing in his couch again. By the door, his packed duffel reminds him that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Taehyung sits there for all of ten more minutes.

It’s a pretty bad idea, considering that it’s still snowing, it’s late, and that it’s the weekend and his phone is weighed down with texts from Jihan and Hyungsik asking if he wants to come out, if he’s okay, and if he’s sleeping he should try the bed, seriously, it’s too cold on the couch during the winter. Taehyung zips his ballet shoes into his duffel and his parka up to his throat before turning off the lights and braving the cold.

i’ll be at the company. wanted to practice late today. stop by if you want to, just thought i should let you know if you were interested in coming.

The Sending… bar hasn’t finished loading before Taehyung sleeps his phone and shoves it back into his pocket. Jeongguk will probably see it and call him crazy for practicing this late on a Saturday, but on the off chance he’s also beating it on the couch with nothing to do except stare at the ceiling and feel like grey matter, then Taehyung would much rather spend the time in his company.

At this point, trekking down the icy sidewalk towards the subway station, he expects Passion or Hope to appear and quip about his frankly questionable decision making, but neither do. Taehyung snuggles his face into the knit of his scarf, far down enough that only his eyes are exposed.

And, as he expects, the company is empty, mostly dark as well, when he arrives. His keys are loud and echo in the empty studios, but the warmth of the heater still drifts down the hallways enough so that he won’t need to worry about getting too cold.

The world stays grey. He stretches. Taehyung scrolls aimlessly through the playlist of music for his parts, looking for something that plays during one of his solos, and his finger lands on a movement that is particularly strenuous, and decides—yes. He wants something that’ll ground him.

Taehyung straightens, gets into position, and lets the notes carry him. He’s well-practiced for this part, but he can see the imperfections in the mirror. He can’t find it in him to correct them, and feels, again, stupid for being here alone practicing when even the instructors have gone home.

And this is what it all is, isn’t it? This intense, haunting feeling of inadequacy, of never truly knowing what to do, or expect, or who to trust. Eight months ago Seojun had looked him in the face and said sorry, but there isn’t anything about you that I love, and Taehyung had taken a good hard look at himself and thought that maybe he was right.

Maybe he is replaceable and forgettable. Someone that no one would miss.

Taehyung’s life, now, is wracked by two polar ends of a spectrum. That all-consuming feeling of being unnecessary and unwanted, but the confirmation that he is the best male danseur in the company because here he is, the principal danger to their biggest, most lucrative holiday production. The only production that makes a net profit and not a loss each year. And in the middle of it all is someone just as amazing, who feels just as inadequate, just as wracked with self-doubt, dancing in Taehyung’s shadow. Being told you’re good, but not good enough. Good enough to be presented and just bad enough to stay a secret.

The company is quiet and gloomy, more lonely more than it is scary. He continues to dance by himself, staring at the line of his body in the mirror without really registering any of his movements. His phone sits facedown by the stereo and he is too afraid to check it and see Jeongguk’s question of what the hell he’s doing at this hour.

The door cracks open. “Taehyung?”

He jumps, startling. “Yeah?”

“You said you were practicing?” The door swings wide to Jeongguk wrapped up in a parka and a scarf, beanie snowy and damp. He smells like barbecue. At this time of night, Taehyung hasn’t realized the snow had started to fall again. “I wasn’t doing anything, so here I am.”

Taehyung looks Jeongguk up and down. He doesn’t even have his bag with him. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

“Er—do you want me to go?”

“Do you even have your shoes?”

“Uhm, no, but there are tons of pairs here in the company and I didn’t think it would be a problem.” Jeongguk looks increasingly uncomfortable, shrinking like a kicked puppy. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were serious about practicing—it’s Saturday, I thought you just wanted to hang out and you wanted to meet up here.”

“I—” Questions tie Taehyung’s tongue in knots. Why did you so obviously leave whatever you were doing to come to the company? Why do you care so much? Are you sure you even want this? “Are you happy around me?”

Jeongguk’s head snaps up. “Huh?”

“Did you really want to just hang out with me?”

“What—yes? Of course I did, Taehyung, you sound so surprised. We have fun during rehearsals after hours and we always go out and eat like absolute shit together, I thought—I don’t know, I thought you enjoyed my company. I certainly enjoy yours. Time spent with you feels like no time at all.”

“I enjoy your company,” Taehyung says, so emphatically that he shakes all over. His body seems like it wants to cry but can’t. He brings his hands up but his fingers are trembling so he wrings them, then covers his face. Preemptive tear shield. “I enjoy it so much, I asked you to come out here on a Saturday night, and I was scared you’d think I was weird or a workaholic but I didn’t know how else I could ask to see you and—”

Taehyung’s words balk, trapped under in his throat, when he feels Jeongguk hug him. He’s warm, cold on his nose where it meets Taehyung’s shoulder, and he really does smell like KBBQ, like he’d just left dinner. But the knit of his scarf has the scent of him under the bulgogi and samgyupsal and it quiets the uncontrollable shaking in Taehyung’s bones.

“You can’t cry, I’m a huge crybaby and I’ll start crying if you do,” Jeongguk says. He holds Taehyung tight. “Here I am. You wanted to see me, right? Here I am. You make me happy. Of course I would come.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s not something you need to thank me for.”

His throat feels too full to say more, and Taehyung does tear up a little, but he doesn’t let himself cry. Jeongguk didn’t sound like he was kidding about being a copycat crier. Taehyung makes to bury his face in Jeongguk’s shoulder, but a tall, dark figure standing behind Jeongguk’s back makes his breath hitch in his throat.

Time smiles faintly.

“Why are you—?”

“My name is Kim Seokjin,” he says. “I’m proud, Taehyung.”

 

After that, Time does not appear in his life again. Or, Seokjin, that is.

“He said goodbye already, huh?” Passion yawns so hard his jaw cracks. Taehyung has stopped asking him why he appears when he does, without rhyme nor reason. This morning he’d walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth to see Passion sitting in the empty tub like he himself didn’t know how he got there. “I’m surprised. He usually sticks around for longer.”

“Is that what happens when you guys tell me your names? It’s goodbye?”

“More or less.”

“So what’s yours?”

“Damn, telling me to get the fuck out, I see,” says Passion, and Taehyung cannot help the laugh that bubbles from his mouth.

“No, no, come on! I was kidding. Well, mostly, I’m curious.”

“About?”

“Why you guys have real names and why revealing them is goodbye.”

“I don’t know exactly why, either, to tell you the truth,” Passion says. “But I do know we say goodbye when we believe you no longer need to reminded of us.”

“Oh.” Taehyung spits and rinses. The sound of it is a little sad, though he doesn’t know if he’s imagining it or if Passion has the capacity to sound wistful. “I don’t need time anymore?”

“He seems to think so.”

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re late,” Passion says flatly, tapping the clock on the stained wet bathroom counter reading an ominous eight-nineteen AM. Taehyung yelps, slapping facial cleanser on. He can skip breakfast.

 

Jeongguk isn’t weird about anything that happened after that snowy night in the empty ballet company, holding Taehyung until he stopped shaking. They didn’t get any practice done, but they did get ramen at a convenience store—rather, Taehyung got ramen, and Jeongguk, stuffed full with grilled meat, opted to get a cold Ramune from the fridge.

“It’s below zero outside.”

“Now my insides and my outsides can be twinsies,” Jeongguk had said, popping the marble seal and rattling the glass ball inside the bottleneck. “Ramen and ramune. It cures anything.”

He hadn’t gone on to ask what had bothered Taehyung so much that he needed to practice on a cold Saturday evening and broke down the second Jeongguk walked in. Maybe Jeongguk comes from a company of maladjusted danseurs and ballerinas and stress-related behavior like that is the norm.

“Maybe it’s Maybelline.”

“Are you going to provide any help or are you just here to be a nuisance today?” Taehyung says, drinking the watery coffee from the cafe downstairs. The yogurt parfait is too cold for his liking but it’s sweet, and that’s good enough for him. Joy makes a mock noise of hurt.

“I was going to introduce you,” he says, “but it looks like you’d rather be sprung on surprised.”

“Introduce me?” Taehyung looks up, curious. This would be the first time he sees any of them together, in one place, at one time. “To another one of you?”

“Yeah. I feel like you guys will get along well—he’s great, if not a walking personification of a roast ses—”

“You guys call this coffee? I feel like I’m drinking mop water.”

“Tea is just leaf water.”

This new guy, inky-haired and wearing a bomber jacket with a Hawaiian sunset printed into the fabric, drops into the seat beside Joy across the table from Taehyung. He gives him an eyeroll and bites into an apple. “Wow. You don’t say? It’s almost like things are the products of the components they’re made of. Ketchup is just a tomato smoothie. Grass is just Earth fur. Love is just a neurochemical con job.”

Taehyung sees why he needs introduction.

“Meet Hope,” says Joy dryly. “Hope, Taehyung.”

“Taehyung, Kim Taehyung,” Hope says, wiping his apple-damp fingers on the seat of his pants and reaching over the table to shake his hand. His palm is tiny against Taehyung’s. “Ah, the one with the asshole ex-boyfriend, right?” He crunches into his apple again. “Doozy of a mess we got here.”

“You don’t say,” says Taehyung.

“Hey now. Your face isn’t made to look so sad. You spent last night crying, didn’t you? Fat lot of help Passion was this morning, I’m sure. He’s shit at helping people through crying sessions. One of his many gifts is telling you lots of helpful stuff at completely the wrong time with completely the wrong tone of voice.”

“Uh,” Taehyung says, not sure if he should tell Hope he’s sucking just as bad.

“Anyway, I’ll let you two talk,” Joy says. “I’ll take a rain check on this breakfast.”

“What? Aw, hyung. I was just getting started.”

“Be nice to him.”

Joy disappears out of the cafe, zipping his jacket up to his chin. Taehyung looks back at Hope.

“You’re Hope, then, huh?”

“I actually wasn’t supposed to be. He was going to be Hope. I was going to be Joy. In the end we felt like, from the way the looked at the world, it simply made more sense for us to be what we are now.”

“How are you Hope?” Taehyung asks. He doesn’t mean to sound as dubious as he comes off.

Hope sets his decimated apple core down on the table delicately. He doesn’t answer Taehyung’s question, a habit he picked up from Passion, Taehyung is sure. “After Seojun left, you let yourself believe you’ll never love another person again, didn’t you?”

As many time as Taehyung’s been through this schtick with these people—these mysterious, inexplicable invisible people—he can’t seem to get used to hearing that name aloud, flinching at the sound of it. He doesn’t, however, hiss at Hope to shut the fuck up, and is grimly proud of himself for it.

“Can you blame me for thinking that way?”

“Not really, no.”

“Would you blame me for thinking that no one would ever love me, either?”

“No, Taehyung. I don’t.”

“Then why do you—why are all of you so hell bent on changing that?”

“Why,” says Hope, “then, are you so hell bent on staying miserable?”

“I—”

“We come into your life, people like Time, Passion, Joy. Hope. We do it because we know there is so much more for you. That you are so infinitely more than what that used dollar-store condom said about the worth of your character.”

Taehyung sputters. “Used dollar-st—”

“Because I believe in the beautiful days ahead, no matter how bleak the skies are now,” says Hope, holding his hands open and closing them when Taehyung lays one down between them. It feels a little silly, just because Hope’s hands are so much smaller than his, but it feels a lot like comfort. Taehyung finds that he trusts him. “Because I have hope for you. That’s all I have.”

“Thank you.”

“I can’t tell you what to forget, or what to remember. I know that’s something no one can do except you, and the last of us. He can help you. But I won’t tell you to stop remembering the things that have hurt so you deep that it has changed the makeup of your soul. But I can, and I will tell you, to believe in the days ahead. And Passion, and Joy, and Time.”

“And Hope,” says Taehyung.

“And me.”

“Beautiful days, you say?”

Hope follows the line of Taehyung’s gaze, looking over his shoulder, to see Jeongguk hovering over the fruit bar, serving himself one apple, hesitating, then pocketing two more. He sighs, turning back to face Taehyung.

“I mean, I guess,” he says, trademark eyeroll back in his voice. Taehyung watches him grab a cup of coffee, too, and almost looks like he’s about to leave when he spots Taehyung and his face lights up like the holly garlands that line the hallways of the company. “I can’t believe he’s the sixth person, but whatever gives you hope, I guess, is what matters.”

“Huh? What do you mean, sixth person?”

But Hope doesn’t seem to have heard, standing up and leaving as Jeongguk sits down. “You’re eating alone,” he says. It doesn’t sound like a question.

“I usually do.”

“Me too. Let’s change that.”

Taehyung chuckles. “Not like you really gave me a choice, right?”

“Oh—uh, if you want me to go, I’ll—”

“Stop it,” Taehyung says, grabbing Jeongguk’s hand and relishing in the tingle of touching his skin. “Stay.”

So Jeongguk does. He stays.

 

After that night at the studio, Jeongguk takes it as an open check to ask Taehyung to go out on the nights they don’t have shows.

With the year winding to a close, and the Chunhyangjeon and Don Quixote runs wrapping up with moderate success, most of their days and evenings now are consumed with Nutcracker rehearsals. Taehyung is starting to feel that particular strain and exhaustion that compounds with the effect of nerves as opening night draws closer, but it doesn’t drown him like he had expected it to. The nights with Jeongguk, however long, keep his face above the water.

“Is this a date?” Taehyung teases, sweat still a little damp when they leave the company one oddly clear evening. There are a mere three weeks to go until opening night, but Mina’s tendons are going, and Taehyung doesn’t want to push her more than she’s already pushing herself to grind through the discomfort.

“Do you want it to be?” Jeongguk says, tucking the ends of his scarf into the neck of his parka.

“I,” says Taehyung. His breath comes out in clouds when he breathes. “I—I don’t know?”

“If you don’t want it to be, then it isn’t.”

Things are weirdly simple like this with Jeongguk. He doesn’t ask Taehyung why he wants things a certain way—extra spice, less soup base in his ramen. Fries drenched in so much ketchup they’re soggy. Double-sewn bands in his ballet shoes. More often than not, he shrugs, smiles, and even says, “Me too,” and Taehyung feels his heart skip and stumble for the first time in months.

“What are we going to eat tonight?”

“Hmm,” says Jeongguk. His scarf is bundled up to his face, nose rose-pink with the cold. Taehyung fights the urge to reach over and grab it, or do something similarly absurd, like kiss it. “I chose the last two times, you pick this time.”

“Oh, uh,” says Taehyung. “Seafood?”

“I love seafood, but you’re going to have to be more specific than that.”

“Sushi.”

“Sushi it is.”

Taehyung knows a place—it’s done up all nice and authentic, with the low-hanging curtains and the pillows on the floors. Even this late, business is in full swing, and they have to wait for a table to open up before they can be seated.

“I didn’t realize you liked sushi,” says Jeongguk, setting his shoes by his duffel in the corner of their little room. The door slides open and a waitress sets down a pot of tea for them before nodding and letting them read their menus. “After that stint with the beer and chicken, and that time you detailed every burger you have ever eaten and rated on your own custom Kinsey scale, I wouldn’t expect sushi to be on your eats list.”

“I am a man with a spectrum of refined tastes,” Taehyung sniffs. Jeongguk laughs.

“Do you want sake? Wait, just kidding, I forgot you don’t like to drink.”

“Oh wait, I want umeshu! This place has umeshu.”

“Plum wine? I’ve never tried that.”

“It is the best,” Taehyung says. “The only alcohol I like.”

“You came here before, right?” Jeongguk turns his menu over to read through the selection of sushi rolls. “You tried umeshu then?”

“Uhm, yeah,” Taehyung says, scratching the back of his neck. Yeah, it had been with Seojun, Jihan, and Hyungsik. Yoonwoo had come later in the night, too. He remembers being carried home, long before things had soured enough for The Incident to happen. “Yeah, I’ve been here. With some people in the company.”

“I’m envious,” Jeongguk says, checking off the box for a red dragon roll. “You seem so close to the people in the company. I wish I had friends like that.”

“You have me!”

Jeongguk glances up, surprised, at Taehyung’s insistence. “Thank you,” he says, quieter. “For wanting to be around me so much.”

It’s Taehyung’s turn to be puzzled at this seemingly misplaced gratitude. “Why is this something you need to thank me for?”

“What did you want, by the way?”

“Oh, uhm—the spicy hamachi roll.”

Jeongguk ticks that box neatly, then rings the call bell. “I just say thank you because I didn’t expect you to even like me, never mind want to be my—my friend,” he says. “I never dreamed of sitting with you late nights eating those godforsaken dried mangoes you like or arguing with you about stupid things like whether water is actually wet or if the sensation of water—you know what I mean? I never had that in my old company. We all were nice to each other, but I know the principal danseur hated me. I think he felt threatened by me, I don’t even know why. He was an amazing dancer.”

“Oh,” says Taehyung, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I really hope I don’t sound like I’m humble bragging.” Jeongguk pours himself some tea, refills Taehyung’s cup even though it barely needs it. “I guess I’ll admit that I expected you to hate me too. So when I say thank you, I mean, well. Thank you for treating me so genuinely.”

“It was this kind of genuine vulnerability that even got him into this mess, homeskillet,” comes Passion’s voice. Taehyung starts, then closes his eyes with thinly veiled exasperation.

“Hi, can you not ruin my date, thanks?”

“Aw shit, this is a date?” Passion sits up from where he’s lounging on the floor by their table, one foot propped on bent knee. “Oh, Joy and Hope are going to lose their fucking marbles when I tell them.”

“Please don’t,” Taehyung groans. “I think I actually like him, don’t make me look like a fool in front of him.”

“You know full well that these encounters don’t look like anything to outsiders except as a few moments of spacing out. Relax.”

“You’re here to tell me to stop being so naive and genuine with everyone, I take it?”

“Quite the opposite. Listening to this schmuck was killing me, yes, but he seems to be one of the few people that sees this in you. And sees it as something to thank you for.” Passion crams a half-eaten unagi roll into his mouth and says around the wad in his cheek, “I was wrong about him.”

“Er—do you know him?”

But then Passion is gone, leaving Taehyung blinking dumbly at Jeongguk.

“Spaced out again?” he asks. “I get this feeling you see ghosts.”

“I—no?”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

“By the way, about your thanks. I’m glad. I haven’t done anything remarkable or amazing, but I’m happy it means so much to you.”

Jeongguk’s smile is shy. Their umeshu arrives with their rolls, then, and Taehyung’s stomach growls in his belly. Eating gives his mouth something to do. The plum wine warms him from the inside out, spreading from the pit of his stomach outwards towards his fingers. It’s welcome warmth on these nights when wool and fleece doesn’t suffice.

“I was close with the last principal danseur in the past, actually.”

“Oh?” Jeongguk raises his eyebrows. “And not anymore?”

“No. Well, we dated. And we had a bad breakup.”

“Oh,” and Jeongguk’s voice sobers. He looks crestfallen. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be! Really. He left the company right before it happened, so I’m lucky—I don’t have to see him at all.” Taehyung crams a cut of his roll with a dab too much wasabi on it into his mouth. Fuck. Why is he talking about this? The umeshu always gets him soft and loose-lipped. He needs to stop drinking. Instead, he grabs his glass and downs another mouthful.

Dinner passes by without any more drop-ins, and Taehyung stays coherent enough to make the good decision not to bring Seojun up again. Jeongguk digs up stories from college to tell him about, specifically about having to go skinny dipping in the school fountain because of a lost bet, and Taehyung laughs so hard he feels a grain of rice go down the wrong pipe, so they spend another ten minutes waiting for him to hack it up before leaving.

“You’re drunk,” Jeongguk says when Taehyung stumbles down the three stairs to the sidewalk outside the sushi restaurant. His hand shoots out to steady himself on the sleeve of Jeongguk’s parka. The material crinkles under his nails. “Be careful.”

“I swear I’m only body-drunk.”

Jeongguk scoffs, the breath billowing from his lips in a plume of vapor. “And what does that mean?”

“Body-drunk is when you get clumsy but you’re not drunk enough to start crying or confessing any dirty secrets,” Taehyung says. “That’s brain-drunk.”

“I take that the window between the two isn’t that big.”

“It is too! And I can force myself to have my shit together, it’s just easier not to have it. Together, that is.”

“Okay, okay,” Jeongguk says, a laugh in his voice. They walk slower than usual anyway, in comfortable silence. The subway station is farther away than Taehyung would like, but the wine has him so warm the skin of his cheeks feels tingly in the nipping chill.

Then, “Can I hold your hand?”

Jeongguk slows even more, turning to glance at Taehyung before he extracts his hand from his pocket.

“Your hands are warm,” Taehyung says, sandwiching Jeongguk’s knuckles in his palms. Jeongguk grunts behind his scarf.

“And yours are freezing. I thought you said wine warms you up.”

“My hands are always freezing.”

Jeongguk jiggles Taehyung’s hand in his until their fingers fit together and interlace. Taehyung stares at him, and if he’s blushing, it’s hidden under the ruddiness of his cheeks. The silence is less comfortable now, and a little more shy, but it’s not bad.

It makes a warm feeling bloom in the cage of Taehyung’s ribs.

“This is me,” he says reluctantly when they get to his subway station. The stairs are wet with slush and ice. “Thank you for coming out with me. I’ll see you at the company tomorrow?”

“I’ll see you,” Jeongguk says, coming around to face Taehyung in front of the staircase. It’s late enough that there is no one trekking up or down on them. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says. Whispers, really.

“Can I kiss you?”

Taehyung searches Jeongguk’s face. He’s really blushing now, color creeping over the bridge of his nose and towards his hairline. When it takes Taehyung several heartbeats too long to respond, he drops Taehyung’s hands and starts turning away. “Sorry, I’m sorry I made you uncomfortab—”

“Wait,” Taehyung says, reaching for Jeongguk’s face to turn him back. “Jeongguk—”

It’s not choreographed that well. Not many things in either of their lives have that sort of luxury. Taehyung gets a bit of scarf in this kiss, and Jeongguk hiccups when their mouths meet, but it’s no less real. It’s no less warm. Jeongguk kisses him back when it registers in his brain—it takes a moment, and Taehyung can’t blame him—and gathers Taehyung against his chest by the waist. He tastes like wine.

They break apart when Taehyung starts getting lightheaded, and Jeongguk presses their foreheads together.

“Be careful going to the company in the morning,” Taehyung whispers against Jeongguk’s mouth.

“Uh,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung can practically hear his brain flatlining in his skull, “yeah. You too.”

The subway is almost empty in comparison to how crowded it is in the usual rush hours. Initially Taehyung stands, holding onto a handlebar, but decides he’s not sober enough to play this balancing act without people packed like sardines to keep him in place. He takes a seat alone across from someone who crosses his legs.

“Going home drunk and alone again,” he says, and Taehyung looks up. “But smiling. That’s what I like to see.”

“Joy?”

“Hoseok,” he says, standing up as the subway slows at the next station. “Jung Hoseok. Be careful on your way home.”

 

Mina feels well enough this morning to run through the entire ballet from beginning to end in the Skydome Studio, and Taehyung would be lying if he said he wasn’t exhausted by noon.

Jeongguk is in and out for the duration of it, popping out to rehearse with the corps for the parts of the toy soldiers and the Russian Dance trepak. He can’t quite meet Taehyung’s eyes, smiling shy and tender if they look at each other for too long.

“He is so lovesick, it’s contagious. There’s a tickle in my throat. When I walked by him I felt the sudden urge to send someone flowers. Holiday ones, like poinsettias.”

“Leave him alone.”

“I detect ‘leave my crush alone I promise he’s hotter in real life’ tones in your voice,” Hope says. He’s eating a pomegranate this morning, picking the seeds out from the pith like he’s mining for ore.

“Okay, what are you here for. Last time you lectured me over breakfast. Can we do this at least at lunch?”

“Oh, I don’t have a long-winded lecture for you this time,” says Hope, crunching pomegranate seeds in his teeth. “Just a protip. Things always get worse before they get better. I’m not sure if it’s some unspoken law of the universe, but it always seems to work that way. But when they do, don’t lose sight of the things that matter.” He throws up a peace sign, framing the corner of his eye. “Like me.”

“Thank you for that absolutely unhelpful tip.”

But it isn’t until Hope takes his leave and Taehyung returns to his feet that he really hears what Hope must have been trying to say—no, it was not so much a tip as it was an omen, and he feels unsettled for the rest of the morning. It shows when he eats, too, Hyungsik nudging Taehyung’s leg under the table with his foot to get his attention.

“I asked you a question.”

“Huh? Sorry, I didn’t hear.”

Hyungsik sighs. “I said, are you doing okay recently? Chunhyangjeon finally wrapped up, I feel like I haven’t had a chance to talk to you since then. You have some color in your face these days.”

“I—oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m great.”

“Great?”

“Better than I was.”

“I see you hanging around that Jeongguk guy a lot,” says Hyungsik carefully. He glances at Taehyung, then spears his cherry tomato with his fork slowly enough that the juice runs down the skin. “What’s he like?”

“He’s fine. He’s a good dancer.”

“He must be, as an understudy and all.”

“He’s good, understudy or not,” Taehyung says. He’s surprised by the ferocity in his voice, and Hyungsik too looks taken aback. “He’s—he’s nice. To be around, you know. He’s really genuine. We’ve been eating dinner after our rehearsals together, actually,” he adds, when Hyungsik looks skeptical.

“I know. I saw you guys leaving together a couple of nights ago.”

“Oh.”

“Are you guys…” Hyungsik shifts uncomfortably when Taehyung looks up at him and raises his eyebrows. “An item?”

“Are you going to tell me that it’s a bad idea? Because of what happened last time?”

“You can’t blame me for worrying, can you?”

“I suppose not. The answer is no, by the way. I don’t think so. I’m not sure.” The corner of Taehyung’s napkin is translucent with olive oil where he’d spilled some dressing on it. “But I want to hope that things will be better this time around.”

 

Taehyung wants to hope. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating, to put trust into a moving target outside of himself. When he’s alone, rational thought rules and makes sense of his past and sets hard lines for his future—but then he will spend an evening with Jeongguk, and find that all his plans seem silly. Don’t trust. Don’t love. Don’t believe in what they say.

“A date?” Jeongguk’s look of surprise is unmistakeable under the red-gold Christmas lights outside the lobby of their ballet company. The snow that had been falling all morning has finally stopped, but the breeze is as talkative as ever, whistling through the bells tied with tinsel on the street lamps. Clouds turn the sky a steely grey.

“Weekend tomorrow. We still have to be up early, but not as early,” Taehyung says.

“We’re calling it a date this time?”

Taehyung smiles despite himself. “Yeah, it’s a date.”

“When? Where?”

“You choose. We can meet up late afternoon? How about five?”

“I wish we had a whole day,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung feels his chest warm like candlelight. “I’ll text you. Uhm,” he takes Taehyung’s hands in his, and his are mittened and woolly against Taehyung’s, who had misplaced his gloves months before. “Thank you.”

He presses a kiss to Taehyung’s mouth so fast it’s more of a nose-bump than a kiss. But before Taehyung can lean into it and kiss him in earnest, Jeongguk has dropped his hands, sputtered something about needing to take a shower, and taken off headlong down the damp sidewalks. The fringes of his scarf stream out behind him and Taehyung blinks dumbly before he laughs to himself.

It’s like being in love for the first time, with all its stupid, clumsy moments. And as stupid and clumsy as it is, Taehyung prefers this to picking up the pieces of himself and hating every moment of it. Taehyung will take Jeongguk lighting the way, holding his hands out for all those broken pieces.

The subway station is quiet at these wintery off-hours, though the train itself is still snug with passengers. Taehyung sits down beside a man with a blue woolen scarf as thick as midnight bundled up to his nose, seat vacant when a round-faced cherub hops off her mother’s lap for the next stop. He’s peeling oranges, gathering a pile of rinds in the plastic bag on his lap, and he nods along to a song in his headphones that Taehyung can just barely catch the tinniest hints of. The subway car smells of citrus, yet no one else seems to notice.

“Passion said he caught you in your apartment,” the man says suddenly. His words are muffled. Taehyung takes a moment to realize that he’s being spoken to.

“Oh—wait, yes? Which one are you?”

“Memory,” the man says, shifting one headphone away from his ear and pulling his scarf down to his chin. “It’s lovely to finally meet you.”

“Er, you too,” says Taehyung. Memory is so well-spoken and handsome that he feels like he should hold out his hand to shake, but he decides against it in the last second. “What is it that you have to say to me?”

“I’m usually the last one that people meet. The first is Time, though I understand Passion decided this particular instance was a job for him to open.”

“He did. Gave me a real fright.”

“Yeah, he’s not great with introductions. But it would seem only right for me to be the last one, would you agree?”

“I guess.”

“And why is that, do you think?”

“Because,” Taehyung racks his brains. Who has he met already? With the way they’ve talked about each other, it sounds like there is some rhyme and reason to the order they appear in. Time, usually. Then Passion, Joy, and Hope. Then Memory. “Because we need time before we can confront something.”

“You’re right.”

“And we need Passion, Joy, and Hope to find meaning in our futures?”

“You’re good at this. Yes.”

“And so, you must be last,” Taehyung says, “because we never forget anything, even if we want to.”

“Kind of.” Memory offers a slice of orange, and Taehyung shakes his head. “Because the point of our painful memories isn’t to forget them. Nor is it to allow them to stand at the helm of our lives, steering every decision we make and rewriting the way we see the world. There are some things that we can never forget. The way that Seojun hurt you is one of them. But they just become a part of us, one that we don’t think about anymore. They become something that we no longer allow to touch us.”

“Separated by too much time to mean anything anymore.”

“Exactly,” says Memory.

“Have you told him what happened?”

“No. How do you even just bring something like that up?”

“Honestly.”

“What?”

“You bring it up honestly,” says Memory, like it should be as easy and boring as discussing the stock market. “What is it that you would want to tell him?”

Taehyung looks down at his hand. They’re pink with cold, and he laces his fingers together, squeezes, until the blood rushes out of his fingertips and leaves the underside of his nails pale white. “That I like him,” he murmurs. “That I like him, but I might be slow. And I might be scared. But I want things to work.”

“Scared of?”

“Scared that he’ll one day decide I’m not good enough.”

“And why would you think that?”

“Because that’s what happened with Seojun,” Taehyung says. It feels like a confession to say it out loud. Admittedly, it is the first time Taehyung’s allowed himself to think about it so explicitly since the night it happened. He’s surprised to find it doesn’t hurt as much as used to. “Because how do you forget something like that? How do you forget walking into your own apartment, a place you call home, a place you shared everything with someone, to the visual confirmation that you aren’t enough?”

“You don’t.”

“I—” Taehyung looks Memory in the face, and he regards him evenly in return. “I don’t?”

“You don’t forget. Like we said, right? You just stop letting your past dictate your future. And if Jeongguk is who we think he is, he won’t expect you to forget, either. He won’t decide that you aren’t enough. I’m sure you’ve noticed this, but you’re already more than he could ask for.”

“He’s.” Taehyung wrings his hands some more. “He’s Jeongguk.” He doesn’t know how to better explain it in words, though they’ve never quite failed him before.

“This is me,” says Memory, rising to his feet. “Have a good date tonight, Taehyung.” A cool voice announces the station, and he bags his orange peels. One lands on the floor of the subway car, and this, no one notices either.

 

Taehyung sits in his bathroom with his feet in a tub of water, soaking with a fizzing tablet of jasmine and sea salt. Dancer’s feet, and all, they need a little extra love. The ballerinas must have it worlds worse than he, being en pointe for up to some nine hours a day, so Taehyung stays grateful.

“Are you going to tell him about Seojun tonight?”

“I guess so,” Taehyung says, flexing his toes in the soapy water. A sting tickles at his left heel, and Taehyung makes a mental note to visit physio first thing tomorrow. “I should be honest with him, if I’m going to be serious about him.”

“Ah, so you do plan to be serious about him,” Passion says.

“I’m sitting in my bathroom with actual product in my hair and soaking my feet with a jasmine tablet,” Taehyung says with irritation. “For shits and giggles.”

“I’m happy for you,” Passion says, without any of the bite that had been in Taehyung’s voice. For a moment, he fears that Passion will stand up from the edge of his bathtub—the same one that Taehyung had sat on for too many nights, hating the tears on his face—and open a sentence with My name is. He can’t say why he’s so afraid to say goodbye to them.

“Thanks,” says Taehyung, soft this time. “Thanks for believing in me.”

Passion rubs the waxy surface of a holly leaf, berries holiday lipstick red. He said he’d ended up with an extra spring when helping line a shelter full of boughs of holly and mistletoe. “That’s what I do.”

“I haven’t been on a date in months. I’m not sure I actually know how to act on one.”

“I’ll tell everyone to keep their noses out of your business, if that helps.”

“Oh. Really?”

“We don’t want to distract you. But lose the floral print tie on top of the floral print shirt, the colors clash.”

Taehyung gives Passion’s perpetually black-clad self a scrutinizing once over. “I’m not sure you’re really one to give color advice.”

“Suit yourself. Knowing Jeongguk, he’ll think it’s cute.”

But fashion terrorism isn’t on Taehyung’s agenda for the night, so he decides to go with a dark blue tie. It feels too formal. The other options rest on the other end of the spectrum with leotards, sweats, and warmups, because Taehyung simply does not spend enough time outside the company to have a wide selection of semi-fancy clothes to choose from, and he's not about to go to dinner in his banana-print leotard, so tie and floral print dress shirt it is.

“Did you wait long?” he asks, when he gets to the restaurant Jeongguk had texted him the name of earlier. It’s a rustic place, dim but not so dim that he needs a flashlight to read the menu. The warmth wraps around him with the scent of bread and soup and he sits down with a shiver.

“Nope. I actually worried I’d be late. I, uh, got off at the wrong stop because I got distracted texting.” Jeongguk worries the cuff of his shirtsleeve—he’d gone tie-less, though Taehyung would be hard-pressed to match any tie to the purple color of his dress shirt. It flatters the lines of Jeongguk’s shoulders and makes his hair look even darker than it already is. “You look amazing.”

“Thank you,” Taehyung says. “You clean up well yourself.”

“I almost started doing my whole face for a performance. It’s the only cleaning up I’ve done in—well, forever,” Jeongguk says. “But you must be starving, because I know I am.”

They make small talk until their food arrives. Jeongguk’s family. He has a brother. His dog. Taehyung’s dog, and house in the countryside. Taehyung tries to avoid talking about routines and technique outside of the company, because as much as he loves it, he can’t expect Jeongguk’s ballet brain to be as similarly switched on as his all day. Work is work. It isn’t until Taehyung’s plate of steak is placed down before him that he really allows himself to be honest, like Memory had advised.

“What brought you to the company?”

Taehyung partially already knows the answer. Still, it’s a better segue than to just bring up his baggage without preamble.

“I saw that there was an opening for a danseur.” Jeongguk twirls his fork round and round in his pasta carbonara, watching the noodles tangle in the tines of his fork. “And the company I’d been dancing at before had already made it obvious that I wasn’t going to be a principal anytime soon.”

“Really?”

“Five years of shows as an understudy really starts to get to you.”

“Five?” Taehyung gapes.

“Just as an understudy. I’d been there for more than eight. It was the company I transitioned to after the one in which I learned ballet.”

“I see.”

“Why?”

“I—well, I knew about the opening for a principal. We always have more dancers around the holiday season, but from the first day I saw you, I knew you would be filling that opening.”

“The danseur who left? Your ex, right?”

Taehyung’s heart is beating thunderously in his temples, and he finds he is afraid to say any more. Jeongguk’s face is open, a little bewildered, perhaps, but so painfully vulnerable. “Yeah, he was my ex.”

“I’m sorry.” Jeongguk says, sobering.

“And I just mean that,” Taehyung presses on before Jeongguk can get the wrong idea, “This time, I wanted to say that I’m glad it was you who ended up filling that vacancy.” I’m glad it was you who came along and filled a hole I didn’t think could be filled. “I’m happy you ended up in our company. You should stay. There’ll be room for you.”

“How very unlike a principal to say that to his understudy,” Jeongguk jokes.

“You’re good. I don’t think you’ll be an understudy for long.”

“Thank you for thinking so.” Jeongguk sets his fork down with a tink. “But is there something else you wanted to tell me?”

“Huh?”

“About the one who left.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Was there?”

“Sorry for assuming. I thought you had more to say.”

“No—you’re right. There was.” There’s a knot in the pit of Taehyung’s throat when he swallows, tighter than ever. “He, uhm. He did some pretty terrible things on his way out. Not to the company, I mean, to me.”

“You said you guys had a bad breakup, right? What did he do?” Jeongguk asks. Even with his face half in shadow, the deep valleys around his eyes dark under the dim lamps, his presence is soft and comforting.

“He cheated,” Taehyung says. He heaves a sigh. “I had to find out about it by walking in on it. He didn’t seem so show any remorse when I did. He didn’t even say sorry for it. It’s been difficult to put trust in others since then, but,” he chews his lip here. “But I want things to work for us. I really want to believe in this. I wanted to tell you truthfully, so you’ll understand if I’m a little slow on the uptake, or if I ever seem to be afraid of taking your hand or taking initiative. It’s definitely no fault of yours.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says, sitting back. He and Jeongguk had been leaning towards each other across the table, and he worries at the fabric napkin he has spread over his lap. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make tonight all serious and awkward, but it didn’t seem right for me to go any farther into this without—”

“Taehyung.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m happy you told me.” He props his his chin his hand. “I’m happy you trust me enough to tell me.”

And, quite like a steel anvil has been lifted off Taehyung’s shoulders, the rest of the night is easy. Jeongguk makes some dry, witty comment about a plate of food that passes by them looking like little turds, and Taehyung laughs so hard he almost spews soda out of his nose (they’d passed up wine this time—just isn’t worth it to be hungover at practice this close to an opening night).

It is snowing again when they walk outside. Taehyung looks up at the deep, eternal black of the night sky, dotted with flurries of snow, as Jeongguk wraps his scarves up tight around his neck. He looks down in question when he feels a beanie being pulled over his hair, mittened hand smoothing his sideburns down against his cheeks.

“You’re going to get a head cold,” Jeongguk says, ensuring that it sits right on Taehyung’s hair. “No hat, no mittens. You can’t get sick so close to opening night. It sucks.”

There is a couple walking down the sidewalk over Jeongguk’s shoulder, backs to them. Taehyung only catches a glimpse of them before they disappear into a cafe together, but for a moment thinks he recognizes them. One with hair as dark as rural sky, with his arm around the waist of someone carrying a plastic bag full of clementines.

“Jeongguk.”

“Yeah?”

“I have something else to tell you.”

“Oh?” Jeongguk sweeps Taehyung’s bangs out of his eyes, finally satisfied with his handiwork. He holds his hand out, and Taehyung takes it. “Let’s hear it.”

“I see invisible people.”

Without missing a beat, Jeongguk replies, “I know.”

Taehyung sputters, breath mushrooming in clouds around his face. “Y-you do? How?”

“Because you saw me.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You stayed behind hours and hours at the studio to teach me. You told me I was a good dancer, without a but. ‘You’re good, but too focused on perfection. You’re good, but I can still see you when you dance. I want to see the character you play. Not you.’ You saw me, an understudy. The most invisible person of all.”

It hurts in Taehyung’s chest to hear Jeongguk say this all so frankly.

“Of course I see you,” he says.

“Who else did you mean?” Jeongguk asks, peering into Taehyung’s face, and he shakes his head.

“Never mind you.”

“Mean,” Jeongguk pouts, sticking his lower lip out.

This part of the night was not part of the game plan. If it had been, Taehyung would have cleared away the six or so empty chips bags on the coffee table from the Mesozoic era, folded the blankets on the couch into some semblance of order, or put his shoes on the actual shoe rack by the door because Jeongguk eats wooden floor the second they walk in.

“Sorry, sorry,” Taehyung says, locking the front door behind them as Jeongguk peels himself off the hardwood. “Yeah, it’s kind of a nightmare in here.”

“Not one for cleaning, huh?” Jeongguk says. He yanks his shoes off where he sits, and Taehyung has to take a moment to stand back and reconcile the image of someone else in his apartment for the first time in months. It almost feels too small for two voices. “That’s ok. I’m probably worse. At least your place is new enough to take this kind of treatment.”

“Why, do you live in a matchbox?”

“Something like that. The other week we all got a notice from the landlord to use the heater sparingly because it kept short-circuiting the electricity in the entire building.”

“Oh, Christ. How are you supposed to live in the winter without the heat on?”

“Lucky for me I’m at the company the whole day. Sucks for my roommate.”

“How’s he holding up?”

“He says he hugs his Macbook charger to sleep,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung laughs.

“You can hit the on button for the heater. Thermostat’s by the kitchen.” Taehyung gathers up the chip bags in an armful, deposits them in the trash in a storm of crinkling plastic, and begins ripping the blankets up from between the couch cushions. “I’ll try to clean this disaster up.”

“Let me help!”

“No, I can—”

Taehyung’s nose meets Jeongguk’s cheek when he turns to protest, handfuls of fleece clutched in his hands where Jeongguk is trying to tug them out of his grasp. This close, he can smell Jeongguk’s hairspray and the milky scent of Jeongguk’s skin.

“I can do it,” Taehyung says, breathless. He tries stepping away, but Jeongguk pulls at the blanket until Taehyung is pressed against him again.

“Okay,” he says.

No cleaning actually gets done. Jeongguk leans in and kisses Taehyung, this time without scarves in the way, and this time in the safe, rumbling warmth of Taehyung’s apartment. It’s a long slow slide into mindlessness with only the sounds of their mouths meeting to punctuate the silence.

“You sleep out here?” Jeongguk asks. He’s sitting down now, in Taehyung’s nest of pillows and blankets. “Do you not have a bed?”

“No, I have one.” Taehyung wraps his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, settling down onto Jeongguk’s lap. “It’s just, uhm. Dusty.”

“Because you don’t sleep in it.”

“I guess not.” He leans in, so that his words are spoken against Jeongguk’s lips. “But the couch is nice enough.”

Jeongguk kisses differently from Seojun. Taehyung doesn’t want to make this comparison, but it comes so naturally that he finds it would be fruitless to push it away. No, Jeongguk kisses him for the sake of kissing. Slow and unbothered. A little clumsy, and a little shy. He blushes when Taehyung pulls away and tries to look at anything else but Taehyung’s face, but meets his gaze when Taehyung puts a hand to his cheek.

“I don’t want you to go.”

“I didn’t say I had to,” Jeongguk says.

“Then, stay?” Taehyung asks, running his hand down the plane of Jeongguk’s chest, fingers catching in the gaps between buttons. Jeongguk shivers.

“If that’s what you want, then yes.”

If Taehyung is unaccustomed to seeing someone else in his apartment, he is exponentially unprepared for the way Jeongguk sits back and lets him undo the buttons of his shirt, and the way Jeongguk puts his hands to the waistband of Taehyung’s pants and undoes the button and zipper.

“Is this okay?” Jeongguk asks, when Taehyung’s hands still on his chest, thumbs hooked into the collar where he had been ready to push it off of Jeongguk’s shoulders.

“Yeah. Keep going.”

But Jeongguk doesn’t push it. Even when he gets Taehyung’s pants off, sitting in Jeongguk’s lap in only his briefs and his shirt, they go back to kissing. With only one layer of thin fabric between them, Taehyung can feel the heat of Jeongguk’s skin bleed through onto his. He rocks against him. The space between his legs is hot and already beginning to ache.

“Do you want to?” Jeongguk asks. Taehyung slots his hands down to press up against the heat between Jeongguk’s legs, too, enjoying the full-body shudder that runs through Jeongguk’s muscles when he does. “I—”

“Can we?” Taehyung says. “Right here. I want you.”

“I don’t—I don’t have anything,” Jeongguk says, looking crestfallen. “I didn’t think—”

“Shh. That’s fine, considering I have plenty,” Taehyung says, kissing Jeongguk’s nose and clambering off of his lap. Okay, this is partly the truth. There should be a box of open condoms somewhere in his bedroom, along with a ton of lube, but Taehyung isn’t sure where he’d put it after Seojun had moved out. It could be in the dregs of his closet and he would be none the wiser.

He eventually finds it under his bathroom sink next to the four or so boxes of toothpaste, two bottles of half-used lube in the box of condoms.

“I found them!” he says, victorious.

Having sex on the couch has never been artful. Taehyung doesn’t expect it to suddenly be any better now, but it’s not embarrassing either. When he slips, Jeongguk grabs him around his waist, and Taehyung has to fight down laughter as Jeongguk tries to figure out how to arrange their limbs so that Taehyung’s calves don’t cramp in the position which they’re straddling his thighs.

“Give me the lube?” Jeongguk asks. He leans into Taehyung and reaches for the bottle, fingers falling short where it stands on the coffee table. It’s sticky, and Taehyung feels half-bad for getting a dollop on Jeongguk’s belly instead of his fingers, but he doesn’t have time to think that hard about it. He shimmies his underwear off and has to clutch hard at Jeongguk’s shoulders at the sensation of fingers against him. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Taehyung says, breath coming hard and fast. Jeongguk works his fingers slowly, humming when Taehyung whimpers, then holding his hand still for Taehyung to fuck himself slightly on Jeongguk’s fingers.

“You’re way better at this than me,” Jeongguk says, face hot when Taehyung undoes the fastenings of Jeongguk’s pants and pulls them down to his knees. His cock is hard and wet with pre-come already, lying against his stomach. He whines when Taehyung takes it in his hand, tacky with lube, pumping it a few times with just enough friction for Jeongguk’s breath to hitch in his throat. “Ah, don’t tease.”

“Hmm,” Taehyung says, letting Jeongguk’s cock go and enjoying the soft slap it makes against his belly. “Okay, let me help you.”

Jeongguk actually tears open the condom wrapper with his hands, and not his teeth. It’s little details like this that Taehyung loves even in moments like this. His hips jump when he rolls it on, sensitive to the touch, and Jeongguk moans again when Taehyung squeezes lube onto him and jerks him through the condom some more to spread it down the shaft.

“I said don’t tease!”

“Impatient,” Taehyung says. He presses into Jeongguk and lines the head of Jeongguk’s cock up against his entrance, holding steady as he sinks down upon it. Whimpers slip out between his lips as Jeongguk guides him down, down, until Taehyung is seated upon his lap and shivering at the sensation of being so full. “Ah, Jeongguk.”

“Y-yeah.”

“I’m going to move.”

“Please,” Jeongguk rasps.

So Taehyung does, rocking against him. Jeongguk pulls him down for more kisses, mouth needy and searching. He sucks Taehyung’s tongue into his mouth. His hands are tight on Taehyung’s hips, not enough to bruise. Taehyung thinks it might be too much to ask for that just yet, so he doesn’t.

He can feel Jeongguk’s orgasm coming first, if the raggedness of Jeongguk’s breath says anything. His breaths come out hot against the skin of Taehyung’s neck and his body tightens as his hips stutter to a stop. “Fuck,” he says, chest heaving, slick with sweat. “You didn’t—”

“Ah!”

Jeongguk strokes him off fast, hand slipping with the pre-come that leaked down the length of Taehyung’s cock. He’s still inside Taehyung, who makes no effort to stop himself from rocking back onto it some more. The overstimulation makes the entirety of Jeongguk’s body shiver. “Come,” Jeongguk finishes. Taehyung braces a hand against his shoulder and comes, hard, onto Jeongguk’s skin.

“There.” Jeongguk allows his head to drop back against the couch. “Fuck. Taehyung—ah, wait—”

Taehyung eases himself off gently, and giggles when he presses close for another kiss. “Good?”

“Good,” Jeongguk says, hands shaking against Taehyung’s chin when he reaches up to hold Taehyung’s face steady for a kiss.

“Do you wanna take a shower?”

“I want to lie down, but I don’t know how well two people are going to fit on a couch.”

“Oh. Uhm, I can—”

“You said you bed was really dusty. Let’s just get the sheets washed.”

“But—”

“I’m really good at laundry,” Jeongguk says.

He doesn’t really leave any room for Taehyung to argue. Taehyung watches him stand up, jelly-legged but resolute, and has to blink in confusion when Jeongguk asks him where he keeps his laundry basket.

“Uh, in the bathroom?”

Jeongguk is one hundred percent serious about laundering Taehyung’s entire bed. He goes into his room to help, only to get Jeongguk sneezing at the dust motes that have flown up into the air when he peeled the sheets back from the covers.

“You weren’t kidding,” he says, eyes watery.

“Why would I kid about the sorry state of my bed?”

What a weird way to end date night, with the both of them stuffing his sheets into the washing machines downstairs, wearing Taehyung’s warmups and sweats. Weird, but good.

“Is there something wrong with your bed that you don’t sleep in it?”

“Not exactly with the bed,” Taehyung says. As the water begins to run, he measures out detergent in a cup and pours it into the pull-out drawer. “Remember I told you that I walked in on my ex cheating on me?”

“Mhmm?”

“Well, if you put two and two together.”

A beat of horrified silence settles between them. “No. Did he?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty hard to scrub the image out of your mind, of your boyfriend fucking someone else in the bed you guys share,” Taehyung says, slamming the detergent drawer shut with more force than he’d wanted. “I haven’t slept in it for a while. The couch is easier to fall asleep and wake up in.”

“Is it okay if I want to share it with you?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, and squeaks in surprise when Jeongguk’s arms wrap around his waist. The ground vanishes from beneath his feet when he’s lifted up, and Jeongguk sets him atop the washing machine. “Hey!”

“I’ve always wanted to try this,” Jeongguk muses, standing between Taehyung’s legs. “But I think I just made you even taller than me than you already are, so some ragrets.”

Taehyung can’t say why tears come to his eyes—he’s hardly sad, and his heart didn’t feel too full just now, but the sight of Jeongguk with him, the idea of Jeongguk in his bed, is suddenly too much to bear.

“Hey, what—?”

“Nothing,” Taehyung says, feeling silly for these tears, but knowing Jeongguk won’t laugh at him. “I think I love you.”

Someone does laugh, and it’s not Jeongguk. He wears a bright orange bomber jacket, leaning against the doorway to the laundry room. A pair of sunglasses rests on his head. Tonight, he’s eating a handful of cherries.

“Hope?”

“Thought I’d drop in one last time before opening night.” He gives Taehyung a once-over. "Nice sex glow."

"Fuck you."

"Nah. I think he's got that covered."

Taehyung snorts, despite himself. “Last time, huh?”

“Why, gonna miss me?”

“Like hell I will.”

“Wow. Thought we had something.”

“I do have question,” says Taehyung. Hope grunts.

“Okay, shoot.”

"I can see you guys."

"Uh-huh."

"But you're invisible."

"Quite."

“Am I crazy?”

“You know, I find that the people who are never actually ask that question.”

Taehyung snorts. “Thanks, dude.”

“A real doozy of a guy you got there, Taehyung,” says Hope, nodding at Jeongguk. “Passion was right about him, I guess. Hold onto him, got it?”

“Got it.”

“My name is Park Jimin.” He gives a wink and two-finger salute. “Break a leg next weekend.”

 

Opening night hurtles towards them, and in the rush of stage setup, rehearsal, more rehearsal, fittings, and dress rehearsal, the days pass them by in mere heartbeats. Still, in the time between heartbeats, Taehyung and Jeongguk find time to steal kisses in the dressing room before classes end, or late at night during their after-hours rehearsals—the last of them this time around, for who knows where Jeongguk will be assigned for the next, post-holiday shows.

“Are you nervous for tomorrow night?”

Right now, they lie together in Taehyung’s bed, freshly laundered from the week before. Taehyung would be lying if he said it felt completely perfect to be in his bed again, but Jeongguk’s body beside his is a welcome weight. He presses kisses to the back of Taehyung’s neck.

“Always a little nervous. Never goes away, even with time.”

“I know I am.”

“You’ll do amazing. And god forbid you need to take my place, you’ll do amazing then, too.”

Jeongguk doesn’t answer him right away. Then, “I love you.”

Taehyung’s eyes fly open.

“I love you,” Jeongguk repeats, as if to taste the words on his tongue properly this time. “Even if you’re not ready to love me back yet. I just want you to know that I do.”

“Jeongguk—” Taehyung tosses in the circle of his arms. “Jeongguk, I’m not—unready.”

“I know,” Jeongguk says, eyes at half-mast as he looks down at Taehyung’s mouth. “I love you, even if it means you need extra patience here and there. No matter what has happened in the past, I love you regardless.”

And, suddenly, it dawns on Taehyung exactly which invisible person Jeongguk is.

 

The day of opening night is icy with snowstorms. Danseurs and ballerinas alike hunch over themselves as they hurry under the overhangs of the building to get out of the sleet and ice. Taehyung himself nearly slips on a patch of ice on the staircase leading up to the theater doors.

“Can someone lend me a safety pin?” shouts a sugar plum fairy, hurrying down the hallway of dressing rooms, skirt bouncing with her movement. Taehyung dodges out of her way and opens the door to the men’s dressing room. A flurry of activity greets him, and he drops his duffel bag to find a corner to himself and step into his costume.

“Starting to wish right around now that male principals get their own private rooms,” he says when Jihan accidentally elbows him later, trying to squeeze into his toy soldier costume. Gold glitter rains down on the floor.

“I wouldn’t.” Jihan helps with the toggles at the front of Taehyung’s nutcracker suitjacket, wiry with gold thread. “The nerves would drive me out of my mind if I had to be alone. Are you nervous?”

“I won’t be once I get onstage, but right now? I really want to die.”

“Don’t die. Break a leg,” Jihan says, tossing Taehyung’s pair of tights to him. “You’ll do great, you’ve been practicing this show like mad. Okay—stage director wants to talk to the toy soldiers one last time about some of the props, so I’ll see you later?”

“See you later.”

Taehyung goes through the motions of putting on his makeup. The makeup artist comes by to fix up some details, clucking at his work on his eyeliner, and then—then, it’s showtime. The nutcracker prince does not show up until the latter half of act I, scene i, so there’s a fair bit of waiting backstage that Taehyung has to do. He stays behind, adjusting a finicky bow in the ties of his suit, then the faux hair of his Nutcracker headdress.

The gentle roar of an opening night audience starting to trickle in filters through the space under the door. Taehyung hoists the headdress up in his arms and makes his way out of the dressing room. He barely has a foot into the hallway when he promptly runs into someone.

“Oh!”

“Jeongguk?”

“Sorry, I just wanted to come find you and say good luck.” Jeongguk is done up in a toy soldier costume identical to Jihan’s. Two comically round spots of bright red blush are dusted onto the apples of his cheeks, and his lips are powdered white except for a spot of lipstick in the center of his mouth. Outside the harsh glare of stage lights, he looks ridiculous. He balances his helmet on his hip.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says. The nutcracker head gets caught between them even though Taehyung makes the effort to hold it out of the way when he leans in, and presses a careful kiss to Jeongguk’s cheek. “I’ll see you after the show. Let’s go out for dinner.”

“I’d like that,” Jeongguk says.

The show begins without any hiccups—unlike two years ago, when the moving stage that had the giant Christmas tree got jammed between scene changes, and the stage crew was in a state of high panic for one straight minute until they got it working again. Taehyung stands in the dark wings to the left side of the stage in a gaggle of mice and a few toy soldiers.

“I’m proud of you.”

Taehyung turns to see Passion standing beside him, face illuminated a wintry indigo by the stage lights. He slides Taehyung a glance. A festive pop of red sweater peeks out from under his omnipresent black jacket today.

“Yeah?”

“Proud of how far you’ve come.”

“I have a lot of thanks I owe you guys, even though you all could work on the introduction thing a little more.”

Passion chuckles. “You did it all yourself, Taehyung. Perhaps we have shown you reasons to remember us, but you have gotten here because you wanted it.”

“I should give credit where it’s due.”

“We can’t save everyone,” says Passion. “Happens all the time. What we have to do is know that we tried.”

Taehyung looks back at him, and this time, Passion meets his eyes.

“Nutcracker, you’re up in two!”

Passion is gone, replaced by a toy soldier who’s offering to help Taehyung get his headdress on. So he slips it over his face, gets assistance in clipping it down so it doesn’t budge, checks his shoes one last time, and leaps onstage.

 

Opening night is a success.

A relief comes over Taehyung’s bones when he leads Mina up to center stage during cast goodbyes, bowing low and deep to thunderous applause. Once opening night comes and goes, the rest of the shows until closing night are easy, repetitive at worst. Taehyung is flagged down between the stage and the dressing room by his brother and sister, who thrust a holiday bouquet each into his arms. The obligatory pictures are taken—with a crew of toy soldiers, and a scattering of sugar plum fairies, and with Mina, of course, even though Taehyung can feel the sweat trickling down his spine after a full show of dancing.

“Are you busy later?”

“Going out to dinner,” Taehyung says. He dabs at the lingering sweat at his hairline that remains even after he’s changed into his own clothes. After the high of adrenaline, he feels exhausted, and the weight of his duffel is heavier than it usually is on his shoulder.

“No,” whines Eunjin. “We wanted to go out with you!”

“Rain check?” Taehyung asks, sheepish.

“I bet it’s a date, Eunjinnie,” Jongkyu says, rolling his eyes. “Let’s not bother him.”

“Taehyung?”

Jeongguk appears at Taehyung’s shoulder, looking to his siblings with owlish curiosity. He’s wiped his makeup off too, though the center of his lips is still slightly stained by the rouge.

“Oh, Jeonggukie. These are my brother and sister. Guys, Jeongguk. He’s one of the danseurs for the Russian trepak.”

“Jeonggukie, huh,” Jongkyu says pointedly. He mouths at Taehyung, date.

“Bye,” Taehyung says, even as Jeongguk blushes. “I’ll be home for Christmas, I’ll see you guys then.”

“Someone says he’s here to meet you,” Jeongguk says, jabbing his thumb behind his shoulder. “Afterwards, we can go?”

“Okay!”

“I’ll wait for you here.”

There are still people milling through the dressing room hallway, half-undone, giving hugs, taking photos. Taehyung has to dodge a posse of kids who played the Stahlbaum children, who stiffen at the sight of him, and he laughs as he steps aside to let them pass.

He rounds the corner, and—

“Taehyung.”

What?

“Seojun?”

No.

No, no, no.

“What do you want?” Taehyung says. The questions comes out brusque and gravelly in a voice that he can hardly recognize. “Why are you here?”

“I came to see your opening night,” Seojun says. His hair is cropped shorter than Taehyung last saw it. “I heard you were the principal this holiday. I’m really proud of you. You danced amazing.”

“Thanks.” Taehyung grits his teeth. “Anything else?”

“I wanted to apologize,” says Seojun. God, Taehyung fucking hates this. His voice sounds the same, too, the same one that had gripped at his nightmares for weeks after The Incident. No, fuck that. He’s tired of referring to what happened with a single name, a little easy package to digest. After Taehyung had walked in on him having sex with someone else in their bed. “I’m sorry for what I did. I know it’s too little, too late. But I have to say it anyway.”

“And it’s so easy for you, isn’t it?” Taehyung laughs a cold, barking laugh. “You come here, say sorry, and it’s easy for you to go on your way, feeling good that you’ve absolved yourself of this guilt. While I have to live with the pain of what happened, while I have to watch people I care about put together the bits of me you destroyed. You’re sorry, is that it?”

“What is it you want me to say?”

There are some things that we can never forget. But they just become a part of us, one that we don’t think about anymore. They become something that we no longer allow to touch us. Separated by too much time to mean anything anymore.

“I don’t want you to say anything,” Taehyung says, clenching his fingers around the strap of his duffel. “It doesn’t matter what you say today. Or tomorrow, or years from now. What matters is what you did, and how that changed the way I look at everything, treat everyone. Is that something you can fix with sorry? How can you answer to that?”

“I—”

“But you know? I don’t want to be an bitter, scared person anymore,” Taehyung says. This is where the shaking starts, the same kind of uncontrollable shivering that wracks his body from the night Jeongguk had walked into the dance studio when Taehyung had least expected him to. “And the person I love doesn’t deserve to feel the lingering control that this kind of pain inflicts on someone. So you can take your apology and leave, and let me forget about you in peace.”

“I’m sorry,” is all Seojun says, after a moment of silence. “There’s nothing else I can really say.”

“Then don’t,” Taehyung says. “Goodbye. Don’t come back.”

Taehyung whirls just as the tears start to blur his vision. At first he walks. Then he stumbles over his own feet trying to speed up and get as far away as he can, and he hears Jeongguk’s voice high with surprise and worry.

“Taehyung?”

“I’m sorry, I—” He doesn’t slow down, and the sight of Jeongguk’s face makes the tears fall in earnest. “I can’t, I’m sorry.”

“Taehyung, what—hey! Taehyung! What’s wrong?”

“I have to go,” Taehyung says, taking the stairwell down to the lobby. Jeongguk’s voice echoes around the narrow space and off the high ceiling as he runs after him. His boot slap loudly against the linoleum stairs.

“I’m coming with you,” Jeongguk says. “What’s wrong, Taehyung? Who was that? Was that—oh god, was that—?”

“Why did he come back?” Taehyung shouts, coming to a stop on a landing and turning around to look at Jeongguk, who balks where he is on the staircase. “Why? When I thought I could be happy? When I have you? When I thought I had everything?” Just when the invisible people all believed in me?

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, in a voice like he’s talking to a frightened, wounded animal. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay. Don’t cry, please.”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. He shakes his head. None of his words make sense to him right now, and he turns to run down the stairs again.

“Taehyung, please—”

The lobby is emptying out now that most of the audience has filtered, slowly, through the doors of the entrance. The air dances with clouds of breaths, and Taehyung swipes at his eyes as he dodges a family with a little girl in a red coat and takes the stairs two at a time.

“Wait, Taehyung!” Jeongguk’s voice is close behind, and Taehyung senses the people near him turn around to see who is causing all the ruckus. “Taehyung, the stairs are covered in—”

Fuck. Of course. The third step down, the same one Taehyung had slipped on this afternoon upon his arrival. His shoe catches on an icy patch, the word turns on its side, and the next thing Taehyung hears is the thud of his body meeting the pavement.

His duffel lands with a rustle beside him, and out of the corner of his eye he can see the pale white of his shoes spill out onto the cement.

“I can’t,” he says hazily, head throbbing when a dark silhouette appears in his face. “Jeonggukie?”

“Taehyung, oh my God, Taehyung—” There’s a glisten in Jeongguk’s eyes as he puts a hand to Taehyung’s face. Something warm and sticky is collecting on his temple. “Don’t move.”

“Jeonggukie, I’m sorry.”

“Stop it!”

Taehyung thinks he sees someone standing behind Jeongguk, who is kneeled at his side. He’s tall, with a dark blue scarf and a pair of headphones around his neck, and he crouches down alongside Jeongguk to put a hand on Taehyung’s thigh.

“He’ll be okay,” says Memory, and Jeongguk startles just as hard as Taehyung first had at the sight of Passion on his couch. “Don’t worry, Jeongguk.”

“Who are—?”

“I am nobody,” says Memory. “And I would say, ‘just like you,’ but it looks like, now, you are no longer an invisible person.”

 

The verdict is a sprained knee and “you’re lucky you got away without a concussion.”

“I don’t know if I really want a talking-to right now about what I could have done, like ‘take the stairs slower.’”

“I won’t tell you that because I know you are not an idiot, so I will therefore speak to you accordingly.” Memory perches on the edge of the couch and watches Taehyung ice the swelling around his knee, a towel spread on the cushion to catch the condensation. He wouldn’t have cared in the past, what with a nest of blankets to protect the suede, but Taehyung has actually been sleeping in his bed (with Jeongguk) recently. It feels a little weird to be sitting out here, and not, well, lying down in there.

Taehyung is wordless, hissing when he even just brushes the bruising on his leg. The flesh around his right knee is so swollen that Taehyung doesn’t even appear to have a kneecap, obscured under puffy, bruised skin that’s hot and tender to the touch. His leg brace is slung over the backrest of the couch.

“Jeongguk is worried sick about you.”

“I acted so strangely last night, I wouldn’t blame him if he was afraid to talk to me.” Taehyung scoots backwards to free up a cushion. “You can sit, you know.”

“I’m fine. I’m not going to sit on a couch you had sex with him on.”

“Wow,” Taehyung says, dryly. “I didn’t realize that was such a tick for you.”

Memory props his chin in his hand, elbow resting on his knee. “I’m sorry you can’t perform for this holiday season. I watched you work really hard for it. How long is your treatment supposed to last?”

“Several weeks. It’ll take about two months for full strength and functionality to return. It sucks real bad.” Taehyung shifts his ice pack. “At least Jeongguk can perform tonight. I’m glad it was him who was my understudy. He’ll dance beautifully.”

“That he will.”

“Is that what you meant, that he’s not an invisible person anymore?”

“Partially,” says Memory.

“What’s the other part?”

“That called him the person you love to the person who hurt you so much,” says Memory.

“Oh,” Taehyung says. He has to pause and think about what he had said, but it seems like he had. “I guess I did.”

“And I know you’re regretting how you acted last night, or at least, you might be thinking you could have acted differently. But you’ve confronted the memory of your pain. You acknowledge it, and you move forward anyway. Things get better from here. They always do.”

“So that’s what Hope meant? I mean, Jimin? That things will get worse before they get better.”

“Probably. He’s got a firecracker mouth but I’ve learned to trust him when he says these things.”

“That seems to be a recurring theme with all of you.”

“Does it? Interesting.” Memory puts his hands on his knees, stands up, and hops onto the floor, in a gesture that is uncharacteristically childlike for how regal he usually is. “Well, I best be going. I’ve enjoyed our time together more than you know, Taehyungie. My name is—”

“Wait,” Taehyung says. “I want to remember this. I want to remember you guys.”

Memory’s frown is puzzled. “Don’t worry. How could you forget? Even if we fade from your thoughts we are always around you.”

“How? How can you be, if you guys won’t come back?”

“Passion,” Memory says, taking Taehyung’s hands in his own. “Time, Joy, Hope. Memory. These are the things we live for. We invisible people that make the greatest heroes or the darkest villains. These are the things that we have when we feel like we have nothing left. They aren’t much, but they keep us going.” Memory thinks for a moment. “And Jeongguk.”

“Can you tell me what he is?”

“The answer to that is obvious, Taehyung.”

“I want to remember this,” Taehyung repeats, but this time, it sounds like a goodbye.

“You will,” says Memory, and his smile is as dimpled as it had been on the first day, spring-fresh over a bag of orange rinds. “Take care, Taehyungie. My name is Kim Namjoon.”

 

Jeongguk visits him immediately after the show, smelling of flowers and makeup remover.

“How are you feeling?” he asks. His mittened hands are wrapped around a box of takeout. Taehyung tilts his head back and forth, a universal sign for could be worse, could be better as he leans on the armrests of his crutches. “Can I come in?”

He sets down the box of food on the kitchen counter along with a bag of cans—two of them, one of Coke, one of beer. Taehyung clumsily makes his way around him back into the living room, where Jeongguk turns to look at him. His eyes are searching.

“How was tonight’s show?”

“Good, good,” Jeongguk says. “You should sit down.”

“It’s a process,” Taehyung says. It’s a good thing he’s a ballet dancer, for the amount of hopping around on one foot would be brutal for anyone else. He sinks down onto the sofa, holding onto his injured leg and swinging it up onto the cushions.

“Mina says I was holding her too tight around her bodice during the lifts, but otherwise it was a smooth run,” Jeongguk says. He takes a seat on the coffee table. There’s only one bag of chips on it now, clipped neatly shut with a binder clip. “Do you want dinner?”

“You should eat.”

“I got enough for us both.” Jeongguk licks his lips, chapped with winter cold. “I wanted to—after you went to the hospital last night, I didn’t have a chance to talk to you again.”

“Did you wait all night?”

“Eunjin came out to tell me you were fine, that I should go home and get some rest if I was going to fill in today,” Jeongguk says. “So I did, but I didn’t get much sleep anyway.”

“I’m sorry. Not only for how weird I acted last night but the way I treated you. Yelling at you on the stairs, not listening, and stuff. You can tell me you told me so.” Taehyung picks at a thread in the Velcro fastenings of his leg brace.

“Taehyung.”

“Yeah.”

“Can I say something?”

“Yes.”

“When I told you, I love you, even if you aren’t ready,” says Jeongguk, “I meant it. I don’t know who that man was, beyond the fact his name is Seojun, and he hurt you in ways that I’ll never understand. But I do know I mean something to you—and if that something is slow to come to the surface, then that’s okay.”

Taehyung stares long and hard at Jeongguk, who has his eyes on his lap. Then he stands, and Taehyung feels his eyes flutter when he leans in to press a kiss to his forehead. “I’ll see you soon,” he whispers.

The door clicks shut quietly behind him when he leaves.

Just around now, Taehyung expect someone to appear beside him, with a little quip, or a dry comment. You should have stopped him, or something. No one does. They’ve come and gone: Time, Joy, Hope, Memory. Seokjin, Hoseok, Jimin, Namjoon. They all must have believed he no longer needed any of them to arrive where he is now, except—

Passion.

Passion, with his slow, tired voice, and his ever-growing collection of Christmas lights. He has not yet left, which means, there is one last decision Taehyung must make before he does.

Taehyung has spent many an evening sitting on this blue suede couch thinking. Thinking until his eyes hurt and his brain was tired. Now he sits, thinking, wondering what he’s missing, and then, the answer is clear as Christmas day.

 

On Christmas Eve, Taehyung bundles up in a long jacket and scarves and decides to hail a taxi. Wet stairs down into a subway station is a recipe for disaster with his current state of health, even thouh he’s started to get the hang of using crutches in the past several days.

“Skylark Ballet Company, please,” he says, shimmying into the backseat of the taxicab. The cellophane wrap around his bouquet of flower crinkles where they rest against the metal frames of his crutches.

“Going to see the Nutcracker tonight?”

“I am.”

The taxi driver looks up into his rearview mirror. “Know someone in the cast?”

“I do,” Taehyung says, softly.

Yes, Taehyung does. He knows someone in that cast, someone who leaps onstage in a streak of red and gold, wearing a headdress both comical and timeless. His style of his movements is little different from Taehyung’s, but every step is in sync with what Taehyung knows. Someone who was invisible.

Someone he loves.

“Taehyung?” Jeongguk asks, when the show concludes, and Taehyung lets himself backstage. He nearly trips over his own feet when he sees him standing in the hallway branching off from the dressing rooms, where it is less overrun with people changing back into their clothes. There was an impromptu round of applause for Taehyung when he first got in, sugar plum fairies, mice, toy soldiers and Stahlbaums alike hanging out of their dressing rooms to clap for him like he’d just returned from war.

“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, turning to him on his crutches. “I came to see you tonight.” He holds out the flowers, a little soft from being held in his lap all evening.

Jeongguk accepts them, looking from the blooms to Taehyung. “Thank you,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.”

“Perhaps I taught you the steps, but you were the one who kept the show going,” Taehyung says. “Jeongguk, I—I know what I want. These past months dancing this show with you taught me how to smile again. Even if some things still hurt, it doesn’t mean the time with you meant anything less, or that my happiness with you isn’t real.”

“Taehyung?”

“I’m ready. I’ve been ready for longer than I knew, I—I love you.”

Man, it’s not often that Taehyung will get applause and an encore in one night without having even gotten onstage. The clank of his crutches meeting the floor is jarring when Jeongguk reaches for him, and he throws his arms around Jeongguk’s neck. This time, the applause is couple with shouting and whooping, and a couple of wolf-whistles from Jihan.

“Okay, you might have to help pick my crutches up again,” Taehyung murmurs into Jeongguk’s ear. The laugh that vibrates through Jeongguk’s body warms Taehyung down to his toes.

“I’ll carry you.”

 

The Nutcracker performs as well as their company can hope for during the seasonal run, up until New Years’ Eve. The show that day is on matinee schedule. Jeongguk is stomping the snow from his boots at Taehyung’s front doormat by late afternoon. The plan was to go out to dinner and then hit the aquarium, but they’re both lying to themselves. The shower alone ends up being an hour.

They go through the motions of waiting for the new year to come, curled up in bed watching Krampus until it’s nearly midnight. Jeongguk sucks at staying awake—two minutes after the hour, which they spent entirely on making out, he’s already starting to drift off.

“Why are you falling asleep on me,” Taehyung complains.

“I’ve been awake since seven AM, babe,” Jeongguk says.

Taehyung nudges Jeongguk with his good leg. “You’re no fun.”

“I’ll wake you up with a blowjob in the morning.”

“Ooh,” says Taehyung. “New Years’ Day BJ? I can’t say no to that.”

“Mmm. Good, right?”

Taehyung falls silent. The pain of his knee has lessened enough that he can sleep on his side now, and he studies the angles of Jeongguk’s face.

“Hey, are you asleep?”

“Mm.” There’s a pillow crease in Jeongguk’s cheek. “Yeah.”

“I’m hungry.”

The silence Jeongguk gives him is withering, and Taehyung thinks he might have just fallen asleep until Jeongguk cracks one eye open. “Now? But everything nearby is closed at this hour. Unless you want me to get you something from the convenience store?”

“No, no. We have food in the kitchen. You want any?”

Jeongguk sits up, hair already starting to muss, a wild storm atop his head. “Well, okay. I guess I wouldn’t mind some ramen. God, I shouldn’t be eating right now, whatever. Here, wait, don’t bother with that.”

“Huh?”

Taehyung looks up to Jeongguk tugging the knee brace out of his hands, his face impossibly soft. “Arm up, hold on tight.” The skin around Jeongguk’s shoulders is warm when Taehyung wraps his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, making a noise of surprise when he’s hoisted out of bed.

“I could get used to this.”

Taehyung tucks his legs in as Jeongguk walks out feet first so as to not jostle his injury on the doorframe. “Nice to be the one carried, for once?”

“Only by you.”

“I’d say I’m pretty good at it. You want me to hold you by the waist off your balcony one day and sing the Lion King opening, you just let me know.”

Taehyung feels a full-belly laugh settle over his ribs as Jeongguk sets him down on the couch. His eyes glitter, too, with laughter, and he drops a quick kiss on the crown of Taehyung’s head.

“I’ll cook something. What do you have?”

“I want Nongshim udon!”

“I’m going to make spicy Samyang, sure you don’t want that?” Jeongguk singsongs as he snags a shirt off the back of a dining chair, sticking his arms through it as he kicks up a bustle in the kitchen. Taehyung unapologetically admires his ass from here in his low-slung flannel pajamas.

“I’ll ask for that when I want to die.”

“Shame,” says a familiar voice, and Taehyung has finally learned not to startle. “Those are pretty good, you know.”

“Oh, hey. It’s you. Long time no see.”

Passion sits beside him on the couch eating a roll of kimbap like a burrito, plastic wrap crinkled around his fist like spiderwebs. He waves it in Jeongguk’s direction as he sets water on the burner to boil. “You trust him in there?”

“He’s a much better cook than I am, to be honest.”

“That’s not saying much.”

“I suppose you’re right, huh?”

Crunches fill the space between them as Passion chews on a mouthful of radish and not enough skirt steak. The both of them watch Jeongguk tear open a packet of ramen, though to his eyes it must only be Taehyung who fondly looks upon him.

“It’s good to see you here again, Taehyung.”

He turns to him. “Yeah?”

“Good to see you here because you’re waiting for someone who matters to you, good to see you here because you are happy.” Passion takes another animalistic bite of his kimbap roll and Taehyung swallows the urge to make a dirty joke about the merits of phallic foods. “You ever figure out what he is?”

Taehyung nods. Passion raises his eyebrows, picking a bit of spinach out of his teeth.

“Not bad at all. You’re a sharp one.”

“Do you like your noodles soggier or firmer?” asks Jeongguk from the stove. “Or al dente, as they say it.”

“Soggier!” Taehyung calls.

“Well, I gotta get going. It was a pleasure meeting you, Taehyung. Don’t make me come back.”

Taehyung makes to stand up for a moment, then realizes it’s a bad idea, and sinks back into the cushions. “Thank you—for everything. Thank you. You’re the last one.”

“Am I? Interesting. People don’t usually end with me.”

“People don’t usually start with you, though, either.”

“Touche.” Passion crinkles the plastic wrap up in his fist. “Until someday, punk.”

“Goodbye, Passion.”

“My name is Min Yoongi. Fuck some shit up for me out there.”

“You mean break a leg?”

“Haven’t you bascially achieved that?”

Taehyung laughs, and when he blinks his eyes open again, Yoongi is gone. He finds that he’ll miss him.

“Here you go,” says Jeongguk, setting down a steaming bowl of udon on the coffee table in front of the couch. “It’s super hot, be careful.”

Their chopsticks clink in a silence punctuated with the sound of shameless noodle-slurping, and for Jeongguk, some obligatory sniffling as the heat of the spice packet sets in. Taehyung gives his nose a cursory wipe and chuckles when he makes a grunt of displeasure, turning his face away to do it himself.

“Someone’s rhinitis is too severe to be eating literal pain.”

“Tasty pain,” Jeongguk says.

“Jeongguk.”

“Mm,” he manages around a mouthful of fire ramen.

Taehyung leans closer. “Love,” he murmurs, softly enough that it Jeongguk could miss it if he tried. He doesn’t, however, choking on his noodles, then inhaling, and plunging himself straight into Hell as Taehyung dabs at his streaming eyes with a tissue and tries not to cry with laughter.

“You can’t just say that when I’m eating,” Jeongguk says, eyes as red as the sauce of his noodles as he blows his nose. God, yeah. Taehyung loves him, spicy-food-induced runny nose and all. “Why all of a sudden?”

Taehyung simply cuddles close, cradling his bowl of Nongshim upon his belly as Jeongguk fights the blush off his face and reaches for his ramen again. It’s not sudden at all, not when Yoongi had first materialized on this same couch what felt like a lifetime ago, or when Namjoon had first spoken to him over a pile of oranges, nails citron-yellow, or when Hoseok had appeared over a bowl of katsudon.

Time is not so sudden. Somewhere, a man smiles, a man in a black coat with a watch that has no numbers.