The tomato comes out of nowhere.
Hoseok sees it before it hits Taehyung square in the face, directly on his left temple leaving a red juice stain. Hoseok sees it before it hits Taehyung who was in the middle of his routine, juggling five knives and preparing to throw up a sixth. He juggled everything, Taehyung. Balls, eggs (without cracking them), fire staffs, fire balls, bottles, etc. But juggling knives was his most popular talent and it was the talent that people often paid to see. No matter what part of the country they landed in, be it a small fishing village or a bustling city like the capital, people would line up and pay to see Taehyung juggle his knives. Taehyung often claims that it has nothing to do with his talent and everything to do with the crowd’s individual morbid curiosity. A part of them thinks they might get a chance to see what would happen if Taehyung’s routine went terribly wrong and one of his knives impaled him because he lost his grip.
Hoseok doesn’t think that’s true. But he’s been told that he’s positive almost to a fault. Despite everything that’s happened to him in his life, it’s hard for him not to see the good in humanity. Then again, he’s also standing in the in-between, straddling the line between the performing circle and the crowd -- he gets to see two worlds. One world is Taehyung’s where he’s the center of attention and the receiver of everyone’s pent up anticipation, a performer’s world rich with the pressure to be great. The other world is the world of the spectators who watch on in excitement. And that’s what Hoseok sees on their face every time Taehyung is doing his bit: excitement. Not morbid curiosity. Not a darker inclination toward the macabre. Just excitement. Dumbfoundedness. Entertainment. The crowd loves Taehyung, no matter where they go or the language the crowd speaks, whether it’s different from theirs.
They love him.
So the tomato thrown right into Taehyung’s face, knocking him down and leaving his knives to fly up unmanned over his head, is a surprise to say the least. Who in their right mind would actually pay to see this show just to knock Taehyung from his pedestal in what could end up being a fatal jest? But Hoseok can’t worry about that now. The knives are still in the air. One of them falls down, planting blade first into the dirt patch of land beside Taehyung’s stool. Hoseok hears someone gasp from behind him and he shoots his arm out proactively, blocking their trapeze artist Jimin from entering the circle. Jimin loves Taehyung enough to not think about the risk of the knives falling on him too should he intervene. It’s Hoseok’s unofficial duty to think about things like that. He’s seen what can happen when a trick goes wrong and someone intervenes and his takeaway is this: one injury is better than two deaths.
He watches with a knot in his throat as the second knife falls beside Taehyung’s legs, catching the fabric of his pinstripe suit but not the skin if Taehyung’s lack of reaction is anything to go by. The third knife falls far from Taehyung and equally far from the crowd, lamely onto the ground. The fourth one as well. It’s the sixth that makes Hoseok’s heart plummet to his stomach. The blade falls first and lands pointed in the dirt merely centimeters from Taehyung’s head. Centimeters away from his smooth cheek stained with tomato juice. The moment springs forth a collective and pronounced gasp from the spectators that cools into a relieved sigh when they see Taehyung isn’t hurt.
There’s a small moment of repose where Taehyung lets his eyes fall closed and exhales lightly, no doubt thanking God that today wasn’t his day to die. Not yet. A small moment of repose and vulnerability. Then Taehyung’s eyes are open again and he’s pulling the knife next to his head out of the ground, springing to his feet at the same time. He taps the blade against his cheek and smiles at an older man in the crowd. Salt and pepper hair, tanned skin, sinewy build. Probably a local fisherman. The man looks equal parts shocked and relieved. And embarrassed.
Taehyung’s smile is vicious when he says: “You’re gonna have to try harder than that if you want to kill me.”
The man’s eyes widen but he doesn’t make a move to defend himself or to even show his guilt. Taehyung’s already done it for him. He puts his head down and turns on his heel, pushing through the crowd as quietly as he can but the crowd is already booing him.
“Ladies!” Taehyung shouts at the crowd, oozing charisma as always. He pats down and smoothes the frizzy parts of his light brown hair, erasing his moment of near death. “Gentlemen! And variations thereof! Let this be a lesson to you all: if you’re going to try killing someone, don’t half ass it. Make sure they’re dead before you walk away,” the crowd laughs and then, to the departing man, Taehyung directs his next declaration: “Don’t be mad at me, Yeonjoo! I’m a stray with nine lives!”
The crowd doesn’t know what most of that means. Hoseok doesn’t either. Jimin, who is now standing beside Hoseok with a look of unfiltered hurt on his face, doesn’t either. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the crowd who, for some reason, start to cheer loudly, likely under Taehyung’s spell. It’s the charisma. He talks smooth and fast like a con-artist and he makes people feel special when he’s talking to them directly. People, whether they believe in love or not, tend to fall in love with Taehyung and Taehyung tends to let them think that it’s the real thing for at least a night. Maybe that’s what Yeonjoo was. Another scorned one night stand. He must be if Jimin’s expression is anything to go by.
Taehyung picks up the rest of his knives and his stool, holding the six knives in his left hand and the stool under his right arm. He bows to the crowd. “Sorry to cut this short but I just nearly died and could use some whiskey. Thanks for coming out!”
When he turns on his heel, away from the now booing crowd (people change sides so fast), Taehyung’s face changes almost completely when he spots Jimin. Hoseok swallows a sigh when Jimin turns around and walks back to the tent, likely taking a short cut through to get to the tents. To get to his dressing room where he’ll wallow in pity until he feels justified. Taehyung bites his lip, eyes clouding over with disappointment and trudges toward the tents with his head down.
Hoseok loves them but, fuck, he’s sick of their nonsense.
He turns to the crowd and raises his hands, calling out to dispel the rising tension.
“Calm down, calm down,” he says.
Someone in the crowd, a woman with a fanny pack and a straw hat looks at him in contempt: “We’ve already spent our money and you’re ending the show? Can we get our money back?”
“Ma’am, the show was about to end in about ten minutes anyway. One of your townsfolk just assaulted one of our performers. He could have died. We’re ending the show and that’s that,” Hoseok turns around to leave but thinks better of it and faces her again. “And, no, you cannot have your money back.”
To his surprise, none of the crowd seems to up in arms about it. They’re content with being told there was only ten minutes left anyway and start to shuffle out of the empty field, the open greenery where Seokjin had told them to set up when they rolled into town. Seokjin is kind of like the show director. Technically the traveling circus belongs to Seokjin’s uncle but Seokjin saw issues with how his uncle ran the business, how he treated the performers, and ended up taking over. It helps that Seokjin is a performer himself and understands the ins-and-outs of what it’s like to be under such scrutiny. He knows how to treat them with respect and he always does.
Hoseok watches, already tired, as the crowd disperses and the last of them start to disappear up and over the hill where the town comes back into view. Everyone but one person. The person is standing awkwardly, a green duffel bag thrown over his shoulder and a slouch cap pulled over his head. He’s got on a dark gray t-shirt, a v neck that dips low and reveals glimpses of a tattoo crawling up his chest. White skin, dark brown hair, red lips. A newspaper boy. His stance is a mix between confident and unsure. He looks half like he wants to follow the spectators back to town but manages to stay planted in his spot.
Even from this distance, Hoseok can tell that the person is a marvel of sorts. He can already tell that he has a nice body but more than anything, he can see how handsome the stranger is. Big, bright eyes that exude a confidence that envies the greats. A cute, small mouth with lustrous lips that make Hoseok bite his own after looking at them. The kind of lips a stranger wants to kiss.
Hoseok cocks his head. “Can I help you?”
The newspaper boy looks up at Hoseok. He doesn't smile. He doesn’t even talk right away. He shuffles forward on uncertain feet, yanking a wrinkled piece of paper from the front pocket of his sweatpants. When he’s close enough, he hands the paper to Hoseok. “That was quite a show.”
Hoseok takes the paper hesitantly. He starts unfolding it. “That was nothing. You should see what happens when he actually gets to finish his set. Sometimes he sets the knives on fire,” Hoseok looks at the paper. It’s an application. Tightrope Apprentice ? “We didn’t hire any tightrope walkers.”
“ You didn’t, no. Some guy named Seokjin did.”
The stranger reaches forward and taps the edge of the wrinkled paper near the end where Seokjin’s signature is scrawled in blue ink. “Never say never.”
Hoseok frowns. This doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t anyone talk to him about this? Hell, how is he supposed to take care of things on the floor if nobody even tells him what the hell is going on? He hands the paper back to the stranger, balling it up as he does. “Sorry you wasted your time, we don’t need a tightrope walker.”
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“Because I am a tightrope walker,” Hoseok smiles something thin and meaningless. “The best one, actually.”
“Okay, good. I need one of the best if I’m going to be trained properly.”
“You don’t need to be trained because we don’t need an apprentice.”
For the first time, the stranger smiles. It’s merely a smirk, kind of patronizing too. “Do you mind if I talk to Seokjin about all of this? It is his name on the application, after all.”
Realistically, Hoseok knows he can’t keep this a secret. He has a lot of authority that Seokjin grants to him. He gets to make decisions about the travel costs sometimes because Seokjin sees him as the second most responsible. But he doesn’t have the authority to turn away a possible performer, even if the thought of having to share the stage makes him feel weird. Why does it make him feel weird though? He has no idea. He’s never had any qualms with sharing the stage before. He and Taehyung once did a performance on the tightrope where Taehyung balanced himself, walking across whilst juggling fire sticks. It was fun.
Instead of getting even more worked up about it, Hoseok heaves a sigh and turns around, emitting a soft command to the stranger. “Follow me.”
Their troupe tends to go about things in a fairly unconventional way, at least in comparison to the vagabond troupes that came before them. Seokjin’s father used a few historically American methods regarding his circus. For instance, they travel by bus, specifically a single deck Aero bus that went out of business almost a decade ago. But they had an in with one of the last people who owned one of those vehicles and made a deal. The bus was refurbished to mirror a traditional tour bus so there were places to sleep on board, not enough beds for multiple people so they often took turns sleeping or pulled the bus over into an empty piece of land and set up camp instead.
He looks back at the stranger. “Do you even have any experience?”
“A little. But the one called Seokjin said I have promise, I’m kind of banking it on that.”
“The rope isn’t for amateurs. It takes years of practice.”
“Well, I just hope you have years to train me then.”
Hoseok doesn’t dignify that with a response partially because he refuses to be made a fool of but mostly because he can’t think of anything clever to say in response. They continue on.
They travel with a total eight tents and they typically only use four. They have small camper tents for every individual in the troupe, a bonus one in case of emergencies, and a large performance tent where they set up most of their shows. Even though they have the performance tent, Seokjin insists that some of the performances be executed outside the tent either as a preamble or a closer to the official show, entertaining before and after they leave the actual tent. He claims it builds anticipation.
Right now, Hoseok walks a few paces to the large tent: blue and white striped with a huge mouth that looks foreboding when open. He ducks inside the tent where the opening gives way to a large patch of ground -- all dirt, all flat. There are cheap chairs in rows in a circle around the curtains of the tent, all for the spectators since their troupe doesn’t have an actual stadium to perform in. Above the chairs, a few feet below the plush ceiling of the tent, is the tightrope, set up between two wooden planks and completely mobile. It always takes a while for them to get it upright before every show but the time is always worth it. When you don’t have proper equipment, time and preparation can make the difference between a performance going well and performance ending with a ten feet fall and your blood splattered on guests. The tightrope set up is the only thing built. All of the other performances take place on the ground in cases like this. Cases like this being shows that take place in a tent with hardly any stability. No stability makes the art of trapeze hard to execute and when there’s no place for him to do his performances, Jimin rotates his troupe position. When they have a tent, he becomes a contortionist instead. Everybody’s happy.
But Hoseok doesn’t waste any time showing the stranger the ropes. The literal ropes. Instead he uses the tent as a shortcut to the back where their bus is parked and three individual tents are sprung up. One black, one white, and one bright green. Hoseok ducks into the bright green one without asking for an invitation. Inside, sitting behind a collapsable table with his glasses on and paperwork laid out in front of him, Seokjin startles at the sudden intrusion. He looks at Hoseok, temporary shock fading his face then smirks and looks back down at his pages. “I know there isn’t a door but couldn’t you knock?”
Seokjin is a bit of anomaly in some respects. He looks like a model, a thin and tight frame with perfect soft skin and lips so pink, it sometimes looks like he’s wearing lipstick. He has bright eyes that look innocent and breathtaking at the same time that they look like they could have seen war. He looks more like a performer, like a walking spectacle of human perfection. But he talks like a businessman and has the skills of an escape artist. Hoseok has seen him get out of anything, from actual chains shackled around him to sticky financial situations.
“You hired another tightrope walker?”
Seokjin looks up at him again at the same time that the stranger finally catches up and ducks into the tent as well. The stranger smiles at Seokjin and greets him with a relaxed “long time, no see” at the same time that he approaches the table and plants his application on it. Seokjin smiles back at him and makes a move to pick up the application. As he unfolds it, he looks at Hoseok. “Apprentice.”
“A tightrope apprentice ,” he corrects as he straightens the page out and looks down at it. “Implying that I hired him would imply that he’s getting paid and he’s not. He’s just training right now,” after reading the page, Seokjin looks up at the stranger this time. “If I find out this signature is forged, I’ll have you arrested.”
The stranger maintains his playful smile and holds his hands up in front of him, in prayer pose. “Then don’t try to find out.”
Seokjin smirks and shakes his head at him, folding the application again and starting to put it one of his folders. “Cheeky bastard.”
“What’s going on, Seokjin?” Hoseok manages to ask without flailing his arms out like a child even though he feels just as frustrated. “Why do you need another walker?”
“Relax,” Seokjin says, satiating in that tone he only uses when he’s talking people down, the one that Hoseok is plenty familiar with but that works on him well nonetheless. “You’re not going anywhere. I just need more money if we’re going to maintain travel costs and having another performer to add a flare can easily accost for a slight raise in our ticket prices. Okay? You’re not going anywhere, Hoseok.”
When Seokjin says it the second time, his eyes soften tremendously. Hoseok swallows and clenches his jaw unintentionally, swallowing down his worry or at least trying to. He nods. “Alright.”
“Alright,” Seokjin parrots with a playful smile. He looks back down at his pages, taking his red pen and marking up whatever it is in front of him. Expense reports, maybe. “Here’s the deal: I want you to train him. Obviously. You’re the only walker here and you’re damn good and I need him to be damn good too. No pressure though, it might be a while before his next show so you have time to whip him into shape. He gets paid in room and board or, in this case, tent and board. All of his travel costs are covered, get him anything he needs and Hoseok?”
“Make sure he’s good. Start training tomorrow when the dust settles if you can. Right now, just show him around, please.”
Hoseok nods and leaves Seokjin to it. He leaves the tent and the stranger follows in tow, adjusting his duffel bag on his taut shoulder. “Hoseok,” he says slowly. Like he’s tasting the name on his tongue. “ Ho-seok .”
“Do you have something to say?”
“Not really,” the stranger says. He winks at Hoseok. “I just like saying your name. It’s pretty. Suits you.”
“Doesn’t it mean ‘heaven’?”
Hoseok stumbles in his steps and stutters on a response he can’t even get out. The stranger’s smile at him deepens and broadens and Hoseok can see the cute crinkle of his nose and his white teeth. It’s a cute smile. It’s kind of a cute stranger. Even if he is in dire need of a haircut. Suddenly, whatever frustration was building up inside of him slowly starts to subside and Hoseok lets himself smile back. He rolls his eyes, still smiling, as soon as the stranger points a finger in his face and lets out a triumphant sound.
“I got it,” he says chidingly. “I got you to smile. I knew you had it in you.”
“Shut up,” Hoseok says. He crosses his arms and continues to walk forward to the black tent. “What’s your name then?”
“And what does that mean?”
“Nothing special,” Jeongguk says. He adjusts the duffel bag again. “So, Ho-seok, how do things work around here? Anything I should know?”
“Oh, well, um...there are six of us, er -- seven now, including you. We’re a very small, very low-key troupe, kind of independent. You already met Seokjin, the boss but also the escape artist and smooth talker. He’s gotten us out of a lot of shit before.”
“What kind of things does he escape? Does he always perform?”
“Always. And, I don’t know, a bit of everything. He likes chains and locks especially, wrapping them around his arms and his body and getting out of it somehow. He never tells us how. One time he had one of our other ones, Namjoon, put him in a straitjacket and dump him in a tank full of water. He managed to get out of that one too. I don’t know how he does it.”
“My friend used to say that an escape artist is really just a polite way of saying con artist.”
“Seokjin’s no con,” Hoseok says fleetingly as he ducks ahead into the black tent when they arrive. Inside this tent, Yoongi is sitting on the same cot as Jimin, arm around his shoulders as he whispers. Uh-oh, a private moment. Hoseok makes a move to back out of the tent but Jimin wipes his tears and says it’s fine. Hoseok turns to Jeongguk who’s just managed to duck in and who waves a little at the two trapeze artists.
Jimin and Yoongi are physically the smallest in the troupe, it makes them light on their feet and makes trapeze an easy art for them to achieve. They do plenty of acrobatics mid-air, flipping and turning and catching each other mid-swing. Of the two, Jimin is the most professional. He’s been trained in trapeze since he was three years old. His parents once worked in the circus as well and Jimin became a multi talented kid who had a special affinity for trapeze especially. His hair is natural jet black, Jimin, but to make the spectators that much more wowed by his appearance, he often wears a lilac wig. Yoongi didn’t start the trapeze until he was fourteen but he did well at it and caught up relatively quickly. He’s not on the skill level of Jimin but he’s better than any of the others and still manages to make the whole thing look easy. He, unlike Jimin, doesn’t need to wear a wig to get the spectators awed because he’s already dyed his hair bleach blonde anyway.
“Everything okay?” Hoseok asks warily before sitting down on the cot opposite Jimin’s. Jeongguk continues to stand awkwardly by the entrance.
“Same old, same old,” Yoongi answers for Jimin whose red nose and red eyes have become commonplace at this point. It’s not rare to catch Jimin crying or just downtrodden in his tent or just before his own performance when he needs distraction the least. If Taehyung really loved Jimin, he wouldn’t make him cry this much, Hoseok thinks.
Jimin wipes at his face again and sniffles. He takes a deep breath and puts on a smile that’s obviously fake. He looks up at Jeongguk. “Who are you?”
Jeongguk offers his hand and states his name. “Tightrope walker in training. Until I’m good, I’ll be eating all of your food.”
That makes Jimin smile a little and he wipes at his eye again, shaking Jeongguk’s hand with the other. “It’s good to meet you. I’m Jimin, I do the trapeze.”
“Same here,” Yoongi says. He offers his hand to Jeongguk and states his name as well. He nudges Jimin after. “Give yourself some credit,” he looks again at Jeongguk. “He isn’t just a trapeze performer, he’s a contortionist too. You should see the shit he gets himself into, like a human fucking pretzel.”
That actually makes Jimin laugh and everyone in the tent seems to lighten just the slightest at the sound of it. It always feels good to make Jimin smile. Hoseok feels like they all believe they have some kind of responsibility to one another. Considering most of them came together by way of bad experiences and broken hearts, it only seems fair that they look out for one another. He wishes, partly, that Jimin wouldn’t be so hung up on Taehyung but Hoseok’s never been in love and he figures it can’t be that easy.
“And what about you, Yoongi?” Jeongguk asks. “What do you do when you’re not trapezing ?”
Yoongi smiles at that. “Nothing. If I’m not cloud swinging, I just host the show. Seokjin says I have the charm for it but I also suspect it’s because he worries.”
By way of explanation, Hoseok looks at Jeongguk and subtly nods his head toward Yoongi before nodding his head behind him in the direction where Seokjin’s tent would be and makes a sexual gesture with his hands. It’s immature but Jeongguk understands and smiles back at Yoongi. “How long have you two been together?”
“Too long,” Yoongi gestures toward Jimin. “This one’s had the longest relationship out of all of us though, been in the circus since he was a kid.”
“It’s why he’s the best trapeze artist all around,” Hoseok adds without being asked. Jimin smiles up at him and he smiles back. “The best.”
“You guys, stop,” Jimin mutters embarrassed. He looks at Jeongguk instead. “So you’ll be with us from here on out, yeah? Not transferring to another show after you train?”
“I hope not. I think I’ve already come to like you guys a lot.”
Hoseok would stay and let them all talk a little longer but he knows how Jimin gets when people, especially strangers, see him in a vulnerable state. And right now Jimin needs a little more time to be vulnerable for himself. So Hoseok stands to his feet, crosses over to squeeze Jimin’s shoulder, and leaves the tent with Jeongguk in tow. This time when they’re walking to the last tent, they’re both quiet at least until they’re a few inches away from the entrance of the white tent when Jeongguk asks quietly why Jimin was crying. Hoseok doesn’t answer right away. He guides them into the white tent where Taehyung is lying on his cot, arm thrown over his eyes, and his knives spread out on the ground next to him. Hoseok waves a hand in Taehyung’s direction and introduces him.
“Taehyung, knife thrower and juggler. Also known as the reason. ”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says confused at the same time that Taehyung removes his arm from his eyes and sits up, eyeing the two of them. Then the apprentice gets it. “ Oh. Okay. Hi.”
“Reason for what?” Taehyung asks. He doesn’t wait for an answer. He looks at Jeongguk. “And you are?”
“Jeongguk, the new apprentice.”
Taehyung furrows his brows. “You throw knives?”
Taehyung narrows his eyes and then they widen just as quickly and he sits up more. “Are you the new trapeze artist?”
“No,” Jeongguk says again. “This one’s going to train me on the tightrope.”
“Oh,” Taehyung exhales. His shoulders sink in relief and he relaxes on his cot, hands posed behind him. “Good. That’s good. Well, it’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too. Will you--?”
Taehyung looks at Hoseok. “Reason for what? What did I do now?”
“You know what,” Hoseok says with a shrug and a sigh, frustrated and hollow. “Same reason you’re worried about Seokjin hiring a replacement trapeze artist. Stop being like this.”
Taehyung deflates. It’s obvious even to Jeongguk. “I didn’t do anything,” he mutters. Then to Jeongguk: “I’ll see you around. If I don’t see you again though, before you start your training, I just wanna say it was nice to meet you and you were a hell of a guy.”
“Yeah. If I don’t see you before you start training, I doubt I’ll see you again because this guy’s definitely gonna get you killed.”
Hoseok rolls his eyes and starts to leave the tent, not before throwing up his middle finger in Taehyung’s direction which Taehyung laughs gleefully at. “Go blow yourself. Might as well practice because if you keep fucking around, there won’t be anyone left to do it for you.”
Outside of the tent, Hoseok exhales heavily when Jeongguk catches up to him and he waves his arm around the area. “This is it,” he says. “Obviously don’t get used to the ground or that tree over there because we’re packing up and leaving tonight. But just so you have an idea, this is how our set up usually is. The big top, tents for us to sleep in while we’re here, and that bus where we spend most of our time.”
Jeongguk looks around, looks back at the tent they just left and looks at Hoseok. “What’s the deal with Taehyung? You don’t like him?”
“What, no, I do. I mean, he’s fine. I wish he treated Jimin better but that’s really none of my business,” Hoseok sighs again, unable to help it. There are very few things that stress him out but Jimin and Taehyung are one of them. “Taehyung’s a fine guy. He’s a great guy, actually. He just needs to work out some issues.”
“Ah. Well, we all have to do that, don’t we?”
“...I thought you said there was seven of us.”
“Yeah, there is,” Hoseok points ahead at the tree line. “He doesn’t like tents.”
The sun is starting to sink into the ground, painting the sky every color but blue by the time they get to the meadow. Whenever they stop at a new place, Namjoon takes it as his duty to get out and find a place of repose. Sometimes that place is deep in the woods like now, in the center of an opening with plenty of space to breathe and to think and to hear the crickets at night. When they get to the clearing, Namjoon is there. As almost always. He’s sitting on a tree stump near the edge with a James Baldwin book in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His blonde hair is a mess atop his head but Namjoon’s never been one to care much for aesthetics. His glasses, like Seokjin’s, are large and make his eyes look big but he still manages to somehow look attractive. One step into the clearing and Namjoon looks up from his book, exhaling a puff of smoke as he spots them. He smiles, dimpled cheeks accenting his elation. “The new guy,” he says. “Finally.”
“You’ve heard of me,” Jeongguk calls out as they approach. “You’re the only one.”
“Yeah,” Namjoon nods. “Seokjin likes secrets.”
“Well, he likes surprises,” Namjoon corrects. When they get closer to him, his smile widens and he looks Jeongguk up and down, nodding as he does. “Yeah, he was right about you.”
“What did he say?”
“You suit us. I think you do. Kind of like Ringo, you know? He wasn’t the best drummer but he was a Beatle and that’s all that mattered.”
“I’m not the best tightrope walker,” Jeongguk says almost shyly.
Namjoon opens his arms. “Well, there you go,” he taps his cigarette with his index finger, dropping ash on his pant leg. He takes a puff after asking: “You staying with us for a while?”
“For the foreseeable future, yeah.”
“And you’re okay with that?” He exhales, turning his lips to the side to get the smoke away from them. Jeongguk nods and Namjoon mirrors it. “That’s all that matters, then.”
“Yeah...sorry, you are?”
“Namjoon,” his eyes flick to Hoseok for a fraction of a second and then back to Jeongguk. “I swallow swords.”
Jeongguk whistles. “Sounds dangerous.”
“It is. I like the risk,” Namjoon looks between the two of them with an unreadable expression and looks like he might say something about it. But Hoseok interrupts him, nods toward the cigarette and asks if Yoongi knows he hasn’t really quit. “He does. At least I think so but you should never underestimate the power of denial. He’s ignoring it now but he’ll come at me soon enough. Is Taehyung finished?”
“Someone threw a tomato at him and he almost died. So we cancelled early, gonna pack up as soon as we can.”
Namjoon chews on this information. “Jilted ex?”
“I think so.”
“What do you think?”
Namjoon clicks his tongue at that. He looks contemplative for a moment and then stubs out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and puts the bud in his pocket as he stands to his feet. He stretches out his arms and groans, craning his neck to relieve himself. He looks up at the sky for a long moment smiling and then shakes his head. “Young love” is all he says as he walks away.
They follow behind Namjoon, a fair distance apart. Hoseok keeps Jeongguk from staying next to him because he knows the moments Namjoon needs to get out of solitude and into social mode. It’s like waking up for him. Hoseok puts his hands in his pockets and nods at Namjoon’s retreating figure, keeping his own pace slow. “That’s us.”
“And you get along with all of them?”
“Get along?” Hoseok scoffs. “They’re like my family. Closest thing I’ve had to one. Yeah, we get along.”
“And they all feel the same way?”
“When you’re on the road constantly, home away from home starts to become the only home you recognize. Plus these people take responsibility for me, we take responsibility for each other. Everytime we put that big top up, we do it carefully because we know if we didn’t, someone could get hurt. Maybe if the board’s too loose, Jimin could fall from the trapeze or if the proper measures aren’t taking, Seokjin could die trying to escape. We take care of each other. It’s a necessity here.”
“...You guys will take care of me, right? Even though I’m an outsider.”
Hoseok looks at Jeongguk and is struck by the reflection of vulnerability. Granted, he’s only known him for a few minutes but that expression on his face is still a surprise. He smiles in response and puts his arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders. “You’re here now. Outsider, who?”
“Is that a tattoo, Jeongguk?”
The question comes from Seokjin who’s sitting on a log with a ceramic travel mug in his hand. It’s steaming, unfurling hot chocolate scented clouds from it. He’s wearing Namjoon’s oversized coat around his shoulders and the fire is reflecting in his glasses.
They just finished breaking down the performance tent, collapsing all of the chairs and stocking them in the bus so Seokjin can transport them back to the local woman who was nice enough to let him borrow them in the first place. They broke down the big their makeshift and inexpensive big top, strapped the collapsed parts of it down to the top of the bus. All of their belongings apart from their sleeping bags and tents have been stored in the bus as well. But instead of leaving for the next city right away, Seokjin wanted to stay for the night and enjoy the scenery a bit more, take solace in this part of land they ended up in and rest before the trip. So their individual tents stayed up so they can sleep in for the night.
But that wasn’t enough. Yoongi suggested they start a fire and eat dinner around it, just for fuck’s sake. No other reason. They gathered sticks to start the fire and used things they no longer wanted to keep it burning. It’s kind of a ritual but it usually doesn’t happen this often. Usually only every six months. But Hoseok has started to notice how usual seems to have been forever ago.
At Seokjin’s question, the others sitting around the fire including Hoseok turn to Jeongguk to look at his body. The sweater he’s wearing is dipped a little low just like his shirt was before and there’s a swirl of black ink painting his pale chest. Strong chest, Hoseok should add. Jeongguk is sitting next to him and from this vantage point, he can see the detail in what little he can make out. It’s a nice tattoo. It probably took ages to get it filled.
Jeongguk nods and uses his finger to hook into the collar of his sweater and pull the material out, letting his chest breathe and exposing as much of his chest as he can without stripping completely naked. “That’s okay, right?”
Seokjin laughs. “Tattoos aren’t a problem, I was just curious.”
Hoseok pokes Jeongguk’s chest, bold and unfiltered now that night has fallen. Also now that his fear of being replaced has completely dwindled and, without being blinded by it, he can recognize that Jeongguk is, excuse his blatancy, kind of hot. Under his finger, Jeongguk’s chest is tight and strong, feels like steel but is warm like a nice sweater. He can feel his heartbeat thudding and thrumming through his finger and echoing in his hand. “What’s it of?”
To his surprise, Jeongguk isn’t put off by the boldness and he smiles. He grabs Hoseok’s hand gingerly, pulling it away from his chest but squeezing it. The squeeze feels just as chiding as his voice. “That’s a need to know basis.”
“And I don’t qualify?”
“Oh, you do. But I just like to tease.”
Hoseok smirks and looks away from him, eyes back on the dancing flames in front of them. The wood crackles and pops under the wild heat. That, along with the crickets, make for a musical night. All they need is the howling wind. Hoseok looks up at the sky and tries to make out the stars above the smoke, smiling more when one seems to twinkle brightly at him in response. He knows who that star is. Jeongguk nudges him before he can think about it too much.
“Why didn’t you want me to join?”
Hoseok thinks about it only briefly and shrugs. He knows why but Jeongguk doesn’t have to. “That’s a need to know basis.”
“I’m going to miss this place,” Namjoon says, voice booming in that quiet but bassful way that only his voice can. He’s craning his neck and looking up at the stars. He probably knows exactly what each one is. “It’s quiet...It’s a place where you feel like you can reach people you’ve lost, you know? Like a bridge between Heaven and Here.”
Yoongi nods. Always a man of few words but of great understanding. He understands. He doesn’t need to say it but he does. Taehyung looks at Namjoon for a while, no doubt replaying his words and tasting them, then he looks at Jimin who’s been actively and successfully avoiding looking at him. Seokjin looks at them all and his eyes meet Hoseok’s along the way.
Hoseok watches Seokjin open his mouth. Close it. Open it again and look back down at the fire. “If we weren’t doing this, what would you guys want to be doing? Where would you go?”
Namjoon is the first to speak. He doesn’t even hesitate. “Everywhere. I want to travel. I mean, we do that now but we don’t often leave the country. I think I’d leave. Go somewhere quiet. Find pieces of myself on every continent for the hell of it.”
“Mhm, and what would you do?”
“I don’t know,” Namjoon admits. “Just live I guess.”
Hoseok thinks about it. What would he do? It’s only been a few years of traveling with Seokjin’s merry band of performance art freaks with a bus and plenty of tents but it’s become his life. He often thinks back to the time before he even met Seokjin, before he went on tour with him, before this life became his life and he doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t know who the person he used to be is and he wouldn’t recognize him if they were to meet. And if he can’t even recognize himself, how can he recognize that life? This is his life now. There’s nothing else he really wants to do.
But he doesn’t say that.
Instead, he listens to the others speak. Jimin takes a while but he says he’d go to a small village and live a quiet life. He, too, doesn’t know what he would do but he doesn’t seem to care. He just wants to have solace someplace nice. Someplace small enough to see the scope of the world but big enough that he doesn’t feel like he has to leave. He doesn’t outright say he wants someone to love him and someone to love but the way he talks about his imaginary home says it all. He doesn’t want a place to have solace with, he wants a person. It falls quiet after that but everybody seems to hear Taehyung’s shame loud as day. Or maybe Hoseok’s just imagining it.
Yoongi speaks next and says he honestly doesn’t know and that he honestly couldn’t care less. As long as he’s with the people he loves, he says as he makes eyes at Namjoon and then Seokjin respectively. That’s all that matters. The people, not the place. Again. The same thing.
Taehyung takes the gentle moment though and puts in a hard shell when he takes a sip from his drink and says: “I’d find another circus to join, I guess. A freak should be with the freaks.”
“Nobody says that anymore,” Jeongguk says next to Hoseok, directly to Taehyung. “Freaks aren’t freaks, they’re just people...and you’re not a freak.”
“You just met me, how would you know that?”
It’s said soft and playful but Jeongguk’s response is almost anything but. He subtly nods his head in Jimin’s direction and explains: “Because I can tell. You’re not a freak, you’re just an asshole sometimes.”
Everyone seems to hold their breath but Hoseok notices everybody’s expression, including his own, are frozen in that moment just before laughing. Wide eyes, round mouth posed for an “ooooh.” But it’s silent apart from the fire crackling. Taehyung stares at Jeongguk blankly, chewing at his bottom lip for the longest time until he eventually breaks, cracking a smile and rolling his eyes. “ Fuuuuck you,” he sing-songs low.
As if those are the two magic words needed to break all of them, they all burst into unhinged laughter, Jimin included. The sight of Jimin’s smile seems to make Taehyung smile harder, Hoseok notices. At that, Hoseok can’t help but smile at Jeongguk in response. Jeongguk smiles back and his eyes twinkle with both mirth and flames. And Hoseok thought he was cute before.
Seokjin’s signature snort cuts through the laughter. He’s wiping tears and smiling so hard his cheeks hurt when he says: “Welcome to the family, Jeongguk.”
It’s on the bus ride to the next town over, an actual city busy with train stations and significant traffic, that Hoseok makes a jarring discovery: Jeongguk is cute when he sleeps.
He stuffed himself onto a regular seat with his duffel bag under him as a makeshift cushion and now he’s fast asleep. His mouth has fallen open and he’s snoring lightly.
“Stare a little longer, why don’t you?”
When Hoseok looks over, Yoongi is in the seat across from his wearing a smirk and scrolling through his phone. “I wasn’t staring.”
“Yeah, and I’m not taking two dicks at once.”
“You love it.”
“You say that about everyone,” Hoseok stretches his legs as best as he can and briefly looks out the window, watching the world pass them. “It’s not true.”
“There’s no need to be jealous,” Yoongi murmurs. They’re quiet. Aside from Jimin who’s driving up front, they’re the only ones awake after all. Along with Taehyung who doesn’t count because he hasn’t said a word since he woke up.
For some reason, the constant cycle of leaving and landing and settling doesn’t bother Hoseok overall, not as much as the leaving part. It’s that interim between leaving a place he’s become used to and entering a new one where the people are still a question and the possibilities are uncertain. It’s the in-between, like now, that reminds him too much of life, of the uncertainty that comes with it. Oh, looking out of the window is depressing him. He turns and looks at Yoongi who’s still scrolling through his phone. Then he looks again at Jeongguk who’s still fast asleep. Then at Taehyung who is sitting pensive until he suddenly decides to get up. Then Hoseok watches him walk to the front of the bus and sit in the passenger seat. He sees Taehyung toy with the radio and soon the bus is filled with gentle music, no doubt to drown out the sound of Taehyung trying to make amends.
Not wanting to invade on their privacy, Hoseok looks away yet again and looks for something else to placate him enough not to think of other things. He gets fixated again on Jeongguk’s sleeping form, finding that the rise and fall of his chest makes him feel more at ease. Maybe it’s like one of those videos that anxious people can follow for breathing pattern during times of stress. Maybe.
Maybe it’s just the quiet reminder that even though he may not feel it, Hoseok is just as alive and his chest is doing the same thing.
The city they roll into next is comparatively smaller than Seoul but bigger than the last three tiny villages they set up camp in. There are taxis and rude pedestrians and people who honk their horns, a deviation from the quiet politeness of the rural areas. Even though cities often mean more callous people, all of them express excitement over being back in something that’s bustling and bursting with the kind of vitality only a city can have. As soon as they stop, Seokjin drags them all off to find a stand for fresh food and, later, Jeongguk suggests they go to a movie.
“You guys spend all of this time entertaining,” he reasoned. “How often do you actually get entertained?”
But Namjoon suggested they go next time, maybe after whatever show they end up arranging in this city. Use the movies as an incentive to continue doing well. So now here they are, in the middle of another meadow (which was hard to find in a place as crowded as this one), unpacking all of their belongings to make another temporary home for a temporary time.
“We have individual tents,” Hoseok ends up explaining again to Jeongguk as the two of them work side by side erecting one of them. “But we usually end up sharing.”
Today, Jeongguk is wearing a white t-shirt that manages to be loose and tight at the same time. Loose enough for him to look comfortable and for Hoseok to sometimes get the urge to wrap his arms around his waist just to feel the skin beneath the material. But tight enough to cause Hoseok to get a lump in his throat every time he glances at him for too long. To think, he hated him just thirty-six hours ago. As he nails down part of the tent, Jeongguk asks: “I’ll share. Were you asking?”
Hoseok glances quickly at Jeongguk’s arms. Strong, tanned, defined biceps and he briefly thinks about what it would be like to share a tent with him. Just the two of them in the quiet of the night and of the morning. Jeongguk probably sleeps in just his boxers. The thought makes him smile as he looks back down at the tent.
“Kind of yes, kind of no.”
Jeongguk smirks. “Okay. Who do you room with?”
“It’s a rotating roommate thing. Sometimes Namjoon and Yoongi sleep in the same tent, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes me and Taehyung. We just kind of switch out.”
“Hmph. Can I be your roommate? Under one condition?”
“You have conditions,” Hoseok says, feigning an impressed tone and wearing -- unable to hide -- another smile. Jeongguk has only been with them a day and he already makes Hoseok smile a lot. He wonders if it’s more than just the exuberance that comes with a new attraction. “Already?”
“If I sleep with you, I don’t want to be rotated out,” Jeongguk’s eyes darken playfully when he says this and their eyes lock on each other’s. Hoseok bites his lip.
“...How would you know that if you haven’t slept with me yet?”
It’s obvious to the both of them that neither of them is talking about the sleeping arrangements anymore. Jeongguk’s smirk brightens and he down at the tents again then back up at Hoseok. “I just do. You seem like the type of person who’d make it good.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m more the type to make it great.”
“Stop flirting and get these tents up,” Taehyung mutters to them as he passes with the luggage from the bus. He doesn’t even smile when he says it, still in a bad mood because this is day two of Jimin doing his best to not acknowledge his existence. Serves him right.
It should be expected that after all of this, Jeongguk would be curious about the ins-and-outs of it. But he manages to restrain himself from asking for a while. It isn’t until they’ve finished setting up the new camp, until Hoseok has taken two narrow wooden planks and set them for practice in a clearing that Jeongguk even bothers to ask.
“What exactly is the deal with them? Taehyung and Jimin, I mean?”
“Nothing important,” Hoseok mutters, arranging the planks between two perfectly arranged tree stumps and then walking across one of the planks to determine its sturdiness. He shifts weight across it a couple of times. He wants Jeongguk to get good. He doesn’t want him to break a limb practicing of all things. Broken bones are reserved for actual performances only.
“Define nothing important,” when Hoseok looks back at him, Jeongguk scratches at his hair looking sheepish and shy. “What, can you blame me? It’s a little weird, it’s a little interesting and without reality TV, where am I supposed to get my helping of drama?”
Hoseok snorts. He drops off the plank and grabs the balance pole from the ground. But he explains anyway as he hands the pole to Jeongguk. “Jimin loves Taehyung. Taehyung loves Jimin. But Taehyung has trust issues and can’t keep it in his pants. They aren’t really together yet but Taehyung knows how Jimin feels about him and that’s why we all give him shit for it.”
“Why don’t they just date then?”
“Come on. You’re, what, twenty-one? You have to know at this point in life that people rarely ever do what they obviously should. Get up on the plank.”
Jeongguk eyes the plank, a sudden refrained disgust taking over his expression. “I’m not an amateur, you know. I’ve dabbled in tightrope a bit.”
“Either you’ve dabbled in it a bit or you’re not an amateur, you can’t be both. Which is it?”
“Either it’s fuck you or fuck you, which is it?”
“Either,” Hoseok says. “Both. But you have to ask nicely.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk exhales and suddenly he’s pretty much on him, inches away from Hoseok. Almost close enough that, if Hoseok really wanted, he could taste his sighs. “ Ho-seok... will you please...go fuck yourself?”
It only takes a moment and the two of them are laughing so hard that they’re shaking and Hoseok is pushing insistently at Jeongguk’s shoulder, knowing he’s not hurting him but pretending he wants to nonetheless. Jeongguk lets him hit as his shoulders, laughing with him. Until he drops the pole back onto the ground and catches hold of Hoseok’s hands, keeping them at his chest and laughing harder when Hoseok’s face flushes.
“Now,” Jeongguk says through snorts of laughter. “ You look like you just got hit with a tomato.”
Hoseok laughs harder and tries to push again, fake anger parading the two into deeper fits of ebullience as he tries and fails to regain control of his fists. It’s not for a while that he finally manages to push Jeongguk up on the planks but when he finally does, it’s with a lightness in his chest that even he can admit he hasn’t had in a while.
Whilst up on top, Jeongguk balances the pole between his hands and takes careful steps down the wooden plank, scrunching his nose as he does. “This seems like it’s for kids.”
“It’s for amateurs,” Hoseok corrects. “Which you are. Now, shut up and focus. If you’re going to walk the rope, you need to be cognizant of everything. If there’s a slight pick up in the wind, whether the rope is tight or whether it’s a little loose, you need to be able to feel that. But mostly, more than anything, for fuck’s sake, pay attention to your weight. You need to be so aware of it that if a fly landed on your shoulder, you could tell the difference. It’s focus, not talent, that makes a tightrope walker good. It’s focus that becomes the line between walking across and falling down ten feet...However you think of it, tightrope walking is the only performance at a show that isn’t really a performance. Think about it. When the trapeze artists, when Yoongi flies off of his swing and grabs onto Jimin’s hands, the crowd cheers. When Seokjin starts the process of getting out of a trap, the crowd ponders loudly at his every move. When Namjoon swallows a sword as tall as him, when Taehyung throws a knife at an unsuspecting observer, they make noise. Approval or disapproval. But when the tightrope walker is walking, no one says a word. You could hear a pin drop and, even if the crowd was loud, you should be able to. Listen. Focus. It has to be silence in your head. The only thing you should be hearing are your breaths.”
“How is that even possible?”
“Meditation, dummy. Do it day in and day out until you’re in tune with your inner voice. To the point that you could be in the middle of a mosh pit at a metal concert and you can still hear your breathing. You can still hear you. Your focus should be that good. On the rope, if you lose focus for a second, you’ve lost your life. Can’t have that. Seokjin couldn’t afford your funeral costs.”
“Am I supposed to be able to focus when I want to strangle you?”
It’s quiet for a while. It smells like morning, dew under his feet and the rising sun starting to warm his back and the sky beginning to fade from light purple and pink to blue. Jeongguk walks across the plank and then back again and then back again, repeating the motions over and over without complaint. His lips pursed and his eyebrows furrowed, he looks deep in concentration. Hoseok starts to think this training part will be easy. But then Jeongguk opens his mouth: “How’d you end up here?”
Hoseok clicks his tongue. “That doesn’t sound like focus to me.”
“I am focusing,” Jeongguk says. Without opening his eyes, he starts to correct himself. He must have heard Hoseok detect the bullshit. “I will focus. But I wanna talk right now.”
“Because I wanna know you. And I like talking to you...and I’d like to do that now.”
“Not good enough, we can talk later.”
“I like hearing your voice,” Jeongguk answers softly. “It’s nice. Sounds rough sometimes. Like you’ve got this permanent rasp that’s not really a rasp but it sounds like you. Sometimes I think you sound like music. Music helps me focus. Talk to me. How’d you end up here?”
“How’d you?” Hoseok manages to say after an embarrassing amount of time passes of him being stunned silent. He’s grateful that Jeongguk still hasn’t opened his eyes and can’t see the deep blush on his cheeks.
“Ran away,” Jeongguk answers without hesitating. “When I was sixteen. That town you guys picked me up in, I’m not even from there.”
“Where are you from?”
“It’s your turn. Twenty questions except it’s infinite and we can ask however many questions we want. As long as we take turns...So?”
“...Some people divorce their spouses, some people divorce their kids. I was the latter. Where are you from?”
“Wait, how’d your parents--?”
“It’s your turn, play the game by the rules--”
“Busan. Why’d your parents divorce you?”
“They didn’t like who I was. Who I am.”
“And who’s that?”
“It’s your turn, why’d you leave home?”
“It wasn’t safe, who is--?”
“A gay kid, that’s who. That’s what, I don’t know. That’s me, just me. And they didn’t like it...What do you mean it wasn’t safe?”
To Hoseok’s surprise, Jeongguk laughs just a little. It’s a small laugh, mostly just a breath and a signature crinkle in his nose. He explains it simply with: “My dad’s a preacher.”
The “ And I’m gay” hangs in the air. Jeongguk skips out on his question to elaborate:
“He was going to send me to a place after he found out, some kind of camp. I said fuck that and left in the middle of the night. I left a note. But I don’t think they actually cared enough to read it. Technically, I could go back now. And I think about doing that sometimes just to rub it in their face because I’m an adult now and they can’t make me do anything. But I get scared just thinking about it, seeing their faces again...How’d you realize you were?”
Hoseok thinks about his first crush: Jung Woosung. His mother loved romance movies and she, before she found out what he was, loved her son. She often got Hoseok to watch those movies with her and one of them had Jung Woosung and, at ten years old, Hoseok developed his very first crush. But even then, in the back of his mind, he felt as if: “I always knew. I think. What about you?”
“I had sex with a girl and I didn’t like it. Then I had sex with a boy. And I loved it. It was a busy night, my fifteenth birthday. You didn’t want to run away?”
“I thought about it. For a second. But I loved my parents too much to leave them. Apparently they didn’t feel the same way,” Hoseok actually smiles thinking of the last time he saw them and how they insisted that they couldn’t live with such a disappointment. His mother handed him a wad of cash and told him not to come back. “Where’ve you spent the last five years?”
“Everywhere,” Jeongguk answers. “People don’t tend to notice teenagers when they run away, when they’re homeless. They just think they must be going somewhere. I made money anyway I could and stayed out of sight so I wouldn’t be in the system before my eighteenth birthday. Turned twenty-one, ended up in that village with a fishing job. Found Seokjin the next day. Or he found me...Are your parents why you were afraid I was going to replace you?”
It’s a bold question to ask and Jeongguk must know it because he opens his eyes and his gaze penetrates Hoseok in places he wasn’t even sure existed. But it’s a bold question and Hoseok knows it too. He reaches up and adjusts Jeongguk’s grip on the balance pole. “That’s enough questions for today.”
Jeongguk spends the rest of the day balancing there on the wooden plank, not even under Hoseok’s direction. He stays because he’s something of a perfectionist and wants to get it right. He’s a good apprentice, Jeongguk. When he does finally get off the bootleg beam, he makes a list of everything Hoseok said. ‘Focus’ is the first thing he writes down and he puts a star next to meditation. They make a schedule to meditate together every morning and evening if possible, a bonus for the actual exercises and practices. By the time the sun starts to sink again, Jeongguk has three pages full of notes and a sore stomach from the balancing exercises.
They’re crowded together in the tiny bathroom of the bus. Hoseok is sitting on the closed toilet while Jimin is knelt in front of him, on the floor and making him look as good as possible. Jeongguk said he was good with makeup and now Yoongi has squeezed himself up on the sink, legs not even swinging because there’s not enough space while Jeongguk stands in front of him and works on his eyes. With already four people in the bathroom, there’s not enough room for Taehyung but he manages to squeeze himself inside anyway. There’s no reason to. He’s already dressed to the nines with perfectly coiffed hair and eyes done up by his own hand because Jimin is still on that streak.
Jimin is lining Hoseok’s eyes with stern concentration. He’s using pink glitter this time. It doesn’t really matter to Hoseok because no one can see his make-up from the ground when he’s on his tightrope but Jimin is out of the showmanship closet and proud as hell. He always insists that nothing they do can be half-assed and if they’re going to perform a show, they might as well perform it.
Tonight, as always, Jimin is looking the part with one of his wigs and detailed eyeshadow, wearing nothing but a pastel leotard that shows every line and curve of his body. He wears it every time he’s on the trapeze but no matter how many times he wears it, it’s hard to get used/not to laugh at Taehyung’s chagrin each time.
“How do you feel, newbie?” Hoseok hears Yoongi ask Jeongguk. “Seeing your first real show.”
Jeongguk’s voice is soft and distracted, Hoseok can easily imagine that stern look in his eyes and the hard set of his forehead when he’s really focusing intently. “I’ve seen you guys perform before though, I caught the end of it.”
“That doesn’t count,” Taehyung answers for him. “You didn’t get to see me finish my act.”
“And whose fault is that?” It’s Yoongi’s voice again.
Hoseok holds back a smile.
“That would be the guy who threw a tomato at me,” Taehyung responds sweetly and then to Jeongguk. “And you said you caught the end of the show? That’s not the show. You haven’t seen a show until you’ve seen my full act and you haven’t seen a show until you’ve seen Jimin on the trapeze. Isn’t that right, baby?”
Hoseok can feel Jimin grumble from in front of him as he moves on from lining his eyes to fixing the color on his lips again: a shade of primrose. Hoseok’s eyes are still closed but he knows Jimin rolls his eyes from the sound of his voice when he responds to that with: “Don’t call me that.”
“He speaks!” Taehyung says loudly, no doubt trying to mask the actual relief he feels with humor because being blatantly vulnerable just isn’t his strong suit. But Hoseok can’t judge him too harshly. After all, he’s afraid of being abandoned but he’s just as afraid of declaring his commitment. This is exactly why Taehyung is a mess and exactly why Hoseok can’t even blame him for it. “I didn’t think I’d hear that again.”
Jimin goes back to silence and Taehyung soon follows that with more questions, ridiculous things like what’s been going on in Jimin’s head to things that border on actuality like him claiming he was driving himself mad, that he thought he’d forgotten what Jimin’s voice sounded like. None of which Jimin actually responds to. Hoseok hears Jeongguk answer for Jimin: “Leave him alone.”
Taehyung clicks his tongue. “You’re brand new, you can’t start taking sides already.”
“Not taking sides” Jeongguk answers. “Just being helpful.”
Hoseok can detect the slightest tone of cockiness and cool, that weird combination that doesn’t work on everybody but that Jeongguk manages to execute flawlessly no matter the occasion. It’s the same tone he uses when he teases Hoseok or goads him into talking more when they should be meditating, which they’ve only managed to do twice now because Jeongguk has the patience of a five year old.
“Helpful,” Taehyung says at the same time that Jimin nudges Hoseok. You can open your eyes. When Hoseok does open his eyes, he’s met with his reflection in Jimin’s tiny mirror. He looks like a fairy but he’s used to it -- Jimin always tends to decorate on the inhuman side. He says the people came to get a spectacle of out of this world fantasticalness. They have to look out of this world.
Hoseok’s auburn hair has been pushed back, parted on the side in a style similar to a traditional pompadour with the exception of shaved sides. His eyes have been lined with purple kohl, winged eyeliner making them pop even more and pink glitter covering his eyelids. He doesn’t look like himself and he kind of loves it. He jooshes his hair and puckers up at his reflection, deeply appreciating the scarlett against his cheeks. They’re supposed to be a circus but Jimin almost always makes them look like drag queens.
“Well?” Jimin says in front of him. “Do you like it?”
“I look like I’m about to walk the runway,” Hoseok smiles. He does look larger than life. His outfit may not be as glamorous as the sparkly get ups that Jimin wears sometimes or the pinstripe suits Taehyung favors but the pastel aesthetic does him every favor. More than a circus performer, he looks like a human unicorn.
Jimin smiles back and begins to pack up his brushes in the little case at his feet. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“Obviously,” Hoseok turns to Jeongguk who meets his gaze right away. He’d already been looking. And he’d been smiling too. Hoseok is even more thankful for the scarlett against his cheeks because there’s no way to tell he’s now blushing. “What do you think, then? Ready for the rope-way?”
Jeongguk smiles at him, thin red lips curling and mouth curving to the side. “You’re ready for anything, as always.”
“Always?” This comes from Taehyung. “Jeongguk, you’ve been here for two days.”
The big top they have tonight is a real one, manufactured properly with the structures necessary to hold trapeze and tightrope equipment. Jeongguk’s first real show is going to be a real show with every one of them showing off their talents and for some reason, that gets Hoseok excited. Maybe he likes the idea of showing off. Or maybe he mainly likes the idea of showing off for Jeongguk in particular.
Either way, it’s an exciting time.
After all of the tickets are bought and all of the guests have arrived and all the seats have been taken, all the lights save one go down and Yoongi stands in the center of the ring. He’s wearing a black cloak to cover his sparkly leotard, saving the real surprises for later no doubt. Hoseok watches with everyone else from the wings as Yoongi speaks melodically into the microphone, rhyming with ease and speaking on the wonders of the world.
“According to the experts, there are only seven wonders,” Yoongi says, hypnotizing in that way with a lulling but exciting voice. The crowd hangs on to his every word, eager and hungry. “But those experts have never seen Cirque du Chic. And, even if they have or even if you haven’t, the wonders of the world don’t stop at any number. The world is rich with miracles and magic and wonder and whimsy. All you need to do is look. Tonight we’ll deliver the wonders to you. The wonder of escape, the wonder of flight, the wonder of the impossible, the wonder of skill, and the wonder of balance. But tonight is just one night. And I implore each of you to leave here with a thirst to look for the wonders. It’s an unquenchable thirst but I promise. It’ll drive you to amazing things. Without further ado, to start us off, I present to you ‘The Elastic Man’!”
The crowd applauses. Politely. It’s a careful applause, not yet weighted with the genuine excitement of people who have been impressed. The lights go down again and they’re all drenched in complete darkness. Music starts to swell from the speakers above and it swirls down, filling the tent with a new kind of melodic anticipation. The music plays for a while. The lights come back on -- this time, they’re blue -- and, sitting in the center of the ring now, is a small box. Yoongi’s nowhere to be seen.
Some of the crowd members look around for someone while others, keen, lean in closer staring at the box suspiciously. Pale blue and dark blue spotlights swirl around the box, drawing more attention to it and everyone focuses. The music begins to swell subtly and the first flap of the box opens. Someone in the crowd jumps, someone else laughs uncomfortably, none of them can stop staring. This is Hoseok’s favorite part. A second flap shoots up. Then a third, then the fourth. Now everyone’s eyes are stuck on the small box in the center of the big top, now open and still.
Then, slowly, a white hand comes up from the box, arm stretching up. The anomaly is staggering. The small box and the regular human arm shooting out of it. No person should be able to fit in there and the audience response is magnetic. They all gasp and then hold their breaths in silence as another hand shoots up. Together, the arms bend back out of the box and the palms of both hands land on the dirt floor, pressing down. Then Jimin springs out from the tiny box, flipping backward onto his hands with grace and suavity. His jumpsuit is red and tight, a contrast to the light hitting him.
He spins on the heels of his hands and then flips, again gracefully, onto his feet. He starts to dance, lithe and light-footed, around the box, spinning out pirouettes and twirls galore. The music heightens and Jimin’s choreography intensifies with it. Soon, he’s jumping mid air and flipping a few times and landing on his feet softly every time.
Behind Hoseok, Jeongguk nudges him and crowds into him. He leans forward and whispers into Hoseok’s ear (if Hoseok gets chills from this, that’s for him to know and to claim otherwise): “He dances too?”
“Oh,” Hoseok can’t help but smile. “Jimin does everything.”
Jimin spins faster and faster, on his feet but he looks as if he’s spinning on ice skates. He jumps into the air and flips again, tucks his knees to his chest and lands back inside the box without a hitch. The flaps close just after he does and the crowd roars.
They all cheer quietly from the wings as the lights go low again and the audience is left in the dark. Jeongguk nudges Hoseok again: “How does anyone follow that?”
“You haven’t seen anything yet, newbie.”
Yoongi introduces the next of them, ‘The Impossible Feat,’ while Jeongguk tucks himself into Hoseok’s side and asks more questions. Is the crowd always like this? If Jimin is just the warm up, what else do you guys have under your sleeves? How did he get the box to close? Hoseok only satiates him with a finger to Jeongguk’s lips, shushing him with a smile. And a promise of “you’ll see” for safekeeping.
When Namjoon takes to the center, Jeongguk takes hold of Hoseok’s hand and doesn’t let go for the entire show, squeezing every time he gets nervous. Which is a lot. Hoseok squeezes back to let him know everything will be okay. Through it all, he’d be remiss to not notice how soft Jeongguk’s hand is even through the calluses and how holding it just feels right. Jeongguk uses his thumb to stroke the back of Hoseok’s hand and neither one of them say anything.
Namjoon starts off, teasing as always. He’s always been the least flamboyant of the seven of them, keeps his costumes simple and his show even simpler. Dressed in a simple white pants and a simple white tux, no shirt underneath, with his hair pushed back, he looks more like he belongs in a movie. He’s the only one who makes small talk with the crowd. “How are you guys doing tonight?”
Some of the crowd speaks, some of them don’t. Most of them can’t look away from the sword Namjoon has brought with him, still in its white sheath and mostly off to the side. Most of them are already nervous. Namjoon takes one of the answers given to him and smiles at whoever it is. “Glad to hear it.” No one is listening. Even Hoseok has to admit that Namjoon’s show, no matter how many times he’s seen it, makes him nervous.
Namjoon takes off his white jacket, leaving him standing shirtless in the middle of the ring. His tanned skin lights up purple under the lights. He drops his jacket to the floor. “Hope you guys don’t mind if I get comfortable. What I’m about to do is a little...vexatious, if you will. I want to be as comfortable as I can. Do you mind?”
The crowd, almost impatiently, echoes out a chorus of “no” and Namjoon smirks lopsided as he kneels down and carefully unsheathes the sword. He stands to his feet and grips the handle of the sword, spinning it around every so often and aiming it as if he’ll throw it. But he doesn’t. Hoseok has known Namjoon for a while now and he knows him well enough to know that if he even attempted to throw a sword, he’d probably miss the object he was aiming for and hit a person without meaning to. He’s good at swallowing the swords. Aiming for precision is an entirely different story.
Without further ado, Namjoon takes the sword, leans his head all the way back and stretches his neck, opens his mouth and--
“Sorry,” Namjoon says, lifting his head quickly. “Did you guys even want to see this, I never asked.”
“ Yes,” someone says from the audience while someone else is a lot more up front about their frustration and straight up calls out for Namjoon to stop jerking them around.
Namjoon smiles again. He likes to make people squirm. “Very well.”
Once again, he leans his head back and stretches his neck and wastes no time pushing the sword down his throat. Next to Hoseok, Jeongguk audibly gasps and squeezes his hand so hard, he’s sure to have left nail prints. “Fuck,” he hisses. “Is this real?”
“We don’t fake anything here, ‘guk.”
“He just swallowed that.”
“He didn’t swallow it. The name of the act is kind of a misconception, there’s no actual swallowing being done here. In fact, if he wants to survive, he has to ensure he doesn’t do any swallowing.”
“...His gag reflex must be non-existent.”
Hoseok blushes and looks at Jeongugk, suddenly scandalized. He pushes him hard. “Jeongguk!”
“It’s true,” Yoongi says with a laugh from his spot. “No need to hit the kid for it.”
Hoseok shakes his head, scoffing and half chuckling in disbelief, as the three of them turn their attention back on Namjoon whose sword is all the way down his throat, handle sticking out of his mouth. With the sword still in his mouth, he leans forward enough to bow to the crowd and walks off with the sword still in his mouth. When he gets to them, he’s quick to take the sword out and he spits on the ground when his throat is free.
“You’re okay?” Yoongi asks. Namjoon nods and Yoongi shakes his head. “I want you to find another talent to do, I can’t watch that again.”
“Good thing you didn’t buy a ticket, honey.”
Yoongi and Jimin go on next, introduced as the ‘Flying Serpents.’ Their routine is set to the song ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ by Angel Haze and it adds mystique to the already enthralling choreography. Hoseok can’t really keep up with all of it but it’s always entertaining. First they start on separate ends, separate swings. Jimin swings forward to the middle with his hands gripping the bar, Yoongi as well. When their swings meet in the middle, the both of them do a vertical flip, letting go of their respective swings and moving to the other. Jimin’s bar becomes Yoongi’s and vice versa. The crowd roars at that.
They swing back and forth for a while and then Jimin swings up, releasing his bar and catching hold of Yoongi’s, two of them swinging and balancing on a single beam. Flips, turns, twists, things that shouldn’t be possible made to look so easy under their skill. By the time the song ends, fading into a crescendo, the two of them are standing on one of the beams, Yoongi on Jimin’s shoulders and smiling at the crowd.
Taehyung comes next and there’s a silent collective groan/eagerness that each of them release when he takes the center. Hoseok loves Taehyung. He does. What’s not to love? They both had the displeasure of being kicked out from their homes at young ages, both had to scrap and slum it for a while until they could get their hands on real jobs. They both have difficulty with that dreaded “T” word -- trust. Hoseok loves Taehyung. But he can always be, performing or not, a bit much. As if he knows what they’re expecting of him, Taehyung starts the show with a surprise because if he hates anything, it’s being known. Instead of standing in the center and introducing himself like normal, he practically sprints inside and throws a knife at the same time, hitting one of the wooden planks point blank.
The audience gasps and someone screams, probably thinking for a second that Taehyung’s aim was off and he hit someone. See, this is how he is. This is how he gets to everyone and Hoseok is no exception. No matter what it is he’s doing exactly, Taehyung is an expert at doing the most.
“Sorry,” he exhales to the audience when he manages to yank the knife out of the plank. He returns to the center and bows, fanning his knives out in one hand. When he stands again, he tips his hat. “I got eager there...As you can see, my talent doesn’t require much talent. Just a steady hand. But I must confess to you all that I’ve been drinking a little so maybe my hands aren’t as steady as usual.”
Taehyung looks up through hooded eyes, flirting with the crowd. “So,” he purrs. “Can I have a volunteer?”
To no one’s surprise, no one in the crowd is particularly eager to go up. Hoseok suspects that even though they’re all temporarily enamoured with Taehyung, some of them are also afraid of him. He has that glint in his eye that the general public is convinced only crazy people get. Taehyung pouts when no one volunteers. He fans out his knives again in one hand, stacks them, and fans them again like it’s a silk hand fan. Taehyung juts out his bottom lip.
“Should I leave then?” He asks the crowd. “It would be a pity. I was looking forward to showing you what I could do. You’re sure no one wants to?”
Again, no one volunteers. There’s murmurs and whispers amongst the crowd but it doesn’t faze Taehyung. He’s prepared to just walk off, make a show of it, Hoseok can tell. And maybe he would have but then Jimin lets out a quiet curse and pushes past them in the wings, entering the big top and standing next to Taehyung on the ring. When Jimin taps Taehyung’s shoulder, Taehyung turns with an almost predatory smile that immediately drops into a genuine frown. Hoseok doesn’t hear Taehyung reject Jimin but he sees the line in his eyes and the whispered “no” from his lips.
There are a lot of things Taehyung jokes around about but Jimin is not and has never been one of them. As much faith as Taehyung has in his skill, he doesn’t have enough to risk Jimin’s life. That’s probably exactly what he’s saying to Jimin right now but Jimin has never been one to back down and he takes his place in front of the dartboard without another word.
Hoseok watches Taehyung laugh. It’s the one he uses when he’s pretending not to care. He drops his head, hands gripping his knives tightly. When he lifts his head, he turns on his heel and, without an ounce of hesitation, throws the knife right onto the board, inches away from Jimin’s thigh. “There,” Taehyung says. “That’s enough fun for you, let someone else volunteer.”
“But, Taehyung,” Jimin says back, voice dripping honey. “ Sweetie, you didn’t even try. What fun is it without a risk?”
And with that Jimin straps himself onto the board and waves Taehyung over to spin him. Make it that much easier for Taehyung to miss.
“That’s one way to solve your problems,” Jeongguk mutters into Hoseok’s ear.
“What do you mean?”
“If he acts like he doesn’t care, make him realize how much he does. This is better than reality TV.”
“You have issues.”
Against his wishes, Taehyung drags his feet to the dartboard, whispers something to Jimin who merely shrugs as an answer, and, reluctantly, pushes the dartboard so that it will spin, Jimin rotating with it. The board moves fast enough to make it difficult but slow enough for it to not be impossible. Taehyung bites down hard on his lip and stares at the rotating dartboard and the rotating boy for what feels like forever. He throws his knife. On the board, next to Jimin’s right hand. Taehyung visibly flinches when it lands but he takes a deep breath and throws again. On the board, in between Jimin’s legs. Taehyung clenches his jaw. He takes another deep breath and throws again. On the board, right next to Jimin’s neck. Hoseok can hear Taehyung hiss all the way from the wings.
With three more knives left in his hand, Taehyung stomps up to the board and stops it from spinning. He unstraps Jimin’s hands and legs and says something to him that no one can hear, no one is meant to hear it. Jimin stares at Taehyung for a long time before stalking off and joining them once again at the wings. When he’s back with them, it’s Seokjin who’d been away for most of it who says: “If you were aiming to piss him off, I think you’ve succeeded.”
“I don’t care,” Jimin says but it’s too obvious that he does.
Hoseok doesn’t know if it’s the fact that Jeongguk is here now or because it’s a new town but it feels like it takes forever for his performance to start. And then when it starts, it feels like every second is as heavy as gold. He swears he can feel the seconds tick by. Each step he takes up to the stand takes forever. For Hoseok, it isn’t an anxiety for fear of falling or the pressure to impress the crowd -- he doesn’t worry about impressing them because he knows he will. To be quite frank, somedays on some performances, he can’t even hear the crowd. Sometimes he forgets anyone is down there because up here on the rope nothing else really matters. He’s alone up here and it’s quiet and there’s nothing to distract him. And that’s exactly what does make him nervous about it. Nothing to distract him, nothing to think about, no one up here but himself and his thoughts, a sometimes dangerous combination.
He knows below, someone must gasp again and that all eyes are on him but being on the rope, being inches from it, is kind of like being in space. He can’t hear anyone and no one can hear him. All that matters up here is him and the rope. The best and the worst thing simultaneously.
Hoseok takes his first step onto the taut rope, it’s a thin slit against the middle of the sole of his shoe. Just the slightest shift and he could fall right now. Maybe that’s what he likes about the rope, the same thing that Namjoon loves about the sword -- Death is so close like this. It’s something about being faced with mortality that has a way of making every other concern disappear. Don’t have enough money? Whatever, at least I’m not dead. Nothing to look forward to? At least I have my health. When Death is standing right in front of you, nothing matters.
With the balance pole tight in his hands, Hoseok takes another step forward. He does something he told Jeongguk to never do and he has to smile just partially at the thought of Jeongguk trying to do it later. He wobbles intentionally, aware of every weight shift he incites, leaning his body a certain way to counteract when he makes a purposeful wrong move. The audience is always that much more gripped if they think there’s a chance he could fall. Huh. Maybe Taehyung was right about that morbid curiosity.
But Hoseok doesn’t keep the act up for long. He goes back to regular balancing and walks slowly, making off as hesitant. Then he just walks. A brisk walk as if he was simply on a stroll through the park. He can practically feel the vibrations of excitement crawl up the walls of the big top, feel it through his feet and up through his body. He gets to the other side and the crowd cheers when he’s safely across but Hoseok isn’t done yet. He spins on his heel and goes back on the rope, this time instead of taking careful steps down the rope forward, he turns to face the crowd below and side steps, practically gliding. He slides over bit by bit and then he looks down at the crowd and smiles just before lifting the pole and dropping it in the center. And just to dig in the point more, he looks at his watch and the crowd cheers again.
Hoseok shrugs and makes it to the other side.
Not finished yet, Hoseok steps back on the rope. Backwards this time. Unable to see the stretch of rope behind him, he revels in the relief of fatality once more. He walks forward briefly. He walks back. He drifts between the two, finding the exact right place on the rope. He smiles again when he finds it, a place in the material that is just tight enough to balance on. Then, without further ado, he jumps up and flips backward, landing like a cat on his feet right in the same place on the rope.
With that move complete, the crowd can no longer can contain themselves and they don’t just cheer, they erupt and their excited chorus of approval travels up to Hoseok and wraps him up. Another win. If Hoseok could make out the faces of the crowd or the faces in the wings, he’d see how dazed Jeongguk looks when he watches him.
The liquor burns Hoseok’s throat more than it normally would. He doesn’t know if it’s just stronger alcohol than he’s usually had or if it’s the fact that it’s Jeongguk’s shot glass and that Jeongguk is the one “feeding” it to him. Taehyung told them they should do a love shot to celebrate the successful show and even though he was just joking, Jeongguk poured two shots for both of them and did just that. With their arms still entangled, Jeongguk finishes Hoseok’s shot and laughs, nose crinkling as he does.
“Should’ve done a tequila shot,” Jeongguk says, shoulders still shaking. “Put salt on your arm?”
“Don’t say it,” Hoseok warns.
But Jeongguk doesn’t care and Hoseok gets the feeling that he never has. Jeongguk uses the leverage he has on Hoseok’s arms and pulls him closer to whisper in his ear: “Then I’d have an excuse to put my mouth on you.”
They’re drunk. They haven’t been drinking long but they’re already drunk. In fact, Taehyung is the only person who isn’t drunk. He may joke a lot about going drinking and needing whiskey but he never actually does. He hates the taste of liquor and can’t stand the headaches that come with hangovers so he usually avoids it. Fortunate for him, in ways, that the rest of them are drunk and Jimin is especially drunk. And a drunk Jimin is especially cuddly. And a drunk, cuddle craving Jimin tends to crave cuddles from Taehyung especially. Near passing out, Jimin is tucked into Taehyung’s side and Taehyung’s arm is wrapped protectively around his shoulder. Seokjin is red-faced and has long since passed out on Namjoon’s lap while Yoongi, too sober to be drunk but too drunk to be sober, caresses his hair and leans against Namjoon’s shoulder.
They’re all drunk and affectionate right now.
So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Hoseok, still sitting in his seat, feels the room spinning like he’s losing his balance when Jeongguk says that. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he leans over and plants a big, wet kiss on Jeongguk’s forehead without really thinking about it.
“There,” he manages to say. “No need for excuses, just do it.”
There’s a twinkle in his eye when Hoseok pulls away. He smiles, crooked and thin but full of ample affection. Hoseok is pretty sure he’s leaning forward, eyes on Hoseok’s mouth when he’s suddenly pulled back and Hoseok follows the arm attached to Jeongguk’s shirt until his eyes are on Taehyung. Taehyung clicks his tongue again, one arm still wrapped tight around Jimin’s waist. Jimin is pretty much dead weight at this point.
“None of that,” Taehyung says. “Trust me, it’s always more fun to kiss and remember it in the morning. It’s time for you to go to bed, come with me.”
Taehyung tries and fails to get the apprentice in his arms. Not if he wants to keep Jimin in them as well. Hoseok snorts and starts laughing when he sees how much Taehyung struggles. “You can’t take them both,” he says. Slurs.
Taehyung smiles at him. Not a real smile. Just that bitter one he puts on that translates more as “fuck you” than anything else. He adjusts Jimin’s position at his side and looks between Hoseok and Jeongguk. “Okay, fuck it,” he says after a while. He starts to carry Jimin out of the tent. “Touch each other if you want, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
And he’s gone.
Jeongguk and Hoseok take one look at each other and start laughing so hard, it hurts. Hoseok’s vision blurs with humored tears and his body starts to ache. He doesn’t know what’s so funny but he’s drunk, he doesn’t even know what’s up or down right now.
Drinking to cheers after a successful show isn’t abnormal. It’s almost a tradition at this point, in fact. But never in the span of the three years Hoseok has been on the team have they ever gotten this drunk. The drinks followed almost as soon as the show ended where they all huddled inside of Seokjin and Yoongi’s tent (the one Namjoon is sleeping in too despite them pretending he isn’t). The show ended without Seokjin doing his bit, a big deviation from what usually happens. They all have had shows where they haven’t performed. Jimin doesn’t always do the trapeze. Yoongi sometimes hosts instead of performing. Sometimes Namjoon’s throat is sore from the sword act. They don’t always perform. But Seokjin, for the three years Hoseok has been here, has always performed. Tonight, he didn’t.
They’d been asking him about it when he pulled the drinks out and Hoseok half expects that, even though it’s almost tradition, Seokjin only pulled out more drinks this time to get everyone to stop asking. He hopes everything is okay. With the thought of that in mind, he looks at Seokjin who’s still passed out, head resting on Namjoon’s lap. Namjoon is still awake but barely, standing between slumber and consciousness, head nodding every so often. Shaky hands make for a messy pour but Hoseok manages to re-fill his shot glass as well as Jeongguk’s. He holds his glass up in Seokjin’s direction. “To our boss.”
“To the bots!” Jeongguk choruses, making the both of them laugh again at his mispronunciation. When their laughter dies down, everything becomes quiet again with the exception of the night through the tent walls. Night sounds like crickets and moon songs. Jeongguk smiles tiredly at Hoseok before leaning forward and laying his head down on the table in front of them. His hair falls down around him kind of like a halo. He’s still smiling at Hoseok when he speaks again, voice significantly softer and expression just as gentle. At this moment, Hoseok would describe him as a human cloud. “Hoseok. Ho-seok, ” he says it slowly the second time, the way he does when he’s tasting it. When he wants to make Hoseok start squirming from the sound of his own name. His smile widens when Hoseok blushes and he reaches out to poke his cheek with his finger. “You.”
“Me,” Hoseok says.
Jeongguk drops his arms back down and tucks both his hands into his lap as he rests against the tabletop. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you, ” he mutters, voice already lulling like he’s already asleep. “Up there. You were good, ‘t was good.”
“Thank you” is what Hoseok means to say. It genuinely is. “I know” is what he actually says and it makes Jeongguk smile more, eyes now closed. Almost on the edge. He looks so soft like this. So sweet and cute and pliant. Would he be pliant?
“But,” Jeongguk manages to say, breaths now heavy and words even more slurred as he lets sleep take him over. “You...always like that. It’s always like that.”
“I...eyes...don’t want to look away from you,” he says those words really slowly. Before he completely falls asleep, still wearing a slight smile on his face, he adds: “You look like magic.”
And that’s the end. Soon, Jeongguk’s snoring doubles in on Seokjin’s snoring and that sound Yoongi makes when he’s asleep, too soft to be a snore and too heavy to just be breathing. More like a cat’s purr. Again, Jeongguk who always looks sweet looks incomparably soft when he’s sleep. Hoseok smiles fondly at him, tilting his head as he observes the drunken apprentice. He reaches out and brushes the hair from Jeongguk’s forehead as an excuse but leaves his hand there because all he really wants to do right now is touching. And this is good for him. Feeling the heat of Jeongguk’s skin under the palm of his hand, making warmth course through him just by simple touch.
Hoseok smiles again and is in the middle of nodding off himself when Taehyung comes back into the tent and all but stomps his feet. “You let him fall asleep? Carrying Jimin was hard, carrying this fucking...muscle pig...that’s a whole different story, come on, man.”
Hoseok wakes up with a splitting headache, a mouth dryer than the Sahara desert, and a heavy arm hanging over his waist from behind.
When he opens his eyes, he’s grateful that Taehyung put him in the darkest tent. He couldn’t imagine how much worse the headache would be if it was the sunlight that woke him and not his biological clock...or the heavy, really heavy, arm on his waist. There’s an arm on his waist...wait. It takes a while but he manages to ignore the pain in his head enough to turn as far as he can to look behind him. There, right behind him, mouth open and nose twitching every now and then, is Jeongguk. Hoseok startles but he doesn’t react, no sudden moves, no waking Jeongguk up and making this even more awkward than it has to be.
Why would Taehyung put them in the same bed? Why put them in the same tent at all? Hoseok looks around again. There’s no one sleeping in the cot right across from this one. Why the hell are they in the same bed?
Disoriented and slow moving, Hoseok still manages to shift his legs just the slightest to see if there’s any discomfort there. Any questionable wetness in his pants or any questionable pain from behind. Nothing. So they didn’t sleep together. Hopefully. He moves his dry tongue around his mouth, feeling the roof and trying to see if he can detect the after taste of semen. Did he do something stupid last night? Oh, please don’t let him have done anything stupid last night. He’s about to get up from bed as discreetly as he can when Jeongguk shifts with him, scooting himself closer and nuzzling into his neck. Like this, there’s no space left between them. Like this, Hosek can’t stop the heat that rises in his cheeks and travels down because like this, there’s nothing keeping him from being able to feel the outline of Jeongguk’s cock against his ass. Morning wood. Of course. Natural, Hoseok reasons. Happens all the time and it would have happened regardless if he was in bed with Jeongguk or not.
But still there’s a difference between knowing everyone gets hard in the morning and feeling that hardness against your ass in the actual ass crack of dawn. Hoseok does his best to avoid it. It’s kind of hard, no pun intended, to ignore though. How can he ignore a dick pressed against him? How can he ignore the dick of someone he thinks is really cute pressed against him? How can he ignore the rather impressive size of a dick of someone he thinks is really cute pressed against him first thing in the morning? This is a curse for all the years he spent in musical theater without ever telling anyone to break a leg, he just knows it. He waits until he can breathe properly without feeling shame wash over him and then he tries to break free again, moving his legs first and trying to slide them across the cot so he can get his feet on the ground. His legs slide off and his feet hit the plush ground, grass poking at his bare feet, rich with cool morning dew. Hoseok closes his eyes, a little victory goes a long way. He takes a quiet breath and goes for Jeongguk’s arm next, lifting it at the wrist and quickly standing to his feet so he can drop Jeongguk’s arm back down on the empty place he was laying on. The warmth left there should be enough to not wake him.
Hoseok backs away from the bed slowly, picks his shoes up from off the ground, and leaves the tent to freak the fuck out in peace. The sun is only just starting to rise, the sky only a light orange and a slight mist is obscuring everything beyond the tree line.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Hoseok mutters to himself as he paces in front of the tent. Why is he freaking out? Why isn’t he freaking out more? Christ, he just felt Jeongguk’s dick and the fucked up part of it all is that part of him really didn’t want to move. Not to save face, not to avoid something awkward. But because he simply liked the way it felt...he’s going to kill Taehyung.
He stalks off to the tent he knows Taehyung is staying in, stumbling on unsteady feet, a complete hangover stance. He doesn’t think much of it when he pulls the flap of the tent open and starts to walk inside, a curse sitting on the edge of his tongue. But he doesn’t even get the curse out. He doesn’t get anything out because he’s too shocked by the sight in front of him: Jimin and Taehyung under a single blanket, bodies obscured from the waist down but Hoseok doesn’t necessarily have to see Taehyung’s hand stroking Jimin off to know that’s exactly what’s happening.
“Shit,” he curses and walks out again. That’s plainly too many dicks for one morning.
“I thought you’d have mercy on me,” Jeongguk groans, digging the heel of his hand into his closed eyes and practically shivering, a combination, Hoseok guesses, of exhaustion and the cold morning. They’re sitting out in one of the clearings Namjoon has found. This one is more of a meadow, just as serene as the last one but different. There are no conveniently placed tree stumps to balance on but that’s okay. Hoseok’s worked on the rope long enough to know there is more than one way to train. He looks at Jeongguk closely. His hair is still sticking up, cowlicked from sleep. He’s wearing black sweatpants and a black t-shirt, sitting on the bare ground and harping on about his rights. “I’m hungover.”
“I’m hungover too but you don’t see me bragging about it,” Hoseok jokes. His headache is still there but it isn’t as painfully throbbing as it was when he first woke up. A jar of water and one of Yoongi’s aspirin tablets and he feels almost as good as new. He places his hands on his hips and looks around the area, taking a deep breath. “Wake up and appreciate the scenery.”
“I can barely open my eyes as it is,” Jeongguk mumbles. He moves his hands from his eyes to his hair, digging in the roots and messing it up even more. “You’re sure we can’t just sleep? Everybody else is sleeping.”
“Everybody else doesn’t have to train. Come on, ‘guk, you can’t expect me to not care whether you’re properly trained or not. A cute guy like you? It’d be messed up if you fell your first time on the rope.”
Through half-lidded eyes and a sheepish yet cocky smile, Jeongguk manages to look up at him from the ground. “You’re worried about me?”
“About your face,” Hoseok corrects and leans forward to nudge Jeongguk’s chin with his knuckles. “It’s a nice one.”
“We need to practice,” Hoseok says, standing back up.
Jeongguk looks pitiful on the ground when he shrugs like he’s looking for an excuse and can’t find one. “Tell me how nice and we can start.”
“Nice,” Hoseok says again, wondering. “You wanna know how nice...Okay.”
Hoseok drops to his knees, settling on the ground across from Jeongguk. He shuffles up, sliding his pants against the dirt and not really caring either way, until he’s directly in front of Jeongguk. Then he veers closer and brushes his nose with Jeongguk’s once. Twice. In response, Jeongguk sits to attention, a newly keen and unbridled focus on Hoseok. He angles his head and opens his mouth and Hoseok lets him think that they’re going to kiss. He comes closer until his lips are just an inch away and he exhales lightly. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Jeongguk eagerly inhales the sigh he releases.
But Hoseok doesn’t kiss him. In fact, he backs away and then stands to his feet again. He starts to do his pre-workout stretches and looks down at Jeongguk. He almost laughs at the bewildered and almost offended expression on the younger’s face. “Seriously?” Jeongguk asks.
Hoseok shrugs. “Train first, reward later.”
Hoseok starts walking off to the other side of the clearing, leaving Jeongguk gaping open-mouthed behind him. He’s never been big on teasing people but there’s something especially delightful in teasing Jeongguk. He stammers and gets all cute like he can’t quite believe what’s just happened. Eventually, Jeongguk stands up and calls out to him: “You know delayed gratification has negative side effects too.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?”
Jeongguk is walking a fair distance behind them now. Far enough back that Hoseok can’t see him without turning around but close enough that they can hear each other with ease. “Emotional duress is one of them. I’m sure there are others, we can ask Namjoon if you want.”
“He’ll just tell you the same thing as me,” and Hoseok turns around and starts to walk backwards so he can keep his eyes on Jeongguk. “It’s good when it’s there but it’s great when you wait for it.”
Something mischievous glints in Jeongguk’s eyes. “And what exactly am I waiting for?”
“That depends,” Hoseok tilts his head. “What exactly do you want?”
“...Isn’t it obvious?”
“Maybe I just want to hear you say it.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk pushes his shoulders back and straightens up even more, puffing out his chest as if to show he’s ready for any challenge if it means he gets a reward. If it means Hoseok gives him a reward. “Ask me again.”
“Okay,” Hoseok takes his time in between asking, baiting. He puts his arms behind him, locking his hands together in earnest as he continues walking backward. “What exactly do you want, Jeongguk?”
With a sly smile and eyes that reflect his ardor, Jeongguk’s voice is smoldering when he answers with a simple: “You.”
Hoseok turns back on his heel and faces forward. They continue walking. “I like that answer,” he admits bashfully.
Jeongguk speaks again. “What about me? Do I get to know?”
“Get to know what?”
“What you want?”
“Did I not say?”
Jeongguk smirks and shakes his head. “No...do I get to know?”
Hoseok pretends to think about it and then repeats himself: “Train first, reward later.”
They run around the clearing until they make a mile and then they run some more. Jeongguk keeps up with ease and when Hoseok asks him about it, he says running was the most consistent thing in his life after running away from home. They laugh but, after that, Hoseok says they can stop running and even though he means the exercise, he thinks Jeongguk might know that he means life too. After catching their breaths from the run, Hoseok wastes no time introducing the next step of training.
“I mentioned balance is important, right?” He asks Jeongguk. They’re sitting on the grass now, legs sprawled out and pants being dirtied up but none of it mattering to either of them. Not under a huge sky and above a solid ground.
“You may have alluded to it a few times.”
“Ha-ha Well, balance is shit if you don’t have a good core to begin with so today, that’s what we’ll focus on. Core strength is balance and balance is life.”
“Right,” Jeongguk says. “Do you want to see how many times I can walk around this with your legs wrapped around my waist? I think that’d be a good core exercise.”
“Creative, yes. But it sounds kind of pointless.”
“Trust me, it wouldn’t be,” Hoseok kneels forward and lays down on his stomach. He tucks his arms under him and tucks his feet below. “You know what a Chaturanga pose is?”
“I’m going to take a shot in the dark and guess that it’s what you’re doing right now.”
“Close, smartass,” Hoseok smiles at the ground and then raises his body up just the slightest, holding himself up with only his arms and his toes. It’s easy for him to speak through it. “It’s easier than an Adho and harder than a plank. Trust me when you’re up on the rope, it may seem like it’s all about what your feet are doing but you’d be surprised how much of the skill comes from your center.”
Jeongguk lowers himself on the ground and mirrors Hoseok’s position. “Like this?”
Hoseok looks up, straining his neck and risking his balance. He nods when he’s seen Jeongguk’s got the correct form and lowers his head again. “We’ll do this for as long as we can. No time limit, no time extension. Just go with your body and pay attention to what it’s willing to do.”
They familiarize themselves and get re-acquainted with the quiet, posing head to head and balancing to the backdrop of birds singing and nothing else.
Hoseok clears his mind of all thoughts when he’s like this. He just pays attention to himself. It’s not different from being up on the rope. But with Jeongguk across from him, with hearing the hitch in Jeongguk’s breath and practically feeling his warmth, it’s not the distant thoughts he has to worry about. To stay focused or distracted, what have you, he occupies himself with trying to remember the exact order of the tracklist on Are You Experienced? He only gets as far as “Hey Joe” when Jeongguk’s voice cuts through the silence.
“When Seokjin asked us what we’d do if we weren’t doing this, you didn’t say anything?”
He already wants to change the subject. “I didn’t?”
“No,” Jeongguk says. “I remember because I was waiting for your answer. If it’s a long story, I don’t mind. We have a lot of time to spend here and we don’t have to do it in silence.”
“Are you so confident that you think you’ll be in this position for a long time?”
“ Ho-seok, have a little faith in me. Trust me when I say I can last for a while.”
For his own sanity, Hoseok ignores the obvious double entendre and focuses on his balance again. He exhales slowly. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what you’d do or you don’t know if I can last a long time because I can help you verify the last one.”
Hoseok swallows a laugh. “Both. But I mean what I’d do. I don’t know, that’s why I didn’t say anything.”
“You don’t have any dreams floating around? Nothing you’ve thought about?”
“Dreams are for people with opportunities. I found that out a long time ago.”
“...I didn’t know you had any pessimism in you, honestly.”
“I guess we’re all flawed to an extent.”
“...Come on. A person like you? You don’t have anything you want to do?”
“What do you mean, a person like me?”
He can hear a smile in Jeongguk’s voice when he answers: “Someone who obviously has the world going for him.”
“I do not.”
“You do. You have it,” Jeongguk insists. “Right there in the palm of your hand. There has to be something that you think about when the going is tough. On the days that you wish you could have a permanent place to go home to and a familiar surrounding to make you feel better when you’re stressed out. You know...times when you feel like you want to go home.”
“I always want to go home,” Hoseok says as an aside. “But I’d like to go to a home I’ve never had. I get nostalgic for it sometimes...I used to like dancing.”
Across from him, Jeongguk almost loses his balance. “You did?”
“Yeah, I was in theater group at high school and I was always responsible for teaching everyone the choreography. Because I was just that good at it. But that was then.”
“...It can be now,” Jeongguk says. “It can be always. If you wanted it to be...Where would you want to live?”
“I don’t know. Nowhere in particular. A place that’s warm all the time and where there’s a bakery. I like the smell of fresh bread,” Hoseok laughs. He’s never said that part out loud before. “Is that stupid?”
“Ah, if you only knew. There’s not a single thing about you that’s stupid.”
“...What about you?” Hoseok asks the ground in a murmur. He echoes Jeongguk’s words from before. “ There must be something you think about. ”
“Other than you?”
He laughs again. “Other than me.”
“I don’t know, either,” Jeongguk says. “I like flowers though.”
Hoseok hears Jeongguk start to shuffle. He looks up from the ground and sees Jeongguk has gotten out of his pose and is sitting on his knees. “What are you…?”
Jeongguk lifts his shirt at the edge and peels it off, throwing it over his head. Hoseok’s mouth goes dry on sight, the muscles on Jeongguk’s stomach, the abs and the definition are all tight and defined. He has the kind of body that Hoseok’s really only ever seen in movies and on Jimin years ago. It’s only after staring at his torso for too long that Hoseok realizes Jeongguk is trying to show him his tattoo. It’s a lotus.
“Flowers,” Jeongguk says again as he taps the image on his chest and smiles down at it appreciatively. He looks back up at Hoseok. “Not just the look but the feel.”
He doesn’t bother putting his shirt back down as he goes back to the Chaturanga. Hoseok puts his head down again. He thought he was distracted before…
“So, what?” Hoseok asks. “Do you want to be a florist? A botanist?”
“A gardener,” Jeongguk says and he laughs at the shocked silence he receives in response. “I know, a plot twist. I just think I’d like it. I’d probably live in the countryside to do it. Or a rooftop apartment where my flowers can get sunshine whenever they needed. I’d put a tarp over them if it was a rainy day.”
The image projected into Hoseok’s mind makes him smile. Jeongguk, for some reason in flannel, kneeling in front of a row of lilies on his rooftop apartment. Watering them and talking to them so they grow faster. Dirt on his hands, mud stains on his boots. It suits him. A fitting anomaly. “It suits you.”
“Does it? Does this ?”
“This does too,” Hoseok answers.
Training Jeongguk becomes a big highlight of Hoseok’s day. They wake up, they either go into town together to eat breakfast in a low-grade diner or one of them travels out to bring food back, he and Jeongguk go find an empty place and train. They do planks and yoga poses and run and do balancing exercises for two more weeks before Hoseok finally gets Jeongguk up on the actual rope. It happens a few hours before one of their shows in yet another fishing village.
“Are you sure you’ve got me?” is what Jeongguk asked when they enter the re-erected big top and he looks up at the tightrope set up almost touching the roof of the tent. He marvels at the height. Squeezes Hoseok’s hand once. Hoseok squeezes back twice.
“Positive,” Hoseok responds. He looks up at the rope too. “You’ve got this.”
“That’s really easy to say coming from a person who can do a backflip on that thing.”
They climb up the ladder to the top. It’s only when they get to the top that Jeongguk, staggered at the distance to the bottom, asks perplexed: “You’re not putting a safety net out.”
“We don’t have one,” Hoseok says. “But even if we did, I don’t know that I would. Just because if you knew there was a safety net there, you might be okay with falling.”
As Jeongguk tends to do, he rearranges Hoseok’s words and looks away from the ground. “What if I’ve already fallen?”
Hoseok thinks it’s funny, that idea. Something called love, he’s always questioned whether it really exists. He’s seen the affection that Yoongi and Namjoon and Seokjin have for each other. The way Taehyung looks at Jimin and the way Jimin craves Taehyung. But he doesn’t know that it’s love. It’d be nice if it is was but determining the existence of love is like determining the existence of a universal truth. Then again, if love is real, how good can it be? He’s seen Jimin’s craving just as often as he’s seen his tears and if that’s love then is it really worth it? He smiles at Jeongguk and takes a step onto the wire. He balances himself with his arms out to his sides and responds: “You haven’t. You’d be hurting right now if you were.”
Jeongguk waits behind him. “ Ho-seok,” he says slowly. “Can I talk to you like this?”
“I don’t know. If you want to, I guess.”
Hoseok takes another step forward. The wire sinks slightly. Jeongguk looks down at his footing. “You won’t fall if I do?”
“I hope not,” Hoseok murmurs. “Is there something you want to say?”
“No,” Jeongguk admits quietly. “Not really. But you know me. I just like your voice.”
“ Jeon-guk, ” Hoseok says, mimicking the way Jeongguk says his name. “...Is that all you like?”
“Me?” Jeongguk says. He’s getting farther away. He hasn’t stepped on the rope yet. “Like one thing about you? Sounds fake but okay.”
Hoseok smiles down and walks the rest of the rope in silence. He makes it to the other side and steps off the rope, feeling just the slightest relieved by something more solid to stand on. He looks at Jeongguk, on the other side of the rope. The distance between them feels great and symbolic. Hoseok wonders if it really is. Hoseok grips his hands on the bar. “Do you wanna tell me what you like when you get over here?”
Jeongguk looks down at the rope warily. “Can I tell you from over here?”
Shaking his head and laughing, Hoseok points to the rope. “Get across.”
“What if I fall?”
“Then you’ll get hurt. So don’t.”
Jeongguk takes a deep breath and slowly lets go of the bar. His knuckles have gone white from gripping it so hard. He steps closer and hovers his right foot over the rope. He hesitates. Hoseok reaches out to him.
“Are you thinking about everything I taught you?”
“Don’t. It’ll mess you up. Focus on you. Focus on the rope. Overthink it and you’ll get hurt. So just come to me.”
Jeongguk takes a deep breath. “If I fall--”
“You won’t. Get across.”
Jeongguk carefully lowers his right foot down on the rope and his eyes widen when he feels it. It can do that. The rope is tense and thin. There’s nothing quite as terrifying and thrilling as the first time you set your foot down on a tightrope.
“Holy fuck,” Jeongguk exhales shakily. “I don’t--”
“Shut up,” Hoseok says. “Don’t talk. Don’t think. You can do it and you will. I promise.”
“You can’t promise things like that.”
“I can and I am,” Hoseok stretches his arm out again, outstretching his hand with it. “Come on.”
Jeongguk swallows hard. He looks away from the ground and up into Hoseok’s direction. He straightens his posture, extending his neck and keeping his back stiff. He takes another deep breath and then steps forward, both feet now on the line. He outstretches his arms so their hovering out by his sides. His steps are hesitant throughout, legs quivering and unsteady, but he’s walking the rope. Hoseok smiles and follows Jeongguk’s feet as they get closer and closer until they’re standing directly in front of him. Jeongguk jumps onto the platform next to him and tries to catch his shaky breaths, laughing as he does. That kind of laughter that’s unhumored but relieved, elated just to have adrenaline shooting through them.
Jeongguk grips the beam of the platform and looks down at the ground below. He practically quivers. “Holy shit.”
“Holy shit, indeed,” Hoseok smiles when Jeongguk turns to face him. “See, I told you you could--”
The rest of what he’s going to say is cut off as Jeongguk dives forward and captures Hoseok’s lips with his own. He tilts his head to gain more access to Hoseok’s mouth and wastes no time licking the inside of Hoseok’s mouth when he’s able to, as soon as he’s given permission. Jeongguk’s hands come up to cup either side of Hoseok’s face and he deepens the kiss, pulling their bodies closer until they’re pressed together chest to chest.
Hoseok’s eyes roll back and fall shut and he revels in what it feels like to finally -- finally -- have Jeongguk’s mouth against his. It’s warm. It’s sweet. Jeongguk’s tongue tastes like the fruit they had for breakfast. What was it they had? Melons. Sweet melons. Jeongguk breathes into him and lowers one of his hands to wrap an arm around Hoseok’s waist and pull them even closer.
When the kiss ends, Jeongguk wears a smile and rests his forehead against Hoseok’s. “Sorry,” he breathes out. “But you can’t blame me. I almost died.”
“You didn’t almost die,” Hoseok whispers back, wearing his own smile as well.
“I felt like I was, that’s close enough.”
“Close enough? Please…”
“...Can I kiss you again?”
“Depends...can you cross once more?”
Seokjin looks between them warily. He’s bundled up tight in a dark coat and sitting in the first row on the bus. Taehyung and Jimin are seated in the back. Namjoon in the bathroom. Yoongi walking around the bus aisles, digging through things for extra blanks. The town they’ve rolled into is colder than they expected and to top it all of, it’s been two days and it hasn’t stopped raining here.
For the first day, Hoseok put the training off but now’s the second and he can’t delay it any longer. Jeongguk is going to have his first performance soon and he can’t miss anymore training days. This is how Hoseok explained it when he went to Seokjin and said they were going to practice.
Seokjin stares. He turns to Yoongi for a second. “Back of the bus, top row,” Yoongi goes to the back and starts retrieving the extra blankets Seokjin keeps in that compartment. Seokjin turns back to Hoseok and Jeongguk. “It’s pouring out there.”
“So, I’ve heard,” Jeongguk responds with a wink.
“...If either one of you gets sick, I’m going to kill you.”
“I can’t control that,” Hoseok says. He holds up a finger. “But I swear practicing in these conditions is only going to make him better...and if he does get sick, I promise I’ll take care of him and he’ll be better in time for his first show.”
“What about you?”
“I can walk the rope with my eyes closed, you know that.”
“But can you walk it while sneezing? That’s the question.”
Jeongguk speaks up. “I promise to take care of him if he gets sick. In time for the next show. Forecast says it’ll be raining for a couple of more days, gives us time to heal up. That is if we do get sick.”
Seokjin looks between the two of them again and then smiles, rolling his eyes and tucking the coat tighter around his shoulders. “My statement remains: you get sick and I’ll kill you.”
They unboard the bus, shrouded in raincoats and rainboots. Jeongguk holds the balance pole in one hand and twirls around with ease, making it look as light as a drumstick. As they make their way back to the meadow, Jeongguk swings his other hand back and forth then, without saying anything and without trying to draw attention to it, reaches out for Hoseok’s hand next to him and holds it. He squeezes Hoseok’s hand once. Hoseok smiles at the ground and squeezes Jeongguk’s hand twice.
“Do you want to tell me how this helps or should it be a surprise?”
“It’s no secret. If you can hold yourself up in wind and rain, you can do it in a big top on a quiet night. Are you nervous?”
Jeongguk swings their hands together for a bit. Then he stops. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve thought about it that much yet.”
“Were you nervous your first time?”
“...I don’t think so. I was scared but I wasn’t really nervous. I think people only get nervous when they’re worried about doing something well. When you’re worried you’re going to die, you’re not really nervous. But then when you get up there, it feels like there’s nothing to worry about...Have you ever been on a plane?”
Jeongguk laughs. “No. I’ve never left the country.”
Hoseok laughs too. “I went once. When I was, like, seven. It’s scary being up there and knowing that a wrong move can kill you and everyone on board. But at the same time, all the way up there, nothing else really matters. It’s just the clouds and you and all this vast nothing that puts everything into perspective. It’s hard to care but it’s also hard not to.”
He laughs again, softly, almost a whisper of a laugh. “There you go again.”
He doesn’t explain himself and Hoseok doesn’t bother asking him to clarify. Sometimes Hoseok thinks he has to talk in order to be comfortable with someone but with Jeongguk, it’s just as easy to talk as it is to shut the fuck up and enjoy the silence together. The rain showers down hard around them, the ground beneath them becomes wet, the mud and water sloshing under their soles.
They find the smallest piece of wood they can and Jeongguk balances on that alone. They find a tree and Jeongguk climbs to the thickest branch, tests the sturdiness out, and stands on the edge of it for as long as he can. They do more chaturanga poses, more planks, less talking and more kissing. It’s nice to be able to have someone on Hoseok’s side but Hoseok isn’t even sure if he knows what that means.
(If on this particular rainy day, they spend more time making out under gray clouds than actual training then neither of them acknowledge it as a fault.)
Hoseok discovers that Jeongguk’s arm isn’t just heavy when he’s asleep, hungover, and dead to the world. It’s heavy now as they walk through the crowds of the local festival, stopping every so often at food stands and independent gift sellers. But it’s also warm and having Jeongguk’s arm around him makes Hoseok feel...safe?
The town they’ve rolled into now was hosting a special festival. What was it for again? Watermelons? A farmer? A why-the-hell-not celebration just because it’s Monday? Hoseok doesn’t remember but while Seokjin was in the middle of spreading their name to get people to come to their show tomorrow, a woman told them to come to the festival and now here they are.
The sun is beginning to set and the sky has been painted every color, the air is cool, the people are nice, and the smell of food from all the different food stands coalesce into one big mouth-watering scent. Sugar lollipops, fish cakes, ice cream waffles -- all of it which each of them try by splitting up and buying single samples and sharing it. Jeongguk took a large portion out of the somsatang Hoseok bought and, when Hoseok asked him how he was supposed to taste it, he simply leaned in and kissed Hoseok so he could taste it on his tongue. Hoseok blushed, kissed back, and said he was sure it didn’t taste the same.
Taehyung and Jimin are standing in front of an old woman’s jewelry stand, asking questions about a gemstone necklace that Taehyung will later put around Jimin’s neck. Yoongi and Namjoon are standing in front of a stand that has old pieces of art printed on small cards for easy carry. For people who travel and are cultured. Seokjin is nowhere in sight. Odd.
“Hey,” Jeongguk nudges Hoseok with his mouth against his temple. “Look,” he puts his hand out to a carousel farther down the path. “Wanna get on?”
Hoseok looks from the carousel to Jeongguk’s eager expression and wide eyes. He pulls himself out from Jeongguk’s grip and, just before he starts sprinting, says: “I’ll race you there.”
They run through the crowd and even though there are people, visitors of the festival, who shout at them for being rude or complain about nearly being tipped over, Hoseok can really only hear Jeongguk laughing behind him. When they get to the carousel, they get on two horses that are closer together and hold hands as they ride them. The music fades in and out but mostly it’s comforting. Jeongguk’s hand in his, the town that they will soon leave behind swirling past them, them in the bubble where everything is, for the moment, okay. And for that brief moment, their parents don’t matter. Their pasts do not matter. Their presents don’t matter. All that matters is themselves and each other and it’s nice.
Toward the end of the evening, when the sky has darkened completely, Jeongguk and Hoseok rejoin the others on the grass for the light show. They drink cheap beer while sitting on a cheap blanket but none of that matters. And it’s nice. Jeongguk stays close to his side while they laugh about Taehyung’s latest story. Hoseok looks around them to capture the moment properly. Jimin drinking his beer and smiling at Taehyung fondly. Taehyung drinking an orange soda and re-telling a story that has an 84% chance of having been completely fabricated, looking exuberant and, dare Hoseok say it, in love. Namjoon sitting with his elbows pressed into his thighs, looking at Taehyung as if he can make out every plot hole in the story. Yoongi listening intently, wearing a short smile that’s nothing short of amused but unimpressed. Jeongguk, still holding onto Hoseok’s hand, and being that person who calls bullshit every time Taehyung’s story takes a turn for the extra extravagant. And Seokjin. Who’s smiling but looks...sad?
There’s no time to ask about it. Or to even think about it, really. Because as soon as Hoseok notices the somber glint in Seokjin’s eye, a booming sound distracts him and the sky is suddenly alight with fireworks of every color. They watch in mostly silence, awed and affected. At some point when the fireworks are at their brightest, Jeongguk leans closer and whispers into Hoseok’s ear: “That’s you.”
Hoseok notices Seokjin the way he notices everything else.
He gets fragments of it, pieces that he stores away unintentionally to look over when there’s nothing left to keep him distracted. He remembers it like he remembers the incidences of before, things like how to hold your body up so you don’t fall off the tightrope or the very first boy he kissed.
He doesn’t say anything though. And he doesn’t ask when Seokjin gets off the bus when they arrive back at their temporary campsite and disappears into his tent without having said more than two words. And maybe he should but it’s hard for him to think about anything except for the fact that he and Jeongguk have the tent to themselves tonight and the possibilities are endless. He should except he’s been unable to think about anything aside from the coarseness of Jeongguk’s hands, the calluses that decorate his palms and how that tender roughness would feel against his bare skin. Except Jeongguk kissed him and now all he can think about is kissing him some more. Now, all he wants to do is kiss Jeongguk some more.
After a night like tonight, one with fireworks and minimal adventure, nothing feels better than that.
They end up in their tent, laying on the same cot again, laying side by side, fronts facing each other. With his hands under his cheeks like a pillow, Hoseok watches Jeongguk, memorizing the slope of his nose and the thickness of his eyelashes. Have his eyelashes always been that think? His eyes this big? This dark? Jeongguk plays with the front of Hoseok’s shirt and speaks in hushed murmurs rich with things he doesn’t have the courage to say yet.
“ Ho-seok,” he breathes the name like a mantra. “ Ho-seok, Ho-seok, Ho-seok... I think I’ve earned the need-to-know.”
“Three months ago when I asked why you didn’t want me to join and you said it was need-to-know. Do I qualify yet? I feel like I do.”
“Yes. . . Did you not want to train me? Or...did you not like me?”
“Does it matter now?”
“Not at all,” Jeongguk says. He pulls at Hoseok’s shirt experimentally. “I just want to know if I’m a need-to-know yet. If I’ve earned that much.”
Hoseok shifts. “I think, maybe...somewhere deep down, yes. But it wasn’t because I didn’t like you. I think I just thought I was being replaced. I think that...if this place didn’t exist, I wouldn’t either. It’s only been three years but it feels as if it’s been my entire life. It scares me, I think. The thought of being replaced or left behind.”
“Would Seokjin do that?”
“No,” Hoseok shakes his head. “It was just an emotional lapse in judgment on my part. A fluke...I have a question.”
“Do you come on to everyone as fast as you came on to me or is this a new flirtation tactic you’re trying out?”
Jeongguk smiles. “I wish it was a tactic. That would make more sense.”
“What is it then?”
“I told you. I just like you. Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s heaven that pulls me to you like this. Maybe it’s just your voice. I don’t know...If I tell you I’ve never felt like this, though, you’ll think I’m lying. Being cheesy.”
Jeongguk moves his hand up from Hoseok’s shirt and reaches up to caress his cheek. “Fine. I’ve never felt like this.”
“Cheesy,” Hoseok says. “But I don’t think you’re lying.”
“...Can I kiss you again?”
Hoseok’s voice is a chopped up, broken up whimper when he murmurs: “You know I want you to.”
So they kiss again because since they started they haven’t really been able to stop. It’s start simple, as it always does because Jeongguk is pliant and Hoseok likes to tease him. But then they start to really kiss and it’s here on a cheap cot that Seokjin got from a warehouse, in a cheap tent he got from a “department” store that Hoseok feels like he wants to do more. Not that kissing Jeongguk is anything short of getting a taste of an actual heaven. But that Hoseok has an urge to taste more of it and he’s pretty sure he knows where it is.
He rolls over so that he’s on top of Jeongguk. Jeongguk’s arms come up to wrap around the back of his waist and the kiss deepens even more. Hoseok only pulls away briefly to ask if it’s okay but Jeongguk doesn’t give him a verbal answer, just places his hand on the back of Hoseok’s neck and pushes him down so they can kiss again. The kiss becomes sloppy, Jeongguk’s tongue swirling around Hoseok’s mouth without much restrain. Hoseok moves on from his mouth and kisses down Jeongguk’s neck, getting fixated on a specific point and sucking the skin into his mouth to leave a mark. Maybe two. Maybe more. He travels down more a licks a stripe down Jeongguk’s neck then starts peppering against his collarbone.
Jeongguk makes a quiet, high pitched moan, already wiggling against the mattress and smiling wistfully. This has become that level of enough that’s almost too much and Jeongguk’s impatience is evident. Hoseok lifts up from his neck: “Something you want?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk exhales. “But I don’t know what. Just keep kissing me, please.”
Hoseok smirks and starts kissing Jeongguk’s neck again, soft pecks against the soft flesh of his skin. No pressure and light enough that all it does is make Jeongguk want more. “You get needy like this, do you?”
“Don’t stop,” Jeongguk says again in different words. “Please.”
Hoseok hums against Jeongguk’s neck and then sits up, straddling Jeongguk’s waist and looking down at him. Now’s the time. Hoseok takes off his shirt and gestures for Jeongguk to do the same, which he does without hesitation. The younger starts to work the front button of his jeans but Hoseok stops him, putting his hands on top of Jeongguk’s in the middle of it and freezing all motion. “Let me do it,” Hoseok mutters as he takes hold of Jeongguk’s hands and holds them down on the cot, above his head.
He goes back to kissing Jeongguk’s neck and kisses up his chin and back to his mouth, tasting every bit of him he can, wanting the taste to be stuck with him forever. Far-fetched maybe but that’s how he feels. And how he feels is not to be ignored.
“Don’t move,” Hoseok murmurs against Jeongguk’s lips, open-mouthed. “Okay?”
Jeongguk’s voice was already quivering but it starts to downright shake when Hoseok releases the hold he had around Jeongguk’s wrist and uses one of his hands to travel down to Jeongguk’s groin. He flattens his palm against Jeongguk’s erection and giggles softly when Jeongguk jerks forward in response and whimpers into his mouth. Hoseok presses his hand down harder, feeling just how hard Jeongguk is from what little they’ve done and marveling at it, appreciation inciting pride.
“We haven’t even done anything yet,” he says against Jeongguk’s mouth. “All this for me? Already ?”
Whatever quick-witted response Jeongguk would normally say is thrown out of the window as he doesn’t say a word, simply blushes and cranes his neck forward to chase more of Hoseok’s mouth. They kiss again. Hoseok starts moving his hand up and down, stroking Jeongguk’s shaft through the material. He’s big. Thick. Hoseok bites his lip thinking about what it would feel like and a part of him just wants to fuck him already. Yank those pants down and lower himself down on Jeongguk’s cock, riding him hard and without timidity. Deep down, Hoseok thinks he might be a size queen. There’s a bigger part of him though, bigger than the size queen, that just wants to try it. In his mouth. Just thinking about the size of Jeongguk’s cock weighing down on his tongue, it’s...it’s…
“Fuck,” Hoseok moans into Jeongguk’s mouth as he starts to rock, grinding his hips against Jeongguk’s and driving himself mad with a simple thought. He rests his forehead against Jeongguk’s shoulder and grinds again, moving his hips against Jeongguk’s and letting his eyes roll back when he feels the erection against his own.
“And you were teasing me .”
Hoseok smiles and nips at his shoulder. “Can I suck you off?”
Jeongguk makes a wounded noise in the back of his throat and throws an arm over his face, covering his eyes. “Do you even have to ask?”
Smirking, Hoseok sits up again and goes straight for the front of Jeongguk’s jeans, unbuckling his belt and pulling his jeans down to his thighs. He’d been wrong about the boxers. Jeongguk is a brief man. Gray ones, tight enough to make the outline of his dick that much more pronounced. He lowers himself down enough to mouth at the head through the material, eliciting a sound that’s a cross between pleasure and pain. He hears Jeongguk groan again.
Hoseok feels Jeongguk’s hand come down to his hair and he sits up again, pushing Jeongguk’s arm back to his original position. “I said not to move,” he whispers. “Do you want me to stop?”
Jeongguk bites his lip and mewls in frustrated silence. “Please, don’t.”
“Good. Stay still. Feel, don’t touch.”
Hoseok busies himself kissing through the briefs again until he gets impatient and hooks his fingers under the waistband, snatching the underwear down to his thighs as well. He barely gets the article of clothing all the way down, though, because Jeongguk is springing up and out and Hoseok’s mouth goes dry. It’s so pretty. Thick and long, veins down the sides, and smooth. Hoseok doesn’t know how long he stares at it but it’s long enough for Jeongguk to get embarrassed about it.
“Do you wanna take a picture of it?”
Hoseok looks up through hooded eyes. He wraps his hand around the base of Jeongguk’s cock and squeezes once. “And what if I did?” He looks back down at Jeongguk’s cock and strokes up once, slowly. Slowly, slowly, slowly, dragging his hand up until he gets to the head and he uses his thumb to press into the slit gently. “What if I took a picture of you like this? Your pants around your ankles, shirt off, cock out, so hard it probably hurts by now? Does it hurt?”
Jeongguk says nothing but he whimpers again.
Hoseok squeezes again in response, strokes slow. “I asked you a question.”
“It hurts,” Jeongguk manages to say through gritted teeth and eyes squeezed shut tight. “I want you to make it stop.”
“And how do you want me to do that?”
It takes Jeongguk a while to answer but when he does, he opens his eyes again and lifts himself up on his elbows. He licks his lips, turning them slick and making them shiny. Making Hoseok want to kiss himself into a stupor. Jeongguk bites his lip. He already looks fucked out and he’s barely been touched yet. “Let me fuck you? Please?”
Hoseok mulls it over and looks back down at Jeongguk’s cock. He starts to stroke again. He comes closer, holding his open mouth over it and blowing against it. The hot breaths make Jeongguk squirm but Hoseok doesn’t make a move yet. “Can I taste you first?”
Jeongguk groans again. His eyes roll back again. He, once again, falls back onto the pillow and shuts his eyes. He doesn’t say anything but Hoseok can practically hear him gulp hard and he nods his head quickly. Now.
He doesn’t wait any longer. Hoseok opens his mouth and closes his mouth around the head. He suckles with kitten nips and flattens his tongue against it. He swirls his tongue around it and then, fed up with teasing, lower his head all the way and takes all of Jeongguk in until it hits the back of his throat. He gags a little but keeps at it, hollowing his cheeks to make it that much better for him. Jeongguk groans above him but stays still as he was told. What a good boy. Hoseok will be sure to tell him that as soon as his mouth is free. He takes his hand and cups Jeongguk’s balls. He squeezes just a little, enough to make Jeongguk make a sound worthy of being recorded. He increases speed, lifting his head and forcing it back down, making himself choke on Jeongguk’s cock without much of a care. As long as he can feel all of it, he’s fine.
He likes it all. From the taste of his skin to the weight of it on his tongue, to the precum leaking in his mouth when Jeongguk starts to moan that he’s close and Hoseok keeps going. Until the coil is undone, Jeongguk’s toes are curling, and cum is shooting one his tongue. Filling his mouth. Hoseok struggles to hold all of it in his mouth but when he does, he briefly entertains the idea of keeping it there. Holding it. Tasting it. He can’t entertain the idea for long, though, because Jeongguk doesn’t listen to direction and reaches down to pull Hoseok on top of him.
Jeongguk pulls him down and kisses the corner of Hoseok’s mouth. Then he kisses him on the lips, urging him to open his mouth and only then does Hoseok understands what he wants. So he opens his mouth too, dropping some of the cum in his mouth into Jeongguk’s. He swallows the rest and Jeongguk kisses him again. Both of their tongues taste like him and Hoseok thinks that might turn him on even more. They pull apart to breathe again and Jeongguk noses down Hoseok’s jawline and down his neck, inhaling his scent and pulling him close once again, their bare chests flush together.
“Kiss me,” Jeongguk says. “Just kiss me.”
So they do, lips connected tight. Without tearing away or even opening his eyes, Jeongguk reaches down to the front of Hoseok’s pants and slides them down his thighs, uses his foot to slide them all the way down to his ankles. Like this the kissing is even better because Jeongguk can feel Hoseok against him, girth against girth and length against length. Jeongguk kicks his pants from around his ankles and wraps his legs around, calves entangled with Hoseok’s. This way their cocks are pressed together as well and Jeongguk moans into his mouth. Hoseok moves his hips against him steadily, getting himself off and getting Jeongguk hard again. Their kiss deepens and Jeongguk reaches his hands down, cups Hoseok’s bare ass and presses. He uses his grip to guide Hoseok’s movements against his cock, moving him faster and then slower and then not at all.
Hoseok curses loudly when the ministrations are stopped and he struggles to move his hips again. “Why’d you stop?”
“I just...Can I please--?”
“Can I do it inside now? Coming?” He pauses and squeezes Hoseok again, pulling them closer together. “You’ve no idea how long I’ve thought about it, can I please--?”
Hoseok hops up from the cot and goes to the corner of the tent where his backpack is placed. It’d be a sight if someone were to walk in at this moment. They’d see Jeongguk stark naked lying on a cot that’s too small. They’d see Hoseok kneeling in front of his backpack with his pants around his ankles, digging through and muttering about that “fucking lube.” After emptying the contents of the bag out onto the ground, Hoseok finally gets his hands around the lube and swipes a condom with it. He opens the cap and--
“Let me do it,” Jeongguk offers eagerly. Then, more earnestly: “Please?”
Hoseok, pleased, tosses the bottle right into Jeongguk’s expecting hand and takes his place, returning to the cot and lying down on his stomach. He spreads his legs and turns to look at Jeongguk. “Just this once,” he says. “Next time, I won’t give you the satisfaction. Hurry.”
Jeongguk squirts the lube on his fingers, making a mess of it but easily salvaging it but spreading Hoseok’s cheeks and sliding one finger in slowly. He wiggles it around and bites his lip hard when he imagines being inside for real. Hoseok’s tight and hot and...fuck, he already can’t stand it. He works him open with one finger. He adds a second when Hoseok grunts for him to hurry up. He stretches him out more, scissoring his fingers outward and in, pushing in until he hits Hoseok’s prostate and smiling when Hoseok arches his back and moans brokenly.
“Okay…” Hoseok chuckles and shakes his head in disbelief. “Okay...Some nerve. Just hurry.”
Jeongguk adds a third finger without warning and moves his fingers in and out of Hoseok with quick flourish without warning. He spreads all three of his fingers until Hoseok is mewling into the pillow. He’s about to add a third when Hoseok starts moving his ass, fucking himself on Jeongguk’s fingers, breaths making a rhythmic song of pleasure and frustration. “I can take you now.”
Jeongguk swallows the lump, sudden dryness overtaking his throat and he pulls his fingers out.
As Hoseok starts to get up from his stomach, kneeling on the cot, the two of them meet in the middle and share a kiss. More tongue than lips, tasting each other all over again. Making each other hot all over again.
“Lay down,” Hosek directs him. “Hands over your head, don’t move them.”
“Are you serious?”
Hoseok tilts his head. “Do I look as if I’m joking?”
Impressed and giving into hsi deep inclination to be told what to do, Jeongguk lays down on the bed, back against the hard set of the cheap cot. He bends his knees upward and spreads his legs, puts his hands behind his head. Hoseok looks down on him like he’s looking at a feast, fixating especially on his cock and smiling again like he just might lean down to taste it again. Jeongguk wouldn’t mind if he did.
“Don’t move,” Hoseok says again.
He throws one leg over Jeongguk’s waist, straddling him. He leans forward and kisses Jeongguk again, desperately. Licking into his mouth like he’s thirsty and Jeongguk’s mouth is a fountain. Hoseok doesn’t warn him at all, he just takes hold of Jeongguk’s cock and shoves it up his ass in one go, settling down until Jeongguk’s balls are pressed against the curve of his ass.
“Shit,” Jeongguk exhales heavily, panting to the the sky. He moans and moans. Hoseok moans too. He hasn’t felt this in a while. He sits like that, on top of Jeongguk’s cock without even trying to move, for as long as he wants. He could stop like this. Full and hot and ready. But then Jeongguk starts to wiggle his lips desperately and Hoseok lifts up again until all that’s left in his ass is the head of Jeongguk’s cock. He presses down on Jeongguk’s chest, both hands. Pressure.
“No moving,” he says again. “At all.”
He lowers himself back down slowly, clenches his cheeks to tighten over Jeongguk’s cock and just to hear him make that sound again. That desperate, small keen. He continues like that, slow and steady without any rush. Not chasing his orgasm, forbidding Jeongguk from chasing his. The sounds Jeongguk makes almost sound like he’s going to cry if he gets teased any longer but he doesn’t move.
“Good boy,” Hoseok purrs into his ear and smiles when Jeongguk grapples at that, dick twitching inside of him at the brief moment of praise. He lifts up again. He goes back down slow so he can feel Jeongguk fill him up inch by inch, the slide of Jeongguk’s cock against his tight walls making him see stars behind his eyes. “You fuck me so good. Good boy,” he murmurs again, this time against the shell of Jeongguk’s ear.
Jeongguk whimpers when Hoseok starts to kiss his neck, again taking a break from moving completely to turn Jeongguk out. He shifts and moans. “Please let me come. Can I please come?”
Hoseok thinks about it. He moves up again. Back down. He starts to pick up a rhythm. “You asked so nicely…”
“Good boys should get what they want, yeah?”
“ Yes, please.”
With those words, that last plea, Hoseok picks up the pace and starts bouncing hard and fast against Jeongguk’s cock, angling his body so that he can hit his own prostate every time. He can’t even force himself to be quiet anymore and neither can Jeongguk. Their moans and groans get tangled up in each other, Hoseok’s being the loudest. He doesn’t want this to end. He likes being filled up, he likes the stars behind is eyes. When Jeongguk’s body starts to tighten under him, he stops moving again and Jeongguk cries out desperately.
“ Please, ” he says again. He would kick his feet if he could. He would take his hands from behind his head and grip Hoseok’s hips, fuck into him regardless of what Hoseok said if he wasn’t a good boy. But Jeongguk is a good boy and he listens intently. He stays still and just asks nicely instead of making it worse for himself. But Hoseok continues to edge him on. Speeding up and stopping every time Jeongguk gets close until he’s finally had enough and he bounces down harder, making himself cry out with pleasure and pain every time. Until Jeongguk can’t take it anymore and he comes for the second time that night, hard and spilling out more cum than he ever had before. All for Hoseok to be filled up by.
By the time all of his cum has come out and is sliding down Hoseok’s walls, they’re both sweaty and limbs are aching. Hoseok especially feels like a ball of jelly and that feeling only gets worse (gets better?) when Jeongguk moves his hand from under his head to jerk Hoseok off fast and hard and then, like the desperate person he is, use his finger to scoop up the cum that comes out of Hoseok’s cock and put it in his mouth.
He licks his lips and smacks them when he’s eaten all the cum.
“Fuck,” Hoseok exhales with a light, dizzy laugh after witnessing it and he falls on top of Jeongguk without another word, passing out with his cock still up his ass and no desire to remove it.
The next morning is a quiet one full of secret smiles and the kind of soreness that makes people feel more pleasure than pain. Jeongguk doesn’t even bother trying to cover the hickies marking up his neck and attends breakfast in another one of his t-shirts and simply smiles at people when they stare at the marks too long. Throughout the entire day, Jeongguk doesn’t let go of his hand either and Hoseok starts to wonder, really, if there was ever a time he ever felt happier than this.
Jeongguk’s first performance only comes a few days later. He follows right after Jimin’s introduction act where he burst out of the box and dances to fill people with unfiltered whimsy and excitement at what kind of feats to expect. Under pink lights, Jeongguk takes his first steps onto the rope in front of an audience as Hoseok watches from the ground, eagerly anticipating and hoping that all goes well. He watches on the edge as Jeongguk takes his place, as he steps onto the rope.
Even though he knows it’s no use and that Jeongguk can’t hear him, he still finds himself chanting “don’t think, don’t think ” as he watches on.
Dressed in a sparkling green leotard, too small courtesy of Jimin, Jeongguk, with eyes lined turquoise and deep green, looks more like a peacock than ever before. Jeongguk did both of their makeup, turning Hoseok’s theme into a lilac marathon because he says green and purple go best together. Sitting in the tiny bathroom with Jeongguk between his open legs, pressing into his space to execute his winged eyeliner flawlessly, was an experience.
Now, Jeongguk is walking the rope like he’s always been walking the rope. His routine remains relatively simple, not only as a beginner but as the second act of the show, a subtle introduction to the eventual steady climax that is there show. He simply balances himself and walks across once then back again the same way. No fancy tricks, no unicycles, no juggling. But it’s enough to get the crowd excited, to see how thin the rope is and how sturdy Jeongguk’s body is. When he comes down to the ground, back to the wings, Hoseok envelops him in a hug that eventually becomes something of a group hug with the exception of Taehyung and Jimin who have started their act to the tune of some old French song.
“Not bad for the first time,” Namjoon says to Jeongguk.
Taehyung and Seokjin offer the same thing more or less but no one is as excited for Jeongguk as Hoseok is and it must show on both their faces because, whilst watching Jimin swinging inside, Taehyung mutters for them to get a room.
The show goes on without a hitch as usual. The crowd continues to get rowdier and rowdier and, after having been fed with the sight of Taehyung throwing knives at volunteers, their excitement for Seokjin’s escape act is palpable. Usually, Seokjin goes with simple traps to get himself out of. A straitjacket. A casket. A glass box. Something simple. Something safe. Something that would settle the crowd down from being super excited to simply being intrigued until they were quelled enough by their curiosities to leave the show feeling new. So when Seokjin is wheeled onto the center, in a large cage no less, Hoseok isn’t only confused but he’s concerned. Everyone is.
The cage is big enough to hold him and even leave him with a little space to walk around but not much. And the floors of the cage look, from Hoseok’s perspective, shiny? Slick? Is it wet in there?
“Did he mention this to you?” Hoseok asks Yoongi. Then Namjoon. Seokjin tends to tell them everything. The benefit, he supposes, of dicking people down.
Yoongi and Namjoon are both watching the scene unfold from the wings with that same confusion Hoseok feels mirrored in their expressions.
“Ladies,” Seokjin says. “Gentlemen. Variations thereof. I thank you all for coming here tonight. I hope you’ve enjoyed everything you’ve just watched, I hope the show will leave you searching for those everyday wonders my friend speaks so highly of. Now, we’ve one last thing to show you. Or, should I say? I have one last thing to show you. Guests of Cirque du Chic, I present to you ‘The Great Escapist’. But I’m doing special this time. In all the years I’ve done this, I’ve escaped from the chains, from boxes, you name it. But,” and Hoseok squints his eyes to clarify to himself that he sees what he thinks he sees: a match. “I’ve never escaped fire.”
Yoongi lurches forward, no doubt prepared to pull Seokjin out of the cage before he can light the match but Namjoon pulls him back the collar of his shirt and holds on to him.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Namjoon says quietly. It’s not hard to overlook how much his voice shakes when he says it though.
In the cage, Seokjin smiles at the crowd one last time and, without further ado, lights the match and drops it at his feet. The cage is engulfed in flames within seconds and despite the fear all of them feel, none of them make a move. Jeongguk squeezes his hand, not consciously, but out of fear. They should move now, Hoseok thinks. They should run in there and take Seokjin out. He’s never played with fire before, this is too much, it’s too dangerous.
Though his thoughts get louder, Hoseok can hear Yoongi mutter: “He’s taking too long.”
“Just wait,” Namjoon says.
A few more seconds pass of the flames dancing wild orange and red, they can feel the heat from where they stand or maybe it’s Hoseok’s imagination. Yoongi makes another move to go forward. Namjoon stops him again. Yoongi fights to leave his grip. “It’s taking too long! Let go of me.”
“He’s fine. Give him a minute.”
“You don’t know he’s fine.”
In the chaos of worry and fear, Hoseok finds his voice and makes it sound as reassuring as he can. “Seokjin wouldn’t go through with it if he hadn’t perfected it first.”
And just as he says it, the flames and the smoke start to become more and more wild. Yoongi is about to step in when suddenly the fire is put out with an extinguisher. They smoke becomes more thick but Hoseok can’t see anything. He looks for something, he doesn’t know what. Seokjin’s body or what’s left of it. Maybe listening out for a pained scream. But he doesn’t smell burning flesh. Perhaps that’s a good sign. He peers through the smoke with bated breath and that’s when he sees it. Seokjin out of his chains, standing proud and tall with the extinguisher safely tucked under his arm.
The crowd sees him before everyone else does, before Hoseok can say that Seokjin is fine. They break into a roaring cheer and stand to their feet, everyone in the stands applauding Seokjin with vigor and excitement. The smoke begins to clear as Seokjin bows to them in thanks. He’s saying something that Hoseok can’t make out because Yoongi is cursing up a storm. He’s pissed. It isn’t until Hoseok sees the angry red, inflamed skin on the hand Seokjin is holding behind his back that Hoseok realizes why.
“Why the fuck would he do that?” Jeongguk asks.
He, Hoseok, Jimin, and Taehyung are sitting in Taehyung’s tent. Jimin is tucked into Taehyung’s side, no doubt shaken by what he’s just seen. Taehyung is stunned silent. Jeongguk is angry and Hoseok can’t seem to make sense of anything. After the crowd started to leave, Yoongi broke himself out of Namjoon’s grip and threw himself at Seokjin, taking hold of the arm that wasn’t burned and dragging him out of the tent. The three of them berated Seokjin and took him to the hospital, telling the others to stay and pack up camp. Now the only thing standing is Taehyung’s tent so the four of them can keep warm.
But it’s odd. Hoseok suspects that the night air has little to do with why they’re feeling so cold.
“Who does that?” Jeongguk continues. “What if he had--?”
“It’s a good thing he didn’t then,” Jimin speaks up for the first time. His stare is pointed. “Jeongguk, sit down. Stop wearing yourself out.”
“How am I the only one concerned?”
“Don’t think so proudly of yourself,” Jimin says, not a hint of malice in his tone. “We’re all concerned....Seokjin’s been under a lot of stress lately.”
Jeongguk doesn’t say anything to that but Hoseok thinks they can all feel it, that they’re all thinking the same thing. If Seokjin was so stressed -- and he was -- why did it take him nearly setting himself on fire for them to notice?
The unvoiced but heard by all thought sits in with the tent with them and keeps them quiet while they wait for the others to come back. They sit, at least all of them do, until Jeongguk taps the back of Hoseok’s hand silently and guides him outside. They walk a fair distance away from the tent until there’s enough space between them and it to make a game out of running back. But there’s nothing playful about the hard set in Jeongguk’s eyes or the way his lips have been pursed so hard, they’ve gone white.
“What is it?” Hoseok asks. He reaches for Jeongguk’s hand and holds it with both of his. He holds it tight then lets it rest against his chest. “What’s wrong?”
Jeongguk takes moments to calm down and pull himself out of his stupor. Whatever it may be. He takes a deep breath and with it, yields something from deep within and starts to look as if he could cry. Hoseok clamors to bring him closer at the same time that Jeongguk reaches for him and kisses him hard. It’s not like any kiss they’ve ever shared before. It’s rough and almost painful but Hoseok can’t shake the feeling that it’s supposed to be. When Jeongguk pulls back, leaving a sliver of space between them, he explains: “If anything happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“What’s going to happen to me?” Hoseok holds Jeongguk’s face, cupping his cheeks and kissing his lips once more. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“Will be fine. He’ll be fine.”
“But you...If anything...I know what we do is dangerous but I don’t think I realized how much until tonight and I--”
“Shhh,” Hoseok kisses him again and holds him close again. “It’s alright. I’m alright. You’re alright. We all are. And we will be. And I’ll be fine,” Hoseok murmurs again against his lips. “Just fine.”
Hoseok doesn’t know how long they hold on to each other with the wind coming up around them but he knows that it’s cold outside, for real, but that the cold can’t reach him as long as Jeongguk is in his arms and he his. At some point he sees the bus pull up to the site a little bit away and he sees Yoongi, Namjoon, and Seokjin with a new a bandage on his arm get out. And somehow he sees something in Seokjin’s expression that tells him things are never going to be the same.
All seven of them huddle up in the tent that’s much too small to contain all of them but with all seven of them inside, it’s a lot warmer than it was before so Hoseok can’t really complain. With seeing Seokjin all fine and healthy apart from burn on his left wrist wrapped tight with a bandage, there’s really nothing to complain about. After letting everyone fuss over him for an inordinate amount of time, Seokjin smiled at them and quieted them with just a look.
He takes a deep breath now that everyone’s quiet. “I’m sure you guys have questions.”
A lot of them, Hoseok thinks. But he doesn’t say anything. No one does. It’s as if they all know the gravity before them without needing to be informed just yet. No one interrupts. Seokjin continues.
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he says with a slight laugh. “Because, frankly, this shit hurts and I really want to take my medication and sleep for a little while. But I can’t do that without telling you what’s what so here it is: we don’t have any money left.”
They all look around at each other in questioning but they don’t interrupt then either. Hoseok feels a stab of something in his gut and he’s not sure what to call it. It feels a lot like dread.
“We’ve been scraping by these days,” Seokjin explains. “Barely, at that. I thought if I just increased ticket prices, we’d start to break even. And I thought if I made my act a little more risky, we really could get by on raised tickets alone. Hence the fire. By the way, that was a surprise. Did it look cool?”
Yoongi glares and grumbles quietly. It can’t be easy, thinking you’ve lost someone you love.
“Okay. Not funny,” Seokjin says. “I’m sorry...Guys, I tried. I really did try to keep us going. I wanted us to make it and I’m so sorry I failed you. The circus can’t go on without money and we don’t have any left. I can’t even pay all of you what you deserve. I’m so sorry,” he shakes his head, almost sounding choked up. “You deserve the money you’ve worked for, you deserved what I promised but I can’t deliver.”
Someone scoffs. Hoseok looks over along with everyone else in Taehyung’s direction who’s shaking his head at the ground. Eventually he lifts his head and looks at Seokjin. “Do you really...think we care about the money? When we thought you could have died?” Taehyung looks around at everyone. “Does anyone here care whether they get paid?”
Hoseok shakes his head. They all do. Taehyung looks back at Seokjin. “We could’ve had all the money in the world and if anything happened to you out there, I’m sure we’d spend it trying to get you back. All the money in the world can’t hold a candle to you, Seokjin. Who gives a fuck about the money?”
Feeling vindicated, Hoseok mirrors that sentiment, agreeing with Taehyung. “Circus or not, money or not, we’re a family. And as long as we’re all together, how much does anything else matter?”
Joining in, Jeongguk nods at Seokjin. “Even if I had the money, I’d burn it if it meant you were okay.”
“Fuck the money,” Yoongi says. “And if you do anything to put yourself in danger like that again, I’ll lock you away.”
Seokjin laughs through a sad smile and it’s clear that if he weren’t so drugged up from the pain, he would have already been crying by now. Namjoon puts an arm around him and slowly they all do. Jimin comes forward and hugs Seokjin close, resting his head against his shoulder. Then they all go on for it. Reassuring Seokjin that it doesn’t matter. It’s in that that Hoseok realizes that the circus has been a big part of his life but it’s never been a staple of who he is.
It’s the people he does this with that make it all worthwhile.
(Later when the tent is packed up and they hit the road for the last time, Jeongguk takes the wheel and asks Hoseok where he wants to go. And Hoseok kisses him sweetly and says anywhere.
“As long as it’s with you.”)