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What If, Maybe?

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“Where there is hope, there are trials.”
Sea, BTS

2 February 2017

Trash chokes the kitchen counters – bottles and papers and boxes and cans. The air feels cold as the slice of a knife, and Seokjin's fingers ache like tender roots beneath the snow. The tang of fresh paint itches his nose, which keeps running no matter how much he tries to stop it.

Beside him, leaning against the counter, Taehyung texts while jiggling his knee to soothe his tension. He's thrumming with energy – the result of two shotgunned colas – and he's half-singing, half-rapping the Japanese version of their song.

“It looks real,” Seokjin says. He gnaws his bottom lip, waiting for Taehyung’s response. But he keeps texting, keeps singing, keeps bouncing his knee.

Seokjin nudges him. “It looks real,” he tries again.

“Oh, what?” Taehyung glances up.

Seokjin digs his hands into his pockets. “The kitchen, the garbage, it looks...” he rolls his shoulders and sniffs. It smells real, too, malodorous and damp, and he feels true sympathy for the intern whose job it was to collect it.

Taehyung tucks his phone away. “You okay?”

That is the big question. Seokjin doesn't quite know the answer.

They have been practicing. They've practiced this scene with a stunt coordinator. They performed the stunts together in the dorm, much to Yoongi’s dismay. They went so far as orchestrating play fights on stage, just to get the feel of physical violence. But...

Yongseok-nim, the creative director, brisks up to them, snapping Seokjin’s line of thought. “You ready to run through it?” he asks.

Taehyung says, “Yeah, we're ready.” He bounds up, shaking himself. His eyes glint with determination.

An assistant marches in with a marker board. “We'll do close up shots first,” he tells them. “Focus on faces, very expressive. Then we'll break and film Jin-ssi's parts while V-ssi gets into makeup. Yeah? Good?”

“Yes,” Seokjin mutters.

The assistant quirks his head. He leans in to say, “You know, you won't actually be hitting him.”

“I know,” Seokjin says, but his eyes twitch.

Taehyung gives Seokjin a playful hip-bump. “Method acting,” he says to the assistant.

The assistant flashes a thumbs up and says, “Gotcha.”

The first run-through goes well enough. Seokjin’s acting classes kick in so he’s almost able to cut himself off as they tumble through the motions. And it’s true, Seokjin doesn't lay a hand on him, which is a good way for them to work up to the actual fight scene.

After watching the close-ups on the monitor, Seokjin feels pleased at the precision of his movements. He’s oddly affected by the way his sharp, powerful jabs would have certainly reached their mark on Taehyung’s face. It's a perversion of their dancing, which is graceful and fluid and full of light.

While this feels grim and dirty and...

Taehyung returns to the kitchen, his face a mask of bruises. The way he smiles beneath them causes something to break inside Seokjin. Suddenly, without warning, he's near tears. His heart beats like something feathered with knives. Heat aches the base in his throat as he battles to keep them inside.

Yet no one seems to notice. Yongseok-nim guides them through the shot, and this time, Taehyung lies on the ground, his head against the kitchen counter. Which is fake, Seokjin thinks, getting stern with himself. Built for their filming, and he's an actor, and Taehyung is an actor.

But when he's astride him, his fist poised to strike, Seokjin crumbles. The director calls action, and Seokjin strikes down – once, twice, and then again – and Taehyung reacts, his head thrashing back into the cabinet. Seokjin leaps up, breathless, blind through a screen of tears. He covers his eyes and wavers, uncertain, until somewhere far off the director yells cut.

He feels Taehyung's warmth at his shoulder, hears his voice say, “We need a minute.”

Someone answers, “Understood. Let's break for five, reset those lights, and—”

After a long, long moment, the rushing of his blood subsides.

“Seokjin-ah,” Taehyung says, softly. “What happened?”

Seokjin exhales, a long, slow, steady breath. He croaks, “It’s embarrassing.”

Taehyung mumbles something sweet and unintelligible. Somehow it makes Seokjin feel worse.

“I'm supposed to be an actor,” he whimpers. “But you, and your face, and I...”

“Maybe if it was anyone else but me?” Taehyung says. “Like, maybe if it was Jimin?”

Seokjin hiccups a short laugh. “Yeah maybe.”

Taehyung pets the length of his arm. It's a simple gesture, one he's done a thousand times, but it calms him.

“We practiced,” Seokjin whispers.

“I know we did,” Taehyung says. “But acting is hard, hyung. You know, Park Hyungsik says acting is one of the most challenging professions because you always risk putting your whole heart on the line. And that's what you're doing right now.”

“Park Hyungsik said that?” Seokjin asks.

“Yes, and he's been acting a long time so he knows what he's talking about,” Taehyung answers.

Seokjin bites down hard to stop his teeth from chattering. “If anyone ever hurt you,” he grinds out, “I'd destroy them.”

A smile lights in Taehyung's eyes. His voice a low growl, he says, “If I could, I would kiss you right now.”

“Stop it,” Seokjin says, because he wants that more than anything in the world. But Yongseok-nim has come to hover outside their dim circle of light, awaiting the signal to continue.

“My whole heart, huh?” Seokjin whispers to Taehyung.

“Every bit of it.”

“That’s kind of a lot.” He breathes out. “Okay, let’s try again.”

 

It would have been so easy to tease him. Had their positions been reversed, Seokjin definitely would have teased him. But Taehyung had not.

Hours later, they lay like puzzle pieces across Seokjin’s bed, Taehyung in his silk pajamas, Seokjin in socks and flannels. They’re both on their phones, both doing their best to keep quiet, even though Yoongi’s muffled EDM drones out a soft blanket of white noise around them.

The ondol smells like hot metal, which reminds Seokjin of blood. He feels a peculiar need to tighten his fists, repeatedly, to reassure himself of their wholeness. He didn’t punch Taehyung in the mouth. He didn’t throttle him to the ground. It felt real, and it looked real, but it wasn’t.

Also, Taehyung could have made jokes or told the others, but he didn’t. Then, later, when Taehyung suggested that Seokjin and Jungkook be the ones to restrain Taehyung in the next scene, Yongseok-nim smoothly offered up Jimin in Seokjin’s place.

Seokjin can’t describe the relief he felt in that moment, because with it came a tight bubble of shame. The scene should have been simple. He’s studied acting for years. In less than a month, he will graduate with a Film Arts degree. But when he thinks of Taehyung’s face scored with scrapes and bruises, his heartbeat quickens, and he breaks.

Seokjin lowers his phone, through which he’s been mindlessly scrolling for an hour. After a few minutes, Taehyung must feel his gaze, because he glances up to ask, “What?”

So much, Seokjin thinks. Way too much for tonight, when it’s already so late and they have so much to do tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

Taehyung’s phone nags him with texts. His eyes dart to the screen, which illuminates his face with a snowy glow.

“We should sleep,” Seokjin tells him.

Taehyung grumbles, halfheartedly flailing, but after a quick goodbye to the chat with his Hwarang Hyungs, he assents and pulls Seokjin close. Seokjin takes their phones, placing them side-by-side on the window ledge.

“Kiss me,” Taehyung says, and Seokjin has never denied him. Their lips brush, sweetly, almost chastely, and they curl into each other’s arms. But it’s a long time before Seokjin can sleep.

Chapter Text

“Give me a kiss to build a dream on
And my imagination will thrive upon that kiss
Sweetheart, I ask no more than this.”
A Kiss to Build a Dream On , Louis Armstrong
from Taehyung’s Spotify

 

22 February 2017

In the haze of his eagerness, Taehyung slips on the shower tile, catching the door latch with the meat of his buttcheek. Yet as he prods the spot in search of injury, he glimpses himself in the mirror. His damp hair sticks in disheveled spikes to his forehead, but by far the most dominant feature is the idiotic smile on his lips.

Taehyung twists sideways, contorting himself to inspect his skin. He grazes the raised welt with his thumb and sucks air through his teeth. It'll be tender tomorrow, but if Seokjin's text is any indication, that won't be the only part of him that’s sore.

Dragging on his robe, he slings into the cozy hotel room, grabbing up his phone as he rounds the bed. A dozen messages scroll up his screen, but he ignores them as he adjusts the volume on the Bluetooth. Louis Armstrong bumbles out a warm, sweet melody, and Taehyung shuts his eyes to draw it in.

When he arrived at the Alcazar a half-hour ago, he'd texted Seokjin, asking if he wanted him to order food. Seokjin responded with an enticingly enigmatic answer: I thought we'd try something different tonight.

Different, Taehyung has long believed, is good. Different fills his insides with a sparkling like champagne. Different makes him dizzy, which also causes him to bust his ass in the shower.

Taehyung riffles through his overnight bag, scrabbling through their various toys and lubes, searching for the jar of Seokjin's family-recipe muscle cream. Yes, it smells like a dental clinic, and yes, it's greasy as barbecued pork. And though they tease Seokjin endlessly every time he uses it, Taehyung knows how well it works.

Thus Seokjin finds Taehyung, half-robed and groaning as he swabs his ass with grease.

From the door, Seokjin muses, “Getting started without me?”

“What? No.” Taehyung whips upright, hiding the jar of ointment behind his back.

Seokjin heels the door shut behind him, a bemused smirk on his chapped pink lips. “One might argue you started earlier on the broadcast...”

Taehyung squawks in protest, but Seokjin closes the distance to press his mouth with a kiss. It’s in that moment Taehyung learns that Seokjin's lips aren’t chapped, but laced instead with a sugary glaze... very much like frosting.

Taehyung angles back to gaze at Seokjin.

“Since you so clearly wanted it earlier,” Seokjin says.

“That,” Taehyung murmurs, “was an accident.”

“Hm,” he says. “We'll see.” He pushes a paper sack into the bend of Taehyung's arm.

“What's this?” But a knot of hunger knuckles into his belly at the smell of them. “Burgers?”

“Only the very best burgers in Seoul,” Seokjin grins.

Taehyung steps back, jostling the bag to read the logo on the side. For a moment, he wrestles with conflict, because he definitely needs more of Seokjin's sugar-coated lips, but after their performance at the Gaon Chart Awards and Seokjin's mini-graduation, Taehyung is starving.

He struggles, and Seokjin nods as he watches. He glances at the blue jar of liniment cupped in Taehyung's palm. Then he edges Taehyung onto the bed, primly pulling the hems of the robe over his thighs. “These won't be any good cold,” he explains, placing one of the massive, paper-wrapped cheeseburgers into his lap.

Seokjin looks so pleased with himself and seems so excited about their meal that Taehyung relents, succumbing for now to the most basic form of hunger.


Not even fifteen minutes later, Seokjin tosses a half-nibbled fry onto the pile. “I can’t,” he moans. “I’m done.”

Taehyung stares through heavy-lidded eyes at the paper bag they’ve spread like a picnic blanket between them. For a moment, they can only stare at it as they survey the damage. All that remains of Seokjin's burger is a lone scrap of onion caught in a drizzle of sauce. Taehyung piled his lettuce to one side, but now he's wondering how harshly Seokjin will judge him if he licks the seasonings from the leaves.

Seokjin reclines against his pillow. He groans, “Two things you can never have too much of in this world, Taehyung-ah: Love, and cheese.”

“Ah, jagiya. We have both,” Taehyung agrees.

Seokjin lifts his fry again, considers it, and flicks it back down. “Well you know what they say,” he says. “If you eat when you're happy, the food has zero calories.”

You say that.”

Seokjin rolls his shoulder. “It's a scientific fact.”

Taehyung cuts his eyes to Seokjin, observing that while he is naked beneath his robe, Seokjin remains fully dressed, right down to his socks. Then Taehyung snorts a laugh when he notices the gaping hole in the left heel.

Seokjin follows his line of sight and wrinkles his nose. “Dancer's socks,” he sighs.

Ahjussi socks,” Taehyung counters.

Seokjin clutches his chest in mock offense. “You said I’m at a blooming age.”

“Yeah, not your socks.”

“Ha,” Seokjin grunts. “Anyway, you're one to talk.”

“Uh, why?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin arches his brows at the blue jar of muscle cream. “What’d you do?” he asks.

Sulking, Taehyung goes, “Nothing.”

Seokjin scowls, communicating once more with only the arch of his brows.

“Fine, I slipped in the shower,” Taehyung answers. “Happy?”

“No,” Seokjin balks. Shoving the ruined packaging aside, he grips Taehyung's forearms to stare into his face. “You should be more careful. People get hurt in showers all the time.”

It takes all of Taehyung’s willpower not to roll his eyes at this .“I didn't get hurt,” he says. “Except… I bruised my butt a little.”

Seokjin brays a soft chuckle. “Here,” he says. “Lemme see.”

Taehyung pouts, but he submits. Seokjin's palm finds the tender spot where the cold metal of the handle gouged his hip. Seokjin reaches for the muscle cream and smooths a generous dollop into Taehyung's skin.

Taehyung winces, gurgling disgust in the back of his throat. “It's official,” he groans. “We are no longer a hot, young couple.”

“That's not true, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says. “You licked frosting off my lips not six hours ago.”

Taehyung launches into an apology; Seokjin cuts him off.

“My Mom saw the video,” Seokjin laughs.

“Oh did she?”

Seokjin chuffs Taehyung's arm. “She said, That's the one you've been dating, right? He’s so handsome, well done.

Taehyung gushes, “Eomma Kim!”

“I’ll call it progress. It almost makes up for them not wanting to attend my graduation.” Seokjin shrugs, still grinning. “Anyway, I'm not mad. A year ago, maybe. But now...”

Taehyung sighs. “That's just what I'm talking about,” he says.

“No, I can't see how that’s a bad thing...”

Frustrated, Taehyung interrupts. “Remember on Friends , when Ross and Rachel got upset because Chandler and Monica were the exciting new thing—”

“—No,” Seokjin cuts in. “It was not Ross and Rachel.”

“Yes, it was. Monica and Chandler had just started dating.”

“No,” Seokjin insists. “It was Phoebe and that gangster guy, the one with the gun.” He slathers another gram of cream onto Taehyung's wound, gently kneading it into the muscle.

“That's dumb,” Taehyung grates through his teeth. “Why would Phoebe date a guy with a gun?”

Jagiya , listen,” Seokjin says. “It was Phoebe and... someone, and Monica was scared because she and Chandler weren't the sexy, hot couple.”

Taehyung cranes sideways, reaching for his phone. “I'll just ask Namjoon,” he says.

“Go ahead, ask him,” Seokjin says, his voice all lofty and smug.

But when Taehyung taps the screen to wake his phone, he's greeted by an onslaught of Kakao notifications. Feeling heat in his cheeks, he looks up to find Seokjin glaring.

“The Hwarang hyungs?” Seokjin asks. When Taehyung says nothing, Seokjin snarks, “Oh, be sure to tell them you love them.”

Exhaling slowly, Taehyung goes, “I'll just mute the chat.”

“Yes, do that,” Seokjin agrees.

A prickly silence slinks between them. Seokjin continues to massage Taehyung's upper thigh as Taehyung thumbs a message to Namjoon. The playlist switches from Dean to Daniel Caesar, and Seokjin hums along to fill the quiet. Namjoon responds with blinding quickness, and Taehyung reads the text aloud.

“According to Joon-ah, the hot couple was Phoebe and some guy named Gary,” Taehyung relays. “Gary?”

“The mobster,” Seokjin affirms.

“Monica and Chandler were the old couple, and Monica felt sad because... blah blah blah.” Taehyung continues, “Then Phoebe broke up with Gary because he shot a bird.”

“Told you he had a gun,” Seokjin says. “Why is Namjoon even awake right now?”

“America’s weird.” Taehyung mumbles. “Anyway, I was right. We're not the hot couple any more.”

“You were not right,” Seokjin groans.

“Jinnie, we just chose burgers over sex.”

“But those were damned good burgers,” Seokjin says. “Wait, does that make Jimin and Kookie the hot couple?”

Taehyung heaves a sullen sigh. “I don’t wanna be old and boring,” he says.

Seokjin glowers. “Do you not recall our Valentine's Day? The treasure hunt? The handcuffs?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung answers, sounding sheepish. “I remember.”

“Okay, so, we were really hungry, and we’re exhausted. It's been non-stop since our comeback, and we don't have any kind of break for—”

“—Months,” Taehyung agrees.

“So shut up and kiss me,” Seokjin says.

And Taehyung does. He revels in the sandy-sweet texture of the sugar balm that has, somehow, clung to Seokjin's lips. They make out for a delicious stretch of minutes, long enough for Taehyung to get Seokjin out of his clothes. There’s some frisky cupping and nuzzling, but in the end, exhaustion wins out, and feeling warm and full, they fall asleep in a heavy tangle of limbs.

Chapter Text

“Trust me, who is next to you
Together we won’t die.”
Not Today , BTS

5 March 2017

Two seconds after Jimin fluffs his bangs, Seokjin scrambles them beneath his palm.

“Hyung,” Jimin grinds out as he smooths them back into place.

“Hm? What?” Seokjin asks, feigning innocence. He slides into the stylist's chair, uncaps his water bottle, and takes a gulp. Mid-swig, Jimin bumps the bottle's bottom, generously dousing the front of Seokjin's t-shirt.

Seokjin has the nerve to splutter, indignant, but Jimin merely grins. Because before Seokjin can retaliate, the show's stylist team bustles in. Coolly professional and efficient, they spin them to face the lighted mirrors, which mercilessly magnify every crease and flaw on their faces.

At this point, though it’s morning, Jimin and Seokjin have been conscious for eight hours. They worked out as usual, then had a vocal lesson, and then a focused choreo practice with Hoseok. Then they showered, dressed, snagged breakfast, and arrived at the television studio, where they were corralled through rehearsal and a meeting with their co-hosts before landing at last in wardrobe.

So the puffy bags around Jimin's eyes should surprise no one, yet he still deflates at his reflection. It's only a small consolation when he sees that Seokjin does, too.  

“I can see your stubble,” Jimin teases. “Under this light, it sorta looks like moss.”

Seokjin sighs, loftily, and meets eyes with the stylist, who gives his shoulders a sympathetic squeeze. “It's not that bad,” she tells him. “Anyway, we'll cover it with foundation. You'll be fine.”

Jimin snickers behind his hand.

“That's wonderful, thank you,” Seokjin says. “But what can be done for his broken tooth?”

Jimin gasps and clutches his heart.

“So unseemly,” Seokjin says. Though his tone is breezy, his eyes glint with mischief. “Maybe he shouldn't smile.”

Jimin's stylist ignores all of this. She squares Jimin in his seat and proceeds to yank her straightener through his hair. It's pearly gray now and so frazzled it smells like burnt cotton candy. He braces for some kind of comment from Seokjin, but when he glances up, he finds his hyung glowering at his own reflection.

This is how Seokjin gets sometimes, in the company of strangers. He grows shy to the point of sullen, his nerves gnawing at him like eager little meal-grubs, and if someone doesn't do something, Seokjin might make himself sick.

Jimin's learned all of this recently and reluctantly following their teeny spat at the MAMAs, which everyone blew completely out of proportion. Afterward, Bang PD decided Jimin and Seokjin should be paired together for broadcasts, to further foster their friendship. It will help you understand each other , PD-nim had explained, and It will teach you how to work in harmony as hyungs .

Bang PD insisted this was not a punishment, though at first, that’s exactly how it felt.

Then Seokjin did something incredibly brave and ridiculously stupid, which forced Jimin to reappraise everything he thought he understood about him. Risking everything for the sake of Taehyung, Seokjin came out to his parents.

It had not gone well.

They shut Seokjin out, refusing for weeks to speak with him. Then at Seollal, his mother had invited him home, and he went, but still his Dad didn’t speak to him.

“Tilt your chin forward, please,” the stylist barks. Jimin obeys and she spritzes the back of his hair with frigid mist. He shivers and Seokjin mutters, “You okay?”

Beneath the curtain of his hair, Jimin rolls his eyes. “The water's cold, that's all,” he answers. “Don't be such a goose.”

“Am I a goose?” Seokjin wonders, and his stylist giggles.

“You know, the way a goose worries over little chicks,” Jimin says. “That's you, Apa-Goose.”

“What nonsense is he talking now?” Seokjin asks, though his honking laugh only adds weight to Jimin's assertion.

“Aish,” Jimin hisses as he lifts his head. “You're the one with the nonsense. Please don't tell any of your jokes today.”

“Oh, I'm going to tell them,” Seokjin says. “I already have a list. Are you ready?”

“No,” Jimin chuckles.

“There is a queen duck,” Seokjin begins.

Jimin covers his ears and goes, “Lalalala, wait until the show.”

“Fine,” Seokjin says.

“Fine,” Jimin says.

Seokjin folds his arms.

But he already looks better, more awake and alert. His makeup artist dabs the finishing touches around his nose. Behind them, their comedian co-star Kim Seunghye has arrived, and Seokjin's stylist flits over to fuss with her towel-damp hair.

Temporarily abandoned, Seokjin goes for his phone.

“Who’re you texting?” Jimin asks, straining over the arm of his chair. His stylist softly raps his shoulder with her brush, redirecting him to the mirror.

“No one,” Seokjin answers. He's grim again, his brows peaked with concern.

“Is it Taehyung-ah?” Jimin tries, but Seokjin makes a noise of disgust.

Inwardly Jimin steels himself, but before he can say anything, Seokjin explains: “He's busy.”  

Which prompts a proportionate grunt of frustration from Jimin. And it's funny, really, now that Jimin thinks about it, because even with recent life events and Bang Sihyuk's well-meaning efforts to help them get along, nothing has been so effective as this: the mutual disdain of their shared jealousy.

Neither Seokjin nor Jimin can deal with the fact that Taehyung has new friends.

Seokjin purses his lips. “It's my Mom,” he explains. “She and my Dad are planning to visit us next week.”

“Oh that's good,” Jimin chirps, but Seokjin's brow is still cloudy. “Isn't it good?”

“Yeah, it's good,” Seokjin confirms. “But I just saw them for Seollal and...”

“Yoongi's birthday is next week,” Jimin says.

“We leave for Chile next week.” Seokjin puffs out a breath. “It'll be a busy week.”

Seokjin's stylist returns. “Okay, you both look done. Go get into your clothes and head backstage, we have about seven minutes.”

“Seven,” Jimin repeats. “Okay.”

Seokjin is weirdly modest and hides in a bathroom to change into his sweater. When he comes out, his hair flies around his head in static-y wisps that the stylist attacks with her hairspray.  

Jimin and Seokjin tiptoe together offstage while the makeup artists poke and preen them with their brushes. Seokjin tries with a few jokes, but they're both too anxious to laugh. A stagehand fits them with their mics. Then they get their cue, and they finally take the stage.

The introductions go well, the audience reacts wonderfully, and Jimin mostly forgets his nervousness. And Seokjin is really, really good at this. He's funny and self-deprecating in a way that finally puts Jimin at ease.

Until someone remarks that Seokjin looks tired.

“I'm worried about something,” Seokjin says, without hesitation. “The reason is we have three rooms and our member V comes to my room to sleep in my bed.” Then, as if realizing in that moment what he's said, he flashes a panicked look to Jimin, who can only stammer wordlessly in response.

The host, Shin Dong-yup fills in the gap. “It's not his bed but he just comes in and sleeps in it?”

No , Jimin thinks. Oh no oh no oh no .

But Seokjin, laughing, goes, “Yes!”

“Wait wait,” someone else says. “Why does he leave his own bed to sleep in yours?”

Seokjin swallows hard. “Yes, right, why?” he blusters, and the audience gushes with applause. “My bed is narrow, and it's too low, and so I think that... if this friend is going to be like this, then—”

Jimin tries to catch his eye again, tries with all his heart to will him to stop talking.

But of course, Seokjin doesn't. He says, “Then I want to say through this broadcast... You! Don't do that.”

Touching icy fingers to his forehead, Jimin mutters, “ Pabo ,” beneath his breath.


After the filming, they wait in the stairwell for Sanghyun-nim to bring the car up from the garage. Through the slit of the window, the world is a slice of grainy, gray cold. Seokjin leans his head against the frosted window pane. He looks tired again, the glow of his makeup faded by the harsh lighting of the stage.

Silence ellipses between them, until Jimin finally rasps, “I don't understand you, hyung. You're so careful about everything you share, and then you do something like this?”

“They said they wouldn't air it,” Seokjin says. “And everything else went just fine.”

“You really think Taehyung-ie won't find out?”

“Oh he will find out,” Seokjin asserts. “Because I'll tell him. He'll understand. Believe me, he knows me well enough by now.”

Jimin hammers his knuckles to his brows. “I just don't get you—”

“—I know.” Seokjin chuckles. A group of studio employees thunder down the stairs, chattering about the weather and traffic, and he and Jimin fall quiet until they pass. When they open the door, the wind sucks out all the heat, and Seokjin hugs his coat tighter across his chest. As they watch the pair of employees mince down the icy sidewalk, Seokjin asks, “Remember the time I told about me and Taehyung-ah showering together?”’

“Uh, yeah,” Jimin says.

“Well I just… blanked and said the first thing that came to my head.”

“The first thing in your head was to tell the world that you and Taehyung-ie sleep together?”

Seokjin worries with the cusp of his bracelet. The silver one, Jimin realizes, the Cartier band that matches Taehyung's. He notices then that Seokjin's wearing Taehyung's sweater, the Gucci one with the twisty snake thing on its back. So of course Taehyung was the first thing to come to mind. Taehyung is always at the top of his thoughts. But—

“—My parents will come to see us,” Seokjin explains. “My Dad will see the bed that we share.”

Jimin shrugs. “So?”

Again, Seokjin gives a pained little laugh. “It's such a small bed for two grown men.”

Jimin pinches his lips as he considers this. He thinks he understands, but he has to ask to be sure. “Is this about... money?”

Seokjin blinks.. “Maybe?”

Feeling his way around the idea, Jimin says, “You want your Dad to know you can take care of him.”

“Us,” Seokjin corrects. “I want him to know I can take care of us .”

“Woooow,” Jimin breathes. “Hyung. That is really deep. Like, Namjoon-level deep.”

Seokjin goes to chop Jimin's neck; he flinches away, squealing.

“Yoongi-level at least,” Jimin adds, dodging another blow to his throat. They wrestle noisily until Sanghyun rakes open the door, catching them mid-hold. He scolds them, kindly, for playing around when it’s beginning to sleet, and they have a messy commute back to the dorm.

After a profusion of apologies, they follow their manager outside to the car warming at the curb. They bobble clumsily into the seats, fastening their belts as Sanghyun edges out into the evening’s untidy traffic.

Several minutes of slow progress later, Jimin angles toward Seokjin. “Don’t worry, hyung,” he says. “I'll help you.”

“You will?” Seokjin asks, and it's reasonable to assume that they're both shocked by Jimin’s offer.

“Sure, yes,” Jimin agrees. “I'll explain to Taehyung how tired we were, and how hungry, and how busy and chaotic everything was, plus: traffic.... Anyway, he'll listen to me. He always listens to me.”

Seokjin pulls Jimin into a sideways hug and holds him there a long, long time. “You're right,” he says. “He always does.”

Chapter Text

“Whenever you're in darkness,
And there is doubt in your heart,
Baby ahí estaré,
I won't fall without a fight.”
I Will Be There, Agapornis (from Taehyung's 2017 Spotify) 

8 March 2017 Seoul

Ms. Kim flurries into the entry hall, mincing out of her winter boots while in her arms, Jjangu squiggles like a plate full of snakes. Beside Hoseok, Seokjin – visibly stiff with anxiety – steps in to heft the impatient puppy from her arms.

He presses his nose to the dog's neck and flinches back. “Oof, you smell awful,” he whispers into Jjangu's ear. The dog perks at the sound of Seokjin's voice. His legs begin to pinwheel like he's swimming through the air.

“Aish, when you're 84 years old, you won't smell so nice, either,” Ms. Kim says. She foists her snow-flecked coat at Namjoon, layering on top of it her fur-trimmed hat and Chanel sunglasses.

In Yoda speak, Hoseok goes, “When 900 years old you are, look as good—” but Seokjin cuts him off with a shake of his head. He then peers past his mother into the empty corridor behind her.

“Oh?” Seokjin says. “Where’s Abeoji?”

“You know him.” She tsks, breezily. “Called away at the last minute. Here, take these.” She passes up a parcel that smells of steamed rice and hoisin sauce.

Hoseok watches Seokjin swallow back his questions. There's a blink of disappointment, but it vanishes as he tucks Jjangu into the bend of his arm, attempting to balance the wriggly dog and homemade food between his hands.

Out of nowhere, Jimin appears to lift the bag from him. “Good morning, Ms. Kim,” he singsongs. “How nice to see you.”

“Park Jimin,” she beams. “Seems you’ve been eating well.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he answers. He heads toward the kitchen and the rest of them follow, minus Namjoon who is still struggling to sort and hang all of Ms. Kim's belongings. They find Yoongi and Jungkook at the table, each looking like they could use another five days sleep. Jimin presents the bag of pajeon like it's an offering in a temple, and Hoseok smiles at the effect the meal's aroma has on them.

“Is this for us?” Jungkook marvels.

“No, it's for Jjangu,” Ms. Kim deadpans. “Silly, of course it's for you.”

By this time, Namjoon has returned. “We're really grateful, Ms. Kim,” he says. “It smells amazing.”

“I know you probably don't have time for home-cooked meals these days, what with your touring and filming schedules,” she says. “Anyway, I hope this is close enough.”

Ms. Kim edges onto a stool, looking as though she expects someone to serve her a cocktail. Then, to Hoseok's surprise, Yoongi hops up, returning seconds later with a bottle of Perrier, something Hoseok didn't even know they owned.

“I know your birthday isn’t until tomorrow, Yoongi,” she says, waving the bottled water at him. “Perhaps you can forgive me for being early?”

“I mean, I guess,” Yoongi says, giving her his gummy smile, and Hoseok sees a blush sneaking along the back of his neck.

“Go on, dig in,” she says. “If you're like my Seokjinnie, you must have a healthy appetite.”

Yoongi doesn't need to be told twice. He rips into the bag, sharing the plastic containers of rice, soup, kimchi, and pajeon among them.

“Well,” Ms. Kim says, her hands folded lightly on her knees. “Where is he?”

“Uhhh,” Seokjin stammers. Jjangu, who's had enough captivity, finally slithers down to the floor.

“Washroom?” Hoseok guesses.

“Probably,” Seokjin says. Then he leans over and whispers, “Can you go find him, please?”

Hoseok squeezes Seokjin's elbow. As he leaves the room, he hears Ms. Kim say, “Namjoon-ie, this is a very nice place.”

“Oh, yes ma'am,” Namjoon answers. “But, unfortunately, we're moving again soon.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, ma'am, our housing contract ends this summer...” Namjoon continues, his voice growing muffled as Hoseok pads down the hall toward their bathroom. Jjangu gallops alongside him, his nails ticking purposefully on the tile.

But Taehyung's not in the washroom. Instead, Hoseok finds him in Seokjin and Yoongi's bedroom, an explosion of clothes flung across Seokjin's bed.

Hoseok hovers at the door, watching in mute wonder as Taehyung – still in his pajamas – lifts, examines, and discards every shirt and pair of pants in the pile. Jjangu skitters in toward the ratty brown floof of his dog bed, and that's what snags Taehyung's attention. He glances up, panic plain on his face, a jumble of neckties clenched in his fist.

“Seokjin's Mom is here,” Hoseok says.

“Not his Dad?” Taehyung asks. He threads a tie around his throat and fails to knot it.

“Called away,” Hoseok says. “Taehyung... you're still in your PJs?”

A strangled sound escapes Taehyung's throat. “Jinnie likes PJs.”

“Because you share a bed together,” Hoseok says. “Not really appropriate for when you're meeting your boyfriend's mother.”

“I’ve met her before,” Taehyung counters.

“Not as the boyfriend,” Hoseok says.

Taehyung stomps and then flounces onto Seokjin's bed. He covers his eyes with his forearm and says, “I don't know what to wear.”

Hoseok enters the room. Jjangu scratches behind his ear, making the charm on his collar jangle like a keyring.

“Well, first of all...” Hoseok says, sliding onto the corner of the bed. “These are Jin-hyung's clothes.”

Taehyung peers upside down at him. “I know that,” he mumbles.

Carefully, Hoseok suggests, “Wouldn't you be happier in your own clothes?”

“Seokjin's family is rich,” Taehyung says.

“You know who else is rich?” Hoseok asks, knuckling Taehyung's shoulder. “We’re kinda rich.”

“Not the same kind,” Taehyung says, but he grips Hoseok's finger and links their hands. “I can't look like a Daegu street kid. Like... what will she think?”

“Yoongi's out there in a pair of basketball shorts and a shirt you cut the sleeves out of,” Hoseok says. “She raised two sons, Taehyung-ah. She's not gonna judge you.”

Taehyung trains his eyes on the ceiling. Then he says, “Hobi-hyung, they disowned him. They refused to speak to him. They didn't even attend his graduation. I think they already kinda judged us.”

Hoseok smooths Taehyung's hand beneath his palm. “They're trying,” he says.

She's trying,” Taehyung agrees. “But his Dad was called away...?” He shakes his head. 

The bright burst of Jimin's laughter rings out from the kitchen. Jjangu sniffs disapprovingly and returns to chewing between his toes.

Taehyung sits up. “I don't wanna embarrass him,” he says.

Hoseok combs down the side of Taehyung's hair. “You won't.”

“If he's disappointed in me, if I look stupid, then his Mom will feel justified that they rejected us,” Taehyung says.

“I really don't think so,” Hoseok says. “But here's the thing, Taehyung. Jin-hyung needs you right now, and you're in here, with me, and… Jjangu, when you really should be in there. With him.”

Taehyung natters with the frayed denim at Hoseok's knee. “Will you choose something for me?”

Hoseok presses his free hand to his chest. “You want me to dress fashion icon Kim Taehyung?”

Color floods Taehyung's cheeks. “Stop. Hyung,” he says, burying his chin against his shoulder.

“First we must have a shirt,” Hoseok says, bounding up from the bed. “Something tasteful, not too flashy.” He grabs the first wrinkle-free button-down he can find and thrusts it at Taehyung. “Now, do you fancy jeans or a nice trouser?”

“Hmmm,” Taehyung growls as he shrugs off his pajama top. “What do you think?”

Hoseok taps his chin. “Definitely jeans. You don't want to appear as though you're trying too hard.”

“Casual,” Taehyung agrees. “Comfortable.” He slides into his sleeves and begins buttoning the shirt. A backward glance shows Hoseok that it's a white shirt sketched with line-art profiles. Each set of lips is outlined in vivid racecar red. Probably not the most casual brunch-meeting shirt, but he's not about to erase their progress.

Hoseok’s just beginning to wonder why all of their jeans have holes ripped in them when Seokjin's voice calls down the corridor. “Taehyung-ah? Hobi?” he says.

“Coming, hyung,” Taehyung shouts back. He springs from the bed, snatching up Seokjin's black skinny jeans from the laundry chair. He's hopping himself into them when Seokjin enters the room.

“Found him,” Hoseok says, pointing.

Seokjin asks, “Is everything okay?” Then, “Are those my pants?” 

“It's this whole big thing,” Taehyung drags up the zipper.

Seokjin comes in to loop his arms around Taehyung's shoulders. He says, “They're too short.”

“Hyung, you have very weird legs,” Taehyung mutters.

Seokjin shoves him back to stare into his face. “My Mom wants to say hello.”

“Does she hate me?” Taehyung asks.

“What?” Seokjin says. “No.”

Taehyung twists the cuffs of his sleeves – Seokjin's sleeves – and says, “Will I... embarrass you?”

“Taehyung-ah, no.”

“Here,” Hoseok steps in. “Wear these boots. They're high enough they'll hide the length.”

As Taehyung stomps into them, he groans, “Oh, I look ridiculous.”

“You're beautiful, and I love you,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung presses his fist to his forehead, cringing against his tears. “Ah, stop,” he says. “I can't.”

“Remember,” Seokjin says, pulling an arm through his, “this meeting was your idea.”

“Thanks.” Taehyung exhales and rolls his eyes. “This is worse than a broadcast.”

“You'll be fine,” Hoseok assures him. He pets his arm encouragingly and then follows them from the room.

 

Back in the kitchen, the other four have pretty much demolished the pajeon. Currently, Yoongi's charming Seokjin's mother with one of his boyhood stories, something about a rainstorm and his brother’s bike, which Yoongi rescued from a flooding canal. Like with most of Yoongi's stories, Hoseok can never tell if they are true. Yoongi alters the details with each telling, but the central message remains the same: that even in childhood, Yoongi took on more than he could rightfully handle.

Hoseok settles beside Jimin to listen to the tale, nabbing the dregs of rice from Jungkook's bowl. Ms. Kim watches Yoongi, spellbound, her fuchsia lips parted over her perfect, pearly teeth. When Seokjin and Taehyung come in, she sneaks an arm around Taehyung's waist, pinning him to her side, leaving Seokjin to scrap together plates of pajeon and kimchi for both of them.

She doesn't even look at Taehyung. Just puts a reassuring arm around him so that they don't interrupt Yoongi's story.

Classy , Hoseok thinks. He sneaks a glance at Namjoon, who gestures with his chopsticks to show he's thinking the exact same thing.

Chapter Text

“We come up against each other, little by little
And it’s just that your beauty is a puzzle
But to finish it, here I have the missing piece.”
Despacito, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee

KCON Mexico
kakaotalk
17 March 2017

BigHit Taehyung: Jinnie, my love, my angel, my prince
BigHit Taehyung:  Jiminie learned from Joonie who learned through Eric-sunbaenim about this club where we should go

Jinnie: Oookay. Have you thought of how we will get to this supposed club?

BigHit Taehyung: a taxi

Jinnie: With what money? Do we have any Mexican money?

BigHit Taehyung: You have a credit card.

Jinnie: VV, That’s nonsense.

BigHit Taehyung: Jinnie please please please! We wanna go. I wanna dance with you

Jinnie: Didn't Sejin-nim warn us that Mexico is really really dangerous for foreigners?

BigHit Taehyung: For Americans

Jinnie: (・д・) I don't think so. We will definitely stick out.

BigHit Taehyung: not here. It's a secret club for celebrities, like in the Fast & the Furious

Jinnie: you know those places aren’t real.

BigHit Taehyung: But what if they are Jinnie, I wanna go.
BigHit Taehyung: Also, Jiminie and Kookie are going, and you don't want them to go alone, right

Jinnie: This is blackmail.

BigHit Taehyung: Please go with us please please please I’ll just keep texting please please please please please please please

Jinnie: Ahhh, begging!?

Jinnie: Give me fifteen minutes. I’ll meet you in the lobby.


When Seokjin enters the lobby, dressed in his simple black jeans and white button-down shirt, Taehyung can only gape at him. He's as exhausted as the the rest of them, jet-lagged and dehydrated and worn down by an endless series of 20-hour days, yet he glows like something made from the inside of a seashell. His skin, his hair, the set of his shoulders so sharp beneath his crisply-tailored shirt, and Taehyung knows that Seokjin was right: No matter where they go, he will stand out.

Then Seokjin glides up to them, all casual and confident, and Jimin and Jungkook pan their hopeful gazes to him. Not five seconds before, they had nearly scrapped their plans for sneaking out of the hotel. Yet upon Seokjin's arrival, they renew their enthusiasm, talking excitedly over each other as they explain each step.

He bobs his head along with them, occasionally pressing for clarification, but it's clear he's already on board. He's excited, but restrained. Interested, yet self-contained.

Once Jimin finishes his rundown, Seokjin turns to Taehyung. “What about Namjoon?” he asks.

Taehyung lifts his shoulders. “Yeah, we didn't tell him.”

Seokjin nods, once. “Good. Though we should text him, just in case. Invite him—”

Jimin moans, “Hyung, he'll try to talk us out of it.”

“Not if Jinnie's going,” Taehyung says.

“Not if I'm going.” Seokjin smiles. He takes out his phone and sends a message.

Seconds tick by. Taehyung's phone buzzes in his pocket. He ignores it, but he notices the humorless look that Seokjin and Jimin exchange.

“Even in Mexico?” Jimin groans under his breath.

But then Namjoon responds.

Seokjin reads aloud, “He thinks it’s a bad idea.” Then, “He says Hobeom-nim should drive us. Oh. Well?”

Jungkook gives a noncommittal shrug. Jimin hisses like a leaky tire. “The point of us four going,” Jimin explains, “is that we can do whatever we want.”

Seokjin chuckles. “And what do you want, Jimin? Strip off all your clothes? Steal a car? Go Grand Theft Auto into the mountains of Mexico?”

“No, I just...” he sighs deeply. “I wanna, like, dance, you know? With Jungkookie.”

“We can dance here,” Jungkook says. “In our rooms.”

To which Jimin can only pout. And Taehyung gets it, he really does, because looking at Seokjin in that pristine white shirt makes Taehyung want to smash against that body of his, preferably some place dark that smells of sweat and citrus. He wants to bite his neck and revel in his reaction...

But it's too late. Even as these thoughts take shape, Hobeom appears, looking harried and bedraggled, because he's literally been dragged out of bed.

“Jin-ssi-ah,” Hobeom says, addressing them all, but looking at Seokjin, “is this your idea?”

Seokjin opens his mouth, but Taehyung's answers.

“Mine,” he says. “My plan. Mine and Jimin's.”

Hobeom glances to Jungkook, rightfully surmising that he's the one who will tell him the truth. Jungkook lifts his hands in surrender, choosing as usual to remain neutral.

Turning again to Seokjin, Hobeom asks, “You realize this is insane? Honestly, I expect better—”

“—I said it's my plan,” Taehyung snaps. Then, remembering himself, he adds, “Hobeom-nim, sir. I’m sorry. We really want to go. It's Mexico and we're all of age and... It's Mexico .”

“Will other Koreans be there?” Hobeom asks.

“We don’t know,” Jungkook answers.

Hobeom purses his lips as he scans each of them. He’s known them a long time, has watched them grow up from teenagers to young men. He seems to understand their yearning. “This place isn't safe for... people,” he says. “You'll draw attention. You have a Spanish-speaking handler who can help you arrange these things if that’s what you want, but—”

“—Our handler’s been asleep for hours,” Jimin cuts in. “And anyway, I don’t think this club is her kind of thing. It’s supposed to be different ,” he says. “Like, exclusive .” His eyes widen as if he hopes Hobeom will take his meaning without having to speak it out loud.

Hobeom teeters, nibbling his lip as he considers. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe we should ask PD-nim.”

“No!” Taehyung growls. “He’ll just send us to bed.”

“It’s true,” Seokjin agrees. “Remember when we wanted to go to the BigBang concert—?”

“—Yes,” Hobeom answers.

Seokjin says, “He made you and Bogum-nim our chaperones, like we’re—”

“—Royalty,” Taehyung says.

“Children,” Seokjin corrects. “But we’re not children, hyungnim. We’ve traveled all over the world now. We even survived a kidnapping—”

“—Stop,” Hobeom says, chuckling. “Okay. Fine. I’ll drive you.” Even as they leap to celebrate, he adds, “But! If I see or hear anything resembling danger, we leave. No arguments, right?”

“Of course,” Seokjin says. And the others agree, too, so that within twenty minutes, they're packed into their nondescript SUV, guided through the teeming streets by an English-speaking GPS.

 

The night sky is a velvety smog, blood brown and oily. Beneath it, the club pulses with thick bass and brooding lights. Hobeom stands by a booth at the door, and though he is sturdy, he seems small and pale beneath the dark of the room.

Taehyung didn't know what he expected, except he did think they'd see gangsters in leather chaps with revolvers slung around their hips. He expected women in sequins and stilettos, their lips painted corvette-red, their glossy curls piled loose around their faces.

Instead, they find a dance floor packed with young men and women their age. Though many sport intricate tattoos, they are, for the most part, like them: simply dressed for the warmth of the climate. The women wear cutoffs and boots, their shirt tails cinched at their waists. The men wear jeans and dress shirts, much like his and Seokjin's. And everyone endeavors with endearing eagerness to make them feel at home.

Once they feel safe enough, which takes almost no time at all, Seokjin shouts, “Drinks!” and they head to the bar. The bright-eyed bartender greets them in English, and then teaches them phrases to help them navigate the night: Muchas gracias , Te amo mi amigo , Dónde está el baño ? and Jungkook’s favorite, Mas cerveza, por favor .

They dance with abandon, the four of them crushed into a crowd that undulates like the ocean’s waves. The music throbs so rich and warm that it fills them to overflowing. As the night progresses, the other three become steadily, hopelessly drunk, until eventually, Taehyung loses track of Jimin and Jungkook, leaving Taehyung to focus solely on Seokjin.

And Seokjin dances with him. Others press against them, their bodies slick and sweltering. The women here have so much exposed skin. They smell of rum and so many unanswered wishes, yet Seokjin’s still buttoned up to the throat. Taehyung thumbs open the top two buttons. His fingertips graze Seokjin’s heated skin, and he gasps at Taehyung’s touch.

He wants to kiss him but doesn’t dare. The craving tingles on his tongue, sweet as ice cream on a hot summer day. Instead, Taehyung slides his arms around Seokjin’s waist, guiding their hips to the grind with the sound. His face flush and alight, Seokjin sings to him, silly made-up lyrics to the Spanish songs, and Taehyung commits every detail to his heart.

 

Sometime before sunrise, Hobeom cajoles them back to their van. Jimin and Jungkook sprawl together, deliriously drunk in the middle seat, while Taehyung and Seokjin cuddle close in the back. The darkness feels dense and close, and Seokjin smells of heat and Tequila. This is Taehyung’s Seokjin, stripped of his glossy bravado so all that remains is this sweetly clingy ball of fluff.

Taehyung thinks back to the day, a month ago, when Seokjin broke down over their fight scene. Seokjin doesn’t cry often, but when he does, it undoes him. It takes him a long time to reel himself back in, and Taehyung’s still not sure what caused him to break. He filed it away as one of the millions of mismatched quirks he so adores about Seokjin, but sometimes he worries... Sometimes he wonders when Seokjin might break. Taehyung hugs him tight to his chest, savagely, protectively, because Seokjin’s too drunk to resist.

Red and gold streetlights streak like streamers beyond the window. Taehyung hopes he can sneak into Seokjin’s room for the few hours before dawn, just to sleep, but after tonight, he’s not sure if he should press his luck. Later today, they’ll fly to Brazil, then they’ll bounce back to America, to New Jersey, then Chicago, and then LA. Their days will flood together, but he’ll keep this night in his heart to hold him steady.

His phone buzzes. Taehyung slides it out, dimming the screen to protect Seokjin’s drowsing eyes. A bitter pleasure surges in him as he reads his missed messages. With that comes a twinge of guilt. He types back, trying to keep as still as possible, but the movement rouses Seokjin.

“Oh,” he says. “Texting again? Well who is it?”

Taehyung answers. “It’s no one.”

“Tell them Viva México,” Seokjin slurs. Then he paws clumsily for Taehyung’s phone. He goes, “Wait, wait, if it’s Park Hyungsik please tell him, Te amo mi amigo.”

Heat floods Taehyung’s face as he gently pries the phone from Seokjin’s fingers. “It’s not, hyung,” he insists. “It’s no one.”

Seokjin curls against Taehyung’s chest, hugging him so tight it strains his breathing. He nuzzles his warm face against Taehyung’s throat.

Taehyung closes the chat and tucks his phone away. He smooths his hand over Seokjin’s sweat-damp hair. A wince of pain stabs through him, a sudden, strange sense of loss, like things beneath the surface are changing, and that always makes him afraid.

Te amo , Jin-hyung,” he mutters into the crown of his head. “Te amo , too.”

Chapter Text

“Please just come here, don't fight with me.
I think you may have broken me.”
Sweetheart What Have You Done to Us? Keaton Henson

23 March 2017 – Newark

“Who're you talking to?” Jimin chirps over breakfast.

Taehyung burrows into his turtleneck. “No one,” he grumbles.

Seokjin pretends to be too sleepy to notice. He stirs his coffee, reaching over Jungkook – literally too sleepy to notice – to grab a tub of half-and-half from the dish.

Jimin reaches for Taehyung’s phone; Taehyung snatches it away.

“Wow,” Jimin chuckles. “So prickly.”

“Like a cactus,” Seokjin says. He swirls the creamer into his coffee.

Taehyung glowers.

“A joke,” Seokjin says. “Really, though. Who is it?”

“My friends,” Taehyung answers. “They miss me.”

“We miss you, too,” Jimin says, shoving at Taehyung's hands. “No electronics at the table.”

Across from him, Yoongi snorts, “Tell that to your boyfriend.”

Seokjin scans the table, instantly searching for staff. But he needn't have bothered. Yoongi's the most discreet among them; he wouldn't have made the boyfriend comment if anyone had been around to hear it.

Jungkook peers owl-eyed from the game on his phone. “What?”

“My point exactly,” Yoongi says. He gets up from the table, taking his empty plate with him. “Be aware, guys. Cameras all over today. Documentary crew.”

“That means keep your hands off my ass, Jungkookie,” Jimin flirts. “I know it's... hard.”

Jungkook lowers his phone. “I heard ass and hard.

“Mm. How much time do we have?” Jimin asks. He's already out of his seat.

“Loads,” Jungkook says.

They leave their dishes behind. Jungkook left his bacon, which Seokjin snags from his plate. As he nibbles it, he mutters, “Hard ass,” and then he chuckles, but Taehyung either doesn't hear him or ignores him. Either way, he's busy with his phone.

“We have time, too,” Seokjin says, poking his shoulder.

“Time for what?” Taehyung asks. He gazes up at Seokjin like he's seeing him for the first time all morning. It hurts him. And he wonders if this is how Taehyung felt, months ago, when he called them boring and old.

“Nothing,” Seokjin says. He stacks up Jimin's and Jungkook's abandoned dishes. “I'll see you later.”

Taehyung doesn't even reply.

 

So maybe it's not a shock that Seokjin reacts badly that evening before the show, when out of nowhere, Taehyung criticizes Seokjin's dancing. Not so much his dancing, but Seokjin’s timing in their part of Spring Day . Taehyung tells him he needs to get to his mark faster, that he's not moving quick enough, that apparently, their timing is off.

Seokjin can barely hear him over the sound of his blood rushing in his ears. He feels a hot wave of shame well up in him. Taehyung knows how difficult it is for Seokjin to make late-minute changes to the choreo. Seokjin's doing the best that he can, and they have twenty minutes before their stage call, and why is Taehyung doing this now?

“There's nothing I can do about it,” Seokjin tells him. “I'm running at full speed. You keep complaining to me. What do you want me to do?”

Taehyung doesn't seem to notice the note of panic in Seokjin's voice. He says, “No. I'm not complaining to you. Just listen to me. After you do this,” he pantomimes Seokjin's movement, “You're taking too long to get ready. You can finish this faster and move more quickly.”

He's astonished by Taehyung's audacity. The cameras are rolling. The time to curtain ticks steadily down. Yet suddenly he's Dance Instructor-nim, coaching Seokjin’s moves?

“I'm telling you,” Seokjin shouts. “I'm doing it as fast as I can! I'm asking you to take smaller strides.”

“I'll try to take smaller strides, so just get ready faster in a shorter amount of time,” Taehyung says.

“I'm doing my best,” Seokjin repeats. He heart feels thick in his throat. “I'm doing it as fast as I can.”

Taehyung squints at him. “You used to be faster, but suddenly you can't—”

“—I can't suddenly change my starting pose,” Seokjin says. Hoseok meets his eyes, and Seokjin inwardly begs him to intervene.

Bless him, he does. “Hold up, hold up,” Hoseok says. “We'll try that today, and if it doesn't work...”

Seokjin turns away, working hard to get his breathing under control. He takes stock of those around them, Hobi and Namjoon and Jimin as well as the documentary crew, their stylists, and two of their managers, Sejin and Sanghyun. They all see what’s  going on, they all see them, and he feels so embarrassed to have lost his cool...

Taehyung flounces down onto a couch.

Hoseok says, “This isn't worth fighting for.”

“We have to perform in minutes,” Namjoon adds.

Seokjin checks the time. Minutes. His nerves are always frayed before a show. How can he possibly hope to recover?

“Let's go get ready,” Hoseok says.

“Ready,” Seokjin echoes. “Okay.”

But in the hallway Taehyung continues to pick at it, until finally, Seokjin snaps, “What is wrong with you today?”

“Excuse me?” Taehyung asks.

Hoseok moves instinctively between them and the camera.

“This morning, you barely had time for me, and now you won't leave me alone?” Seokjin’s voice is icy calm now, and Taehyung finally bothers to notice.

“I'm talking about the performance,” he says. “You're overreacting.”

Seokjin bites back a response. Across from him, Jimin looks like he's about to be sick.

Taehyung says, “You said you're doing your best?—”

“—Hey, wait a second,” Hoseok soothes.

“I got pissed off hearing you say that,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin steps so close he can feel Taehyung’s breath on his cheek. Making his words sound light and jovial, Seokjin says, “Aigoo, look at the tiny baby boy, using his big boy words. You’re really going to say those things to me now? In that tone? In front of everyone?”

Taehyung's expression curdles. “Suddenly you’re pulling rank on me? Shouldn't I be the one who can say anything to you?”

Seokjin feels it like a kick to the ribs. “What's that supposed to mean?” he asks. He's excruciatingly aware of the others around them, the crew with their cameras soaking up every word.

“You know what it means,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin does know. Because he and Taehyung have crossed their lines so often they're more like a smudge now than a border. More like a bruise, and this was bound to happen eventually. It was bound to spill over, and everyone will see...

“Taehyung-ie, why are you doing this?” Jimin asks. “We have less than ten minutes left.”

Taehyung's eyes flash. “You're taking his side?”

Jimin backpedals. “I don't think either of you are right,” he says.

“Listen,” Namjoon steps in. “It's already eight. We have to go in now.” Then, to Taehyung, he asks, “What do you think you're doing?”

And Taehyung breaks. He swipes an unsteady hand through his hair. He tries to speak, but it's stifled by his tears.

“Okay,” Namjoon says. “We got it. We can't solve this right now, can we? We're not going to say who was wrong, and who was right.”

“No,” Seokjin says. He puts a hand on Taehyung's shoulder, afraid that if he steps closer, they'll both fall apart. “It's my fault. You were talking about the performance, and I took it as a joke. That was childish. I'm sorry. I admit it.”

Namjoon looks appalled. “We can talk about this later,” he says. Meaning, they will talk about it later. “Snap out of it. It's a concert. Our fans lined up for days. Let's not act like amateurs.”

This wounds Seokjin deeper than anything. Because he does feel like an amateur. He does feel like a fraud, and what Taehyung was saying – he was right. Even though Seokjin was doing his best, it isn't good enough, not even for Taehyung...

One of the stylists steps in front of Seokjin, dabbing his tears with a cosmetic sponge.

“Just look at me a second,” the stylist says, softly. “Focus on me.”

His name is Jisung, Seokjin thinks. He studied at Yonsei University. He has a sister who is Yoongi's age, and he keeps a canary as a pet. He showed them pictures when they were in Santiago.

“How is your bird?” Seokjin asks. “It’s Chibi, right?”

“Ah, Seokjin-ssi,” Jisung says. “She's well, thank you for remembering.”

Seokjin exhales. He hears Namjoon telling Taehyung, “We can't argue right now.”

Jisung leads Seokjin out of the stage doors. It's dark beneath the stage, but the energy of the crowd feels like a living, breathing thing. Jimin steps close.

“What's really going on?” he asks.

“I don't know,” Seokjin says. He's afraid that's a lie. He does know what's going on. Taehyung is changing, and his feelings for Seokjin are changing, too.

Jimin squeezes his elbow. “That's our Tae-Tae,” he says, trying really hard to sound cheerful. “We never really know what's going on in that head of his.”

Seokjin watches Taehyung as he takes the steps up to the stage. It's not his head Seokjin's worried about. What troubles him is Taehyung's conflicted heart.

Chapter Text

"Is it you who changed?
Or is it me?”
Spring Day, BTS

23 March 2017 – Newark

Sometimes you say things you can't unsay. Even if the things you say are long overdue. Even if you mean every word. Once they're said, they change everything.

Taehyung stumbles numbly through their show, hitting his marks on muscle memory, wondering, all they while, why he'd said those things to Seokjin. Why had he pushed so hard? Over something so small? And in front of the cameras?

Everyone's bristly after the show, tersely quiet as they file into the green room. It's obvious they're upset with Taehyung. He twisted everything up, blew everything out of proportion. He throws himself into the corner of a couch and goes for his phone. Some of his Hwarang hyungs are busy in the chat, debating their favorite webcomics. They spam him with hearts when he says hello.

Minho writes, How was the show?

Taehyung's throat aches with tears. Terrible, he writes back. I messed up.

This is met with a wave of broken hearts and frowny faces.

It's only one show, Minho assures him.

Then Hyungsik writes, SHINee had some rough shows back in the day, right Min?

Why must you tease me? Minho writes. But yes. We all fought a lot.

Did you? Taehyung writes.

Me and Taemin. Mr. Primadona. Minho writes. All. The. Fxxing. Time.

And now? Taehyung asks.

Now they barely talk outside of band stuff, Hyungsik writes. LOL  They don’t call him MEANho for nothing.

Minho sends a poop emoji. Hyungsik fires back with shades.

Namjoon sits down beside Taehyung, and reality crashes back in.

Keeping his voice low, Namjoon says, “You said some awful things to him in front of the staff. He did what he always does. He played it off like a joke.”

“Maybe he shouldn't do that,” Taehyung says. He sounds surly, but even he knows it's an act to keep him from crumbling.

“Maybe,” Namjoon says. “But we're going back to the hotel. We're gonna hash this out. The cameras will be there.”

“What?” Taehyung wipes his eyes. “Why?”

“They caught the beginning,” Namjoon explains. “They wanna see the end.”

“Taehyung and I can't resolve this on camera,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung startles upright to find Seokjin hovering behind them, his hands propped high on his hips. He looks... terrible. And beautiful, despite his disastrous choppy bangs. And it breaks Taehyung's heart to see him so hurt, because it's all his fault, even though Jin-hyung took the blame like always.

“We'll solve the surface parts,” Namjoon says. “The rest'll be up to you and him.”

“Can't I just say I'm sorry?” Taehyung says.

Namjoon clasps Taehyung's hands. “Not this time,” he says.

Then he leaves them. Seokjin lingers a moment more, but then without a word, he turns to follow.

 

So they do their part for the filming. Taehyung apologizes for speaking so informally. Seokjin apologizes for joking too much. Yoongi makes a long speech about how the BTS of now isn't the same as the BTS that made their debut.

“We got much closer,” Yoongi reminds them. “We understand and know each other much better. Things like respect,” he says, choosing his words the way a composer selects all the perfect notes. “The closer you get, the more you need it.”

Taehyung watches Seokjin while Namjoon speaks. Namjoon says, “It doesn't matter who was in the wrong. We all make mistakes. I have my dark side. You do, too. We all have a dark side.” His eyes flit to Taehyung. “Sometimes that shows when we're under stress when we perform. But you two affected the team and the concert anyway, and honestly, that wasn't professional. I think we need to know when to back off sometimes. That doesn't mean you're losing. It's for the sake of the team.”

That's Namjoon's coded warning to them. Their relationship bled over into their work. They affected the team. Both of them, in different ways, and it cannot happen again.

Yoongi stretches, fake-yawning. “I think it's a good thing that we had this chance to talk,” he says.

Hoseok gets to his feet. Taehyung reads the unspoken exchange between him, Yoongi, and Namjoon. They're signaling an end to their part in this. They start to banter around for the sake of the camera, joking about times when they fought about food instead of the choreo, like that's what this fight was about in the first place. Taehyung sees what they're doing. He glances across to see Seokjin on the window ledge, waiting patiently for them to leave.

“Let's get out,” Namjoon says. “They're going to hug—”

“—Nothing's gonna happen,” Seokjin assures him, cutting his eyes to the cameras.

“Let's get out,” Namjoon says again. “They're shy. They don't want an audience.”

 

And yet they get one, because the camera men – Jaemin and Jeonin – don't leave.

“It's okay,” Jaemin tells them. “The viewers will want some follow-up. You know, a one-on-one.”

“I don't think I can do this,” Seokjin mutters.

“You can, Seokjin-ssi,” Jeonin says. “Just pretend we're not here.”

“Remember what Park Hyungsik says about acting,” Taehyung tells Seokjin. “You put your whole heart—”

“—I don't care what Park Hyungsik says,” Seokjin bites out.

Jeonin signals Jaemin to queue up the cameras.

And Taehyung eyes Seokjin. He's been drinking beer all evening, so his cheeks have the flushed to the color of strawberry milk. He looks tired, and hurt, and full of remorse.

Slowly, Taehyung says, “I understand now.” He thinks back to earlier, at breakfast, a million years ago, when he'd been on his phone, and Seokjin wanted his attention. And then, before the concert, Seokjin's words: This morning, you barely had time for me, and now you won't leave me alone?

Then he recalls what Park Hyungsik said about Minho and Taemin in the chat, about how they fought so much they barely speak outside of SHINee business. That, for Taehyung, seems the worst of all possible fates. So Taehyung says, carefully, “Now I know that really ticks you off... I'll really try to change that.”

Seokjin's lashes flick.

“So, if I'm feeling down and you make a joke, and I can't take it as a joke, I hope you can understand that.” Taehyung fights his tears and fails. “I'll try to change, too.”

Seokjin seems relieved, but also miserable in that relief. He says, “If you can accept that and try to change, I'll be very thankful. I also get hurt.”

“Right,” Taehyung says.

“If that's how you felt, I'll be more careful,” Seokjin says. “I'll try to be more careful.”

Taehyung aches to go to him, to kiss him, to set all of this aside. But the camera's still there. Always the damned camera...

“And I understand,” Seokjin continues, feeling his way around the words. “Because you see the bright and funny side of me, but I also get depressed very often.”

Taehyung holds his breath. This is not like Seokjin, who reveals so little of himself. Yet here he is, showing this vulnerability for everyone to see.

“I'm just trying to stay positive for you guys,” he admits. “People say we should let it go, but no one can be so cold. I do have my dark side, too.”

Let what go? Taehyung wants to ask. Panic flares inside him, but Seokjin's eyes lift to something behind Taehyung's shoulder.

Taehyung follows his gaze to find Jimin hovering outside the door. “Each of us have challenges,” Jimin says, and Seokjin swears, roughly, beneath his breath.

“But because we do, we get along well with each other,” Jimin continues.

Since when did Jimin become Seokjin's protector? Taehyung wonders. But before he can process that thought, Jimin motions to the camera men. “Okay, we're done,” he says. “Let's get inside.”

And since when did Park Jimin become the boss of the camera crew?

Since right now, Taehyung guesses, because both Jeonin and Jaemin nod in agreement.

“Let's get some food,” Taehyung says to Seokjin. Because this isn't over. Because he needs to make amends. “Let's have a drink later on.”

“Yeah, have a drink together and talk about it,” Jimin says. “Let's go. You promised each other.”

Seokjin groans his annoyance. “Stop butting in,” he grates through his teeth.

“Come on,” Jimin urges. “Let's go you two. It's late already.”

Once they’re out in the hallway, Jimin turns to them, beaming. “I did good, didn’t I? I rescued you.”

“Yes. Great,” Seokjin says. “Get out of here.”

“Rude.” Jimin squeezes Taehyung's shoulder. “I'll go back in and distract them. You guys get going. I’ll see you at breakfast.”

And then he leaves them.

In a rush, Taehyung asks, “May I come to your room?”

“Yes,” Seokjin answers. “Please.”

They jostle inside, bolting the door behind them. Seokjin kisses him through their tears, scuffling him to the bed where he pushes him down, and Taehyung knows it's too easy to let this happen instead of talking, so he grips Seokjin's elbows, shoving himself upright against the headboard.

Seokjin's astride him, his thighs pinning Taehyung's knees. “We have to do better, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin moans. “That was too close.”

“Maybe we're too close,” Taehyung says.

“Don't say that,” Seokjin says. “Why would you say that?”

“Look at us,” Taehyung says, gesturing between them, at their rucked up shirts and half-buttoned pants. “What’re we doing?”

With a sigh, Seokjin rolls to lay beside him. He covers his eyes with his arms.

“And what do you mean, you have a dark side, too,” Taehyung asks. “And you're depressed? Why are you depressed?”

Seokjin sits up. He swipes at his tears. He says, “I'm jealous, okay?”

“Of my Hwarang hyungs.”

“Yes.”

“There's nothing to be jealous of,” Taehyung says.

“But you're on your phone with them all the time. You talk about them, all the time,” Seokjin says. “And it's so stupid, because you're you. You make friends so easily, and everyone loves you.”

“So you're jealous of me?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin flinches. “Yeah. Some,” he admits. He heaves out a groan. “So when you criticized my part in the choreo... it hurt me.” He exhales again. “Taehyung-ah, it hurt so much, to have you point that out to everyone, that even my best isn't good enough.”

“No, hyung, it's not like that,” Taehyung says.

“I know,” Seokjin says. “I know. But it's all tangled up and complicated.” He puts a hand to Taehyung's forehead. “So maybe, if we try to remember, when we're on camera we have to behave a certain way. Let’s make a rule, to honor our boundaries, and not play like we do when we're... here.” He gestures to encompass them and the bed, which seems like so small a space for them to both feel free.

Though his brain pounds with chaos, Taehyung’s heartbeat steadily calms. “May I stay here tonight?” Taehyung asks.

Jagi, we've been together four years,” Seokjin says. “It's your bed, too. It's our bed.”

Taehyung understands it's a metaphor, that Seokjin really means Taehyung’s place is at his side. But it isn't their bed, and it isn't their life... And though he loves their life beyond what he can measure, Taehyung feels the sting of a wish for something more.

Chapter Text

“My love is perfect down to a tee.
It’s never been wrong.
Even when it’s thin like a thread,
it never gets tangled.”
Big Love, The Black Skirts

29 March 2017 – Chicago

They're rich enough now to have their own hotel rooms on tour.

That's nice and all, but it’s a waste, really, since Namjoon's the only one who ever sleeps alone.

Which is not entirely accurate, Yoongi thinks as he stares across his own bed to the rumpled sheets of Hoseok's. He and Yoongi share their hotel rooms, but they do not share a bed.

And probably they never will.

Really, though, after watching the Seokjin-Taehyung shitshow implosion last week, he counts himself lucky. He and Hoseok have never had a fight. And, thanks to Yoongi’s monk-like self-restraint… they probably never will. 

Anyway, Yoongi likes to play a little game when they're on tour. It's called, “Let's See Who Will Come Drag My Ass Out of Bed.” Past winners have included everyone, down to the newbie-est of their interns, but unfortunately, Yoongi's not the only player on this particular field. Taehyung has been known to sleep like one of those cicadas that bury themselves for seventeen years. Two months ago, in fact, Taehyung slept so hard he missed a filming day – just didn't show up – and everyone blamed Seokjin, who adamantly (and rightly) insisted that he is not Taehyung's father.

Yoongi flips onto his back, mashing the pillow beneath his neck. There's a deliciously cool spot beneath his legs and he stretches out to reach it. He starts to wonder where are they and what is today, when the winners of the game burst through the door.

“It's Hope and Joon,” Yoongi stage-whispers, “and the crowd goes wild!”

“Hyung,” Namjoon says. “Breakfast buffet as huge as our house. All you can eat. You gotta come see.”

Yoongi burrows deeper into his blanket, which smells like sea salt and feels like a cloud swaddled in silk. “Room service,” he counters. “Never even have to leave the bed.”

Hoseok grips his wrist and begins to fervently tug him. “Come on,” he urges. “Everyone else is down there.”

“All the more reason to stay here,” Yoongi says.

“Also, we've got a plane to catch,” Namjoon says.

“Like, at 3,” Yoongi says. But he finally lets Hoseok pull him upright.

“Which means we have to be at the airport by noon,” Namjoon reminds him. Yoongi shuffles toward the door. He snugs on a sweater cap and toes his socked-feet into his Pumas.

“Also, our check out time is eleven,” Hoseok adds. “And after filming our videos yesterday, I'm sure the staff will be glad to see us go.”

“Nah,” Namjoon says. “We got permission to film, and they seemed really kind about it. People in America, man. A lot of them are really cool.”

The three of them go quiet as they crowd into the elevator, despite the fact that the other occupants – a family with two teenage boys – probably wouldn't understand a word they say. Namjoon nods and greets them in English. The two boys glance first at each other and then their parents as if unsure how to respond. The Mom puts her arm around the shoulders of the younger one, tugging him protectively close.

Hoseok's ears go pink. He bows to the Dad and says, brightly, in English, “Good morning. How are you?”

The elevator doors open. The family scurries out.

"Most of them are really cool,” Namjoon amends.

Chuckling, Hoseok asks, “Was that even their floor?”

Yoongi leans around him, thumbing the button to close the doors. He mumbles, “Now you see why I wanted to stay in bed.”

But Namjoon had not been wrong about the breakfast buffet. It's so very American in its enormity, and wafts of sugar, cinnamon, and fresh-baked bread greet them before the elevator reaches the ground floor.

The buffet sprawls like an open-air market through half of the first level of the hotel. Gleaming counters wing out from its center, each laden with sausages, bacon, and pyramids of fruit. There are waffle stations and omelet stations, each manned by servers in puffy chef's hats, their aprons crisp and shining. Rows upon rows of intricate pastries primp beneath glittering glass cases, and this is where they find Taehyung.

He's carrying what appears to be a serving platter piled high with one of everything – croissants, eclairs, cream horns, and bear claws. Something flaky and fruit-filled dangles from his lips, and when he sees them, he tries to inhale it before attempting to speak.

“It's called a cola-cheese?” Taehyung says, still chewing. “They're made with every kind of fruit. Here.” He shoves one at Hoseok, who nibbles it from his fingers.

“Oh, it's very good,” Hoseok says, cringing. “Very sweet.”

Taehyung leads them to a sequestered alcove which their group has completely overtaken. Yoongi knows they're a lot to deal with, and their numbers have steadily grown over the past year. But seeing them all packed together, pushing in and out of their chairs, chattering and passing plates back and forth—

“Wow,” Namjoon says as they stand there, discreetly observing the chaos. “That's a lot.”

“So much,” Yoongi agrees. He turns to leave; Hoseok catches his shoulder to turn him back.

“You want coffee?” Hoseok asks.

Yoongi groans, plaintively.

“You want coffee.” Hoseok passes Yoongi to Namjoon, who guides him to the quietest corner of the room. Seokjin reclines there, prim in the same pink sweater he wore the night before. He scarcely glances up from his phone when Yoongi scoots in beside him.

“You eat already?” Yoongi asks, scanning the stack of empty plates before Seokjin.

He gives Yoongi a warm smile. “Yes,” he answers. “Thank you.”

Then Taehyung comes up, trailed by Jungkook and Jimin, who range themselves around Seokjin and Yoongi like students who want to spend their lunch hour with a favorite teacher.

“Hyung, try these, they’re called kolaches,” Jimin says, waving one of the pastries at Yoongi.

His shoulders lift involuntarily. “Jimin-ah,” he sneers. “I haven't even had my coffee.”

“They're really good,” Jungkook says. He leans over to teasingly tap his fingers across Seokjin's phone screen.

“You little twerp,” Seokjin gawps. “Your fingers are sticky!”

Jungkook's eyes meet Taehyung's as he says, “Yeah, they are.”

And Seokjin smacks him.

Namjoon ambles in with two plates of bacon, sausages, some eggs, and some fruit. As he passes one to Yoongi, Jungkook and Taehyung descend upon it, managing to snag one ribbon of bacon each. Fending them off, Namjoon yells, “Yah, go get your own.”

Taehyung settles into a seat. “I'm gonna eat all these,” he tells them, gesturing to his kolaches.

“No,” Seokjin huffs. “Taehyung-ah. Don't. You're gonna make yourself sick on the flight.”

“It's like a two-hour flight,” Taehyung says.

Jungkook says, “Is it? I thought it was, like, five.”

“No,” Jimin giggles. “It's two and a half. Right, Joon-hyung-ie?”

Namjoon flags down one of the staff. “Excuse me,” he asks. “How long is our flight today?”

She checks her phone. “Four hours, forty minutes,” she says.

“Ha!” Jungkook says. He high-fives Taehyung.

“Which means you shouldn't gorge yourself on sugar,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung responds by sliding a blueberry kolache onto Seokjin's napkin. Like an offering. Yoongi watches this with mild bemusement. He expected the fight in Newark to cast long shadows over them for the rest of this tour. In fact, though, the opposite appears to be true. Their lines redrawn, Seokjin and Taehyung somehow seem even closer than before.

“America's bigger than I imagined,” Jimin ponders. “We can get from Seoul to Tokyo in half that time.”

“Huh, that's true,” Namjoon says, and they lapse into an easy conversation about flights and travel times and all the places they want to see.

Hoseok slides in beside Yoongi, bearing two mugs of hot black coffee. Yoongi pushes his as-yet-untouched plate of food between them. Hoseok helps himself to an apple wedge, and, gesturing with it, he asks, “Well, what'd I miss?”

Everything, Yoongi thinks. But also nothing.

And this paradox finally coaxes a smile to Yoongi's lips. Because with all of their bickering, bantering noise, none of this is new. Even though they're in a foreign city ten thousand kilometers from home, their constant togetherness gives him comfort. Like a family. His family.

Hoseok squints at him. “That much, huh?”

“You know, Hope,” Yoongi says. “I pity any person who would seek to harm us, because I...” But the emotion of it chokes him, so he hisses over his teeth, feeling savage as a lion protecting his pride.

A savage lion in Puma slip-ons with a wool cap snugged over his head.  

But Hoseok slips an arm around his waist, pulling him in for a side-hug. “I know what you mean,” he says, deceptively wistful. “We'd have to waste them.”

Chapter Text

“And when you're needing your space
To do some navigating
I'll be here patiently waiting
To see what you find.”
I Won’t Give Up, Jason Mraz

3 April 2017
Bon Voyage 2 - Hawaii

In Hawaii, Taehyung buys Seokjin a hat. Broad-brimmed and bright crimson, it's the kind of hat Taehyung would wear, and though Seokjin feels it's too bold for his own taste, he promises to wear it.

Later, when he spies himself in the shop window, Seokjin sees that it highlights the color of his lips, which are plump and full from kissing Taehyung in the dressing room. Not so much a room as a curtained cubicle, one that did not provide the kind of security they desired from their private island getaway.

It reminds Seokjin of another time on another island, and when Taehyung slinks up beside him, Seokjin asks, “Remember that time in Indonesia? What was it, a year ago? Two?”

“That creepy storm drain near the resort?” Taehyung guesses. “When you were so scared there were spiders?”

“There were spiders,” Seokjin says. “And it smelled like dishwater, but—”

“—We were desperate,” Taehyung groans, and for a moment, they lapse into silence. Their fingers briefly link as they walk along the boardwalk, remembering a dusky concrete cave half a world away.  

Though it's beyond irrational, Seokjin admits he misses the days when time spent apart meant breathless reunions in dubious places or behind supply room doors. He wonders, often, whether Taehyung misses them, too.

But then Taehyung says, “Had to be two years ago. It's been a long time since we were that desperate for sex.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin muses. “True.”

A florid breeze riffles up, teasing Taehyung's own hat, which matches Seokjin's but is white instead of red. With his bronze skin and effortless smile, he has the easy chic of a clothing model, a look he has worked hard lately to cultivate.

But with Seokjin, beyond the camera, those pretenses fall away, and Taehyung becomes an excited child on his first trip to the beach.

“We have free time tonight,” Taehyung says.

“What do you wanna do?” Seokjin asks. He sips from his watery iced coffee, cringing at its bitterness.

“I hope this isn't like last time,” Taehyung answers, and Seokjin presses his lips together, waiting for an explanation.  

Taehyung doesn't elaborate, though, and they walk together, enjoying the cottony softness of the wind and the wheeling scree of the seagulls. Before long, they hear music blaring from Jungkook's Bluetooth, so they join in, making themselves the loudest, wildest group of tourists in the sedate little shopping cove.

Before too long, jet lag claims Yoongi. He and the other hyungs head back to the hotel, and not surprisingly, Jimin and Jungkook follow, leaving Taehyung and Seokjin to adventure out on their own.

Taehyung seems incandescent at the prospect of so many uninterrupted hours together. They take a golf cart beyond the dunes, to the place where the lava flows meet the tides. The sky above them glows like opals, making the water a clear, crystalline green. They scrabble around the sharp-edged tidal pools, plucking up docile little hermit crabs that peek up at them from their palms.  

They film a bit, because they promised they would, but then they stow the hand-cam and stroll along the shore. Miles and miles of black stone beach stretches to each horizon, gradually turning to a rocky shoal that gapes at low tide like a gap-toothed grin.

Taehyung reaches to lace their fingers. His camera swings from the strap around his neck, and with the fingers of his free hand, he traces the rubber of the lens adjust. Taehyung, actor, singer, dancer, clothing model, and trumpet player, has also recently become entranced with photography.

“You got some beautiful pictures in California,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung ducks his head, and Seokjin knows he's made him blush. “Hyung—”

“—The ones from the roof were my favorites,” Seokjin says. “The swimmers, the sunrise. They were... you’re really good, you know.”

“I'll print them for you,” Taehyung says. “We can frame them and put them in our house, someday.”

“Yeah, I'd like that. Someday.”

Seokjin keeps his eyes trained to the tide pools, pointing out every rare and wild creature for Taehyung. Meanwhile, Taehyung keeps watch over the water, scanning the horizon like he expects some kind of arrival. The whole time, their hands remain linked – Seokjin as Taehyung's tether; Taehyung as Seokjin's guide.

Seokjin crouches over a tongue-pink starfish at a pool's edge, when Taehyung finally says, “This is how it should always be.”

He glances up, blinded for a moment by the sky's whiteness, to find Taehyung gazing down, a frowny smile framing his mouth.

“Right now, in this moment, it is,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung kneels beside him. “Then let me kiss you.”

Seokjin checks their surroundings. Once certain no one can see them, he leans in, and Taehyung meets his lips.

The pearlescent sky, the briny water scent, the hush and crash of the waves — these things engrave themselves into Seokjin's heart, layered with the taste of Taehyung, like cherries and cola, and the firmness of his mouth. Beneath that, darker, bittersweet, lies the sorrow that it should always be this way, but it isn't, and it won't be and...

Seokjin opens his eyes. His ears flood with the muted thunder of his heartbeat. “Ah,” he rasps. “Taehyung-ah—”

“—Hyung,” he says, and it's then that Seokjin catches the disquiet in Taehyung's eyes.

Though he doesn't know why, or what Taehyung needs, Seokjin rushes to comfort him.

But Taehyung grips his hands, holding them still. He says, “Do you remember Finland?”

“The country?” Seokjin quips, desperate to break the tension,“I vaguely recall.”

“Do you remember what I said to you?” Taehyung says.

All of Seokjin’s memories of that time have dimmed, but Seokjin remembers the sunrise and his shadow across Taehyung's chest. He remembers— “You told me you love me.”

“It's still the truest thing,” Taehyung whispers. “Remember that, okay? In case you ever doubt.”

“Why would I doubt?”

Taehyung nods and pats Seokjin's hand. He stands up and stretches, and Seokjin watches the knot in his throat as he swallows.

Seokjin pulls himself up. “Taehyung-ah?”

“This is our job, right?” Taehyung says. “This trip. It's not a holiday or a vacation. We're working, right?”

“Of course,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung's fingers feel cool as clay. He says, “I'll try and play along and keep to our rules. I’ll be your respectful dongsaeng. But it's just... look at this place.”

Seokjin pans slowly from one horizon to the other. “It's fantastic,” he says.

“You're... fantastic,” Taehyung grumbles.

“Your mom's fantastic,” Seokjin says, finally getting a grin. Taehyung tugs him along, and they quietly, carefully pick their way around the foamy edge of the pool.

“Does she still message you?” Taehyung asks. They start down the beach again.

“Every week,” Seokjin answers.

“Good.” Taehyung says. "She likes you."

“Most parents do,” Seokjin says. But questions crowd into his mind, so many they clog his tongue. They already know they won't sleep together tonight; their selection game landed Seokjin with Jimin, and Taehyung with Jungkook and Hoseok. As Taehyung has already observed, Bon Voyage is their job right now, and they will do their best to abide by its rules.

So he doesn't know when they'll have another chance to talk, and at the moment, his thoughts are too jumbled to make any sense. He only knows he's afraid that something's happening with Taehyung, and Seokjin doesn't know what to do about it.

“Hyung! Look!” Taehyung gasps. He darts a few steps ahead, and then returns to hurry Seokjin along. “Look, a turtle, a turtle!”

Taehyung sprawls flat upon the rocks to get eye to eye with her. She's smooth and glossy green, and as he gabbles excitedly at her, she shuts her wise, old eyes, and sleeps. Seokjin gestures for the camera, and Taehyung passes it to him. Holding his breath, Seokjin snaps a shot of Taehyung lying beside the turtle, and that, he decides, is his new favorite photo. That's the one he wants framed on the wall of their someday-home.

“Your turn,” Taehyung whispers, waving Seokjin to take his place.

Seokjin lays as flat and still as he can against the hard, round stones. They smell silty and green, like they’re made of sea itself. When he stares across at the turtle, her eyes open. For a moment, it seems she’s looking into him and grinning, but with solemn interest and not fear. He inhales and stares into her ancient eyes, wondering at all the things she must have seen.

“Will she grant us wishes if we rub her shell?” Taehyung asks.

“We’re not supposed to touch them,” Seokjin cautions.

Taehyung squints down over the camera. “Oh really?”

“I read it on the plane,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung grows still as he frames them in his lens. He snaps the shot and whispers, “It's amazing how she's so unafraid.”

“It's her beach,” Seokjin says, sitting up. “Why would she be afraid? She's famous, you know. One might even call her... a shell-ebrity.”

Groaning, Taehyung tugs his hat over his face. “You ruined it,” he says, and Seokjin feels something tip back into place, like the balance has been restored, and everything is fine. Everything will be just fine.

 

By the time they reach their cart, the sun is setting, a glimmering coin upon a silver string. Taehyung hops into the driver's seat, but before he cranks the engine, he checks his phone. He sits there a long while, his lips pulling taut as he reads his texts.

Seokjin knows that dreamy little smile: The one that says Taehyung has a secret. Seokjin remembers when that smile was only his.

“Who is it?” Seokjin asks, but he already knows.

Taehyung bites his lip. “It's no one,” he answers. Then he tucks the phone away and drops the cart into reverse.

Chapter Text

“I believe that real friends love you to no limit.”
Change, Wale and RM

4 April 2017 Bon Voyage 2 Hawaii

Sometimes, in his excitement, Namjoon hurries too much. He rushes through what seems like a simple process in order to get to the result, like crunching through the sweet outer shell of an Anytime candy to get to the icy, cool center.

Or, like stacking rocks in a cairn to get to the wishing.

Namjoon doesn't even think; he grabs random rocks, piling them from largest to smallest: seven rocks for seven members. They topple, skittering across the rough lava stone, drawing the attention of Seokjin.

“Need a hand?” he asks.

Apparently, yes. Seokjin's own cairn – an orderly feat of micro-engineering – stands braced and ready against the wind. “We're a team,” he says, stepping in to assist. Then he scolds Namjoon in the way only Seokjin ever dares, pointing out that Namjoon needed flat stones for this project, not necessarily the big ones.

Namjoon bears it because it's Seokjin, and because he's right. A moment's pause would have shown him all he needed to see: plenty of perfect, flat stones pebbling the beach. But Namjoon had been too busy building to notice.

Then, as Namjoon watches, Seokjin presses his palms tightly together like a child in prayer. Namjoon follows, but instead of making wishes, he wonders how someone as pragmatic as Seokjin can place so much faith in wishes.

When Seokjin opens his eyes, an expectant look warms his face.

“What did you wish for?” Namjoon asks.

“I made lots of wishes,” Seokjin says. “That should be fine, right?”

“Yeah, if only one of them is granted—”

“—Right?” Seokjin nods.

“Then it's all good.”

Happy with this footage, the second unit director, Donghyun-nim, calls out that they're moving on. The crew strides back to the sidewalk, giving Namjoon and Seokjin some space. The camera unit will keep circling back, catching random snippets of their conversation – most of which will never make the final cut – but even so, Namjoon knows they must keep things upbeat and casual.

It's not difficult to do. Seokjin tends toward pensiveness, and Namjoon likes that they don't clutter the quiet with mindless chatter.

Only, once they reach the park, Seokjin turns to him and says, “So Taehyung-ah has a crush.”

Goodbye, upbeat and casual. Stunned, Namjoon goes, “Did he tell you that?”

“No,” Seokjin laughs. “But...” He swallows.

They walk a moment in silence while Namjoon weighs what Seokjin is saying. Outside of his own parents, his experience of long-term relationships lies within the realms of books, TV dramas, and them: Taehyung and Jin. Namjoon ponders how this could happen, and what it means for the group, before he finally settles on the huge question of who.

“You think it's Park Bogum?” Namjoon asks. “‘Cause, I'm pretty sure that guy is straight.”

“Oh?” Seokjin says, but he doesn't seem hopeful. “How do you know?”

“Just a vibe, really,” Namjoon admits. “But, like, he's super Christian—”

“—Taehyung's Christian,” Seokjin puts in. "His family is."

“How does that even—?” Namjoon asks. Then, “Know what, nevermind. But look, if it's Gummy, then Taehyung's probably hyped up about this trip they're taking, right? That's coming up soon.”

“Like right after we get home,” Seokjin says, but then he switches the topic to surfing as Donghyun-nim and the camera person weaves in for close-ups. They film their feet treading across the grass-seamed pavement before winging off to pan long shots of waves along the seawall.

Once they're out of earshot, Seokjin leans in. “Anyway, it's not Bogum,” he confides.

“Ah,” Namjoon says, because he should have guessed. “The Hwarang hyungs?”

Seokjin exhales. “The Hwarang hyungs.”

A few more steps, and Namjoon asks, “Which one?”

Seokjin drops his voice to a whisper. “Taehyung hasn't said anything. It's just a … feeling I get, but... I suspect King Jinheung himself.”

“Park Hyungsik?”

Through a forced smile, Seokjin asks, “You get a straight vibe from him?”

“Yeah, not really,” Namjoon admits. “Straight or not, that guy can get it.”

“Ah fuck,” Seokjin half-shouts, which startles sharp glares from the crew. Embarrassed, Seokjin and Namjoon cling to each other as they dissolve into laughter. “Sorry,” Seokjin says, gesturing. “I'm so sorry.”

They dismiss it, as they do with most things from Seokjin. He’s the Funny One, after all, and that's what they've come to expect. They see him as impulsive, playful, big-hearted Seokjin, who smiles his way through even the most daunting situations.

Like bungee jumping, or jungle-hopping reality TV, or admitting the man you've been in love with for four years might be quietly falling for somebody else.

This last thought sobers Namjoon. This is big, he realizes, and it must be terrifying. He watches Seokjin from the corner of his eye before asking, “Well, what will you do?”

“What can I do?” Seokjin asks. “You know Taehyung.”

“Yeah, and he loves you,” Namjoon says.

“That’s true.”

Donghyun sweeps in to interrupt them. He gives them directions to the restaurant since earlier, Seokjin had openly spurned the use of maps. Seokjin, who took over their household when he first moved in – delegating chores and setting up a schedule to track the formidable list of their appointments – declared to the camera that he has no need for maps. Of equal importance: this is the same man who built a neatly-structured stone cairn on which he then made not one but several wishes.

Namjoon thinks a lot about the dichotomy of self, about how people wear masks of what they want others to see in order to protect who they are inside. Within this context, he watches his hyung and wonders – not for the first time – about how much of himself he hides.

They take a table on the patio overlooking the water. Katy Perry blares over the speakers, and middle school kids whip a Frisbee back and forth across a palm-fringed lawn. Jet skis lick over the waves, piercing the evening air with the thready whine of their engines. Tiki torches waft pungent citrus smoke around them, and Seokjin – level-headed, practical Seokjin – suggests that they get drinks with their dinner and share a dessert.

“When we talked yesterday, Taehyung-ah and I agreed that this is not a vacation,” Seokjin says, fanning himself with the menu. “But that doesn't mean we can't eat what we want.”

Namjoon grins his agreement. “Absolutely.”

So they have fruity cocktails with their entrees, and then they order a chocolate lava cake to split. Namjoon takes his time with it, savoring each bite, silently marveling over the way the ice cream contrasts with the molten chocolate swirl. Now would be the perfect time to continue their earlier conversation, only the crew settles in behind them, breaking for their own dinner before the final filming. So Namjoon does his best to enjoy dessert while worrying about Seokjin and Taehyung.

Though he doesn't mean to, Namjoon compares them to his parents. As relationships go, they are not alike. Namjoon’s parents took the traditional path of marriage and family, a path that is, for now, unattainable for his friends. But Namjoon wonders about the lives his parents led before he and his sister were born. Was theirs the kind of love that made them ache when they were apart? Did they struggle and fight before finding the common ground that was the bedrock of his childhood? Were there jealousies and disappointments, wishes and regrets, devastating things that happened to them that neither would ever tell their children?

Then Namjoon ponders all that’s contained within a person – whole galaxies of thoughts and dreams and intricacies – and that no matter how well you think you know someone, there is still so much more that remains unseen beneath.

“Joon-ah,” Seokjin says across the table. “Your ice cream is melting.”

Namjoon exhales. “You're right,” he says. Though he wants to talk more with Seokjin, there’s only so much they can say with the cameras rolling.

So he says, instead, “You know, my parents wanted to come to Hawaii, but it was too expensive. They've still never been.”

Seokjin nods his understanding. They'll talk later if they get the time, but for now, they'll eat ice cream, and watch the sunset, and talk about what makes them happy.

Chapter Text

“I gave you the key when the door wasn't open. Just admit it.
I gave you faith, turned your doubt into hoping. Can’t deny it.”
Where Are U Now? Justin Beiber

5 April 2017 – Hila – Night

Throughout the whole ordeal of the gecko, in which Seokjin and Hoseok stripped every sheet and pillowcase from their beds, and then heaved up the pillow and mattresses themselves, they never located the slimy little lizard, who probably skedaddled out the window at the first shriek of distress. Jimin and Jungkook came in, first to make fun of them, and then to lend a hand upon seeing how upset Hoseok was.

Only now that the commotion has settled, now that Hoseok has been suitably soothed and Seokjin has completed his nightly stretches does he realize that he hasn't heard from Taehyung.

Seokjin checks his phone. He's been texting off and on with his friends back in Seoul for hours, but it's well past midnight now and Hoseok switched off the table lamp ages ago. Seokjin can hear the steady rhythm of his breathing over the unending chitter of frogs and birds beyond their window.

He tries not to worry. The cameras have been filming nonstop. Their bungalow is spacious until you add in the seven of them plus the staff, the crew, and all their equipment, so even getting into the washroom has become a dicey proposition.

But they do have their phones.

So why hasn't Taehyung messaged him?

Seokjin pulls up his KKT and scrolls through his last conversation with Taehyung. It's mostly him complaining about getting stuck in a group with Jimin and Jungkook, and how they have zero chill and play footsie under the table while waiting for their pizza.

Taehyung wrote: JK called Jiminie baby on camera. Like, in the middle of filming.

Seokjin sent back: You're lying.

Taehyung wrote: I'm literally not. When you see the footage, you'll see my reaction.

Seokjin answered: I never watch the footage.

Taehyung dropped the thread there. The only thing he sent since was a picture of the giant blue parrot in the hutch downstairs. Seokjin responded with a photo of the ahi poke Taehyung made for their cooking challenge.

Then, nothing.

Seokjin tries not to read too much into it. Taehyung's like a candle that burns hot until it blows itself out. It's not uncommon for him to fall asleep, even on nights when they've planned to meet. And it's been a long day with hiking and helicopters, so maybe there's nothing wrong.

Except... now that he thinks about it, Taehyung's been extra sulky and clingy since Seokjin was paired with Namjoon for their friendship date. And he seemed really upset when he didn't choose Seokjin's personal object to get paired up for the cooking challenge. So maybe something is wrong?

“Fine,” Seokjin groans to himself. He types: Taehyung-ah, are you awake?

Two seconds lapse.

Taehyung writes back: I'm waiting for you on the patio.

Seokjin sends: Waiting? Since when?

Since hours ago, Taehyung texts. Jimin's in the common room with JK now.

Seokjin sits up in the bed. Taehyung, he writes, you never said we were meeting.

I texted, he says.

Pabo, scroll up, Seokjin shoots back.

Twenty seconds go by before Taehyung writes, Jinnie-hyung, I'm so sorry.

Seokjin types, Must have sent it to your other boyfriend, but then his throat tightens as he carefully backspaces over each character, as if the action can erase his fear. Instead, he writes, What are JK and Jimin doing?

Making out, Taehyung says.

Seokjin stifles a laugh. He writes, They don't know you're out there.

Nope. ໒( ͡ᵔ ▾ ͡ᵔ )७

Are there mosquitoes? Seokjin writes.

No, but there are a million geckos, Taehyung answers. Then, a few seconds later, he writes, They left the common room, hurry come out here!

And in spite of a million geckos, Seokjin goes to meet him.

 

“We have to be quiet,” Seokjin cautions as he shuts the patio door.

“Not a problem, hyung,” Taehyung says, patting the cool vinyl of the patio's fold-a-bed. “For me anyway.”

Seokjin slides onto the bed, which smells like the plastic swimming pools of his childhood. He flounces onto his back, pushing his head onto Taehyung's thigh. He breathes in the sticky night air, trying to shake off the nervous excitement of almost getting caught by Jimin and Jungkook, who were noisily awake and, strangely enough, doing laundry.

Taehyung's warm fingers slide under Seokjin chin. He bends double to kiss him but misses on the first try, getting half his nose instead. Seokjin catches him roughly and mashes his mouth to his, so hard he feels their teeth beneath their lips. Taehyung twists to slide beneath Seokjin, who pins him against the cushions.

“You're hard already,” Seokjin gasps.

“I've been waiting a long time.”

Seokjin bites his neck. “Did you start without me?”

“Maybe,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin hisses, “Let me see.”

Taehyung bucks against his hips as he wriggles free from the white satin of his pajamas. Taehyung glows beneath the watercolor light of the moon, and he is breathtakingly ready. “How do you want me?” he asks, his voice rough and husky, and Seokjin has to swallow several times before he can speak.

“Do we have lube?” Seokjin manages to say.

“Don't be stupid,” Taehyung answers. As he reaches back to the wicker table, Seokjin goes to work on the buttons of Taehyung's shirt. He's clumsy in his eagerness, like it's their first time all over again, and once he pushes the soft fabric aside, once his wrists brush chills across Taehyung's broad chest, he understands he'll do anything to keep this – to keep him – in his life.

Taehyung growls as he grinds up against him. He presses the bottle of lube into his palm, and even in his dizzy enthusiasm, Seokjin knows the weight of it is wrong. Taehyung nuzzles kisses behind his ear and along his jaw, tracing steadily downward as he tugs the hem of Seokjin’s t-shirt over his head. Seokjin drags himself upright, tossing the shirt to the floor, as he strains in the half-light to read the label.

Then, chuckling, he covers his mouth.

“What?” Taehyung breathes. “What?

“It's hand sanitizer,” Seokjin says, turning the bottle for Taehyung to see.

Taehyung collapses into the pillows with such force the whole bed groans in protest. They go rigid a moment, waiting breathlessly for Jimin or Jungkook to throw open the patio doors.

“Just... put me in your mouth a minute?” Taehyung says, sliding back. “That should get me wet enough, and I swear I'm so hard, I'll come really fast, I promise.”

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says.

“Please, hyung, I want you.” There is nothing in him that can resist that voice.

“And you do me after,” Seokjin says.

“You can come in my mouth.”

Seokjin knots his fist in Taehyung's hair. “Okay. Okay,” Seokjin says as he shifts into place. “Don't hold back.”

Taehyung's eyes roll closed as Seokjin's lips slide around him. “Hyung, I never will,” he whispers. “I never will.”

They are not careful, they are not quiet, and neither of them hold back.

 

When they're done, they're both sore and beyond exhausted. At some point, Seokjin bit into the fat of Taehyung's thumb, marking the skin with a crescent-shaped bruise. He smooths the tender indentations with his fingers while Taehyung lazily traces the raised whorl of Seokjin's nipple. They lay for a long while, silently waiting for their breathing to slow. The breeze shifts from the sea, carrying the solemn scent of sand and rain and driftwood.

Seokjin feels the low rumble of a laugh in Taehyung's chest.

“What?” Seokjin says.

“I think our lube's in Yoongi's bag,” he says. “'Cause I think... I took his hand sanitizer by mistake.”

Seokjin, chuckling, presses his forehead to Taehyung's shoulder. “Imagine his surprise. He goes to clean his hands and then... lube.” Seokjin holds up a hand, pantomiming Yoongi's shocked reaction.

“Too bad,” Taehyung says. “Such a waste.”

“You came, I came. We did okay,” Seokjin says.

“You bit me.”

Seokjin kisses the marked flesh and curls their hands together.

“We're just out of sync these days,” Taehyung sighs.

Seokjin blinks the sudden tears from his eyes. He says, “We are?”

Taehyung twists to stare into his face. Seokjin fights a sharp urge to hide. “Yeah,” Taehyung says. Like it's nothing. Like it's a well-known fact. “For a while now.”

“Since when?” Seokjin asks. But he knows since when. He thinks back to his conversation with Namjoon, his realization that Taehyung might be hiding something, something that might explain his distractedness and moodiness, and his unreasonable bouts of jealousy. Something that might be a crush, but might be something more.

“Since...” Taehyung says and then shrugs. “Since, I don't know. A while.”

Seokjin replays his recent memories – back to their fight in Newark, and then the filming of their video when Seokjin couldn't pretend to hit Taehyung.

Was that where it started? Or was it before, when they came out to their parents over winter break? Was it when Minnie and her boyfriend caught them at the Alcazar? Or before then, even, when Seokjin went to the jungle, or when Taehyung broke up with him, and they spent an agonizing month in limbo, wondering if they'd be better off apart?

Seokjin shifts to his side to get a better look at him. The darkness clots around them, thick and listless, flattening the light and shadow to a dull, ashen gray. Yet even still, Taehyung glows, a silvery koi caught in a muddy stream. Seokjin combs Taehyung’s hair from his sweaty forehead. He traces the contour of his face with his thumb.

He wants to ask, How do we get it back? Once something stops being in sync, is it possible to get it back? He wants to shout at him. He wants to shake him. He wants to kiss him and smother him and hold him still.

At the same time, Seokjin knows he can’t.

“We should go to bed,” Seokjin says, numbly.

“I can't find my shirt,” Taehyung says. Seokjin hears the words like they're far away.

“We'll find it in the morning,” he tells him. He sits up and holds his head. “I don't feel so well.”

“Aw, hyung.” Taehyung helps him into his clothes. He guides him to his bed, where Hobi sleeps soft and undisturbed.

Seokjin collapses before he touches the pillow, and after that, he remembers nothing at all.

Chapter Text

“Everything is changing, but why am I still here?”
So Far Away, Agust D

5-6 April 2017 – Hila

The first rustle of concern comes for Yoongi when Seokjin says he’d like to trade his noodles for vodka. Seokjin, King of Eating, a man for whom hunger is a kind of Kryptonite, suggests – offhandedly – that he wants to switch his soup for booze.

Even worse, they were on camera, so Yoongi didn't get to ask if he was serious.

So he pieces it together once they're in the van. One, Seokjin rarely says anything unplanned. If he says it, he means it. And two, though the man loves him some adult beverages these days, Seokjin never, ever gives up his food.

Which means that things have begun to unravel for Seokjin in some painfully secret way.

The second alarm comes later that same night, when at the summit of the volcano, Seokjin does not speak his wish aloud with the rest of them. Only Hoseok notices (saint that he is) and coaxes a resolution from Seokjin about practicing his guitar.

Thing is, Yoongi can measure Seokjin's interest in the guitar by the layer of dust coating his 12-string. He’s witnessed every excruciating second Seokjin spent over the last year plunking through an acoustic version of Butterfly . More recently, Seokjin’s struggles with Spring Day have left him with blisters on his fingers. Before Seokjin’s graduation in February, he needed solid chunks of time for studying, submitting papers, finals, and attending acting seminars, in addition to learning choreo and promoting for their new album. So practicing guitar ranked perhaps 98th on the list of 100 Things That Are Important to Seokjin.

So it's weird that Seokjin said guitar, and Yoongi wishes he didn't know that it was weird.

But he does. Because knowing someone's secrets makes you complicit in keeping them.

Seokjin knows all of Yoongi's secrets – more at this point than even Hope – which makes Yoongi feel oddly responsible for Seokjin. It's like they're two innocent men wrongly-accused of committing the same crime. Neither wants the other to hang for it, but both know that either way, they're totally screwed.

The morning after their stargazing at Mauna Kea, Yoongi snags Seokjin outside the washroom. They're both keenly aware of the staff's presence, in the kitchen and in the bedrooms, wrangling up breakfast and rousting the heaviest sleepers, Jungkook and Taehyung.

Yoongi goes, “Hey man, if you need to talk about anything...”

One of their drivers hems in, excusing herself into the washroom.

“Oh,” Seokjin says, politely. “Why would I—?”

The unit director pops into the doorway. “Good morning, guys,” he says. “They're about ready to load up the vans. You have your passports?”

Sourly, Yoongi snarls, “I have all the passports.”

“Great,” the director says. He's such a kind and patient person, Yoongi immediately regrets his bitter tone.

The unit director leaves, calling for Namjoon, and Yoongi attempts again to talk with Seokjin, whose lingering seems to suggest that there is something to talk about. But just as Yoongi opens his mouth, the toilet flushes and the driver comes out, bowing as she steps between them, drying her hands on her jeans.

Seokjin touches Yoongi's shoulder. “I'm fine,” he says. Then he steps around Yoongi, heading downstairs, where Hoseok greets him from the driveway. Seokjin's still wearing the godawful red hat Taehyung bought him two days before, and he dances with Hope like they're both the happiest people on earth. Except, one of them is Jung Hoseok, and the other is a liar in a dumb red hat.

But really, if Seokjin doesn't want to share, then Yoongi should be fine with that. Really. It's his life, and Seokjin is a grown-ass man.

Only... the next morning, they can't wake Seokjin.

And for the first time in all their years of traveling together, they miss their flight.

 

The staff aren’t angry; in fact, they walk around like visitors in a hospital, careful not to further upset Seokjin, who seems too dazed and too bewildered to offer any other explanation than exhaustion. They assure him repeatedly that they’ll edit the footage to make everything look normal. They'll all take a day to rest. Tomorrow, they'll get up and catch the next plane to Waikiki, and everything will be fine.

And maybe it's Yoongi's imagination, but he's damned sure Seokjin spends the whole day avoiding him. They’re all subdued and afraid to talk about what happened, and the staff gives them space as they scramble to reschedule the rest of their trip. Around lunchtime, Yoongi, Jimin, and Namjoon meet up in the kitchen to scrounge leftovers from last night's cooking challenge.

Jimin licks a splash of soy sauce from his thumb before he says, quietly, “Seems at least you slept well last night, hyung.”

“You mean I slept so well I didn't hear you leave our room?” Yoongi says. Jimin reddens beneath the haystack of his hair.

“It's okay,” Namjoon says. “We all know you visited JK.”

“And Taehyung visited Seokjin, too,” Jimin says.

Namjoon shoots a pointed look at Yoongi, and Yoongi thinks, Damned if Joon doesn’t know something.

“No one said anything,” Yoongi says, keeping a neutral tone.

“When do they ever?” Jimin shrugs. He scrapes up a spoonful of rice. “Besides, they didn't want the staff more upset than they already were. If they found out Taehyung visited Jin-hyung last night, and then Jin-hyung couldn’t wake up this morning—”

“—Yeah, but Taehyung was in my room,” Namjoon interrupts. “And he's a cuddler, so believe me, I was well-aware of his presence.”

Jimin moves his bowl to the sink. Breezily, he says, “All I'm saying is, there's a reason Jin-hyung slept so heavily.” He rinses his dish and pads out of the kitchen with a casual tip of a salute.

The moment the door shuts, Yoongi says, “You know, don't you?”

Namjoon holds up his hands. “I know a little.”

“Did they break up?” Yoongi asks.

“No,” Namjoon answers. “It's nothing like that.”

“This time,” Yoongi mutters. “But something is going on.”

“I mean,” Namjoon stuffs a biteful of spam into his mouth. Then he goes, “Relationships change, right? As people grow, relationships have to change. And if Jimin-ah's right, that they saw each other last night, then it's probably a good sign they're okay.”

Yoongi purses his lips. He wishes he could share Namjoon's optimism, but he knows too well that late-night rendezvous don’t always equal happy-sexy-fun times. Especially if they result in the kind of exhaustion they saw this morning with Seokjin.

“Should we... say something?” Yoongi asks. 

“They'll sort it out, they always do—”

“—You remember Newark, right?” Yoongi asks. “And if it's bad enough that we missed our plane?”

Namjoon scratches the peachfuzz on his cheek. “We'll talk to them,” Namjoon says.

“You and me?” Yoongi says, already regretting his involvement.

“Separately. When we can.”

“Fine.”

Namjoon claps his shoulder on the way out. Yoongi sulks until he remembers the bottle of wine at his bedside.

He's four glasses in when Hoseok cajoles him down to the beach at sunset. They're all there, all of them rosy in the long rays of the evening sun. After several minutes of chasing crabs with Jungkook and Namjoon, Yoongi finds/falls onto a low rock wall, where Seokjin is already sitting.

He looks... not great. His lips are swollen, his cheeks blister-pink, and his eyes hide behind his sunglasses.

After several drunken seconds, Yoongi remembers that they’ve agreed to talk to him.

But Seokjin speaks first.

“I'm losing him,” he says. Hollowly, but sweetly, too.

Yoongi lifts his eyes to Seokjin's but sees only the dark reflection of the beach in his lenses. Seokjin does not turn his head, but keeps his focus on the others. More specifically, on Taehyung, who is playing tag with Jungkook and Jimin.

“Hyung,” Yoongi says.

“Every day, he slips further away,” Seokjin continues. Then, a whisper, “I don't know what to do.”

Yoongi can only watch Hoseok and wonder how it must feel, first to have someone and then to gradually lose them. That’s when Yoongi stumbles back to the bungalow and drinks himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

“When you're soaring through the air
I'll be your solid ground
Take every chance you dare
I'll still be there.”
When You Come Back Down, Nickel Creek

6 April 2017 – Hila, Hawaii – Bon Voyage 2

They miss their flight to Oahu, and it’s Seokjin's fault.

Only, not really.

True, they’d been unable to wake Seokjin in time to leave the Big Island, but the blame for that rests squarely on Taehyung's shoulders.

Everyone knows it; no one breathes a word.

Because really, secretly, they all feel grateful. Despite the worried murmurs of the staff who now must scramble to reschedule tours, flights, and excursions, the seven of them breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Now, they have a secret day to lounge around their bungalow, doing whatever they please. They wear sweatpants and eat spam musubi. They play games on their phones. They come and go to the beach in pairs and in trios until the evening when they wander out together to watch the sun set fire to the waves.

Before leaving the beach, Seokjin sends Taehyung a message – the same message he sent the night before – and Taehyung figures he's probably a fool to agree. He does agree, though, instantly, immediately. Yes, hyung, he types, not even thinking twice. Yes, of course, I'll be there.

Holding his breath and tripping on tiptoe, Taehyung skirts the couch where Jungkook has fallen asleep. Tucking the travel bottle into his pocket, he inches the sliding door open. He hears Seokjin's murmured cautions from the other side of the door, and he exhales a sigh of relief.

Taehyung hitches the door shut and launches himself onto the patio's fold-a-bed. Seokjin catches him, sort of, and they collapse against the rigid wicker headboard.

“Our timing's already better,” Taehyung says.

“Shh,” Seokjin says. Then, “No Jimin?”

“Not yet.”

Seokjin rolls his head back and exclaims in stage-whisper, “Thank god.”

“It's only a matter of time,” Taehyung says.

“Yes, but we're already out here,” Seokjin says, “and if we're quiet, they'll never know.”

“Yeah, if you're quiet,” Taehyung says, his words an echo of the same joke he made the night before.

Seokjin catches the collar of his shirt, and they twist together like a pair of climbing vines. Taehyung tries to push Seokjin into the stiff cushions of the bed, but Seokjin swings a leg over his hips to pin him. The bedframe grates out a rusty wheeze, and they tense, fists knotted in hair and clothing, while they wait for Jungkook to stir.

Miraculously, he doesn't, and they gradually, carefully, release each other into a gentler embrace. They kiss, but Taehyung keeps teasing Seokjin by all but brushing their lips, so that they can taste each other, can feel each other's breath on their lips, an exquisite almost touch. Seokjin's a quick study, though. He plays back, denying Taehyung as much as Seokjin himself is denied.

It's Taehyung who breaks first, and Seokjin buries him with kisses –  his face, his neck, his chest, his soft, round belly which looks now like a Japanese pear. Taehyung is hard already, but Seokjin goes slow. Maybe wants to savor this time because he doesn't know when... but they really never know when .

“You're not mad about last night?” Taehyung asks again, for perhaps the hundredth time.

“Let's see,” Seokjin says. “Am I mad that you made me come so hard that the next day no one could wake me? Hmm... no.”

Taehyung, chuckling, shifts beneath Seokjin, angling so that they can stare up at the sky. “Even though we missed our plane,” he says.

“Worth it,” Seokjin answers. Then he adds, “I am embarrassed, though. And I hope no one got into trouble. But they all thought I wasn’t feeling well, so…”

“Jin-hyung, you weren’t feeling well.” Taehyung reaches to kiss between Seokjin’s brows.

“Yeah,” Seokjin says, and then they lay together, slowly kissing as the night sounds swell around them.

Flowers dust the cool air with their sweet, peppery pollen, making them feel almost drunk from the scent. Palm fronds brush with a soft, urgent hush against the metal roof, a constant undercurrent of sound. Since the sunset, the world writhes with huge, mysterious night noises – the raucous squawking of birds, the chirruping of frogs, and the shirring of cicadas – and it really does feel like a jungle.

“What if there were dinosaurs here,” Taehyung asks, “and we could see just their heads going up and down through the trees?”

Seokjin gazes at him, his eyes slightly unfocused, and Taehyung worries that he's ruined the mood. But Seokjin says, “Are they carnivores? Because I do not want to be eaten.”

“That’s not what you said last night,” Taehyung jokes, and Seokjin hisses through his teeth. In the elusive light filtering through the palms, Taehyung can't tell if Seokjin is excited or upset. So he adds, quickly, “They're the vegetarian kind, I promise.”

“The aloha-saurus,” Seokjin muses.

“Shh,” Taehyung says. He threads his leg over Seokjin's thigh to snug him closer. Seokjin catches his bare foot and kneads the arch, sending a shimmer of chills up Taehyung's calf.

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin breathes. Then he pauses for so long that Taehyung cranes his neck to check over the railing to see if there really is something bobbling along between the palms. Or maybe one of the staff has come outside to catch them out of their beds. Or maybe Yoongi, who drank another whole bottle of wine earlier, has stumbled downstairs to scribble lyrics by the moonlight.

Or maybe it's simpler for Taehyung to just ask, “Hyung, what is it?”

“I never want to hold you captive, you know,” Seokjin says.

In spite of the words, Taehyung feels oddly caught by them. His scalp tingles with sudden alertness, and he angles back to get a clearer look at Seokjin's face. It's useless, though. The moon and stars conspire against him. Seokjin is inscrutable.

“I don't want you to regret not doing everything you want,” Seokjin says. His fingers rest lightly on the curve of Taehyung's foot, as familiar and comfortable as a well-worn slipper.

“I won't,” Taehyung says. “I wouldn't.”

“You should be able to experience things without fear or resentment,” Seokjin tells him.

“Resentment?” Taehyung echoes. “What is this about?”

Seokjin rolls onto his back. He peers up through the hazy veil of clouds that smudges the stars like chalk. “The other day, on the beach—”

“—Our turtle beach?—”

“—Yes,” Seokjin says. He massages the ball of Taehyung's foot. “You said in case I ever doubt—”

“—Hyung. Stop,” Taehyung says. He catches both of Seokjin's hands and binds his arms across his chest. “Let's not talk about this right now.”

“Then when, Taehyung?” Seokjin asks. All lightness has left his voice, and Taehyung's earlier excitement leeches slowly into dread. “The moment we return to Seoul, you're leaving for Jeju with Park Bogum.”

“It's three days, Jinnie,” Taehyung soothes. “We've been apart for longer than that.”

Seokjin tries to shrug free; Taehyung holds him still.

“This is something else,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin draws a breath. He says, “Do you – would you – tell me... if you were feeling something... for someone else?”

Taehyung's body goes numb. He says, “You—?”

A smile pinches the corner of Seokjin's mouth. “I know you very well,” he whispers.

“I— it's not—” Heat spreads up from his shoulders, flooding through his neck and face. “I don’t want to lose you,” he blurts. “But I don’t want to hurt you, and…”

Seokjin presses his mouth to Taehyung's forehead. His lips feel cold and rubbery. When they part, Seokjin smooths away saliva with his thumb. He says, “We're not breaking up.”

“Okay,” Taehyung breathes. “Good.”

“But maybe...”

“Maybe?” Taehyung's chest aches. Tears sting like salt in his eyes.

“We’ve been together so long, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says. His words sound too practiced, far too precise. “You should be allowed to change and grow. You’re supposed to. So, maybe when you go out... with them ...” Seokjin swallows. “I won't ask.”

Taehyung's ears ring. His heart rabbits wild within his chest. All he can think is, He knows. But how can he know when Taehyung himself has barely begun to figure this out?

And it’s stupid, really, this noble gesture of Seokjin’s, as if Taehyung needs to be set free. As if he could want anyone but Seokjin. Though even as he thinks this, he knows it’s untrue. For months now, he has felt the steady, heavy gravity of an attraction.

Of course Seokjin knows. They probably all know, and this blisters him with shame.

“But Jinnie,” he whispers, and the words fall out, fractured. “What about you?”

Seokjin pulls Taehyung tight against his chest and buries his nose into his hair. After a long, tight moment, Taehyung feels a shudder rack like a breaking wave through Seokjin's body. Then he says, softly, “Maybe you don’t ask either.”

Seokjin pushes Taehyung, turning him to remove his aloha shirt and the black t-shirt beneath. He traces the smooth, moonlit curves of Taehyung’s shoulders with the tender solemnity of a blind man memorizing a once-treasured object. His eyes are clear as he kisses him, no longer elusive or unsure, and when he speaks, his words ring clear against the backdrop of sound, “Remember. If anyone ever hurts you,” he says. “I’ll destroy them.”

When he’d spoken those words before, months ago now, Taehyung had dismissed them as a joke, Seokjin’s way of breaking the tension. But now, all timidness stripped away, Taehyung believes that they are true. He wants to ask but he doesn't, What if it's me who hurts myself? What if I'm the one to blame?

But by the time Taehyung wakes the next morning, naked to his waist and hugging again to a flustered Namjoon, Taehyung can’t recall if he’d dreamed those words. He shuffles from the bedroom, feeling nauseated by the idea that while in sleep, Namjoon and Seokjin could so easily be exchanged.

Searching for Seokjin, Taehyung finds instead his discarded aloha shirt. He drifts onto the patio, where Jimin, still mopey and fluff-headed, packs his bag on the empty fold-a-bed. Taehyung tosses himself onto the mattress, hugging one of the slick-cushioned pillows to his chest.

Jimin mumbles, “You wore that shirt yesterday.”

“They were my pajamas,” Taehyung says. Dimly, he knows this is only half-true. He recalls Seokjin’s hands smoothing over the curves of his body, the moonlight making this place into a secret hidden maze where only he and Seokjin live. The memory aches in him like a bruise he can’t remember getting. “Here’s the thing,” Taehyung continues. “I’ll wear them today, too.”

Jimin folds his sweatshirt into his pack. “You’re nasty,” he says.

Taehyung rolls onto his back. Irrationally, he thinks, Does he know? Do they all know?

He hasn’t done anything. But still, there’s that squeeze of guilt because he fears that one day, he will.

Chapter Text

“The lone flower that’s withering,
does it shed tears?
You must be in pain, as if it’s your last.”
Sad Pain, Suran

7 April 2017 – Waikiki

The next morning, it’s as though Taehyung’s and Seokjin’s positions have reversed. Taehyung bumbles around like a ghost, ill-at-ease and out-of-sorts, while Seokjin gleams like something polished clean and placed on a shelf for safekeeping. They make their flight to Oahu. They land in Waikiki without incident, where Yoongi and Namjoon get sorted into a team with Taehyung.

And they try – they really do try – to get a moment's privacy with Taehyung, but it’s nonstop filming from the moment they board the bus until they find their lodging. They keep crisscrossing with Hoseok and Seokjin, and everyone seems fine. Once Taehyung gets some caffeine and sugar in him, he comes fully, irritatingly awake. He practices his English, managing to impress Namjoon with how much his reading skills have improved. By the time they arrive at the rental house, everyone seems in great spirits, even Yoongi, in spite of the wine-haze headache that fish-hooks behind his eyes.

When the crew leaves them to go settle into their own lodging, the seven of them go for a swim in their exquisitely-private pool. Yoongi anchors himself in the shallow end, buffeted by the waves Jungkook and Taehyung create with every cannonball into the deep end. Soon after, Jimin joins them, trailed by Seokjin who yells at him, “You shouldn’t be in the water with your injured hand.”

Jimin calls back, “I'm not going to stay out of the water in Hawaii, hyung,” before leaping into the pool.

Taehyung grips Jimin's arm to hold the sodden bandage over the water's surface. “He's right, you know, this could get infected.”

“It's water,” Jimin objects. “It's clean.”

Taehyung gazes up at Seokjin, who stands with his hands on his hips at the pool's edge.

“Ask Namjoon?” Taehyung says.

“I don't need to ask Namjoon,” Seokjin snaps. “Jimin, come up here. Let me see.”

“Why don't you come in, hyung?” Jungkook offers. “Jimin's already wet. He can't make it any worse.”

With a sigh of resignation, Seokjin does just that.

Hoseok and Namjoon come out a few minutes later, in the midst of what appears to be a Conversation . Seokjin waves them over, and they all three confer over Jimin's injured hand, which Jimin plainly loves . Namjoon pronounces the injury minor enough to be pool-safe, and Jimin jumps into the water like a schoolboy released from detention.

Hoseok still appears uncertain as he joins Yoongi on the steps. Namjoon slides in on the other side and says, “We'll re-wrap it later. It should be fine.”

Hoseok tsks. “Open wound in the water, though.”

“Don't worry, no sharks until tomorrow,” Namjoon says, and Hoseok's expression further darkens.

“Not nice to tease him, Joon,” Yoongi says.

“But it's so easy,” Namjoon says, and the three of them settle to shoulders-depth to watch the other four splashing a safe distance away.

They witness Seokjin arrange a chicken match between him and Taehyung versus Jungkook and Jimin. Clearly, it's unbalanced because of Jimin's injured hand, which they know Seokjin knows about, yet somehow all the maknaes go for it. Seconds later, Jimin persuades Taehyung to fight with one arm behind his back, and they proceed to throw down like their dinner depends on it.

After a minute of observing them, Hoseok says, “Maybe there's nothing to be worried about?”

“Hm,” Yoongi says, knowing they mean Seokjin and Tae and not Jimin's hand.

“I'd feel better if we could find out,” Namjoon says. “I mean, I talked briefly with Seokjin, but it was before the day we couldn’t wake him, so…”

“It's always difficult during these trips,” Hoseok says. “Cameras, everywhere. Zero privacy.”

Yoongi grunts in frustration. “Why don’t we just message them?”

Hoseok balks. “Is this a conversation you’d like to have over Kakao?”

“Well I guess not.” Yoongi sniffs. “You got a better plan?”

“As a matter of fact,” Namjoon says. “We do.”

 

Later that evening, clever Namjoon convinces the director to put Yoongi and Taehyung on a team together. That was part of their plan, and it succeeded. But then, even-sneakier Jimin throws a wrench into the whole operation when he suggests Namjoon and Hoseok team up, accomplishing Jimin’s ultimate goal of teaming up with Jungkook. This also makes Seokjin their third wheel, damning Namjoon and Hoseok’s plans of talking to Seokjin alone.

Yoongi's not overly thrilled with the idea of spending an evening alone with Taehyung, but he figures he’ll keep his part of the deal. In the light of all he’s shared with Seokjin in the last year, he feels a savage tug of loyalty toward his roommate. And it’s true what Yoongi tells the producer: In most situations, he and Taehyung do not see eye-to-eye.

He makes light of it onscreen, telling everyone that if they disagree, Yoongi will just hold Taehyung’s hand. Then, he gives Taehyung’s bony fingers a rough, friendly squeeze, letting Taehyung know exactly where they stand.

 

Later that night, Yoongi props against the headboard of the bed, his tablet against his knees. The wintergreen scent of Namjoon's breathing machine soothes Yoongi into near-stupor, but the song he's fussing with keeps teasing him awake.

He hears the snick of a door as it opens and shuts. Yoongi knows who it is and where he's going. Seokjin had been overjoyed upon scoring his own bed in today's challenge, and everyone knew why. It's the same reason Jimin and Jungkook kept sneaking moon-eyes at each other all day. Yoongi thinks of it as Sanctioned Banging, these times when the lovers luck into sharing a room or landing in one on their own. Taehyung has to worry about sneaking back into Hoseok's room before camera call, but this time, Jimin and Jungkook don't even have that concern.

Slowly, annoyingly, the realization dawns on him that Hoseok is alone now, too.

Yoongi could go to him. He could slip out and... what? Talk with him? Sit on his bed? Watch him sleep? The idea both thrills and disgusts him. He wishes he'd never confessed this secret to Seokjin back in December, because speaking the words aloud has made them real. He is in love with his best friend, but unlike Seokjin, he feels powerless to act upon it.

Not powerless. Protective. Back in Daegu and when he first arrived in Seoul, he indulged his every destructive desire until he'd burned himself and everyone he touched. Now, five years celibate, Yoongi's achieved a hard-won equilibrium. But the scars remain, and those he scarred still haunt him, though by all counts those wounds should have long since healed.

It's for the best, he thinks.

Even if when Yoongi sits beside Hoseok, he wishes they could kiss.

He flips his tablet onto the table and stuffs his pillow beneath his chin. He sleeps, and then he dreams, and none of it gives him comfort.

 

During their “friendship tour” the following evening, they have three hours to kill.

Three hours. Alone. With Taehyung.

Eh, it’s not so bad. They haven't had much chance to talk, and Taehyung has been subdued all day, both polite and circumspect. They find a Korean place that smells of bleach and gochujang. It reminds Yoongi of his mother's cafe in Daegu, and all at once, he feels a troubling stab of nostalgia.

Over the menu, Taehyung mutters, “Jinnie made cold noodles for my birthday.” Then he glances up, embarrassed, like he didn't intend to speak aloud.

“You want cold noodles?” Yoongi asks. “Taehyung-ssi, it's vacation. We can have whatever we want.”

Taehyung half-shrugs. “It won't be as good as Jin's.”  

Here's the opening Yoongi's been waiting for. Taehyung brought it up himself, and the camera crew’s off discussing filming waivers with the restaurant staff.

Fiddling with his napkin, Yoongi asks, “So, how are things with you and Jin-hyung?”

Immediate regret. The words feel forced, and the mood that had been thawing between them crystallizes like frost. “Nevermind,” he says. “Forget I asked. It was—”

“—No, it's okay,” Taehyung says, his voice low and raspy. He goes, “You know how today, we got to swim with sharks?”

“Yeah, I was there,” Yoongi snipes. Then he inwardly chides himself because he's not supposed to be quippy or sarcastic; he's supposed to get Taehyung to talk. And, honestly, why had they thought this was a good idea? In the past five years, Yoongi's had maybe four real conversations with Taehyung, the last of which was back in Busan, and resulted in Yoongi telling Taehyung not to fuck around with Seokjin.

Undeterred, Taehyung continues. He says, “Well, so, Jinnie was trying to make me and Hobi-hyung laugh, right? Only when he said he'd feed his own hand to the sharks, I thought I was gonna be sick.”

Yoongi nods. “I remember him saying that.” Barely, though. At that point, Yoongi had been way more concerned with Hoseok's palpable terror and the very real possibility that he wouldn't be able to get into that shark cage.

Taehyung says, “I thought, Seokjin-ah’s hand is my hand. If he feeds himself to the sharks, then I will, too .

Yoongi swallows his first response, which is to harass him for being so dramatic. Then he bites down his second response, which is to point out that the company would never truly endanger any parts of their bodies. But Taehyung's a smart guy; he knows those things are true.

The waiter returns with Jeonin, the camera guy. Once Yoongi orders their food, Jeonin tries to engage them in conversation. They talk a little about henna tattoos, but for the most part, it’s several minutes of strained silence. Then the food arrives, and it's so unbelievably delicious, it yanks Yoongi forcefully back to his childhood. He glances up to find Taehyung thumbing tears from his eyes.

“Let's just eat slowly,” Yoongi says. “One bite at a time.”

So they do. They savor every sip of broth, every mouthful of rice, and then Taehyung gives him the yolk of his egg. All at once, Yoongi's choking back his own tears.

“Are you taking care of me?” he asks, incredulous but absurdly touched.

“You can have it,” Taehyung says.

Yoongi marvels, “How’d you know I mix egg yolk with my soup?”

Taehyung winks and says again, “You can have it.”

Yoongi shows his thanks by singing, which finally makes Taehyung laugh. As they finish their meal, Yoongi thinks, Isn't it just like us to have an emotional moment over soup? And doesn't Taehyung always give up a portion of his food, like some offering to the friendship gods? And is it any wonder how so many people fall in love with him?

 

After filming a rock-paper-scissors game on the stairs, Jeonin packs up his camera crew and lets them finish their desserts in peace.

Taehyung is breathless from carrying Yoongi piggyback down the block – his penalty for losing the stairs game – but he's grinning to himself as he eats his second ice cream of the night. The ocean breeze brushes them with the hibiscus-and-brine scent so particular to Hawaii, the one that makes it easy to forget their hardships. Not forget so much as compartmentalize, as if suffering can’t exist in this warm, fragrant, cloud-strewn night.

Yoongi sips his coffee. “It's good to see you smiling,” he says.

“In this moment, I'm happy,” Taehyung says. He tongues off a strip of chocolate and lets it melt on his tongue. Though he's grown up so much in recent months, moments like these remind Yoongi that Taehyung is still very young.

“His hand is my hand, hyung,” Taehyung says.

Young, Yoongi thinks, and also random.

“I'm gonna marry him,” Taehyung says.

Yoongi splutters a sip of coffee. “You're... what?"

Taehyung eyes him sidewise. “Someday,” he adds.

“Taehyung.” Yoongi wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “He doesn’t know.”

“How can he? I just figured it out today.”

Yoongi grips his forearm, dragging him to a stop. “Taehyung, he doesn't know.” He states the words slowly, making certain Taehyung understands. “He's terrified. He thinks he's losing you.”

Taehyung looks at his ice cream, and the color fades slowly from his face. “He is, for a little while. We've decided. Well. We didn’t break up. But… There are things I need to figure out. So. Things have changed.”

“The fuck?” Yoongi says.

Taehyung lifts his face to the sky. “I am gonna marry him, though. Someday.” He blinks and two tears dash down his cheeks. “I just don't know how.” He walks to a trashcan and drops in the last of his ice cream. Wiping his eyes on his sleeve, he says, “Come on, hyung, I bet the others are waiting.”

Chapter Text

“The color of the sky we saw together,
The scent of the path we walked down together,
Don’t forget them.”
Let Go, BTS

10 April 2017 – Bon Voyage 2, the final day

The seven of them line up along the railing of their chartered yacht while the camera crew films. Before them, the sun weaves rays of gold and violet through the dusky clouds, which must look, to the camera's eye, like perfection.

Off camera, earlier, they ate and danced and talked and drank. Some of them, one of them in particular, drank a lot. That someone – Kim Namjoon – is currently leaning too far over the rail, watching the scatter of fish that shimmer ahead of the prow. Yoongi reclines close by, ready to catch Namjoon if necessary, while Hoseok, on the other side, scans the thunderclouds for any trace of rainbows.

On the starboard side of the hull, Jimin lingers near Taehyung. Jungkook hovers within earshot to take pictures of distant islands layered like cutouts against the setting sun. They're concerned for Taehyung, as they should be, because he was the one who cried earlier when he read his letter aloud. Taehyung broke down, and Jimin's doing his best to prop him up.

Seokjin observes them all with a quiet stir of melancholy. Yet in spite of everything, he’s happy. It's their last day in Hawaii. He's eager to go home, to re-immerse himself in his graduate coursework. It's the sort of subject he can sink himself into but only share with those in the program, because only they will understand what they’re talking about. He longs for that kind of seclusion, for something he can harbor to himself, for something to call his own.

An immediate pang of guilt wells within him. He shouldn’t want to exclude the others. He shouldn’t be so selfish, but… maybe he is. Seokjin grips the rail, to let the sea spray splash upon his face. The wind smells of sun-warmed palms and distant rain, so he closes his eyes and allows himself to let the gentle heave and saw of the waves soothe him. Over the sound of the sea and his own heartbeat, he hears Namjoon's voice.

“—my parents and your parents, you know, they're like connected through us,” Namjoon says. He gestures meaningfully toward the foam. “Like, I'm connected to you and you to me, and us to us, and it's the same. Like, our fingerprints. And you know, it's like those little crabs on the beach, with their conical shells. They're the same shape as what connects us.”

Yoongi cranes his head toward him and asks, gravely, “Joon, how drunk are you?”

Namjoon waves a dismissive hand. “Did you know, those shells are the same shape as the galaxies? The Golden Mean, like, mathematically. So, you know, from the perspective of a cosmic observer, we are the little crabs on the shore.”

Jungkook wanders between Namjoon and Hoseok. He points his camera seaward, getting shots of the churning wake beneath their boat. “But hyung,” he says. “Crabs don't build cities.”

Namjoon goes quiet, but his face still bears his ponderous, question-mark glow. Hoseok shoots an earnest look at Yoongi, who answers with a shrug and his gummy smile.

“Maybe they do,” Taehyung says softly. “Maybe in the Marinara Trench, there's a city built by hermit crabs.”

“Mariana,” Seokjin corrects.

Taehyung catches his eye. In a blink, Seokjin sees that Taehyung said the wrong name on purpose. It's their inside joke, a reminder of their conversation from the day they swam with sharks. If you feed your hand to the sharks, Taehyung had said, then so will I. Seokjin opens his mouth to say something when Namjoon blurts, “Ants!”

“Mmmkay?” Yoongi says, still grinning.

Namjoon holds up a finger. “To a cosmic observer, we are like ants.”

“Wow you're such a lightweight,” Yoongi says. “How much did you have?”

“Like, three,” Namjoon slurs. “Maybe eight.”

Jimin giggles. “Eight beers? Eight vodka cranberries? There is a huge difference, hyung.”

“There were drinks, okay, and I drank them, and you drank them, too, ’cause I saw you,” Namjoon says.

Jimin fans his fingers across his chest. “True,” he says, “but unlike you, hyung, I can hold my liquor.”

“Yeah he can,” Jungkook says, and they high five.

Taehyung tsks, “You can't even drink here.”

Jungkook juts his chin. “Did you have anything?”

“I had a glass of wine with dinner,” Taehyung says.

Jimin coughs out, “Old,” and Taehyung smacks his shoulder.

The boat pitches roughly over a wave, and Namjoon teeters. Hoseok manages to catch him, and suggests, “Maybe you should lie down?”

“Maybe we should all lie down,” Namjoon enthuses. “We could watch the stars on this cool hammock-y... like, thing.”

Yoongi hooks an arm with Namjoon's and begins nudging him toward the galley. “Yeah, I think it's probably gonna rain again.”

Namjoon gazes up into the cloud-streaked sky and becomes instantly engrossed in the splendid gradations of color and light. Hoseok gets under Namjoon's other shoulder, and together, they guide him across the slippery deck.

“Our fearless leader,” Jimin says, beaming. He turns his face to the wind, letting it brisk up his coconut-husk hair. He stretches and yawns. Jungkook jabs a thumb into his armpit, causing a spastic reaction as Jimin nearly collapses. They wrestle and play until something snags Jungkook's attention, and just like that, they drift off on their own.

Leaving Taehyung on one side, and Seokjin on the other.

Seokjin casts a glance around the flight bridge to find one dutiful camera person still filming, hoping perhaps for one last poignant sunset moment before the light completely fails them. Taehyung follows Seokjin's line of sight and nods his understanding. They remain as they are, each in their separate corners.

Seokjin wonders if he should risk the mike picking up his words. The sound of the motor plus the wind and surf would probably give them enough cover to speak. But Taehyung's hearing isn't the best, so Seokjin opts for his phone.

He types, Are you okay?

Because I cried? Taehyung sends back.

Seokjin nods.

Taehyung writes, I wasn’t the only one who cried.

Seokjin nods as he types, You’re the one I worry for.

I'm fine, Taehyung writes. Thank you.

It isn't enough. Seokjin has to ask. He has to speak the words out loud.

He says, “Taehyung-ah?”

Taehyung lifts his chin. “Hm?”

“Is it still true?”

Taehyung angles toward him. He shakes his head and asks, “What?”

“When you said you love me, you said it's the truest thing,” Seokjin says. “Is that still true?”

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung answers. “Still true.”

Seokjin squeezes the rail, which is slick with raindrops but solid beneath his palm. “Okay,” he breathes. “Good.”

He leaves, then, carefully picking his way across the deck. The other five are loud inside, celebrating their lives and friendships, their hopes and their dreams. Seokjin pauses at the door, turning to find Taehyung illuminated by the silver glow of his cell phone. He snaps several selfies, each with his signature pose, his fingers scissored into a V beneath his eye.

Seokjin lingers long enough to see him send them to someone.

But he promised not to ask, and though it’s hard not to wonder, he goes inside to join the others.

 

END OF PART ONE

Chapter Text

“Your tears, alight with fear
Is it so hard to love yourself?”
Little Boxes , Meadowlark

KAKAOTALK
2017 April 14

MinnieMouse: Jin-Oppa, can we meet when you get home? I know you're probably like super crazy awesome busy, but I could use a friend RN

Prince Jin: Yes, okay. How about tomorrow? We can visit Seoul National Forest.

MinnieMouse: Fine, I'll go hiking with you, stop begging. But you have to buy me lunch first. Someplace nice.

Prince Jin: Yes of course. All the pastries you can eat.


“So then Chawie said, ‘Minha, you knew I always wanted to live in America,' and then I told him that it wasn't the point. The fact that he never told me he'd applied for the job... that was the point.” Minnie pokes her spoon deep into the lemon froth of her bingsu. “So the next thing I knew, he was on a plane, Jin-Oppa. I saw him to the security gate, he handed over his ticket, and he never even looked back. Three years together, and he didn't even wave goodbye.”

They edge their elbows on the footbridge rail to peer down into the reedy creek. Seokjin inhales the loamy, green scent into his lungs, feeling it loosening the tension within him. A dusting of cherry blossoms speckles the grassy banks, looking like powdered sugar on a cake, and that, plus Minnie's company, reminds him of springs spent together in Gwacheon when they attended every school friend's birthday and hiked every leaf-strewn trail.

Her hair falls over her shoulders in two thick pigtail braids. She's an elongated version of her childhood self, minus the skinned knees and mud boots. She says, “It was long time coming, really. He never wanted to get married, never wanted kids. And he's really talented, too, Jin, like...freakishly talented. So, honestly, it was just a matter of time.” She spoons out a heap of lemon ice and sprinkles it into the stream. “So I guess now it's time to focus on what really matters.”

“Which is...?” Seokjin asks.

Minnie grins. “Money, of course.”

Seokjin bumps her elbow with his.

She turns to recline against the rail, crossing her feet at the ankles. “So, you've been really quiet all afternoon. Must I tickle you to get to the truth?”

“No,” Seokjin says, instinctively flinching. “Please god no.”

She sneaks a smile in his direction. “C'mon, Jin-Oppa. How are you and your guy?”

He takes a moment to appreciate how easily Minha accepts the fact that Seokjin is gay. Within his familial circle, his sexual preference has been a closely-guarded secret, but with Minnie, it’s only simple fact.

Not that it matters Seokjin barely has a relationship to disclose with anyone now.

“We're... not really together at the moment,” Seokjin admits.

Minnie frowns, deeply. “Aw, but how? You were so in love.”

“It’s still true,” he's quick to say. “But… y’know, whoever says you get to end up with your first love?” His eyes well with tears; he tilts his face skyward to contain them. “Anyway, someone else has caught his attention, so I... I sort of... let him go to... figure it out.”

She shoves him. “Jin, you idiot!” she shouts. “You gotta hang on to what you love. You have to fight—”

“—No,” Seokjin says. “No, I’m right about this. I know him. I have to let him figure this out, or he’ll just wind up resenting me, and then he’ll...” Seokjin shrugs. “And anyway, did you listen to anything you said to me over the last half-hour?”

Minnie blinks several times before speaking. “It is not the same,” she says. “I always knew things would end this way with Chawie. He was way beyond my reach, and part of me knows I needed that, because what we had was secret and separate from everything my parents planned for me, and something of my very own, and now I totally see what you mean about listening to myself.”

“You knew it would end, but still you went through with it,” Seokjin says.

“Well. Yeah.”

Frustrated, Seokjin kicks off the bridge rail. He starts toward the plush cover of the forest, and after a few steps, Minnie matches his stride, her arms folded close across her chest.

The cool quiet of the trees bends the late afternoon sunlight into hazy rays. They follow manicured paths, their shoes crunching the gravel as they go. Children shriek and play on a swingset in the distance. Nearer, a group of middle-aged women tend a patch of community garden, working their gloved fingers to till up old roots and weeds. He and Minnie branch onto the steeper path, heading toward the Confucian temple and duck pond, leaving the chattery crowds behind them.

After a while, Seokjin murmurs, “We can't even get married. It's not even legal.”

“You would marry him, though,” Minnie says.

“Oh yes,” Seokjin answers. “I have thought a lot about that.”

They arrive at last at the hidden duck pond. A low-slung footbridge leads to an ornate temple at its heart. White cranes and rosefinches flit along the underbrush, and the scents of woodsmoke and wisteria blush against the breeze.

Carefully feeling her way around her words, Minnie says, “So this person who caught Taehyung's eye... Is it another man?”

Seokjin chuckles, drily. “Yes,” he says. “And that’s what I really don't understand. This guy's from a wealthy family. His father's a CEO. He's handsome, an actor, and a singer, and he’s funny, too. He's practically another me.”

She brushes a leaf from Seokjin's hair. “Guess he’s got a type, huh?”

Seokjin splays his hands like Maybe so. Then he says, “You know what’s really hilarious is that I was so afraid I’d fuck this up, I never even considered that he might.”

Minnie pops the leaf between her lips like a cigarette. “Look at the both of us,” she says. “Kicked in the ass by love.” She spits the leaf out and plucks up a smooth, round stone, testing it against her palm. She sends it skipping across the water, stirring up a shimmer of dragonflies in its wake. “So,” she says. “Have you cried yet?”

Seokjin shakes his head.

“Do you want to?” she asks.

Wordless, he drops his head to her shoulder. Emotions surge up inside him, fierce and sudden as a tsunami. He hiccups violently to swallow it down, but she lays her hand on his head, patting down the back of his hair. “Shhh,” she says. “It's okay, it's okay.”

He weeps, then, in the silent, painful way that thickens your throat and aches behind your jaw. It's the kind of crying that comes late at night when no one else can hear you, but also – fortunately – in the arms of your closest childhood friend. She lets him cry for a long, long while, and when he goes to wipe his nose on the fat of his thumb, she reaches with a napkin to dry his tears.

“There you go,” she whispers, dabbing his cheeks. “That's better.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't you dare,” Minnie tells him. “You once walked me home from school when I failed a math exam and didn't want to tell my Dad, remember? I was ugly crying and you gave me your banana milk.”

“I did that?” Seokjin coughs.

“I know, right?” Minnie says. “You shared your food with me.”

He lifts his glasses to scrub his eyes. “Milk isn't food,” he says.

“You know what, shut up,” Minnie says, and they both laugh.

Minnie faces him. With both hands, she lightly brushes his bangs from his forehead. “Here,” she says. “Close your eyes. Let me just...”

Seokjin closes his eyes. He knows what she's going to do before she does it; he makes no move to stop her. When she presses her lips to his, they're light and sugary, like plum candy laced with lemon ice. There's no heat beneath them, no passion, only sweetness.

She parts from him, dropping from tiptoe to stare into his face.

He goes, “Gross.”

She punches his arm.

“You know, the fact we never tried that when we were kids...” she says. “Probably shoulda been a huge clue.”

Seokjin sucks air over his teeth. “Yeah. Probably.”

Arm in arm, they stroll around the temple, watching plump, golden koi skim along the pond bed. “I needed this today,” Minnie exhales. “Thank you, Jin-Oppa, for being my friend.”

He smooths her fingers beneath his palm. Her hand feels feather-light on the sleeve of his pink hoodie, but coolly familiar and infinitely comforting.

“Am I the first girl you ever kissed?” she wonders aloud.

“Hm, nope,” he answers.

“Really?” Minnie flashes an intrigued smile. Then she adds, “Your Mom doesn't count.”

“Not my Mom,” he says, feeling a blush warm his neck. “Honestly, Taehyung wasn't the first boy I kissed, either.”

“Scandalous,” Minnie hisses. “Please, tell. We have all day.”

“High school boys in Australia,” Seokjin says airily. “They are very curious.”

Minnie stops dead in their tracks. “Oppa, this requires a secluded restaurant and many, many bottles of Soju.”

“These secrets die with me,” Seokjin says, smiling. It feels really good to smile.

“Ugghhh, no,” Minnie growls. “You big tease.”

They return to their walk, circling the pond once more before taking the trail back to the park. Afternoon lengthens into evening, and the forest fills with the hurried hush of nesting magpies and waxwings.

Families pack into their subway platform, many of them pushing dozing toddlers in strollers or bouncing babies on their hips. A multitude of older couples knit tightly together, crooning tavern songs and toasting each other with the dregs of their makgeolli. There's this tender sense of community among them as even the exhausted parents join quietly in with their singing.

The temperature drops as the sun dips behind the western hills. Minnie hugs close to him, and Seokjin risks sliding his arm around her shoulders. Anyway, he doubts anyone in this crowd would identify him as a celebrity with a date.

She says, “Thank you for dinner.”

He says, “Thank you for everything.”

“Necessary friend time,” she sighs. She's quiet a moment before she adds, “And hey, you know, if you ever change your mind... maybe our Moms aren't too far off the mark?”

Seokjin kisses the top of her head. “Minnie-yah,” he says. “You deserve someone who will cherish every minute with you, and who will love every single part of you, body and soul. Please never settle for anything less.”

She gazes up at him, a small smile creasing her lips. “I’m glad to hear you say it,” she says. “Because you deserve that, too.”

Chapter Text

“How far out have I got to move?
Oh, I've got to get next to you.
But you're so far away,
Searching for a heart another world away.”
Heart Attack , Snakehips (From Taehyung’s 2017 Spotify)


KAKAOTALK
14 April 2017

FrogPrince: how is Hawaii, your pics look amazing
FrogPrince: does your super special mystery GF miss you as much as I do?

OtherTae: one, I don't have a girlfriend

FrogPrince: ??

OtherTae: two, are we friends?

FrogPrince: Aish how deeply you wound me

OtherTae: sso you know how beaches look in old postcards and calendars?

FrogPrince:
faded yet perfect

OtherTae: yeah, like that, like the dream of a dream.
OtherTae: that part was perfect. but my person and me...
OtherTae: we broke up.

FrogPrince: Aw, Taehyungie. I am so sorry.

OtherTae: Well we KIND OF broke up

FrogPrince: Dude. Kind of? That is a whole big gray area.

OtherTae: we thought we should take a break.

FrogPrince: You thought or she thought?

OtherTae: really don't know RN.

FrogPrince: That is the question, huh?
FrogPrince: ...what is it that Kim Taehyung wants?

OtherTae: So much.
OtherTae: Too much.

FrogPrince: No such thing as too much
FrogPrince: Not for our Hansungie

OtherTae: Wow lets talk abt something else

FrogPrince: right, right okay. Where are you on Strong Woman?

OtherTae: I'm up to the part where Detective Guk-doo wears a dress

FrogPrince: Ahh seriously?? Still on the first episode???

OtherTae: i've been busy
OtherTae: filming in Hawaii, being famous, getting kind-of broken up with
OtherTae: remember???

FrogPrince: Ok ok i'll give you a break
FrogPrince: Besides that's a really great scene ㅋㅋㅋ Gotta love a man in heels.

OtherTae: Bong-Soon is gonna choose him.

FrogPrince: Nah, the CEO has it on a lock.

OtherTae: you know something I don't? (*゚ロ゚)

FrogPrince: Maybe.

OtherTae: tell me.

FrogPrince: What will you give me?

OtherTae: one hundred thousand billion won

FrogPrince: Taehyung-ssi, for shame. I have money.

OtherTae: don't you own a bank or something?

FrogPrince: my family owns several
FrogPrince: but I want something only you can give

OtherTae: i literally own nothing.

FrogPrince: It'll come to you.
FrogPrince: Anyway I gotta go. We should meet again soon.

OtherTae:
all of us?

FrogPrince: If you want.

OtherTae: i do want.

FrogPrince: Counting on that. Hey, msg me when you land in Jeju

OtherTae: kay I will

FrogPrince: Also I'm very sorry about your kind-of break up.

OtherTae:
yeah. thanks. me too

Chapter Text

“You give to me everything, anything that I could dream
And at least that's what it seems
Could it be I don't know what's good for me?”
The Feeling, Justin Bieber and Halsey

22 April 2017 – Bangkok

Jungkook huddles close to Taehyung on a sprung sofa that smells of stale cigars and anchovy crackers. Beyond the short corridor backstage, the rap line grinds through their rehearsal of Cypher Part Four for about the five hundredth time. Jimin hovers like a hummingbird nearby, swabbing his face with an aloe towelette, while across the crowded dressing room, Seokjin lifts his phone and calls, in a calm and even voice, “Taehyung-ah, if you post that, you are dead to me.”

Jungkook peeps over Taehyung's shoulder and snorts, “Post it, post it.”

Jimin looks up from his towelette. “Jungkook-ie,” he warns, “don’t encourage him.” Then, casting a worried glance toward Seokjin, he adds, “Honestly, hyung, it isn’t that bad.”

“Do not post it,” Seokjin says. His eyes flash in that dangerous way that looks playful, but which they know from experience means that Seokjin is burning dangerously close to the end of his fuse.

Which could simply mean he’s hungry. He gets extra cranky when his blood sugar drops, and it’s been four hours since lunch, which consisted of vegetables and noodles and not enough protein. He and Taehyung already raided the caterer’s cart, but pastries and Thai energy drinks can only carry them so far. Jungkook’s belly has already begun to grumble for sustenance.

Not that anyone can hear it over the clamor of the rap line and the fuss of the supporting staff. Jungkook pans a look to Seokjin. A stylist hovers beside him, fanning sweat from his bangs. Seokjin must be hungry, too, but for now he seems overly fixated on the selfie Taehyung’s threatening to post.

“He’s not joking,” Jimin cautions them both.

But Jungkook chuckles. “Hyung, it’s so funny,” he says. “Why are your lips so pink?”

At that moment, Hoseok bustles into the room, trailed by a tailor who busily pins the hem of his purple velvet bathrobe. “He didn’t mean to step on it,” Hoseok gushes, breathless. “He just – Well, you know Namjoon-ssi, he's—”

“—Dude,” Namjoon pants, hurrying in. “I am so sorry.”

Hoseok waves him off. On stage, the music cuts out. Seconds later, Yoongi rambles in, continuing the conversation he must have been in the middle of with Namjoon before they left the stage. He goes, “We can’t both duck into the chorus, it looks stupid—”

“—Also, it’s like a pincer maneuver,” Hoseok says. “And I get caught in the middle.”

“Like I said, I am so sorry,” Namjoon says. Worry peaks into his brows as the three of them problem-solve through their song cues while the tailor patiently mends Hoseok’s hemline.

Taehyung leans over to Jungkook. He whispers, “I’m gonna post it.”

Jungkook takes a second to consider Taehyung’s expression, which looks tight with worry, like someone’s replaced his smile with a rubber band. “But, why?” Jungkook asks.

“It’s a picture of us,” Taehyung answers. “I wanna post a picture of us.”

“Again… why?” Jungkook wonders.

“Hold up,” Namjoon says, raising a hand to pause his discussion with Yoongi. “Is something going on?”

Jimin babbles, “Taehyung-ie took a selfie of him and Jin-hyung, and Jin-hyung hates it, but Taehyung-ie wants to post it, but Jin-hyung is asking him not to.”

Seokjin shoots finger-guns at the maknaes. “Not asking,” he tells them.

Taehyung cradles the phone to his chest. Seokjin laughs, a crisp, bitter chuckle, and Hoseok, having no part of it, narrows his eyes.

“Why don't you take another one?” Hoseok says.

“I don’t want to,” Seokjin says. His satellite stylist continues to fluff cool air at his bangs.

“Why not?” Taehyung asks. Jungkook can feel the heat of Taehyung’s tension radiating off him in waves.

“You weren’t supposed to take that one,” Seokjin warbles, laughing but also not laughing. “You look angry and I look ridiculous, and I thought we were just playing around.”

“We were,” Taehyung says. “How long has it been since we posted a selfie together—”

“—Why is this so important right now, Taehyung-ah?” Seokjin counters hotly. “Why now?”

“Should we meet about this?” Namjoon asks, sending them all a pointed look, which Jungkook reads as a reminder that the staff is present and observing every word. No one wants another Newark situation, but Jungkook knows Namjoon will sit them all down for a talk if that’s what it takes to smooth things out.

“No,” Seokjin answers.

“No,” Taehyung echoes.

“Look,” Seokjin says, quietly. “Post it or don’t, it’s your photo.”

“Thank you, hyung,” Taehyung says.

“But there will be consequences,” Seokjin says, and then he laughs, so that no one can really tell if he’s serious or not, which is exactly what he promised Taehyung he wouldn’t do back when they fought in New Jersey.

The tailor stands to thread the bathrobe over Hoseok’s shoulders. He twirls a slow circle, allowing her to check the evenness of her handiwork. Namjoon and Yoongi resume their conversation. Jimin and Seokjin break off into a discussion with the stylist, leaving Jungkook with Taehyung, who is staring at the phone in his hand, the selfie still on the screen.

Jungkook scratches the back of his head. He says, “He’ll be upset if you post it.”

“I don’t care,” Taehyung sulks.

But before Jungkook can get into it further, Sanghyun-nim comes in with the manager of the Bangkok stage crew.

“Okay, guys,” Sanghyun says, clapping his hands for their attention. “You’ve got two hours on your own before we need to be back here for makeup and sound check, yeah? Don’t wander off too far, though, in case we have an earlier call. The hotel reserved a game room for us, so check with the concierge for the keycard. We’ll miss the dinner buffet, but their restaurant is open—” Jungkook goes to high-five Taehyung, but Taehyung leaves him hanging. “—also, Jin-ssi-ah,” Sanghyun continues, “You have a chiropractor’s appointment. He wants to work on your neck and shoulder before the show.”

Seokjin visibly withers, but he says, “Thank you, manager-nim.”

“That’s all I have for now,” Sanghyun says. He turns to Namjoon, who grins his thanks. “All right, then, we’ll meet in two hours. As always, if you need anything…”

They each wave or nod in acknowledgement before Sanghyun leaves. The rest of the crew and all but a few of the stylists follow. Those who remain descend upon the caterer’s cart, leaving nothing but crumbs and crumpled napkins behind. No one seems to notice that Seokjin’s gone until they’re in the middle of dinner plans, and by then, his phone is already switched to Do Not Disturb.

“He’s fine, right?” Namjoon asks. He looks squarely at Taehyung, but it’s Jimin who answers.

“Yes, hyung, he’s fine. He doesn’t like to eat right before a show, anyway,” Jimin says.

“Right, right,” Namjoon says.

They split into two groups for the ride back to the hotel, maknaes in one van, the hyungs in the other. Only Seokjin must have gone with Sanghyun for his appointment, because he’s not in the hotel lobby when they reunite.

At dinner, Taehyung seems listless. He picks at his pad thai. He slouches aside and texts while Jimin and Jungkook shoot hoops in the hotel’s private arcade. Later, when they return to the concert arena for sound check, Taehyung slumps in the makeup chair, his headphones in, his face affixed to his phone screen. He ignores Seokjin and Yoongi, who are talking behind him about an online order Yoongi made on GMarket.com.

Jimin, in the chair between Jungkook and Taehyung, leans in to whisper, “We’re doing Eat Jin tonight.”

“After the concert?” Jungkook asks.

“Jin-hyung needs us,” Jimin answers.

He eyes Taehyung in the mirror. “I think he needs us,” Jungkook says.

“Jungkook-ie, we can’t invite him,” Jimin continues in a whisper, which is probably unnecessary given the fact that Taehyung’s music is so loud that Jungkook can identify the song. “He and Jin-hyung don’t film well together. Most of their conversations are weird inside jokes and sexy eye contact.”

“Isn’t that the same for us, too?” Jungkook teases.

Jimin smacks at his arm. “Please. We actually talk about stuff.”

Which is true. They talk about everything. Yesterday, he and Jimin had a twenty minute conversation about how to properly fold socks. Jimin gets him; he always has. So for them, it’s been easy. Largely because Seokjin and Taehyung went through it first, and Jungkook absolutely knows how important that's been.

He looks from Taehyung (lost in his phone) to Seokjin (now also lost in his phone) and he worries for them. They used to get each other, too.

So what’s happened to them?

Before he can think too deeply about it, the stylists clatter in with their rolling carts, greeting them with bright excitement as they go to work on their freshly-washed hair.

Jungkook’s always enjoyed the cotton-candy scent of his hair when it’s under heat, and the way his scalp tingles as the stylist parts it to brush it dry. He also loves the white noise of the dryer, which makes it impossible for anyone to talk him. It’s a five-minute mini-vacation in which he can be alone with his thoughts.

And today he thinks about relationships, and how like gingko leaves, they change color over time. And eventually, like leaves, they shrivel and they fall.

That simile leaves him feeling itchy and unsettled. Okay, so not ginkgo leaves.

Relationships, then, are like snowflakes, each unique in their complexity. Jungkook rubs his chin. But snowflakes also fall, and they melt, too, which is far from comforting.

Stars, he decides. Relationship are like stars, each burning with various degrees of intensity. Until, after a time, they either implode or explode, destroying everything within the radius of their eventual and inevitable collapse. That one’s way too Min Yoongi for him.

No,  Jungkook thinks. No. Relationships are like flowers. If you tend them, they blossom and grow, and they’re beautiful. Like Jimin’s hair, which is cherry blossom pink and radiant as the spring.

Except flowers die and become crushed and none of this is turning out the way he wants it to.

“I posted it,” Taehyung says, craning over the chair arm to show Jungkook. Sure enough, there’s the contentious selfie, now posted and steadily gaining likes on Twitter. Seokjin had been right about the photo: Taehyung looks upset, and Seokjin looks like an idiot.

There is no way this can end well.

Grinning through his teeth, Jungkook says, “That’s not good, hyung.”

“Well it’s better than nothing,” Taehyung growls back. The stylist gently squares Taehyung into his seat and slathers his cheeks with concealer cream.

“Yeah,” Jungkook says, "I’m really not sure it is," but he’s certain Taehyung doesn’t hear him.

Chapter Text

“And I guess I don't need my family,
And I guess I don't need my friends,
And I guess I don't need the love of my life,
I clip my wings and look at the sky.”
4 AM, Adore

2 May 2017 – Summer Package – The Philippines

Something in the room skitters like a cockroach flying into a box fan, and Taehyung snaps awake, parched and sweating. Something about the humidity here makes the walls seep. The damp plaster smells like mildew, and the sheets cling to his legs like toffee.

He peels himself from the bed, and then his t-shirt, and then his pants, so that he's standing at the window, deep-breathing while he searches the half-light for a bottle of water.

The sound shuffles again, reminding him of why he woke up in the first place.

Is it a moth, he wonders, or an actual cockroach? Neither would surprise him. Seokjin already freaked out over the presence of the latter in the hotel's breezeway. He'd relayed horror stories from his time on Law of the Jungle.

“If given the chance, these roaches will dive bomb you,” Seokjin had whispered, as if the insects could hear him. “You must enter showers and jungle areas with the greatest of care.”

But the thing he heard sounded bigger than an insect.

Maybe a bird?

Taehyung scuffles around the edge of the bed. The carpet squelches like seaweed between his toes. He looks down, but his feet are lost in darkness. Then he realizes the water is ankle deep. Perhaps the shower has flooded, or the toilet has overflowed. He continues, skirting the bed, wincing at the way the sheet slicks to his calves as he edges toward the bathroom.

Taehyung palms the light switch and... nothing. He tries again, but after a brief scan of the room, he realizes the power is out.

The power is out, and the room is flooding. His fingers begin to tingle. The fluttery noise sounds again, but now it’s vaguely like a distant engine attempting to crank. Or... maybe someone crying?

“Hello?” Taehyung says, and then he curses himself. Jungkook has forced enough horror movies on them for Taehyung to know that's the first mistake someone can make. Anyway, there's no response. The noise continues, and maybe it's a scraping, or a scratching? Like a sign on a wall that's blown by the wind.

Chills creep up his arms as he turns toward the closet. The sliding door is grated like a shutter, and a wan yellow glow seeps through the slats. It's Jungkook, he thinks, hiding there for a prank, but he doesn't know I can see his phone.

Taehyung splashes across the short distance, laughing at how foolish he was to be so frightened, but when he whips back the sliding door, it surges toward him, claws and mouth in weeping darkness and he pinwheels back, screaming. In a flash it's on him, a red wet maw dripping ichor into his eyes. Black talons shred into his throat as it shoves him beneath the water, forcing him further and further down to drown him.

Taehyung snaps awake, breathless and sweating. He swallows, and his throat feels raw. His face is wet with tears. He runs trembling fingers along his neck, but even after he's certain the skin is unbroken, he can't shake the feeling that something's in the room with him. The AC unit rattles like a smoker's cough. And somewhere, somewhere, something flits with the feather-brush of wings. He slowly pans toward the closet, and there, oozing from the slats, is a pale yellow light.

He leaps from the bed, bounding across the room in two steps. He's outside in the dimly-lighted corridor before he can think. The door snicks shut, leaving him barefoot on a nubby, patterned rug that might have been brand-new in the 90s.  

Taehyung nibbles his thumbnail. Seokjin, he thinks. I'll go to Seokjin, and everything will be okay.

Only he reaches Seokjin's room, and after a minute's light rapping, he realizes it's no use. Under normal circumstances, he'd already be in Seokjin's room, or, at the very least, they would have made arrangements to meet beforehand. He would have Seokjin's key, or Seokjin would wait up for him.

But for now, they're in separate rooms.

Seokjin's idea, not Taehyung's, though Taehyung can't really blame him. Not after their decision in Hawaii, and Taehyung’s stupidly-selfish posting of their selfie, another thing for which he guesses Seokjin will never forgive him.

Anyway, it's useless. Seokjin's a light sleeper until he falls asleep. After that, no amount of noise will rouse him, not until his alarms go off the next morning.

So he'll go to Jimin. Taehyung pats his pockets, realizing dully that he’s forgotten his phone – so he has no idea what time it is – and he’s also left his key, which means he's locked out of his room. Again.

Taehyung finds Jimin's room, but the low thud of bass through the door should have clued him in, because Jimin answers, naked to the waist, his hair a mess of pink knots atop his head.

“What are you doing?” Jimin hisses.

Instinctively, Taehyung peeks around Jimin's shoulder. Jungkook's on the bed's edge, his hips wrapped in a sheet. He tips a two-fingered wave in Taehyung's direction.

“Taehyung-ie,” Jimin says, squaring his shoulders. “What is going on?”

“Uh.” He shifts from one foot to the other. “I had a nightmare.”

“Go to Seokjin,” Jimin says.

“He uh...” Taehyung swallows. “He's asleep.”

“You can't come in,” Jungkook calls. “Sorry, dude—”

“—We're kinda in the middle of something,” Jimin whispers.

“Right.” He nods. “I understand. Please. Continue.”

He starts away, but Jimin catches his elbow. “I'm sorry about your nightmare,” he says.

“It's fine,” Taehyung says. He walks away and hears, after a moment, the click of the door as it shuts.

 

Outside the hotel, the lights flicker and buzz, making everything feel like an old movie. Taehyung crouches on the concrete steps, his fingers steepled to his forehead. The wavering scree of cicadas stitches the heavy air, which smells of waxy, sun-warmed leaves and Freon from the AC. A pair of street cats shriek at each other from opposite ends of the parking lot, and somewhere far off a dog barks and barks and barks.  

He's alone, and these days, he hates to be alone, because all of these thoughts breathe up in him. Most of them feel unformed, swatches of music and blends of color, but some have frightening depth and clarity. Some are memories, and those he sometimes replays in his mind like a film collector poring through old reels of footage.

But some are desires. Some are things he wants but should not want.

Taehyung wants to drown those out. He wants to smother them. He wants to press the life out of them to keep them from becoming real. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, except maybe everything, and he doesn’t know why.

Taehyung stares up in the hazy, star-cluttered sky. He wants so much. Too much. And would the others hate him if they knew? Because there are so many directions, so many connections, so many interests he hopes to indulge, so many people to meet and to know, and how can they possibly understand?

His Frog Prince might.

Even now, Taehyung can't bring himself to think his real name. Not when ten minutes ago he was at Seokjin's door, willing to beg for entry, willing to do almost anything to curl into his comforting arms.

They've done nothing, he and the one he thinks of as the Frog Prince, but Taehyung has been tempted. During their hours of texting and flirting, Taehyung has begun to wonder what it might be like to kiss him. And isn't it human to be tempted? Isn't the point to be tempted and then resist?

It's stupid, and Taehyung feels wretched. He wobbles to his feet, his muscles slack with exhaustion as he struggles to navigate his way to the front desk. Fragments of his dream cling to him like spiderwebs, but he can scarcely recall the details. He remembers the faint glimmer of light through the closet door, and maybe the eyeless face of a ghost.

The memory flies at him: A mouth – a dripping, gory mouth slick with black blood. He stumbles into the wall and doubles over. For a minute, he holds his head, worried that he might be sick.

The dizziness subsides, though, and he weaves his way to the desk, where a young maintenance girl sits, reading a Spanish magazine. Wordless, she leads him back to his room to open his door with a master key.   

He slides the closet open to discover that the glow came from the charging light on the steam iron. Even so, he flicks on the overhead lamp and crawls into his sticky sheets. A gray moth dashes against the window, powdering the pane with dust from its wings.

“So you're the one making all the noise,” he grumbles.

The moth flicks and flutters, and Taehyung burrows into his blanket.

After a moment, he snakes one hand out to snag his phone from the table. There are a dozen messages in the Hwarang chat, coordinating a Strong Woman viewing party at Park Hyungsik's place.  

Park Hyungsik's last message rests at the bottom of the screen. Will our Kim Taehyung be there?

Taehyung writes back, No, sadly. I'll be in Jakarta.

Seconds lapse.

Then Hyungsik responds: That's it, the party’s off.

Taehyung smiles. Don't do that, hyung, he writes.

Fine, Hyungsik sends back. I think we have a cardboard cutout of Hansung somewhere. We'll all snuggle up with that.

Weirdo paper fetishist, Taehyung writes.

Hyungsik sends back five red hearts followed by Love you.

Taehyung thumbs back his response and re-seats his phone on the charger. He stuffs the pillow under his chin.

To the darkness, he whispers, “I'm sorry,” and after a long, fitful time, he finally crashes into sleep.

Chapter Text

“When the sky is falling
I’ll be your Atlas holding
The world on my shoulders.
I’ll find you in the dark.”
Night Vision, Transviolet

4 May 2017– Summer Package – Coron

Distance.

Distance is the one thing Seokjin needs, and the one thing he cannot seem to get. Every time he turns around, there’s Taehyung at his elbow, smiling his sweet, boxy, sheepish smile, and it is driving. Him. Insane.

In the market, which smells sickeningly sweet with its pyramids of ripening mangoes, Taehyung bumbles through haggling with the shopkeepers. He gets ice cream even though he hasn’t eaten a proper meal yet. And he isn’t staying hydrated, which will make him cranky and grouchy and nauseous later on, but Seokjin says nothing because he’s supposed to be keeping his distance.

“Hey,” Namjoon says, appearing from nowhere. “What d'you think of this?”

Seokjin, trying not to seem startled, cranes back to look at the carved wooden creature in Namjoon's hands.

“What is it?” he asks.

“It's a man,” Namjoon says.  “Y'know. Like a talisman. D’you like it?”

Seokjin's lip curls. “Is it for me?”

“No,” Namjoon laughs. “Why would it be for you?”

“You asked me if I like it,” Seokjin says, sounding cross. He tries not to glance over Namjoon's shoulder at Taehyung, who’s sifting through a tray of cultured pearls.

“So do you like it?” Namjoon asks.

“Sure, I guess,” Seokjin answers, and Namjoon sheers off into the stall, still searching for something he can afford.

Before Seokjin can catch another glimpse of Taehyung, Hoseok slings in, running a wooden car along Seokjin's upper arm, going “vrroooooom skiiiirt,” as he careens it across Seokjin's shoulders. “Someday I'll drive a car like this,” Hoseok says as he smashes the car against Seokjin's throat.

“I hope not,” Seokjin says, smiling.

“He won't crash it,” Yoongi says, also appearing out of nowhere, and can they please just stop doing that?

“Yeah,” Hoseok agrees, nodding. “Yoongs says I won’t, so I won’t.”

“Hoseok’s the most responsible driver,” Yoongi concurs.

“Well it's a wooden car,” Seokjin points out. “So maybe he... wood?”

Yoongi, squinting, twitches his nose. “Nope,” he says, grabbing Hoseok’s arm to drag him away. Seokjin erupts into laughter, which draws the hopeful attention of Taehyung.

Sobering, Seokjin thinks, Distance... Must. Maintain. Distance . But Taehyung hovers, listening but pretending not to care.

 

It takes four vans to transport the seven of them plus the crew to the pictorial location in Coron. Seokjin rides with the staff, wedging himself between Sejin-nim and Jeonin, where he promptly falls asleep. Yesterday’s water sports have left him feeling bruised, pleasantly so, and exhaustion smothers down on him like a damp pillow.

He wakes to a green valley basin shimmering beneath a gauzy veil of sunlight. Everything looks gilded to a rosy gold, but the moment they step from the air-conditioned vans, they begin to wilt. The humidity makes a mask of his makeup, but Seokjin knows better than to wipe his face. He also knows better than to look for Taehyung to remind him of the same.

But there he is with Jungkook, meters away, pretending to be airplanes or Naruto, scuffing up tiny moths in the grass as they run.

“It's too beautiful for words,” Jungkook exclaims as he and Jimin plunge into the meadow.

“It's too hot for words,” Seokjin remarks. He turns to find Taehyung beside him, silent and sullen and coated with light. Seokjin tries not to breathe in the smell of him, which is sunscreen and lip balm, and the darker, duskier, cinnamon scent of his skin.

After a moment of this, Seokjin snaps, “Why must you breathe so hard?”

Taehyung gazes at him, wounded, before drifting over to join Yoongi at the roadside.

Seokjin blinks down his frustration. He finds Sejin-nim watching him, a pinch of worry beneath the bill of his cap. He comes over with a bottle of water, and Seokjin sips it.

“I'm sorry,” Seokjin sighs. “I'm just hungry.”

“It's all right,” Sejin soothes. “We won't be here much longer.”

Seokjin passes the water bottle back. He says, “Can you make sure Taehyung-ah gets this? He never drinks enough water.”

“Sure thing,” Sejin says, but he lingers for a second before heading off toward the others.

Which leaves Seokjin with Jimin, who crouches over a sprig of greenery. He waves Seokjin down to kneel beside him.

“Joon-hyung-ie showed me this,” Jimin breathes, sounding boyish and reverent. He caresses the leaves of the plant, and they curl like a cat's tail around the tip of his pinky. “It's like Taehyung,” he giggles. “Because he's so ticklish, all you do is touch him and—”

Seokjin exhales. He lifts his head to find Taehyung watching them from beside the van. If Taehyung is the touch-me-not, then Seokjin is a rosebush full of horns.

“Let's not talk about Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin mutters.

“Hyung?” Jimin asks. He tilts his head back, catching hold of his hat before it slides off. Then he sees what Seokjin sees and nods his understanding.

“You’re still mad about the selfie, huh?” Jimin says.

How little he understands, Seokjin thinks, because it's not just the selfie, it's everything. Seokjin has to wrestle down the envy that claws up inside him, at how easy it’s been for Jimin and Jungkook, how they only ever seem to play and make swoony eye-contact, and how they get away with sitting on each other’s laps and nearly kissing, even with the cameras rolling.

“That’s nonsense,” Seokjin says. Then he strides away, his shoulders squared with mock confidence. He tries not to glower, but he’s pretty sure he does it anyway.

 

The last filming of the night, they pile into Yoongi’s and Hoseok’s beds, which they’ve pushed together for their final gift exchange. Taehyung sits next to Seokjin, so close that Seokjin can feel the heat of Taehyung’s knee burning through the leg of his pants.

Fine, he thinks. I can be civil. I’m good at playing pretend; I have a fucking degree in it.

But all of his bitterness burns off when he hears about Taehyung’s nightmare.

Taehyung has nasty nightmares. They’re violent and vividly realistic, and they always plague him when he’s most vulnerable. Like when he’s anxious, or grieving, or both.

“Why didn’t you come to me?” Seokjin asks, cameras be damned.

Taehyung meets his gaze but shakes his head. “You were already asleep,” he tells him.

“This will protect you,” Seokjin blurts, pushing the totem he bought to guard his and Yoongi’s room into Taehyung’s hands.

But it’s Jimin’s gift that Taehyung chooses to wear. A dreamcatcher, for Taehyung. Seokjin doesn’t know what hurts him most… that Taehyung didn’t wake him, or that Jimin didn’t tell him. All day long, Jimin knew about Taehyung’s nightmare, but he said nothing. They excluded him.

Nope. That’s it. That’s what hurts him the most.

So the moment the film crew wraps, Seokjin leans over.

“Meet me,” he whispers.

Taehyung doesn’t falter. “Where?”

“The swimming pool,” Seokjin says.

“Okay,” he answers. “Yes.”

This is the worst idea ever, Seokjin thinks. And yet he doesn’t care.

 

He’s at the poolside, scooping out a dead cockroach with a net, when Taehyung appears at the top of the steps.

“What am I supposed to think, Taehyung-ah?” Seokjin yells up to him, not even trying to control his volume. “You asked for space—”

“—I never did—”

“—But every time I turn around, you’re right there,” Seokjin finishes. He smacks the net against the ground, spilling the crushed cockroach onto the flagstones. “What am I supposed to do?”

Taehyung hurries down the steps, growling as he goes, “Hyung, what are you doing?”

Seokjin flings aside the net pole. “Get in,” he says.

“I’m… I’m in my pajamas,” Taehyung reasons.

“Aren’t you always?” Seokjin quips.

Taehyung massages his neck. “Are you getting in?”

And Seokjin responds by diving.

The water’s saliva warm and harshly chlorinated, but Seokjin backstrokes to the deep end, willing beyond hope for Taehyung to join him. Confounded, Taehyung steps off the edge. He dog-paddles toward him, carefully remaining beyond arm’s reach.

Seokjin wastes no time with pleasantries. He says, “You always tell me your dreams.”

Taehyung treads water. “What do you want me to say?” he asks.

“I don’t want you to stop,” Seokjin says.

“I don’t want to stop either.”

“Then don’t.”

Taehyung flattens his lips into a frown. He says, “Hyung, I’m sad that you have to go through this with me. It’s not fair to you, and I know it’s—”

“—I’m not,” Seokjin interrupts. He laughs because he hasn’t planned this, not like he normally would. The words feel fresh and shocking, like they’re coming from someone else. “You’re where I was two years ago, VV. Remember, all those times I kept running away from you, and then in Thailand, when I threw my phone into—”

“—I remember,” Taehyung says.

“All that doubt and confusion,” Seokjin says. “The endless, constant worry that you’re doing everything wrong. I know that. I remember that. And I said that I’d love you, Taehyung. Yesterday, tomorrow, today. If you change or you stay the same, it’s you. You’re... you.”

Taehyung swallows hard. The pool paints  his face with shivery blue light. “I don’t—”

“—Then don’t,” Seokjin says again.

“You don’t even know what I’m gonna say,” Taehyung murmurs.

“Fine." Seokjin breathes. "Say it.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

Seokjin treads the water and feels, for a moment, weak-kneed and sick. He wants to be silly or sarcastic. He wants to tease him and make him laugh. He wants to do anything to swipe that hopeless, fragile grimace from his face.

Instead, they remain quiet. The wind sweeps the trees. The waves whisper to the shore. High above, the stars gleam like bits of broken mirror.

And Seokjin waits.

Taehyung’s eyes reflect the water, which reflects them both in reverse. He says, “I don’t know who I am without you.”

“That’s part of the problem,” Seokjin says. “Isn’t it?”

“I am sorry about the selfie,” Taehyung says.

“I’m still sorry about our fight,” Seokjin says. “And your nightmare. And... everything. I know it doesn’t fix anything, and I know things are uncertain between us, but this whole game of pretending… it’s ridiculous, and it’s painful, and I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Seconds tick by while Taehyung considers. Then he goes, “We’re idiots.”

Seokjin scoffs. “You are.”

Taehyung nods. “I am,” he agrees. He swims nearer.

We are.” Seokjin smiles, weakly, hopefully. Beneath the water’s surface, he clasps Taehyung’s hand. “Will you tell me about your dream?”

“It was awful,” he says. He inches closer. “There was a ghost.”

Seokjin remains still, his hands cutting through the water to keep them afloat. Taehyung tells him everything, about the light in the closet, and the huge, gaping mouth, and how when he woke up, he could hear the moth in the window, beating its wings to escape. When he finishes, he’s half a meter away, so close that Seokjin can smell his hair.

Seokjin reaches to unbutton Taehyung’s shirt. “May I?” he asks.

When Taehyung nods, Seokjin works his way down the row of buttons. Then he drags the sodden thing from his chest, tossing it to drape mostly on the pool’s edge.

“What about you?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin wriggles from his sweatshirt, lobbing it backward to the deck. They float together, their legs slicing shadows that spangle and waver around them as they embrace.

“Someone may be watching,” Taehyung says.

“I don’t care,” Seokjin laughs. “Let them.”

Taehyung breathes. He says, “Seokjin-ah, I want to kiss you.”

“Then do it.”

Their lips meet and Seokjin thinks, wildly, recklessly, that distance is overrated.

 

Above the pool, a curtain twitches shut.

Hoseok twists on the ball of his foot and hisses, “I knew it.”

A groan, then, “Lemme guess. Jimin and Kook’re in the pool—”

“—Ddaeng,” Hoseok says. “Guess again.”

A pause, followed by another, more meaningful groan. “Seokjin and Taehyung?”

“Bing bing,” Hope chirps. “Fools in love, right?”

“Hope,” Yoongi grunts. “I really don’t care. Just come back to bed, okay?”

Hoseok tiptoes through the dark. He climbs into his bed and peers across the dense darkness to find the sliver of Yoongi’s cheek brushed gold by the closet light.

“Night, Yoongs,” he says.

Yoongi sighs. “Night, Seok-seok.”

And Hoseok wonders who among them is truly the biggest fool.

Chapter Text

“It seems that you're the open type
The type that tries out something new.”
I’d Love, Auður

Kakaotalk
Hong Kong
12 May 2017

FrogPrince: So how long were you together? You and mystery girl?

OtherTae:
4 yrs
OtherTae: and btw we’re still together

FrogPrince: Yeah yeah, “kinda.” I got a point I’m tryna make.

OtherTae: k, rude.

FrogPrince: ( ˘ ³˘)♥  So you were 18 when you got together. Accurate?

OtherTae: accurate

FrogPrince: And how old is she?  

OtherTae: older than me

FrogPrince: A noona? you rascal

OtherTae: hey!

FrogPrince: And you kept it secret the whole time? 

OtherTae: well we don't rlly have a choice

FrogPrince: oh right, idol life, totally feel that

OtherTae: lol right?

FrogPrince: it’s a legit big concern
FrogPrince: but here's the thing, a little knowledge from your most beloved hyung. U ready?  Vvv. Vv gcuy”cvc v pot g Vv

OtherTae: i guess ??

FrogPrince: K, I read about this, so it's actual science and not just me making things up cause I like you

OtherTae: you like me???

FrogPrince: let's not get on that again. Ive been upfront with you from the start
FrogPrince: even when you thought I was straight

OtherTae: lmao everyone thinks ur straight

FrogPrince: Let them assume what they wish about my brunch date with you-know-who

OtherTae: everyone except for us Hwarangs who saw you that time in the shower

FrogPrince: Too far, TaeTae. Too far.
FrogPrince: ANYWAY the author of this article was a sociologist who wrote that humans aren't meant to be monogamous, like we're not wired that way. And that typically romantic relationships last abt two years before they either die or develop into something else

OtherTae: i mean, Ive heard that too
OtherTae: but then I look at my Mom and Dad and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I want that

FrogPrince: You know, me too. But Tae-Tae, long-term monogamous relationships are a social construct perpetuated by the church

OtherTae: well like, which church? BC lots of non-Christian societies practice that

FrogPrince: There's soooo much more we can get into on that front
FrogPrince: Cause most religions support only straight relationships, too
FrogPrince: But the main point I'm tryna make here is this
FrogPrince: What's happening to you and your girl 1) it's completely natural and 2) totally not your fault

OtherTae:
OtherTae: feels like my fault

FrogPrince: Babe, ur really young. and maybe you want this now because it’s not allowed
FrogPrince: Also did your parents find eachother at 18? At 22?

OtherTae: They were 24 and 25

FrogPrince: Damn, yeah, still pretty young.

OtherTae: I wanna be like them
OtherTae: But I'm not
OtherTae: And I keep messing everything up

FrogPrince: I'm not like my parents either & maybe we’re not supposed to be
FrogPrince: Our lives are so different from theirs, and it's not just cause we're famous

OtherTae: and ur gay

FrogPrince: And I’m gay… Just, you take every opportunity, don’t you?

OtherTae: i honestly don’t know many gays

FrogPrince: How nice, I’m a novelty.
FrogPrince: My point, though, is that you & me, we live in this whole different world

OtherTae: alskdjfaslkfj different
OtherTae: I dn't wanna be different

FrogPrince: Don't think you got a choice.
FrogPrince: TAE babe You are one of the most interesting, deepest, most intricate thinkers I've ever met and I know Park Seo Joon

OtherTae: LOL, stop

FrogPrince: You are a visionary. V is for visionary.

OtherTae: (❛︵❛)
OtherTae: i want a simple life. Like, there used to be this strawberry farm next door to my grandparents, with like a stream and fresh air, you know. that’s what I want, to live in a place like that someday, raise a family, be with the one I love

FrogPrince: You can do all that. Just, you know, later. When you're old and not so pretty. Be young and wild. Go out, explore, live & love.

OtherTae: (*゚ロ゚)

OtherTae: i want those things but i want that dream life too. and i know im supposed to want to live and be wild, but … how can i do those tjings without wrecking everything we built together?

FrogPrince: you with these heavy, heavy thoughts before bed… i wish i had answers but i dont know anymore abt it than you do
FrogPrince: but i can offer one last thing before we should get to sleep.

OtherTae: kk

FrogPrince: This love of yours... they're not The Only One™, but The First of Many. Ok?

OtherTae: (❛︵❛)(❛︵❛) you believe that?

FrogPrince: I have to. My last one left me a wrecked, heartbroken husk, which is why Dr. Sociologist’s article is so important to me RN.
FrogPrince: But rlly, Tae? A farm?

OtherTae: Someday.
OtherTae: With cows & chickens & octopus

FrogPrince: see? Different. I very much like.
FrogPrince: Rest well, Tae-Tae. Don't skip any meals.

OtherTae: I will and I won't

FrogPrince: K. Love you.

OtherTae: Love you too

Chapter Text

“We are the children of the moon
I breathe the cold night air
Yes we're livin' and dyin'
At the same time.”
4 O'Clock, RM and V  

15 May 2017 – Seoul

Namjoon wants to put Taehyung’s emotions into a song.

A noble idea. Way more complicated in real life.

Because after four hours, Taehyung has shown Namjoon the photos he took of Seokjin and a turtle in Hawaii, his latest work on a trumpet solo, the rough (very rough) draft of an anime-style piano ballad, five songs by Daniel Caesar, and about a hundred memes with puppies. To be fair, they also got fried chicken and beer (which Taehyung didn’t drink) and they walked around their apartment building three times.

Namjoon’s not frustrated, though. They have all week to write, compose, and record a song. Yoongi assures him this is an achievable goal, but that’s easy for him to say. Yoongi churns out roughly two hundred songs a year while Namjoon languishes over three or four a month. So the prospect of writing a single, good song in less than six days seems borderline impossible.

But instead of irritation over their lack of progress, Namjoon feels intrigued. What he doesn’t want to do – what he hopes not to do – is stifle Taehyung’s creative energy, which is different from anyone’s he’s ever known.  

So he’s decided that for tonight, he’s going to let Taehyung lead the way. No matter what Taehyung suggests, no matter how odd or irrational it seems, Namjoon resolves to go along for the ride.

Which is how, after dinner, they wind up on the roof of their building.

Looking out over the spectacular sprawl of the city beneath the sunset, Namjoon places his palms on the rail and lets the sun-baked breeze flow around him. He smells the warm pavement below, slick with rain and strewn with dried cherry blooms. He can almost taste the copper-blood scent of car exhaust and yellow dust.

“I’ve never been up here,” Namjoon admits. “Seems a little sad that I’ve wasted the chance since we’ll be moving soon.”

“You can enjoy it now,” Taehyung says. He shuts his eyes and breathes deep, the ghost of a smile haunting his lips.

“I guess that’s true,” Namjoon says. He imitates Taehyung’s motions, closing his eyes and drawing in a heavy sigh. “You come up here much?”

“No.” Taehyung exhales. He drums on the rail. Namjoon feels the vibrations run through his wrists. He opens his eyes to find Taehyung hoisting himself partway onto the railing in order to better see over the roof behind them.

“W-wait, what’re you—?” Namjoon begins, but Taehyung merely gestures with his chin.

“The moon,” he answers. “It’s almost full.”

Namjoon cranes his head, but he understands that he has to lift his butt onto the lip of the railing if he wants to see it, too. Or he could simply wait a few minutes for it to rise, but where’s the sense in that?

“Actually, it was full on Friday,” Namjoon says. “Today it’s waning.” Then he inwardly berates himself, because that’s the kind of useless, showboat-y knowledge Yoongi always teases him about.  

“Ah, that’s really cool,” Taehyung says. “They say a waning gibbous moon is good for communication, revelation, and completion.”

“They?” Namjoon asks, genuinely surprised. “Who’s they?”

“Fortune tellers,” Taehyung says. “Astrologers. That kind of thing.”

“You believe that kind of thing?” Namjoon smiles. He tries to keep his tone open and level, because he truly wants to know what Taehyung’s thinking, but Namjoon knows he can sometimes come off as condescending.

“Maybe,” Taehyung answers. He turns to gaze down the side of their building.

Namjoon goes, “Aren’t you afraid of heights?”

“I’m afraid of falling,” Taehyung corrects. “Heights can’t really hurt me unless, y’know, gravity.”

“Yeah, true,” Namjoon laughs. “Tell that to Hobi-hyung.”

Taehyung’s smile broadens and then flickers out like a candle.

“Hyung and I had a fight here once,” Taehyung says.

Confused, Namjoon asks, “You and Hope?”

“No.” Taehyung shakes his head. “Jinnie-hyung. A terrible fight, right before a rainstorm, right after…” He shifts from one foot to another. He chews his lip. “I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Am I the type of man who only wants something because it’s forbidden? And if I am, what kind of person is that?”

“Whoa,” Namjoon says. “I don’t think that’s the kind of person you are.”

Taehyung purses his lips. Then he says,  “I don’t know what kind of person I am.”

“Huh,” Namjoon says.

Taehyung’s brow wrinkles. “What?”

Namjoon says. “You ever wonder how some people just seem to know who they are so well?”

“All the time,” Taehyung breathes. “But for me, I only seem to change.”

While Namjoon considers this, Taehyung knuckles his arm and points to the door. They go downstairs and out on the sidewalk, where the sun has already set beneath the skyline. It’s busy and noisy and so different from the quiet perspective of the roof that it takes Namjoon a moment to adjust.

Taehyung, however, blends into the crowd, gently nudging Namjoon to his side.

“Where would you like to go, hyung?” Taehyung asks.

“Let’s just wander,” Namjoon says. “We’ll go where our feet take us.”

Seeming pleased with the idea, Taehyung cuts into a rain-splashed alley choked with cabbage pallets and cardboard. “Mind if we take the train?”

“Nope,” Namjoon says, patting his pocket for his T-pass. Finding it, he nods for them to go.

Taehyung turns right at the mouth of the alley, weaving across a park toward the subway. While they wait for the train, he asks, “What were we talking about?”

“You always change,” Namjoon says.

Taehyung bobs his head while checking his subway app.

“It’s not true for me,” Namjoon tells him. “I’m fairly slow to change, but I don’t feel like I know myself well at all.”

The train squeals in, and they board it. The car is empty save for a handful of students bound for home. The platform scrolls by, replaced with the blank gray tunnel walls. Taehyung says, “I usually like how I am,” but his frown reflected in the window suggests otherwise.

“I like how you are, too,” Namjoon says.

“But I am different.” Taehyung pockets his hands. Lights streak in bands across the glass, and then the train shrieks up onto a bridge that spans the river. Fog hugs the banks like cotton candy, turning the lights into nebulous globes.

Namjoon says, “Taehyung, we’re all different,” Namjoon says, but Taehyung crinkles his nose. “We were chosen because of it—”

“—I know,” he cuts in. “But like, okay. So we’re not ordinary people, right?”

Namjoon nods. “Exactly.”

“Then why should we expect ordinary relationships?” Taehyung asks.

“I definitely don’t think we do,” Namjoon says. He leans close, speaking quietly, to say, “You and Jin-hyung, Jimin-ie and Kookie, you’re about as un ordinary as you can be.”

Taehyung itches his nose. “Yeah,” he says. Like he agrees, but it’s not really what he means.

Namjoon recalls the conversation he had with Seokjin back in Hawaii, when he confided his belief that Taehyung had a crush. Since then, Taehyung and Seokjin have been entwined in a kind of elaborate tango, where if they step too close, they hurt one another, but straying too far away also brings them pain.

And in the wake of Seokjin’s and Taehyung’s struggles, whether they intend it or not, the others have made allegiances. Quite quickly, their plans for Festa became like a game of Musical Chairs, one that left Taehyung the last man standing. To keep things fair, Namjoon redivided them according to their sleeping arrangements, because with increasing regularity, Taehyung has been rooming with him instead of Seokjin.

Because they’re trying to give each other space. As if that can even be possible. They live together; they work together. They share the same bathroom. Namjoon can’t be the only one who wonders how that's supposed to work.

The train hums into a station, and Taehyung leads Namjoon up from the platform and across a pedestrian bridge into Dongdaemun. The air smells fresher here, washed with the rains that cling in sparkling sheets across the pavement.

“Have you been here before?” Taehyung asks.

“A long time ago,” Namjoon answers. “And it was daytime, so... totally different.”

“That’s something I always think about,” Taehyung says. They hang left past the store fronts, following the curve of the shops toward City Plaza. “It’s why I’d want to live forever, because there are places we’ve only seen in the summer, or in the daytime, and I’d want to travel back to see them at night, or in winter, or when the trees begin to change.”

“Or in the future,” Namjoon adds. “When the city has grown up, but you can still remember what was here and what was there.”

“Yes, yeah,” Taehyung says, beaming. “Or thousands of years in the future, when octopus overlords have conquered the earth.”

“Wow,” Namjoon muses. “Yeah, I’d love to see that.”

They come at last to Cheonggyecheon Stream, where neon lights glow blue at the creek’s edge, glazing the surface into a luminous, wimpling watercolor. The moon hangs hazy above them, shedding its own pale glow into the stream, and Namjoon can only stand there, baffled by the beauty of it all.

Taehyung tugs his sleeve. They meander down the walking path until Taehyung finds a stone perch wide enough for them to both sit.

After a bit, Taehyung says, “I came here with Jimin once. After my grandma passed, we met here, and Jimin let me cry.” He shakes his head. “I didn’t go to Jin. I always felt guilty about that, but...”

“That was a difficult time for you,” Namjoon says.

“Even so,” Taehyung says. “I felt disloyal to Jin-hyung-ie. It wasn’t until later I wondered why. Because… Isn’t Jimin also my friend? Don’t I love him, too?”

“Of course you do,” Namjoon says.

“Then why do we have to quantify love?” Taehyung asks. “Why do we apply greater-than and less-than to it when it’s the one thing we can’t measure? Shouldn’t it be the one thing that’s unlimited?”

That is a really deep question, Namjoon thinks, and I do not have an answer.

And yet he tries. He says, “Here’s what I think. Everything in life is limited and constrained. It’s like a finite infinity. Within our infinite universe, we only have so much time, so every second that passes brings us another moment closer to our deaths. So we have to choose what we want to put our time into. That’s just the way of the world.”

“So...” Taehyung goes blank for a second before he continues, “does the time we spend with someone equal how much we love them?”

“I guess?” Namjoon says, “But I never really thought of it like that.”

“Okay, but here’s what I understand,” Taehyung says. “The world goes around the sun, but its path isn’t perfect, right?”

Namjoon rubs his brow, convinced he’s missed something. “Right, it wobbles.”

“Because gravity,” Taehyung says. “So every revolution it makes, it’s a little different from the year before. That’s how we are, too. Every day, we wake up and we walk around, and the people we encounter are like the planets and stars, and we change just by interacting with them. With every breath we take, we’re different people.”

“Dude, Taehyung—”

“—Which means that every second, every heartbeat, is priceless and precious, because – even if we die and get reincarnated or if we’re cloned by space aliens – who we are in this moment will never happen again. That’s why we have to hang onto the ones we love, because it’ll never be the same way again.”

Namjoon scrambles to mentally commit these words to memory. It’s not the song he was hoping for, but it is so much more. “You’re brilliant, do you know that?” he asks.

Taehyung cringes, blushing furiously, as he says, “Then why am I such an idiot?”

“Oh man,” Namjoon chuckles. “Believe me. That’s me too.”

“Because I do love him, hyung,” Taehyung says. “I’m sure that one day, I will die in his arms. Is that morbid to say?”

“Maybe? A little?”

“I think about it all the time – how his face will be the last face I see. And how his hand is my hand," Taehyung says. "I don’t think I’m the kind of person who wants something because it’s forbidden. But I also don't think I deserve him right now. I don't like who I am, and I feel like I should know myself better and I – I don’t know – I feel alone, and different, and everything is so confusing and painful, and I want to do so much…”

“Look,” Namjoon interrupts. “What you’re doing – allowing each other space – it’s right. I know it’s hard, and the others kinda don’t understand it. You and hyung have been together a long time, and you got together young. People have to be allowed to grow, Taehyung, especially artists like us. So if Jin-hyung gets that, maybe that's the only thing that matters.”

“Yeah.” Taehyung wipes his eyes with his wrists. They watch the water as it flows beneath the moonlight, a constant, endless rippling. After several minutes, Taehyung says, “Wanna go back?”

“Up to you, man,” Namjoon says.

Taehyung stands and offers a hand to Namjoon. “I think I know now how the music should go.”

“I thought you might,” Namjoon says, and together, they walk home beneath the blue light of the stars.

Chapter Text

“I'll let you set the pace,
’Cause I'm not thinking straight
My head's spinning around,
I can't see clear no more.”
What Are You Waiting For? Ellie Goulding

20 May – Las Vegas – Day

Hoseok heaps up a mouthful of Dippin' Dots, examining the glistening spheres as they melt upon his spoon.

“This is the best ice cream,” he decides as he presses the bite against his tongue. “And this...” he gestures broadly, “Is the best mall.”

Because it's vast and sparkling and mostly empty, as though Americans have so much space they simply box it up inside of buildings. The air smells of ozone and crisp desert air, and the furnishings are sleek and austere, like they’ve all been designed by Norwegians.

“Reminds me of Oslo,” Hoseok says, but this is when he notices that Seokjin and Taehyung have abandoned him.

Not abandoned so much as wandered off.

After a short search, he finds them in a semi-circle of buff-colored cushions, dancing like their souls depend on it. They're eating ice cream, too, only they raise their cups over their heads as they gyrate along with a Muzak rendition of an Ellie Goulding song.

“Hey,” Hoseok whisper-shouts, “people can see you.”

Taehyung goes, “...So?” and doesn’t stop dancing.

Seokjin bounces onto one of the cushions and throws his head back. Tugging Taehyung down with him, he asks, “What flavor'd you get?”

“Uh, rainbow,” Taehyung says, letting Seokjin steal a bite.

“Rainbow's not a flavor,” Seokjin says. Then he feeds Taehyung a spoonful of his own mint chocolate chip.

“Whatever, Mr. Darcy,” Taehyung says.

“Yes sir, Mr. Cleaver,” Seokjin shoots back.

“Excuse me?” Taehyung grips the front of Seokjin's shirt. “The name is Bridget,” and the two of them convulse with laughter, leaving Hoseok to wonder why he ever agreed to come out with them.

Only Hoseok does know why, because they begged him. After Sanghyun-nim nixed the idea of them going shopping alone, they enlisted Jimin and Hoseok to join. But after a flight soaked with free cocktails and nonstop flirtation, Jimin bowed out to “nap” with Jungkook. Namjoon was already asleep by the time they knocked on his door, so Hoseok went to Yoongi, who was elbows-deep in new songs.

Yoongi suggested that it might be good for Hoseok to hang out with Seokjin and Taehyung. “You know, to see how they’re doing when they’re not in front of the cameras.”

Hoseok remained reluctant until Yoongi promised to join them tonight for Cirque du Soleil. “It’ll be like a double date,” Yoongi had joked.

And really, that was all he needed to say.

So here is Hoseok, on assignment to gauge the state of the union between Seokjin and Taehyung.

The state of the union: Painfully sweet, with a side of annoying.

Though it is kinda cute they’ve been practicing their English by watching British rom-coms like Bridget Jones’ Diary.

By the time Hoseok has worked all this out, they’re up again, gangling arm-in-arm toward the Christian Louboutin store, where Taehyung salivates over the decadent shoe displays. He tugs Seokjin’s sleeve. “Let’s go inside,” he says.

“They’re never gonna let you try those on,” Hoseok objects.

“They’re burgundy velvet hip-boots,” Seokjin says. “He has to try them on.”

“They will block you at the door,” Hoseok says. “You’ve still got ice cream.”

Taehyung gazes longingly at the boots, then into his cup, then back at the boots. He moans, “But they’re Louboutin’s.”

“They’re seven-inch heels,” Hoseok counters.

“Hyung,” Taehyung says, “You’ve seen me in heels. I’m fabulous.”

Grinning, Seokjin offers, “I’ll hold your ice cream.”

“Never falling for that again,” Taehyung says, tucking the cup to his chest.

“Then we’ll have to come back,” Hoseok says.

“Fine,” Taehyung says. “And then Jinnie and I will both try them on.”

“One leg each,” Seokjin says.

“Like a giant crab,” they say at the same time. Then they giggle like schoolboys, clinging to each other as they fill the cavernous corridor with their laughter.

Hoseok casts a long-suffering glance toward the security person Sanghyun assigned to trail them, but he’s too busy doing his job to commiserate. Even so, Hoseok attempts to coerce his support.

“You’re embarrassing our security detail,” Hoseok says.

“You mean Benji?” Seokjin asks, giving their guard a brazen wave. “Did you know he lived in Texas for eight years?”

Hoseok cuts his eyes to Seokjin, trying to determine whether or not he’s serious.

“What?” Seokjin says, tipping the last dregs of his ice cream onto his tongue. “That’s why his English is so good.”

“Seokjin-hyung knows all the staff,” Taehyung brags.

Hoseok makes his distressed ㅅ face. “He’s not even permanent staff.”

And Seokjin goes, “...So?” He takes his and Taehyung’s cups to the trash bin. Then, returning, he says, “Benji’s brother attends Konkuk. Half their family lives in Seongsu.” He loops an arm with Taehyung’s and leads him away. “Oh look, Versace!” he exclaims, and they’re inside before Hoseok can stop them.

The security guard – Benji, apparently – makes Hoseok redundant, yet Sanghyun insisted one of them go along with Seokjin and Taehyung. Otherwise, he’d argued, it would look like a date. Which it is. One that Hoseok is unwillingly third-wheeling. He’s wishing he’d played the same jet-lag card as Jimin and Namjoon when Taehyung begins to smooth his sticky-ice-cream fingers all over the $3,000 velour Versace tracksuits.

“Look, hyung,” he says, jerking a black t-shirt from a rack full of identical black t-shirts. “It’s the Demian face.”

“Or... Medusa?” Hoseok mutters, but upon closer inspection, he sees that it’s definitely the same gold emblem from the t-shirts they wore during their Danger video.

“Ooh, it’s on these dishes, too,” Seokjin says, noisily flapping over the gilt-edged set of china gleaming within its silk-lined display case.

“Demian dishes?” Taehyung breathes. “We should get these. We could have a dinner party like in Blood, Sweat, and Tears.”

“$14,000 for a set?” Hoseok whistles through his teeth. “Maybe you should save it for your wedding.”

He means it as a joke. As in, they would never or why would they ever? But the look on their faces – daring yet determined – sends Hoseok into immediate recovery mode. With a dry chuckle, he says, “I wasn’t being serious.”

“What, you think I wouldn’t marry him?” Seokjin asks. His voice drops an octave, and an alarming gleam tightens around his eyes.

“I will marry you one day,” Taehyung states, flatly.

Stepping closer, Seokjin says, “I’ll marry you tomorrow.”

“I’ll marry you right now,” Taehyung parries back.

Seokjin meets Hoseok’s eye. “This is Las Vegas—”

“—No!” Hoseok howls. “No, hyung, you are not getting married. Here? In America? We are here for Billboard. Billboard!”

Drawn by their commotion, a worried clerk hurries over. She whispers,  “May I help you?”

“We’re on important business,” Hoseok answers in English as he shoves Taehyung and Seokjin out into the mall.

But if Hoseok’s ruffled mood affects them, they don’t show it. They clasp together like a pair of drunken uncles, whispering in each other’s ears and then shattering into laughter. Outside the Celine store, they begin wailing My Heart Will Go On, and Hoseok attempts again to shush them.

“People can hear you,” he hisses.

“Hyung, it’s fine,” Taehyung soothes.

“Besides,” Seokjin adds. “They can’t understand us.” He waves to a woman in a rhinestone-studded cap and asks, “Do you know annyeong-hai-say-oh?”

Her eyes widen as she says, “Oh. Hello?”

Gaping, Seokjin and Taehyung answer simultaneously, “She knows.”

Hoseok can’t help it, he starts laughing, too. They’re all standing there, giggling, when Taehyung grabs Seokjin’s arm.

“Hyung, look,” he murmurs, sounding solemn and reverent. “The Gucci store.”

Seokjin purses his lips. Then he says, “Well we have to go.”

“Yes,” Taehyung nods. He looks to Hoseok, who says, “Now you want my approval?”

Taehyung feigns a frown. Seokjin smooths his arms beneath his hand.

“C’mon,” he tells him. “You can buy me a ring.”

 

After bowing their goodbyes to Benji in the hotel lobby, the three of them board the elevator for their rooms. A ticklish tension fizzes around them, and Hoseok finally asks the question he’s been biting back all day: “So are you two together or not?”

Neither of them answer. They look at each other, then at Hoseok, then the floor.

Finally, Seokjin says, “We don’t know.”

“Yeah, we don’t know,” Taehyung echoes.

“But how…? “ Hoseok begins. Then, “What are you…?”

Seokjin rubs the silver surface of his new Gucci ghost ring as he considers. Instead of an answer, he asks, “What time is Cirque du Soleil tonight?”

Hoseok, muddled, takes out his phone and reads, “Curtain is 8 p.m.”

The elevator hums as it ascends.

“We have time,” Seokjin says.

“Plenty,” Taehyung agrees.

And Hoseok goes, “So you’re not gonna tell me?”

“There’s nothing to tell,” Seokjin says.

“But are you okay?” Hoseok says, his voice scraping into an almost plaintive tone.

Taehyung pulls Hoseok into a hug. The elevator stops, the doors open, and he steps around them.

Before he’s gone, Seokjin calls, “Still true?”

Taehyung pauses and turns. A faint smile on his lips, he answers, “Yes, hyung. Still true.”

They wait until he’s disappeared around the corner before turning toward their own rooms. After a moment, Hoseok asks, “So… what was that?”

Seokjin exhales. “A promise,” he tells him.

They arrive at Hoseok’s door.

“Hyung, I’m concerned,” Hoseok says. “One second, you guys are fighting like there’s no tomorrow, and the next, you’re talking marriage. I can’t keep it straight.”

“Neither can we,” Seokjin says. “Because we’re gay.”

He starts to laugh. Hoseok sighs and rolls his eyes.

“We’ll see you tonight,” Seokjin says, fiddling his keycard from his pocket.

“Let’s meet at 7 in the lobby,” Hoseok confirms.

“Thank you, for today” Seokjin says. “I know we’re— “

“—Insane,” Hoseok says. “Seokjin-hyung, you’re both insane.”

“Yep, well,” Seokjin says, flicking his key against his palm. “Better insane together than insane apart.”

And as Hoseok walks to his room, he believes that much, at least, is true.

Chapter Text

 

“You've got a hold on me,
Don't even know your power.”
Mercy, Shawn Mendes

22 May 2017 – Las Vegas – Night

They win the BBMA, so of course they celebrate. They get invited to after parties, and Nicki Minaj is there, and so is Drake and Kanye, and Beyonce and Jay-Z. Actual world-famous icons in the house, and Taehyung hangs out with his new friends, Alex and Andrew from the Chainsmokers and a rapper named Desiigner, and Ansel Elgort, who seems to know everyone, including Diana Ross and Celine Dion.

It is off-the-hook amazing.

Of course, they don't stay. Namjoon rounds them up before midnight, and they return to their hotel, drenched in whiskey, cigarette smoke, and camera flash.

In the limo ride to the hotel, Yoongi says, “Someone offered me cocaine in the bathroom.”

“Who?” Jimin shouts, incredulous.

“I think it was one of The Weeknd's assistants... wiry, super tall, scary blue eyes,” Yoongi says.

“Oh that guy,” Namjoon says. “I thought he was with that one group, the country singers... Florida something?”

“He looked like a vampire,” Jungkook says over the screen of his phone.

“He probably was,” Seokjin says, knuckling Jungkook's knee.

“You didn't take any, though,” Hoseok asks. “Right?”

“Yes,” Yoongi snarks. “Then I immediately slammed a fifth of Vodka to balance it out.”

Hoseok squinches his eyes shut. “I just—”

“—Nah, Hope, I know,” Yoongi says, petting his shoulder. “It's funny, ’cause like... with Wings , we wrote about temptation, about being tempted, but I don't think we even understood what that meant until we came here.”

Namjoon lowers his phone. “To America, you mean?”

“Yeah, like... America has so much. Of everything.” Yoongi sweeps his hand toward the window at the flickering neon of the Las Vegas strip. “We were just dipping our toes into the pool last year, so we didn't see how huge it all is. This is like down-the-rabbit-hole level stuff here, and it’s way more difficult to refrain from indulging when it’s all at your fingertips.”

Namjoon chews his lip thoughtfully. He goes, “Well, Bang PD-nim did say—” but everyone begins to loudly shout to drown him out. Surrendering, Namjoon raises his hands. “I know we agreed not to talk business tonight,” he says. “But it is like we've entered this whole new big world, and that's, like, amazing.”

“This is only the beginning,” Jimin chimes in.

Taehyung notices how Jimin's voice quavers over the words, like he’s excited, but he’s frightened, too. He reaches to offer comfort when his phone buzzes. He'd set it to Do Not Disturb, but the timeframe expired at midnight. It's a new day now, and his first message comes from his Frog Prince.

Congratulations, he writes. So proud of you.

Then... You looked sexy af, btw.

Taehyung slices his eyes toward Seokjin, who catches the look but files it away. He's on his phone, too, probably to his Mom or Minnie, or to Ken or Sandeul... Seokjin does have his own friends.

Though they probably don't call him sexy.

Or do they?

And how would Taehyung feel about it if they did?

How does he feel about Frog Prince saying it to him?

He types back, Sexy?

Undeniably, Frog Prince answers.

Heat stitches through him, tight but not unpleasant. Changing the subject, he types, You with the others? Tonight was the premier party, right?

Time zones, Bro, that was yesterday. But I left early. Needed alone time. Needed to get you out of my head.

Taehyung chews his lips. They've flirted and bantered off and on, all part of their playful Hwarang code. In the beginning, the Hwarang hyungs teased Taehyung for being extra and different, much as his members had so many years ago. Things changed when Taehyung confessed that he was in a secret long-term relationship. Then he became the object of their sympathy, for they all understood the difficulties of maintaining romance in the crucible of idol life.

Only his Frog Prince knows about Hawaii, though, and how Taehyung and his “person” have decided to take a break.

Taehyung types, Are you hitting on me?

Obvs, Frog Prince answers. Do you mind?

Before Taehyung responds, Frog Prince sends a picture. One of his wiry, compact abs.

Dumbstruck, Taehyung drops his phone, and Jungkook reaches to retrieve it. Panicking, Taehyung scrambles to reach it first. He elbows Jimin, who squeals and goes for the phone, too, like it's a playful game of keep-away. Taehyung growls and wrenches it from Jimin's fingers, but not before Jimin gets a glimpse of the screen.

Jimin lolls his head back, groaning, “Ugh, can you two stop sending each other body selfies? We're literally five minutes from our hotel.”

And Seokjin goes, “What?”

Taehyung shoves Jimin and mutters, “Man, back off.”

“Hey, calm down,” Jungkook says, and that's when Namjoon gets involved.

“Whoa, what's going on? You all right?” Namjoon asks. He looks from Jungkook, to Jimin, to Taehyung, and then Seokjin.

Seokjin brushes back his bangs. “Yeah, Joon. It's fine. We're just playing.”

“Hyung, we talked about this,” Namjoon says, his tone arched and cautioning. “You two have this tendency to push a little too far.”

“I know, I know,” Seokjin says. “We'll stop.”

Seokjin returns to his phone. Yoongi continues to babble about irony and temptation, a conversation that draws in Namjoon, Hoseok, and eventually Jungkook. Jimin scowls at Taehyung through firmly-narrowed eyes, but they remain silent through the rest of the journey.

 

Their VLive goes smoothly, too. They drink champagne; they celebrate. They sit close to each other, but not too close. Seokjin is quiet, but not too quiet. Taehyung begins to believe that the minor skirmish in the limo might have only been his imagination, something blown out of proportion by exhaustion and adrenaline. He forgets that sometimes Seokjin wears a mask, and that sometimes his mask looks exactly like his face beneath it.

After the broadcast, Taehyung follows Seokjin to his room, where they spent the previous night banging each other breathless. Once inside, Seokjin goes to the window and drops to the ledge, his attention trained to the massive, dazzling labyrinth of the Las Vegas strip below.

The smell of them hangs heavy in the room, strawberry lube, cake frosting, and sex. It’s something he’ll forever associate with Vegas, that bittersweet-sugar scent paired with the luminous prism splashed across Seokjin’s face. Taehyung wants his camera, but at the same time, he knows he will never be able to capture it. So his heart will have to do.

Seokjin says nothing. He sits there, quiet, impassive, his expression inscrutable. But there are tears in his eyes.

“Seokjin-ah, I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. He stands there, his hands useless at his sides.

Through bared teeth, Seokjin bites, “Jagiya. I promised not to ask.”

“Don’t cry, please,” Taehyung says. “It’s not what you think.”

“Not yet, but…” He swallows. He shakes his head. “You know what? We just won a Billboard.” He coughs a laugh. “Shouldn’t we be happy?”

Taehyung’s hands find each other. He wrings his fingers. “You aren’t happy?”

“Weird, right? How I can be happy and sad and… devastated, all at the same time?” His shoulders sag. He shuts his eyes.

“I’m—”

“—Don’t say sorry,” Seokjin says. “It’s not just you, okay. I have a lecture response due tomorrow before we leave for Sydney. And I… I miss my Dad. And my Mom says Jjangu is dying. And I feel so tired, like, all the time. But at the same time, I’m healthy and excited and full of ideas and I just… you’re the one I go to when it’s all too much, and right now, it’s…” He lifts his eyes. The neon blooms inside them, caught by the gleam of his tears. “How much is too much, Taehyung-ah? At what point does all of this become more than I can bear?”

Taehyung has no answer. He’s lost in an abyss of his own, one swirling with guilt and desire and confusion. He hears Yoongi’s voice in his head, talking about temptation, and how hard it is to resist when it’s right there, waiting at your fingertips.

And he is tempted, but also in love.

With the man he hopes to someday marry. With the man who someday wants to marry him.

Seokjin’s right. It’s too much. All of it’s too much.

So of the myriad things they should discuss, Taehyung chooses the safest, best way to comfort Seokjin. He says, “Jjangu’s dying?”

A nod.

“You never mentioned…”

“I know.” Seokjin pushes his fists against his eyes. “I’ve been trying really hard not to think about it.”

Taehyung edges onto the bed across from Seokjin, wedging close so their knees have to touch. “How?” he asks.

“Cancer.” Seokjin rubs his nose. “Also, he’s really old. Small dogs, they don’t live forever.” His face crumples, and he begins to cry. Taehyung rushes to put his arms around him, to hold him close, to let him weep. After a long while, Seokjin wheezes, “I know he’s just a dog, and most days, he doesn’t even like me, but—”

“—He’s your family,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin nods. “I’ve already lost so much,” he whispers.

Taehyung folds Seokjin’s hands into his. His fingers are brittle-cold, like slivers of ice. He wonders, distantly, how Seokjin can be so frozen even in the middle of a desert. But then he feels Seokjin’s eyelashes against his neck, his breath on his collarbone, and all rational thoughts flit from his mind.

“Don’t let me go,” he mutters against Seokjin’s ear. “Promise me. Please. Please. Don’t let me go.”

Seokjin’s breathing steadies. He turns their hands over to stare at the back of Taehyung’s. His voice burdened with sleep, he whispers, “I won’t. I promise,” and then he crawls past Taehyung to curl heavily into their bed.

Chapter Text

"The times we had together,
our dear memories
I let go, let go, let go
So you can smile someday.”
Letting Go, Day6

28 May 2017 – Seoul

Seokjin unshoulders his backpack and lets it drop to the floor. Gritty morning light slants through the room, casting shadows among the half-packed boxes stacked between his and Yoongi's beds. It makes no sense to tidy anything. He's only just returned from his seminar class, and according to his mother's text, she will arrive in fifteen minutes. All of the others have been at the studio, recording, practicing, and wrapping content for their Festa Home Party. Which means he's alone for the first time in what feels like months, and even that won't last for long.

Aimlessly, he shuffles from one box to another, sorting and re-packing his belongings. Movers will handle the heavy lifting this time, since they'll be on tour in Japan for most of the summer. And then they'll plunge headlong into recording and choreo for the new album. So he’ll have plenty of distractions to keep his mind off the fact that for a while, they’ll be essentially homeless.

Seokjin lifts out the vibrant red hat Taehyung gave him in Hawaii. A crust of brine cakes the  brim, which has been flattened to a blob beneath a stack of Seokjin's comics. He brings the hat to his lips and inhales the sweet, windswept scent of it.

Recently, he told an interviewer that he never goes to sleep on his worries, but the double-edged sword of that truth is that in forgetting these cares, he forgets the good things, too.

Yet he remembers that day on the beach with cloying clarity. Taehyung's excitement as they scrabbled like crabs among the rocks. Taehyung's solemn reverence with the sea turtle, and how he wanted to make wishes on her shell. And then his promise that whatever happened, what Taehyung said to him in Finland would always remain the truest thing.

Seokjin mashes the hat over his head. The TV screen smears his reflection into horizontal bands: red for the hat and his lips, white for the ghost of his face.

“Pabo,” he murmurs. Then he stuffs the hat back into the box, piling more books and plushies on top of it. He's sealing the box with tape when he hears the door open, followed by voices, and he goes into the hall to investigate.

He's relieved beyond belief to see his Mom and Jjangu, though Yoongi is a bit of a surprise.

“I thought you were in the studio?” Seokjin says as he gently lifts Jjangu from his mother’s arms.

“I was,” Yoongi gruffs. “But I couldn't take another note of Taehyung's trumpet. Hyung, imagine a goose being slowly strangled by a jet engine... only louder.”

Ms. Kim passes Yoongi her purse and her sunglasses, which he dutifully places in the cupboard above their shoes. “He plays trumpet, too?” she asks.

“Yes, Ms. Kim, but very badly,” Yoongi says. “It's more like an expensive party favor, and we should all be very grateful to Sihyuk-nim for letting Tae practice in the studio and not here.”

“It isn’t that bad,” Seokjin says.

“Yeah, it's worse,” Yoongi says. “So I'll be in our room, sleeping the sleep. What time's your studio call?”

“4 p.m.,” Seokjin answers.

“Great,” Yoongi says. “Don't wake me. Night, Ms. Kim.”

Seokjin’s Mom squeezes Yoongi's cheek, making him blush to the shade of a ginseng berry, something for which Seokjin will later tease him mercilessly.  

“He's funny,” Ms. Kim says.

“He thinks so,” Seokjin says. He peers down into the placid, weary face of Jjangu, who smells of arthritis cream and slowly-spoiling eggs, and has, for once, remained content to rest in the crook of his arm.

“Let's order in,” Ms. Kim suggests. “That way, the three of us can spend some time together.”

Seokjin scrubs his fingers between Jjangu's ears. “I could cook for us, Eomeoni, we have plenty of food.”

“No, no, I insist,” she says. “You're living out of packing crates, and you’re leaving for Japan in two days. We'll get japchae and kimchi jjigae. I know the perfect place.”

Relief spills through him like rainwater down a storm drain. “At least may I make you some tea?” he asks.

She's already pressed her phone to her ear, but with a wink she says, “It's a deal.”

 

Throughout their meal, Jjangu keeps to his lap. He’s a stiff and trembling bundle of fluff as Seokjin listens to his mother's endless stories – harmless gossip about her social circle – most of whom have children Seokjin's age.

It's strange but oddly soothing, listening to her talk about his old schoolmates. Most of them will take the standard Korean path of university, military, marriage, and then kids. Certainly, none of them are idols, and of course, none of them are openly gay.

“You know,” Ms. Kim says, “Now that your brother’s completed his degree, he could get his enlistment notice any day.”

Seokjin sips his soup. “I know,” he says, trying to imagine scholarly Seokjungie in military fatigues.

“And you?” she asks. “What will you do when you get yours?”

“I intend to defer until the last possible day,” Seokjin says.

“And what about your Taehyung?” she asks, and Seokjin nearly chokes.

Through his attempts to cough it out, he catches the gleam in her eyes. Finally, he manages to say, “We have a plan.”

She raises her tea cup. “Of course you do.” She sips. “Let's hear it.”

“All right,” he answers. “When I receive my notice, the other six have made a pact to volunteer.”

She sips again, swirling the tea behind her teeth. “That makes good business sense, too. With all of you serving at once, you'd shorten the length of any hiatus you'd have to take.”

Seokjin inclines his head. “That's what we’re thinking also.”

Ms. Kim squeezes his shoulder. “It's sweet, how close you all are.”

“We're a family,” he says. He feels bold in saying it to his actual family.

His mother stares into her tea. When she looks up again, she seems fragile, the way she had on the night he came out to them, on the night when she had nothing to say.

Seokjin says, “Eomma, when I was young, when I traveled all over with Abeoji, I think I took all those times for granted.”

“No, Seokjinnie, you were a little boy,” she says.

“I know, but the whole time we were away, I felt... anxious.” Seokjin nods. “Like, all I ever wanted to do was to come home.”

She places her hand on his. He falls still. Quietly, he says, “Once on a trip to Thailand or maybe Vietnam, Abeoji and I found this market that had all of these little animals in cages. Monkeys and mice and chipmunks. One of the shopkeepers, he tried to sell them to Abeoji, but we were in a hurry, and there was no way we could sneak them on the plane.”

Seokjin can't remember the last time he thought of this – maybe not since it happened – and his face warms at the memory. “Abeoji let me hold some, though. Sugar gliders, I think.” He sniffs a laugh. “They were so soft and so busy. One of them climbed inside my jacket to hide in my armpit. I asked if I could have them, and he said, 'Someday.' But when we returned home, I completely forgot about it.”

“That sounds about right,” his mother says.

“Ask him if he remembers,” Seokjin says.

“I will,” she says.

“Eomma,” Seokjin asks. “Will he ever talk to me again?” Tears thicken in his throat, but he smothers them down. He refuses to cry in front of her, partly out of pride, but also because he doesn't want her to worry.

Placing her hand on his cheek, she gives him a tender smile. “He will,” she tells him. “He just doesn't know what to say.”

Seokjin's shoulders raise. He says, “I haven't changed.”

“Oh, but you have,” she says. Again, that fragile smile upon her lips. “Just not in the way he thinks.”

“Then… How? ” Seokjin says.

“Oh, my Jinnie.” Ms. Kim draws a soft breath. “You've grown up.” She blinks a few times, and he realizes she's close to crying, too. He sweeps a napkin from the end of the table. She presses it to the corner of her eye and slowly fans her face.

“Eomeoni,” he moans.

“Shh.” She waves him off. “When you have children of your own, you'll understand.” She squares the napkin between her fingers. The flecks of mascara left behind look like sketches of tiny birds.

In Seokjin's lap, Jjangu squirms in his sleep. “He's shivering,” he says.

“He's practically a stick.” She clicks her tongue. “Doesn't eat enough to sustain a snail.” Then she reaches over to lay a hand across Seokjin's forearm. “I know you don't want to hear this, but we must think now of what's best for Jjangu-yah.”

Again, tears choke him. Again, he stifles them. “Well, what does the doctor say?

“That we can keep him comfortable for a while,” his mother says. “But he doesn't have long.”

Seokjin smooths his palm over the crinkling fur along Jjangu's belly. “Would it be kinder to let him go?” he asks, hollowly, the words clotting on his tongue.

Ms. Kim passes her napkin square to him. “Not yet, Seokjinnie,” she says. “But that time will surely come.”

Seokjin inhales through his nose but can only nod.

“But I'll be there when it does,” his mother says. “Okay?”

His heart breaks, but also fills with the sound of her words.

“Thank you, Eomeoni,” he says. “Thank you so much.”

Chapter Text

“So please could I be selfish with your body?
'Cause I don't think I could share you with nobody.”
Tied Down, Jaymes Young

3 June 2017 – Osaka, Japan

Jimin feels electric. He's like the saint of excellent planning. He talked Sanghyun-nim into letting them off for the night. He talked Seokjin into joining them at Ghost Ultra Lounge for drinks and dancing. He... well, he didn't have to convince Jungkook since he was on board from the beginning, but here they three are, slamming back shots and dancing in a place where no one cares who they are.

“I did good, right?” Jimin shouts to Jungkook, who glows violet beneath the black lights, his teeth hovering in his face like a Cheshire cat grin.

“You did great,” Jungkook shouts back.

Jimin turns to ask the same question of Seokjin, who was, until half a second ago, pressed close to Jimin's shoulder. Only when Jimin turns, there's a guy in vinyl pants waving yen at the bartender.

“Where's hyung?” Jungkook asks.

“I’m hyung,” Jimin says, pressing Jungkook’s hand to his chest. But Jungkook rolls his eyes.

“I mean Jin-hyung,” Jungkook yells back.

Jimin knees onto the barstool, using Jungkook's shoulder to brace his climb. The bartender yells at him, but Jimin scans the crowd. The dance floor undulates like a phosphorescent tide, and the music pulses like a deep-tissue massage. Anyway, it's useless. It’s so packed out there, Seokjin could hide from international spies.

Jimin slithers from the barstool, wobbling like a wind-up toy on his way down.

The bartender cuffs his arm and shouts, “Try that again, and you're out.” Jimin bows, laughing yet mortified, as Jungkook tugs him through the crowd.

In a cramped, nicotine-stained hallway, Jungkook says, “Message him?”

Jimin does, and they wait, panting in the close quarters, but Seokjin doesn't respond.

“Maybe he went back to the hotel?” Jungkook says.

But Jimin's shaking his head. He gestures toward a paint-spattered door jutting into the hall like a broken tooth. Jimin doesn't know how he knows, but he's certain of it the moment he speaks the word.

“Washroom,” Jimin says. Frowning, Jungkook follows, his face betraying both his sadness and understanding.

They push through the door, and Jimin steps inside. It's a cubicle with a single stall, a urinal, and a Japanese squatting toilet. Splashes of multi-colored paint stipple the walls and floor, making it impossible to tell if it's ever been cleaned. A single fractured mirror reflects grainy gray light into a sink streaked with vomit.

Probably Seokjin's.

They find him wedged beside the Japanese toilet, his phone in his hand, his knees to his chest. He peers up at them, mole-like, his face streaked with tears.

“I'm fine,” he says when they see him. He struggles to get up, but then fails and collapses back against the stall.

Jimin rushes to kneel beside him. He takes Seokjin's phone and hands it up to Jungkook.“You’re not fine. You threw up in the sink.”

“Because of all the drinks,” Seokjin says, “because if we don't try them all, how will we know if we like them?”

“Okay, true,” Jimin says. “But you said you weren’t gonna text him. You said you’re giving each other space.”

“We are. And I didn't,” Seokjin says. “It's just... Taehyung-ah loves this song.”

“This song?” Jungkook asks. He locks Seokjin's phone and pockets it.

Dazed, Seokjin listens for a moment. “Not this one,” he says. “The one... five songs ago.” He attempts to sing it, but alcohol turns the words into a slurry mush.

“Oh, Chandelier!” Jimin grins. “Taehyung does love that song.”

“Hey, hyung,” Jungkook says. “Let's get you up, maybe get you some coffee?”

Seokjin bats his hands away. “I live here now,” he says.

Jimin forces a laugh. “I love what you've done with the place. But it smells kinda bad, although that could just be you.”

Seokjin leans forward, filling Jimin's nose with the vodka-sweat scent of his skin. He whispers, “I smell like a meadow.”

“Hm, nope,” Jimin says.

“Yes,”  Jungkook adds. “A meadow full of dung.” He's texting someone on his own phone now, and keeping an eye narrowed on the door.

“Jimin-ah,” Seokjin says, his eyes suddenly alight. “What's brown and sounds like a bell?”

“No, hyung,” Jimin says.

“Dung,” he says, and Jungkook squawks out a laugh. Seokjin presses the back of his hand to his nose, quivering with laughter at his own joke.

“That’s it,” Jimin nudges. “We should definitely get back to our hotel.”

“No.” Seokjin waves. “I'm fine.”

“You’re obviously not,” Jimin says. “Look.” Jimin settles against the flimsy stall, crossing his legs over Seokjin's. “Do you want to be with him?'

“That's stupid, of course.”

“Then you have to tell him. You can’t just silently mope over him,” Jimin says. “You have to fight for him. Believe me, I know Taehyung-ie—”

“— I know Taehyung,” Seokjin growls.

“Then you know he needs someone to tell him what he wants,” Jimin says.

“No. No, that is not what he needs,” Seokjin moans. “I know you don’t understand this, or… maybe you do?… but Taehyung’s had people telling him how to live, and how to act, and what to do for years now. And you definitely don’t know this, but I have done so much more than him, I mean you wouldn’t believe how much more experience I’ve had… or maybe you would?... but anyway, it isn't fair to him, to lock him up and ask him not to… live his life.”

“Hyung,” Jimin says. “I have so many questions—”

But at that moment, a pair of girls jangle into the washroom, shoving past Jungkook and into the stall. They all wait in prickly silence for the girls to leave, while in the meantime, Jimin assesses the state of his hyung. The weeks since Las Vegas have taken their toll on him. He's dropped from lean to bony and seems to watch everything through a constant, drowsy veil.

Yet Seokjin still teases with them, and he's still polite with the staff. When they're on tour, it's way too easy to hole up in their hotel rooms, eating badly and watching crack TV. Seokjin and Namjoon are the worst about barricading themselves behind their Do Not Disturb signs, but Namjoon at least uses the time to write songs.

Without Taehyung, Seokjin plays video games until 4 a.m., and then spends all the next day brooding like the world’s most handsome ghost. He and Taehyung remain at arm’s length, sometimes content and companionable, sometimes snippy and sour-tempered. No one knows from one day to the next how they’re going to be with each other.

Which is why Jimin thought Seokjin could use a night out with him and Jungkook. But seeing him here, weeping on the bathroom floor... Jimin wonders if maybe this wasn't such a great idea.

And he wonders if maybe Seokjin would be better off if he ended things with Taehyung.

Once the girls finally leave, Jimin goes ahead and asks, “Do you want to break up with him?”

“No,” Seokjin answers. Automatically. Instantly. “I won't abandon him, I promised.”

“Then you have to tell him you love him, in spite of everything.”

Seokjin blinks several times. He says, “Do you think I'd stop loving him just because he's changing? No. What kind of love would that be? I am not my father.”

“Oh…?” Jimin says. Then, “Oh.”

At the washroom door, Jungkook shifts uncomfortably, swiping his hair from his forehead.

Seokjin leans against the paint-streaked wall. He says, “Anyway, say I do it. Say I put up my best fight. I track down this mysterious Hwarang hyung, and I tell him that Taehyung-ah's mine, and that I love him, and that I still want him to be with me for the rest of our lives.”

Seokjin's eyes glaze with tears. Jimin glances up at Jungkook and mouths, “Hwarang hyung? Which one?” Jungkook shrugs.

“And then,” Seokjin whispers. “Taehyung resents me.”

Jimin must've been listening to Yoongi too much, because he stops his first response, which is, Taehyung would never do that.

Because the truth is, Jimin feels like he hardly knows Taehyung these days. Maybe it's Jimin's own fault, because he's been spending most of his time with Jungkook. And, if he's honest, Jimin has mostly sided with Seokjin through all this. Seokjin, who has sacrificed so much, who's lost part of his family to be with Taehyung, and who is willing now to push through this hell of uncertainty while Taehyung figures things out. Of course, Jimin would take Seokjin’s side.

Though he has to admit, he hasn’t looked at it as this massively upheaving growth experience for Taehyung, and he hasn’t thought about how excruciating it might be, having to stagger through this on his own, without the others to help him.

“No,” Seokjin continues, his head jerking in a sluggish denial. “Taehyung-ah – my Taehyung-ah – he has to grow up now.” He steeples his fingers over his face. “And I have to let him.”

Jimin feels Jungkook’s hand fall to his shoulder, the signal that they should go. But there’s no way they’ll leave Seokjin here, not when Jimin talked him into this in the first place.

So tonight Jimin tries something other than choosing sides. He says, “Hyung, we don't only fight the fights we know we're gonna win. Sometimes the point is that you fight your best, so at least you know you did all you could.”

Seokjin looks up. He’s pensive a long time, maybe considering Jimin’s words, or maybe sinking into an alcohol-induced trance. When Jimin reaches to smooth his hair, Seokjin mutters, “You know, letting go isn’t the same as giving up.”

“I have no idea what that means, hyung,” Jimin says, softly.

“It means I am still fighting for him,” Seokjin says. “It means I’ll fight in my own way. I’ll fight for him for me.”

“Yes,” Jimin encourages. “Do that. That sounds perfect.”

“Yeah.” Seokjin nods. “I know.” He slides up to prop a shoulder against the wall. He rubs a hand over his sweaty forehead. “I wanna go back to the hotel now.”

“We'll go with you,” Jungkook offers.

“No.” Seokjin sniffs. “I'll get a taxi. You two stay. Have fun. Drink more.”

“You'll sleep, right?” Jimin asks. “You won’t text him. You won’t play games?”

Seokjin exhales. “Yes, I'll sleep. And I’ll think. I have to think about... things. But you stay. Both of you.”

So Jungkook calls Seokjin a taxi, and once he's safely inside, Jimin phones Namjoon.

“Joon-hyung,” he says. “Jin-hyung-ie's on his way to you, and he's wasted.”

Namjoon scruffles a moment before asking, “Is he okay?”

“Mostly,” Jimin answers. “Just letting you know, in case you wanna meet him.”

Namjoon thanks him and hangs up. Jimin turns to find Jungkook watching him. The Osaka street shimmers with a rain-slicked glaze that softens all the rough edges from the world.

“What you said to him,” Jungkook says. “That was perfect. For Jin-hyung.”

Jimin brushes his neck. Jungkook curls into the touch.

“You'd fight for me, wouldn’t you?” Jimin asks.

“No.” Jungkook says. His smile vanishes.

Jimin gasps, “Jungkookie!?”

“Jimin-ah,” he says. “Honestly, right now, I think Taehyung should be fighting for Jin-hyung. And I know Taehyung’s in a difficult place, so I’m trying not to judge him. But I also know we’re not like them. Maybe my needs aren't as complex as Tae’s, but... I never want to be that complicated.” He takes a breath. His smile returns. “However they solve things, that’s not how it’ll be for us. How I feel for you – it's so simple.”

“Simple?” Jimin echoes. Jungkook's eyes gleam. His lips part in that way that says he wants to kiss him.

“Like breathing. Or walking. Or falling asleep,” Jungkook says.

Jimin steps closer. Jungkook’s hand falls to Jimin’s waist. There are people on the sidewalks, traffic in the streets. Jungkook looks like he might kiss him. Jimin thinks he'll let him.

“There’s no middle ground. No second guessing,” Jungkook whispers. “It’s either one hundred percent or nothing.”

“Simple,” Jimin says again.

“And you'd better do the same for me.” Jungkook brushes his lips to Jimin's. A rush of energy swells up, like lightning coursing through them. No one says a word as they kiss on the street, and the world spins round and round, and Jimin spins within it.

Chapter Text

“When I think I can see the answer,
Sometimes, it becomes a prison that traps me.”
Missing You, BTOB

5 June 2017 – Tokyo

Seokjin braces against the towel bar to stretch the tightness from his shoulder. He's in a rough state this morning, vaguely hungover despite his hour-long trek on the elliptical. Angry blisters crowd along the edge of his left foot, and his deltoids ache like they've been soaked with propane and set aflame.

On the bright side, the water pressure in the hotel's fitness center makes the shower back at home look like a trickle, and the stinging hot steam numbs his brain to a blank white cloud.

Home, for the moment, is a loose concept, one that Seokjin has been trying not to think about. In Seoul, their accumulated belongings have been carted up and shipped to a house south of midtown, one that is smaller than their last dorm-style apartment. Bang Sihyuk assures them it's temporary until the company can find a suitable place to accommodate them. They support this idea wholeheartedly because moving every year has long lost every nuance of charm.  

In the meantime, they're on tour: living out of suitcases and rented studios where, in spite of their nightmarish schedule, they are producing their next comeback. A typical day no longer exists. Seokjin rarely knows before going to bed what challenges they'll face the next morning – whether it's laying down vocal tracks or practicing choreo – so he's trying to stay focused, yet flexible. Like a cat falling from a questionable height.

Seokjin adjusts to stretch his other shoulder. His sinuses throb from dehydration, which makes everything smell weirdly metallic.

Also, he's been drinking a lot.

He leans back to drench his hair when the dull thrum of Jimin's music abruptly shuts off, replaced by the muffled sounds of people talking.

Seokjin scrubs shampoo through his hair and quickly rinses. He whips the towel from the rack and hastily rubs his head, trying to piece together who might have interrupted Jimin's cool down. He hopes it's Jungkook and not Hoseok, which sends a weight of guilt into his gut. But really, if it's Jungkook, they'll go for breakfast at Mr. Donut, undoing all the good work of their workout. And if it's Hope, then the shower Seokjin just took would be pointless. Hoseok will want to run through the footwork one more time , and then two hours later, Seokjin would crawl back to the hotel, where he would book an appointment with the massage therapist to knead out the kinks in his back.

Actually, he thinks, he should probably do that anyway.

The fitness room falls quiet. In the absence of the shower's drone, the noiselessness feels massive.

Seokjin checks his phone. No messages. No missed calls.

Jimin wouldn't just leave.

...Unless he and Jungkook have planned a prank.

Seokjin rolls his eyes skyward. Yep, had to be a prank. Payback for last week when Seokjin and Taehyung hid all of Jungkook's shoes in Namjoon's room. Seokjin winces into his street clothes. He drapes the damp towel over his shoulders. He breathes deep, steeling himself for whatever manner of attack might come from two-thirds of the maknae line.

Only he enters the fitness room to find it empty save for Sejin-nim, who stands in the center, his arms folded over his chest.

Seokjin draws up, immediately alert. Then he sees an intern stationed by the door, a laptop propped upon her knees.

A lookout? A witness?

Seokjin's heart begins to pound. He goes to say something, anything, but the words dry like chalk across his tongue.

“Good morning, Seokjin-ssi,” Sejin says, bowing curtly. He gestures to a weight bench. “Have a seat.”

In the twenty seconds it takes to cross to the bench, Seokjin tallies up the five years of information he has on Sejin-nim. Sanghyun-nim they think of as solid and dependable; he’s strict, yet fair. Hobeom-nim has a jokey, hyungnim sense of humor; he’s honest, too, but generous with things like extra food and praise. Then there’s Sejin-nim – who reminds Seokjin of his father. As much a bodyguard as a manager, Sejin is introspective, calm, and above all things, professional.

Also, Sejin is handsome. He's got a full 15 centimeters on Namjoon in height and rivals Seokjin in shoulders. If he'd had the inclination, he might have debuted as an idol.

Instead, he's their manager.

Seokjin trusts him.

But hadn’t there been a time when he trusted Minyeong, too?

Seokjin perches on the end of the weight bench. Sejin sits on the opposite end.

“Um,” Seokjin says. “Where’s Jimin?

“I sent him for coffee,” Sejin says. “He'll be back.”

“Oh.”

Seokjin scans the room for cameras—as much a habit as anything—and Sejin waves a hand.

“No, it's nothing like that,” Sejin says. “The film crew has the day off.”

Seokjin coughs a laugh.

“I wanted to talk with you this morning,” Sejin begins. “I feel it's a bit... overdue.”

Seokjin is silent, but his thoughts race.

Sejin says, “The production team is working on the final edits for Bon Voyage 2, as you know.”

“Oh,” Seokjin says again.

“Yes, and I felt that was something we needed to address.”

Seokjin's mind hones to the exact moment Sejin is talking about, but he has no idea what he might say in his defense.

“The day you missed your flight from Hila,” Sejin says. “The team has already edited it so that nothing seems amiss. But there was... something amiss.”

Seokjin stammers but makes no reply.

Sejin inhales. He says, “I know, Seokjin-ssi.”

His heartbeat floods his ears. His field of vision goes white.

“I know. About you and Taehyung,” Sejin tells him, making certain to meet his eyes.

“H-how—?” Seokjin gasps.

Sejin nods, once. “Remember when you injured your neck in Paris?”

Seokjin touches numb fingers to his throat. He nods.

“Sanghyun-ssi told me you gave your room key to Taehyung,” Sejin explains. “So when Taehyung left the wrap-party, I followed him. It's my job to make sure you all are safe, so I followed him... back to your room.”

Seokjin glances at the intern by the door. Her face glows by the light of her laptop. Her expression is impassive, but he knows she must be listening.

“Does everyone know?” Seokjin whispers.

Sejin nods. “Pretty much.” He gives a pained half-smile. “About Jimin and Jungkook, too.”

“But, how —?” Seokjin asks again. “We were so careful.”

“You were,” Sejin says. “You have been. But when you spend as much time together as we all do, there's only so much you can hide.”

Seokjin wipes a scrim of sweat from his lip. He feels tingly and hot, like his whole body is waking up to pins and needles. “Minyeong-nim,” he begins.

“Ah yes,” Sejin says. “That guy. He suspected you, and honestly, he's the one who got us all to start looking. But we... disliked... his treatment of you, and the maknaes. So we discredited him until we could get rid of him altogether.”

Seokjin feels as though the earth is sliding beneath him, like the bedrock he mistook for solid ground is actually quicksand. He tries to fit this new knowledge into the puzzle of his current chaos, but right now, it's like everything is slipping into uncertainty. He lets it all go, but clings to the one thing he feels he still needs to know.

“Why are you telling me this now?” he asks.

Sejin nods. He squeezes Seokjin’s knee. “Here's the deal, Seokjin-ssi,” he says. “You're our family. What started out as our job to protect and keep you healthy has become more of a life's mission. But that said, you are also our livelihood.”

He pauses to let Seokjin absorb his words.

Then he continues. “In the beginning, I'll admit I was not happy with the idea of the two of you together, in that way. I have moral, religious objections—” Sejin shakes his head “—but those were personal, not professional, and I have since come to reconsider my point of view.”

Seokjin's eyes twitch. “You have?”

Sejin scratches his jaw. “I have.”

Seokjin watches him struggle to compose his next sentence, grateful for the time it gives him to think about what he's already said.

“You love each other,” Sejin finally says. “The same way I love my fiancée. You love him.”

“It's true,” Seokjin mutters.

“Which is why we were upset by what we saw in Hawaii. And since then as well. The fight you had in America, the back-and-forth of being together then not being together, all these minor things that add up to major trouble for you. These also add up to trouble for us.”

“We don't—”

Sejin cuts him off with a wave.

Seokjin continues anyway, “Taehyung-ah and I, we're struggling, but it won't—”

“—I know,” Sejin says, his tone firm but gentle. “I know.” He straightens his back. He meets Seokjin's eye. “I'm not here to scold you, or reprimand you. I'm here to tell you... how proud I am of you.”

Seokjin presses a hand to his mouth.

“Shh,” Sejin says. “None of that. I'm not done.”

“Okay.” Seokjin swallows hard but nods for him to go on.

Sejin says, “I've watched you for years, and you've shattered every expectation any of us had for you. Sungdeuk-nim can't stop talking about how much your dance has improved. Your vocal coach tells me you've grown beyond anyone he's ever taught. And you continue to work diligently with your studies. I hear you haven't missed a single class.”

“Skype,” Seokjin says with a light chuckle.

“Even so,” Sejin says. “It's worth noting, because you could have so easily given up.”

“I couldn't,” Seokjin says. “I can't—”

“—Precisely,” Sejin says. “So I know that this difficulty between you and Taehyung, it’s regrettable, and unfortunate. But, you will do well, Seokjin-ssi. You're strong – stronger than you know – and... well... we believe in you.”

“Aah,” Seokjin cries, covering his face. He feels the blush escaping from beneath his fingers, spreading like lava into his ears and the back of his neck.

Sejin-nim stands and draws a sharp breath between his teeth. “So. This got awkward,” he tells Seokjin.

“Yes, Manager-nim,” he agrees.

“All right, then. Be well. Don't skip any meals,” Sejin says. The intern behind him scrambles to her feet, checking her watch for the time, and casting a look through the door.

“And if you need anything. Anything at all,” Sejin says. “Please come to me.”

“Yes sir,” Seokjin says, bowing. “I will. Thank you.”

 

Jimin returns five minutes later with three iced Americanos. He flurries into the fitness room, already apologizing for taking so long, but his words evaporate once he sees Seokjin alone on the weight bench, his phone in his hand.

“Oh?” Jimin pauses. “Where's manager-nim?”

Seokjin pockets his phone, his message to Taehyung incomplete and unsent. “He, um... got called away.”

Jimin deflates, pouting. “I have his coffee.”

“You can give it to Jungkook,” Seokjin says, getting to his feet. “He’s meeting us for breakfast?”

“Yeah,” Jimin says. Then, “What did Sejin-nim want?”

“Just to talk,” Seokjin says.

Jimin gives him a suspicious side-eye. “Just to talk? With you?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says, airily, as he plucks one iced coffee from Jimin's tray. “I am a very important person.”

Jimin huffs. Then he cocks his head, examining Seokjin with a more discerning eye. “Seriously, you okay?”

Seokjin releases a breath, and it's as though his whole body begins to unclench around that one exhalation. “Yep,” he says, allowing himself a smile. “I'm gonna be fine.”

Chapter Text

“Ever since the day that I met you
My world's been spinning out of control
I just need you to hold.”
We Find Love, Daniel Caesar

Kakaotalk
22 June 2017 – Saitama, Japan

Taehyungie’sEomma ♡*♡ : How are you doing, dear?

KimSeokJin: I’m well, Eomma Kim, thank you.

Taehyungie’sEomma ♡*♡ : You’re eating well? Resting?

KimSeokJin: Yes ma’am. Mostly.

Taehyungie’sEomma ♡*♡ : You remember that thing we talked about?
KimSeokJin: Yes, I remember. The very important thing.

Taehyungie’sEomma ♡*♡ : Well, it’s official. Are you still interested?

KimSeokJin:  Definitely interested. Do you have the agent’s number?

Taehyungie’sEomma ♡*♡ : I do indeed. I’ll forward everything to you.

KimSeokJin: ❤︎ thank you so much

Taehyungie’sEomma ♡*♡ : Anytime, Jin-ah. Please take care of our Taehyung.

KimSeokJin: Yes, Eomma Kim. I promise I will.

 

After the concert, and the wrap, and a late, late dinner with the staff and Bang PD, they stumble en masse back to their hotel. Yoongi slings his arms over Hoseok's and Jimin's shoulders. His face is livid pink, and he's low-key ranting about a discussion he had with Namjoon about pronouns. Namjoon seems oblivious to Yoongi's unbroken stream of complaints as he and Jungkook huddle around Hobeom-nim's phone, looking at pictures from his family vacation in Italy.

They pack into an elevator, probably too many of them to be within the realm of safety. Seokjin crowds into a corner, his eyes trained to his phone as he mutters his lines from Come Back Home. Hoseok picks up the melody and flings it into the group so that within seconds, they're all messily singing mismatched parts as the elevator ascends.

Then the staff exit. Then the other members. Then Seokjin is alone, wondering numbly how he alone managed to miss his floor.

He steps out into the hall, as plain and austere as every other floor, which makes him even more disoriented and confused. Seokjin thumbs the call button. The doors open, and Taehyung stands in the elevator, looking confused, too, but also concerned.

“Hello,” Seokjin says, trying to appear polished and aloof.

Seokjin has to remind himself that they’re giving each other space. Not ignoring each other, but also not… entangled. Which is difficult, given the the extremely tight orbits in which they tend to rotate. So space means limited small talk and eye contact, but it especially means not texting each other memes throughout the day and sharing each other’s beds at night.

Even through his cloudy-alcohol state, that last thought stabs him. Bringing up his phone like a shield, Seokjin steps past Taehyung into the elevator, and they both wait for the doors to shut.

“Do you know which floor is yours?” Taehyung asks.

“Do you?” Seokjin bats back.

Taehyung mashes the button for floor 8. Seokjin isn't quite sure if that's right, but...

The elevator begins to descend. Seokjin staggers into the wall.

“Hyung, you're drunk,” Taehyung says. He keeps his face trained to the doors.

“I'm not,” Seokjin lies.

“Okay,” Taehyung scoffs.

They are quiet, then. The elevator hums. The lights buzz. Seokjin begins to sing. The doors open again, but as Seokjin moves for them, Taehyung catches his arm, pinning him in the doorway.

“Stay with me,” he says.

Seokjin blinks. “No,” he says.

“Just for tonight,” Taehyung says. Seokjin can feel the pleading in his tone.

In response, Seokjin softens his words. “No, Taehyung-ah.”

“Come lay with me,” Taehyung says. “I will beg if I have to.”

Seokjin slowly pans his gaze from Taehyung's lips to his eyes, which are like coffee and caramel blended with honey, and...

The door's alarm begins a plaintive whine.

“No, Taehyung, don't,” Seokjin hears himself say. “We've been doing so well.”

“I haven't,” Taehyung chokes out.

“You have. And I'm proud of us.” Seokjin steps around Taehyung, aiming for the corridor on legs that feel like stilts.

“I can't sleep,” Taehyung whispers as the elevator doors begin to slide closed.

Seokjin reaches to brace them apart.

Taehyung stares across the void between them.

Seokjin asks, “The ghost dream again?”

Taehyung races to explain, as if he knows he's only got until the elevator doors close again to convince him. “She keeps coming back. She tries to drown me. And I've started to chew the inside of my mouth.”

Seokjin balances on the ball of one foot. He could leave. He could go find his room. He could sober up, get some sleep. He should do these things. He should let Taehyung figure this out on his own.

But when the door starts to shut, he steps inside, letting it narrowly scrape behind his shoulders.

“Let me see,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung obeys immediately, stretching his mouth wide to show a mass of flesh on the inside of his cheek that roughly resembles raw bulgogi.   

Seokjin recoils. “That's not okay, Taehyung-ah,” he says. “Your throat could get infected. We still have so many shows left and an album to record.”

“I know,” Taehyung pouts. “But it happens when I'm sleeping, so...”

“You could have gone to someone,” Seokjin scolds.

“I am.” Taehyung stares at the floor. “I'm coming to you.”

Seokjin leans to press the button for the lobby. “I know what to do,” he says.

“You do?” The hope in his eyes is heartbreaking.

“Yes,” Seokjin whispers. “Of course I do.”

 

They stop at the first 24-hour pharmacy they find. Seokjin leads Taehyung up and down every aisle in search of the familiar brown bottle his mother used to treat every minor wound he and his brother ever endured.

But everything’s in Japanese, and all of the packaging looks different, so they wind up going to the young pharmacist at the counter.

Seokjin says, “Ask her for peroxide.”

Taehyung goes blank. Then he says, haltingly, “I don’t know the word for peroxide.”

And Seokjin can’t help it, he starts laughing. Taehyung spends a moment looking perplexed before he begins to laugh, too. In seconds flat, they’re clinging to each other, cackling like hyenas as the pharmacist watches on, bemused and mildly irritated.

Long seconds lapse before Taehyung can explain what they’re looking for. The pharmacist guides them to a shelf with an opaque white bottle which she assures them is peroxide.

They squeeze into a public toilet no larger than an airplane washroom. Before Seokjin can wonder why it’s so urgent that they do this now and not in his hotel room, he peels the packaging from the bottle and instructs Taehyung to take a generous gulp.

“Gargle it,” Seokjin tells him. “Do. Not. Swallow.”

Taehyung splutters, coughing violently, before spitting the entire mouthful into the sink. “Never thought I’d hear you say those words,” he explains between his fits of gagging.

“Shut up,” Seokjin chuckles, cuffing his shoulder.

Taehyung meets his eye in the mirror. He looks relieved, but also hopeful, and Seokjin knows that look. If the fluorescent glare of the lights in the pharmacy hadn’t completely sobered him, then this realization finishes the job. He understands in that one glance what they’ve all been too busy to notice: that Taehyung is a wreck, that he might be, in fact, worse off than Seokjin. And that is beyond unbearable.

Taehyung sips again, filling up his cheeks like a chipmunk. He swishes it around, his eyes going wide as the peroxide fizzes against his mutilated skin.

“It doesn’t hurt, right?”

Taehyung shakes his head.

“Good,” Seokjin says. He counts until the seconds reach a minute. Then, “Good. Now, spit.”

Taehyung does as he’s instructed.

They’re standing there, a breath apart, and Seokjin’s painfully aware of Taehyung’s scent, wild yet familiar, like sun-warmed grass and summer rain. They stand so close the heat of Taehyung's skin burns Seokjin through his shirt.

“You know what else would help?” Seokjin finally manages to say, all the while thinking,  Cold showers, glaciers, the North Atlantic Sea...

“Mochi?” Taehyung guesses.

“Yes,” Seokjin answers, “Mochi,” like that’s his first idea as well.

 

They walk, aimlessly, eating mochi from paper cups and talking about inconsequential yet important things. Seokjin realizes he’s forgotten how much he likes Taehyung’s random conversational leaps. One second, they’re talking about clothing and skin care and the next, they’re indulging a deep philosophical discussion about what they’d want their final words to be.

“I hope it’s something profound and memorable,” Taehyung says. “But I’ll probably end up saying something cliche like, Why so serious?

Seokjin softly scoffs. “No you won’t,” he says. “You probably won’t even remember that when you die, like a hundred years from now.”

“Maybe,” he says, but he sighs like he has his doubts. “Anyway, what would you want yours to be?”

“Oh, I know it’ll be something profound and memorable, but also simple and dignified,” Seokjin says.

“Probably a dad joke,” Taehyung says.

“Nope.”

“Tell me,” Taehyung says.

“Hm,” Seokjin smiles. “No. You’ll have to stick around and see for yourself.”

Taehyung falls sullen. “I hate that we die,” he says. “I hate that life is so short, and that we only get one.”

“Yeah.” Seokjin nods. “I hate that, too.”

“Then I dare you to outlive me,” Taehyung says. He spoons up his last bite of mochi and tucks it into his cheek.

“I don’t want to,” Seokjin says, talking through the knot of sudden pain in his chest. “I don’t want to outlive any of us. Let’s all make a pact to live forever.”

Taehyung nods. “Good plan.” He bumps Seokjin’s hip.

After a few paces, Seokjin asks, “So what about this ghost, then?”

Taehyung gives him a wan smile. “She’s greedy,” he says. “She holds me down. She wants to… eat me.”

Seokjin shudders. “Horrible, Taehyung-ah. So scary.”

“I hate it,” he agrees. “She keeps coming back.”

“I can relate,” Seokjin says. Then, to make Taehyung laugh, he adds. “I want to eat you, too.”

“Hyung,” Taehyung mutters.

“It’s okay,” Seokjin says, waving it off. “I’m kidding. Here, let’s go.”

They cross the Arakawa River, ambling aimlessly through a neighborhood park bordered by a high, fragrant cedar hedge. Streetlight dapples through the trees, powdering them with snowflakes of light. Taehyung plays a few Daniel Caesar songs for him, and though Seokjin can’t understand the lyrics, he gets the feel of the music and the timbre of the voice. He understands completely why Taehyung feels drawn to the style, which is sexy and morose and deeply intricate.

And Seokjin tells Taehyung about his conversation with Sejin-nim, and about Jjangu, and his Mom. It’s easy, opening up to him. It has always been so easy, and Seokjin understands how pointless and stupid it is for them to try and hold themselves apart.

After hours of mindless roaming, they board a bus they hope will return them to their hotel. The lights of the city move around them as the bus wends its way through the quiet streets. Taehyung dozes, his chin lightly resting on Seokjin’s shoulder.

At the hotel, Seokjin takes Taehyung to his room. They curl together, fully-clothed, on Taehyung’s bed. They’re tender with each other, careful as if they both understand how fragile they are.

And they sleep.

Some hours later, though, Seokjin wakes. He smooths a palm over Taehyung’s shaggy hair. Seokjin thinks that although their feelings for each other haven’t changed, maybe he has. He realizes, then, that he has been standing at the edge of this grief for years. Despite all his hopes, all their promises and all their plans, every time he lays with Taehyung in his arms, Seokjin mourns the day when they will finally part.

The sense of urgency, his desperation and fear, has at last begun to fade. It's time now, he thinks, Time to put this grief away. Time to look forward, to this life, and to myself. The seeds of a plan have begun to take root, and Seokjin always feels stronger when he has a plan.

As they lie there, Seokjin recalls Jimin’s words, about how they don’t only fight the fights they know they’ll win, but also his own understanding about the difference between giving up and letting go. Seokjin knows what he must do, and tonight, with Taehyung asleep in his arms, he finally has the courage to begin.

 

END OF PART TWO

Chapter Text

PART THREE

“What am I trying to find right now?
Where am I going, without rest right now?”
Come Back Home, Seo Taeji & Boys + BTS

KAKAOTALK
4 July 2017

OtherTae: anyway, thank you for listening to me through all of this.

FrogPrince: Of course, np.
FrogPrince: But you should know, I'm not unbiased in this situation. I am interested in you, so think about that when considering my advice.

OtherTae: I like that about you, you know? You're honest. About everything.

FrogPrince: Look. Tae. Since we're being honest.
FrogPrince: Are you interested? In me, I mean.

OtherTae:
OtherTae: in a way
OtherTae: but if we're being 100% honest
OtherTae: it feels wrong

FrogPrince: Because I'm gay and you're not?

OtherTae:

FrogPrince: Hey. Believe me, I do know what could happen if someone finds out. I understand the dangers.

OtherTae: do you?

FrogPrince: The relationship I told you about, that devastating lost love of mine. The circumstances surrounding it could have had catastrophic consequences. That's not me being dramatic. I know the world we live in. I know what it's like to hide.

OtherTae: this isn't a conversation we should have here

FrogPrince: Then let’s meet.

OtherTae:
OtherTae: when?

FrogPrince: You’re Mr. Busy. You pick a time. I'll be there.

OtherTae: tuesday afternoon, this place: < naver link >

FrogPrince: Excellent. It's a date

OtherTae: not a date

FrogPrince: Chill, okay. A bro date. No pressure. No strings.

OtherTae: right. ok. no strings, only noodles

FrogPrince: Yes (^_^) I'll see you then.

 

The noodle place lurks between fabric stores and lighting shops on the outskirts of Gwangjang Market. The cramped booths smell sweaty with kitchen steam, thickened by the dense drizzle of an early summer rainstorm.

Taehyung arrives early. He wedges himself in a corner, his back to the wall so he can watch the alley through the grimy windows. His hoodie mats to his skin, sticky and sweltering, but he endures the discomfort because part of him – most of him – believes he's earned it. He should be uncomfortable. He should be ashamed.

He is ashamed. Three nights ago, he was having dinner with Seokjin, Hoseok, and Bang Sihyuk, to discuss their future with BigHit. Bang PD-nim had seemed interested in Hobi-hyung’s mixtape, and so proud and supportive of him and Jin-hyung, yet here Taehyung sits, waiting for a man who has admitted he has designs on him, who has, in his patient, persistent way, pursued Taehyung now for nearly half a year.

Taehyung's stomach twists. A bead of sweat breaks from his hairline to race down his cheek. He shouldn't be here. There is still time to leave.

He stands, but as he waves to the waiter for his check, he sees his Frog Prince bound up the steps outside. He flicks a cigarette into the rain-swept gutter and yanks open the door. He beams at Taehyung from beneath his mirror shades, and Taehyung's knees go watery. His smile, the way the lines  crinkle around his eyes, the way his dimples deepen like twin ellipses, causes a visceral, involuntary reaction inside Taehyung. He feels sick with guilt, and it must show on his face, because the Frog Prince's smile flickers out, replaced instantly with an expression of concern.

“Maybe you should sit down,” he tells Taehyung. “You don't look so great.”

He pours a cup of water for Taehyung from the carafe on the table. When the waiter comes up, he orders two bowls of udon and a pitcher of beer. Taehyung grips the tin cup between his palms, letting the clammy metal soothe his skin.

“I don't feel so great,” Taehyung admits. The waiter returns with their beer and a bowl of pickled daikon. The smell of it, sharp and briny, makes Taehyung's stomach roll.

“You don't have to stay.” He takes off his sunglasses. His eyes are honey-warm. They sparkle with mirth and mischief, something that Taehyung has come to both despise and enjoy.

“No, it's okay,” Taehyung says. He palms the cup between his hands. He sips.

“It's our first time meeting without the others,” his Frog Prince remarks. He pours them each a glass of beer and raises one. “To progress.”

“Don't,” Taehyung says. “Not yet. Not until you've heard what I have to say.”

“Fair enough,” the Frog Prince says, but he drinks his beer anyway. He puts the glass down and gives Taehyung that full, bright smile again. “But you wouldn't be here unless you've thought about my offer. So I'm taking even that small crumb as a sign that you're at least open to it.”

“How’d you know?” Taehyung asks. He picks up a single chopstick and prods a cube of daikon.

“Little vague there,” the Frog Prince says. “Wanna clue me in?”

“How’d you know you were gay?” Taehyung whispers.

Across the table, the Frog Prince draws a steady breath. Taehyung glances nervously around the empty tables. The waiter and his mother clamor around the tight kitchen. A television above the register babbles endlessly about North Korean missile tests.

Frog Prince pops a radish cube into his mouth, chewing while he thinks. He says, “It really came down to the person I fell for, you know? He just happened to be a guy.” He pours another glass of beer. He nods, but Taehyung doesn't reach for it. Shrugging, the Frog Prince drains his second glass and pours himself a third. “Beer helps if you're nervous,” he tells him.

“No, I'm fine,” Taehyung lies. He begins to worry at a hangnail on his thumb. “So are you… bisexual?” Taehyung asks.

“Sort of.” His Frog Prince gazes out of the window a moment. Without glancing back at Taehyung, he asks, “How was it for you?”

“You mean, with my—”

“—There's no need to pretend.” He angles in, startling Taehyung with his sudden intensity. “I know you're gay, too.”

Again, Taehyung asks, “How did you know?”

Again, that risky smile, the one he's famous for, the one that melts a million hearts and burns down a thousand houses. And again, that fierce look of certainty. He says, “We are alike, you and me.”

“I can't do this,” Taehyung says. He stares across the table, but he doesn’t move.

You haven't done anything.”

Taehyung fixates on his eyelashes and the knob at the base of his throat that bobs when he swallows. The Frog Prince appears calm, poised and beautiful as the figures in the paintings they both adore. He's lithe and athletic beneath his crisp blue shirt, and Taehyung tries not to stare at the buttons that seem to strain over his tightly-muscled chest. The face of his watch gleams with the reflected light of the TV. It's an expensive watch, Taehyung knows. Worth as much as Taehyung's own father might make in a year, but the Frog Prince wears it casually with his sneakers and jeans, like it’s just a part of who he is.

“I can wait,” the Frog Prince says. His smile lights his eyes. “I'm in no hurry.”

The waiter clatters in, breaking the moment with their bowls of soup. His Frog Prince stabs into the scalding noodles without hesitation. He eats with abandon, pouring up another glass of beer to wash  down his meal.

“I wish I was more like you,” Taehyung says.

“Eat now,” he says, gesturing with his chopsticks. “Talk as you're ready.”

Taehyung pokes through his bowl, stirring the carrots and kelp into the broth. He sets his chopsticks down. “You're so carefree,” he says. “With everything. You have so much confidence. Your acting, your singing, the way you move. I envy that.”

“Nah, it's an act,” he answers. He slurps up a mouthful of noodles. Talking around them, he says, “You're carefree, too, you know. That's the thing we love most about you. Openly, adorably lovable. Honestly, you made us all feel young again. In this business, that's a gift.”

“Openly idiotic,” Taehyung moans, wincing at his own bitterness.

“Is that how you feel?” He fishes out a dumpling. “Is that how they make you feel?”

“Yes,” Taehyung answers. “But no. To the second one. They support me, always.”

“Hm.” He purses his lips. “Well, you're not a fool, Tae-Tae. And also, you've told me nothing. So I gotta ask, since we're both busy men and we won't have a lot of time to meet in the coming months: Why’d you agree to meet me today? Seriously. What is it that you want?”

Isn't that the big question? What does Taehyung want?

His thoughts flit to Seokjin. How is it that he can still ache for Seokjin and yet sit across the table from this other man? Is there something wrong with him? Is he disgusting and greedy? Does he want too much?

He must. To have all that he has and still want more?

“So in case I'm in the right ballpark, I'm just gonna right come out and ask,” his Frog Prince says. “Are you still in love with him?”

“It’s not...”

His hesitation stuns him. It wounds him. Which is how he knows it must be true.

“Hey, what's wrong?” He pushes the bowl aside and reaches for Taehyung's hands. “Oh no, Tae, don’t cry—”

“—What if I’m not in love with him any more?” Taehyung shoves away from the table. “But I still…? So what is it, then, if it isn’t love? Because it still hurts and I still...”

The Frog Prince reaches for Taehyung’s hand. Taehyung staggers back.

“I'm sorry,” he mutters. “I have to go.” He dashes outside, down the steps and into the rain, where he wanders blind into the city, trying to lose himself within the maze of his own heart.

Chapter Text

“You gotta hold me down
You gotta hold me back
Cause I might slip away
Slip into the past.”
Mouth of the Devil, Mother Mother

4 July 2017 – Seoul

“Do you just not answer your phone anymore?” Hoseok snaps when Taehyung finally turns up, soaking wet and bedraggled, at 6:54 p.m.

“What?” Taehyung blinks around the tight foyer at the others, who are jostling in to get to their shoes and jackets as though they're about to head out for the evening. They're rowdy and upset, mainly because Taehyung was MIA, but now that he's stepped mole-like into the middle of them, there's a gust of relief and urgency as they all hurry to rush him inside.

Seokjin leans on Jungkook as he stamps into his sneakers. He tries several times to snag Taehyung's gaze, but Taehyung continues to gape around, like he's caught up in a sleepwalker's dream.

“We have the dinner with Seo Taeji-sunbaenim tonight,” Namjoon says. “Did you forget?”

“You forgot, didn't you?” Jimin teases. “Taehyung-ie! You're supposed to set up your reminders.”

“Please, they'd go off nonstop,” Yoongi says, tying up the lace of his boot. “Jungkook, do you mind, you're in my light...”

“Sorry, hyung.” Jungkook backs off, trampling on Hoseok, who loops him into a shoulder-lock to wrestle him out of the way.

“I got lost,” Taehyung mutters. He strips off his hoodie, and that’s when Seokjin sees that he's shaking.

“Here,” Seokjin says, tugging Taehyung’s forearm to lead him toward their rooms. “I got lost the first time I tried to find this place, too. We just moved in, it's a new neighborhood, it happens...”

They round the corner, and Taehyung shoves Seokjin against the wall.

“Do you still love me?”

Dazed, Seokjin answers, “Of course.”

Taehyung's mouth bends into a frown. “Are you still in love with me?”

“Is there a difference?” Seokjin asks, but immediately, he knows this isn't some philosophical point Taehyung’s trying to make. This is important, and Taehyung needs an answer.

Taehyung says, “There is a difference, hyung.”

“Well...” Seokjin could lie. He could soothe him. He could do what he did in Saitama by giving Taehyung comfort instead of forcing him to figure it out on his own. But that was before, and Seokjin has to be tougher with him now.

“Guys!” Namjoon yells from the hallway. “The cars're here!”

Seokjin murmurs a swear. “We don't have time for this,” he whispers.

“We never have time,” Taehyung moans.

“Get dressed,” Seokjin says, biting back his frustration. “We'll talk later, okay?”

“A yes or no, hyung,” Taehyung says. “That's all I need.”

Seokjin eases Taehyung’s arms back. “You're going to have to wait,” he says. Then he steps around him to join the others in the hall.


The dinner lasts long into the night. They all eat and drink way too much. They celebrate the new video, which they watch together on the restaurant’s big screen. Bang Sihyuk and Seo Taeji announce their plans for an anniversary concert, meaning they’ll get to perform on stage with one of their childhood idols. This news, combined with copious amounts of alcohol, casts the evening in a gauzy, dreamlike haze, yet Seokjin can't quite set Taehyung's question aside.

Nor can he dismiss the state in which Taehyung arrived home, tousled and trembling and deeply out-of-sorts. It takes a lot to rattle Taehyung, but he's always been terrible at hiding his feelings. So maybe he did get lost, and maybe he did forget tonight's dinner, but something happened to him. Something shook him. Namjoon, Yoongi, and Hoseok keep sending pointed looks at each other, which means they must think so, too.

Of course, it's Jimin who brings it up.

They’re crammed around the table, chatting and scrolling through their phones while they wait for Bang PD and Hobeom to walk with Seo Taeji to the garage, when Jimin, his face flushed from excitement and alcohol, grows suddenly sober. He says, “I'm really upset with you right now, Taehyung-ie.”

“I know,” Taehyung mumbles. “I'm sorry.”

“It's just... you're the first one to lecture us about family, to talk about how important it is, but lately, it's like you only show up for rehearsal—”

“—Late,” Hoseok tosses in, sourly.

“Right?” Jimin continues. “You don't go out with us anymore. You don't shop or do chores.”

“He plays Overwatch,” Jungkook says.

Jimin gives him a look like, You’re not helping. But he says, “The point is, don't you want to hang out with us?”

Taehyung rolls his shoulders. “I do, but—”

“—He has other friends,” Seokjin hears himself say. “So do you. So do we all.”

“Yeah, but...” Jimin sighs. “It used to be that we came first.”

“You do.” Taehyung's eyes widen. “You always do.”

“Then, where are you?” Jimin asks. Seokjin hears the warble of pain beneath his words.

There's a long, tense moment while everyone waits for Taehyung to explain. Meanwhile, Taehyung fiddles with the curly edge of an abandoned lettuce leaf. He opens his mouth to speak, but all he says is, “I'm sorry.”

Clearly, this does not satisfy Jimin, who grates out a wheeze of frustration.

Namjoon holds up a hand. “Jimin, we all go through stuff,” he says, quietly. “Sometimes it's hard to explain it, especially to those we are closest to.”

Yoongi leans over to speak, his words as crisp and precise as knives, “And try not to judge him too harshly,” he says. “You don’t have a clue what he’s going through, all right, so the important thing is, we need to listen without judgment—”

“—He's not even talking,” Jimin slices in.

Namjoon nods. “Even so, we have to allow each other space to change and grow. That looks different for each of us. I mean, really, what are they supposed to do? We live together. We work together. We literally do everything together, so I think... if Jin-hyung can be understanding, then so should we. Taehyung will talk when he's ready. We will be patient and accepting, because that's what strong families do.”

Jimin continues to fix Taehyung with his laser-focus glare. He says, “I miss you, Taehyung-ie.”

“I miss you, too,” Taehyung whispers.

“Okay,” Yoongi says, getting to his feet and pulling Jimin up with him. “We got an early day tomorrow. Recording, practice, lots of good hard work to keep us distracted. Yeah?”

“Yes, hyung,” Jungkook says.

“All right, then,” Hoseok says. “Let’s call it a night.”

It's still raining when the cars slip out into the humid streets of Chungmuro. Seokjin winds up in the car beside Taehyung, who grips his hand all the way back home.

 

Seokjin washes his face. He brushes his teeth. He's applying moisturizer when Taehyung appears at the door.

He doesn't say anything. His expression does all the talking.

Seokjin edges onto the countertop. He keeps the jar of face cream in his hand, to give him something solid to hold onto. He says, “Am I still happy to see your face every morning?”

Taehyung blinks.

“Yes,” Seokjin answers. The word lodges in his throat. It's harder for him to speak than he imagined it would be. “Do I still get a thrill when I hear you sing?” Seokjin continues. “Yes. Every time.”

Taehyung nods, but still, he says nothing.

“I don't—” Seokjin traces the rim of the jar beneath his thumb. The sharp plastic forces him to focus. “Do I miss the days when we were sick with fear? When we were constantly afraid we'd be caught, when every kiss was a risk? When my parents didn’t know who I truly am? No, Taehyung. I don't miss that. We had something, then. It was wild, and it was frightening, and I… I don't miss it.” He shakes his head. “Am I still in love with you?” He lifts his shoulders. “Not if it's that scary standing-on-a-cliff's-edge-waiting-to-fall kind of love. No. I love you, but it’s not like that anymore. Not for me.”

Taehyung mashes his mouth flat. Seokjin can tell he’s on the verge of breaking so he says, “Am I sad we're not fucking like bunnies the way Jimin and Jungkook seem to be? Eh, kinda.”

This has the desired effect; Taehyung coughs out a dry laugh.

“We had that, too.” Seokjin steps forward. He folds Taehyung into a hug. He breathes in the smell of him, which has mixed with the smoke from the restaurant and the scent of the rain. Taehyung burrows his face into Seokjin's neck.

And Seokjin knows he has to be strong right now. He has to keep firm in spite of Taehyung's tears. Even if part of him wants to crumble and collapse, Seokjin knows he won't give in.

“You should get to bed,” Seokjin whispers.

Taehyung remains rigid, his arms clasped tight around Seokjin's hips.

Seokjin nudges him gently toward the door. “C'mon,” he says.

“Hyung—?” Taehyung chokes.

“Shh,” Seokjin says. “It's okay. I’ll come wake you in the morning.”

Chapter Text

“From my place in this high, high dream
I'm flying above the beautiful world.”
Airplane, J-Hope

23 July 2017 - BigHit Studios

“Goal!” Yoongi shouts, flailing his broom over his head.

“No way that's a goal,” Hoseok shoots back, thwacking Yoongi’s ankle with the bristles of his own broom.

“Bet.” Yoongi drops to his knees in front of the overturned wastebasket where his crumpled paperball has come to rest. Across from him, Hoseok does the same, mirroring Yoongi's posture as they eyeball the play.

“Didn’t go in,” Hoseok decides.

“It bounced out.”

“Uh, it did not.”

Yoongi puffs, blowing the paperball into the basket.

“Cheater,”  Hoseok says. “That doesn't count.”

“Does count.” Yoongi pops up onto his elbows. “Technically, there's no rule saying I can't blow the ball across the line.”

“Technically,” Hoseok says, sweetly. “You can blow my balls.”

“Dirty.” Yoongi meets his smile. “Hope, that's just dirty.”

Hoseok winks, which causes a significant weakening in Yoongi's knees. Hoseok purses his lips and says, “Play doesn't count.”

“Judge's ruling,” Yoongi says. They both pan a glance toward Jungkook, who is dozing facedown on the floor, a gym towel draped over his head. “The judge is asleep. Eh, should we check his pulse?”

Tsking, Hoseok plucks the ball from the basket. He gets up and prods Yoongi's hip with his broom. “Your serve,” he says.

Yoongi grunts. He gets up, too, using his broom handle as a crutch. He joins Hoseok at the touch line and drops the paperball between them. “Someday we should figure out paperball curling,” Yoongi says.

“Hm,” Hoseok says. He sweeps the ball between them. “Paperball lacrosse.”

Yoongi squints as he sets the broom, and then, after a series of test swings, he shoots. The paperball skitters wild a full six meters before jamming beneath Taehyung's Gucci satchel, where a drift of similarly crumpled papers rest.

“Foul,” Hoseok announces.

Hissing with faux bitterness, Yoongi groans, “What's the score now?”

“Eighty-one to eighty,” Hoseok says.

“Oof, another close one,” Yoongi says. He scratches his forehead. “Jimin has gotta be the slowest fit person in existence.”

Sighing, Hoseok goes to retrieve the ball. “We never shoulda let them go in there together. Jimin takes forever in the shower, and Taehyung loses track of time. It could take hours.”

“Days,” Yoongi agrees.

Hoseok casts a worried look at the practice room door. “They could be arguing.”

“Good,” Yoongi says. “Hypothetically.”

Hoseok shrugs and drops the ball into the center. “After Jin-hyung, Jimin's pretty much the only one of us he'll listen to.”

“Eh,” Yoongi says. “He listens to Joon.”

“We all listen to Joon.” Hoseok sweeps a few practice swings. Then he pitches the ball toward the basket. It sails right in, a perfect arcing shot.

Yoongi lobs his broom aside. Across the room, Jungkook twitches in his sleep.

“Hope for the win,” Yoongi stage-whispers.

“Another one for the record books,” Hoseok says. “Which song was that particular paperball, anyway?”

Yoongi half shrugs. “Outro: Her, version nine million eighteen?”

“Hm, too bad,” Hoseok says. “I liked that one.”

“It wasn't crap.” Yoongi squats down, his wrists resting on his knees.

“Yeah.” Hoseok crouches beside him. Then he says, “It's all holding together, right? We're all reasonably sane and healthy, all things considered?”

“Hell, man, am I the guy to ask?” Yoongi says.

“You're my guy to ask,” Hoseok says.

Yoongi lets himself roll slowly back so that he's lying flat on the floor, staring up at the stark white ceiling of their practice room. If he were high or sufficiently drunk, the striking blankness of this room would seriously trip him out. In the absence of alcohol and hard-core drugs, it leaves him feeling clean and pure, like an empty canvas, or a fresh page of composition paper, ready to receive his thoughts.

He's really glad Hoseok can't read them right now; he is so full of shit.

Hoseok lays back, too, but then he curls toward Yoongi, his face pillowed on his arm. They're a breath apart, and Yoongi can smell the salt-sweat of him – the result of four hours of dance practice with Jimin, Kook, and Tae. Yoongi hasn't been high since high school, but this moment, right now, has a similar spiraling effect on his consciousness.

“Hypothetically,” Hoseok says. “If Taehyung were a girl, and Seokjin was... I dunno, still Seokjin, would they be married now?”

“Maybe,” Yoongi says. “But it'd be a mistake.”

“Oh?” Hoseok's brow creases. “How come?”

Yoongi inhales. He says, “There's a reason our parents wait so long, I think. We've got so much shit to figure out in our 20s. Adding in another person's shit only complicates things. Jin and Tae fell in love too young—”

“—They didn't mean to,” Hoseok says.

“Does anyone ever mean to fall in love?” Yoongi asks.

“Hypothetically?” Hoseok asks.

“Rhetorically,” Yoongi answers, and they share a wry smile.  “Anyway, when people fall in love, they either grow together or they drift apart. They weather change, or change weathers them. And then, eventually, we die.”

“Bleak,” Hoseok says, flashing a falsely-chipper thumbs up.

“Honest.” Yoongi curls to mirror Hoseok.

“Is there any in-between?” Hoseok asks.

“You mean like, neither growing nor drifting, but—”

“—Flying,” Hoseok says. “Like, plotting a course through the sky. Like on a jet.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi says. “Definitely.”

Hoseok slides to his back, his arms cushioning his head. “That's what I want.”

“Airline miles,” Yoongi says. “I like it.”

They gaze up at the ceiling which is so white it glows. Across the room, Jungkook starts to snore. Yoongi, who has been sleeping on the cracked vinyl couch in his studio, begins to fantasize about his long-abandoned bed. And Hope on that bed with him. But Yoongi puts those thoughts into a cage and locks them the hell away.

“Moments like this make you realize the things you want from life,” Hoseok says. His voice sounds soft and wistful. Yoongi savors it, pretending that Hoseok might be talking about them and not some future longing on which he's setting his sights.

And Yoongi’s heart aches, but it’s a comfortable ache. A familiar ache. One he’s carried with him for a long, long time. So long, in fact, that it’s as much a part of him as his skin or his teeth, and every bit as necessary to his survival.

Suddenly and unbidden, Yoongi’s thoughts sweep back to the beach in Hawaii, where he sat for a brief moment with Seokjin. He remembers the hollow words Seokjin spoke, the way the smile brushed his lips but never made it to his eyes. I’m losing him, Seokjin had whispered. Every day, he slips a little further away. Then, quieter, but dreadfully more certain. I don’t know what to do.

Hoseok’s mouth puckers into a pout. “What’re you thinking about?” he asks.

“What?” Yoongi says, scrambling to blank his expression. “Nothing. A memory.”

“You’re smiling like the world’s about to end,” Hoseok says.

“Hope, I—” Yoongi flounders, then utters, weakly, “—I don’t wanna lose you.”

Hoseok stares at him a full minute, his mouth agape in that odd pyramid quirk that Yoongi has always adored. Jimin’s laughter ribbons up the hallway, but it’s distant enough that they can cling to this moment for a few seconds more.

“I’m your Hope,” Hoseok says, finally.

“Literally,” Yoongi breathes. “And absolutely.”

Yoongi gets to his feet before Jimin and Taehyung arrive, so there’s plenty of distance between him and Hoseok when they enter the room. There’s enough bicker-and-bluster between Jimin and Tae to rouse Jungkook. But Hoseok continues to watch Yoongi through slitted eyes, even as the maknaes noisily gather their belongings and rope Hoseok into their breakfast plans.  

They whisk Hoseok toward the door on a wave of second wind and body spray. He halts at the threshold, dragging them all to a stop. “Yoongs, you coming?”

Yoongi consider it for a half-second. The prospect of waffles and coffee after their all-nighter sounds, in a word, heavenly.

But it is not meant for him.

“Nah,” he says, waving. “I’m gonna rework the outro one more time.”

Hoseok’s disappointment is a shutter-snap across his face. “Version nine million nineteen,” he says.

Yoongi fires finger guns in their direction, and then immediately regrets it.

“Hyung, don’t work too hard,” Taehyung says, and they pour from the practice room, leaving Yoongi bitterly, blessedly alone.

Chapter Text

“Because we’d rather live until we die.
I don’t wanna fade away in this life.”
Fade Away, Kerano, Krosses

26 July 2017

Across from Namjoon, Seokjin spreads the stack of pamphlets, brochures, and paperwork he's placed between them. He's like a poker player, presenting his cards to the table before the final winner is revealed.

“So. What do you think?” Seokjin asks.

Namjoon studies each piece, weighing the timeline against other factors, like their album release, and their promotions schedule, and the distant yet distinct possibility of another awards show in America. Sucking air over his teeth, he says, “It's risky.”

“PD-nim says it's a good investment,” Seokjin counters. He's sitting forward, his knees brushing the table's edge. He knots his fingers, nervously, but his eyes have a fire in them, like he's about to unleash a clever pun. But he is not joking. In fact, Namjoon can't remember if he's ever seen his hyung look so serious.

“No, I don't doubt that,” Namjoon says. He flicks through the slick, brightly-colored trifold of one brochure. “It's just... It seems so—”

“—Grown up?” Seokjin finishes.

Namjoon rubs his neck. “I mean, yeah. But also...” He blows out a breath. “How'd you even find out about this?” he asks, gesturing toward the paperwork.

“Taehyung's Mom,” Seokjin admits.

“What, it just happened to come up in conversation?”

“Sort of,” Seokjin says. “She mentioned the possibility months ago. It only took an internet search and a few phone calls to follow up.”

Namjoon suppresses a chuckle. “And how often do you chat with Taehyung's Mom?”

“Once a week,” Seokjin answers.

“Oh. Really?”

“What, she's lovely.”

“I don’t doubt that either,” Namjoon says. “They're the kind of people who would give Kim Jong Un a ride if he was stranded on a motorway. My point is, does Taehyung know you talk with his Mom?”

Seokjin waves, dismissive. “Of course he does.”

Namjoon rocks back in his seat. He rests his chin on his fist. He watches Seokjin across the table, trying for a moment to pinpoint what’s different about him. He's wearing jeans and a plain polo shirt. His shoes, though they’re expensive, are a kind of casual sandal that offsets any adult vibe he might've been trying to convey. His hair's on the shaggy side, but that's true for all of them this close to comeback. And he's barefaced, the bastard, looking spectacular at 8 a.m., even after a two-hour workout with Jungkook.

So maybe it's nothing. Or maybe it's intangible. Or maybe it's filtered through the lens of Namjoon's own perception. But something has changed.

“And you met with Bang PD?” Namjoon asks.

“I did.”

“He cleared this much money—?”

“—He did,” Seokjin says. He reaches for his coffee and sips it, which gives Namjoon the idea that it wasn't that simple, but also that Seokjin doesn’t intend to discuss it.

“It's risky,” Namjoon says again. “And there are so many unknowns, so many things that can go wrong, not the least of which is Taehyung. I mean, that's one hell of a gift.”

Seokjin's eye twitches. “I know that,” he says, softly. He puts down his cup, centering it, carefully, beside his cell phone. “I’m not disillusioned where Taehyung is concerned. I know him very well. But this is not only for him. It's for me, too.”

Behind them, the bookshop has begun to fill up with sleep-bleary students transferring from Gongdeok to Sogang University. They carry with them the humid odor of the street above mixed with the buttercream scent of mandu from the vendors below.

This is the kind of place Namjoon haunted back in his high school days. It's busy yet quiet, like everyone in the shop understands the value of the written word and therefore treats the place like a kind of church. There's a small coffee counter, but only two tables where students usually choose study over the lunch-date chatter.

And Seokjin chose this place for their meeting. They could have met anywhere – the studio's a hive of private conference rooms, and the city of Seoul is riddled with bistros and cafes. Yet Seokjin wanted to meet here. On Namjoon’s ground.

The pieces click into place, and Namjoon understands. Seokjin has already set his plans into motion. He doesn't want Namjoon's advice. He wants support and understanding. He needs someone to tell him it will all be okay.

Even if maybe – probably – it will not be okay.

“So you know what you’re doing?” Namjoon asks.

“For the first time in a while, yes,” Seokjin says.

“Well. Then actually,” Namjoon says. “I think it’s a brilliant plan.”

Seokjin brightens. “Yeah?”

“Amazing. Really. I guess I shoulda figured you’d have a head for business, what with your Dad and all,” Namjoon says. He picks up and twirls a brass key affixed with a strip of red yarn to a list of hand-written instructions.

“That's—” Seokjin begins, but then his phone lights up. He reads the caller ID and snatches it from the table.

“Minnie-yah, hello,” he says. “Yes. Yes. I know, but—Can you please—?” He glances at Namjoon and rolls his eyes. “Do they still have the cabin or not?”

He listens a moment. Namjoon hears the tinny trill of someone very excited on the other end of the line. “Not someone new,” Seokjin says, his ears going pink. “Same someone. New circumstances. N-no. Min... No. Don't get all judge-y, just answer the question.”

The voice escalates. Seokjin shuts his eyes. He says, “Minha, may I have your parents’ cabin in Busan or not?”

There's a pause. Namjoon finds himself willing the girl on the other side of the call to agree.

“Yes, for Chuseok,” Seokjin says. He lowers his head and then lowers his voice. “No, I don't see the point in going home if my Dad's not even going to talk to me.” A pause. “Well then don't tell them.” Another pause. “Yes, I'll buy you pan au chocolat. You know I have a lot of money, your extortion fees could be so much greater—” A smile blooms across Seokjin's face. “Yes, I will pay the cleaning fee. Yes, the deposit, too. Okay, Min... No, I'm never gonna tell you that story. Yep. Yes. Okay. Love you, too.”

He hangs up. He plunks the phone onto the table. “Got the cabin,” he says, beaming.

“Another piece of the puzzle.” Namjoon smiles.

Seokjin splays his hands over one of the brochures. “Sejin-nim will help with this part, and then I’ll need you for this…” He points to the key tied to an envelope with a length of red thread.

“You’ve got me,” Namjoon says. “Always.”

Seokjin draws a deep breath. As he exhales, he straightens and looks even more determined than before. “You know, Jimin told me we don't only fight the fights we know we'll win,” he says.

Namjoon nods. “Jimin is surprisingly wise.”

“So annoying.” Seokjin begins to scrape together his paperwork and brochures. “Anyway, I keep thinking back to when I was so concerned about my father, about him knowing that I can take care of us, of me and Taehyung. But Taehyung needs to learn how to take care of himself, and I guess, in a way, so do I. So I figured, since I'm gonna fight, it’ll be on my terms. For me, as much as it is for Taehyung.” Seokjin neatens the stack into one tidy pile and tucks it into his messenger bag. “And Taehyung will know that I love him for him , whoever he happens to be when we come through this. Which we will. I believe that much is true.”

Namjoon quirks an eyebrow at him. “And the fact that the place in question just happens to be in Daegu?” he asks.

Seokjin lifts his shoulders, slightly. “I never said I was a saint.”

Namjoon lifts his hands. “All right,” he grins. “So. Out of curiosity. What about this Hwarang guy, the one Taehyung may or may not have a thing for?”

Seokjin narrows his eyes. “I have a plan for that, too.”

Namjoon pinches his lips. He says, “You know, when we said we'd help each other move the bodies of those who wrong us, we were mostly joking.”

“Nothing like that,” Seokjin says. But he adjusts his glasses, flashing him an enigmatic smile. “Yet.”

“Haha, gallows humor,” Namjoon says. “You've been rooming too long with Yoongi.”

“Maybe.” Seokjin drains the rest of his coffee. “You ready?”

Confidence, Namjoon decides. Seokjin’s confidence had been shaken, but these new plans of his seem to have helped restore it. So the point, Namjoon knows, is not whether the plans succeed. The point is that Seokjin intends to fight.

Chapter Text

“Even if there are no rules,
Laws of love do exist.”
Best of Me, BTS

KAKAOTALK
5 August 2017

FrogPrince: So you’ve vanished from the face of the earth.

FrogPrince: I miss you.

FrogPrince: Message me back, you punk.

Taehyung buries his phone deep into his pocket. He scans the sound booth, where Jimin and Seokjin are listening to their vocals over headphones. In the mixing room adjacent, Yoongi and Rabbit are deep in discussion as they monitor the playback. Jungkook rests his head on Taehyung's shoulder, but the contact feels so light that Taehyung doubts he’s really asleep.

Taehyung feels... itchy. Restless and unsettled. Like if Jungkook wasn't there, he might spin off the earth into the cosmos. He might drift away and they could never catch him, and he hates this feeling.

The music breaks. Seokjin turns to Jimin and flails his arms like an octopus. Jimin explodes with laughter, and really, he shouldn't encourage Seokjin when it’s not even that funny.

Jungkook snaps awake. Groggily, he goes, “Is it my turn?”

“No, they're still at it,” Taehyung remarks. Jimin waves cutely at Jungkook through the glass. Jungkook sits forward, surreptitiously adjusting himself, which Taehyung pretends not to notice. And he tries not to feel jealous, because how long has it been since he was so conspicuously turned on by Seokjin? Weeks? Months? A year?

Not a year. They had their MAMAs performance last December, when most of China witnessed his massive hard-on for Jin-hyung.

And it's not like he isn't turned on by Seokjin. Very much, he is. But lately they've been more likely to eat ice cream in bed before collapsing together to watch anime. They haven't even had sex in… weeks? Months? He doesn't even know. Without Seokjin's constant reminders about their calendar, Taehyung can barely hang on to what day it is much less recount details about the last time he got skin time with Jin.

“Did hyung tell you?” Jungkook asks. His eyes linger on the recording booth, where Jimin and Seokjin have begun to loop their harmonies.

“Who?” Taehyung fumbles. “What?”

“Jin-hyung. Did he tell you? I got tickets for Jimin and me to Tokyo Disney,” he says. “He's always wanted to go, so... we're going.”

“When?” Taehyung feels incredulous. He can't see anything beyond the window of their comeback, which is still a whole month away.

“Chuseok,” Jungkook says. “We have a week off. Almost.”

“What about your family?” Taehyung asks.

Jungkook gives him a look. “It's for his birthday, too. It's gonna be lit.”

Taehyung scoffs. His phone buzzes. He ignores it.

In the sound booth, the track concludes. Seokjin high fives Jimin, and Yoongi queues it up for a final listen-through. Beside Taehyung, Jungkook reads a message on his phone.

“They want you next,” Jungkook tells him.

“What?”

Jungkook shows him the phone and the updated schedule Rabbit must have just sent.

“Oh.” Taehyung exhales. “Me and Jin-hyung.”

“Guess Jimin and I'll go for dinner,” Jungkook says. Taehyung envies and adores the look of stark eagerness on Jungkook's face.

“Yeah,” Taehyung mutters. “Dinner.”

The song plays. Seokjin mouths along to the words, and Taehyung thinks (maybe hopes) that he's watching Taehyung through the glass while he sings. As with so many of their songs, Taehyung suspects that this one's about them. Seokjin always downplays this possibility, claiming that whoever happens to be writing it (whether it's Yoongi or Bang PD or Pdogg or Namjoon), they're aiming for the broadest possible audience, so it can be about anyone and not just them.

But Taehyung believes that his and Seokjin's experiences have filtered through the collective topsoil of their brains, reaching deep into the subconscious minds of the songwriters so that – intentionally or not – the words take root and grow to reflect him and Seokjin.

Especially this song. Especially Seokjin's lines, “You’re everything in this world to me. Harder, so it hurts, hold me tight.”

Taehyung wrote that line in another song – for Seokjin – and someone snagged it. Yoongi, Hoseok, Namjoon, maybe even Bang PD, but it's perfect, and it's about him and Seokjin, and no one can convince him otherwise.

Jimin and Seokjin remove their headphones. Jimin slips around Seokjin into the mixing room, where Rabbit and Yoongi take turns touching his shoulders. Then Jimin opens the door, and beaming, he sings, “Taehyung-ie, you're next.”

Taehyung realizes he should have been warming his voice. He and Jungkook ran through their scales hours ago, but Taehyung's vocal chords have probably gone cold.

“Hey, don't tell Jimin about Disney,” Jungkook whispers as he gets up. “It's a surprise.”

“Oh.” Taehyung clears his throat. “Of course.”

In the mixing room, Rabbit gives Taehyung a few suggestions, basic stuff about how they hope to counterpoint the baritone of Taehyung's voice against the tenor of Seokjin's. Then Taehyung enters the sound booth, where Seokjin waits, placidly playing a puzzle game on his phone.

“I haven't warmed up,” Taehyung blurts.

“You can warm up now,” Seokjin says. The phone splashes muted color into his eyes and across his cheeks.

“You're not annoyed?”

“Furious,” Seokjin says, but his smile undermines any poison in the word.

The intercom crackles. Yoongi says, “Whenever you're ready.”

Taehyung tingles with anxious energy. He blows the tension from his lips as he runs through his warm-ups. His phone vibrates in his pocket. He takes it out and shuts it off.  

“You're nervous,” Seokjin says.

“Always on recording days,” Taehyung says. But Seokjin knows this. As the second string of vocal line, they've often talked about how inadequate they feel about their singing. Even as they push and make progress, it seems that Jimin and Jungkook are able to go further and do more, and damned if there isn't a metaphor in that for the rest of their lives...

Then, out of nowhere, Seokjin says, “I think this song is about us.”

Taehyung whips his attention to Seokjin's face, trying to gauge whether or not he's serious. “I think this song is about us,” he says.

“That's why it's my favorite,” Seokjin says.

Scatters of memories swirl up in Taehyung, all of these tiny snow-globe moments together: Elevators, bedrooms, bathrooms, hotels. The swimming pool in Malaysia. The beach in Hawaii. A dance floor in Mexico. A mall in Las Vegas.

Taehyung's supposed to be trying to define himself. He's supposed to be finding out who he is inside. Yet he keeps returning here, to this place at Seokjin's side.

Lines from the song loosen inside him. Namjoon's whole verse plays like Taehyung's hearing it for the first time: I haven’t seen the end to myself either. But if there’s such a thing, wouldn’t it be you? I wanted to be a warm wave. Why didn’t I know you are the ocean? What do I do? I’m speaking in your language. I’m breathing in your breath. I’ll be you, you hold me. I’m kissing your sword.  

It is about them. Every single word. And it's true. Taehyung's been so busy trying to find himself, but what if he’s been right here all along?

“You're my favorite,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin’s eyes take on that soft affection he only gets when he’s watching Taehyung. “Still?” he asks.

“Always,” Taehyung whispers. It's so quiet he can’t tell if Seokjin hears him.

Seokjin reaches into his pocket and withdraws an object tied with a long red thread. He passes it to Taehyung and asks, “Will you hold onto this for me?”

Taehyung takes the key into his palm. Seokjin loops the yarn around his fingers.

“What is it?” Taehyung asks.

“It’s a key,” Seokjin says.

Impatient, Taehyung goes, “Hyung, I know it’s a key.”

“You’ll need it someday," Seokjin says. "And I’m afraid I’ll lose it.”

The peeved voice of Yoongi drones again over the intercom. “Like I said, whenever you're ready.”

“Yah, quit rushing us,” Seokjin shouts back. “Do you want us to get it right or not?”

Yoongi lifts his hands but glares at them through slitted eyes like he’s a cat who's been disturbed from his nap.

“I'm ready, hyung,” Taehyung says, giving Yoongi a thumbs up sign through the glass. The song begins to play. Taehyung leans toward Seokjin and murmurs, “I bet we get it in one take.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “And then... maybe we can go for dinner?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “But only dinner though, right? Because we’re... you know.”

“Of course,” Taehyung says, and he tries really hard not to sound too disappointed.

Chapter Text

“Don’t wanna give or receive scars
Only because of our attachment,
we’re dangerously enduring.”
Rubber Band, iKon

14 August 2017 - Sinchon

Park Seojoon mashes chili paste into his rice and proceeds to stir in the yolk of his egg. “Look, Tae-ssi,” he says. “I'm only saying you should talk to him. He thinks he's done something wrong.”

Taehyung mumbles a halfhearted, “I know,” before reaching to pour his hyung another glass of Soju. The music on the sound system grinds through some 90s dance pop before clicking over to iKon's Rubber Band.

“You trying to get me drunk?” Seojoon asks.

“So you'll pay for our meal,” Taehyung answers.

“That doesn't always work,” Seojoon says.

“It has every time so far,” Taehyung shoots back.

“Big talk from the Hwarang maknae,” Seojoon says, grinning. “Can I even believe this guy?”

“Sorry, hyung,” Taehyung says, bowing his head to hide his blush.

“No, go on,” Seojoon smacks his shoulder, playfully. “You're good. Eat.”

They're quiet a minute as Seojoon himself begins to eat. Then, through a mouthful, Seojoon asks, “So, you wanna talk about it?”

“Not really,” Taehyung says. He scoops up a bite of beef.

“Because,” Seojoon says. “I find that talking about our problems with a beloved hyung helps a lot.”

“Beloved, huh?” Taehyung grins.

“Most beloved.” Seojoon wrinkles his nose. “Right?”

“Of course.” Then Taehyung says, “And I do want to talk about it.” He pauses as his heartbeat kicks up. “But there's a lot I shouldn't say, things that could get hyungnim into trouble, and you might not want to be in the middle of that.”

Seojoon's expression tightens as he considers Taehyung's words. He smooths a finger over his lower lip. Then he says, “Pretty sure I already know what you're afraid to talk about.”

“Do you?”

Seojoon sniffs a laugh. “We were all in the shower that filming day. I know we tease about it, but seriously, there are some things you can’t hide between hyungs.”

Heat creeps between Taehyung's shoulders. “So you all know?”

“Yes, dear,” Seojoon says. “Fairly certain we all know how he feels about you.”

Taehyung sags in his chair. He takes out his key and presses its teeth against his thumb.

“Hey, now. It's okay,” Seojoon says. “We all love you, Tae-Tae.”

“But I... I keep messing things up,” Taehyung moans. “Not just with him, but with my members, too. Half the time, they seem like they're one thousand percent done with me. They complain that I'm never there, but when I am there, they point out how much I missed in the time that I was gone.”

“Exactly how much do you hang out with us?” Seojoon asks.

“Like, a few hours a week,” Taehyung says.

Seojoon's brow lifts. “Really? That's all?”

Taehyung recounts the last week to the minute, including a late-night gaming session with Hyunjoon, his breakfast with Yoon, an hour-long FaceTime with Jihan, and the lunch that is currently in progress with Seojoon.

“Sensing some codependency issues between you and your members,” Seojoon suggests.

“Oh, and Bogummy came to our fanmeeting in Singapore,” Taehyung adds.

“That was nice of him,” Seojoon says. He minces some garlic into his rice and takes another bite.

“Yes, right?” Taehyung agrees. “So nice.”

“Well.” Seojoon leans forward on his elbows. “There's nothing wrong with you having friends outside of BTS,” he says. “You know that, right?”

“I mean… We do have lives outside our members,” Taehyung says. “Well. Most of us do. Joon-hyung-ie prefers his alone time, but like, Jin-hyung-ie... he has lots of friends, and the staff, they all really love him.”

“And—?”

“And Kookie. He has Yugeom.” Taehyung pauses. It takes Seojoon a moment to realize Taehyung has finished the list.

Seojoon breathes another laugh. “Oh, you’re done?”

Taehyung gnaws his thumb. “Jimin knows Taemin?” he says, and then he chuckles. “I mean, I’m exaggerating, but… it’s true that maybe we don't spend much time outside our own group. Our schedule is really tight. We don't even get to see our families but, like, once or twice a year.”

“Maybe that's part of your special bond? You guys do seem incredibly close,” Seojoon says.

“Very close,” Taehyung admits. “Closer than family.”

“Yeah.” Seojoon sucks air over his teeth. “I get how they could be jealous.” He drinks his Soju and offers his cup to Taehyung to refill. Taehyung pours, and then gives himself half a shot, too. Taehyung winces his down, shielding his mouth with his hand to show deference to his hyung.

The song switches from iKon to Twice. Someone opens the door to the restaurant and the waiter calls for the new patrons to take a seat. A swirl of cigarette smoke and yellow dust wafts into the gritty interior of the restaurant, forcing Taehyung to stifle a sneeze.

“Here's the thing,” Seojoon says, gesturing with his chopsticks. “There's a common factor at work here, and I think it's pretty important. Our group of Hwarangs , we bonded very quickly. It only took us a few days to grow really close, and I've been in a lot of dramas, so I know that what we had on set during that time... it was not a normal thing. It was extraordinary—”

“—It is extraordinary,” Taehyung adds.

“Right?” Seojoon says. “So now think about your group. Everyone in idol circles talks about how tight you all are, and how exceptional your bond is. The way you dance, your songs, the story you're trying to tell... wouldn't you agree it's extraordinary, too?”

“Definitely,” Taehyung says. “Absolutely.”

“There you go.” Seojoon nods. “So. What's the common factor between the two?”

Again, a blush sneaks up Taehyung's back, reaching this time to brush his cheeks and the tips of his ears. “Is it me?”

“Yes, Taehyung. You.” Seojoon stares long enough to make Taehyung cringe. “I don't think you know how important you are. How pivotal. You are the magic piece. Without you, neither group is the same. We need you.” Seojoon sits back, grinning, and Taehyung understands that he’s teasing him. “You see what I'm saying?”

Taehyung stares at the key in his hand, the red strands of yarn looped between his fingers. “You're saying I should talk with him,” Taehyung mutters.

“Please,” Seojoon says. “For all our sake. Talk to him. He’s your friend, and you’ve totally ghosted on him. And then maybe get your group into some counseling, because seriously... does Jungkook really only have one friend?”

“Well—”

“Outside of you and the other members,” Seojoon says.

“—Yoongi-hyung only has J-Hope,” Taehyung offers.

“You’re not really helping your case,” Seojoon says. But he smiles. He scratches the back of his neck. He says, “You’re one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. You smile because it gives off a lot of light to the people around you. But in truth, I worry about you.”

“Me?” Taehyung's heart flutters in his throat. He closes his hand around the key.

“Yeah, it's just a sense, but I feel like you've been going through a lot,” Seojoon says. “With your break up and now—”

“—We didn't break up,” Taehyung rushes to interrupt. “Not really.”

Seojoon looks unconvinced. He says, “It's always difficult when relationships evolve.”

Taehyung nods. He takes a bite of his rice, which has gone cold and feels sticky on his tongue. He says, “People always talk about the puppy love part, and the head-over-heels part. There are a million songs about the breaking-up part. But we don’t talk about the train-tracks part—”

“—Wait? What part now?” Seojoon asks.

“You know,” Taehyung says. “The part when you’re in between the stations. You’re not buying each other Pepero and roses, but you’re still happy to see their faces when you wake up beside them in bed. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” Seojoon says, eyeing him closely. “The train tracks part. So much sense.”

“Like, my parents,” Taehyung goes on. “My Apa sang her poetry, then two years later, they were married. Now twenty-four years later, they’re still together and they seem happy. But how’d they manage to stay that way?”

Seojoon’s brow wimples. “Well,” he says. “Maybe no one knows. Or maybe it’s different one relationship to another, like everyone’s gotta figure it out as they go. I know that’s not the answer you’re looking for, but maybe if you ask your parents—”

“—Hyung, we don't talk about those things,” Taehyung cuts in. “I’m close with my parents, but talking about this… I’m too young. It’s disrespectful. But it is important. And I really need to know. What comes after that passionate love?”

“Oof, passionate?” Seojoon blows out a breath. “Listen to you talk.”

“But I’m serious, hyung,” Taehyung says.

Seojoon’s shoulders lift. “Friendship, I guess? Solidarity? Kids?”

“Not for us,” Taehyung huffs. Then, scrambling, he adds, “I mean, not for a long time because... we're so young and...uncertain.”

But the damage is already done. Seojoon fixes him with a knowing gaze before nodding through his understanding. His expression softens, though, as he says, “So I was right to be concerned.”

Taehyung politely swears.

“Hey,” Seojoon says. “Tae-ssi. Nothing's changed.”

Taehyung scrunches his nose to keep from crying.

“Nothing has changed,” Seojoon repeats, more firmly this time. “In fact, some things really do make so much more sense.”

Taehyung scrubs his eyes on his shirt sleeve. He shoves the key back into his pocket. Then he pours them each another shot of Soju.

“Will you still drink with me, hyung?” he asks. His voice warbles on the last syllable.

Seojoon exhales. He says, “I will always drink with you, Taehyung.”

“Even if…?”

“Yes,” Seojoon says. “Even if.”

They drink, and Seojoon places his chopsticks across his bowl. “And we're still going shopping, right?” he asks.

Taehyung's fingertips go from numb to warm with relief. “If you like,” he answers.

“Good,” Seojoon says. He raises his hand for the bill, and he pays for both their meals.

As they ascend the stairs into the sweltering August afternoon, Seojoon tugs Taehyung's elbow. “I meant it when I said you should talk to him,” he tells him. “And now I mean it even more. You'll do it, right? You'll talk to him?”

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung agrees, though he’s sure nothing good will come of it. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

“You treat me like a brother
but we’re just friends.”
Different Speed, Oliver Tank and Ta-Ku

9 September 2017 - the dorm

Hoseok hobbles into the dorm, a scrim of sweat drying to his bone-weary body. The house feels eerily quiet, despite it being mid-afternoon and they’ve already wrapped for their comeback (or rapped, as is the case with him). So he slips into his Puma slides and pads into the kitchen, where Seokjin and Taehyung sit across from each other, eating ice cream together from the same carton.

He watches them a minute, holding his breath like an explorer in one of those African safari shows. He narrates the scene in his head: Alas, here we witness a young savanna tiger sharing a rare moment of peace alongside the placid alpaca.

He hovers in the archway, trying to figure out the rules to the English word game they’re playing as they trade bites of ice cream. He’s debating whether he should risk interrupting them when Namjoon slings into the kitchen, wailing along with his headphones as he’s towel-drying his hair.

Seokjin and Taehyung look guiltily up from their ice cream as Hoseok meet Namjoon at the foot of the table. Hoseok sits, hoping to put them at ease, but Namjoon remains standing. He yanks out his earbuds and smirks. He says, “So you know how we were saying Taehyung-ie's the type to never harm a living thing, right?”

Hoseok glances from Taehyung to Seokjin and back to Namjoon. He dimly recalls their group chat from this morning: Taehyung's politely-detailed admonitions to Namjoon on how to keep their bedroom door securely shut.

“Sure,” Hoseok agrees. Taehyung looks to Seokjin; they both shrug in agreement.

“Yet he will rain down hellfire on a mosquito if it dares to touch his precious Seokjin,” Namjoon says. “And I'm okay with that – I'm no supporter of mosquito culture. However...” Namjoon raises his brows at them, as if he expects them to follow along a specific line of thinking.

Instead, Seokjin prompts, “However...?”

Namjoon straddles the chair at the table's end. He centers his arms before him, a bargaining posture. “Hyung, what I can't understand is why you’re both sleeping in my room now when Yoongi's not even home?”

“Oh,” Hoseok says. “Is he not?”

“He's practically living in his studio,” Namjoon answers. “Which means Jin-hyung’s room is empty.”

Hoseok taps a finger to his lips as he pores over this morning’s schedule. He had been so busy practicing with Jimin and Kook that he didn’t think to check on Yoongi. Since they already finished post-production on their album, Hoseok assumed Yoongi would be at home, basking in this unusual time of sloth-like inactivity. Plus, Hoseok’s been preoccupied with his own personal and family business, so it seems he’s missed a lot in the last few weeks.

“Why is your room empty, Seokjin-hyung?” Namjoon pleads. He sounds playful, but desperate, like he’s trying not to too sound upset. “Why?

Taehyung spoons up some ice cream. He says, “Jin-hyung and I have learned that we tend to solve our conflicts physically.”

Namjoon meets Hoseok's eye. They share a look that asks, Do we really wanna know? when Taehyung goes ahead with an explanation. “We decided we shouldn't sleep alone in Jinnie's room," he says. "Because it’s too much temptation.”

Maybe in an effort to maneuver the conversation back to less-awkward ground, Seokjin raises his spoon and says, in English, “Temptation.”

Sufficiently derailed, Taehyung answers, also in English: “Nuh. Never.”

And Seokjin fires back, “Runs.”

They tap the bowls of their spoons together, a mini-high five, and Namjoon beams at them.

“You're practicing your English?” he asks.

“It's a game Jin-hyung-ie made,” Taehyung says.

“Oh, I wanna play,” Namjoon says.

“You can't, you know all the English,” Hoseok says.

“Not all of it,” Namjoon sulks. Then, re-centering, he says, “Okay, look. I understand you guys're working on establishing boundaries and giving each other space. I get that, I do. I guess all I’m saying is, it seems kinda pointless to leave a whole bedroom empty in this already too-small-for-us house.”

“And why isn't Yoongi coming home?” Hoseok ponders aloud. “Is he working on something new?”

Namjoon rubs his eye. “Isn't he always?”

Hoseok frowns. “Usually, he tells me.”

At the end of the table, Seokjin rubs a smear of ice cream from Taehyung's lips, which evokes from him a low, guttural growl.

“Hey you two,” Namjoon teases. “Get a room.”

“Maybe I should call him?” Hoseok says. “I bet he's hungry. We could go for dinner.”

“I'll be good with this ice cream,” Seokjin says.

“It looks good,” Namjoon says. “Which flavor is that?”

In carefully-enunciated English, Seokjin says, “Would you like some? It’s black currant.”

“Nah, man, I'm good.” Namjoon says. “But I could do some chicken. Wanna message Yoongi-hyung? I'll get with Jimin and JK.”

Taehyung's brow furrows. He mutters, “Kuh. Kuh? I don't know any K words.”

Currant,” Seokjin repeats.

“Ah. T!” Taehyung says. Then, “Talk.”

Seokjin balks, “I don't know any K words!”

“Kill,” Namjoon blurts as he thumbs out a text.

“Kind?” Hoseok offers.

“Kimchi,” Seokjin decides.

“That's cheating,” Taehyung says.

“It’s a word that begins with a K,” Seokjin reasons.

“In Korean,” Taehyung banters back.

Namjoon reads out the response to his text. “Jimin’s says they're on their way home. Call Yoongi, he can meet us out.”

Hoseok dials and presses the phone to his ear. As it rings, Seokjin's phone screen lights up. He hops from the table, answering the call as he darts from the room.

Yoongi's phone clicks to voicemail. Hoseok says, “Hey, Yoongs. We're doing chicken, not sure where, but I'll send the address. Come join us, okay?”

Hoseok hangs up. He lingers, wondering if he should try again, or if he should simply go down to the studio to get him, when Seokjin comes back into the room.

“Hey Joon-ah,” he says. “I'm gonna need a day next week, maybe just an afternoon.”

Hoseok quashes his need to remind Seokjin of next week's packed schedule, which includes a pictorial, three radio shows, recording their appearance on Knowing Bros , and the preliminary round of promotions for the new album.

“Sure, yeah, of course,” Namjoon says, “Everything okay?”

Seokjin sits, heavily. Taehyung reaches for his hand.

“I have to say goodbye to Jjangu,” Seokjin says. “It's time.” He says it like, I have to pick up my prescription from the pharmacy, but Hoseok knows it's taking all his effort for Seokjin to smooth the rough edges from his voice.

“I can go with you,” Taehyung offers, softly.

Seokjin pats Taehyung's hand. “It's okay. Thank you.”

Hoseok's phone vibrates. He reads Yoongi's message, which amounts to, Too busy, not hungry, catch you later.

Hoseok watches Namjoon and Taehyung as they soothe Seokjin. Jimin and Jungkook are on their way, probably brimming over with the kind of delirious energy borne from too much work on too little sleep.

They should all go out. They should all eat too much, and they should drink. They should comfort each other, and congratulate each other, because it was a long, grueling summer, and yet they’ve survived. And Yoongi should be there.

Hoseok dials again. Yoongi answers this time, but Hoseok doesn't give him the chance to speak. “You're coming out with us, hyung, if I have to come down there myself and drag your ass out.”

“All right, do it,” Yoongi says.

“Excuse me?”

“Come drag my ass out.”

“I will do it—”

“—I'm counting on it.” Then Yoongi hangs up, leaving Hoseok to stare, incredulous, at the silent phone in his hand.

Cautiously, Namjoon asks, “Everything okay?”

“Yep,” Hoseok says, glowing with faux cheer. “I'm off to collect Yoongi. Message me when you get to the place.”

Hoseok decides to forego the shower. He can even skip changing his clothes, though they're stiff with sweat and smell like sour orange juice. Most likely, Yoongi's as grubby as he is, given that he's been bedding down on that sad, lumpy sofa that's still crammed into his studio.

Any anyway, the point is Yoongi will be joining them. There were days early on when Yoongi made a habit of rescuing him, so Hoseok has zero issue with finally returning the favor.

Chapter Text

"I still don’t know how to be thankful towards you.
I’ve been living all this time, all too freely.”
Eomma, Ra. D (covered by Kim Seokjin)

16 September 2017 – Day

It's been a long time since Seokjin rode in a car driven by his mother. Years, he thinks. Easily, years. In his lap, beneath his hands, Jjangu trembles. Lighter than a pile of dried flowers, he does his best to keep completely still, as if every movement pains him. Which it probably does, despite the medication the doctor prescribed to ease his discomfort.

“Eomma?” Seokjin asks.

She turns left against the traffic. “Yes, Seokjinnie,” she says. “You're doing the right thing.”

They continue to ride in silence. The leaves on the ginkgo trees have begun to burnish honey orange and apple red. The air feels raw after last night's rains, and the scent of the mountains blends with the smell of his mother's expensive hand cream. He has a strange twinge of nostalgia, as though time has doubled back on itself, and he's revisiting twelve-year-old Seokjin, riding home with his mom from a Children's Day celebration.

He tries to think back to that time, but it blurs like the scenery beyond his window. She must have driven him to badminton practice and birthday parties and lessons at his hagwon academy. He dimly recalls trips taken in the backseat, with Seokjung beside him, his father driving, his mother riding where Seokjin sits now. Ski weekends and summer picnics, Chuseok and Seollal, all those important family pilgrimages he assumed would go on forever.

Jjangu shudders, jarring Seokjin back to the present. He pets his tiny, frail body until the spasms subside. His mother says, “There you go, sweet boy. We're almost home now. Almost home.”

The tenderness in her voice makes Seokjin ache.

In the driveway outside their house, Seokjin gingerly lifts Jjangu into his arms. He follows his mother up the front steps, cooing softly to Jjangu, who sniffs, perturbed, and nuzzles his dry nose against his palm.

In the marble foyer, his mother goes through her habit of sloughing her jacket and heeling off her shoes. She talks the whole time, chattering about making tea and settling the bed for Jjangu, and would Seokjin like something to eat? when suddenly, she draws up to her full height and tucks her fists against her hips.

Seokjin follows her line of sight to a cardboard cube resting on the kitchen table.

“What is that?” Seokjin asks.

His mother hums, uncertain. She eases Jjangu from his arms, cradling him like a baby against her chest so that Seokjin can remove his shoes, too. His mother follows him across the kitchen as he goes to investigate. It's a blue-and-white box with a series of coin-sized holes around the lid. As he nears, he hears a purposeful scritching noise inside.

He glances back at his mother. She gives him a carefully blank expression that makes him think she knows more than she's letting on. Before he opens the box,  he sees a handwritten note tucked beneath one corner. His mother comes to rest beside him. “Read it,” she nudges.

A feeling of resistance surges up inside him. He doesn't want to read the letter. He doesn't want to know who it's from, or what's inside, but at the same time, he already does know.

Through clenched teeth, he mutters, “Abeoji.” Then he unfolds the note reads the words aloud: “Of course I remember.”

The rest is a list of instructions – the do's and don'ts of caring for sugar gliders – but Seokjin doesn't read them. Instead, he whips back the lid of the carton, startling the two tiny creatures huddled inside.

Seokjin puts his hands to his forehead. “Why?” he yelps. “Why would he do this?”

His mother makes a noise of indignation. “Well, he thought you would want them, didn't he?”

“Well, where is he?” Seokjin shouts. Jjangu tremors in his mother's arms. Immediately Seokjin lowers his voice. “Why isn't he here?”

His mother's lips purse. With a light sigh, she says, “He's doing the best he can.”

Seokjin bites down his first response, which is to yell that it isn't enough. Because it isn't. And who would ever think that this is a good idea – switching out one pet for another, like they're batteries in a remote control?

Only...

Seokjin peers into the box, where the sugar gliders have begun to flit and scramble through shreds of cedar bedding. Seokjin carefully reaches in, cupping his hand around the larger of the two. His heart leaps as it curls against his palm. Its nails prick like thorns into his skin as it proceeds to diligently hike into his sleeve.

“Oh?” Seokjin gasps. “Oh!” The sugar glider scrabbles between his shirt and jacket, nestling into the bend of his elbow, where it begins to spin in frantic little flips.

Softly, his mother says, “Perhaps he thought you wouldn't be bringing Jjangu home today.”

All over again, Seokjin feels queasy at his decision. The veterinarian assured him there was no treatment to improve Jjangu's condition. Their only options were pain management, or what the doctor called “a more humane approach.”

Yet Seokjin couldn't bring himself to do it.

Maybe it was selfish.

Maybe he was needlessly prolonging his suffering.

But with everything that’s going on right now, in his life and with the others, with his Dad, and with Taehyung... he could not bring himself to let Jjangu go.   

“He’s not in any pain,” his mother reminds him, as if she’s reading his thoughts. Probably not too difficult considering she’s been reading him since birth, but her understanding soothes him. “And this way, you can say goodbye to him while he’s still able to respond to it.”

In the box, the second sugar glider sends up a plaintive squeak. The first one, still balling up in the crook of his elbow, begins to snuffle its way back toward his wrist. Seokjin eases it out of the sleeve, gently jostling the sugar glider into the box. It tumbles clumsily out, then springs into action, like for all its tininess it’s ready to rip something to shreds. Instantly, the dam in Seokjin’s heart bursts.

Aigoo ,” he gushes. “Eomma, did you see that?”

“That one’s like me,” his mother says. “I’m the feisty one of my family, too.”

Seokjin snorts, and his mother casts a sharp look in his direction. “No, Eomma,” he says, chuckling. He rarely contradicts his mother, but her statement borders on outrageous.  “You’re the quiet one. The well-behaved one. It’s Auntie who’s the feisty one.”

“Ha!” his mother says.  “Exactly what she hopes you’ll think, but what is she but so much noise and bluster? No, Seokjinnie. I’m the true fighter in my family. Just like you.”

“Me?” Now she’s being ridiculous.

“Yes. You.” She scratches Jjangu’s jaw. “Well, and Jjangu,” she pouts. “Isn’t that right?”

Jjangu licks his lips like he’s unimpressed. It amazes Seokjin that the dog can be terminally ill and still so sassy.  

“We’re both fighters, you and me,” his mother says, carefully passing Jjangu back to him. “But we’re the best kind, because we only fight when we have to.”

“Yes.” Seokjin agrees. ”That I believe is true.” He lifts Jjangu to his chest, folding his shivering body into the wings of his coat. He smells like dry leaves and rubbing alcohol, an oddly familiar and not-unpleasant scent. He thinks about his mother’s words, and about the intricate, secret plans he’s made in his effort to fight for Taehyung. Quiet plans, everything behind-the-scenes.

Then he wonders about his mother and the careful line she’s had to tread this last year, going between him and his father. Seokjin can easily picture her nudging his father, gently, subtly, into Seokjin’s path. Never yelling, never speaking the words outright, yet all the while quietly advocating on behalf of her son.

His mother lifts the lid to the box. “I can return them to the pet store if you can’t keep them. If that list’s any indication, they might require too much care—”

“—No,” Seokjin blurts. “No, I’ll take them.”

“Maybe your Taehyung can help you?” she says, giving him smile to show she’s trying.

Seokjin doesn’t see the point in bringing up what’s happening between him and Taehyung. Mentioning their current issues will only cause her stress.

So he sighs, heavily, and says instead, “Yeah. Maybe.”

She reaches to comb her fingers over Jjangu’s brow. “I know how busy you’ll be in the next month, so it’s okay if you don’t make it back when he passes.”

“Eomeoni,” he whispers. His chin trembles. He tightens his jaw to keep it in check.

She moves her hand from Jjangu’s whiskers to Seokjin’s chin. She says, “We'll do our best to stay positive, won't we?”

She pats his cheek and gives him her strongest, most dazzling smile, which looks, in this light, a whole lot like his.

Chapter Text

“You are the sun I met in the darkness.
You rise in my heart like a fire.
Don’t disappear from me anymore, wait for me.”
Rise, Taemin

16 September 2017 – Night

“Didn't think you’d make it,” the Frog Prince says, and Taehyung nearly blunders into him. The Frog Prince is skulking between buildings, his bootheels scuffing the sidewalk, and he stubs out his cigarette on the bricks as he moves to meet him.

“I didn't either,” Taehyung admits. He squeezes the key in his pocket so hard it bites into the fat of his thumb.

Taehyung checks to secure his mask. Two days before comeback means keeping a low profile; getting caught out on the street with the Frog Prince won't do anyone any favors.

But when the Frog Prince begins to walk, Taehyung follows, falling in step without daring to ask where they're going. Taehyung stares at the side of his neck, at the crisp line of his neatly-cropped hair. A small mole hides behind his ear, and Taehyung trembles, but he can’t tell if it’s with excitement or with dread.

“Here, I got these,” he tells Taehyung, passing him a rumpled paper bag.

Taehyung peeks inside. “Lanterns?” he guesses.

“For later,” the Frog Prince says. They slice between streets, through a market huddled with red restaurant tents. The odors of boiled tripe and beondegi curdle his stomach. “For now, drinks.”

Taehyung hesitates.

“Drinks,” he insists. “You ran out on me, you owe me drinks.”

Guilt gets the better of him. “Yeah, okay,” Taehyung agrees, and they step into a convenience store for bottles of Soju and packets of chips.

 

Several bottles of Soju later, they head back out into the night. Despite a bowl of spicy ramen, Taehyung’s tipping closer to drunk than he likes. He knows what too much drinking does to him, and he’s desperately trying to reel himself back in.

Meanwhile, the Frog Prince seems grimly determined as they skirt along the street, heading steadily down toward the river. Soon they leave the night crowds in Hangang Park, and it's only them and the Dongjak Bridge beneath the oil-slick black of the sky. People still stream by, in pairs or by themselves, a reminder that, no matter where they are, they are never alone. But even so, once it's dark enough, Taehyung risks removing his mask.

“So. Here we are,” the Frog Prince slurs, smiling. There's a bright mischief tangled in that smile, and Taehyung's afraid of how badly it could snare him.

Taehyung says, “I think too much about you.” His thoughts scatter like beads from a broken bracelet. He focuses on speaking them one at a time. “And I shouldn't. I should be focused on... my work, and my members, and my—”

“—Hold up.” The Frog Prince raises a hand. “Kindly slow down. I'm still processing the first sentence.” He cracks open another bottle of Soju and passes it to Taehyung. He does the same for himself, immediately drinking half of it down. Taehyung feels he shouldn’t, but he does anyway, going slower as if it'll make a difference at this point.

“Okay.” The Frog Prince smiles again, damn him, and then he says, “Maybe, have you considered, that you think about me the exact right amount? And I mean, really, who decides what we should do, what we’re supposed to do? ‘Limit your carbs,’ they say. 'Call your parents more,’ they say. Or the classic favorite, ‘You should like girls.’  So if there’s a word in the world I despise, it’s should, right up there with supposed to.”

Taehyung stares at his bottle. He says, “But isn't it wrong to fixate on someone? To obsess...?”

Because in the beginning, wasn’t Taehyung obsessed with Seokjin? Hadn’t he been deliriously fixated on him?

The Frog Prince smirks. “Aw, Tae-Tae, are you infatuated with me?”

Heat blazes into Taehyung’s cheeks. “Maybe,” he says. He gulps down his bottle of Soju. The Frog Prince laughs and reaches for Taehyung's hand, but Taehyung curls his fists into his pockets.

“But I love someone,” Taehyung says.

“I love someone, too,” the Frog Prince says. The mirth winks out of his face, replaced with a flash of bitterness. “But he's decided to focus on his solo career...” He drinks. “And anyway, you are too young and way too hot to be so conflicted. So I suggest that, for tonight only, just... be.”

“Be... what?” Taehyung asks. He squeezes the key in his pocket. The yarn tangles between his fingers.

The Frog Prince’s smile returns. “Whatever you want. Whoever you want. No should or shouldn’t. No one judging. No one holding you back. Besides, didn't you say you and your person have taken a break?”

“Yeah, but...” Taehyung says. Heat leaks like poison in his belly and swells into his chest.

“Maybe you can use this time to figure things out?”

“I have been,” Taehyung says.

“And—?”

“And I still love him.” Taehyung scrubs his eye with the back of his hand. “I don't understand why I feel so drawn to you. I don't want to be.”

“Ha, well, we don't get to choose who we find attractive, do we?” The Frog Prince glares at the bottle between them. Then he says, “Although, I am hella magnetic...”

Taehyung sniffs but doesn't quite laugh.

The Frog Prince raises his hands. “That's it.” He stands up. “We're doing this.” He takes the paper bag with him. Staring back down, he points to Taehyung. “Drink,” he commands.

Taehyung gets out a second bottle. The Frog Prince unwraps the cellophane from the lanterns, and Taehyung drinks. Except for the noodles, he hasn't eaten all day, and the alcohol has begun to wobble in his knees.

“It's no good being stuck,” the Frog Prince proclaims. He ferrets a marker from his pocket. Then, kneeling, he spreads one lantern flat on the grass between them. “It's no good being... trapped. It's time to move on, Taehyung. Don’t you want to move on?”

“I don't know,” he answers. His own voice sounds far away.

The Frog Prince scrawls a name across the front of the lantern.

Taehyung stares, struck dumb with disbelief. “Really? Him?” he asks.

“With all my heart,” the Frog Prince says. He sniffs. “With too much of my heart.” He begins to scribble a message beneath the name, his pen strokes growing more frenzied as he writes. “Get out the other one,” he tells Taehyung. “Write a message to the universe, write whatever you wish. Tonight's the night we move on. Both of us.”

Taehyung crouches over his lantern. His heart thunders. His head swims. He feels like all of this is moving too fast, that he’s getting too swept up.  He glances over at the letter the Frog Prince is writing, entranced by the sweep of his shoulder as his arm moves over the characters.

“What are you doing?” he calls back to Taehyung. “Are you writing?”

“I'm watching you,” he answers, numbly. Everything feels swoopy and dizzy. All he wants is to lie down in the grass and watch the stars.

“Stop watching,” the Frog Prince shouts. “Start doing.”

Taehyung draws a heart in the center of the lantern. He pauses, crippled by a sudden, aching stab in his chest. His words tumble from his lips as he speaks his confession aloud. He says, “It’s been four years, and we’ve weathered everything together. Fighting and sex and sickness and fear. I owe you my whole galaxy. I owe you that much.” The words stagger from his lips; he fights to force them out. “What I want keeps changing, because I keep changing. But when I’m with you, I only want you, and I hate who I am right now.”

His throat goes rough from his tears. He whispers, “Over and over, you tell me you’ll wait for me while I figure this out. You’ll wait, but…” Tears splash down Taehyung’s cheeks. “But wouldn’t it be better… Wouldn’t it be kinder… just to let you go?”

The Frog Prince leans back, pen in hand, to stare at Taehyung. “Write that,” he whispers.

Taehyung shudders. He presses the pen to the paper, feeling its soft crinkle beneath his hand. He feels a sense of change, but also permanence, of longing and discontent, pulling and pulling deep inside him. Instead, Taehyung writes, I'm sorry. Then he sits back and caps the pen.

“I'm ready,” Taehyung states, flatly.

“Are you?” The Frog Prince watches a moment, then returns to finish his writing. They assemble the lanterns in silence and then walk, side by side, to the water's edge. The river wimples beneath an inconstant breeze, cut to bits by moonlight and the halogen gleam of the bridge. Taehyung braces himself against the railing, willing his legs to stop trembling.

The Frog Prince ignites the wick of his lantern, then passes his lighter to Taehyung. The orange glow glares up, wincingly bright, as Taehyung lights his own. He breathes over it, fanning the flame, and in seconds, the lantern strains to escape his grasp.

He closes his eyes. He thinks of Seokjin, his eyes aglow with candlelight, his full lips pursed and expectant. A thousand memories flicker, the nickelodeon of their life together, collapsing down to this single image of Seokjin's face the second before he smiles.  

Taehyung opens his hands. The lantern lifts, borne upon an unseen breath, and his first thought is, No! Yet even as he reaches to catch it, the wind conspires to send it upward, and Taehyung stands there, staring at his empty hands.

“Hey.” The Frog Prince bumps his shoulder. Laughing, he gestures to his own lantern, which skimmed too close to the river. It gutters like the Titanic before it sinks, violently, beneath the surface of the Han. “So much for metaphors, huh?”

Taehyung turns to him.

“Kiss me,” the Frog Prince says.

“What? Here?”

He kisses him. Taehyung shoves him back.

“Isn’t this what you want?” the Frog Prince pants, his eyes alight with anger and intrigue. “Hm?” He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

Taehyung whimpers, “I don't know.”

“Well, you're in luck,” the Frog Prince says. “'Cause that's good enough for me.”

 

The Frog Prince leads them, stumbling, to a place down in Sinchon. It's late, and it's dark, and they drank along the way, and in a somber stairwell, the Frog Prince kisses his neck and peels the coat from Taehyung's shoulders. It sweeps him away, and maybe he wants to get swept away?

There are condoms in the complimentary toiletry bag.

Taehyung scrambles to remember, but the Frog Prince keeps scattering those memories, with his tongue, and with his teeth, and with his hands on him as he slams him against the wall. He burns like fire incarnate, and his tongue licks flame behind Taehyung’s ear and down his neck.

Taehyung clenches his eyes. He wants this. No. He wants to want this.

Only, there are condoms in the toiletry bag, and shouldn't they talk about this? Shouldn't there be a conversation, and a plan and...

“Stop,” Taehyung mutters.

“Shh.” The Frog Prince plunges his hand down the front of Taehyung pants.

Taehyung's eyes fly open. “Stop, I can't,” he says. Then, more firmly, he repeats, “I can't.”

The Frog Prince chuckles, a bitter sound like burnt black coffee. “You can, Taehyung.” But then he eases back, and Taehyung doesn't know what to do about the tears in another man’s eyes. “But you won't, will you?”

Taehyung touches tentative fingers to the places where he kissed him. He smooths over the wounds, praying that there are no visible marks to give him away. He straightens the creases of his clothes. He pats down his hair. Across from him, the Frog Prince smirks, half bemused and half pissed off.

“So this is it, huh? The end to your epic, grand adventure?” The Frog Prince laughs. “For god’s sake, Tae, what the hell am I supposed to do? I really need this right now, and aren’t you supposed to be, like, finding yourself?

Quietly, Taehyung breathes, “I think I just did.”

The Frog Prince grates out a noise of frustration. He jerks the toiletry bag from Taehyung and says, “Looks like I'm on my own tonight.” He gives Taehyung a shove toward the stairs.

But Taehyung hovers, his arms slack at his sides. He fights the urge to apologize.

With a sigh, the Frog Prince waves the card key over the lock and then kicks open the door. “Go home, Taehyung,” he says, and then he steps inside.

Chapter Text

“Someday we'll see
what forever means
My love. ”
You Are Mine, Secret Nation feat. Holley Maher

30 September 2017 – Day

They have their comeback, then a week of promotions, and then Jjangu dies. Seokjin has to text backstage with his mother to make arrangements for Jjangu's burial, but then he must go out to perform. The others comfort him afterward, but in truth, Seokjin feels guilty. He can’t grieve for his dog, not when this time last year, Taehyung lost his grandmother. This is a difficult time of year for Taehyung; it makes him weepy and clingy, so Seokjin focuses his energy on that.

Which works out all well and good until three days later, when Seokjin wakes up feeling sore and disoriented. He wanders around all day, feeling achy and unfocused, but he dismisses it as muscle fatigue and hunger until he tries to get up from the dinner table and kind of… doesn’t.

He wakes again sometime later with Hoseok shoving a thermometer at his face.

“But I’m fine,” Seokjin protests.

“You’re burning up,” Hoseok says.

Again, Seokjin tries to stand, and again, he stumbles. His bones feel loose in his body. His teeth ache, and everything feels off. He dazes between sleep and wakefulness, gaining clarity once in the car with Namjoon and Hoseok as Sejin-nim drives them to the ER.

Nurses poke and prod at him before he’s admitted for an overnight observation. At some point, someone calls his mother. She arrives in one of her fine linen suits to sit at Seokjin’s bedside, reading magazines while he floats in and out of consciousness.

At 7 a.m., Seokjin wakes up to mope in an itchy hospital gown, his nose filled with the aseptic scent of ammonia. Lulled by the constant burble of various machines, his mother has fallen asleep, a magazine poised her hands, making her look like an artfully-posed wax mannequin.

When they admitted him, a nurse hooked up an IV drip to stave off dehydration. The place where the tape keeps the needle in his skin is the only thing he can feel.

Maybe without it, he would drift away.

And maybe he should. Maybe that's the whole point of an overnight observation. He's supposed to rest and recuperate. After the super-cyclone of the last two weeks, he could probably use several nights and buckets of soup to regain his strength.

Last week, they filmed for the SBS Super Concert – 24 hours straight. Namjoon stumbled during one performance, and Taehyung, who has been pushing himself with a near-fatalistic tenacity, actually fainted on stage. But Seokjin had been there to catch him. Seokjin managed to physically catch him, which made him feel like a superhero, like he was Strong Woman Do Bong Soon.

Then last night, he felt like he was dying. He remembers everything through a fever haze, but he knows he felt vaguely embarrassed for having to brace against Hoseok as they crossed the hospital lobby. Everything kept tipping up and down like they were on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, and he had to cling to Hope and Sejin to stay upright.

But now that it’s morning again, Seokjin doesn’t feel great, but neither does he think he needs to be hospitalized.

Also, he's a little bored. And sweaty. And annoyed. And maybe a little hungry.

He's hunting for his phone when he hears a knock upon the door. Trying not to disturb his mother, Seokjin calls a quiet, “Hello?” but the moment the door opens, she snaps awake like she's never been asleep.

Namjoon enters, trailed by Jimin and Taehyung, who are bickering at each other like a pair of surly meerkats. Turning to them, Namjoon whispers, “This is why they only allow two of us at a time.”

“He's the loud one,” Jimin hisses back. “Tell him.”

Namjoon sends a long-suffering look to Seokjin. He says, “Uh, I think I just did.”

Taehyung shuts the door. He steps in, bowing deeply to Seokjin's mother. “Eomma Kim,” he says, bowing again. “It's good to see you.”

They take turns greeting her before Taehyung steps to Seokjin's side. He says, “Tell them to cancel the broadcast, hyung. They'll do it if you tell them.”

Seokjin feels adrift. He mumbles, “Broadcast?”

“We promised our fans, Taehyung-ie,” Jimin says. “We can't break our promise. Plus, Jin-hyung doesn’t want us fussing over him.”

He definitely does not want them fussing over him. But the other part…? Seokjin dimly recalls something about a Vlive, but everything feels disjointed and strange. “Is that today?” Seokjin rasps.

Taehyung looks equal parts frantic and offended. “Yes, hyung, that’s today.”

Sensing Taehyung’s mood, Seokjin’s mother says, “Namjoon-ah, I could use some coffee. Why don't you and Jimin-ah help me find some so these two can have a nice, private chat?”

In a flash, Seokjin remembers he hasn’t told his mother about him and Taehyung and the break they’re supposed to be taking. She still believes they’re happily dating and in need of alone time after a frightening night apart. Mortified, Seokjin goes, “Oh, but we're not—”

“—going to film without Seokjin,” Taehyung cuts in. “Because we love him too much.”

Jimin shoots him a scathing glare. “Are you saying we don’t love him?”

Taehyung grips Seokjin's hands with a fierceness that seems both desperate and excessive. Even through his medicine haze, this sends up a red flag of alarm.

Leaning close to Taehyung's ear, Seokjin asks, “What is wrong with you?”

Taehyung says, “You're in the hospital.”

Seokjin plucks his hospital gown. “I'm well aware.”

“And they're gonna film a Vlive without you,” Taehyung moans. “It isn't right.”

“But we promised,” Seokjin says.

“See, told you,” Jimin chirps.

Namjoon groans, “Jimin-ah.”

Seokjin thinks, Why is Jimin even here? But he says, “It’s fine. Really, we're so busy right now, and if this is the only time—”

“—It is not the only time,” Taehyung says, but the words sound all pinched and nasal.

“We're going to film in that restaurant you took me and Kookie to that one time,” Jimin adds. Namjoon meets Seokjin's eyes again, but their shared chagrin only makes him laugh. Until Seokjin sees the tears in Taehyung's eyes, which ignites another flare of worry inside him.

“I don't wanna film without you,” Taehyung says.

“Aw,” Seokjin's mother says. She pudges out her bottom lip and tousles Taehyung's hair. “What a kind young man you are.”

Then Taehyung begins to weep, bitterly, piteously, and Seokjin feels both dumbstruck and horrified as his mother wraps Taehyung into a hug. Taehyung's sobs blend with the hush of one of the machines, and conflicting thoughts storm up in Seokjin’s brain. They fight for his attention, but he is far too exhausted to sort them out.

After a moment, Namjoon moves to dispel the tension. “This isn't the first time we've filmed without all the members,” he explains. “And Jin-hyung needs his rest. They admitted him with a fever of 39.6.”

“Jin-hyung,” Jimin gasps.

And Seokjin moans, “I'm fine.”

Only he is not fine. His eyes feel like boiling oranges, and his throat aches like he’s tried to swallow glass. Also, his dog died, his father's still not talking to him, his maybe-boyfriend's being weirdly needy, and oh right, they're filming a broadcast without him.

So, yeah, pretty far from fine. But he feels compelled, even in this state, to soothe Taehyung.

“VV,” he says. “May I ask you a favor?”

Taehyung releases Seokjin’s mother and returns to squeezing his hands. “Of course. Anything.”

“Will you look after Odeng-ie and Eomuk-ie? They'll be so upset if someone doesn't feed them.”

Jimin squawks, indignant. “What about me?” he asks.

“Don't you have a broadcast?” Seokjin snaps.

“So does Taehyung,” Jimin grumbles.

“VV,” Seokjin says. “Can you do that for me?”

Taehyung shrugs but concedes his defeat. “I hate this,” he mutters.

“Thank you,” Seokjin says. He ruffles Taehyung's hair.

“Okay, now,” his mother says. “I was serious about that coffee.”

Namjoon says, “Actually, we need to get going. We only came to check on hyung, to see if he's okay, and he is, so... May we walk down with you?” He tucks an arm around Taehyung's shoulder, herding him along.

“It's gonna be lit,” Jimin tells Taehyung. “They have the most amazing roast squid, you're gonna love it...”

Seokjin's mother snugs the blanket up to his chin. “I'll be right back,” she tells him. “You rest. They'll probably bring you breakfast soon.”

Normally, that would excite him, hospital food being food, after all. But as they stream from the room, Seokjin's eyelids grow leaden, and he drifts into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

"Days feel hard-earned
Night grows longer
Summer says its goodbyes.”
Lullaby, OneRepublic

30 September 2017 – Night

Uncounted hours later, Seokjin wakes, sweaty and sore, to find the room quiet but not empty. A man sits at this bedside, and assuming that it’s Sanghyun or Sejin, Seokjin lays there a long time, not wanting to disturb them.

Only, after several minutes, the man makes a soft, distinctive noise in the back of his throat, and Seokjin understands in a heartbeat who it is.

He holds himself very still while he tries to decide if he should be angry. In the end, he’s way too tired for so strong an emotion, so he says, simply, “Abeoji?”

The word grates out of him, a rusty croak, and his father comes over with a cup of water. As he angles the straw toward Seokjin’s lips, he decides he’s grateful, and relieved, and maybe only the smallest bit upset.

When Seokjin nods, his father returns to the spot where he sat before, just beyond Seokjin’s comfortable range of vision.

“Your friend was here,” his father says. He keeps his voice hushed, so he sounds like a person in church while everyone’s at prayer.

In his stupor, Seokjin asks, “Which one?”

“T-the one,” his father fumbles. “Your… one.”

“Taehyung-ah?”

“That one.” He stands again, this time stacking folded squares of cloth on Seokjin’s thigh. “He brought you these.” Nervously, he fluffs the corner of the pajamas. “He said the hospital gown’s probably too cold for you.”

“He did?” Then, “It is.”

“When the nurse comes in…” his father begins, but then he trails off, and Seokjin nods.

“She can help me put them on.”

Seokjin notices then that his IV’s been removed. He flexes his fingers and stares at the tape marks on his skin.

“They took that out right before I sent your Mother home,” his father explains. “She’ll return tomorrow. She needed sleep. She looked like a bandit.” He pantomimes a mask over her eyes, and then, chuckling, he stuffs his hands in his pockets.

“Apa!” Seokjin scolds. “She’d be so mad at you.”

“Which is how she spends most of her time these days,” his father says.

He falls quiet, then. He clears his throat, that same familiar quirk, and then he says, “Your friend, uhm, Taehyung, he said Odeng and Eomuk are doing well, and that he fed them, and that one of them bit his thumb.”

Seokjin cups his mouth.

His father says, “You like them, then?”

“They’re wonderful, Apa,” Seokjin says. He can’t bring himself to look at his father’s face, so he stares at his hands instead. “I love them.”

“I hoped you would.”

His father’s thumb is like his own thumb, thicker, but double-jointed. Seokjin wonders if he’s ever noticed it before.

“We researched them,” Abeoji says, “Your brother and me. We read up on them before I bought them.”

“Did you?”

“Of course.” His father nods. “I know they require a lot of care. They’re noisy and nocturnal, which I knew could be a problem for you, given your schedule. But also, interestingly,” his father’s fingers find the edge of the blanket and tugs on it, “they tend to latch onto a favorite person.”

“I have noticed that,” Seokjin laughs.

“Jjangu was that way,” Abeoji says. “His favorite person was—”

“—Definitely not me,” Seokjin finishes. He catches the corner of his father’s smile.

“He favored me,” Abeoji says. “He was my dog, my Jjangu. I was at home when he…” He shakes his head. “It was like he waited.”

Tears ache behind Seokjin’s eyes. “Abeoji, I’m sorry.”

“Did you know,” his father says, abruptly changing the subject, “another thing I learned about sugar gliders? Something I never knew before, but apparently,” he falters, as if he’s unsure how to proceed, but then he blunders right through it, “They tend to work best in pairs of the same sex, isn’t that fascinating?”

“Oh.” Seokjin presses the smile from his lips. “I, um… sure?”

“I didn’t know that. About… animals,” his father says. He raps his knuckles on the guardrail. “Anyway, I’m sure you’re tired.”

Seokjin risks a glance at his father’s face. He looks worried first, but hopeful, too, despite the firm set of his jaw and the sharp check-mark sweep of his eyebrows.

“If you ever need a place for them to stay, while you’re abroad or promoting, we’ll take care of them for you. Us, or Seokjung. Just like we did with Jjangu. You bring them to us, or we’ll come get them.” He pauses. “Okay?”

Seokjin understands that is his father’s peace offering, his best means of making amends. He’ll probably never speak an apology, and Seokjin doesn’t know if he could bear it if he did. He’s also not sure if it means his father accepts him or not, but it is a step in the right direction, one that Seokjin is relieved for them to take.

“Yes, Abeoji,” Seokjin says. “Thank you.”

His father returns to his chair. He picks up the same magazine his mother had been reading. Seokjin presses the call button, signalling for a nurse to come help him out of his wretched hospital gown.

And while he waits, he has a moment of clarity as he understands, for the first time in his life, that no matter how much he might have wanted to be like his father, they are nothing alike. But maybe, in spite of everything, they might just be okay.

Chapter Text

“If I can live through this,
I can do anything.”
Champion, Fallout Boy feat. RM

3 October 2017

“Not gonna lie,” Namjoon says. “Jin-hyung's night in the hospital really freaked me out.”

Yoongi goes, “Yep.”

“Seeing him there, all waxy and puffy-eyed, it was such a stark contrast from, like, days earlier, when he was carrying Jimin piggyback across the practice room, you know?”

Yoongi nods. “I know it.”

“It forced me to see things from a different perspective. It made me reconsider our kamikaze commitment to this mission of ours, and the toll it's taking on us, and I wonder about how much is too much? You know what I'm saying? At what point will one of us break?”

Yoongi deadpans, “At last, you're speaking my language.”

“And now this,” Namjoon sighs. He rereads the message from Bang Sihyuk and Sanghyun-nim. “Honestly, I can't believe you're not more upset about it.”

Yoongi lifts one shoulder. “I'm dead inside.”

“Dude,” Namjoon says, and Yoongi grimaces.

“Okay, look, you're right,” Yoongi says, at last facing Namjoon. “I worry about ‘how much is too much’ all the damn time, and right now, just so we’re clear, I'm on the fucking brink.”

Jimin opens the outer door. He and Taehyung enter, followed by Jungkook. As Namjoon feared, Jungkook looks anxious, like he's afraid he's done something wrong.

“Yep,” Namjoon mumbles. “We are super clear.” He half-stands to wave the maknaes into the room. They're partially settled around the table when Seokjin enters, followed a few seconds later by Hoseok.

As they range around the staff table, quietly like they know something's up, Namjoon opens the box of doughnuts at the table's center. He doesn't reach for one because his stomach's unsteady, and the saccharine scent of them is enough to set it churning. They all watch him, though, their eyes wary, their postures closed.

“So, okay,” Namjoon begins. “I want you all to understand that none of this is anyone's fault.” He meets Jungkook's eyes. “None of it. However. It seems some of our personal information has been leaked to the public.”

Tension ribbons around the table as they process this news.

“Like... what? Exactly?” Hoseok asks.

“Our address, for starters,” Namjoon says. “And important dates on our itineraries, upcoming promotions, personal trips.”

As expected, Jungkook and Seokjin glance up at these words. They've both planned secret trips, so Namjoon tries to be as discreet as possible. “They leaked travel dates, airport departures and arrivals, destinations—”

“—But who?” Jimin cries. “And how? How could this happen?”

“Well, we're not exactly certain yet,” Namjoon says. “But PD-nim believes it was a member of the cleaning staff—”

“—Bastards,” Hoseok breathes.

“Whose employment has been terminated,” Namjoon soothes. “Anyway, a preliminary check of the house turned up webcams and some tampering with the company-owned computers. As far as we know, none of our personal devices have been compromised.”

“Well, that's a relief,” Seokjin says. Taehyung glowers. “What?” Seokjin goes on. “We don't save anything on company computers anymore.”

“That's good,” Yoongi says. “It's smart. We should all be that smart.”

“But our house?” Jimin says. “Someone put cameras in our house ?”

“Only in the common room,” Namjoon says. “And judging by the feed, only for a few days before it was found and removed...”

Jungkook presses his hands to his eyes. He gives them a deep, worrisome scrub. Then he says, “So... our personal plans?”

“Yeah, about that,” Namjoon says. “It's best to cancel and reschedule. I know how disappointing this must be, but we do have some free time at the end of the month—”

“—Oh, don't be sad,” Jimin says. “Jungkookie! Were you going home for Chuseok?”

“Um, well,” Jungkook says. “Not exactly.” He licks his teeth behind his lips. “May I go take care of this now? There could be a cancellation fee...”

“Sure,” Namjoon says. “Of course.”

“I'll come with you,” Jimin says.

“No,” Taehyung snaps. It's so sharp that everyone turns to gape at him. “Uhm,” he fumbles. “Joon-hyung-ie's not done with the meeting, right?”

It's a good save. Namjoon nods. “It's true. I'm not. Jungkook can handle his own business.” Jungkook shares a tight smile with Taehyung as he leaves the room, and Namjoon scrambles to continue. “In the meantime, since we'll all be here now for Chuseok, maybe we can arrange our own celebration. Especially since Jin-hyung wasn’t there for our Vlive broadcast.”

Seokjin pushes up from his chair, his phone in hand. “I'll, um... be right back,” he says, dialing as he leaves the room.

Jimin pouts. “I don't like this house.”

Hoseok rubs his shoulder. “We're getting a new place soon.”

“Yeah, months from now. And how can we be sure this won't happen in a new place?” Jimin asks. “We're always gonna have staff and interns and cleaning people, and some of them will be untrustworthy, especially as we gain more recognition—”

“—Look, Jimin,” Yoongi says, leaning in. “That's been true since before debut. Hashtag idol life, blah blah blah. The thing is, they caught the person responsible. And considering the fuck-ton of secret crap someone could’ve got on camera, we should count ourselves lucky.”

“Super lucky,” Taehyung chimes in. Something in his tone snags Namjoon's attention. Taehyung looks nervous and squirmy, like a child waiting outside the principal's office. Guilty, if Namjoon has to guess, and he figures he's better than average at reading Taehyung.

Experimentally, Namjoon asks, “Doughnut, Taehyung?”

He gazes into the box before sighing, “No thanks.”

Hoseok reaches for the lemon cream. “Someone’s gotta eat ’em,” he says.

And then Seokjin returns. Before sitting, he grabs for a chocolate glazed.

“All good?” Namjoon asks.

“All good,” Seokjin confirms. He bites into his doughnut, then offers half of it to Taehyung. He pinches off a bite and chews it like it's made of sawdust. Namjoon decides Taehyung is acting a little weird, but then he has to consider Taehyung. He's like a weather-vane, his mood shifting with every breath of wind, and with everything that's going on – with this recent news, and Seokjin's illness, and their album’s success, and their impending trip to America for the AMAs – isn't it likely and understandable that he would be agitated?

Actually, it's probably more of a wonder we aren't all more upset, Namjoon muses, as he watches Jimin and Yoongi crumble beneath the temptation of pastries.

Jungkook enters a while later, looking satisfied and resolute. Discussion around the table devolves into talk about the remaining dates of the Wings tour and how it will overlap with their media schedule in America. In spite of everything, they still seem excited at the idea of crisscrossing the globe together to perform for their fans.

Everyone except Taehyung, who still doesn’t look quite right to Namjoon. When he's upset, Taehyung typically tries to suffer in silence, feeling that he shouldn’t burden the others with his problems. For years, Namjoon has listened to his mentor, Mr. Choi, telling him to trust his intuition. And right now, his intuition is screaming that Taehyung needs to talk.

The moment Seokjin begins to launch into a joke, Namjoon seizes the his opportunity. He nudges Taehyung and says, “Hey, man, you got a minute?”

“Now?”

Namjoon nods. He doesn’t give Taehyung the chance to answer. He gets up to lead him down the hall.

In the elevator, Taehyung bounces on his heels. He fidgets. He jiggles the zipper on his coat.

The moment they pass Yeonbi at the front desk and step out into the blustery October morning, Taehyung turns to him, blows out a breath, and states, flatly, “I think I cheated on him.”

Namjoon hovers on the concrete step. His brain fills with static. He puts a hand to his forehead.

“Hyung?”

“Gimme a minute,” Namjoon says. “I’m…That’s a heavy thing to just throw out there, so I’m... trying really hard to understand. What do you mean, you think you cheated on him?”

Taehyung ambles a few paces away from their building. Namjoon realizes that they’re on a crowded street in the middle of Gangnam, where anyone can hear what’s being said. Call him paranoid, but they did recently find webcams stashed in their house.

So Namjoon leads Taehyung down the block, to a service alley where he and Yoongi sometimes sit behind a rock wall to drink. The whole time, Namjoon chants his mantra: Listen without judgement, listen without judgement.

But at the same time, he recalls Seokjin’s face at the time of their last meeting, all of his careful planning and hard-won determination to keep up this fight.

When they get to the corner, Namjoon tells Taehyung, “I gotta admit I’m upset. But, like… aren’t you guys on some kind of break?”

“Like that matters?” Taehyung says. He rubs his nose on his sleeve. “I let someone kiss me. I let him touch me—”

“—Whoa,” Namjoon says, holding up his hands. “Whoa, Taehyung. Hang on a second, okay? Let me think about this. Let me absorb this.”

“But hyung,” Taehyung says, “I thought I wanted it. I thought I needed experiences because that’s what we’re supposed to want, right? That whole Abraxis-duality-embracing-temptation life. And I thought, Seokjin wants me to figure this out so I need to do it, to get it out of my system, whatever it is. But I—” He shudders. “—I don’t want to. And I thought it would be better for Seokjin if I just let him go, but I don’t want that either. I didn't like who I was in that moment, and I don't like who that person could become. And, hyung…” Taehyung slides down the concrete wall to the sidewalk and covers his head with his arms. He mumbles a few things that Namjoon can’t understand, and Namjoon crouches on the ground beside him.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, come on. Talk to me, okay. I’m right here.”

Taehyung gulps a breath. He says, “Seokjin always took such care with me. He always made sure we were okay, that we were safe and not afraid. I didn’t even know… I don’t think I know how to appreciate him, because he’s my first and my only, and I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

Namjoon’s heart hammers against his ribs. He says, “Taehyung, do we need to go find this guy and have words with him?”

“No,” Taehyung whispers. “No, it’s my fault. My doing. I’ve… oh god, I’ve messed this up so bad, how do I even fix this? And then he got sick, hyung, and I was so afraid. And I keep chewing the inside of my mouth when I sleep because the nightmares and… Because I see now that I don’t want anyone if it isn’t Seokjin, but it wasn’t clear before, and now it is, and I...I have to...”

Namjoon sees where Taehyung’s going; he attempts to roadblock him before he gets there. “No, Taehyung. No, you cannot tell him.”

Taehyung’s expression goes blank and soft-edged, like it does when he’s thinking about abstract things. “He told me he doesn’t want to know. He said he wouldn’t ask, but—”

“—So listen to that,” Namjoon says. “Don’t. Tell. Him.”

But Taehyung’s shaking his head. “I have to tell him.”

“It’ll only hurt him,” Namjoon says. He’s almost pleading now. “Taehyung-ah!”

“Aren’t we supposed to be honest, hyung?” Taehyung says.

And damned if that isn’t a loaded question, Namjoon thinks. Because, yes, they talk extensively about being honest and genuine in their lives, and in their lyrics. But in this situation, honesty comes at a price, and maybe Taehyung’s just young enough that he doesn’t quite comprehend that yet.

“I have at least tried this whole time to be honest,” Taehyung says. “So how can I face myself if I can’t tell him the truth?” he asks. “He’s the one I love. I can’t lie to him. Not about this.”

And though Namjoon hates it, he thinks he understands.

Namjoon breathes out. He says, “I don’t agree, but I get it. And I hope you’ll reconsider.” Taehyung begins to protest; Namjoon lifts his hands. “I’m only encouraging you to wait. Think about this — I know you already have — but think deeper, because it goes beyond you. Whether you know it or not, it affects us. All of us. So… wait a little while. Can you do that? For me?”

Taehyung scrubs the stubble on his lip as he considers. “Yes, hyung,” he says. “Yeah. Okay.”

Namjoon’s knees go watery with relief. They’re quiet a long moment, sitting there in the cool shadow of the alley wall, the sounds of traffic coalescing around them to blend with Taehyung’s sobs.

“Here,” Namjoon says. Gingerly, he brushes the tears from Taehyung’s lashes and wipes them gently from his face. “Take your time, all right? Get your breath. You go in like this, they’re gonna ask questions. And they don’t need to know yet, okay? Not until you’re ready. You’ll make your peace with Jin-hyung, I know you will—”

“—Really?” Taehyung’s voice sounds hollowly hopeful.

“The real question is whether you’ll make peace with yourself,” Namjoon says.

“I shouldn’t.” Taehyung trembles. “I should hold onto it like a piece of glass, so when it cuts me, I’ll remember, and I won’t forget how… how stupid I’ve been.”

“Stop,” Namjoon says, softly. He closes his hand over Taehyung’s. “That won’t help you.”

After a moment, Taehyung asks, “What will?”

“Time,” Namjoon guesses. “Us. Love. Good, hard work. But mostly time.”

Taehyung exhales. “Okay,” he mumbles.

After a while longer, Taehyung scrapes to his feet and reaches to pull Namjoon up, too. They return to the others, folding into the bustle of their brand-new plans for Chuseok. Only once they’ve returned to the others does Namjoon feel the sore awareness that, yet again, he’s caught between Seokjin’s and Taehyung’s secrets.  

 

Chapter Text

“I won't give up on us
Even if the skies get rough.
I'm giving you all my love
I'm still looking up.”
I Won't Give Up, Jason Mraz

kakaotalk
26 October 2017

Jinnie: VV, do you see the gold suitcase by the bed in my room?

BigHit Taehyung: ?? Suitcase? Are you going somewhere, where are you?

Jinnie: kasdfklj Do you see it?

BigHit Taehyung: This one <image>

BigHit Taehyung: Hey, where are Odeng and Eomuk?

Jinnie: That's the one (◠‿◠✿)

Jinnie: They're with Seokjung-ie.

Jinnie: Please bring me the case.

BigHit Taehyung: uuhhhhhhh again where are you?

Jinnie: Go look outside.

 

He's leaning on the hood of a gleaming white sedan, his feet crossed at the ankles and sunglasses across his face, like he's some kind of Hollywood superstar.

Taehyung rolls the suitcase to a stop.

“What is this?”

“A kidnapping,” Seokjin says. He tugs his glasses off, but they snag in his hair, which sorta spoils the whole tough-guy facade. “Get in.”

“B-but I don't have...” Taehyung protests, and then it clicks. “A suitcase.”

Seokjin grins as he opens the car door. “Ready?”

Taehyung pats his pockets. He has the key that Seokjin gave him; he has his phone...

“Your charger's in the bag,” Seokjin says. “So's your wallet, your toothbrush, your razor...I packed everything.”

Taehyung perks up.

Every thing,” Seokjin confirms.

“Hyung, is this a road trip?” Taehyung asks, sliding into the passenger seat.

His tone all lofty, Seokjin goes, “Didn't you once say you wanted to do that? Go on a road trip?” He rounds the car to put the suitcase into the trunk.

Taehyung snicks the seat belt into place. He feels like a kid strapping into a roller coaster. Not five minutes ago, he was eating leftover kimchi fried rice with Hoseok while chatting with an exuberant Jimin, who was at the airport with Jungkook on their way to Tokyo. So it seems now that Jungkook wasn’t the only one with secret plans.

Seokjin slides in. He leans over to kiss Taehyung’s forehead before putting the car into gear. He smells like spearmint and apricot skin cream.

“Did Jimin know about this?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin's eyebrows answer yes.

“Did everyone know about this?” Taehyung amends.

“Yep,” Seokjin says.

Even Namjoon? Taehyung wonders. Even after Taehyung told Namjoon?

They cut through their neighborhood, bound for the highway beyond. His fingers tingle with anticipation as he remembers Namjoon's advice. Then his skin burns at the memory of...

“There's water in the console if you need it,” Seokjin says. He adjusts the rear view mirror.

Taehyung pops open the console, ducking to sip in an effort to hide his anxiety. Namjoon cautioned him not to tell, but how can he go along with this plan of Seokjin's, knowing he can’t possibly deserve it?

It's been a month now since it happened. It's been two weeks since he confessed it to Namjoon. And all this while, it’s gnawed at him, filling up his nightmares, destroying his days. But their timing is off, and then Seokjin was sick, and then their house was bugged, and they're so damned busy, and Taehyung has been considering Namjoon's words.

Because he’s right. This does affect them all. So for the sake of the team and their well-being, Taehyung has been silent.

But they’re alone now. Maybe now he can explain it.

And ruin all of Seokjin's plans.

Seokjin, who lost his dog, then got so sick Taehyung thought he might die. Seokjin, whose Dad only recently started talking to him again, and they haven't been easy conversations. Seokjin, who finally looks rested and healthy behind the wheel of his rented car. Will Taehyung really be the one to mess it all up with his selfish need to confess?

“You seem antsy,” Seokjin says. The GPS directs him to the southbound ramp. “What's up?”

Taehyung fiddles the aux cord from the console. “We need music. May I DJ?”

Seokjin suppresses a sneer.

“No Chet Baker,” Taehyung says. “I promise.”

“Thank you.” Seokjin smiles. Taehyung sets it to shuffle. BlackPink's Stay begins to play, and for a while, they simply ride and listen.

Seokjin says, “You haven't played trumpet in a while.”

“You haven't played guitar,” Taehyung says.

“Ah, so busy,” Seokjin says.

“I wish we didn't have to sleep,” Taehyung says. He leans his head on the window. Outside, the world is mortar gray and chalkboard green.

Seokjin says, “You can, though, if you want. We have hours before we get there.”

“What about you?”

“Oh this car has an autopilot,” Seokjin teases. “I'll set an alarm to wake us when we arrive.”

“Where’re we going?” Taehyung asks.

“You'll see when we get there,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung's already lost all sense of direction. They could be traveling to the DMZ for all he knows. But he feels safe.

He feels safe. And comforted. And he wonders, how long has it been since I felt that?

Taehyung wants to tell him. He needs to tell him. But instead, in spite of everything, he rests his head against the window and drifts to sleep.


Seokjin hopes he's in the right place. He hasn't been to Oryukdo since childhood, but the GPS guides him around the craggy coast, right down to a broad, unlabeled driveway strewn with yellow sand. The Hahn family beach cabin hulks above the rocks – rust-orange and slightly shabby – but the view is unmistakable.

Seokjin sets the parking brake. “Taehyung-ah,” he whispers. Taehyung snaps awake, his eyes wildly-alert like he's been yanked up from a dream. Seokjin points. “Look.”

Taehyung does. He stammers a moment, and then, stretching, he stumbles from the car. Murmuring to himself, he walks to the driveway's end. “Where are we?”

“The beach,” Seokjin says. He comes to stand beside him. A steady wind ripples the waves, which are glassy teal and frosted with foam. Jagged black granite makes lace of the shoreline, starkly contrasting against the pale sky and sea. The air smells fresh and briny, like it's been scrubbed clean, and above them seabirds wheel, high and distant beneath the gauzy clouds.

Taehyung turns to him, his eyes alight. He takes the key from his pocket. The red yarn is frayed and grimy, and Seokjin knows in a moment that Taehyung spends a lot of time twisting the threads between his fingers.

“Is the key to this place?” Taehyung guesses.

“Nope.” Seokjin goes to the trunk of the car. A yellow lab puppy strains against a chain outside the neighbor's cabin. As they approach the car, the dog begins to yelp and skip around in the sand. So of course, Taehyung runs right up to it.

“Is the key to her?” Taehyung shouts, excited.

“No, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin calls back. “It's the neighbor's dog.”

Taehyung gives her a thorough pat down, and her whole body wriggles with glee. He says, “She shouldn't be chained out here, though, right?”

“I'm sure she's fine,” Seokjin says. He scans the beach and the wide sidewalk of the seawall. A pair of women are approaching the driveway, watching them a little closer than Seokjin would like. He takes out their suitcases and wheels them over to Taehyung, who's on his knees beside the dog, letting her slobber all over his face and neck.

“That's probably the owner right there,” Seokjin says, gesturing toward the women, who are picking their way across the sand to meet them.

Taehyung stands, dusting himself off, as the one of the women greets Seokjin. “I think I've seen you, right?” she asks.

“Uhm,” Seokjin cuts a nervous glance to Taehyung. “I used to come here as a child,” he says. “Do you know the Hahns?”

“No, but we've seen you,” the other woman says. “You're Bangtan Sonyeondan, right?” Then she sings, “Mahni, mahni, mahni.

Panic kicks into Seokjin's throat. This is supposed to be a private, secret getaway for him and his sort-of-maybe boyfriend, a chance for them to reconnect after a really long, really trying few months, and now random strangers have recognized them, alone, together, and Seokjin can feel all his plans unraveling around them.

“Well, there are seven of us,” Taehyung tells them. “We're the first ones here. We're on vacation.”

The two women clap excitedly, which sends the little dog into a joyful frenzy. “I knew it,” one of the women says. “I knew we recognized you.”

Seokjin allows himself a breath of relief. “Is this your dog?” he asks.

“Oh no,” one of the women says, waving. “There's a man over there, fishing. She must belong to him.”

“We should go get him,” Taehyung leans in to whisper.

“I'm sure she'll be fine,” Seokjin says through his teeth. He hefts one suitcase to drag it across the sand. “It was nice to meet you,” he says to the women. Smiling, they bow and continue on down the beach, glancing back several times to wave as they go.

Seokjin exhales. “We literally can't go anywhere,” he muses.

Taehyung coos down at the puppy. She throws her head back and howls. Seokjin startles back, shocked at the volume of her voice.

“Whoa. She could be an idol,” Taehyung says.

“Hold up,” Seokjin says. He takes out his phone and snaps several picture of himself with the dog. “She'll be my backup singer.”

“Yours?” Taehyung says. He grips the handle of his suitcase. “I discovered her.”

“But you're a farmer-slash-film director now,” Seokjin says.

“So what, you're a chef-slash-restaurant guy...” Taehyung scrubs the dog's muzzle before they head up the steps.

“She'll be Jimin's back up singer,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung nods.

And it seems fine, everything seems fine. Things feel easy between them. They feel right, and safe, and how long has it been since Seokjin's felt that way?

At the top of the steps, Seokjin taps the code into the lock. They step in, and the door shuts behind them. It's coolly calm inside with only the hush of the waves to break the silence.

“Here we are,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung pulls him into his arms. They kiss, and they kiss, and it’s like everything will be okay.

Chapter Text

“And I will swallow my pride.
You’re the one that I love,
And I’m saying goodbye.”
Say Something, A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera

26 October 2017 – Night

What began as a kiss progressed, quickly, viscerally, to reckless passion. Seokjin didn't reel himself back, and Taehyung continued to follow until, after months of cautious denial, they finally, finally caved. Now there are bruises on Taehyung's hips where Seokjin gripped him, and there are marks on Seokjin's forearms from Taehyung's nails.

Taehyung aches. He's deliciously sore. And he hates that these things are temporary, that they'll heal and disappear, because he wants them to mark him forever. He wants to remember.

They go for dinner at a modest seafood place near the shore. In time, Taehyung will forget the things they talked about during their meal, all the soft banter, carefully neutral, as they each tried to puzzle out where the other stood. But he'll remember, always, the colors of the sunset banded across the sea, and the scent of the abandoned beach scoured clean by the autumn breeze.

He'll remember that. When he has nothing left, those things he will keep.

Light grays from the world like it's an aging creature. The temperature drops, so that when they return to the cabin, Seokjin clicks on the ondol to warm them. He goes to unpack the groceries he's brought to stock the kitchen – ramen and soy sauce and cereal – and Taehyung hovers to watch him.

“The dog was gone,” Seokjin says, bending to take something from a lower shelf. He sucks air over his teeth, wincing at his own soreness, and Taehyung grins.

Seokjin turns around to catch him smiling. “I said the dog was gone, did you see?”

Taehyung takes a step, then takes his hand. “I saw.”

“I can't believe you thought she was for you,” Seokjin says.

“Then what is this key for?” Taehyung asks. He pulls it from his pocket. It rests across his palm. “Is it... for your heart?”

“No, you already have that,” Seokjin says. His lashes flick, like he's shy, like they didn't just fuck each other senseless two hours ago.

Taehyung covers his mouth. He has to do this. He has to… He forces his hands to his sides. He says, “Seokjin-ah. There's something I have to tell you.”

Seokjin goes rigid. “No,” he says. He gives him a sharp, definite shake of his head.

“Please, hyung, I beg you,” Taehyung says.

“Stop.” Seokjin stands up. “Taehyung-ah, stop. I said I don't want to know—”

“—But I—”

“—No.” He's not shouting, but it's close. He says, “Ask yourself, please. Is this for your sake, or for mine? Please ask yourself.”

Taehyung stands there, the key biting into his palm. He stares at Seokjin, but it's as though he can only see the negative space around him, like he's too afraid to look directly into his eyes. “Hyung,” he whispers. “I need to tell you.” He's not crying, but it's close.

Seokjin moves away. He's dragging his coat from the peg by the door. He mutters, “This is not how I want this night to go.”

“What're you—?”

“—Pabo, of course I have plans for us.” Seokjin stamps into his shoes. “Grab that blanket.” He juts his chin toward the sofa. Taehyung bundles the cloth into his arms. “Bring your coat, too. It’ll be cold.” Seokjin heads down to the car, and Taehyung follows, numbly wondering at how quickly things can change.

 

 

They huddle in jagged silence on a beach across from the Gwangalli Bridge. It's bitter cold, enough to sting tears from their eyes, and the powdery sand sifts down between Taehyung's toes. The lights of the bridge smear across the water. Though it's off-season, dozens of people pack along the boardwalk and into street cafes, listening to the American pop songs that drone over the city's sound system.

Taehyung recalls in a bright glimpse the lantern he lit above Han River a month ago, the way it flared up and leapt skyward, skimming fast beyond his reach, and then the immediate regret of releasing it. If only he could show that memory to Seokjin. If only Seokjin could understand the way Taehyung had felt in that moment...

But it’s done. He'd let go. He let the Frog Prince kiss him, and touch him, and even though he'd stopped it, even though it didn't go any further, Taehyung had let it happen.

“It's time now,” Seokjin murmurs. Taehyung gazes at his profile. As he watches, color blooms across his cheeks, white and gold, then pink and blue. Taehyung drags his attention to the bridge. As he gapes at it, a song begins to play, something buried deep within the nostalgia of his childhood. The lights of the bridge melt from vivid wings into a pair of watching eyes, and then into a scatter of birds that burst into flight.

Then Seokjin says, quietly, “VV, I don't even know what we're holding onto anymore.”

“Hyung, don't say that,” Taehyung says.

“In truth,” he says. “I already let you go. Months ago.” A tear spills down his cheek. He struggles. “I didn’t give up. And I don't want to.” He covers his eyes. “I know I said I could wait, but I don't know if I can. Is there a way...?” He stammers, breathless. “Once something breaks, is there a way to fix it?”

Taehyung grips Seokjin’s hands. He holds them tight between them. “Maybe,” he says. “Hopefully.”

Seokjin bends his forehead to Taehyung's shoulder. His whole body quakes, like he's struggling not to fall apart.

“Maybe,” Taehyung says. “Maybe, if we just...” He slides his cold hands around Seokjin's waist, pulling him close, holding him so tight that neither of them can breathe.

After a moment, Seokjin shoves him back. “This is stupid,” he spits. “We are so stupid.”

“I know,” Taehyung moans.

“We built walls, and we drew boundaries, all those stupid rules,” Seokjin says. “And then we tried not having any rules, and that didn't work either. So... here's the thing.” He dips his head low and squeezes Taehyung's hands. “I refuse to give up on this. I still want so many things with you. But you, Taehyung... You either want me, or you don't. And I guess I need to know now. I guess you need to tell me, even if it means tonight we say goodbye.”

Taehyung eases him back. He stares at the light reflected in his tears. There is no hope in his face, no wish or expectation, and Taehyung realizes that Seokjin has braced for the worst.

Yet Taehyung’s answer is so easy it's the only thing that makes any sense.

“That's all I need to tell you,” he says, simply, plainly. “I want you. It's always you.”

Seokjin crumbles. He buries against him. He cocoons the blanket around them, so that Taehyung feels his tears and his breath against his neck. The dense dark of the sky, the saltwater scent of their tears, the soft brush of the waves — these things carve into Taehyung’s heart. Beneath that, deeper, sweeter, lies a secret well of comfort, something that will always exist between them. They struggle, they fight, but then, eventually, despite everything, they find their way home.

Behind them, the shore falls dark. The crowds disperse. The waves flow endlessly over the sand.

“Maybe let's just hold each other,” Seokjin whispers.

“From now on,” Taehyung says.

He thinks, maybe this is how it works. Maybe people do grow apart. And maybe they fall apart. Maybe the point is that they hold on. Maybe if they’re lucky enough and work hard enough, falling in love happens again and again. Through every day and every trial, maybe they keep returning to this place.

So this is what he clings to, there on the beach in Busan, with the water brushed scarlet and gold, with the sand in his shoes, and Seokjin’s hands in his. Maybe this is how they survive, and it’s the simplest, purest truth that he knows.

Chapter Text

“I don't need you anymore
But love, when I close my eyes
I'm lying next to you.”
Picture Frames, Rei Brown

27 October 2017 – Busan

Seokjin wakes with Taehyung in his arms for the first time in weeks.

It's so simple a thing, sleeping and waking. People do it every day, and they take it for granted.

But he's not going to. Not anymore.   

He stares at Taehyung's face at rest upon the pillow. He combs his fingers through Taehyung's hair, sweeping it back from his forehead. Taehyung's eyelids flutter, but his breathing remains steady. Seokjin could lie here all day, in this bed, beneath this sky, watching his Taehyung's face.

Taehyung wants him. After everything, after all their hardships, he wants him. What an uncomplicated pleasure, simply to be wanted.

Seokjin sifts through the details of the night before: Taehyung's almost confession, Seokjin's panicked response, and then his retreat to the beach, which he’d meant to be romantic. He’d wanted an answer to Taehyung's sunrise on the shore in Finland, as if an automated light show on a bridge in Busan could somehow compare to that.

But in a way, it had. Nothing went as Seokjin planned. They both shed tears, and Seokjin had been so distraught, he’d risked months of careful planning to issue his single, desperate ultimatum.

Yet they ended up here, in each other's arms. Isn’t that worth it?

Yes, he thinks, automatically, instantly.

But it’s not so simple as that. Maybe one time it would have been, but it can’t be that way any more. Seokjin’s not fool enough to think that their struggles end here. He’s moving toward a realization, this understanding that there’s more to a relationship than loving someone else. Part of learning this means he must acknowledge the pain he’s suffered in the past few months. He must care for himself, as much as he’s ever cared for Taehyung.

The little cabin feels safe, buffeted by constant winds and the scent of the tide. Dawn drifts through the curtains, softening to gold across their pillows. Taehyung stirs, reaching blindly for him across the bed. Seokjin folds him into his arms and listens to his breathing.

Normally, his brain would run up a list of worries, but this morning, his mind is clear. Sunlight brushes upon a row of pictures above the bed, dusky photos in knickknack frames. Younger Seokjin squints out of several of them, caught among Minnie and her cousins on the beach.

Seokjin doesn't even remember that day, but it's obvious he wasn't thrilled to be there. He's wearing jeans and glaring at the camera, although that might have been a result of the sun. Probably not, though. He’d always dread those family trips right up until the date of travel when he would immediately begin counting down the hours before returning home.

It’s the same now. He enjoys traveling more than he did, but he pretty much always just wants to get home.

Beside him, Taehyung stretches awake. His eyes are puffy from weeping, and he rubs his face against Seokjin's chin. He lays quiet a while, his breath soft on Seokjin's collarbone. After a while, Taehyung turns, baby-spooning himself against Seokjin's body. He follows Seokjin's line of sight, then, because he wonders, softly, “Is that you?”

“Yep,”Seokjin answers. “Sulky teenage Seokjin.”  

“Aw,” Taehyung says. “Why are your clothes so baggy?”

“I believe the real question is, why am I wearing those glasses?”

Taehyung grunts. “They're the exact same ones you have now.”

“No,” Seokjin laughs. He looks closer. Then, “Hm. Yeah, they are.”

“A trendsetter even then,” Taehyung says. “When was this?”

Seokjin strains to read the date stamp in the corner. “August 2007,” he says. “Ten years?”

Marveling, Taehyung says, “Sulky sixteen-year-old Seokjin.”

“This must’ve been right before New Zealand,” Seokjin explains.

Taehyung traces the tender spot between Seokjin's forefinger and thumb. “You never talk about that” he says.

“There isn’t much to tell,” Seokjin says, which is not entirely true. “It wasn't boring or terrible. I just don't remember it.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s a lie.” Seokjin scrubs his swollen eyes against Taehyung's hair. “We drank, we stole things. We’d sneak out of the dorm at night. I kissed a lot of girls, and some boys, too. We were up to no good, Taehyung. So, no, I didn’t forget, and it wasn’t like I was hiding anything, but more like I willfully didn't remember, if that makes sense?

“Yeah,” Taehyung says.

“Maybe that’s the problem with always making plans for the future,” Seokjin says. “Maybe you blur over what’s happening right in front of you. You let things slide and you forget.”

Taehyung’s quiet a long time, and Seokjin’s grateful he’s facing the other way. Then Taehyung says, “The problem I have is that I want too much. I want everything. I feel pulled by everything, so I don’t focus on anything. And so I miss it all, even the important things, and I wind up hurting everyone. Especially you.”

Seokjin says, “Maybe we can help each other?”

“No more maybes,” Taehyung says. “We will help each other.”

Seokjin laces their fingers. “Okay, yes,” he says. “We will.”

They lay still as the sun fills up the window. The light splashes down onto the bed and across their bodies in ever-widening stripes.

Seokjin says, “She kissed me, you know. Minnie did.”

“Back then?” Taehyung asks.

“No,” Seokjin says. “In April.”

Taehyung flips over to face him. He goes, “Did Namjoon-ah tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Seokjin asks. But he pieces it together before Taehyung can respond. “No,” Seokjin says. “He didn't tell me. But he – your Hwarang whoever – he kissed you. Didn't he?”

“I... let him,” Taehyung admits. His eyes give everything away.

“I let her,” he says. He shrugs, defenseless. “I didn’t try stop her.”

“And?” Taehyung asks.

“She isn't you.”

“He isn't you,” Taehyung says in a rush.

“Okay then,” Seokjin says. His heart pounds. He breathes out a long, steady exhale. “Yes. Okay.” He smooths his palm over Taehyung’s cheek. He says, “You know, my parents wanted me to marry Minnie, right?”

“Only...” Taehyung says. “We’re gay.”

“And I probably would’ve married her,” Seokjin says. “If it hadn’t been for us.”

“Well.” Taehyung nibbles his lip. “Do you love her?”

Seokjin shrugs.  “In a way, yes. I’ve known her forever. She’s smart and she’s funny and she’s really pretty. We would have very attractive children. And my Mom, she would be so happy, Taehyung-ah. Minnie in a wedding dress? You have no idea.”

“N-No.”

“I think, though, that none of us would be happy,” Seokjin says. “Then I have to wonder, are we?”

Taehyung grows still. He chews the inside of his cheek. He puts his hands over his face.

Seokjin brushes the hair from Taehyung’s forehead. He says, “You know, before, when we were still hiding everything, every time we were together, I'd lie awake and watch you sleep.”

“You would?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “I did.”

“But… why?”

Seokjin says, “I was saying goodbye to you. In case that time was our last.”

Taehyung lowers his hands. “Every time?”

“Every time,” Seokjin says. “I was always grieving for us. I was always afraid I’d lose you. And I don’t want to live that way anymore.”

“You won’t,” Taehyung says in a rush. “I promise, you won’t.”

“I know, Taehyung.” Seokjin edges him back so he can look into his face. “I also promise this.”

Taehyung closes his eyes. He says, “Last night you asked when something breaks, is there a way to fix it? But we did break, didn’t we? I think... did I break us?”

There’s sadness in Seokjin’s voice, but an edge of hopefulness, too. “No. Taehyung. We’re not broken,” he says, softly. “But we have changed, haven’t we?”

Taehyung nods, slowly. “I feel like we have.”

“We were so afraid,” Seokjin says. “But here we are. Together.”

“Do you still… want me?” Taehyung asks.

“VV.” Seokjin kisses the space between his eyebrows. “My VV, I love you.”

Taehyung swallows a sob. “But, why?”

“—Shh,” Seokjin chides. “Tell me you love me.”

“I do. I love you.”

“Then shut up and kiss me,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung brushes his lips to Seokjin’s. Then his eyes go glassy as he says, “Hyung, do you know in English, you can’t spell the word love without the letter V.”

Pabo,” Seokjin says. Then he adds, “Forever, too, though. You can’t spell forever without V.”

“And never,” Taehyung says. “And… very ?”

Seokjin squints at him. “Very what?”

“Very everything,” Taehyung says.

“Ah,” Seokjin says. “My VV. Very everything.”

They’re quiet a long while, staring at each other, face to face across the pillows.

Taehyung says, “I’m very happy to know you.”

Seokjin laces their fingers. He says, “I’m very happy to know you, too.” Then he goes, “Wow, our English really has improved."

“Professor Kim,” Taehyung says.

“That's Doctor Kim.” Seokjin smiles. “Someday.”

“Doctor and Mr. Kim,” Taehyung says.

“Someday,” Seokjin says again. His smile broadens.

Taehyung puts his hands on Seokjin's face, dragging him down to kiss him. But before getting swept away, he reaches up to lay the framed photo of younger Seokjin face down on the shelf. “He really shouldn't see this.”

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “Protect him.”

“I intend to,” Taehyung says. “From now on, I will.”

Chapter Text

“How we gonna change it?
We don't know yet,
but for sure we will.”
Crystal Snow, BTS

2 November 2017 - Seoul

Jimin snakes a strawberry pink necktie over Taehyung's shoulder. “He'll like this,” he tells him. “You should get him this.”

“A tie is a gift for a dad,” Taehyung says as he wanders away.

Jimin tags after him. “I know, that's why you should get it for him,” he teases.

But today, Taehyung’s not teasing back. Instead, he walks straight up to the sales desk, and bowing, he tells the attendant that he has an appointment. She goes to consult her tablet.

Jimin leans in, “Since when?”

Taehyung cuts his eyes at him. “Since when what?”

Jimin goes, “Since when do you make appointments?”

“Yes, Mr. Kim,” the clerk says. “I see you’ve booked with Ms. Kwon Yijun at 10 a.m. Please, right this way.” They follow her down a plushly-carpeted corridor, to a row of private fitting rooms. She knocks first, and then opens a door to let them enter. “May I get you anything while you wait?”

“Um, water, please?” Jimin asks.

But Taehyung waves. “We're fine.”

She leaves them, and Jimin immediately goes to poke around the room, touching every freestanding mannequin, peeking behind every cabinet door. He pulls open every drawer on the armoire, clattering through buttons and chalk and straight-pins. There are half a dozen patterned silk fabric squares fanned across the desk, and Jimin runs his hand along them. Then he spins to find Taehyung sitting all poised in one of the room's elegant wingback chairs, his phone propped on his knee. He looks calm, but the way he's jouncing his ankle kind of gives his nervousness away.

“Taehyung-ie,” Jimin asks. “What're we doing here?”  

“What was the first gift Jin-hyung ever gave me?” Taehyung says.

Peeved, Jimin says, “Why are you answering my question with another question?”

Taehyung arches a brow and smiles.

“Fine.” Jimin flounces down in the other wingback. He feels absurdly under-dressed in his ripped jeans and fleece hoodie. It smells expensive in here, like pressed silk spritzed with Yoongi's nice cologne. He nudges Taehyung with his toe. “What did Jin-hyung first give you? I don't know.” He taps his lip. “Some japchae?”

“No,” Taehyung says.

“Why are you so serious?” Jimin says. He reaches to ruffle Taehyung's hair when Ms. Kwon – a well-dressed woman in a fine black suit – steps into the room. She greets them, warmly and falls into an easy conversation with Taehyung, which leads Jimin to understand that they have spoken before. After a few minutes, an assistant comes to the door, holding up a slick, black hanging bag. There's a flurry of activity as the assistant steps in, and he and Ms. Kwon unveil the contents.

Upon seeing it, Jimin claps a hand over his mouth.

“What do you think?” Taehyung asks.

“It's... purple,” Jimin says.

“I know.” Taehyung beams proudly. “Purple means I love you.

Jimin shoots a look at the assistant. “Does it?”

“In this case, it certainly does,” Ms. Kwon tells him. Then she draws a breath through her teeth. “Judging by your frame, this coat is not for you.”

“No,” Jimin says. “No, it's beautiful – really – but it is not for me.” He turns to Taehyung. “Does he know about this?”

“Not yet,” Taehyung says. To the tailor, he goes, “May I?” When she nods, he begins to smooth his palms over the silky purple lining of the coat. He pushes the heavy garment from the hanger and the assistant moves to help him into the sleeves.

Jimin doesn't even try to hide his confusion. He says, “Did you use your measurements? Because, Jin-hyung's shoulders—”

“—No,” Taehyung sniffs. “Please. ” He turns to examine his reflection in the mirror, and Jimin has to admit, it is an exquisite coat. For Taehyung.

“Then how?” Jimin pushes.

“I asked Kyung-hee for them,” Taehyung says. The tailor sets to work, pinching the lush fabric to examine every hemline and crease.

Jimin has to think a minute. Then he remembers that Lee Kyung-hee is one of their costume designers at BigHit. Of course, she would have Seokjin's measurements. “Taehyung-ie,” Jimin says. “That was really smart.”

Taehyung perches a finger-gun on his chin, striking the pose of a wealthy supermodel businessman. “I know, right? I made the order online, so now we get to see how it looks in real life.” The tailor eases the coat from his shoulders, forcing Taehyung to drop his fancy facade. She and the assistant confer for a moment about adjustments to the waistline and sleeves, giving Jimin a moment to also confer with Taehyung.

“Wait, so, Seokjin's first gift to you was a coat?” he asks.

“Before debut, when we had nothing,” Taehyung answers. “I'd outgrown my coat, so Jinnie gave me one of his.”

“Aw,” Jimin pouts. “You never told me that before. It's so sweet.”

“I was too embarrassed to talk about it then,” Taehyung says. “I had nothing to give him in return. But now I do.”

Ms. Kwon returns. She says, “We'll have it ready for you, nice and pressed and ready to go, by Saturday afternoon. Does that fit within your timeframe?”

Taehyung consults his phone. “Perfectly,” he says. To Jimin, he adds, “I'm taking Jin-hyung out to dinner and the movies on Sunday. We're going to see Thor.

“You're so kind to your hyung,” Ms. Kwon says. She passes her tablet to Taehyung, who begins to nonchalantly skim the text on the screen. Jimin glances past Taehyung and the tailor to the assistant who is watching everything with a flicker of interest in his eyes. Low-key paranoia ignites in Jimin's gut, and he silently wills Taehyung to be a little less openly enthusiastic. The whole bugging of their apartment thing has only served to make Jimin more cautious about the people who might be watching them.

Then Taehyung moves to sign the receipt, and that's when Jimin glimpses the price.

“Oh,” Jimin gasps, involuntarily. He attempts to cover by pretending to receive a text. While he’s fake-reading his imaginary text, Jimin attempts to process how all of this must look to an outsider. Here is Taehyung – young and famous and newly wealthy – ordering an outrageously expensive coat... for another man. Oh, and don't forget: it’s the same man he's taking for a movie-and-dinner date this weekend.

Jimin knows he has zero room to talk. He and Jungkook just spent Halloween break running around Tokyo like couple of lovestruck fools. And once, over summer, they kissed on a street in Osaka. But that was in Japan, a whole country away, while this is their home, and people are watching.

In that moment, every warning Yoongi’s ever bantered off at him and Jungkook suddenly makes sense. Jimin’s knees go wobbly as they’re walking, as the reality of their lives seeps into his brain. He’s thought about it before, but never about what could happen if… Jimin has to lean on a column outside the shop’s entrance to regain his balance. After a few strides, once Taehyung realizes Jimin’s not there, he returns to his side.

“You okay?” Taehyung asks. But he’s checking his watch, like he doesn’t understand how hard Jimin’s struggling to piece this realization into his current world view. Taehyung starts to chatter about his trip to Busan with Seokjin and something about a key, when Jimin touches Taehyung’s arm.

“Can you… hold on a second, Taehyung-ie?”

“You’re not okay,” Taehyung says. “You’re hungry? There’s a place in the food court with bulgogi tacos—”

“—No. Tae-Tae. I’m not hungry.  I’m worried about you and Jin-hyung.”

“Oh… but, we made up,” Taehyung says. “I understand now, about what I was going through—”

“—N-no,” Jimin insists. “It’s not that, it’s—”

But Taehyung smiles, sadly. “I thought I was too young to be so settled, like, I didn’t even know what that meant, except that I wasn’t ready. Then, there was someone I thought I wanted who also wanted me, but they had a reason why they wanted me. But Jin-hyung, he only wanted me for me,” he says. “He knows me so well. And yet he still loves me.” Taehyung presses his lips into a line. “Do you know what that’s like?”

Jimin can only shrug as he says, “Maybe?”

Taehyung nudges him toward the escalator. As they descend into the Coex, Jimin feels like every pair of eyes in the mall is watching them.

Yet Taehyung continues speaking. “I have to make it up to him,” he says. “After all I’ve put him through, after all my selfishness and confusion, I want to start making amends. I want to show him who I really am. That’s why I’m giving him his birthday present on our next Vlive.”

They’re already halfway to the taco place when Taehyung’s words click in Jimin’s mind.

“Hold up, wait,” Jimin says, hauling Taehyung to a halt. “What are you giving him, and on what now?”

“The coat,” Taehyung says. “For his birthday. On Vlive.”

“No,” Jimin says. “No, Taehyung, that's a terrible idea.” And he laughs because he hopes Taehyung is joking.

Taehyung's mouth bends into a frown. “You don't think he'll like the coat?” His voice sounds bruised with hurt.

Jimin proceeds with care. “No, he’ll love the coat,” he says. “It’s a beautiful coat.”

“It is beautiful,” Taehyung says.

“But.” Jimin chuckles. “Taehyung-ie. Don't you know your boyfriend?”

This is the wrong thing to say. Jimin realizes it two seconds too late. Taehyung glares at him. “I know Jin-hyung,” he growls.

Jimin lifts his hands. “Then you know he doesn't like big, showy public displays of affection.”

“He once kissed me,” Taehyung says. “On stage.”

“In Mexico,” Jimin counters. “Plus it was an accident. Plus you got scolded for it. Remember, he threw his phone into the river?”

Taehyung grunts. He closes the distance to the taco place. Jimin trails after him, feeling miserable, but also feeling right. They order their food and then wait in bristly silence for it to arrive at their table.

“Look,” Jimin says, aiming for a reasonable tone. “You guys have been through so much this last year, haven’t you?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees.

“So maybe give him the coat in private, like after a nice dinner or something.”

“No more maybes,” Taehyung says.

Jimin huffs. “What does that even mean?”

Taehyung's forehead furrows darkly.  He says, “It means we're done hiding. We're done being boys at play. Everyone should know how we feel about each other—”

“—But Taehyung,” Jimin says. His heartbeat quickens. “Remember what Monie-hyung says. We still have to live here. We're still in South Korea. Men like us can still go to jail...”

A waiter brings over plastic baskets with their tacos and fries. She plunks them down and skirts away without a word.

“Everyone should know,” Taehyung repeats. He reaches for the ketchup bottle. “We’re not going to be loud about it, but we won’t be quiet either. We’ll be us, together, and we won’t be so afraid.”

Jimin watches him, wondering how this person – his best friend – can smoothly go from the ultra-exclusive Tom Ford store to a taco hut in the mall, all within twenty minutes. And now he's talking about going public with his boyfriend, basically challenging the norms of their entire society, while slathering ketchup across his fries.

“So... what?” Jimin croaks, incredulous. “You're just gonna, like, change the whole world?”

Taehyung pops a fry into his mouth. He winks at Jimin as he chews. “That’s the idea,” he says. “What d’you think?”

“I think you're crazy,” Jimin says. Taehyung’s grin wides. “One hundred percent insane,” Jimin goes on. “But also... Kind of amazing.”

“Eat,” Taehyung says, failing to hide the blush that reddens his ears.

“But if anyone can do it,” Jimin says, sighing. “Why not us?”

Taehyung gazes at him. He looks like he might cry. “Aw, hyung. You must love us.”

“Of course I do, Taehyung-ie,” Jimin says. “I love us more than anything.”

Chapter Text

“You would’ve thought we’d fail,
but I’m fine, sorry.”
Mic Drop, BTS

18 November 2017 – Los Angeles

Yoongi began his morning in the back of a taxi with a guy named Genji and a box full of snakes. He's not completely sure how he got there, or who Genji is, or where the snakes came from, but he does have the sense to know that this would make an excellent beginning to the most 'Hollywood' story of his young life.

He spends several moments in a daydream haze, pretending he spent a night doused with Patron and laced with LSD, riding along with Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, hitting up the dopest hip-hop scenes in all of LA. This fantasy morphs from legendary rap showdowns to high-speed car chases like the ones in action movies with explosions, but he realizes halfway through that this is his brain’s way of entertaining him as the result of seeing two consecutive sunrises with zero sleep in between.

And anyway, the true story of their LA adventure has been, thus far, kinda boring, except for this Genji guy and the alleged box of snakes. Some hours ago, they deplaned at LAX and rode to a TV studio where they ran through their choreo about a thousand times. Then they went to a hotel where they did not sleep, but dropped off their well-packed suitcases on route to more studios, where they cranked through a barrage of radio and TV interviews answering the same battery of questions over and over and over again.

Then, while the vocal line went off to make their peace with the jet lag gods, Yoongi, Hoseok, and Namjoon met with Steve Aoki to finalize the American re-mix of Mic Drop . They had a solid session, good, honest work, followed by drinks in a classy downtown club, followed by...

And here's where things go fuzzy (yay, sleep deprivation) because there was a kind of Chinatown market filled with paper goods and gag gifts, where he and Hoseok (who has more energy than all of the them combined) spent literal hours wandering down the aisles, examining origami dragons and Seollal snow globes. At some point, talk with Namjoon turned to the idea of a prank, followed by some sketchy business with Yoongi trying to escape the market with…

Oh yeah. A box full of snakes. Yoongi grins as the pieces fall into place.

“Well,” Seokjin says, breaking the bubble of Yoongi’s reminiscence. “I know that smile.”

Yoongi opens his eyes behind his sunglasses. Seokjin, in a long-sleeved swim shirt beneath his hotel robe, passes Yoongi a tall, stripey drink festooned with fruit.

“Hm,” Yoongi says, still smiling. He sips from the straw and winces. “Breakfast.”

“If you didn't eat last night, doesn't this count as dinner?” Seokjin asks.

“I ate last night,” Yoongi says. But the days kind of blend, so he's not sure if it was last night or the night before. Anyway, he tries puzzling it together, but his mind loops in languid circles, returning several times to Hoseok, rubber snakes, and maybe a plateful of oysters.

After a minute of this, Yoongi surrenders, returning his attention to his drink, and Seokjin, and the maknaes, who are daring each other to jump off the hotel pool's high dive.

Waves of apprehension radiate from Seokjin. Sure, he looks all cool and outwardly calm with his pineapple-y cocktail and floopy sun-hat, but he's tense with concern as Jungkook toes to the edge of the diving board and gazes down into the unbroken pool below.

“I'm sure it's safe, hyung,” Yoongi says.

“Yep,” Seokjin answers. He sips his drink and chews it.

“It's not even that cold here,” Yoongi adds.

“Hm-hm.”

Then Jungkook jumps. Headfirst, like a swan. Jimin screams, and Taehyung howls with laughter. Three seconds later, Jungkook bursts from the water’s surface, whooping for the other two to join him.

Seokjin mutters, “Nothing can compel me to do that, nothing can compel me—”

“—Kim Seokjin-ah!” Taehyung yells.

Seokjin's shoulders sag. He swears, softly, and adds with a smile, “Taehyung-ah can compel me to do that.”

Seokjin gets up and begins to disrobe.

“Ha,” Yoongi coughs. “Whipped.”

“You're one to talk,” Seokjin says, tossing the robe to the chaise.

Yoongi sputters, indignant.

“Oh, right, like you weren't just daydreaming about him?” Seokjin says. He hovers, his hands high on his hips, and it's times like this when Yoongi wishes he was the hyung instead of the other way around.

“Seokjin-hyung!” Taehyung calls again. Jimin attempts to shove Taehyung, and they tangle dangerously at the diving board's end.

Seokjin takes off his hat. He says, “Are you ever gonna tell him?”

Yoongi considers playing dumb, but that would be pointless. They've been roommates too long, and Seokjin knows everything. So instead, Yoongi opts for deflection.

“And suffer as you've suffered?” Yoongi sips his drink. “Haha, no thanks.”

Seokjin peers down, his lips pursed. Yoongi squirms beneath the sternness of his gaze. “It hasn't all been suffering,” Seokjin says.

“Four years, I've heard you sobbing into your pillow, hyung,” Yoongi says.

“That's not all been for Taehyung,” Seokjin counters.

“Yeah, well, you coulda fooled me,” Yoongi says, and then immediately regrets it.

At this point, Jungkook has climbed back up the diving board. Now he and Taehyung have decided to gang up on Jimin. It’s looking pretty dicey for the oldest of the maknaes, but then again, he does have remarkably powerful thighs. All Yoongi would have to do right now is mention how dangerous and slick that diving board is, and Seokjin would leap into protective-hyung mode. He'd be off Yoongi's back and squawking at them, and Yoongi could delay this conversation to another day.

You know, decades in the future, preferably after a zombie apocalypse.

Seokjin says, “I am who I am because of him.”

Yoongi’s thoughts flit instantly to Hoseok.

“And because of you,” Seokjin continues. “And Hope, and Joon, and Jimin, and Kook. It's sometimes difficult to say it but... I love you.”

Yoongi groans, weakly. “I am trying to eat here—”

“—Ah, quit whining, you baby,” Seokjin shouts. “What I'm trying to say is important.”

“Okay, okay,” Yoongi says. “I'm listening.”

“You should tell him,” Seokjin says.

Yoongi glowers. It's lost on Seokjin because of Yoongi's shades. “That's it?”

“So rude,” Seokjin says. “I'm imparting quality Seokjin wisdom, and this is how you respond?”

There's a piercing shriek, followed by a splash, followed by Jungkook's wild laughter. Then, seconds later, Jimin splutters to the surface streaming curses in both English and Korean.

“Seokjin-ah!” Taehyung yells.

Seokjin gives Yoongi his put-upon look before gliding smoothly to the pool's edge and throwing himself into the pool.

 

Yoongi needs to sleep. Daydreams aside, they have the AMAs in less than 24 hours, and he’s been awake the last 36. But the sugar in his fruity drink has made him queasy, so he lays flat on his bed like a starfish, letting the AC blow cool air across his clammy skin. He still smells the chlorine from the pool – or maybe that's just how California smells? – and his head feels wobbly and weak.

He knows how important sleep is to someone with his condition. He knows he should go to Sejin-nim. He should ask for the pills his doctor prescribed to help him fight insomnia. But part of Yoongi loves this fizzling feeling in his blood, when his synapses crash, and the genius begins.

“Ugh,” Yoongi moans, disgusted with his own internal musings. So much complete crap, he thinks. He should get up. He should write. He should get some crackers. He should try to get some sleep. He should—

He rolls to his side. He cradles his phone.

He should call him.

He dials. When Hoseok answers, Yoongi goes, “What were we doing with a box full of snakes?”

“Shhh,” Hoseok says. There's rustling on the other end, like Hoseok's covering the mic, and then his voice returns loud and clear. “We're putting them in Seokjin's bed, remember?”

Yoongi's so tired, his eyes ache. His skin hurts. But even so, he smiles.

“I'm trying to get Jin-hyung's key,” Hoseok whispers. “I think Benji has an idea—”

“—Benji.” Yoongi remembers. “Security guy. Not Genji, who is obviously a character on Overwatch. And Joon—?”

“—Already passed the snakes off to Hobeom-nim.” Hoseok's laugh ribbons across the phone line. “If we can get that card key, we’re in... Hey, where are you right now?”

“In our room,” Yoongi says. Thinking about you, he wants to add. But he doesn't.

“You feeling okay?”

I want to kiss you and touch you, Yoongi thinks. He smacks himself in the face. Fucking Seokjin.

“Yoongs?”

“I'm fine, Hope,” he lies. “Super jet-lagged, you know?”

“You should sleep,” Hoseok says.

“You come sleep, too,” Yoongi says. His voice sounds thin and beggy. Like, if someone could please come kick him right now, yeah, that would be great...

“Sure, okay,” Hoseok says. “I could use a nap.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I'll be right there. Need anything? Water?”

“Crackers,” Yoongi says. Whoo, romantic.

“Sure thing. I’ll see you soon.”

Hoseok hangs up. Yoongi's knees go weak. He taps his phone to his forehead, several, slow, meditative taps.

Then he pulls his chat with Seokjin and types, I fucking hate you.

Seokjin responds minutes later with a picture of himself blowing a goddamn kiss.

Yeah. This newfound sureness of Seokjin’s, for all the good it’s done him, and for how much happier he seems, it only serves to remind Yoongi of the thousands of ways he continues to hide. And he thinks, though he’s thought it a million times, that maybe it’s time he should come clean. Maybe he could forgive himself enough to risk it all and take that final step.

But the mere idea of it – the agony of almost certain rejection – is worse than this self-inflicted prison cell he’s built around his heart.

As much as he’s proud of Seokjin for sorting through his own bullshit, Yoongi feels bitter and borderline resentful that he can’t manage to do the same. So he’s certain, beyond doubt, that he won’t feel the slightest twinge of remorse when he helps Hope and Joon fill Seokjin's bed with rubber snakes.

Chapter Text

“Boy, I'm holding on to something
Won't let go of you for nothing
I'm running, running, just to keep my hands on you.”
There For You, Martin Garrix & Troye Sivan

21 November 2017 – Los Angeles

Jungkook sometimes feels like he's in a bubble that drifts through the world. He bumps against things that nudge him off course; Other things bump against him to shift him back. Meanwhile, he watches from inside this calm, muffled, hamster-ball life.

As their vans nose away from their rental house, palm tree reflections grab at the windows like long-reaching fingers. The smell of Yoongi's dark-roast coffee tints the air with its pungent aroma. He's wedged between Taehyung (busy on his phone) and Namjoon (busy with Sanghyun as they run through their schedule), and Jungkook tunes it all out. He doesn't need to know where they're going. He'll drift along on autopilot, picking out new, interesting English words from conversations he'll half-hear all day long.

Namjoon will tell him what he needs to know. Hoseok will monitor their moods. Seokjin will ensure that they're eating. If they wander too far off script, Yoongi's there to glare at them until they rein things back in. Taehyung’s there with music, or with games, or with interesting trivia. And then there's Jimin, who will be the constant at his side.

Jungkook wonders what his life might have been like if he hadn't met them. Before he can travel too far down that trail of thinking, Taehyung leans across Yoongi in the backseat.

“Hey, Kookie, look,” he gushes. Yoongi grimaces; Taehyung doesn't notice. On Taehyung's phone screen, there is a picture of a puppy so cute it looks like it might be CGI.

“Is that thing even real?” Jungkook says. He takes the phone from Taehyung and skims through the album, smiling at the images the dog's handler sent. “What're you gonna name him?”

Dokkebi ,” Yoongi snorts.

Taehyung squawks. “He's not a goblin.” He reaches for his phone, then stares adoringly at the screen. “His name is Yeontan, and when we move into our new place, he'll move in, too.”

“So glad we're getting our own rooms,” Yoongi says. He sips his coffee. “You and Jin-hyung can deal with the rodents and yapping newborn while—”

“—Wait, wait, let me guess,” Taehyung cuts in. “While you don't sleep at all? Isn’t that right, hyungnim?”

Yoongi grates out a noise of disgust.

“Also, sugar gliders are marsupials,” Taehyung says.

Before Yoongi can counter, Namjoon squeezes his shoulder. “We should all be grateful for hyung's late nights. Between him and me, we have enough songs to last us, what—seventy years? A hundred?”

“Two hundred,” Yoongi answers. “Easy.”

Namjoon then takes the opportunity to elaborate on their day's schedule. And Jungkook doesn't mean to zone out, but there's LA beyond his window, and he watches as it silently glides by.

 

They rehearse, they record, they meet Ellen and some fans, and then some moms of some fans. Jungkook expends a lot of energy trying to understand things people ask them in English. He catches more than Jimin does, and it makes him happy when he can translate. It also makes him proud when Taehyung leaps fearlessly into conversations. He's so unafraid of making mistakes, and Jungkook wishes he could be more like that.

He's mentally spent by the time they break for lunch, and they get zero rest because they’re meeting after with the photographers and stylists from Vogue.

As they’re pestered into wardrobe for their photoshoot, Hoseok asks, “You okay?”

“Yep. Good,” Jungkook answers. Hoseok side-hugs him before winging off to check on Yoongi. In his wake, Jimin sidles up.

“Did you hear, we're going on a party bus?” he whispers.

“A what?” These are two English words he would never think to put together.

Seokjin slides in on the other side. “America has buses that drive you around so you can drink between places.”

“Like, between clubs?” Jungkook scoffs.

Seokjin laughs, loud and broad. “You can drink between drinking.”

“We need this in Korea,” Jimin says.

“But we have trains...?” Jungkook objects.

“You can't drink on the subway, Jungkookie,” Jimin says.

Taehyung squeezes in between Jungkook and Seokjin. “The last thing you three need is nonstop alcohol.”

Seokjin slings his arm around Taehyung's shoulders as he and Jimin begin serenading him with Amazing You by Han Dong Geun.This attracts Namjoon, who comes over to subtly shush them before proceeding again to bullet-point their itinerary.

Which is generous of Namjoon, and is probably his way of dealing with his own tension, but it's ultimately unnecessary. For Jungkook, it's like they're packed onto a roller coaster,steadily cranking toward the first drop. There are no detours. They can't jump off to explore. And, really, Jungkook doesn't want to. But he also doesn't need to know the clicks along the way.

As Namjoon rattles on, Seokjin leans over to whisper, “Party bus,” while flashing him a reassuring thumbs up.

 

Later that afternoon, Jungkook's roller coaster metaphor turns out to be jarringly accurate. The party bus delivers them to a filming location on a busy LA street. They begin setting up when the throng of Vogue's PR team starts ushering them back toward their bus. Soon, people are shouting and charging toward them, only to be buffered back by the wall of their security team.

Frantic, Hoseok gasps, “What's going on?”

And Jungkook freezes. “Are we being kidnapped?” he asks. Jimin, equally terrified, grabs the cuff of Jungkook's sleeve.

“No,” Namjoon answers, sharply. “They're saying something about...” he struggles to translate, “A collaboration, a fan meeting? I don't know, guys, let's just move quickly and calmly back to the bus. I'm sure once we're on board they'll explain everything.”

Taehyung glances toward Seokjin, who nods as they follow Namjoon's lead. BigHit's security guards shove against the intruders, who grow more aggressive the closer they get to the bus. They're loud like fans normally are, but they're also hostile, and that's what scares him.

A jolt of adrenaline hits him as it clicks into place: they're being assaulted – in America – by angry paparazzi. His stomach clenches. His palms start to sweat. They have to get to the bus! But Namjoon's words crowd into his ears, Move quickly and calmly, so that's what Jungkook does.

On the way, he presses his palm against the small of Jimin's back. He breathes easier, knowing Jimin's there. But he doesn't begin to relax until the bus speeds away and the yelling slowly subsides.

While on the bus, Sanghyun-nim relays what happened. He tells them about a web-news outlet that has been stalking them in order to increase traffic on their site. He assures them it's a temporary blip in their programming. They'll go forward with the shoot as planned, first on the bus, then at an arcade, and then at Staples Center, where they'll perform one song “impromptu.” Namjoon explains that this means spontaneous, like on the spot.

“But if we know about it,” Jimin asks, “How can it be impromptu?”

“It's supposed to feel unplanned,” Namjoon says. “Like we'll pretend we don't already know about it.”

So it's a game of impromptu on the bus, as they drink beer and sing karaoke. For the cameras, they pretend like they're lighthearted and enthusiastic, and really, Jungkook's only half acting.

Because he is happy. He is enthusiastic. But he is far from carefree. He worries for the others, but when he checks to see how they're doing, he marvels at how resilient they are. Only Taehyung appears to be struggling, but even as Jungkook watches, Seokjin comes to his side. It seems like they have developed the ability to converse through eye contact, which is a handy adaptation given the number of people who record their every move.

Jungkook knows that the others struggle, too, and that Taehyung's the least able to mask his feelings. But they each have their touchstones. Yoongi has Hobi. Tae and Joon have Seokjin. And he has Jimin.

Honestly, they all have Jimin. He's not just thinking this because he's in love with him, either. Later at the arcade, when Jimin makes his rounds, he's like a tiny, vibrant hummingbird buzzing by with love and support. Jungkook might Photoshop an image of Jimin with blurry wings, maybe hovering around Hoseok in his flower mask from last year's Vlive. He knows he has that photo saved somewhere in his gallery...

“Jungkookie,” Jimin says, tugging on his arm. “What're you doing on your phone? Joon-hyung-ie and Jin-hyung are doing a Dance-Dance Rematch, and you're gonna miss it.”

Jimin drags him toward the stage, where Yoongi is massaging Namjoon's shoulders Rocky-style, and Taehyung's hyping Seokjin by snapping a thousand pictures of his face. Halfway through the rowdy crowd (Vogue and BigHit staff only, since they've booked the arcade for the night) Jungkook realizes something crucial.

“So they're all occupied with this competition, right?” he mutters into Jimin's ear. Jimin stops mid-stride and then reverses to move them from the crowd.

“Are you thinking of something impromptu?” Jimin asks.

“Ooh. Big English word,” Jungkook grins.

“Knew you'd like it,” Jimin says.

Jungkook slips backward, edging them around empty tables, toward a vacant washroom well removed from the noise. They're calm as they close the door, calm as their lips meet, calm as Jungkook ruins Jimin's carefully-tousled blond hair.

Jungkook's heartbeat quickens, but it's a familiar feeling of steady, unerring comfort. In their roller coaster life, this is their detour, the one sidetrack he always wants to take.

Jimin fixes him with a questioning look as he threads his fingers through the back of Jungkook’s hair. He hesitates a moment, and Jungkook thinks he might kiss him, but instead, Jimin asks, “You love me, don’t you?”

Jungkook blinks. “What are you talking about? Of course I do.”

He moves to kiss him; Jimin pulls back.

“You’ve never said it,” he says.

Jungkook holds his breath. Then he says, “Does it need to be said?”

Jimin’s smile flickers. “I mean, I don’t know...I guess not, it’s just—”

“—I try to show you instead,” Jungkook explains.

“Yeah,” Jimin says. “That’s true, but—”

“—Jimin... What is this about?” Jungkook asks.

Jimin’s shoulders inch up with uncertainty. “I mean, I wanna know… Do you... love me for me?”

Jungkook scratches his neck. “Who else would I love you for?” he asks.

“I guess it’s stupid, huh?” Jimin says. He doesn’t look like he thinks it’s stupid at all.

“No, it isn't,” Jungkook whispers. “I do love you. And… I kinda want to show you right now.” He steps in and presses his lips to Jimin’s neck. He feels Jimin sway against him, feels his hands sweep along the backs of his arms. Jimin’s breath brushes his ear, maybe a sob and maybe a sigh. Jungkook does his best to soothe him. “I want to keep showing you, every day,” he says. “'Cause this is exactly where I want to be.”

Chapter Text

“In the strange maze where you trapped me
You’re so beautiful, I can’t even breathe.”
Stone Heart, Taemin

 

Kakaotalk
<Messages Unread>

18 September 2017

FrogPrince: From the outside it looks like I have my shit together, like I have everything. But you know like I know how pictures can lie, how much the stories and the news can tell one side of the truth.

FrogPrince: You’re just a kid. I should’ve thought of that. I should have guessed how you’d react. You’re so young and so inexperienced. And I’m sorry, Taehyungie, for wrecking things. For pushing you too hard, I should have known. Because you were grieving and fragile, but I am grieving, too.

FrogPrince: That’s not an excuse, it’s a reason. I should have known to go slower, but this is me. It’s who I am, I’m not perfect. I blunder through things, sometimes. Maybe I’m used to getting what I want?

 

19 September 2017

FrogPrince: Taehyung??

FrogPrince: Are we going to be OK?

FrogPrince: Why won't you message me back?

 

2 October 2017

FrogPrince: I know I said this was normal, that even ordinary people go through this, but when will it end? When does it go from grieving to something worse? To sickness or depression? I don't know. Taehyung, I don't know. Where are you?

 

25 October 2017

FrogPrince: You know whtTAEHYUNG ??

FrogPrince: ur a fucking farmboy in fancy clothes m;t;hrfucking gucci

FrogPrince: n truth i was uusing you, whatdy ou think of that? only i thibk that if i could only bewith you, if i coould switch ur hands fr his, then thiss would b  okaky then ikt would all be okahy but i do’nt gt to have him and lookss lieek i dont get to have you

FrogPrince: i do’nt get t have you fck fuuck fuujck

 

26 October 2017

FrogPrince: omo pls ignroe that TaeTae i was drunk

 

14 November 2017

FrogPrince: Can we please just talk?

 

22 November 2017

FrogPrince: You're on TV in America tonight.

FrogPrince: Your face is everywhere.

 

25 November 2017

FrogPrince: I think I should tell him. I put this all on you when I should tell him.

 

28 November 2017

FrogPrince: It's hard to forget you. It's hard to forget the look on your face that night. You were really afraid, and I made it about me.

 

2 December 2017

FrogPrince: I want to say I'm sorry. Even if you'll never read this, even if you'll never know, I am sorry. I hope things work out for you, and for your love, whoever he is.  You deserve for all your dreams to come true. That's my wish for my sweetest Hansungie. I'm sorry, and I love you.

Chapter Text

“I really didn’t know back then
Everything that was impossible
Became possible through you.”
I’ll Be Here, from the Hwarang OST

2 December 2017 – Melon Music Awards

Sejin-nim bends his head to whisper into Seokjin's and Namjoon's ears. “His assistant tells me he's here as a guest, not a presenter,” Sejin says.

“So he will be in the audience,” Namjoon says. He glances at Seokjin, who gazes out into the mezzanine, watching the slow trickle of guests as they file in to the theater.

“That's right,” Sejin says.

“Can that work with your plans?” Namjoon asks.

Seokjin exhales. “I only need five minutes alone with him.” His stomach knots with anticipation. “Two minutes would do.”

“All right,” Sejin says. There's an undeniable gleam in his eye. “I'll see what I can do.”

Once Sejin has gone, Namjoon turns to Seokjin. “So, hyung. This is bold,” he says. “And a little bit risky.”

Seokjin breathes out again. “A little,” he says.

“But you gotta do this?” Namjoon asks.

Seokjin nods. “Yep.”

“Well, then you got my support.” Namjoon squeezes Seokjin's forearm. “Also, if you need anything—”

“—I'll call,” Seokjin says.

“Good. Then we'll see you backstage.” Namjoon edges down the aisle, skirting between stagehands who are still setting up the VIP seating. Seokjin wills Sejin to hurry, because he's legitimately worried he'll begin to lose his nerve.

Seokjin works to steady his breathing. He runs through the short paragraph he's practiced, keeping it framed within his mind. He's been grateful for the distraction of the last two weeks – the frenetic blur that was America, followed by a brief overnight bounce into the chic, exclusive apartments they're moving into, followed by two days in China for MAMAs, and now here, at the Melon Awards.

After tonight, they'll have twelve days of rest, though rest, for them, has always been a relative term. They're working on a Japanese album release, they're preparing for their last Wings tour dates, and he has finals coursework to complete. Plus, his and Taehyung's birthdays, and all the plans Seokjin set into motion back in August, which are finally coming to fruition.

But first, he must get through tonight.

Seokjin's phone buzzes. Sejin, whispering, goes, “Seokjin-ssi, can you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” Seokjin answers.

“Okay, go to the Melon Executive Lounge, east wing, room 3304. There’s a private event booked for later, but right now it’s empty—”

“—Yes. Okay. Thank you,” Seokjin says, nodding as he gets his bearings. “East wing?”

“Stage right,” Sejin says. Then, “Good luck.”


As promised, the Melon Executive Lounge is empty. The room's set up for an after-show reception. White linen drapes the tables and crystal vases drip with ivy and lilies. It smells crisp and expectant, like the scent of the first snow.

Seokjin leaves the door half-open. He positions himself out of view, and he waits. In a mirror across the room, he catches a sliver of his own reflection. He looks... great. Fantastic, actually. He looks far more composed and collected than he feels, so he seems well prepared when Park Hyungsik steps through the door.

For a moment, Hyungsik looks lost; confused, even. He pans the room, and finding only Seokjin, he walks toward him. Seokjin's fists clench.

“I'm sorry," Hyungsik says. "I thought... Isn't this the press reception?”

Later, Seokjin will have to thank Sejin-nim for his ingenuity. His ploy for getting Hyungsik into the lounge alone worked flawlessly. But for now, Seokjin says, simply, “No, I don't think so.”

“Hey, I know you, right?” Hyungsik says. He squints. “You're Taehyung's friend.”

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “I am Taehyung's friend.”

Hyungsik beams his billion-won King Jinheung smile, and Seokjin's blood simmers. Any fear or hesitation he felt burns away as he steps close to Hyungsik, close enough that he can count every long lash that frames his handsome-yet-startled eyes.

Surprisingly, Hyungsik doesn't flinch. Neither does he blink or breathe.

Seokjin says, “If you thought I would stand quietly aside while you tempted your way into his heart, you were mistaken.”

“Excuse me?” Hyungsik coughs. “W-what?”

Seokjin narrows his eyes. “You should know, I intend to fight.”

“Physically?” Hyungsik whispers. He casts a quick look around the empty room. “Like, now?”

“If necessary,”  Seokjin says. He savors the cool purr of his words, the exact knife-edge delivery that makes him feel like his years of acting classes have finally paid off. Seokjin's winging this part. He's already said what he came to say, but he feels lightheaded at Hyungsik's reaction and the obvious shock in his eyes. “Also, if you – or anyone – ever hurts Taehyung,” Seokjin continues. “I will destroy them.”

Hyungsik's expression flicks through a series of emotions, finally landing on one of cautious concern. He huffs a short laugh and says, “That's... really good to know.”

Seokjin steps back. He bows. “It's nice to meet you,” he says.

And then he leaves. He rushes down the hall, rightly concerned that Hyungsik will pursue him and then maybe rough him up, like Seokjin's seen some of his characters do on TV. He makes it to the first hallway, where he darts into what turns out to be a lady's washroom, and then he messages Sejin and Namjoon.

It's done, he writes. I did it.

U okay? Namjoon replies.

Sejin writes, Excellent. Glad to hear it. Hurry back.

Seokjin puffs out a breath. He bends his forehead to the cool marble of the counter and then dabs his eyes with a thumb. A woman at the sink gives him a do-you-mind? glare. He bows to her, but he can’t stop grinning, which makes her roll her eyes before she goes off to dry her hands.

After a moment, Seokjin tiptoes into the hallway, but a quick scan reveals no sign of Hyungsik. He messages, I'm fine. Heading down now. Then, with a smile, he adds, Thank you ❤ before finding his way to the corridor leading back downstairs.



Taehyung and Jimin link arms and hang over the railing, chatting with Baekhyun-sunbaenim and Daniel Kang. Taehyung can't understand what they're saying because the crowd's noise has grown in volume over the last half hour like a steadily rising wave. But it doesn't matter. Jimin's enjoying himself, the lights are all glittery, and everyone looks amazing.

That's why it's kind of a surprise when Park Hyungsik appears, looking a bit more ruffled than Taehyung's used to seeing.

Taehyung greets him, brightly, taking one hand in both of his. Hyungsik says, “I just met your friend, Seokjin.”

“Jin-hyung? Where?” Taehyung glances around, but as far as he can see, Seokjin's not in the audience. Jimin instinctively cranes closer to overhear their conversation.

Hyungsik leans close. He says, “Everyone talks about how nice he is.”

Jimin nods along.

“Frankly,” Hyungsik says, “he's a little terrifying.”

“Who, Jin-hyung-ie?” Jimin howls. “He couldn't scare a puppy.”

But Taehyung runs his tongue behind his teeth as he considers Hyungsik's words. He thinks about Hyungsik, and what Seokjin might say to him, and it's not too far a leap for Taehyung to figure out what probably went down.

Taehyung goes, “Can you, um, excuse me a minute?” He leaves a baffled Jimin with an even more baffled Hyungsik as he goes backstage in search of Seokjin.


He finds Seokjin in the wings, talking in a tight circle with Namjoon and Sejin-nim. He goes up, gently grips Seokjin's forearms, and guides him a discrete distance away.

“Did you just meet Park Hyungsik?”

Seokjin peeks over his shoulder. Taehyung watches as Namjoon and Sejin pretend a sudden, intense interest in the wall.

Taehyung lifts his chin. “What're you up to?”

“I... might have told Park Hyungsik that I intend to fight for you.”

Taehyung covers his face. He paces away and back again. His expression warring between a smile and a grimace of pain, he says, “Hyung, it's not him.” His shoulders tremble.

Again, Seokjin glances to Namjoon and their manager. In a thin whisper, he asks, “What do you mean it's not him?”

Taehyung presses his fist to his nose. “He didn't kiss me. It's not him.”

Sejin takes Namjoon's shoulder, ducking them both from the room.

Seokjin paces a short ellipse. He returns to face Taehyung. He puts his hands to his forehead. “I didn't ask who—”

“—but I should have told you—”

“—Oh god.” He hisses a breath. “Taehyung-ah, I think I just outed us to Park Hyungsik.”

“Hyung,” Taehyung shouts. Despite his baffled laughter, tears flood his eyes. “What did you say to him?”

“That I intend to fight for you,” Seokjin repeats, “and that if anyone ever hurts you, I'll destroy them.”

“Aw, hyung.” Taehyung yanks him into a rough hug. “You said that? You really scared him.”

“I'll apologize,” Seokjin mumbles into Taehyung's shoulder.

“No!” Taehyung says. “No. I am so embarrassed. This is all my fault, and you... “ He swallows hard. He covers his eyes. “You took up for me, and I don’t deserve that, and you deserve better, so I don’t—”

“—Taehyung-ah, stop,” Seokjin says. “That’s behind us now. Okay? You can let that go. It’s okay.” Then a smile lights his eyes as he says, “Yah, but I can’t believe I wasted all my intimidation on the wrong guy.”

Taehyung nudges his back. “Shh. No. It’s perfect.” He rubs his nose. “Hyung. You’re…” He smooths Seokjin's ruffled bangs and wipes the creases from his clothes. “Sit down please.”

Seokjin glances around, but finding no chairs or even boxes, he sits down on the floor. Taehyung sits beside him and takes his hands between his own.

“Seokjin-ah. One day I’ll tell you everything - when you're ready - but right now, I need you to know. I love you.”

Seokjin opens his mouth to speak; Taehyung touches his fingers to his lips.

“There is no because,” Taehyung continues. “I love you. Not for what you give me. Not for what you do for me. I love you. And knowing that helps me remember that I’m not a complete waste of everyone’s time. So please, please don’t give up on me.”

Seokjin’s eyes go soft. “I’m not going to,” he whispers. “I promise.”

“If I could, I would kiss you,” Taehyung says.

The area's empty. Namjoon and Sejin might even be standing guard. Seokjin decides it's worth the risk. He presses his lips to Taehyung's, light at first, then with sweet, heated depth. His fingers trace up behind Taehyung's ears to thread through the soft, honey-silk of Taehyung's hair.

Taehyung whimpers, and Seokjin melts.

“Is it still true?” Seokjin asks.

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung nods. “It's all still true.”

They part, reluctant yet reassured. “Let's meet tonight,” Seokjin says.

“Um, yeah,” Taehyung says. He squeezes Seokjin's hand, and they take a moment to catch their breath before returning to the chaos of their lives.

Chapter Text

“But can you feel this energy? Take it
You can have the best of me, baby
And I will give you anything.”
Lights Down Low, MAX

3 December 2017 – Gangnam

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin breathes. “I think at some point, I might have lost consciousness.”

Taehyung's laughter rumbles against his chest. “It's amazing we never tried that before.”

“We might've died,” Seokjin says. “It might've killed us. Though it is good to know that after so long together, some things can still surprise us.”

Taehyung rolls back, taking the duvet with him. “I think it’s better.”

“This from the man who once called us old and boring.” Seokjin curls to his side.

“When did I?” Taehyung protests.

Seokjin smiles. “Many times, VV. Please. Explain to me how you now think it’s better.”

Taehyung traces Seokjin’s eyebrow. “Well,” he says. “Okay. Maybe I did say it. Once. But... now I think I’m less shy about asking what I want.”

“True,” Seokjin says.

“And you’re less afraid of hurting me,” Taehyung goes on.

Seokjin nips Taehyung’s earlobe and mutters, “Mostly true.”

Taehyung reaches to smooth something slick from Seokjin’s hair.

Grimacing, Seokjin goes, “What was that?”

“Cum,” Taehyung says, and Seokjin smacks him.

“I'm serious,” he says.

“But... how?” Seokjin chuckles.

“Magic.” Taehyung nods. “Maybe physics?” He grabs for the washcloth at the bedside table and begins to gently wipe them clean. Seokjin relaxes into the pillows to stare up at the matte white ceiling.

This is not the familiar, glitter-flecked ceiling of the Alcazar. Tonight, they booked a normal hotel instead of their lovey because this is the halfway point between their new apartments and the Sky Dome, where until an hour ago, they were attending the Melon Awards. Until this moment, Seokjin hadn't noticed the view beyond the hotel's window, which shows, from this height, a sparkling wedge of Gangnam high-rises tucked against the hip of the sleepy river.

Seokjin misses the cinnamon-curry scent that pervades the bedding and the towels of the Alcazar. He misses the birds that flit at the windowsills, and the clatter of the market shops that wakes them in the morning. What he doesn't miss is the Alcazar's shuddery ondol that pumps muggy heat into their room during winter, whereas this hotel has central heating filling the room a toasty-mild and odorless warmth.  

“Feels like we're on display up here,” Taehyung says. “Like everyone can see us through these windows.”

“I don't care,” Seokjin says.  “Let them see.”

“Look at you, Seokjin the bold. Telling off Park Hyungsik, being all territorial and mysterious,” Taehyung says.

“Seokjin the bold? Who talks like that?”

“Me, I just did.”

“And mysterious?” Seokjin squints. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

Taehyung hums deep in his throat. Seokjin loops one leg around Taehyung's hips, slotting them together like puzzle pieces. “What is something you wish for?” he asks.

“I always wish for the same things,” Taehyung answers.

“Good,” Seokjin says. “Counting on it.”

“See?” Taehyung angles down to bite Seokjin's lip. “Mysterious.”

“Don't get me started again,” Seokjin warns. His pulse quickens at the thought.

“Maybe I wanna get you started again.”

Seokjin slides his palm down the length of him. “No more maybes.”

Taehyung's eyes slip shut. “Hyung, how do you want me?”

“I want you to decide,” Seokjin whispers. “How do you want me?”

“Like this,” Taehyung says. He turns Seokjin, pressing him down into the pillows. He reaches for the lube and bumps his phone to floor. Seokjin reaches for it, but Taehyung murmurs, “Leave it, leave it,” as he brings his legs around Seokjin's thighs, impatiently urging him forward.

“Wait,” Seokjin soothes, splaying his hand on Taehyung's belly. “We're going slow. Okay, VV. Slowly.”

Taehyung shuts his eyes. He winces, lightly, as Seokjin's fingers slide inside him.

“On your knees, jagiya,”  Seokjin whispers. “There you go.”

 

They're sore after, and too breathless to move, when one of their phones begins to buzz.

“It's after midnight,” Taehyung mutters. He stretches to scrabble along the bed's edge, searching with his fingertips while remaining tightly ensconced to Seokjin.

“It's probably Jimin,” Seokjin says. “Where are you, hyung? Why aren't you home yet, hyung? Can we please play with Odeng-ie and Eomuk-ie?

Taehyung snorts. “Don't let him. He's too playful with them.”

“You're telling me?” Seokjin says. “He thinks they're like parachutes, that if he throws him, they'll open up and float back down. I mean, they might... but he shouldn't try.”

“Jimin should never babysit for us,” Taehyung says.

“Oh, he will spoil our children,” Seokjin says.

“Right?” Taehyung says. "So spoiled." He scoops his phone to drag it up between them. “Oh. It's Hyungsik-ie and Seojoon-ah. They wanna go out for drinks. Look, they said Bring your friend.

“It's after midnight,” Seokjin groans.

“And...?” Taehyung meets his eye.

“And,” Seokjin exhales. “In our last conversation, I told Hyungsik I would destroy him.”

“Seokjin-ah, that is so hot.”

“Stop it.” Seokjin shoves his shoulder.

“I'm serious,” Taehyung says. “It was like the Seokjin from our trainee days, you know, the one who was all cocky and arrogant?”

“I was not.”

“Uh, yeah you were,” Taehyung says. He shimmies against Seokjin's naked thigh. “You're still cocky.”

“I swear to you, I can go again,” Seokjin says. “Give me, like, four minutes—”

“—Oh, hyung.” Taehyung's lashes flutter. “Tease me.”

His phone buzzes. Taehyung glances at it, and then tilts the screen to Seokjin. “Look, they're begging.”

“Wow, annoying,” Seokjin says. “Way worse than Jimin. Do they do this all the time?”

“All the time.” Taehyung grins. “Come with me.”

“Yah, I already did. Twice.” But Seokjin thinks about the loveliness of those three words, and how for a year, he never imagined that Taehyung's other world – his Hwarang world – might overlap with theirs.

“Hyung,” Taehyung says. He's smiling up at him, like he already knows Seokjin's answer.

Instead, Seokjin says, “Taehyung-ah, I have cum in my hair.”

Taehyung's fingers flex on Seokjin's arm. “Yeah you do.” He hisses through his teeth. “Come with me.”

The last of his resistance crumbles. “All right, fine,” Seokjin says. “Hey, quick, tell them we’re both naked.”

Taehyung gleams. He thumbs a message back to his Hwarang hyungs, and then he buries his face against Seokjin's neck.

“We'll sleep when we're old, right?” Seokjin says.

But Taehyung's already up and pulling on his pants and reaching for Seokjin's shirt. “Probably by then they'll have a medicine that we’ll take so we don't have to sleep.”

Seokjin slides into his sleeves. Pouting up at him, he says, “But then how will I wake up in your arms?”

Taehyung knees onto the bed. He gathers Seokjin against him. Seokjin nips the soft underside of Taehyung's upper arm.

Taehyung says, “We'll only sleep when we want to.”

“It'll be our own life,” Seokjin says. And though Taehyung doesn't know it, Seokjin's already begun laying the groundwork, turning this tenuous future into something solid and real. He's tempted to tell Taehyung now, to spread out all his plans before him, this tiny empire in the making.

But the secret in itself is exquisite. He figures he can hold on to it a little while longer.

Seokjin pulls on his pants and his hoodie, and then he slips into his coat – this gorgeously outrageous, expensive coat – that Taehyung gave to him for his birthday.

“Okay, so what's the plan?” Seokjin asks. They pull the door shut and head into the hall.

“We're gonna meet at Woodstock's, they play old school rock on vinyl. You’ll love it,” Taehyung says. “Here’re the directions.”

Seokjin's exhausted. His body aches, and he's not at all surprised by his hunger. But he feels light as they step into the elevator, like these are new times for them, new experiences with new friends. Their world has gotten bigger, and Seokjin’s eager to finally share it.

Chapter Text

“Oh, I'm so lucky, you are my best friend
Oh, there's no one, there's no one
that knows me like you do.”
Bros, Wolf Alice

27 December 2017 – Wednesday afternoon – Seoul

Namjoon, his arms dripping with plastic bags, struggles to key the entry code to their new place. He can hear Hoseok and maybe Seokjin in the common room, but they're so loud in their DDR game that they can't hear him half-pounding on the door.

He would yell for them, but he's stuffed their packs of chopsticks in his mouth to better access the keypad. Anyway, he's tried a few times, but all that comes out is a muffled, “Adfdadfaf,” to which no one has yet responded.

Namjoon tries the code again. He thought it was their debut date, but then he remembers Yoongi nixing that idea because too many people would be able to guess it.

Then PD-nim reminded them that it shouldn't matter how many people might know their access code because this apartment complex is known for its first-rate security, and as such, no one would be able get through the outer gates, much less gain access to their door.

And then Taehyung suggested they use Bang Sihyuk's birthday for the code.

Which they all agreed would be great, only now, laden with take-out that is currently searing his thigh through its plastic bags and his jeans, Namjoon cannot recall the year in which their CEO was born.

His brain tells him to search on Naver. His cramping palms remind him that his hands are full.

Namjoon decides extreme measures are necessary. He kicks the door. Then he watches in mute horror as a carton of soup from the top of the stack topples and explodes with a molten splash across the tile. Inside the apartment, Yeontan sends up a series of yipping shrieks, like he's being pursued by murdery robots. Within seconds, Jimin's face appears in the security screen by the door.

“I told you someone was here,” Jimin says to someone off screen.

“Well who is it?” the someone asks. Yeontan continues to squeal like a cornered rabbit.

“It's Joon-hyung,” Jimin answers.

“Well let him in.” Ah. Seokjin. It's Seokjin off screen, and he sounds impatient. Probably because he's hungry, and Namjoon's got their food.

Jimin opens the door. He starts laughing at Namjoon and the soup, and he neither moves to help him nor moves from the doorway. That's when Seokjin appears, skirting around Jimin to take the chopsticks from Namjoon's mouth.

“You could help,” Seokjin scolds.

“But, hyung!” Jimin objects, still giggling, as he goes for the empty soup container.

“Do we even have a mop?” Namjoon wonders, now that he can speak again. Jimin and Seokjin take the food from Namjoon, giving him time to remove his soup-splashed boots.

“Towels,” Jimin says. “We have hand towels.”

“Kitchen,” Seokjin barks. “Go.”

Namjoon looks into the smug face of his hyung, standing in their new foyer in his Avengers pajamas and his birthday coat from Taehyung. He lifts half the bags and the six pack of beer from Namjoon. Together, they follow Jimin into the kitchen, where the younger is scuffling through boxes and drawers in search of towels.

“Under the sink,” Seokjin says. They level the bags onto the counter and begin unpacking the meal, which is still steaming hot despite the trek across town and the arduous door fiasco. The greasy, peppery scent of fried chicken fills the kitchen, yet in the common room, the game noise clamors loudly on.  

Jimin holds up a clutch of white and yellow rags. “How about these, hyung?”

“Perfect,” Seokjin nods. “Wet them first.” Jimin puffs visibly with pride as he goes to the sink.

Taehyung pads in a second later, summoned by the scent of the food. He baby-talks to his puppy, "Yeontan wanna wonton?" before snagging one from the box.

Seokjin angles into his path, and Taehyung kisses him. Then he presents Yeontan, also for kissing. Seokjin rubs his nose against the puppy's nose, and Taehyung continues along his path back to his room.

A moment later, Jungkook drifts in, his eyes affixed to a video on his phone. “Hyung, look,” he says, crowding in beside Namjoon to show him something blurry and dark unfolding on YouTube. Namjoon nods as he watches, though he can't quite figure out what he's seeing.

“Jungkookie, come help me,” Jimin says as he wrings out the damp towels at the sink. Jungkook immediately sets his phone down to follow Jimin out to the entryway.

With them gone, Seokjin begins to scan the chicken box in search of the crispiest piece. Casually, he asks, “Are you still able to do the thing?”

“The thing.” Namjoon spends a second in freefall, scrambling to remember the thing that he's agreed to do.

“Because Benji says he can get them,” Seokjin adds. “He'll already be in the station.”

Namjoon remembers, then, and rushes to reassure him. “Yes, hyung. Absolutely. I have reminders set for my reminders. I'll get them—”

“—But if it's inconvenient at all...” Seokjin says. He plucks a chicken thigh from the box and nibbles it.

“No,” Namjoon says. “I wanna be a part of this.” He unpacks the side dishes, arranging them around the boxes of chicken. “So. Is your Mom driving down with you?”

“Apparently, it'll be my Dad,” Seokjin corrects. He meets Namjoon's eye, and in that one glance, he shows both his hopefulness and his dread. Because a three-hour car trip with his Dad means they'll probably have to talk about things. But it also means they will have to talk about things. The gravity of this truth is not lost on Namjoon.

“Abeoji sent an appraisal team to check out various aspects of the deal,” Seokjin continues, quietly.

“Ah, Mr. CEO in action,” Namjoon says.

“Exactly,” Seokjin smiles. “Anyway, they reported back that everything seems to be in order. However, Abeoji would like to see that for himself.”

“His approval is, like, a huge deal, isn't it?” Namjoon says. “Super important—”

“—What's super important, RM?” Yoongi teases as he and Hoseok swing into the kitchen, both panting and drenched in sweat. “You change your name again?”

“You really wanna go there, Gloss?” Namjoon says. He gets one moment to appreciate the fact that it was Yoongi and Hoseok playing the dance game in the common room before he's caught in the crosshairs of the glare Seokjin aims at Yoongi.

Yoongi glowers. “Do not start with me, hyung,” he growls.  

But before Namjoon can ask, Hoseok passes a water bottle to Yoongi. “What're we starting?” He then peers into the chicken box. “Ooh, you got the melon kind?”

“Yep,” Namjoon says, filing the Yoongi-Seokjin awkwardness away for later. “All the way from Sinchon. Just like the old days.”

“Was there soup?” Yoongi sniffs. He tucks the beer beneath his arm like it's an American football.

“Hey,” Seokjin shouts, but Yoongi lifts his free hand.

“Relax, hyung,” he says. “We're taking it to the front terrace.”

“By the way, we have a terrace,” Hoseok says. They're on the way out of the kitchen when a doorbell rings.

Namjoon balks. “There's a doorbell?”

“In the lobby,” Seokjin says. Then Taehyung streaks down the hall, almost colliding with Yoongi and Hoseok as he yells, “Me me me me me!”

In his sock feet and pajamas, Taehyung vanishes through the front door. They hear him at the elevator, talking excitedly with a group of men.

“Furniture delivery,” Seokjin explains to Namjoon.

“Ahh, it's about time,” Namjoon says.

“That bed of his was too small,” Seokjin says.

Minutes later, four delivery men heft Taehyung's new bed and mattress through the door. “Be careful,” one of the men calls. “Looks like someone spilled something out there. It's really slippery.”

Yoongi flashes an accusatory glance Namjoon's way. Namjoon says, “I couldn't remember the key code.”

“It's Bang Sihyuk's birthday,” Jungkook says. Somehow, he has the other boxes of chicken, while Jimin, beside him, cradles stacks of side dishes between his hands.

“How'd you get here?” Namjoon asks. “Weren't you just cleaning?”

“We did our best,” Jimin proclaims. “Hyung, we really need a mop.”

“We'll add it to the list,” Seokjin says. He takes half of the side dishes from Jimin, and they all migrate to the terrace, where the sun has begun to stretch long, golden rays across the snow-strewn hillside. They heel the coffee table toward the wide picture windows, then scatter couch cushions and blankets across the marble floor around it. They spread out their feast of chicken and beer, and they all stand a moment, quiet and circumspect, while they take in the grandeur of the scene.

“Wow,” Hoseok murmurs.

“Yeah,” Yoongi agrees. “Wow.”

“Our first meal in our new place,” Jimin says. “Let's stay here forever, okay?”

“I'm down,” Namjoon says. He sits at the table's end, waving for the others to join him. They descend upon the table like hungry tigers, passing sauces and chopsticks and chicken and beer among them. After a short while, Taehyung joins, wedging in between Jungkook and Seokjin, who passes him a carton of noodles.

Namjoon raises a can of beer. Everyone else grabs random beverages to join the toast, except for Taehyung, who lifts a packet of plum sauce.

“To forever,” Namjoon says.

They echo the words, and in that moment, despite every hardship and struggle, every loss and every gain, Namjoon feels that they have finally made their way back home.

Chapter Text

“Like snow piles up, I remember what you gave me
You gave me the courage to live.”
Crystal Snow, BTS

30 December 2017 – KBS Song Festival

Taehyung told Seokjin not to do anything too drastic.

Did Seokjin listen? No. He did not.

Was Taehyung glad? Well, to recount: On his birthday, on a broadcast aired in 117 countries, in front of a live audience of thousands composed of industry professionals and their peers, his secret boyfriend of four years, Seokjin – one of the MCs for the evening – used his place on stage to confess his love for Taehyung.

So, yeah... he is ecstatic.

And because Seokjin was an MC for the evening, Taehyung hasn't even been able to tell him. After their final performance, Seokjin had been summoned away for a final photo call with the other MCs. It's such a common thing, Taehyung thinks nothing of it. They all agree to meet with the managers at the parking structure once they change into their street clothes. Then they'll go for dinner before returning home, where Taehyung intends to generously repay Seokjin for his boldly insane public proclamation of love.

But minutes trickle into a half hour, and still there's no sign of Seokjin. Even Jimin had time to shower and change by then, and now he waits with Sanghyun and Hobeom in the parking garage. Most of the performers have winged off, bound for after-parties in swanky nightclubs.

So Taehyung, still abuzz with excitement and disbelief, decides that he can’t wait. He searches through empty dressing rooms and corridors, hoping to catch Seokjin on his way down to the vans. Maybe, Taehyung thinks, they can even sneak a quick kiss in a coat closet, for old-times sake.

When he can't find Seokjin, he sends him a text that goes unread. Desperate then, Taehyung messages Namjoon.

Namjoon sends back a suspiciously mysterious command: Meet me in our dressing room.

And it clicks. Honestly, Taehyung should have known. This wouldn't be the first time Seokjin enlisted the others to help him pull off one of his puzzles. Only, Taehyung’s excitement evaporates when he sees Namjoon. His grim expression sobers Taehyung quicker than a splash of water across his face.

“I'm sorry, Taehyung,” Namjoon says. “He said he couldn't wait anymore. He had to leave.”

Taehyung glances around, hoping the others are hiding behind doors or clothing rails, watching with bated breath as Namjoon delivers the prank. But the room is empty. He and Namjoon are alone, and Namjoon's face remains impassive.

“I don't understand,” Taehyung mutters.

Namjoon pulls an envelope from his coat. He presses it to Taehyung's hands. “He said this will explain everything.”

Taehyung gapes at the letter, at Seokjin's handwriting across the brown paper: Taehyung's name and a single red heart. Taehyung's pulse pounds. He thinks back to the lantern he launched on the banks of the Han, how this looks so similar to what he'd written across it.

But months have passed since then. He and Seokjin have made amends, so it can't be... it can't mean did he find out? And Taehyung knows he should have told him, despite all of Seokjin’s protests, he should have told him, because Seokjin should hear it from him, and—

Namjoon squeezes Taehyung's wrist. “Hey man,” he says. “Take a breath.”

Taehyung inhales and then attempts to speak. “Is he—?” Then, “But he said—”

“—He said you have something he needs,” Namjoon says. “He'd like you to bring it to him.”

Taehyung blinks while his thoughts slip slowly into place. “The key,” he breathes. He pulls it from his pocket. Across from him, Namjoon beams.

“You better go, Taehyung,” Namjoon says. “Sejin-nim's downstairs with a car—”

Taehyung drags him into a hug so tight it smashes the air from his lungs. He's able to say hasty goodbyes to the others in the garage before Sejin whisks him away to Seoul station, where Taehyung then waits with a train ticket to Daegu.

Chapter Text

“I don’t expect a lot right now.
Just stay with me.”
Stay, BlackPink

31 December 2017 – Seoul

Yoongi's the type of person who can feel alone even when surrounded by a thousand people. Even, he thinks, when surrounded by his closest friends.

If given the choice, Yoongi would have gone home tonight. Home being his studio, and not the super-sparkly, nouveau-riche marvel of civil engineering that is their new apartment at Hannam the Hill. Yeah, so it's got USB plugs in the wall outlets and a voice-controlled air conditioning system, but it's all shiny and clean. The floors are made of marble, you know the stuff they use to make mausoleums? It smells preserved and fresh, like some kind of museum... And anyway, it doesn't feel like home.

Also, Hoseok’s got his own place across town now. He hasn’t spent a lot of time there, but he is around less to notice that Yoongi’s not around, so… there is that.

Across the table, the others chatter and play, scooping rice from each other's bowls and tossing scraps of roasted garlic into each other's plates. Not that Yoongi’s judging, but it’s like they're a bunch of mongrels who've never been in public before. Namjoon and Jimin are in an unspoken race to see who can drink the most. Meanwhile, Jungkook keeps sneaking the meat from Hoseok's plate, but Hoseok's too busy to notice since he's busy corralling Namjoon, who wants to get up every few seconds to make long-winded toasts about the New Year.

Yoongi's not overly concerned, not really. They have a private room in the restaurant and a dedicated waitperson. Plus, they always clean up when they leave a place because... that's the kind of rock stars they are.

Anyway, he can't begrudge them their enthusiasm. It's the end of a long, arduous year, one with more ups than downs and more time spent in airports than apartments. And it's not just the alcohol talking, but Yoongi feels pretty damn fulfilled.

Even if...

Even if another year has passed, and Yoongi still hasn't told him.

Even if he told Seokjin that he would.

Though it goes unspoken among the other five, they all feel the absence of Seokjin and Taehyung. Almost a year has lapsed now since they came out to their parents, almost a year since Seokjin's return home, devastated in the grief of his parents' rejection.

To offer solace, in a show of solidarity, Yoongi had confessed his secret to Seokjin. Yes, the shared experience of coming out, but also, Yoongi's unrequited love for his best friend. Then, in November, in America, Seokjin had urged Yoongi to tell Hoseok. Just tell him, he said. Like it's as easy as getting money from an ATM. Like it wouldn't ruin everything.

It's better this way, Yoongi’s brain reminds him.

But if, by some catastrophic miracle, they all died tomorrow...

“Look, hyung, he's doing it again,” Jimin giggles. His cheeks glow like twin neon signs as he drapes across Jungkook to point at Yoongi.

“The hell am I doing?” Yoongi growls.

“The hell is he doing?” Namjoon slurs. He's maybe two drinks away from regressing hardcore into Rap Monster mode.

Hoseok says, “You're smiling like the world's about to end.” He seems far less amused than Jimin does.

Yoongi grates out a noise of disgust. “That's nonsense,” he says. “Where does you even come up with this stuff?”

“No, but like, I get it,” Namjoon says, his words all punchy and blurred. “Like, with all this success, with all this, like, upward motion... When do we become the Icarus, because that's how it works, right? That's how it always goes, when you fly really high, you're bound to fall. Isn't that how the story goes, Hope?” Namjoon gestures to Hoseok. “Tell 'em, that's like classic archetypal journey stuff, mazes and labyrinths, and the inevitable plummet to our demise.”

“Hyung,” Jungkook chuckles. “That's so bleak.”

“Oof, he’s Icarus drunk,” Yoongi snarks. “Joon-ah, you always jump to Icarus when you’re about nine beers in.”

“I mean, true. But, no, dude, listen, it's like...” Namjoon struggles. So maybe he's only one drink away from slapping on his Rap Monster shades. “It's like this. We go up, like way way up, into the cosmos or like, I dunno, beyond. But it changes us, though, seeing all that intricate amazingness. It rewrites us, being that close to the sun. So we get sunblind. We get tempted. We lose our confidence, and we lose our way. We doubt, and that's when we fall. We go into the ocean, just like in our MVs—”

“—But not in the highlight reels,” Yoongi throws in. “'Cause who knows what those're about, amiright?”

Namjoon waves, dismissive. “They'll all make sense later.”

“Yeah, okay,” Jungkook laughs.

“My point is... my point.” Namjoon points at Yoongi. “We survive. We survive because...”

Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Because we have each other.”

“We never fall alone,” Hoseok says.

Jimin doubles over laughing. “You are such a dork,” he wheezes. Yoongi fists a hand in Jimin's collar, a (mostly) playful reminder for Jimin to respect his elders, even if Jimin's so drunk he can barely see them.

This is when their waitperson comes in to clear their plates. Jimin raises his phone to proclaim that Seokjin and his Dad have arrived at their designated location. Yoongi checks his watch. It's 4 a. m. on the last day of the year. Taehyung should be aboard the southbound train for D-town. He'll arrive right at sunrise, hopefully well-rested, though Yoongi doubts very much that Taehyung will be able to sleep.

As they're cleaning up and putting on their coats, Yoongi begins to ramble to Hoseok – a habit he's never been able to break. He says, “I don't know how I'd feel if the love of my life made this huge, public decree of devotion and then just whooshed away, leaving like, a trail of breadcrumbs...”

“Probably anxious,” Hoseok says, frowning. “I would.” He threads a scarf around his neck, then reaches to button Yoongi's collar.

“Yeah.” Yoongi nods. “But at the same time, I totally get that Taehyung just eats it up.”

“Whatever works for them,” Hoseok says.

“Ups and downs, right?” Yoongi says.

“So many,” Hoseok agrees.

They file outside to where Jungkook is fireman's-carrying Jimin to the elevator. Namjoon's already inside, his arm bracing the door while Sanghyun rushes them from the restaurant.

Outside, a biting wind scours the street. They huddle close as Hobeom brings up the van, and as they enter, a creeping tightness squeezes Yoongi's heart. As Sanghyun shuts the door, he leans over to say, “Hey, I'ma ride with you back to the studio, I think I forgot my tablet...”

“Sure,” Sanghyun says.  

And that should be that.

Yet when the others pile out on the sidewalk beneath their building, its gleaming green windows aglow with the light of Seoul, Hoseok hops back in. So okay, Yoongi thinks, Hope will spend the night in his new place, no big deal. Hobeom and Sanghyun don't even ask. They chat companionably in the front seat about holiday plans with their families while Yoongi and Hoseok sit in crisp silence the whole way back to BigHit. Then Hoseok gets out of the van with Yoongi and follows him up the sidewalk.

They're still silent on their way into the building, silent down the somber hallway to the Genius Lab, where Yoongi's been spending so many of his days. Creating, or whatever. Before he keys in his code, he turns to Hoseok. There's a sense of decision between them, an understanding that somehow, on the other side of this door, things will be different.

“You believe all this Icarus crap Joon was talking about earlier?” Yoongi asks.

He's stalling. They both know it.

“Well, you know my Dad, Mr. Literature,” Hoseok says. “He says the same theme repeats itself throughout history, so…yes. I believe it.” His nose is running. His hair is a wind-torn mess. He's the most beautiful thing Yoongi's ever seen. 

Then Hoseok says, “But I also believe in getting back up, which is, I think, the most important thing.” Then he leans over to key in the entry code. The access-tone bleeps. He opens the door and stands aside to let Yoongi in.

Absurdly touched, Yoongi says, “You know my code.” He skirts between the door and Hoseok, careful not to brush against either one.

“Of course I know your code, Yoongs.” He follows Yoongi inside, letting the door hush shut behind them. “You use the same code for everything. You know, for a genius, you're weirdly predictable.”

“Is that so?”

Hoseok rolls his shoulder, a graceful half-shrug. “Maybe I just know you.”

This is it. His window of opportunity. The perfect moment Seokjin urged him to seize.

Goddamned Seokjin, safely four hours away.

Hoseok goes, “Hey, you know I love you, right?”

Yoongi stammers. He swallows hard, and then he coughs. “Yeah,” he chirps. Actually chirps, like he's some kind of tiny bird. He clears his throat and adds, “Yeah, I know.”

“Well, Min Yoongi,” Hoseok whispers. He moves to the cracked and peeling vinyl sofa, pulling Yoongi to sit with him. “What on earth are you gonna do about it?”

Chapter Text

“Cover my eyes, so I can’t see you
My foolish heart only wants you. ”
Don’t Leave Me Alone, Jung Dongha - Hwarang OST

31 December 2017 – 2 a.m.

Taehyung settles into his designated seat. He feels naked without any bags, but the seat beside him is vacant. He drapes his goosedown coat across it and pretends, for a minute, that it's Seokjin asleep at his side.

The train feels eerily quiet, like he's closed up within an egg. A smattering of passengers range about the mostly-empty first class car. None of them are close enough to interact with Taehyung. The wintergreen scent of the air purifier dulls the edge of his excitement, and before long he's losing a battle against sleep.

But Taehyung doesn't want to sleep. He wants, for once, to think. He wants to remember this year and weigh the lessons of his heart against his conscience to see if he deserves whatever grand gift he's about to receive from Seokjin.

He sits forward. He presses his hands to his mouth. He knows he doesn't deserve it, not any of it. Not his friends, not his mentors, not his fans, not Seokjin. After all he's put them through this year, his inconsistency, his moods... His faithlessness.

There it is, the tenderest bruise.

Everything else might be healing, but this one wound remains.

Taehyung slides his phone from his pocket. After a moment, he opens his chat with the Frog Prince, and he reads.

Quickly, Taehyung understands that in all his violent thrashing around to figure himself out, he managed to hurt everyone closest to him, Jimin and Seokjin, but also the Frog Prince as well.

It's the last night of the year. A night for confessions, apparently, and a night for...

Taehyung exhales as he presses the phone connect from Kakao. He waits, knowing that the Frog Prince is a busy man, that he likely won't be receiving random after-midnight calls from—

“Taehyungie?” His voice sounds gruff, like he's been asleep. “Are you okay?”

The train's quiet feels like a blanket. Taehyung hides beneath it, keeping his voice low.

“I read your messages,” Taehyung says.

“What? Now?” The Frog Prince keeps his voice quiet, too.

“I wanted to check on you, after what happened... I wanted to say, I'm sorry.”

“Don't...” Sounds of movement carry over the line. “Don't do that, let's not waste each other's time.”

Taehyung fights the urge to apologize again. He says, “Even so. I worry about you.”

“Ah, that's charitable.” A brittle chuckle. “And a little too late.”

The words feel like a slap. Taehyung reels, unsure how to proceed, when the Frog Prince says, “No. No, Taehyung. I'm bitter about how things have turned out. But it's wrong, pinning it on you. It's not your fault. Not all of it.”

Taehyung's hands tremble. “But some of it is,” he says.

“Where are you?” Frog Prince says, suddenly. “Can we meet? I need to see you.”

“No,” Taehyung says. “I can't.”

“Right, because you're in love with—”

“—No,” Taehyung says again. “I love him. It's different from being in love. It changed. It's something else now. Something... I don't know yet, but I'm...” The corner of his lip pulls into a smile. “I'm eager to find out.”

The Frog Prince seems like he's mostly teasing when he says, “Sounds kinda dull.”

Taehyung lifts the key to eye-level, twirling its nattered red strings in the air. “Agree to disagree,” he says.

Silence unwinds on the other end, so long that Taehyung begins to worry the Frog Prince might have hung up. But then he starts to speak again. “You made me feel alive again,” he says. “Like a living, breathing human. I didn't expect that, and I didn't ask for it.”

Taehyung cringes as he asks, “Do you regret it?”

A pause, then, “No.” The Frog Prince draws in a breath that makes Taehyung realize he's smoking. “I know you do - regret it - but... You rekindled something in me. I thought it was dead, honestly. I guess it's a good wake-up call, considering what we've recently lost. It's nice to know there’s a heart in here. A weak, treacherous thing, but still there.” He blows out a stream of air. “Fuck, listen to me, poetic at 2 a.m. You see what you do to me?”

The words feel uncomfortably close when Taehyung's trying to keep his distance. He says, “In your text you said you should tell him. Did you? Have you told him yet?”

“I’m going to,” he says. “At the moment, we’re just getting through our days, you know? I have to be there for my group, and… I have to be there for him.” His voice breaks on the last word.

“You love him,” Taehyung says.

“No, Taehyung. I’m in love with him. With too much of my heart,” he says. “Maybe therein lies the problem?”

“You really do get poetic at 2 a.m., huh?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he chuckles. “At least I’m not like you and Hyungsik. All aegyo and heart eyes. I ask you, who among us will toe the hyper-masculine line?”

“Uh. No one, I hope,” Taehyung says.

“Maybe Seojoon,” the Frog Prince ponders. Then he adds, “Nah, he’s one cashmere sweater from being a girl.”

Taehyung barks a short, sharp laugh. “Hyung, no.”

“Kidding, Taehyung,” the Frog Prince goes. “I am only kidding. He’s very wise and in touch with his feelings, and I owe him a lot for helping me through these last few weeks.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “Same.”

They lapse once more into silence. The black windows of the train streak with bursts of color as it sails smoothly through the Suwon countryside.

“Can I ask you a question?” the Frog Prince says. “I’ll understand if you can’t answer.”

“Sure,” Taehyung says.

“The person you love, is he one of your members?”

“I, um… yeah. He is.”

There’s a heartbeat of silence before he says, “Hold onto him, Taehyung. Hold on to all of them. This life… it’s so much harder than people realize, and we don’t ever think it can happen to us, so it hurts like fucking hell when it does. So please, even if they seem okay, please take this advice from me. Hang onto them, yeah? No matter what.”

Tears ache in Taehyung’s throat. He manages to say, “I promise I will,” before the Frog Prince moves them on.

“Well. So.” He blows out a breath. “What do we do now?”

Taehyung smooths a hangnail on his thumb. He doesn’t have a clue what they can do now, but he says, “We’ll always be Hwarangs. Right?”

The Frog Prince snorts. “Of course.”

“Then let's be that,” Taehyung says.

“Yeah.” He drags from his cigarette. “We’ll be Hwarangs.” He exhales. “And in the meantime, let’s wish for higher hopes in the New Year. 2017 kinda kicked my ass, so… I’m gonna focus on getting my life together, which means... I gotta let you go.”

“I understand,” Taehyung says.

“No more middle-of-the-night phone calls, no more drunk and rambling texts—”

“—when did I ever?” Taehyung cuts in.

“Fine, okay, that was me.” The Frog Prince laughs. “But no more of that, understood?”

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung says.

“So,” the Frog Prince says. “I’m gonna go. Happy New Year, Taehyung.”

The line clicks off before Taehyung can respond. He stares at the phone in his hand. Quietly, he echoes, “Happy New Year, Minho.”

Then, with a sense of purpose, he leaves their private chat and watches it disappear from his history.

He tabs up to the Hwarang chat to read through his birthday greetings. He types Happy 2018 in response, followed by a stream of fireworks emojis.

“Higher hopes,” Taehyung whispers. And still jangling with energy, he opens his envelope from Seokjin to read through his instructions a dozen times more before the train reaches Daegu.

Chapter Text

“All of this is not a coincidence.
The two of us found fate.”
DNA, BTS

31 December 2017 – Daegu

Seokjin scrubs his thumbs over the hot packs in his pockets. He blows out a breath and bounces, anxiously, on the balls of his frozen feet. Even though he waited with his father in the rental car until the last possible second, he feels like he's never been colder in all of his life. He wonders, distantly, at how he could plan all of this, down to the finest detail, and yet he could forget something as simple as the temperature in December.

He decides, as he paces the narrow, unpaved lane, that it doesn't matter. According to the driver Seokjin placed at the train station, Taehyung is on his way. Seokjin will finally be able to share with him what he's been planning since July.

Although, Seokjin must admit that, right now, there isn't much to look at. From here, the sweep of the hillside resembles a desert – an unbroken field powdered with snow and bordered by tight, wire fences. Outbuildings huddle under tattered tarps along a treeline that pricks the sky with naked limbs.

That doesn't matter, either. Seokjin knows better than anyone that looks can be deceiving. A pretty face can mask a whole host of flaws. He used to hide behind his, fearing that without it, he was nothing. Or worse, that he was a monster.

And maybe he would have been, had his life taken a different path.

Seokjin comes to the place where the cement surrenders to gravel. Plump cedars hug the pebbly trail, which ends abruptly at a gate half-supported by vines. A graying sign reclines against a fencepost, its pink letters too faded now to read.

That also doesn't matter; Seokjin already knows what it says.

He scans the road he's just walked, searching for signs of Taehyung. He checks his phone, which contains a screen full of unread messages from Minnie, and his Mom, from Jimin, and from Namjoon. He'll answer them all in due time, but right now, he can do nothing but wait.

And freeze. He can wait and freeze.

And feel grateful for his coat, which has deep, plush pockets, but also gives him a splash of color, bright against the desolate landscape. The coat makes it easy for Taehyung to see him, even at a distance. Minutes later, when Taehyung appears at the bend in the road, he has no difficulty spotting Seokjin among the snow-penciled hedges at the driveway's end.

Taehyung waves, and Seokjin's heart flips. Time does this odd doubling-back on him. He recalls younger Taehyung, coming into the practice room in his garish red coat. Seokjin had teased him, had called him a fake. Taehyung responded by dancing up on him, by pushing back when no one else ever dared. And really, that was it for Seokjin. Two minutes into meeting Taehyung, and Seokjin was already gone.

Now here they are, six years later: so different, yet somehow the same.

The snow crunches beneath Taehyung's boots. He scuffles up to Seokjin, his nose and mouth concealed beneath a scarf, his eyes alight with intrigue. They're quiet a moment, standing face to face, each taking the other in.

Taehyung thumbs his scarf free. He says, “Seokjin-ah, I know this place.”

“I thought you might,” Seokjin says.

“No, but I played here as a kid,” Taehyung says. “My brother and sister and me, we came here every summer. My grandparents' place is—”

“—Right over that ridge,” Seokjin says. “I know.”

Taehyung's forehead furrows. He walks to the fence to gaze across the vacant field, the bare trees, the abandoned buildings. “There was a tire swing,” he says, pointing. “And a field of lotus flowers, over there. There's a bike path, and that way, there's a creek where we'd find freshwater snails. And there were strawberries, too. They grew strawberries, and we helped pick them.”

Taehyung's confusion deepens the furrows on his brow. He's too focused on the horizon to notice Seokjin nodding along.

“My Mom said the family had some health issues,” Taehyung continues. “They moved to Busan or something, but... I can't believe they sold this place.”

“I can,” Seokjin says, his tone, calm, his words, precise. “Because I bought it.”

Taehyung goes rigid. Seconds reel and reel before he says, “You... what?”

“We did, actually,” Seokjin says. “With BigHit’s help. It's an investment, for our future.”

Taehyung gapes. “H-how?”

Seokjin fights the urge to blather at him about split-capital trusts, investment portfolios, and fund diversification – all the things his Abeoji had been so keen to talk about on their trip down from Seoul.

Instead, he says, “Taehyung, you've told me about this place so often. When I learned from your Mom that the family was selling it, I had to do something. I had to get it before some developer turned it into high-rises or department stores. Anyway, it felt like fate how everything fell into place, and I hope... I hope I didn't act too boldly. I bought it when things were still so uncertain for us, but I felt that, no matter what happened, you should have this place.”

“Is this real?” Taehyung breathes.

“Yes, Taehyung. It’s real.”

“It's a farm,” Taehyung says. He cups a hand over his mouth. “You bought us a farm?”

Seokjin bristles at the note of anguish in Taehyung's tone. He asks, “Are you upset?”

Taehyung punches Seokjin's arm. “I got you a coat!”

“Please, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says, smiling. “You once got me a sunrise.”

“Hyung!” Taehyung puts his hands to his forehead. He doubles over, his breathing a sharp, unsteady wheezing. Alarmed, Seokjin rushes to comfort him, only to be swept into a hug so fierce it almost knocks them both over.

Taehyung's quiet a long time, his damp face buried against Seokjin's neck, so that he can smell the honey-snow scent of Taehyung’s hair.

So many things he thought he'd say to him in this moment. They all seem unnecessary now. Seokjin doesn't have any answers. Most of his questions end in more questions. He knows they're young, that they're supposed to want to experience things and explore. But there's only one thing Seokjin knows for certain, and that's what he decides to say.

"I love you," he says.

"You do," Taehyung murmurs. "You love me so well. I don't know how. But I... I hope you know that I love you, too."

"I do know it." Seokjin inhales, softly. He says, “This year, Taehyung, it's been the best of our lives, and in some ways the worst. We're rich men, yet we were practically homeless. We're successful, but we suffered so much uncertainty and doubt.” He peers into Taehyung's face. “I said I never wanted to hold you captive—”

“—You don't, hyung, you never have,” Taehyung says.

“So this is not a cage, okay?” Seokjin gestures to the land around them, the cloister of trees, the sagging gate. “It's a starting place.”

“Oh, hyung," Taehyung whispers. "The key.” He pulls it from his pocket to dangle between them on its strip of red thread.

“You can choose when to open it,” Seokjin says. “But it will only open if you believe that you’re worthy.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “Hyung,” he groans. “I’m not a child anymore.”

“Even so,” Seokjin says, with an air of quiet mystery. “You can open it now, or never open it. It's yours, Taehyung. It's a home. For you.”

“For us,” Taehyung says. He goes to the gate and drops to his knees. He has to scrabble beneath crisps of dried vine to find the chain and the brass lock upon it. Then he gets back up and drags Seokjin down beside him. Kneeling together, Taehyung fits the key into the lock. The hasp clicks open; the chain slides away, and Taehyung looks ridiculously, deliriously relieved.

"It opened," Taehyung says.

Seokjin smiles. "Yeah. It did."

The sky above them is polished opal. It makes the world feel as though it’s glowing from within. Featherlight snowflakes drift in the air around them, and Seokjin reaches for Taehyung’s hand.

“This is it,” Seokjin says. “Of all our moments together, this one’s the most beautiful.”

“Better than our turtle beach?”

“Yes.”

“Better than Finland?”

Seokjin sucks breath over his teeth. “Ooh, it's close...”

“I got one,” Taehyung says. “Better than that night in Hongdae, which anniversary was that?”

“No, if you can't remember, then it's not better,” Seokjin says.

“True. Okay,” Taehyung agrees. “Then how about... last night, when you told the world you love me?”

“A good night,” Seokjin nods. “But even though it’s so freezing here, this moment’s better.”

Taehyung takes both of Seokjin's hands in his, rubbing warmth into his fingers. “My hand is your hand,” he whispers. “My Jinnie.”

Through chattering teeth, Seokjin says, “We can have a look around.” He nods toward the open gate and the fields beyond. “The house is open, and there’s a barn…”

“Hyung, you’re frozen,” Taehyung says. “We can do it later.”  He locks the gate and pockets the key. Then he stands, pulling Seokjin with him. “We have forever.”

At the sidewalk's end, Seokjin leans to kiss him, a light brush to his lips that Taehyung meets and deepens. They're dazed when they part, breathless as they were with their first kiss, so many years ago. Their fingers lace as they take the pebbled path back to the road and their normal, crazy, chaotic life.

“Forever?” Seokjin asks.

“From now on,” Taehyung agrees.

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says. “I love the sound of that.”