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(if there's something better baby) well they haven't found it yet

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Taehyung flicks his wrists, the loose sleeves of his blazer sliding closer to his elbows, and steps closer to the microphone.

There might be thousands of people around him, but a miserable silence bounces off the walls of his mind, an echo chamber of wordless thoughts, abstract disappointment, immense longing. With no one to understand. With no one to understand, not with these thousands of people who are in love with him and sway with him, glowsticks in the air, holding their breath, waiting to scream for him. With no one to understand, Taehyung doesn't have the option to disappoint.

He inhales and presses his lips to the cold cross-stitch of the microphone, tries to recall his pain to the surface.

'I'm a rockstar,' he sings, and the crowd goes wild. It's their favourite, after all.

 

◀︎

 

'Okay,' he says the moment he's rid of the equipment. 'Are you all happy? Can I fucking go home now?'

Hoseok and Seokjin's camaraderie is cute at best and satanic at slightly-below-best, but there is absolutely nothing creepier than their thing where they speak in unison way too often for it to be an accident. Hence, their combined shut up, Taehyung, gives him chills despite the utter desolation in his heart.

He might be being a bit of a downer, he'll admit that. Given that it was the last show of the tour and thus the best one, he should be in the mood for a nice bottle, bucket, sparklers, poles, whatever. It'd be easier, too, if he didn't hate everyone and everything that exists in a ten-kilometre radius and also beyond it.

'Come on, man,' Yoongi says, scrunching his nose into the void as he struggles with his usual earring-caught-in-beanie issue. 'I'm supposed to be the gloomy bitch up in here.'

'You know my name, Yoongi,' Taehyung says coldly. 'Not my story. No, scratch that. You don't even know my name.'

'No, believe me, I do. You sang it literally fourteen times in a row out there.'

'My name is KT, sweet baby,' Hoseok and Seokjin sing automatically. Hoseok pulls the falsetto off thirty times better as usual, complete with a flick of his godawful hair. Seokjin, for his part, hasn't even bothered to look up from his nails since Taehyung stormed backstage; he could've waited five minutes for his dumbass post-show precious guitar fingers treatment but like Taehyung says, no one understands. Seokjin's nails, apparently, even though they're in pristine condition, are more important than the crisis Taehyung is going through, body and soul.

'Look,' Taehyung says, turning back to glaring at Yoongi, 'I've been saying this for two months. Just because our songs are fun—'

'I'm a rockstar, don't stop me—'

'— and all right, the tour did go well but that doesn't mean that I, as an artist—'

'I'm a popstar, don't stop me—'

'—because there's nothing worse than being stuck in a cage with no way—'

'I'm a superstar, everyday I—'

'Okay,' Taehyung says, turning again to the singing duo. 'Shut up. Like, immediately. This is in effect immediately.'

To their credit, they do shut up. For three seconds, before Hoseok finishes the line anyway.

'Everyday I fall in love,' he sings in a solemn baritone, and Yoongi bursts into his crow-like laughter.

 

◀︎

 

Full disclosure: Taehyung is definitely a rockstar. It's not just one of those things that not-really-rockstars sing to their crowd of, whatever, five hundred people. Taehyung's a real rockstar, all branded everything, chartered flights, Hoseok's incorrigible eyeliner problem, the works.

He'd love to be everyone's favourite, but the truth is, between Yoongi doing that cat mouth thing whenever the camera's on him, Hoseok's terrible, terrible flaming red hair and abundance of arm tattoos, and Seokjin's general everything, competition is a little tight. He's mostly known as the fourth one. (He's the lead singer.)

'I'm the lead singer,' he says to Bogum for the sixth time, definitely. He lost track somewhere after the third time he got into an argument with Amber about something he shotgunned that he definitely wasn't supposed to shotgun. 'But does anyone respect me?'

'No,' Bogum says, not looking up from his phone. Taehyung can see his screen reflected in his giant clear plastic frames— which he doesn't even need, Taehyung hates the entertainment industry— and he's definitely going through hedgehog videos. Like, definitely. 'No one respects you.'

The System is the kind of bar that sells exactly what it says on the package. For all that he rocks that faux leather and ripped jeans onstage (a parody of himself) Taehyung's very shirts-blazers-turtlenecks off it, which means he looks like he's trying too hard at The System without wanting to. Bogum, though, fits right in with the exposed-wall, construction beams, dirty lights deco. Not the least for his dumbass glasses, but also his general thing he has going of having these fairy-delicate features but having a sartorial choice of what Taehyung can only describe as industrial prep. He doesn't think that really exists.

At least the good thing is it's so big that there's four different counters inside. Privacy and shit. He can be disrespected away from the public eye.

'No one respects me,' Taehyung says, nodding and lifting his glass again, then taking Bogum's when he realises it's fuller. 'Least of all my own bandmates.'

'Uh huh. Total lack of respect. Outrageous.'

'Do you know what Hoseok did the other day?'

'I haven't the faintest idea.'

'He,' Taehyung swallows to keep his composure, then swallows the rest of his glass for good measure. 'So you know how I like pulp in my orange juice, and he doesn't?'

'I am aware, yes,' Bogum says, looking up briefly to smile at Amber, and nodding when she motions towards some terrifyingly innocent-looking bottle. That's definitely absinthe. Definitely. 'I can see where this is going.'

'He unpulped it,' Taehyung says, voice shaking, 'but he unpulped the whole carton and he came specially to my suite because he always requests grapefruit so they'd put grapefruit in his bar but he just woke up and decided that he wanted orange—'

'And he didn't ring up for it?' Amber asks as some obscure East European number comes on over the speakers. Her chain link bracelet clinks against the glasses that she's laying out on the bartop.

'Why would he, that'd be respectful. No, had to phone to have more sent in.'

'And you, what, just have a sieve lying around in your hotel suite for him to strain the juice?'

'What do you think I'm upset about,' Taehyung says coldly. 'He used a pillowcase. I mean, he was high, but—'

'Tragic,' Bogum says. 'Hey, did you know that baby hedgehogs can be called piglets?'

Taehyung blinks at Bogum's unnecessarily handsome industrial prep face and wonders how much it's insured for. With that upcoming film it has to be in the millions, so he reconsiders it and turns back to Amber.

'Slide it across,' he says, motioning to the glasses. 'Let's go shot for shot.'

'This is Germain-Robin, Taehyung,' she says. 'Traditional presentation or get out.'

'You're right,' Bogum says. 'No one respects you.'

 

◀︎

 

What Taehyung is currently experiencing is known as an artistic block to the sympathetic part of the community. To Yoongi and Seokjin, however, it is known as Taehyung's being Taehyung. Only ironically, though. (Taehyung hopes.)

It all started after the final recordings of the latest release. It was almost like an instantaneous thing, really; the moment Taehyung walked out of the studio and caught his toes on the doormat and went sprawling forward into the arms of the custodian, he knew that his career, as he knew it, was over. And Taehyung's proactive. He'd tried to talk about it at dinner the same day, through a mouthful of caramel popcorn while Seokjin poured vodka over the cotton candy in his martini glass.

'Seriously,' Taehyung said, shaking the little popcorn box just in case one of the remaining kernels decided to turn into actual popcorn, 'I know we don't have to worry about this shit for another couple of years, but I feel like the next time I sing I'm going to sound like a chainsaw.'

'Cute of you to think you don't sound like a chainsaw already,' Yoongi said, taking a break from trying to fit his entire mouth around his own glass. 'Look, it's the post-production vacuum. You do this shit every time.'

'Well, I'm serious this time.'

'Sure you are.'

'You'll see when we become has-beens four years from now and no one cares about us except for execs in their thirties—'

'We are execs in our thirties, Taehyung,' Seokjin said, at which Taehyung carefully put the popcorn box down and turned fully to face his lead guitarist.

'We are rockstars,' he hissed. 'And just because you're three years away from crossing the great divide doesn't mean all of us are on the wrong side of twenty, uncle.'

'I mean, I definitely am,' Yoongi said. 'And that's the right side for you, child.'

'I'm in the middle,' Hoseok announced cheerfully, settling into his chair and carefully placing four blue beers on the table. 'Twenty-five's the place to be, baby.'

'All right, fuck all of you. You'll see. All of you will see.'

 

◀︎

 

'I do see,' Seokjin says, and despite it having been around a year, Taehyung knows exactly what he's talking about. 'I see very well.'

'I told you,' Taehyung says, nodding towards the doorway, where Seokjin's leaning against the frame in his I just railed some obscure European prince silk shirt, sunglasses hanging primly over its pale fabric. 'This is how I feel right now, Jin. I feel like I'm stewing in a lake of mud. Like my skin can't breathe and everything I do is dirty and nothing's clear to me anymore. Mud.'

'Taehyung, you are literally sitting in a black jelly bath,' Seokjin replies. 'Because you used that one bomb I hate that smells like almonds.'

'You'd never understand Secret Arts,' Taehyung says loftily, moving a hand through the slightly unnerving slime and holding it up in front of his unimpressed bandmate. 'Lush are the only ones who understand my artistic distress. They interpreted the quagmire of my mind and turned it into a quagmire of the—'

'Shut up,' Seokjin says. 'And get up. We're going to Jeju.'

Taehyung's scrambling out of the gigantic tub before Seokjin's even done talking, and yeah, maybe he trips again, but that's only because things must be coming full circle. He gleefully watches the dark slime stain the rug and then narrows his eyes at Seokjin, swamp creature dick and all.

'Hoseok doesn't get to enter my room,' he says.

 

◀︎

 

Now, not to be too Audrey Hepburn or anything, but Jeju is always a good fucking idea. The only problem is that when Taehyung was talking about chartered flights and all that, he wasn't joking. The beauty of the hills and the sea and all that shit that he can see from his window is always countered by the horror that is sharing flying space with Yoongi and Hoseok. To be fair, Yoongi's always trying to mind his own business with his giant ass neck pillow and headphones and that all black everything trying-too-hard shit he does every time they have to fly somewhere, but it's Hoseok who's the problem.

Currently, for example, he's trying to film some sort of vlog for his Twitter or something, despite having known for years that one does not vlog around Yoongi in airport mode. With little to no regard for Yoongi's desire to sleep, Hoseok is trying to get him to talk about last week's closing show. Yoongi, in turn, with little to no regard for Hoseok's waiting Periscope viewers, is ignoring him completely.

Out of sympathy, Taehyung grins and raises a peace sign when Hoseok turns the phone towards him, but that's about all he's willing to do. He has to slot out time for contemplation about the life of a caged artist, and all, and try to remember the number of that secret cocktail he always orders at Jimmy's. (Of course, the bar has it noted, but it's more satisfying to say the number himself and have it served. It's this little joke between him and the head bartender. He half-thinks they might've invented the cocktail for him but he doesn't remember at this point.)

Smiling at the idea of closing down on Jimmy's in just a few hours from now, Taehyung makes like Seokjin, who is already asleep with a gel eye mask on, and tunes out Hoseok and Yoongi's nonsense. Yeah, he might be stuck in mud and all, but at least the mud's sparkly and smells great. It's designer mud.

Jeju's going to be great.

 

◀︎

 

Jeju is great. They've always gone to the same place, at least since they made it big and stopped having to stay in guest houses that they tried to pass off as artistic and not economical. Taehyung might be off the beaten path as they say, but he definitely likes his luxury. Yeah, sometimes you need to not sleep for three days in a row and sit on the balcony in the freezing cold to get those writing fingers moving, and sometimes you just need a nice private pool, a piña colada, and your phone's voice notes feature.

Right now, though, Taehyung isn't actually sure which of those he needs. Something about the hot stickiness of summer has always made him want to move, stand under a cold shower, put on a loose shirt and go bar hopping; but it's never quite made him want to write. That's always been fall, and winter, and maybe the first beginnings of spring when the sun is pale and the trees fragile.

Maybe if he stopped being so on edge about it, that'd be great too. Going into this retreat bullshit with expectations isn't going to help if all he ends up doing is picking up people at Jimmy's and committing minor misdemeanours. (Although that'd still be a better time than what he's been having, so.)

Their suites aren't connected, thankfully; Taehyung was serious about not letting Hoseok into his room ever again. His balcony overlooks the beach, unlike Seokjin's (he always requests an interior view), and as always, his collection of candles is waiting on the bed. He hopes their agent remembered to request his bath bombs too, because last time he had to send one of the hotel staff to do it and the kid ended up getting Golden Egg by mistake and Taehyung didn't have the heart to say anything. Needless to say, he was waking up in glitter for weeks, and Seokjin was not amused.

Anyway.

Taehyung throws his jacket over the bag the bellhop's already brought up and proceeds to flop facedown on the bed. Closes his eyes at the cool feel of the sheets and lets out a full-body groan, and already regrets not having adjoining suites; he wants Yoongi to come in and sit on his back. He's got the perfect weight to treat air travel aches, except that he's now two doors away and Taehyung isn't even counting on moving long enough to remove his shoes, let alone get to the interphone.

Creative blocks are exhausting. That's definitely why he falls asleep in three minutes. Definitely.

 

◀︎

 

On the first evening, Taehyung flips Hoseok the bird when they cross in the hallway because he knows Hoseok's on the way to sauna like always, and takes the elevator down to Jimmy's. He collects five sets of finger guns from some high-schoolers who recognise him on the way, and laughs to himself as he nods at the doorman, steps into the neon blue space of the bar.

Then he promptly stops laughing as he spots the actual bar.

Instead of his darling head bartender who he's built an extremely intense and emotional rapport with over the three years that they've been coming to this place, there is...someone who actually looks Taehyung's age. Except hotter, from what he can tell at his ten-metre distance.

And like, Taehyung gets that Jimmy's is supposed to be this hip, party kind of youth bar so that the hotel can pretend that they don't only cater to execs in their thirties, while the real 60,000-won-cocktails-and-cigar-lounge affair is on the other end of the building (Taehyung's been there once, to accompany Seokjin, and vowed never to return again, if only to go back to pretending that Seokjin doesn't possess a sexuality). Taehyung gets that the whole neon blue, dry ice, beer pong and Long Islands are supposed to give off the impression of we are totally affordable by college graduates and we will not make your wallet weep and we understand that you like mainstream music and we are totally not going to judge you for that even though this is the third time this Chainsmokers song has come on this evening.

Taehyung gets all that. But that doesn't mean they have to go all the way.

See, Jaehyo was the head bartender at the youth bar, yes, but he still wore silk shirts and vests and had this killer evening shadow, and he wore his hair up, and he was like, forty. This specimen has dirty blond wavy bangs that go beyond his eyebrows, a black tee with super short sleeves, and is that a tattoo on his arm.

Taehyung's a rockstar, so he's allowed the occasional tantrum. In the confidence of this diplomatic immunity, he marches up to the bar, settles down on a stool, and glares openly at the bartender.

'Hello,' he says. 'Where's Jaehyo?'

'Good evening, sir,' the bartender says, turning to him with a brilliant smile as he washes out a pint glass. 'Jaehyo is off this summer for family purposes, but I'll be stepping in for him. I'm Jimin, nice to meet you.'

That's great, Taehyung wants to say, but where's Jaehyo. However, regardless of his diplomatic immunity, he's actually a nice person and he doesn't want to phase out the new guy so soon, and also, that smile reminds him of Amber, actually; it could turn murderous in a second. Jimin here probably doesn't give two shits that Taehyung's a rockstar. Here, after all, they're a dime a dozen.

'Nice to meet you, Jimin,' he says instead, and flashes him a grin of his own. 'I'm Taehyung.'

'As in my name is KT, sweet baby, sir?'

That startles a laugh out of him, and Jimin's smile turns even wider, eyes narrowing into crescents. And all right, maybe it's not the end of the world if Jaehyo isn't here. As long as Jimin knows Taehyung's secret cocktail, all should be fine.

'What'll it be?' Jimin asks, on cue.

'Oh, you know,' Taehyung replies.

 

◀︎

 

On the second afternoon, Taehyung— quite literally— stumbles upon a chef vaping under an emergency staircase. He isn't sure what stands out more, the fact that the dude is wearing an honest-to-god raincoat in the sweltering sun, the fact that he's vaping, or the fact that he has extraordinary dimples that show even when he takes a pull on his vape.

'Come here often?' Taehyung says, and the chef jumps fourteen centimetres out of his skin, drops his vape, bangs his head on one of the steps, and scrambles to his feet. 'Oh, oh my God, no, it's okay. I was joking. Fuck, are you okay?'

'I'm so sorry,' the chef says, bowing much lower than ninety degrees. 'I thought it was a safe enough place—'

'No, I get that,' Taehyung says. 'That's why I come here too. I mean, technically I'm not allowed in the kitchen, but I mean, my name is KT, sweet baby, and all that. You know?'

The chef stares at him a little blankly.

'Okay,' Taehyung says. 'I come here to stare at the sea and have deep philosophical thoughts. And to hide from Yoo— my friend when I get my cologne on his pillow. And you?'

The chef clears his throat and collects his vape, and Taehyung catches a whiff of sickly sweet bubblegum.

'I'm a chef,' he says, unnecessarily. 'I'm a culinary assistant at l'Oignon.'

'And you're vaping in a raincoat in the middle of summer because...?'

'L'Oignon has a Michelin star, you know,' he says. 'And I'm...not very gifted with my hands.'

Taehyung stares at him a little blankly.

'I'm clumsy,' the chef says. 'I broke four plates, and— wait, are you on the staff? I'm not supposed to talk to outside personnel—'

'Yeah, no, I'm staff,' Taehyung says. 'I'm, uh. Logistics. Back desk. So, the raincoat?'

'I don't want to stain the uniform,' he says. 'I literally started this job two weeks ago and I'm going to be fired if I so much as breathe wrong on the food. I mean, they don't really care about the plates. But I can't ruin the food, you know?'

'I feel you, I feel you. Hang in there, man. You're here on an apprenticeship, right? You're here to learn, they get that.'

'I sure hope they do,' the chef says, sighs. 'I'm Namjoon, by the way.'

'Nice to meet you,' Taehyung says. 'Taehyung.'

Namjoon smiles at him, extraordinary dimples and all. 'I feel like I've seen you somewhere, you know!'

Taehyung takes a deep breath and holds his hand out for the vape. 'Yeah, I get that a lot.'

 

◀︎

 

On the third morning, Taehyung decides to hit the gym and just flat out falls in love.

 

◀︎

 

To be fair, this happens to him about seven times a year— but in the course of a normal year, that is. There was that leader of some K-pop girl group, then the barista at that one airport Starbucks, and also, at Bilbao BBK live, who he thinks was either a groupie or a Jonas brother. However, every time, Taehyung swears it's the real deal— not because he thinks it's going to last forever, but because it is the real deal for however long it's going to last. That could be a day, or a year, but it's always real while it lasts. That's how he likes to live, so that he can come out of it with no regrets.

So when he says he flat out falls in love when he enters the gym, he doesn't mean to say this is it, this is the one, this is forever. He just means that his eyes are beholden to yet another gorgeous, gorgeous human being— except that this one might just be the most beautiful that he's ever seen so far. Dark hair in a neat side part, typical white polo with grey joggers, a smart watch on one toned arm, black bead bracelet on the other. Big dark eyes under sharp eyebrows, a jawline to kill. Yeah, this is a personal attack against Taehyung.

And like he said, all that's in the course of a normal year. This year, Taehyung's kept his head on his shoulders and his eyes on the ground, too smoked out to contemplate having emotions.

So it's a welcome surprise to feel his heart jump and blood rush to his face, if only because it's a reminder that he still does have feelings that are not summarised in meh. If the guy standing at the other end of the room catches on, he doesn't say anything.

'Good morning, sir,' he says. 'I'm Jeongguk, in charge of the gym for today. How can I help you?'

'Yes,' Taehyung says. Then clears his throat and adjusts his glasses— vacations mean no contacts, and thank fuck for that— runs a hand through his hair. 'I mean, good morning. Not looking for anything special, just, uh. The.' He gestures vaguely to the contraption whose name has flown out of his head to vacate space for this new beauty's guns.

'The elliptical?' Jeongguk smiles and nods. 'By all means. Would you like me to set up a program for you?'

'No, thanks,' Taehyung says, a little too quickly, backtracking in his head and berating himself. He's a rockstar, for fuck's sake. 'That's fine, thank you. You can just carry on with your, uh. Work. Pretend I'm not here.'

'That's the opposite of my job, sir,' Jeongguk says, with another smile. He's got this small scar that Taehyung immediately wants to do something inappropriate about, like smear it with lime or something, he doesn't know, and he's got this amazing, light voice that makes every sir sound really breezy. Taehyung, for lack of better terms, is flustered. 'But I'll leave you be; I'm here for any assistance you might need.'

'Thank you,' Taehyung says, then regains some of his composure and sends a smile Jeongguk's way. 'And hey, you can drop the honorifics. We've got to be the same age.'

'I'm sure I'm a little younger than you,' Jeongguk says. Taehyung waits for more information, but out of the other new entries he's met, Jeongguk seems more towards Jimin's style of less is more professionalism, as opposed to Namjoon, who, well, is a far cry from anything resembling professional. (In his defence, he really bought that Taehyung worked in logistics.)

Convinced that he's not going to get anything more out of Jeongguk's kind-of annoying work-appropriate facade, Taehyung checks his shoes and gets onto the elliptical. 'Well, be that as it may. Anyway, I'm Taehyung.'

'Of course. I've seen your heart lying around on the streets.'

Taehyung blinks, nearly falls off the stupid machine from how fast he turns to look at Jeongguk, and raises his eyebrows as high as they'll go. Of all the references he gets, no one's ever thought of What Happened To Us.

'That's one of my favourite singles,' he says, and Jeongguk looks up from the tablet he's tapping on. His lips curl into a half-smirk; the first real interaction of the morning. 'I don't get that a lot.'

'Honoured, sir,' he says, and Taehyung snorts openly, turns back around, shakes his head.

Definitely annoying. Definitely.

 

◀︎

 

'I don't know,' Hoseok says. 'He sounds...straight.'

'Hoseok, just because your gaydar is as rudimentary as if he's wearing a slim fit and not skinnies he's not gay, doesn't mean the rest of us don't have some amount of discretion when it comes to these things,' Seokjin says coldly. 'Now, what did he say exactly, Taehyung.'

'Honoured, sir,' Taehyung says, for the third time. He gave up trying to do Jeongguk's voice; his is too deep and rough to ever match the dude's light timbre. 'I don't know, is the sir a kinky thing? Is that how kids do it these days? Is it like, a Fifty Shades thing?'

'No,' Seokjin says, after Hoseok's booing at Fifty Shades has died down. 'Look, he sounds young, and he's new. He probably just doesn't want to lose his job.'

'He smirked at me,' Taehyung says. 'Like a real smirk. Like a smirk where he probably checked my ass out when I turned back around.'

'Negative, you don't have an ass. I'll just have to meet this guy to verify.'

'Fine, fine,' Taehyung says, falling backwards onto the bed, and consequently, Yoongi's sleeping form. Yoongi makes some kind of troubled sound and kicks Taehyung in the shin, rolling away. 'Anyway, that's hardly the point of this regroup. You've got your serious shirt on. What's up.'

'We just want to know if you're feeling any better,' Hoseok says. 'I mean, you've only been to the bar three nights out of seven. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.'

'That's good,' Taehyung says. 'Means I've been hitting the gym more.'

'We're not interested in your sexual quests,' Seokjin says. 'I just want to know if I should be reporting back to Mina with good or bad news.'

'Good news, good news. Look, I'm relaxing, okay? We're in for a good summer, I can feel it. It's all good. I mean, I'm still in the mud but it's chill.'

'It's chill,' Yoongi echoes, still asleep. 'All chill here.'

Taehyung points to his blanketed form to say see? 'All chill here. Well, except that Jaehyo's been replaced by a younger, hotter version. Who reinvented my secret cocktail because I was right, they made that shit up for me.'

'Hotter, you say,' Hoseok says, and Taehyung groans loudly, realising his mistake.

 

◀︎

 

Taehyung's secret cocktail was, well, secret, so he doesn't actually know what the fuck they put in it. All he knows is that it was this great sea green colour and super minty, like the kind that just chills your throat. Which, not great for a singer, but everyone has their guilty pleasures.

The new cocktail that Jimin, to his credit, made up on the spot after admitting openly that he has no idea what was on Jaehyo's cocktail— and that the man only left you're on your own, also no more than one Angry Dog shot per person in terms of notes— is pretty simple: it consists of curaçao— Taehyung could tell that blue anywhere— and just one other secret ingredient which transforms the whole thing. Taehyung has no idea what it is, but it makes the drink taste like candy. It's tropical and fresh and just the kick he needs for the summer, and he loves it.

Jimin can stay.

'I've only been here once,' Seokjin says, distaste evident in his voice. 'Tell me they do White Russians.'

'They'll do anything for you, you know that,' Yoongi says, settling into a barstool and waving at someone on the other end who's staring, presumably a fan. 'Besides, cigar nation is just across the building. Take the hike over if you can't stand being with the youth.'

'You're not youth, old man.'

'I'm more youth than you, that's for sure. Quit the band.'

'You quit the damn band. I made the band.'

'made the band,' Hoseok says loudly, and they all turn to him, frowning. Not that he's wrong; it is very much Hoseok who formed the band fresh out of high school, albeit Seokjin's incessant networking being what took them off. But usually he isn't this adamant about declaring it, which Taehyung doesn't get—

Until he spots Jimin, who's made his way out from under the bar, armed with a dish towel and several shot glasses. In the strip lights fixed under the countertop, his bangs look light blue, the sheen of his gloss purplish, almost. And given that he's sporting that tattoo very visibly— it's a telescope, as Taehyung's discovered— it's kind of pathetic how up Hoseok's alley he is.

'I made the band,' Hoseok says again, and Jimin smiles politely, arranges the glasses out on the countertop.

'Heard you loud and clear, sir,' he says, and okay. So now Taehyung gets it. Sir is definitely a kinky thing. Definitely. Jimin might not have said it the same way that Jeongguk does but like, Taehyung's an objective observer here. He sees the reaction on Hoseok's face. He can officially no longer be blamed for wondering if sir is a kinky thing. 'Can I get you a shot to celebrate that?'

'What is up with the new staff,' Taehyung whispers to Yoongi, who shrugs as he double-taps away on Smoothie the Cat videos.

'It's the youth, Taehyung,' he says. 'Roll with it, or get out.'

It's only after three shots that Jimin actually presents himself to them. Hoseok's already hanging off the coat hooks under the counter— literally; he's actually holding onto them and leaning back and Taehyung's sure he's going to rip them off and take the counter down with him— and has pushed his hair out of the way one too many times for it not to be an attempt at looking, as he puts it himself, smoking.

'Jimin,' Hoseok says. 'So like...you own this place?'

'I'm sorry?' Jimin says, tilts his head. 'I'm afraid I—'

'You know, 'cause,' Hoseok gestures at the red neon scrawl at the far end of the bar, behind the pool table, which spells Jimmy's. 'Jimmy's. Jimin.'

'Oh my God,' Taehyung says, while Yoongi cackles and Seokjin pinches the bridge of his nose, and Jimin remains utterly stone-faced. 'Oh my God, I can't believe I didn't think of that one. I'm disgusted. I'm disgusted.'

'We all are,' Seokjin says wearily. 'Jimin, I'm really sorry for this man. Have a shot on me.'

'Thank you, sir, but it's all right,' Jimin says, laughs. (Hoseok slides a little further down and smiles wide enough to break his jaw.) 'And if anyone owes me a shot, it's the person who made the joke.'

At that, Hoseok straightens himself up with a Herculean effort, and leans across the blue-lit countertop. His red hair looks burgundy; his neck tattoo is covered in a sheen of sweat. Taehyung's never had a problem with being called the fourth one, because honestly, these fuckers are more of rockstars than he'll ever be. Even if Seokjin's totally faking his disdain over Hoseok's gloriously stupid joke (because Seokjin's their worst pun master by far), even if Yoongi has a slight #catsofinstagram problem, even if Hoseok's hair is that woeful colour.

He kind of loves them, ridiculous that they are.

'Anything in the entire bar,' Hoseok says. 'Anything on the island. It's all on me.'

'All on you,' Jimin says, purses his lips in mock-seriousness and nods. 'I'll keep that in mind.'

 

◀︎

 

'Do you like hiking, sir?'

Taehyung holds up an apologetic finger as he finishes chugging his mini water, swallows gratefully as it courses down his throat. He's never been unfit, per se, but he's definitely not gone this hard at the treadmill since he was in high school and trying to impress that football captain who turned out to be a lesbian. You have to be physically up to touring; the jet lag alone will take you down if nothing else. Hoseok's definitely the gym rat out of them all with Yoongi pulling in last and flopping everywhere, but Taehyung can hold his own.

Right now, though, it might be overkill. He either can't feel his lungs at all, or can feel them acutely. He isn't sure which.

'I've never been hiking,' he replies, finally, waiting for disappointment to flash across Jeongguk's face. It doesn't. 'Though I guess it could be fun. Why do you ask?'

'Do you know about Jeju Olle?' Jeongguk puts away the dumbbell he was fooling around with (at least, that's what Taehyung thinks, because there's no way someone with guns like Jeongguk's actually needs to lift a 2-kilo baby) and turns to face him. 'The—'

'Hiking trails, yeah. Definitely not my thing.'

'Well, route number eight is accessible from the hotel, actually,' Jeongguk says. 'But it's got a high difficulty level since it goes through Jusangjeolli. I'm a qualified guide, so I was wondering if you were interested.'

'Wow, a qualified guide?' Taehyung takes the towel Jeongguk's holding out and presses it to his forehead. 'Is there anything you can't do?'

'Mental math,' Jeongguk replies immediately, his tone so serious that Taehyung hasn't the faintest idea whether he's joking or not. 'I can't do mental math, sir.'

'And when are you going to stop calling me sir?' Now Taehyung's great at mental math and he knows that this question definitely comes up four times a week, which is also how many times he hits the gym.

'Never unless it's a direct order, sir,' comes the reply as always, and as always, Taehyung scoffs and unfolds the towel, drags it down his face. He doesn't know when he's going to give that direct order, but it's not right now, at least.

It's been about two weeks since Taehyung converted to the church of Nike. That is to say, he's actually gotten better at his run times, his sneakers are being put to purposes other than aesthetic, and his skin is, to quote Hoseok, like a baby's ass because he's been sweating so much. However, apart from the satisfying internal progress, Jeongguk remains frustratingly immaculate with his white polos, pushed-back hair, and his goddamn fucking sir. Taehyung's thoroughly aware that he's just playing at this point, but it's been a while since he came across someone so skilled at their game and so upfront about it.

Technically, it's protocol, and Taehyung hears it loud and clear: in Jeongguk's little smirks, the once-over that he's subjected to every now and then, the carefully polite and light tone of voice. He also hears it loud in clear when he's pretending to have philosophical thoughts while Namjoon vapes next to him and talks about how his head chef is definitely going to fire him this week and asks how the logistics department is doing ('Oh, you know, it's...the usual. Logistics.') and realises that it's more difficult than usual to take his mind off crush-of-the-week. He hears it loud and clear in the magnificent candy cocktails he downs at Jimmy's while Jimin tells him very happily about just how annoying Jeon Jeongguk is when he's not on duty.

'He really has a sports problem,' Jimin said one evening as Taehyung swirled his star-shaped ice cubes around miserably. 'I don't use the term jock lightly, but that guy is a jock.'

'And what is he even doing here?'

'The same thing as the rest of us, trying to make some summer money. I usually work at my parents' bar in Busan, but Jaehyo's my cousin and got me picked up here. Jeongguk studies sports rehabilitation in Seoul.'

'Wow, so a real jock.'

'A real jock, orthopaedics and all. My point is, he's obnoxious, but he takes his job seriously. As do I, for that matter.'

'Yeah, but you're a bartender. Taking the job seriously for you entails being my agony aunt.'

'True that. Shots?'

'Always.'

No; technically, it's protocol. Taehyung understands very well that if anyone takes the first step, it'll have to be him. He's no stranger to things progressing as fast as this; most of the time it's the only thing he can afford. It's hard to keep any fling going even without the pressure of travel, and Taehyung was never much for longterm anyway. All he has to do is decide how important this is, which in itself is telling: usually he doesn't stop to think.

And he was supposed to be here on vacation. Fuck it all.

 

◀︎

 

'Now this is why we dragged you here,' Seokjin sighs, leaning as far back in his chair as he can.

'Don't drag us into this with you,' Yoongi says, voice muffled by the wet towel on his face. 'I was perfectly content sleeping for thirty-two hours straight in my condo. You were all, oh, Taehyung needs a change.'

'Taehyung did need a change,' Taehyung says, carefully placing his coconut on the side table. 'This is great. Honestly, the beach is so underrated.'

'The beach is possibly the least underrated place in the world,' Hoseok says. 'I mean, it's not overrated either because, I mean, it's great. It's just..rated.'

'Rated,' Seokjin echoes flatly. 'Yeah. Anyway, Taehyung, soak up the sun and enjoy the sea salt while you can. I have bad news coming for you very soon.'

'Oh God,' Taehyung groans. 'What, am I banned from the gym? Did I put on Migos too many times? But I'm always alone when I go. They reserve it. Can I still hike? How hard is hiking any—'

'Shut up,' Yoongi says.

'Yes, shut up.' Seokjin lowers his sunglasses from his head, fixes them on. 'Look, just look at the ocean and pretend that that gaggle of girls over there hasn't been staring at us for ten minutes.'

'Or that Hoseok hasn't been staring at the bar for ten minutes.'

'I'm a simple man,' Hoseok says. 'Did I once attempt to deny that I have the hots for Jimin?'

'For the last time, please stop employing the term have the hots.'

'Unlike some people who are having trouble reconciling with their emotions—'

'What, you talking about me?' Taehyung asks, pointing to his beautiful, bronze chest. The beach is great. 'When have I denied my jock problem?'

'You're denying that the problem is deeper than is he into me or not. I've never seen you hesitate this long before just dead asking someone out.'

'Yeah, well.' Taehyung leans back in his chair, squints woefully out at the ocean. 'I've also never been this certain of being dead rejected, you know.'

'Are you kidding? You're a rockstar.'

'And so what, he's automatically attractive?' Yoongi says, taking the towel off, and that's serious. 'You think everyone wants to suck your dick 'cause you made a band and have some tattoos?'

'Absolutely,' Hoseok replies with a shit-eating grin. Yoongi rolls his eyes and turns to Seokjin, help me sneer at the cretins. 'Fine, I'm kidding. I just meant that he should be more confident, jeez. So the guy rejects him. At least he'll have tried.'

'I don't see you trying,' Taehyung shoots.

'What makes you think the deed isn't done already?' Hoseok shoots back.

At that, there is a profound silence that takes over their little gathering under the beach umbrellas. The only sounds audible are that of the waves hitting the shore, the tinny fizz of the cherry beer Yoongi was halfway through opening, and the far-off squawks of birds.

Taehyung, Yoongi, and Seokjin all turn towards Hoseok with a slow, predatory movement, raising their sunglasses in unison and fixing him with the most clinical stares that they're capable of. (Yoongi wins by a large margin.)

Hoseok, himself, refuses to remove his sunglasses out of pure audacity, and continues to direct his shit-eating grin towards them. With his hair rough from the salt and sand dusted all over his tattooed shoulders and the way his trunks are riding low on his waist, he looks every bit the casanova he wants to look, and he's annoying as shit. He is also, Taehyung knows, lying through his teeth, because if he wasn't he'd take his sunglasses off and look at them properly.

'Nah,' Yoongi says at the same time that Seokjin shakes his head. 'You wish. You got turned down and scathingly, and you'll never be the same again.'

'Like fuck,' Hoseok says. 'Fine, I have yet to—'

'Gentlemen, I'm sorry to interrupt,' comes Jimin's wind-chime voice from behind Taehyung, and they all jump. 'If I may refill your drinks, Seokjin, Hoseok?'

'YES,' Hoseok says, like the worst rockstar to ever have existed. 'DRINKS ARE GREAT. ALCOHOL.'

'Alcohol,' Seokjin repeats, smiling brilliantly at Jimin. 'How's the terrasse doing? Busy?'

'Busy as always,' Jimin replies, while Taehyung looks admiringly at how well his shirt fits him, as always. He's got some kind of floral thing going on with plain beach shorts, typical but effective, and he's got a fucking bumblebee tattoo above his ankle. Like, he might as well have come out of the factory with JUNG HOSEOK'S ULTIMATE WEAKNESS stamped on his forehead; it would've made the job easier. 'Can I get you anything else?'

'We'd have asked for your charming company,' Seokjin says, 'but I assume your replacement hasn't started their shift yet.'

'She just clocked in, actually,' Jimin says. 'I'm officially off-duty and available for all charm needs.'

'Great,' Hoseok says weakly, as the bartender settles down at his feet, legs folded up, arms resting on his knees, the sun shining off his messy light bangs. 'Make yourself at home.'

 

◀︎

 

Now, the bad news that Seokjin was talking about could very well have been one of his routine exaggerations which end up being something like I've run out of the top coat I use usually and it isn't available here, but every once in a while he's actually serious. Like right now, Taehyung realises, as he opens his door and stares the bad news in the face.

'Hello, children,' Mina says briskly, walking right past Taehyung and nodding at Yoongi, who's wearing a cat-ear headband, a coconut sheet mask, and fluffy room slippers while he hunches over the minibar like a gremlin, trying to unstick a popsicle packet in the freezer. 'You have thirty minutes to get decent, we're dining and debriefing at l'Oignon tonight.'

'Why are we debriefing,' Taehyung says, trailing after her like a puppy as she picks up a discarded shirt with the tips of her acrylic nails and throws it perfectly into the laundry basket without looking. 'There's nothing to debrief. Our work is done. We're on vacation. I'm—'

'Work is never done,' Mina says, like always, bending over without compromising her stilettos and pulling the popsicle free in one swift move, handing it to Yoongi and pushing the minibar door shut. 'Now, has anyone brought a tie or will I have to negotiate with Seokjin again?'

Taehyung lets his lack of reply answer for him and trudges miserably to the bathroom to shower. They were planning to watch Naruto, too.

 

◀︎

 

Myoui Mina is the band's formidable manager, agent, whatever you want. They're spectacularly bad at being rockstars, something she noticed right from their college days when they were trying to put together a ragtag jam-sessions-only band and Baekhyun was on the lead vocals when all he wanted to do was sing in musicals. The rest is history, as they say, or more like the rest is Mina constantly being done with their shit in a kind of timeless loop worthy of science fiction films.

L'Oignon is every bit as pretentious as it is expected to be for something that costs an arm and a leg to have soup in. Large hall, pillars, Italian marble, the works. Taehyung lets Mina order for him and tries not to drink the wine too fast; he doesn't want to fall asleep before the debriefing actually starts.

On cue, Mina does that throat-clearing thing she does which means okay, let's get down to business.

Then she turns to Taehyung and reaches out to take his hand.

'How are you doing?'

Taehyung chokes on his swallow and puts his glass down, pats his lips dry with his napkin. 'I'm sorry, what.'

'You know, contrary to popular belief, Mina does give a shit about you,' Yoongi says, looking down at his plate the way he always does when he's got something serious to say. 'Look, we've been worried, all right? You never talk about anything seriously—'

'You exaggerate painfully every single discomfort of your life—'

'So we never really know what's up,' Hoseok finishes. 'How's the slump? Is it just a slump? Are you feeling any better? It's been three—'

'Guys,' Taehyung says, staring in turn at his wine. 'Shut up. Mina, did you really fly in from Tokyo just for this?'

'Your wellbeing is important to me,' Mina says. 'And my wallet. Mostly my wallet.'

'Shut up,' Taehyung says again, but they all crack a smile; the mood's back to light. 'I'm fine. I mean, as fine as I can be when I'm pining in hopeless one-sided love.'

Mina immediately takes her hand off his to pinch the bridge of her nose. 'Ah yes, I heard about the gym instructor. What's his name? Jeonghan?'

'Jeongguk,' Taehyung says. 'Jeonghan was the one who pickpocketed Hoseok in The System's bathroom.'

'Oh fuck, I'd forgotten about Jeonghan!' Hoseok straightens up in his seat, eyes wide and delighted. 'Oh shit, I miss that guy! Where is he now?!'

'Los Angeles,' Seokjin says, frowning at something on his phone before deciding it doesn't merit his attention. 'Anyway, Taehyung, stop aggressively ignoring your feelings. Are you really doing better?'

'Look,' Taehyung says, leans forward to fix an acute stare on the tablecloth. 'I don't know if I feel like going back to music yet, even our old shit. It's...hard. I've never run out of fuel like this before.'

He pauses, waiting for a cutting remark from any of them, but when there's none he looks up and realises that they're all looking at him carefully. And all right, it's not like there's never been serious shit in the band before. For all that all four of them were born to get along, Taehyung and Hoseok end up having some friction now and then, and there's been other minor bumps. He just didn't think they'd actually end up taking him seriously on this one at some point, because it's been months since he's been talking about his slump and all he's gotten is that's Taehyung being Taehyung.

'But.' He takes a deep breath, and grins, full out, sees Seokjin's eyes soften. 'I'll bounce back, all right? I just need...something. I don't know what, yet. But you know, there'll be something, and it'll be like the flick of a switch.'

'Disneyland,' Hoseok says solemnly.

'No,' the others reply in unison.

'All right, I'm gonna take your word on it,' Mina says, just as the waiter arrives with the apéritifs. 'Just, don't try too hard either, okay? You finished a great tour, we've been over this. You've got all the time in the world.'

'I know,' Taehyung says, winks at her. She rolls her eyes and smiles up at the waiter, who looks smitten as a schoolboy. 'But I'd feel better if I knew I could get back to the notebook when I wanted to.'

'I know you will,' Seokjin says. 'We'll sort it out as it comes up.'

Taehyung looks around at them all again. Yoongi, back to staring at his plate; Hoseok, nodding fervently to what Seokjin said; Mina, looking at Taehyung with a small smile. They might be bad at being rockstars but they aren't half bad at the other shit. Aren't half bad at being rockstars too, actually, when he thinks about it.

'Okay,' he says. 'But also, definitely Disneyland. Definitely.'

'Shut up,' Mina says, but that's when Taehyung notices a very familiar face darting into the hallway that leads to the kitchen, and realises, with dawning glee, that they're at l'Oignon.

'Remind me to ask for a certain chef when the meal's done,' he says, and is immediately met with four we do not trust you squints. 'No, I swear. It's harmless.'

Yoongi snorts. Mina simply lifts her glass to her burgundy lips with a sigh.

 

◀︎

 

So anyway, technically, it's protocol. Which is something Taehyung gets and isn't as annoyed about as he is buzzed, to be honest. Jeongguk's polite, carefully; he's obvious, covertly. Now the thing is that Taehyung is, well, Taehyung, and unless it's someone else in the same industry— and not always, even then— there's never much waiting involved in it all. He doesn't mean to say that it's all wham bam thank you ma'am; there's been people he's wanted that he's never even actually kissed, let alone slept with. Sex is great when it's about sex; other times Taehyung just likes to enjoy the thrill of romance - which is rarely afforded to him.

Even if this might have started out on a physical note— very physical; they're in a damn gym for fuck's sake, he's lost count of how many times Jeongguk's guided his movements in that horrible, tangible, I can smell your cologne and now it's going to haunt me all day way— it's something different now. It's not like he can say that he has a thing for Jeongguk's intellect now, or something; the guy has yet to hold a full, proper conversation with Taehyung about things other than barbells or Jeju's geographical composition. But it's just that, the middle ground, he thinks— somewhere between physique and intellect, right about the space where personality falls, is where lies Taehyung's intrigue. So it's about protocol, yes, but it's about intrigue, too, which is often more attractive than the end result because it's just so promising.

Taehyung can do promising.

'Jeongguk,' he says, trying his best to sound nonchalant as he loops his laces, 'what's your favourite food?'

'Oh, the hotel does catering for the staff, sir. I just eat whatever's on the menu, and it's usually great quality.'

'Oh, come on.' Taehyung straightens up and gets an uncomfortable visual angle of Jeongguk's grey-clad thighs, which are possibly the most scandalous thing he's ever seen in this life, or at least, this year. (Taehyung's seen some pretty scandalous things.) He swallows and looks further up, where Jeongguk's still tapping on that fucking tablet of his. 'Are you telling me you don't have any preference? Seriously? You don't work here all year. What do you do when you're back at college?'

Jeongguk actually puts the tablet away at that, and for a split-second, looks at Taehyung openly, suspiciously. I know what you're doing. But then it's gone, and he shrugs, casual. 'I suppose I like spicy food?'

'Like fire noodles and shit?'

'Exactly.' Jeongguk grins briefly, and Taehyung's heart starts going faster than it does when he's on the damn treadmill. 'I can't always handle it well, but that's the part I enjoy.'

If this was Yoongi or Hoseok, Taehyung would already have made eleven sex jokes, but he refrains with great difficulty, and nods. 'I love sweets, myself.'

'I believe you expressed that in one number I remember very well,' Jeongguk says, and this time his smile lasts longer. And there it is again, Taehyung wondering what music he likes, when he started listening to their band. He doesn't really have questions about where Jeongguk came from, where he wants to go. His curiosity is more organic, less factual; more hands-on, do you like fire chicken too, do you listen to music in the shower, do you like to dance? It's hard to explain.

'You have a good handle on our discography,' is what he says, instead, and Jeongguk laughs dryly, picks the tablet up again. 'Okay, what do you do on that thing all day? I'm literally the only one here at this time and there's no way I perform well enough to give you so many stats.'

Breakthrough.

Jeongguk freezes for another split-second, staring at a spot on the floor just below the tablet, trying desperately to come up with an answer. He probably does come up with one, too, but knows it's a lost cause. Taehyung's a singer; split-seconds are his specialty.

'Out with it,' Taehyung says, and Jeongguk's cheeks colour slightly, too subtle to be noticed by someone who's not looking for it. And then, he smiles, genuinely, and brings a hand up to the back of his head. He looks so much younger, suddenly, but there's still that edge, and so there's still Taehyung's intrigue. It doesn't last long, but Taehyung's a musician. The action itself of flicking a switch never lasts long.

'I'm following the world cup,' Jeongguk says sheepishly, and Taehyung bursts into laughter.

 

◀︎

 

If anyone takes the first step, it has to be him. And maybe he spent a little too long on looping his laces, but he's good to go now, and summer has yet to really begin.

 

◀︎

 

They need a three-day advance to reserve the hotel beach, which is exactly the amount of time Taehyung needs to convince Hoseok that turning up with a unicorn float is not only probably not the way to Jimin's heart, but is just plain dangerous at night when they're not supposed to go beyond the shallows unless they're professionals. The hotel doesn't fuck around with that, not even for VIP. After much argument and a promise that at least the pool will be open all night, Hoseok grudgingly relents, but compensates by buying battery-operated unicorn lights to string around his neck. Seokjin allows it.

Three days is also enough advance to reserve Jimin to man the bar— something he accepts with uncharacteristically gleeful pleasure— and to request that an official invite be sent to one Kim Namjoon (the message doesn't mention this is an apology for scaring the shit out of you at l'Oignon when you realised that Taehyung from logistics is actually a world-famous rockstar and now he knows you vape under the stairs, but it's the thought that counts) who can hence take the night off and attend off-duty.

It's also enough time to request that another official invite be sent to one Jeon Jeongguk. That one wouldn't have said anything special anyway.

The night, when it arrives, is blissfully warm— not warm enough for any ungodly critters to come crawling out of the sand (Taehyung and Seokjin's biggest fear) but still pleasant enough for T-shirts and sangria. They've managed to string up brilliant golden swaths of light on the scant palm trees, setting up furniture among the dark grass and ground lanterns along the path leading to the terrasse of Jimmy's. Clean bright sand, more-or-less tame waves, and nothing but a mess of golden, green, and blue bokeh. It's these nights that make life so mellow it's almost unbearable, the way some songs are so sweet and melodious that you want to cry just from how happy the singer is.

Jimin is glowing tooHe holds up a hand for a high-five as Taehyung ducks out of the poolside entrance, and before responding, Taehyung openly leers at him. Dark shirt, pale shorts, sneakers; thank fuck Hoseok isn't bringing the unicorn float. He's done that wet beach hair thing too, and that might be glitter on his cheekbones.

Taehyung, suddenly, fears for his life. Somehow he'd just assumed that Jeongguk would show up in his gym uniform, and that might have been a miscalculation of epic proportions.

He ambles, after leaving Jimin hanging as always (another inside joke; friendships run quick these days), to where some big-eared kid is setting up the sound system, behind which Seokjin is staring out at the ocean with his hands on his hips. Further behind him, Hoseok and Yoongi are sitting cross-legged in wet sand, trying to arrange the unicorn lights into a juvenile shape that Taehyung refuses to acknowledge.

'What are you thinking about?'

'Mostly that the idea of something this huge and dark terrifies me,' Seokjin replies serenely. Taehyung already knew that; there's a reason Seokjin gets interior views. 'No, I'm also trying to figure out who gets to be drunk tonight.'

'I'm staying tipsy,' Taehyung replies immediately. 'That's all. Can't afford to forget potentially making out with Jeongguk.'

'Splendid, I can definitely handle Hoseok and Yoongi on my own. Do you want me to cut you off?'

'I think Jimin's gotten the hang of it, honestly—' Taehyung cuts himself off and tilts his head, pulls an intense face. 'What is that shape supposed to be?'

Seokjin turns around, takes one glance at Yoongi and Hoseok, and turns right back around without batting an eyelash. 'I know exactly what it is and I'm going to spare you, because I love you and care about you.'

'Appreciate the effort.'

The party only really takes off at around ten, with half the invitees coming from the hotel and the other half from Seoul. Taehyung hugs, claps shoulders, bumps fists with more people than he can count; clambers onto Bogum's back and forces him to carry him all the way to the bar where a very unimpressed Jimin is already pouring out absinthe shots (see? Jimmy's is definitely a youth bar, definitely). Seokjin's in some amusing-looking discussion with a bunch of terrifyingly efficient-looking women. Yoongi and Hoseok have been missing since the beginning, and honestly, Taehyung just doesn't want to know.

When Namjoon arrives, he bows to Taehyung and then immediately disappears behind the bar, seemingly very interested in the glass coolers under the countertop. Taehyung lets him have it; he has yet to forget the way all colour drained out of Namjoon's face when he came to their table at Taehyung's request and had the head manager introduce him. Taehyung really did want to continue being Taehyung from logistics, but Namjoon is so adorable that he wants to stay in touch after they leave, too, and that would be considerably difficult if he continued hiding his not-so-secret rockstar identity. For fuck's sake, this album's lead single is a song that says nothing apart from the fact that he's a rockstar.

Anyway.

The idea of leaving, while inevitable, is a touch distasteful. And Taehyung was definitely not going to try to investigate the reason for that, definitely. But then, on the flick of a switch, a change of the beat, the blink of an eye: the reason enters Taehyung's line of vision, sharp and in deliciously slow motion, and the dull roar of the now-far ocean takes over.

 

◀︎

 

Taehyung did well to fear for his life. Jeongguk is most certainly not wearing his work polo and pants, nor is he wearing his work hair. Loose white T-shirt with sleeves reaching his elbows, too thick to be comfortable even for tonight, and definitely not beach-appropriate jeans. But Taehyung’s actually not as riveted by seeing him in different clothes after a whole month of knowing him, as he is by Jeongguk’s face. Hair in an almost-middle part, falling over his forehead, and Taehyung might just faint if those are piercings.

Oh,’ he says weakly, as Jeongguk looks around, unable to spot them from his angle. Oh no, he looks so good. Oh no. Oh no.

‘Is that him?’ Bogum says, whistles. ‘All right, I see your problem quite intimately now.’

‘Shut up,’ Taehyung says. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be like, practicing lines or something?’

‘Nice try, but no. Also, my opposing lead’s disappeared to the poolside with one of Seokjin’s friends. I don’t wanna know.’

‘Fair enough.’ Taehyung downs the rest of his secret cocktail in one large swig that gives him brain-freeze (he got the granita version for the party; Jimin’s a god) and shudders, shakes his head. ‘Well, I’m off. I have things to do, people to woo, uh, a third thing that rhymes.’

‘Beach bugs to shoo?’ Jimin offers, and Taehyung hasn’t even frowned completely when he feels a huge, wet weight on his back and understands.

‘TAEHYUNG,’ Hoseok says, just his breath carrying enough alcohol to send anyone down. ‘My boy.’

‘No, no,’ Taehyung says, wiggling his shoulders to shake him off. ‘I’m out. Bogum, this one’s on you.’

‘Damn it,’ Bogum says, before smiling sweetly at Hoseok. ‘I thought you were supposed to be “smoking” tonight?’

‘I am,’ Hoseok says. ‘What, have you seen these guns?’

Taehyung rolls his eyes as he leaves, but he also catches Jimin taking a look despite himself, and struggles to hide a laugh as he makes his way over to where Jeongguk is leaning lightly against a canopy pole, one hand in his pocket, the other scrolling through his phone. The closer he gets, the more he notices every little thing that’s different about him. Sure, what he’s wearing; how he’s done his hair, whatever. But there’s a different ease to the way he’s standing, shoulders relaxed, the kind of lazy that’s self-aware of its attractiveness. And Taehyung can’t believe he’s so easy, but just the proof that Jeongguk’s graceful in his skin whether on duty or off it is enough to have him melting.

‘Think I’ve seen you somewhere,’ he says, and Jeongguk looks up from his phone, raises his eyebrows.

‘Really?’ he says. ‘Just when I thought I couldn’t be less impressed.’

Wow, all right, definitely off-duty then. ‘Hey now, don’t write me off before having an actual conversation with me.’

‘We’ve had conversations,’ Jeongguk says, straightening up and putting his phone back in his pocket. The black bracelet stands out against his golden skin; Taehyung itches to reach out and play with it. ‘I distinctly remember a riveting discussion on the rate of replacement of gym towels.’

‘Shut up,’ Taehyung laughs, starts to hold out a hand before taking it back. ‘Come on, I want to see if you hold your liquor.’

‘Second only to Jimin. That man’s a monster.’

 

◀︎

 

Jeongguk, as it turns out, does hold his liquor very well. The moment he finishes greeting Bogum— ‘I loved your work in Reply 1998— and makes eye contact with Jimin, they both narrow their eyes— Jimin’s done in dark brown shadow, Jeongguk’s bare with a hint of kohl, Taehyung and Hoseok basically as flat on the ground as one can possibly be— and get telltale glares on their faces. Taehyung says telltale because he’s worn one himself, usually against Yoongi when they go head to head on cheap soju just to relive the old days while Seokjin puts on trot in the background, also to relive the old days. (Luckily, Mina only comes to kick both their asses by chugging half a bottle in thirty seconds flat once in a while, to relive the old days.)

‘Barkeep,’ Jeongguk says, and Jimin narrows his eyes further. ‘The usual.’

At that, Jimin turns to Taehyung and Bogum. ‘Do you guys want in as well?’

‘Of course,’ Taehyung says immediately, putting a hand on Bogum’s arm as he opens his mouth to protest. ‘Just, what are we getting into?’

‘Okay, so.’ Jimin ducks under the counter (Namjoon’s long since disappeared in Yoongi’s general direction, Taehyung believes) and continues talking. ‘Remember how Jaehyo left me a note saying only one Angry Dog per person?’

‘Vividly, as it was coloured with disappointment upon discovering that my cocktail—’

‘Yes, yes. Anyway, Jeongguk and I are the only one who’re allowed to break the rule. We’re allowed up to three, provided that one of us doesn’t go down first.’

‘He has yet to lose,’ Jeongguk says darkly.

‘Okay, but why would you go down in a matter of three shots? What is it, absinthe? Even absinthe isn’t so bad,’ Bogum says. ‘I mean, even Taehyung can take it, and let me tell you, there’s a bunch of ridiculous shit that Taehyung can’t take.’

‘I’d love to know more about that,’ Jeongguk says, and the worst part is that Taehyung knows he’s not being sarcastic. The nerve, after all the times he’s tried to get Jeongguk to talk about himself. ‘As for the shots, I’d hate to ruin the surprise for you. Let’s just go for it, shall we?’

Jimin finishes arranging the already-filled glasses on the counter right then. Taehyung squints at them. They do look alarmingly red, but that could just be...raspberry. He hopes to God that it’s raspberry.

‘I hope to God that’s raspberry,’ he says, and Jimin smiles.

‘Raspberry-flavoured products are usually blue,’ he says. ‘Just saying.’

‘Right. Right. To our deaths we march, then,’ Bogum says cheerfully, and Taehyung shrugs as the DJ puts on a Latin pop hit he only recognises when it’s playing in clubs. As the song revs into action, he takes one hard look at Jeongguk’s stunning profile and decides, fuck it.

 

◀︎

 

Tabasco.

 

◀︎

 

‘You won,’ Taehyung says. ‘Or, I mean, you tied. Why are you not happy?’

‘Because,’ Jeongguk replies with a sigh, then pauses to lean back on the cushion he’s propped up against a rock, arms crossed behind his head, eyes closed. Taehyung would be more upset about his muscular definition if he wasn’t concerned about Jeongguk’s shirt. Seriously, he’s not even worried about getting sand on that thing, and it looks uncomfortably hot. Both temperature and otherwise. ‘He knows exactly why I won and he’ll never let me live it down.’

‘And why is that?’

‘Oh, you know,’ Jeongguk says, opens one eye to look up at Taehyung. Taehyung adjusts his position, faces Jeongguk better. ‘He knows I was doing it to impress you.’

There goes the treadmill heart again. Taehyung laughs to cover it up and dumps some sand on Jeongguk’s ankle for good measure. ‘See, I never know when you’re joking or not when you say some shit. Most shit.’

‘I’m off-duty,’ Jeongguk says. ‘Have you heard me call you sir once? Everything that comes out of this mouth off-duty is one hundred percent true.’

‘So you’re saying you constantly lie on duty?’

‘I don’t like hurting feelings. Sometimes you just have to tell someone that their foundation isn’t sweating off. Let them learn themselves, you know?’

Taehyung laughs again; Jeongguk shifts onto his side. His shirt slips and reveals a strip of skin on his waist that’s definitely ten times worse than the shots they did after the Angry Dog, that have yet to hit. (Taehyung doesn’t really want them to hit.)

‘So,’ Jeongguk says, dark-lined eyes sharp and alert. ‘Is this a sex thing? Do you want me to sleep with you?’

Okay, no, the shots hitting right about now would be great.

‘What,’ Taehyung says, after taking a few dozen swigs of his Carlsberg. ‘This goes beyond carnal sin, Jeon Jeongguk. I’m just enamoured by your way of existing. And I wish you’d tell me more about yourself.’

‘I mean, I don’t mind sleeping with you,’ Jeongguk continues serenely, as if he’s unaware of the immediate effect that has on Taehyung’s blood. ‘You’re kind of hot.’

‘Just kind of?’ Behind Jeongguk, the ocean washes up grey and bubbly where it meets the green-lit sands. Behind Taehyung, the party carries on like any party would; hollers from Hoseok, music shifting from taste to taste, Seokjin’s uninhibited, squeaky laugh. ‘And you’re off-duty, so you really only find me kind of hot.’

Jeongguk considers, steals Taehyung’s beer and finishes it, lets the can drop to his side. ‘No, you’re actually really fucking hot. But see, kind of is a beginning level, right? So if you’re really fucking hot, you’re automatically kind of hot. I didn’t lie.’

‘And here I couldn’t wait to discover who you really are,’ Taehyung says. ‘But all you are is annoying.

‘That’s me, all right,’ Jeongguk grins. God, he’s so fucking handsome. ‘Annoying gym instructor Jeon Jeongguk.’

‘And kind of hot rockstar Kim Taehyung.’

‘Oh, don’t get me started on the rockstar bit. The only thing hotter than your face is your voice.’

‘Now we’re talking. Is What Happened To Us really one of your favourites or was that just a fluke?’

‘Are you kidding?’ Jeongguk sits up, and the shirt covers his waist again. Taehyung stares shamelessly. ‘That song was my whole life when I was nineteen. Second single, right?’

‘Second single. What, you’re a fan? A real fan?’

‘I don’t know about that.’ Taehyung nods gratefully at the junior bartender who’s replacing their cooler, makes a mental note to go back to Jimin and do some more shots soon; the previous ones were just bogus. ‘I don’t know Yoongi’s shoe size, so do I really care about your band?’

At that, Taehyung breaks up into extremely unattractive laughter, spluttering and everything. Jeongguk has this skill of deadpan where he doesn’t do it flatly; he still keeps the lightness of his voice, so that it’s winsome in its disrespect. Taehyung didn’t know it was possible to be this charmed by someone he barely knows. Maybe the reason it feels bizarre is because it’s drawn out; not a concentrated encounter at one party, one evening, one night. A strange middle ground between physique and intellect.

Intrigue and all that.

‘I like you,’ Jeongguk says, then, frankly. ‘I mean, I like KT sweet baby, but I also like you. You’re fun.’

‘That’s good to know,’ Taehyung says, and smiles softly for once. ‘That’s really good to know, annoying gym instructor Jeon Jeongguk.’

‘That’s a mouthful.’

You’re a mouthful.’

‘Disgusting.’

‘Hey, this is who KT sweet baby is when he’s not being a rockstar. Deal with it.’

‘I’m going to go now.’

But he doesn’t, and it isn’t a sex thing, and neither of them bring up protocol again. And when the first hint of the sun shows itself over the horizon, they help each other up, tired and smiling, never having gone for the shots after all.

 

◀︎

 

For years, when asked onstage and off it, Taehyung always says that’s where it started, really.

 

◀︎

 

Sunrise to sunset becomes one story, and sunset to sunrise another. Taehyung doesn't know which one he likes better, because in the first one he gets to take in everything— from the warming rays of summer like balsam on his skin, to the clumsy ripples of seawater against his shoulders, or that brief coolness of the early mornings as he walks along an easy trail, hand-picked with an easier affection.

But then, in the second one, there are neon lights and his magic drink, and music, music, music. In more than just the speakers at Jimmy's or the a capella performances at l'Oignon— he means music writing itself little by little in his head, bits and pieces of lyrics that ne notes clumsily wherever he can (eyeliner on his mirror, once, another parody of himself). He means music returning to the way he talks, the way he processes the world, the way he thinks. He can feel it returning in how he shapes his thoughts and remarks, how he moves.

It's like how Seokjin puts it one day, over breakfast at the pool: 'As much as I hate to be that person, you're positively glowing.'

'Oh, I know,' Taehyung says, mid-attack on his papaya slice. 'Do I ever fucking know.'

He's always said it: the real deal doesn't mean forever. And it doesn't have to, to be the real deal. It can always be something short and sweet, closed on both ends, finite but perfect. Perfect in its finiteness. At the end of the day, that is the understated, gentler definition of a summer fling.

Or, well, it would be if there was anything particularly concrete going on between him and Jeongguk. For something that doesn't even have a visible form, it sure takes up residence in Taehyung's mind a lot of the time. He should've seen it coming right off the bat when Hoseok pointed out how hesitant he was, how it wasn't like always. And that's right; nothing about this is like always.

If it was like always, it would've been a sex thing, and a glorious one at that. Jeongguk didn't fail to point it out one evening— that's the second story, sunset to sunrise— off-duty, of course, stretched out on Taehyung's balcony chair with a beer in his hand.

'So you said it goes beyond carnal sin,' he'd said, while Taehyung leaned over the railing and tried to discern what breed of dog rich woman number thirty-four was walking by the beach. 'Following my really-hot-kinda-hot logic, that means that carnal sin is actually included in the package, right?'

'The package of my unending, ferocious passion for you?' Taehyung had retorted, turning around to smirk at Jeongguk. (Holding his own also started to come back around the same time that that blessed party ended.) 'I mean, sure.'

'I mean, sure. Not very convincing.'

'Isn't it?'

No, if it was like always, it would've been a glorious sex thing. Or it would've been this thrilling, secret affair, full of clandestine car dates and fleeing the paps or posing for them, depending on the person. But it would've been fun, and it would've been invigorating— and then it would've ended.

Taehyung doesn't know how one envisages putting an end to something that has no beginning. But he doesn't mind figuring it out bit by bit; Jeongguk's the type where even goodbye will be a laugh, and Taehyung isn't afraid to say that he falls more and more each day.

 

◀︎

 

A month ago, Taehyung claimed that the stickiness of summer was too juvenile to inspire. At the very least, he's self-aware; he has a good laugh when he opens that one old, well-worn but well-maintained journal, the one where he wrote their first song and every lead single since. It isn't about the cold mist of winter that he's thinking when he puts his favourite cheap corner-store pen to the paper; or about Yoongi's profile against the cut-out grey sky-square of his window as he plays covers to himself on the piano; or about these little aleatory things that always prompt him to jot down a line here, a string of words there.

No, and Taehyung isn't thinking of palm trees swaying in the warming summer breeze or the twinkling of the sun on the surface of the pool that he's so familiar with now; nor is he thinking about those handpicked trails he makes his way through, woods, rocks, the smallest of hills. He would've, if this was a perfect, finite thing.

But perfection is static.

So Taehyung, when he has a good laugh as he lifts his corner-store pen, isn't chasing perfection with its nib. Perfection doesn't need to be chased; it's static. What does need to be chased is something that shifts and changes colour from sunrise to sunset to sunset to sunrise; like the fall of experienced feet on a dirt-covered path, or the scent of Jeongguk's cologne that he can never seem to place.

 

◀︎

 

Namjoon, in a turn of events that Taehyung frankly deserves, has made a combination of friends that Taehyung also frankly deserves. That is to say, apparently Jimin did not take kindly to an off-duty chef crouching next to his glass coolers and insisted that he stop being afraid of Taehyung, who, quote-unquote, is a chronic absinthe enthusiast who pretends to be a rockstar. Now that would be all right; Taehyung's more than used to Jimin's disdain of his existence, but it gets worse.

It is by now a well-established fact that while Hoseok was busy failing at everything around Jimin, and Seokjin was busy looking for his next sleeping partner, pun intended, and while Bogum was busy trying to convince a junior bartender that he did not need to be cut off— in all of this, Taehyung himself was busy drawing patterns in the sand, talking nineteen to the dozen with Jeongguk. About the world cup, and about the eighth trail, and about the time Seokjin bit his ear onstage. ('Oh my God, I remember seeing a Vine of that.')

And here's where it gets worse. While Taehyung was busy getting sand in his shorts and under his fingernails, Namjoon had somehow run into Min Yoongi, the country's beloved pianist. Taehyung has some vague recollection of noticing the two, actually, but would still rather not think about it.

'We made the most complex sandcastle,' Yoongi's saying, now, as he carefully peels off his new screenguard. Taehyung watches, not without affection, as his fingers deftly work on the plastic, and then focuses on what he's saying. 'Like, there was a home theatre and shit. We installed jets for the backyard jacuzzi. He's my new best friend.'

'Incredible,' Taehyung says. 'I wouldn't have put Namjoon up to that, honestly. The guy apparently breaks ten bowls a day.'

'You're kidding,' Yoongi replies with genuine surprise. 'You know he has an IQ of like 148, right?'

'WHAT.'

So Namjoon, as it turns out, is definitely at l'Oignon on an apprenticeship, but it's purely on a whim on his summer off from his dissertation on something so fucking complex that Taehyung promptly zoned out the moment Yoongi said the first word of the title. He's one of those people; who decide oh, I want to try that and then end up being a boss bitch at it. Kind of like Jeongguk but on a deeper level. Jeongguk, too, picks up physical skills very quick. Mixing drinks, throwing darts, brushing hands. (Taehyung would love to see if he picks up guitar chords, too.)

'I love this,' Hoseok says gleefully. 'It's like his reserves his intelligence for the worthy. You only get raincoat vape man because you only deserve raincoat vape man.'

'First of all that's probably incredibly insulting,' Taehyung says, 'but I don't know for whom so I'm gonna refrain from responding. Go fuck yourself.'

'That's technically a response,' Seokjin says, and Taehyung rolls his eyes at his mint-mask covered reflection in the mirror. 'No wonder you got raincoat vape man.'

'I hate all of you, just so you know.'

'Love you too,' come three singing replies.

 

◀︎

 

Nearly two months into possibly the longest vacation they've taken since all this took off— Mina's already asked if they'd like to draw up a semi-permanent arrangement, New York style— is when Taehyung allows himself to actually, seriously think of that golden cage he was so enthusiastically whining about. In the beginning, not thinking about it was a conscious effort he made, through his daily frustration at not being able to express himself, not being able to take satisfaction in their success. But the honeyed distraction that is Jeon Jeongguk soon fixed that; that is, until he turned the game right around on its head.

Now, Taehyung comes back to check on himself with the anticipation of opening a letter you already know contains good news. That buzz has been in his fingertips for weeks now, the journal full of crossed-out lines and question marks, little hearts and stars. They don't need new content right now, not for a while, and yet he has that excitement in his throat, the one that says write this now, write that tomorrow, make create get done. It's a delicious impatience which he sometimes forgets the feeling of under the pressure of doing what he loves for a living. He sees it taking its toll on the others, too, sometimes; Yoongi sitting motionless at his old piano, Hoseok passing three consecutive nights at the studio doing nothing but banging on his drums, Seokjin focusing obsessively on the details of every single thing around him.

But doing what you love for a living is one thing, and doing it with those you love another. There's never been a time when they haven't pulled each other out, and here they are, having done it again. Taehyung is impatient and joyfully so, and he owes it to his friends— but also to Jeongguk.

And that, he thinks, is the real anticipation, the real slide of the knife through the envelope. Is it just him or is it whatever this is, constant in its fleetingness, infinite in its imperfection? Is it just him or is it Jeongguk, who always brings him back down with a well-placed smirk and a roll of his eyes whenever Taehyung gets flighty enough to say things like fleetingness?  He's never really thought about the weight of the word muse, but he can't deny that all this came back to him at the same time that Jeongguk sank into his life like water into sand, and he can no longer separate the one from the other.

Their careers are so young, despite everything, and Taehyung has yet to learn it all. Who is he to say that there's no such thing as muses, or to say that no one person can bring all that magic? Maybe that's what it is, intrigue turned inspiration, and he'll keep counting on that intrigue to keep his pen going.

 

◀︎

 

It's out of intrigue that he asks his first real question, when the second month is drawing to a close.

'Why don't you tell me anything about yourself?'

Jeongguk doesn't react visibly. He takes his time to put his weights down, towel himself off, stretch out his arms. Taehyung would be offended if he thought he was being kept waiting, but he knows Jeongguk's trying to buy time. He might not like to talk about himself but tells are tells.

So Taehyung waits, leans back, elbows pressing into the soft yoga mat he's lying on.

'I don't understand,' Jeongguk says, finally. He's at least dropped the sir on-duty, only maintains a physical distance (which he mostly does anyway; they have yet to so much as shake hands cordially). 'I thought you had very intimate knowledge of my quarterfinal predictions by now.'

'I'm not entitled to knowing you better just because I am who I am,' Taehyung continues, refusing to take the bait. 'And I think you know that very well. I just want to know if you can tell me why. I don't really know what's going on here, and I don't mind leaving it as it is. Just, call me curious.'

Jeongguk does show his disappointment, briefly, that Taehyung didn't react. But then he actually sits down and leans forward, crosses his arms over his knees.

'You're a rockstar,' he says. 'And I like who you are offstage. But you're still a rockstar, and no matter what, I'll never really know you. So why should I let you know me?'

Taehyung laughs at that, and Jeongguk looks up, smiles a little as well. 'How much more do you want me to say about myself? Do you want me to tell you what my favourite shampoo is?'

Jeongguk scoffs.

'The answer is I don't have one. I still steal Seokjin's.'

He accepts it for what it is. This isn't the first time that something like this has come up between him and others. What's different is that usually that factor, this— mistaken— idea that Taehyung, despite being so tangibly present in front of them, is an unknowable, unattainable figure— this idea usually turns people away; I can't get close to you. No matter how hard Taehyung tries, how honest he is: and maybe that's one of the reasons why he doesn't really do relationships.

But Jeongguk, as he's learning, is always the exception. This isn't the first time that someone's had this misconception that Taehyung can't be known, but it is the first time that someone's taking it in their stride and proceeding accordingly. Expecting nothing more than what is, but giving back in like.

Taehyung, in turn, tells himself that he'll try not to expect anything more either, and all of a sudden the prickling intrigue settles down into this sort of ephemeral status quo; curiosity is his permanent fuel now, and he makes sure not to satisfy it, so that it can help him create. And Jeongguk, for his part, doesn't try so hard to be nonchalant. Instead of showing up at the terrasse one day out of two, he waits every evening with a beer and Taehyung's cocktail; sometimes he puts on his own favourite music at the gym.

And it isn't tiring, seeing Jeongguk every day, morning and evening, because they don't talk and talk and talk. They've somehow gone past and not through that, and pass their time together either talking about grand subjects or not talking at all. Taehyung refuses to stop revealing himself, talks about concerts and backstage and the strangest meat he's ever eaten, and once in a while Jeongguk jumps in with an anecdote of his own. His own allure lies in his ready wit, in the interest with which he listens to Taehyung despite his confessed skepticism, in his very painfully obvious human beauty. He's young and strong and has his head on his shoulders, and in the absence of his confirmation, Taehyung's free to make an image of him in his head, the one he talks to when he works on his secret song. And then, there is the real Jeongguk, of his own construct, who sometimes decides to step forward.

The peak of summer is a hot day and an early sunrise, too imposing to jog or even walk, and Jeongguk uses his day off to dive into Taehyung's balcony pool with him. When he comes up and rubs his eyes, his kohl smudges easily, and Taehyung cracks up at the image. Hair pressed flat to his forehead, water trickling down his face, and the goth eyes. It's the silliest he's ever seen Jeongguk look and he's never going to let him live it down.

That's when it hits; the never, when the most he knows about Jeongguk practically is that he studies in Seoul, that he's twenty-two, that he has a family full of academics. But Taehyung swallows it down and chooses to splash Jeongguk instead, laughing some more as Jeongguk shakes his head like a puppy and pushes his hair back.

'You should join the band,' Taehyung says, and Jeongguk laughs, splashes him back. 'No, for real. Yoongi would totally adopt you as his baby goth.'

'Don't tell him but Yoongi kind of scares me,' Jeongguk says, looking over his shoulder, finding a place to lean. 'He just gives off this terrifying don't touch me vibe.'

'For real?!' Taehyung says. 'Yoongi has a dog. He literally has a physical photo album of her. Facetimes her every day.'

Jeongguk blinks at him, utterly blankfaced. 'No way.'

'Yes way. Ask him to show you pictures next time, he's like a new dad.'

'I always wanted a puppy,' Jeongguk says, a little wistfully. Taehyung stops trying to float on his back and straightens up, reaches around until his toes touch the pool floor. Squints to get a good look at Jeongguk in the disorienting sunlight, and grins helplessly when he sees how cute he looks.

'You're the puppy,' he coos, reaching out to pull Jeongguk's cheeks before he even registers that he's moving. It's too late; his hands are already on Jeongguk's jaw (which tenses), and they're closer than they've ever been outside of the gym, and this is possibly the most ridiculous pretext to be touching Jeongguk's face. Taehyung's brain sputters out some pool water and then exits the building. 'Uh.'

But instead of shrugging him off or ducking away or cracking some dry joke, Jeongguk simply brings his own hands up and wraps them around Taehyung's wrists. Up this close Taehyung can see the single drop of water at the center of his bottom lip, the points where his kohl has gathered to bind his lashes together. Taehyung's song goes haywire in his head as he thinks, simultaneously, frantically, has he ever come to a concert, has he ever heard me really sing, what does he know about me; questions that never bothered him, not before this mess. Wondering how Jeongguk lives when he's not around Taehyung even though it's clear that this changes nothing for him.

Before he knows it he's leaning in dangerously close, Jeongguk's eyes now trained on his lips, and he takes a deep, deliberate breath. Leans in further— but then sees something shift.

Jeongguk grits his teeth. Not anticipation. Bracing himself.

So Taehyung smiles again and only knocks their foreheads together, gently, ignores the treadmill comedown of his heart and pulls his hands away.

'Sorry,' he says, and moves back. Jeongguk looks, for the first time, like he's experiencing a genuine emotion. Which, at least, is a win.

'I like you, you know,' Jeongguk says, a little childishly, and Taehyung laughs, endeared.

'I know,' he replies. 'It's okay.'

 

◀︎

 

And, well, who is he to say that there's no such thing as muses?

 

◀︎

 

'I lost them,' Seokjin says, for the fifth time. 'Just like that. I just lost two odd socks like that. At the very least I could've lost one pair, but no, I lost two socks individually, breaking two pairs—'

'And here we have Kim Seokjin having his customary packing freakout,' Hoseok says brightly to his V-Live viewers, and Taehyung can't help but laugh as he sees, even from a distance, all the kekekeke's pop up on the chat. 'Any volunteers to send him new socks? Although don't actually do it, y'all. Don't send him socks. Don't do that.'

'Send him socks,' Taehyung calls out, and Hoseok turns the camera around so that he can glare at him in peace. Honestly, the packing is the only good thing about leaving any place, whether it's Seoul— he goes to Seokjin's condo for the express purpose of seeing him pack— or wherever they are for their holidays. (Tour packing is done for them; none of them are efficient enough to pack and unpack so frequently, not even Seokjin despite what he'd have everyone think.) 'Hey, guys. Ready to see us in Busan next month?'

Yeah, no, packing's the only good thing about leaving. Taehyung's the kind that's loathe to move once he settles down somewhere, even though he loves travelling and exploring new places. When they're in Seoul, he hates leaving his apartment. When they're in Stockholm, he hates leaving the hotel. He's not as bad as Hoseok who legitimately tears up every time a flight from anywhere to anywhere takes off, but he has his sentimentality anyway. He definitely had a lump in his throat, for example, when they had their Skype with Mina last night. Definitely.

'No, shut up,' he'd said, voice thick. 'I'm fine. Stop asking if I'm fine, that's what's bugging me. I'm just upset about the penguins.'

'What penguins.'

'Oh, you know. The penguins.'

He is doing fine. He's doing more than fine. He hasn't been able to keep a dumbass smile off his face ever since that day in the pool, although happy is possibly the last thing he should be. Conventionally speaking. He kind of got gently thrown in the trash with a side of yeah, even though you're a rockstar, but his ego is nowhere near as hurt as he thought it would be; it's actually the last thing on his mind. Maybe it helps that he never intended for that not-kiss to take place either, it was just something that wasn't happening, then started to happen, then didn't happen. When the time total of the anticipation - realisation - rejection trajectory is roughly thirty seconds, there's not much to process.

And, well, Jeongguk likes him. It can stay there. Taehyung'll fall in love with another real deal tomorrow or the day after, but it's not always that a real deal from before stays with him. (There are, of course, exceptions. There's Bogum, there's Dahyun even though she's all the way in Paris now; there's Hoseok.)

And then there's the gift of what Jeongguk gave him. Taehyung's being pretentious, sure, but regaining the ability to write and compose is worth a thousand dates or kisses or nights, he doesn't care. It's like, he takes something from every person he ever has a special relationship with, whether romantic or not— and hey, half the real deals are not even romantic— a necklace, a mannerism, a song to listen to in the car. But this time he gets to keep inspiration, carry it forward, knowing that that one song will always mean this summer, this place, this person.

 

◀︎

 

'The last evening is all on the house,' Jimin says grandly, raising his arms and bowing. 'I will serve you everything you want, but only one Angry Dog. Except Yoongi. Yoongi can have two.'

'I want ten,' Yoongi says immediately. Jimin shuts him down with a benevolent shake of his head just as immediately. 'I will pay you ten thousand won.'

'That will buy me one shoelace,' Jimin says. 'You can have two.'

'Five and a picture of Holly.'

'Three.'

'Four.'

'Three and you can try it with whipped cream like you wanted to last time.'

'Deal.'

'You know,' Jeongguk's saying to Seokjin as Taehyung turns back to them, 'I don't want to jump the gun here but sometimes I think that none of you have any self-preservation instincts.'

'You kidding?' Seokjin replies drily, and he only needs to indicate with his eyes the rest of his answer. Indeed, at the other end of the bar, Hoseok is sitting astride the countertop, drumming some complicated rhythm against the glass with Jimmy's official stirrers. There's two paper parasols in his hair and a cherry-stalk lollipop hanging from his mouth. He has yet to ingest a single alcoholic drink.

'Don't mind him,' Taehyung fills in. 'He's just excited because we'll be playing again soon.'

'I'd be excited too,' Jeongguk says, watching with unabashed interest as Hoseok gets a charley horse and tips over, crashing onto the floor and cursing loudly. 'I mean, if I could play a single musical instrument.'

Taehyung forgot to show him the guitar.

'Yeah,' he says absently, as Jimin makes good on his whipped cream proposition. 'Totally.'

By the time it's midnight, he's already had more than his fair share of shots. Hanging off Yoongi's shoulder moment, Seokjin's the next, the bouncer, at one point. It's not like they won't party in Seoul; it just won't be this peaceful. Much as he'd like to preserve the perception of the world he used to have when he was eighteen and thought all of it was waiting for him with its arms open, he can't deny that there's a distinct lack of goodwill in a lot of the industry. A lack of goodwill that he can't avoid when he is so threaded into the fabric of that industry, a home that he loves despite himself. And so follows that all their revelry back home is colourful, for sure, and full of passion and love and music— but it'll never be the same as this. It's not about Jimin (it's a little about Jimin) and it's not about Jeongguk (it's a lot about Jeongguk); it's about, before anything, the four of them, friends and lovers and brothers, just living their life the most they can like they swore to do when they were still out skinning their knees on skateboards and shotgunning cheap weed on tiny apartment balconies.

'I love you,' Taehyung says as the beat to the song of the summer switches to a remix of one of their hits. 'I love this place. I love summer.'

'I, too, am relatively fond of you,' Jimin says, then smiles. 'I'm going to miss you rascals.'

'You just have to say the word and I'll get you hooked up at whatever bar in Seoul you want.' Taehyung leans forward, tries to be as earnest as possible. 'And I can get Hoseok to change his hair if you want. Leave his ugly red hair as a souvenir.'

'No,' Jimin laughs. Looks over at Hoseok, who's now considerably more inebriated than before, making heart eyes over at the bar every few minutes. 'No, he can leave it as it is. But tell you what, I'll give you a souvenir.'

'A souvenir! Yes!'

'All right,' and Jimin beckons with his fingers; Taehyung vaults over the bar. 'You want the recipe for the magic cocktail?'

Taehyung sucks in a breath, straightens up, squares his shoulders. 'Do I ever.'

'Okay. So listen up, because I'm only going to tell you once.' Jimin whips out a glass, a blue bottle from one of the shelves, too fast for Taehyung to track with all the strobes and the dry ice and his darling neon lights. 'First, you take as much curaçao as you want and put it in a glass of your choice.'

'Following.'

'And then, the magic ingredient.' Taehyung leans in, mouth open, eyes wide, waiting. Jimin looks at him with utmost seriousness, and reaches down to open a cooler drawer.

He then pulls out a bottle of Sprite, and promptly dissolves into high-pitched, squeaky laughter.

'Go fuck yourself,' Taehyung roars, but Jimin is laughing too hard to pay attention, sloshing Sprite all over the bar and sliding the glass clumsily to Taehyung. 'Oh my God. Never show me your face again, Park Jimin.'

 

◀︎

 

He does think about it again, later, when he absently scribbles on the hotel notepad to get the ink going, before opening his journal. The guitar, he means; he thinks about it again. Thinks about how it would be to guide Jeongguk's hands the way Jeongguk has guided his all summer, curl them just so, nudge his fingers over the strings, press down over them on the chords.

The last few lines of the song repeat the refrain until it fades out. He doesn't have anything else yet, knows that it's going to be a simple affair, one of those tilted focus-blur videos of them in their studio, whenever that happens. But it's written with fondness, easily sweet, something he could've written when he was sixteen. He loves it all the more for that.

In the end, it's when he's enjoying one last glass of his no-longer-magic curaçao-Sprite on the balcony, that he decides to leave it alone. (Jimmy's, he can see, is booming even though Jimin left this morning, their outdoor lights a web of bright circles from where he's watching, fading out suddenly where the shore shifts to sea. He's going to miss this.) He decides to leave it alone, though he wants to break up Jeongguk's staff meeting and sneak him off, say here's something to remember me by, something dramatic like that. Midnight by the ocean breeze and no guarantee of seeing each other again.

And that's why he decides to leave the guitar alone, the way you don't visit every place that you should in a city (there's never enough time) so that you can tell yourself, I'll just have to come again. An unswept dirt trail leading back to something that has no door, no entry, no exit.

He decides to leave it alone. It can stay there. Half-there, half-not. Imperfect, infinite.

 

◀︎

 

'We don't have a private jet so that we end up waking up at ass o'clock for a flight anyway,' Yoongi says, while Hoseok makes no effort whatsoever to stifle a loud yawn just behind him. 'This is the worst investment ever.'

'You and I both know that's not how private jets work,' Seokjin says, shuffling through God only knows what paperwork when their concierge is supposed to take care of everything. 'Can you just be quiet? We'll be home soon enough.'

'Gentlemen.'

Taehyung whips around and curses internally; he's still half-asleep. But then he's greeted with possibly the worst sight ever— Jeongguk, freshly-showered and alert despite the hour, and beyond the giant glass doors he's just stepped in from, in the distance, the sun rising red over the water. An image so easily disturbed by their surroundings that Taehyung has to make an effort only to look at Jeongguk and his very own background, not elsewhere. And Jeongguk looks right back at Taehyung in his oldest jeans and largest hoodie, hair down and tangled, and all Taehyung can hope is that he doesn't have pillow lines anywhere.

Taehyung turns back to the others even as they greet him, and looks at them without a word. Seokjin nods towards Jeongguk as if to say make it quick, but there's the tiniest smile on his face. (Goodbye is going to be a laugh.)

Just outside the doors, it's chilly. The surface of the sea is half-grey, lines of white along the minuscule crests. Taehyung shivers a little despite his hoodie and wonders how Jeongguk's so stoic in his gym polo.

'So,' he says, as Jeongguk crosses his arms. 'The next time we come we'll do that eighth trail. I'll make sure to work out in the meantime.'

Jeongguk snorts, shakes his head. 'Some jogging in the city isn't going to prepare you for that trail, you know. You'll have to work hard.'

'Well, that's going to be complicated to fit into my hedonistic rocker activities schedule, but I'll give it a try for you.'

'Touching.'

Then Taehyung swallows, reaches into his pocket. 'Hey. Can I leave you my number? Don't text me if you don't feel like it.'

Jeongguk relaxes a little, leans against the doorframe, stares decidedly ahead at the slow sun. 'What if I auction it off?'

'I'd hate to see you in court for the wrong reasons,' Taehyung shoots back. 'At least try to stalk me a little? Just for flattery?'

Jeongguk just shakes his head and rolls his eyes, piss-poor joke, Taehyung, but he pulls out his phone and brings up the keypad, hands it over. Taehyung has to backspace twice but he manages to fill his number out, saves it under KT with a guitar, hands it back.

There's so much he has to offer.

'Well,' he says. 'I'll see you around.' His heart's doing its stupid fucking treadmill thing again, one last time, maybe. Jeongguk's sharp profile, his still-damp hair, that cologne that Taehyung never fucking got to place, like a lantern-lit winding alleyway that you passed in the city in the evening and couldn't find the next day. There's a song in his head and music in his palms, again, and he doesn't really know how to say thanks. Doesn't really know how to say thanks.

'I hope I get to see you again,' Jeongguk says, light, nonchalant. 'But if this was a one-time thing, you could've at the very least tried to sleep with me.'

Taehyung blinks at him for a full thirty seconds before shoving him harshly by the shoulder, and Jeongguk, for the first time, laughs full out. Charming like the rest of him, childish, too, young and blithe. Taehyung has a song and so much to offer, but he settles for flicking Jeongguk's arm and stepping back inside. Jeongguk doesn't follow, which Taehyung only realises when he reaches where only his shoulder bag remains; the others are in the car.

The last of summer's leaning against the door, the sky a mess of red and orange and blue behind him now, the warming sea, the sprawling sands. Taehyung walks backwards with his bag hauled over one shoulder, heels falling easily over the marble, sure steps, easy goodbye.

He raises his hand, smiles. For one thread's worth of the sunrise, everything slows down like dust in the air, and his clumsy vision, he realises, is the last memory he'll have of this point in his life.

Then Jeongguk winks at him, and turns away.

 

◀︎

 

Returning to Seoul is always half-homecoming, half the rudest shock ever. Luckily they don’t fall into the category of entertainers that have fans waiting for them at airports, but they unfortunately do fall into the category where they are swarmed once recognised. People asking for autographs, taking pictures, security guards maintaining decorum with a jaded air. The early hours help with it, most of the time, but for Taehyung it’s more about the principle of the thing. Two fans coming up for an autograph disorient him as much as fifty would’ve.

See, the difference between the big city and the private hotel is exactly this— there, unspoken rules dictate privacy, and they can profit from their lives without any regards, comments, interruptions. Because when Taehyung said yes to Hoseok asking what if we really tried to do something with this, he never meant fame. Not really in the form it’s usually sold. He won’t pretend that he didn’t want fame— he did want fame. He just never meant to become famous along the way. Known, recognisable, approachable to all except for those he really wants to approach. In the past years he’s gotten used to it all, the autographs, the interviews, the pictures, but every now and then he realises just how absurd this notion is, that because more people know him, more people are entitled to his time. What’s ironic is that the closer he gets to someone, the more this entitlement turns on its head, I’ll never get close to you. Maybe he’s more sensitive to that paradox this time because of Jeongguk, but whatever it is, he finds himself closed-off and irritable when he touches down at the airport. Puts on a cap and a mask and keeps his head down.

Everything about the city is just a touch overwhelming, too, this time. While Yoongi’s already talking about how he’s going to go to his favourite dingy ramen joint and finally eat some trash food, Taehyung stares out the car window at all the high buildings, the traffic already on the road, the noise of it all. He already misses the serenity of the beach, Namjoon’s dimpled smile; and for a moment he feels an inkling of panic. Feels the suffocation return again, the feeling that his skin can’t breathe, that he won’t be able to express himself, again, like a cage— no, a booth of glass rising up around him, between him and the world. He swallows against it and tells himself he’s tired, and the bad parts of life always fully hit once you’re away from them.

He’s fine. If Jeju got him going, Jeju’ll keep him going wherever he is. He just has to hold onto it.

‘You all right?’ Seokjin asks lightly, but his eyes are fixed on Taehyung’s.

‘Yeah,’ Taehyung says. ‘I promise.’

 

◀︎

 

Everything is a touch overwhelming, which is strange for something that feels a little empty at the same time. Maybe the emptiness is overwhelming, the constant undercurrent of not enough. Like coming out from standing under a forceful waterfall, warm and cold at the same time on the surrounding rocks, and mostly just…hungry. Frustrated.

‘I’ll have whatever he’s having,’ he hears from beside him, and turns to see Mina. She’s busy flipping open her compact, fixing some invisible flaw in her glossy red lipstick. Taehyung turns fully and leans against the counter, smiles at her. The beauty spot on her cheekbone that only they know isn’t real, the straight, immaculate fall of her hair down her shoulders. Mina never shows up anywhere without layers, no matter how hot it is (and even though July is kicking up a decent monsoon, hot has just become stuffy); she’s in two tanks and an olive-green jacket, entirely different from Taehyung’s back-in-town white T and leather. He reaches out to flick her tinkly-looking earring, and indeed, it tinkles.

‘You don’t want what I’m having,’ he says, as he spots the bartender bob her head to the new refrain on the speakers. Standing in the corner, ordering another, I know that I’m not your type. ‘You loathe amaretto.’

‘Disgusting.’ She looks up to take back her order, but the bartender’s already poured it out, so she sighs and shrugs. ‘Oh, well. Just take mine as well.’

‘Fuck no. Live with your mistakes.’

The party is to celebrate a successful premiere, of one Park Hyungsik. A senior of Bogum’s, quite openly fond of Taehyung, an all-around fantastic guy. (Taehyung’s convinced it’s the only reason he’s allowed Hoseok and Yoongi to cross his threshold after what happened at his birthday last year.) And it’s wonderful, it is. The entire penthouse done up in bright gold lights, trays of sandwiches and a rooftop bar, the city twinkling several stories below them beyond the vine-wrapped railing. It isn’t even going to rain tonight, so he can sip away at peace, the sounds behind him dulled just a little in the night air.

No, the party is wonderful. He gets to catch up with one of his favourite parts of the entertainment industry, talk about smoking weed and writing songs, how annoying it is to eat the same thing thirty times for a take. There’s Sana with who’s possibly his favourite human in the world, bounding up to show him hair colour of the month with her beaming smile, twirling to show him her dress. There’s Chaeyoung, always ready with scathing commentary on the state of affairs in the shithole that is production. There’s Bogum himself, one of Taehyung’s rare external anchors in a world that seems, right now, to be moving half a step faster than him.

Maybe it’s that, too, the overwhelming part of it all. Being submerged in inactivity was slow and delirious; that breeze of inspiration literally like a breath long-awaited after coming up from underneath. It happened slowly, as if he was trying to test himself, but fast at the same time, maybe an infinitesimal bit desperate, which he hadn’t expected and only realises now that he’s away from it all, not submerged again but not in the free summer air either.

He only realises now, when he compares this rooftop evening to the countless ones he spent in Jeju, the lights here to the lights there, and the way these same people who seem stranger-like and uninteresting to him now, were the best of friends. There’s something lying under it, a kind of understanding that is on the tip of his tongue, about people and places and penning down lines, but try as he may, his brain slows to a crawl just before he can get to it. It’s no longer on high alert like it was, heart climbing off the treadmill, we’re done here. And of course it’s in its absence that Taehyung misses it, that feeling of being able to count every molecule of the air he breathed.

He’d do anything to chase that feeling.

‘Fuck,’ he mutters, laughs under his breath, and just then— like in one of Bogum’s movies— his phone buzzes in his pocket and he freezes.

Pulls it out, looks at the lit-up screen.

Unknown [23:41]
is this really kim taehyung??? i got your number off an auction!!! i’m your biggest fan!!!

For a split second, Taehyung wants to fling the phone off the rooftop, that’s how incredibly happy he is. He settles for nearly crushing it in his fist and hissing yes, before unlocking it to reply.

 

◀︎

 

Jeju keeps him going. Or, he refers to the phenomenon as Jeju, for fear of putting a more precise name on it. When July splashes over into August with muddy car tires and sudden-not-sudden downpours, Taehyung’s memorised the number he has yet to save, out of fear, almost. Daily life takes over again, a daily life that he’s still not used to— when you’re a rockstar, both the amount of routine and the lack of it are surprising. They— with the exception of Seokjin— usually alternate between waking up at pretty regular times and doing a whole lot of nothing, or sleeping at six, waking up at three, and doing fifty-seven things in the space of five hours. But ever since Hyungsik’s party, he’s felt this different freshness, like he’d forgotten that this time of the year is just as great as the summer— the sun might be hidden, but there’s a special petrichor in the air, one that’s perpetual. Immortal like the memories that he actually schedules special times to fixate on— the way one eats too-rich sweets in sparing amounts. Spare the sweetness to guard the potency; Taehyung does the same with every song that they heard in those summer parties that had a kind of madness never achievable here, every line of the one song that he wrote; hell, he buys a sea salt candle.

He isn’t in Jeju anymore, but there is its lightness in the air, the reminder that there are things in this world that can pull him out of wherever he might end up; people he will always be grateful to. Whether he’s writing, or performing, or just living his life, that boost puts a spring in his step, a smile on his face, some ridiculous approximation of falling in love without it actually being that. Taehyung might be in love, sure, but it’s not with a person, it’s with a feeling, one that he’s always been in love with anyway.

There is one afternoon in August, the open up the sunroof, dust in your eyes and cops on your tail kind of warm day, when Yoongi brings it up.

‘You’re not really present in Seoul,’ he says, holds up a hand even as Taehyung begins to protest. ‘I don’t mean it in a bad way. I’m not saying you’re stuck in Jeju.’

‘You can say I’m stuck in Jeju.’

‘Okay, you’re a little stuck in Jeju.’ Yoongi pauses to fiddle with the hopeless tangle of his earphones, then gets back to it. ‘Just, it kind of feels like you’re waiting for something. Someone.’

‘I hardly think Jeongguk is going to turn up in my living room at midnight,’ Taehyung says dryly, ‘if that’s what you’re implying. Besides, he has nothing to do with any of this. He’s not even here.’

‘Exactly.’ Yoongi smiles, small but smug, familiar. ‘He doesn’t even have to be here to do it.’

‘Oh, shut up.’ But Taehyung can’t hold back a grin himself, thinks about all the new lines he’s written down here and there, ideas blooming up in his mental vision like butterflies taking off from a branch at the lightest touch. He’s bounding around, trying to catch them all, this song, that song, a wisp of a composition he hears in his sleep. Music feels like music again; they haven’t been on a stage more than twice since they returned but both times felt liberating, alive, thrumming with joy. What he used to feel a couple of years ago before it all started getting to him, the crowds of strangers who didn’t want to know him, the handful of strangers who did, too much. In a way he doesn’t know if he should be tying it to Jeongguk, or even Jeju, but it’s too timely to be a coincidence, too deliberate to be fate. And maybe that’s what muses are; not magic-bringers that swish a hand across a tabletop to make works come to life, but architects, engineers, craftmakers.

Annoying gym instructors.

For all that Jeongguk isn’t here, he punctually replies to any and all inane messages that Taehyung flings his way.

Unknown [16:10]
what’s that, now? muse?

Me [16:12]
yep

 

Unknown [16:17]
i’m just an annoying gym instructor, remember?

Me [16:19]
i do, which is why i said, and i quote my text from above, that it would be “really annoying if you ended up being my muse”

 

Unknown [16:20]
doesn’t warrant a response. good evening, streetheart.

 

Me [16:20]
DID YOU JUST FUCKING
HEART LYING AROUND ON THE STREETS

 

Unknown [16:21]
show that to seokjin. he’ll be proud.

 

◀︎

 

Mid-August brings the Busan Rock Festival. Hands down one of Taehyung’s favourite times of the year, despite the combination of heat, crowds, and general mayhem. A place where he doesn’t feel as pressured to perform as he does in their own concerts, because the audience is sometimes bigger, always shifting, and to be perfectly honestly, collectively out of its mind anyway. And there’s always a different energy in festivals, this kind of timelessness where dark blends into light blends into dark again, with nothing to tell the days apart other than the dates on phones whose batteries are dying.

Taehyung loves that kind of feverish delight, the way the crowd screams and runs and sets up camp even though they know that a set from this band cannot allow them to sit. He loves bounding onto the stage after the opening act and waving to everyone, squinting against the sun if it’s day, grinning at the lights if it’s evening, the sweltering mirth of it all. Yoongi’s a little less fond of these but even he can’t help but be caught up in the infectious ambience, Hoseok’s loud yelling and hooting as he attacks the drums with vindictive force, Seokjin teetering dangerously over the edge of the stage to blow kisses at the screaming audience.

They aren’t an audience, though; that’s the thing about concerts that Taehyung only learned once he started doing this seriously. Audience implies that they’re only watching, when half a concert is made by those who attend. The dancing, the glowsticks, the cheering. Something about so many people loving the same thing loudly, fearlessly, without a care for tomorrow. Private sets are intimate and beautiful in their own right; studio recordings the closest he has ever come to being truly, genuinely, deeply in love with the air around him. But concerts are now, the essence of who they are, demanding of the attention of every atom in your body, whether you’re on stage or in front of it.

So it’s August, one of Taehyung’s favourite times of the year, and backstage at the festival he can hear everything from the sound of the crowd to the waves on the shore, smell the sea in the air— different from Jeju, of course, always— and feel the weather starting to give way to the cooling down of September. Which only means that they have to revel in the remaining heat while they can. And oh, are they going to. Are they fucking going to.

‘I am so fucking PUMPED,’ Hoseok says as if to punctuate Taehyung’s inner litany. He bangs his fist down on Seokjin’s empty guitar case and hoots loudly, and for once, Seokjin and Yoongi laugh along instead of rolling their eyes. (They can’t help being caught up, after all.) ‘MAN ALIVE. I FEEL LIKE A COCKROACH.’

‘That’s a very interesting comparison,’ Seokjin says, as he checks his eyebrows one last time in the mirror. ‘Taehyung, if you don’t put your phone on airplane mode when you’re up there and there’s the slightest interference issue with the—‘

‘Can you give 2018 some credit,’ Taehyung says, though he sheepishly pauses mid-text. ‘Besides, we all know I take the best crowd selfies.’

‘You didn’t just say that,’ Yoongi says. ‘How could you say that in front of Seokjin? You know what this means, right?’  

Me [21:03]
i’m in your hometown, hikerman!

 

‘All right, you’re up in five,’ Mina says, speaking over the tiny wide-eyed stage manager who glares weakly at her but doesn’t say anything. ‘Seokjin, collar. Yoongi, you can have exactly one shot if you want. Hoseok, if you’re going to strip take the jacket off now because it’s just going to look stupid.’

‘I love how you never say a thing to Taehyung, ever.’

Mina turns to Taehyung then, who looks up from his phone and puts on his best who, me face. She visibly isn’t having any of it, but sighs and rolls her eyes anyway.

‘I’m good as long as his voice doesn’t break. Though he’s survived that before too. Just, be good.’

‘It’s a festival. Being good is going against the spirit of it.’

‘Fine, be bad. But be bad skilfully.’

Unknown [21:06]
congratulations, terrible pun. also, so am i.

Taehyung’s heart leaps into his throat and for a moment, he thinks, wildly, what if he’s here. Still doesn’t know if Jeongguk’s ever been to see them live, doesn’t know a stupid fucking thing about Jeongguk and he feels so alive, full of adrenaline and ready to take every single thing into his stride.

Me [21:06]
at the festival?

 

Unknown [21:07]
not much of a concerts person, sorry.

Me [21:07]
what. what the fuck
i'm a rockstar jeongguk
you don't just say that to a rockstar

 

‘Taehyung, put that thing away,’ Seokjin says, just as Yoongi pushes him out of the wings and onto the stage, and Taehyung puts it on airplane mode even as he feels it vibrate with a reply, wills himself not to look at it yet.

 

◀︎

 

It’s not their best set, technically, by far. But what Taehyung suddenly remembers— or relearns— during it is that lives are never about your technical skill. No one’s going to care if you run out of breath, if you break off mid-line and let one of the others cover for you while you clear your throat or have a swig of water or just run over to the audience. And in that sense, he doesn’t remember the last time they had so much fun performing. His block that was always at odds with the kind of music they make, having to yell and jump and point at people while white noise filled his head, asking what he was even doing onstage when he clearly didn’t belong there in that moment. But tonight, performing with all his energy back, with Busan in the air but Jeju on his mind, with his brothers through thick and thin and this sea of people who care for nothing but the joy he screams alive into the sky, Taehyung remembers what this is really about.

And this is what it’s really about— the way their four instruments and voices and talents all come together like they’ve been doing this, together, since they were born and not since they were gangly teenagers with an audacious dream and the fire to try. The way Taehyung does run out of breath but Seokjin chimes in, takes over with his nasal twang and buttery richness to counter Taehyung’s gravel and bass. The way Yoongi laughs in delight, screws his eyes shut and shakes his head when Hoseok matches one of his parts with an improvisation, grinning and whooping himself. The way they flit from song to song as if they’re remembering old favourites in a smoke-filled jam session and not their own original music, things they wrote and composed and sang out loud. I’m a superstar, every day I fall in love.

‘I love you all,’ he says, gasps into the microphone multiple times, every time they take thirty seconds between songs. At one point Yoongi makes some dry remark about it that has the crowd in splits, and when Seokjin bemoans all of Taehyung’s antics at Jimmy’s, Hoseok fills in each punchline with a drumroll. It’s not for nothing that Taehyung’s known as the fourth one, although he’s clearly joking about that, given how many swoons, albeit fake, per minute he’s causing just by smiling and shrugging. He runs a hand through his freshly-dyed hair, hears a far-off scream, love the black. Seokjin makes another comment about his mullet, Hoseok does another drumroll, Yoongi plays some random notes.

‘I love you, and I’m so happy you’re here,’ Taehyung says again, at the end of their set, when they’re physically dripping with sweat, lungs heaving, grip on reality slipping amidst all the noise. ‘And before we go, I want a picture with you all.’

His request is immediately met with cheers and he sends a knowing wink to Seokjin while pulling his phone out, waiting for the other three to gather behind him before raising it high and unlocking it. And— he’d nearly forgotten. He really had forgotten, but his phone hadn’t; a text from an hour and a half ago is waiting for him, and he can’t help but read it.

Unknown [21:08]
sorry, streetheart. they’re just…noisy.

Around on the streets, where no one picks it up,

(Taehyung still manages to take the selfie, despite his grin taking over nearly half of his face, despite his hands shaking with that same anticipation, joy, relentless motivation. He clicks twice, puts the phone away, and covertly motions to the others to get back to their places. They frown— only for him to see— but comply, and the crowd goes quiet in suspicion as he steps forward.

Second single, a favourite of them both.)

lies my burning heart.

‘Fuck it,’ he says into the microphone, and the crowd goes wild in comprehension. ‘Here’s What Happened To Us.’

 

◀︎

 

Me [00:09]
can we meet?

 

◀︎

 

‘Sweet bachelor pad,’ Jeongguk says, but all Taehyung is thinking is of that drive a couple of weeks ago, when he told Yoongi I hardly expect him to turn up in my living room at midnight. But it’s midnight, and here they are: Jeongguk’s wearing faded jeans and a T-shirt whose label is sticking up at the back, hair a mess in the humidity, no piercings. ‘I mean, I know it’s a hotel, but still.’

‘Hey, as long as there’s two rooms, it counts as its own residence,’ Taehyung says, oddly fixated on the motion of Jeongguk’s feet as he slips out of his shoes. ‘You live far from here?’

‘It’s on the outskirts, Taehyung. Everyone lives far from here.’

‘Fair enough. Come on in.’

It’s so bizarre to see Jeongguk in another hotel, one where he doesn’t work, that for a moment Taehyung’s almost more occupied with it than the fact of seeing Jeongguk itself. But it catches up soon enough; to be precise, right when Jeongguk brushes past him to flop down on one of the couches and Taehyung catches the scent of his cologne. That’s when it hits him, that Jeongguk is here, and for an embarrassing moment he feels as giddy as if he were sixteen and this was a high school crush. (Considering that his first high school crush was was Mina for exactly two hours before she beat him on a chemistry midterm, he’s doing marginally better off.) Then he remembers that they’re adults, he’s a rockstar, Jeongguk’s annoying, it’s midnight in Busan, and he has something to say.

‘You knew we were playing,’ he says, as he settles on the couch opposite Jeongguk’s. ‘You could’ve come to the festival.’

‘You could’ve tried to sleep with me.’

‘You really need to drop that because I don’t know when you’re joking.’

‘I’m off-duty. No lies, remember?’ But Jeongguk smiles and raises his hands in surrender, tilts his head towards the minibar. ‘Can I steal…anything cold that may or may not be in there?’

‘Orange juice,’ Taehyung replies, before emphasising, ‘with pulp.’

‘Nice, you’re a real one.’

And Taehyung already knows that he’ll have to face his bandmates tomorrow, face the whole really, did it take you so long, you’re so much denser than we thought, but even the future embarrassment doesn’t prevent him from stalling. It could be romantic, almost; the two of them on opposite couches, drinking orange juice from wine glasses with a single lamp casting a rosy glow over the room, another night, another coast. Jeongguk’s relaxed and casual, as if he’s not been invited to a rockstar’s hotel suite past midnight. (And sometimes, it’s Taehyung who has more trouble forgetting who he is than Jeongguk seems to. It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s ironic all the same.)

So he stalls. Talks about the festival and Seokjin’s post-show manicure and how Yoongi’s so cute when he falls asleep against the car window with his mouth wide open. Listens to Jeongguk talk in vague sentences and shrugs about how college is going, how he has a week off because two teachers are sick at the same time, yeah, he’s in touch with Jimin. They slip into conversation as if it’s only been a day and not nearly two months, and Taehyung realises that he didn’t miss Jeongguk, because he was a little present everywhere. That with how that intrigue works into all of it— despite how much he knows about Jeongguk now— the only difference between having Jeongguk in front of him and not having that is the physicality of it. And then again, when they’ve touched just enough times to be counted on one hand, that hardly makes a difference.

‘So what’s up?’ Jeongguk says, finally, when there’s a lull in their talking. ‘Don’t tell me you called me all the way here to make conversation that we could’ve made over text, with extra time for extra snark to boot.’

‘Shut up,’ Taehyung laughs. ‘And what if I did? You came anyway.’

‘You’ve got me there.’

But so does Jeongguk; Taehyung straightens up and puts his long-empty glass away, runs a hand through his hair. Jeongguk holds onto his drink, looks at him without feigning otherwise. The shadows on his face are strangely sharp, and he looks every bit what he might just mean to Taehyung.

‘I’m not asking you to go out with me,’ Taehyung says, and Jeongguk’s face doesn’t change. ‘Just, we both live in Seoul. We should hang out more often.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you’re a friend? Because you’re fun?’ Because being around you lights up some kind of fuse in every corner of my brain and it came slow but now it’s here and I have to keep feeding it. Because I could’ve tried to sleep with you. Because I wrote a song. ‘Because you inspire me.’

Jeongguk takes a moment, then, and Taehyung knows him well enough by now to know that it’s his trying to come up with something sarcastic moment. But for once, he says nothing, straightens up himself, finishes the last of his juice and rests the glass by his feet, on the carpet. Taehyung follows the motion with his eyes, then the veined lines of Jeongguk’s arm, then his neck, then his lips, nose, eyes.

‘What if I said no?’ Jeongguk asks. ‘To hang out, as you put it?’

Taehyung blinks.

‘Well, I mean. That’s entirely your right.’

‘And, what, your songwriting process would grind to a halt? That’s it? Peaked at twenty-four, done with life?’

Taehyung flips him the bird instinctively, bounds over to the minibar to pull out something real this time. White, peach, it’ll do. He grabs the whole bottle and settles down on Jeongguk’s couch this time, a seat apart, feet up. Hands him the bottle and lets him pour some out before taking the whole thing for himself.

‘I don’t know,’ he says, honestly, after two swigs. ‘All I know is that I was in one hell of a slump before I met you, and now I’m not. And I’d like to keep that going if I can.’

‘Correlation doesn’t imply causation.’

‘We’re talking about real people here, Jeongguk,’ Taehyung says. ‘You and me.’

‘Exactly,’ Jeongguk says, and he downs half of his glass, shifts to face Taehyung completely, looks him in the eye. ‘Real people. Humans. When you have— I don’t know, man, the sea and the sky and everything around you, why would you look at something so specific? Why would you look at something as fickle as a human?’

‘Are you asking me to take molecules out of the sea and make shit with that? Like what, salt?’

Jeongguk rolls his eyes and tips back, hangs over the armrest of the couch. ‘God, you’re frustrating. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Why me? Why not the sea?’

Taehyung leans forward as if to follow, stops when their bodies are parallel lines with their forever distance between them.

The sea doesn’t not-touch me the way you do.

‘The sea,’ Taehyung whispers, ‘doesn’t have a six-pack.’

Jeongguk whips up so fast that Taehyung thinks he’s going to die, then he’s worried for his own life; Jeongguk’s picking up the nearest cushion and flinging it at him with an unexpected violence. He dodges it but only just, shrieking loudly while Jeongguk reaches for other cushions. Taehyung leaps off the couch, bottle still in his hand, and continues to laugh while Jeongguk launches cushion after cushion at him.

But when he calms down and takes another long swig of his bottle, he gets it. Jeongguk didn’t say no, but he asked what if, which is half-there, half-not, like everything about them. Taehyung isn’t in love with him, and Jeongguk doesn’t want to kiss.

But if Jeongguk asked what if, that what if is also a half-yes. He says it himself over the rim of his glass, smiling at Taehyung and nodding. ‘You should come to my college if we can figure out a way to avoid you getting mobbed.’

‘Yeah,’ Taehyung says, smiles back. ‘Yeah, we should do that.’

 

◀︎

 

Life isn’t one of Bogum’s movies. Mina flat-out refuses to even consider letting Taehyung step onto Jeongguk’s campus, and not for the reasons he’d have expected.

‘I don’t care about you getting stomped all over there,’ she says, flipping through messy journal number fifty-five. ‘You’ll bounce back. You’ve got strong bones or whatever. I’m worried about the jock.’

‘He’s a jock. His bones are definitely stronger than mine. Definitely.’

‘He’s still a student. He doesn’t need the shit that’ll come with your acquaintance being public.’

Taehyung grudgingly accepts her argument for the fair point it is, and sends a morose text to Jeongguk about the new development.

Unknown [18:59]
i was kind of counting on the whole acquaintance thing, actually.
imagine the money i could make selling kim taehyung’s shoes or something.

Me [19:01]
and how would you get my shoes

 

Unknown [19:02]
who said they actually have to be your shoes?

September is serene, slow. That perfect balance between sun and shade, where sitting outside in balcony gardens rolls over from a five-minute phone break from a marketing discussion to the entire PR team just shifting to the chairs outside. It’s what Yoongi calls the promotional offer version of summer, where you can have the goodness of rosé and sweets without paying the price in sweat. Taehyung’s usually in too calm a place to opine, eyes closed, some preselected lounge playlist, the background hum of Hoseok and Seokjin talking to the staff.

‘We should party,’ he says on one such morning, when it’s just the five of them, Mina and Yoongi in the middle of a thunderous argument about some concert venue in Amsterdam that Yoongi absolutely detests.

‘All we do is party,’ Seokjin points out, without looking up from his bubble breaker game. ‘Be more specific.’

‘We should host a party. You know, not a big thing. Casual. No strippers.’

At that a look of utter glee passes across all four faces around him, as his friends stop every other activity and lean forward collectively. He hates being on this end of the scrutiny, but he’ll have to deal with it now that he’s opened his mouth.

‘Why,’ Yoongi says, ‘one would almost say that you want an excuse to invite a certain someone to your abode.’

‘I don’t need excuses,’ Taehyung says hotly, but his face is already going red, he knows. ‘And I didn’t say it has to be at my place. Though that’s what I had in mind. I mean. Fuck all of you.’

‘Look, as long as you’re not imposing on the guy, it’s none of our business,’ Hoseok says, leaning back in his chair. ‘Just, I know you think platonic shit doesn’t weigh as heavy as relationships or whatever—’

‘He doesn’t even think relationships weigh that heavy—’

‘—but just, don’t drag the guy into your world more than he wants to be in there. He didn’t ask for this.’

‘Ask for what?’ Seokjin says. ‘I’ve never seen anyone more assertive than that boy. If he doesn’t want in, he’ll say he doesn’t want in.’

‘Fair enough. Fair enough.’

So, in the second week of September, Taehyung gets his stripperless party. Balcony garden set up with exposed-filament bulbs, at least one person shrieking over seeing a bug at any given point while another reassures them that bugs are friends. Taehyung pours out drinks for everyone but himself and keeps a hand on his phone so as not to miss a text.

When Jeongguk does show up, around ten, he goes downstairs himself. Walks him past the clearly-amused doorman, the even more amused concierge, and all but hauls him into the elevator to escape their raised eyebrows. Jeongguk, the most amused of them all, leans against the gold bar in front of a mirrored wall and openly looks Taehyung up and down, not bothering to hide how long his gaze stays on where the rips in his jeans expose his thighs.

‘So this is how you party in the big city,’ Jeongguk says, and Taehyung snorts, takes his own look. Dark shirt, rolled jeans, bracelet, hoops. The kohl is back, and at this point Taehyung’s gotten fantastic at just accepting how dumbstruck-gorgeous he is. ‘Am I allowed to put anything on my Snapchat?’

‘Only if I get a commission off your pay-per-view earnings.’

‘Well-played. Show me your apartment, KT sweet baby.’

 

◀︎

 

The apartment is not actually that impressive. Taehyung’s a sucker for wide spaces, unlike Seokjin who likes it cosier, or Hoseok and Yoongi who adamantly live together to maintain their useless college-boy lifestyle. However, his sweeping floors and open rooms only look great when they’re not filled with people and furniture, so all Jeongguk must be seeing right now is some kind of event hall, brimming over with activity and alcohol, and nothing of how Taehyung really keeps his home.

(Oh, well. They’re not interested in knowing each other anyway.)

‘Just so you know,’ Jeongguk says, looking around, ‘I have never been this terrified in my life. Some of these people were on my bedroom walls growing up.’

‘Honestly, me too,’ Taehyung says, lightly bumping Jeongguk’s shoulder with his own. ‘We’ve all been there.’

‘Don’t talk like you’re fifty. You’re only two years older than me, sir.’

‘Hey, don’t start that again. That was way too hot and you know it.’

‘Oh, I know.’

So Taehyung gets his stripperless party. Showbiz is more capable of minding its own business than people give it credit for; not more than a handful of guests ask who Jeongguk is, and the ones who already met him at Jeju don’t do much other than shake his hand, good to see you again. No one asks any questions; that’s just how it always is. Tabloids are one thing and real friends another, and Taehyung would never invite someone he doesn’t trust not to give a shit, or trust, period. He might be a little too social for his own good, but he won’t forget what Mina said about Jeongguk. Two years is nothing but can mean a whole lot when one person has their career already streaking off and the other one’s still in school. It’s a world of difference, literally.

‘I like your apartment,’ Jeongguk says at one point, and Taehyung raises his eyebrows. ‘I saw the paintings. It must’ve been fun to decorate.’

‘It was,’ Taehyung replies. ‘I chose it all myself.’

‘Of course. You’re all over it, it’s not hard to tell.’

‘Really?’ Taehyung turns and leans against the rail, one hand trailing against the metal wiring, nails clicking against it soothingly. ‘Most people don’t expect all this art from KT sweet baby.’

‘Yeah, but your home isn’t supposed to house KT sweet baby. It’s just supposed to house Kim Taehyung. Pure and simple.' Jeongguk smiles gently. 'Weeb extraordinaire.’

Wait.

'Hang on. Don’t tell me you— Jeon Jeongguk!’ But Jeongguk’s already walking away, throwing his head back and laughing obnoxiously. Now see, Taehyung might desperately want to be known and loved for who he really is and all that angsty artistic shit, but he did not count on anyone figuring out that that one obscure, seemingly abstract oil painting is actually a scene from Naruto. This is a disaster.

‘Why did I let him into my home,’ he mutters to himself, before downing his drink and taking off after Jeongguk.

 

◀︎

 

In retrospect, Taehyung doesn’t know what he was thinking.

Well, he wasn’t. That’s the only logical explanation for how he could have let Jeongguk speak to Mina for more than five minutes, given that during the first five minutes that they met back in Jeju, they’d already managed to demolish Taehyung’s ego thirty-seven times.

‘This is the worst,’ he says to Yoongi.

‘Are you kidding?’ Yoongi positively cackles. ‘This is the best.’

‘And so I told him,’ Mina’s saying, drawing animated figures in the air with her long red nails, ‘I said Taehyung, no.’

‘Let me guess,’ Jeongguk replies, and honestly Taehyung doesn’t know how he’s physically capable of speaking past that permanent smirk that has been plastered on his face since he entered into verbal contact with Mina. ‘He said Taehyung, yes.’

‘He said Hobi dared me, which is the same thing.’

‘Classic Taehyung.’

‘YOU KNOW MY NAME,’ Taehyung says, ‘NOT MY STORY.’

My name is KT—

‘Honestly why would you give them that opening?’ Yoongi says, as Hoseok and Seokjin launch into another round of Rockstar. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘What can I say? I’m a sucker for pain.’

Taehyung’s usually the first one to start going in on hot chocolate and hot, well, everything in the tail end of September when it’s not quite cold but not exactly warm either. Yoongi’s the frisky one, throwing on three scarves right from the second week onwards, while Hoseok, Seokjin and Mina roam fearless in cotton and sandals.

Jeongguk, Taehyung learns, is also the T-shirt type. Which just figures; the guy wore sweatshirts every single day off-duty in the broiling heat of the summer, and now that it’s actually getting cold, he’s walking around in T-shirts. Fucking T-shirts. Taehyung’s actually glad that they’re doing this whole platonic thing, because that way he can use all his energy at being annoyed at Jeongguk’s mannerisms instead of endeared by them. Which he isn’t. Endeared, that is.

‘Okay, but if you’re being initiated to the cult of Taehyung, you have to hear about Mina and the chemistry midterm.’

‘No, shut up about the chemistry midterm.’

‘I want to know about the chemistry midterm.’

It’s a Sunday afternoon. Jeongguk mostly comes around weekends; college doesn’t let him breathe from Monday to Friday. Taehyung, who never went, is always fascinated by his schedules and his tales of the professors and that one building with the faulty light that looks creepy as shit in the evening. Jeongguk, too, talks more. And not just with Taehyung, either. He loves discussing logistics with Mina and Seokjin, gets into long talks with Hoseok about his athletics, and— most surprisingly— slips into Yoongi’s brand of companionable silence just fine. And yeah, it might have seemed like a deliberate insert at first, which it was, but in no time it’s beginning to feel like they’ve known Jeongguk forever. Which, in a way, is true— they met him in Jeju, at a time in their lives that was completely different from what they’re living now. That is to say, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve progressed forward or not, the only distinction needed is that of space and time; that was Jeju, this is not. And now that Taehyung knows what it’s like to steal marshmallows out of Jeongguk’s hot chocolate in the beginning whispers of fall, he finds it easier and easier to let go of the memories of the summer. Not forget them, just let them be where they are.

Anyway, it’s a Sunday afternoon. They’re in a café that has no business being this large when it’s on such a busy road, but it’s past afternoon closing and they’re the only ones in there. The baristas are on lunch break; they hear occasional laughter and talking. Yoongi’s horizontal on one of the couches, always one to curl up at the slightest opportunity, while they’re all on armchairs, Jeongguk opposite from Taehyung.

Taehyung shifts to settle sideways in his armchair and lets one hand trail to the carpet, stares aimlessly at the fit of Jeongguk’s jeans over his legs. The difference in all of this is that at the end of it, Jeongguk will refuse their offer to have him driven back home and take a bus back to his dorm, probably have some shitty student dinner and do some reading for whatever he has tomorrow. And Taehyung will go back with his bandmates and his manager, a pack of five that will always be five no matter what.

It’s not like he expects Jeongguk to make that six. They have friends who they’re thick as thieves with, and none of those have ever been a real part of the band. But there’s never been a need— whether it’s Bogum or somebody else, the magic of being that close with someone that you aren’t with all the time is in the intimacy of catching up; different from the matter-of-fact love of already knowing what’s going on in their lives. Everything has its charms.

Which is why he doesn’t understand why it’s not the same with Jeongguk. Why he doesn’t want Jeongguk to be like Bogum, but doesn’t want him to be like Hoseok either. He doesn’t understand what other possibility there is.

‘But yeah, so they offered him a yearly contract,’ Yoongi’s saying when Taehyung refocuses. ‘Which is great, considering that he immediately dropped two glasses when he found out. He’ll be head chef one day. It’s gonna be great.’

‘And Jimin?’

‘I actually caught up with Jimin the other day,’ Taehyung says, when he catches onto where the conversation’s shifted. ‘I told him sorry for not catching up when we were in Busan, but he said he caught up all right.’

He lets the revelation sit for five seconds, which is all the time it takes for everyone to put their drinks down and turn to Hoseok, who has turned a shade of red only two notches lighter than his hair.

‘This has nothing to do with me,’ he says. ‘I did not catch up with Jimin in Busan. I don’t even know who Jimin is.’

Yoongi turns back to Taehyung. ‘What else did he say?’

‘Oh, you know,’ Taehyung says, grins. ‘Apparently the Hilton’s round-the-clock menu is bomb.’

‘That’s my cue,’ Hoseok says, scrambling to get off his chair even as Seokjin sticks a leg out and prevents his escape with embarrassing ease. ‘I HOPE YOU ALL ROT IN HELL.’

‘I love your band,’ Jeongguk tells Mina, who only sighs and pats his shoulder.

 

◀︎

 

Yoongi’s utterly silent, the level of contemplation that goes beyond humming or swearing or any kind of discussion. Taehyung watches as he ghosts his fingers over the keys of his piano, without actually pressing down. He holds his hands above sets of chords, trails the tips of his nails over the tops, no expression on his face. Then he raises a hand and turns his index in two quick circles, from the top.

As I see the earth, as I see the sky,’ Taehyung begins, then halts as Yoongi’s hand indicates.

‘Chorus.’

Taehyung takes a deep breath and starts again, the chorus this time, and like magic, Yoongi’s hands fall over the keys and join in as if he’s the one who composed this song and not Taehyung, as if this isn’t the first day they’re trying it out. Taehyung keeps going as the piano dances around his voice in a million notes he’d never have considered, and this is why he always goes to Yoongi first. The brain to Taehyung’s heart, an engineer of sound, always the first one to smoothen over his diamonds in the rough so that they can take them together to Hoseok and Seokjin. Hoseok adds the life and Seokjin the grounding, but the barest wireframes of it are all Yoongi.

It’s two in the afternoon, and the wind is exceptionally violent; they can’t hear it from the studio, of course, but coming in, it got into Taehyung’s ears. They still ache a little but the still air of the studio helps. He’s still got his scarf on, curled up on the couch, hands wrapped around a mug of steaming coffee. Yoongi’s own mug is placed beside his laptop, lying ignored.

‘Again.’

Taehyung goes again, thumbs over the lines in his journal, rolls his eyes when a drop of coffee falls over the title. The journal’s seen worse, honestly, it’s practically a relic at this point. So Taehyung ignores the stain and goes again, and this time Yoongi switches it up, cleaner, singular notes rather than the rain-like patter of last time. Then, he holds his hand up again, still no reaction on his face, and turns around to fully face Taehyung.

‘No piano,’ he says. ‘Not as the lead instrument.’

‘Then?’ Taehyung says, puts his mug away, leans forward. ‘Something more choral? Strings?’

‘Guitar,’ Yoongi says. ‘Both acoustic and electric. It still has to be rock.’

At that, Taehyung gives him a classic are you sure you know what you’re doing stare, which Yoongi returns with his classic I am sure I know what I’m doing stare. It’s also one of the reasons Yoongi’s so exceedingly private with his own personal work; he knows exactly what he wants and does exactly that, timed and precise, arrow-strike accurate. Taehyung, who likes to magnify his love through the form of displaying it to as many as possible, is generous with every feeling that ever goes through him. Living true to the heart on the sleeve.

‘Rock,’ he says. ‘Why do I feel like this is a recipe for disaster?’

‘Because it is,’ Yoongi says simply. ‘You feel like, what, your heart is soaring? That it’s on fire?’

‘On fire, yeah,’ Taehyung says. ‘Sweet, kind of. You know, just, I could do anything, that’s how much I love— love. Itself.’

‘Love itself,’ Yoongi echoes. Raises an eyebrow and points at Taehyung. ‘We’re going to do that. I want anyone who hears this song to be hit in the chest with how much they love. And we’re going to do that the way we do it best.’

‘The way we do it best,’ Taehyung grins, curls his hands into fists and punches the armrest. ‘Fuck yes. Let’s call the others.’

 

◀︎

 

In October, they contribute to the community. It’s a large-scale fundraising affair, so naturally none of their usual fare is passable. Taehyung advocates passionately for at least one of the love songs, but is vetoed in favour of covering classic hits that all age groups present can appreciate.

‘We’re trying to get them to donate,’ Seokjin says. ‘They’re not going to donate if you’re hollering whip me baby in their faces.’

‘Not in a single one of our songs do I ever say whip me baby,’ Taehyung counters. ‘Quit the band.’

‘You quit the band.’

Me [20:00]
come on it’ll be fun
you’ve never even been to one
i’ll get you vip

 

Unknown [20:05]
i had to chaperone my cousin at a kpop concert once
do you know how scary middle-schoolers are taehyung?
you don’t

Me [20:05]
well aren’t you glad there’s no middle-schoolers here
not enough money

 

Unknown [20:07]
…fine
no vip we die like men

Me [20:07]
so fucking annoying

 

On the one hand, the concert is indoors, which is always great to hear when it’s cold outside. On the other hand, this means they’ll have to suffer in silk shirts and the works, because of course they have to dress up. Taehyung hopes no one’s going to stop him from rolling his sleeves up at the very least, because he doesn’t care about some old fart’s sartorial leanings; he’ll put his sleeves up.

The hall is decently filled. Suits and dresses, some middle-schoolers, unfortunately, but old enough to understand that this isn’t a regular outing with mom and dad. Taehyung doesn’t envy them, stuffed into polished shoes and baby ties, but they seem to be having a good enough time. The lighting’s grand, the curtains heavy, and they’ll get to stay behind and feast to their hearts’ content once the event is done. Proceeds are going to a good organisation, and it’s at times like this that Taehyung feels like they’ve made it. Adults, capable of giving back.

Jeongguk doesn’t get VIP, but that doesn’t really mean anything, since he has a backstage pass anyway. There’s no sense putting his youthful heart through the pain of watching older, accomplished people mill constantly around him with food he doesn’t recognise and drinks he doesn’t like. Spare him as long as possible, and all that. (Although one might argue that watching Hoseok and his stylist argue for the tenth time over his temporary brown hair is just as painful. Going by the fascinated horror on Jeongguk’s face, it definitely is.)

When they step out, Taehyung immediately scours the audience for him. He’s near the back, sitting at one of the dinner tables, cocktail in one hand. He’s attentive, and Taehyung’s glad this is a different crowd; it might not be the same folie but there’s still a certain energy in the air. Hopefully the perfect balance. Around them the lights are muted blue and yellow, all four of them still and solemn.

Taehyung walks across the stage to the background of Seokjin playing the lead-in, and places his hands on his own guitar, feels around for the right chords. Then he leans forward and starts to sing.  

 

◀︎

 

‘So?’

Jeongguk swallows under Taehyung’s scrutinising gaze. To be honest, he looks adorable. This is the first time he’s in formal wear, and of course, it suits him just as frustratingly well as everything else he’s ever worn, including the singular time Taehyung saw him in Iron Man swimming trunks. (Off-duty.)

The others have left to eat; Seokjin, of course, is absolutely ravenous. Taehyung’s stayed behind under the cover of changing into something more bearable, but he’s just settled at his chair, trying not to stare at Jeongguk too hard. ‘Sooo?’

‘I mean,’ Jeongguk says, pulls a pained I don’t know face and shrugs. ‘You sing well? Nice performance? The food’s good?’

Taehyung deflates. ‘You didn’t enjoy it.’

‘No, okay, look.’ Jeongguk steps forward, straddles a chair, arms around the backrest. ‘I promise I really enjoyed seeing you guys play. I just don’t like concerts. I want everyone to act a certain way and of course they don’t, and I just end up getting vexed.’

‘That’s the fun of concerts, though,’ Taehyung says. ‘So many people, and everyone has their own way of enjoying, you know? Their own way of loving the performers.’

‘I guess I’m just selfish then,’ Jeongguk says, and smiles. ‘I want my way to be the only one.’

Taehyung looks at him, and Jeongguk looks back. (Years later, Taehyung will say well, maybe that’s where it actually started.) The only light in the room is from the bulbs around all the vanities, and the white neon of the hallway behind the half-open door. Jeongguk’s face is in that strange shadow again, where Taehyung can never tell what he’s thinking (not that he can tell much otherwise). 

Taehyung has so much to offer, though.

‘Do you have anything to do after this?’

Jeongguk frowns. ‘Not in particular. Though the bus—’

‘Fuck the bus,’ Taehyung says. ‘Let’s go.’

 

◀︎

 

The security guards are in what seems to be a riveting discussion about some new film that’s just come out, and so accord little to no attention to the twenty-something Taehyung has in tow, or the fact that he’s there past midnight in the first place. (To be faire, neither of these is a statistical improbability, especially given Yoongi’s nocturnal habits and Hoseok, who wakes up at six every day because he has no soul.)

Taehyung’s slow with the passcode because his fingers are a little cold, but he still gets it in one go. If Jeongguk’s understood, he doesn’t say anything until the lights actually come on and they can see the array of guitars, the well-worn couch, Taehyung’s desktop.

‘Holy fuck,’ Jeongguk says simply.

‘Welcome to the studio,’ Taehyung says, waves an arm. ‘My studio, that is. Yoongi’s is down the hall; Seokjin and Hoseok share because Seokjin actually works better when Hoseok’s banging away on his drums, believe it or not.’

‘Holy fuck.’

Taehyung turns one light on and the other off; now this is the lighting he likes. A strip of red LED’s coiling under the furniture, a large corner lamp. The only visuals he usually needs while writing or composing are mental; most days he just lies on his couch, eyes half closed, and dreams lyrics into being. It’s also where he’s laughed to himself and spun in circles and listened to giddy romantic songs, countless times, I’m a superstar, everyday I fall in love. A song for Bogum, half an album for Hoseok, a single for Dahyun. His way of immortalising those real deals, finite and perfect.

He has no idea, then, what to do with this image of Jeongguk standing in the middle of it, red and gold, stunned, quiet.

‘Since you don’t like concerts,’ Taehyung says. ‘I’ll make it up to you. Now your way’s the only one.’

Jeongguk says nothing for an entire minute. Then he says holy fuck again and Taehyung laughs, reaches for a guitar.

 

◀︎

 

They stay there for hours. Not long enough for the sun to start coming up, but long enough to have waves of sleepiness and alertness, long enough to make two vending machine runs, drink two coffees, and talk about their most embarrassing childhood memories. Taehyung chains together song after song, an almost overwhelming nostalgia of passing so many late afternoons in high school classrooms serenading his friends, even his teachers sometimes.

It’s when he’s softly making his way through an acoustic cover of Our Eyes, one of his favourites, second album, near the end, that he realises all of a sudden what they all meant. Every single person who said they’d never get to know him, despite him trying his best. Because— because him trying his best was him stripping away KT sweet baby, stripping away Kim Taehyung the rockstar, trying to show every part of him that existed outside of it. His silly habits, his favourite drama, the pair of shoes he bought with his own money when he was sixteen, which were promptly chewed up by his brother’s puppy.

Overkill. Overcompensation, saying look, I’m not just a rockstar, in fact, I’m not a rockstar at all. When the truth is that this is who Taehyung is; rockstar or not, famous or not, he’s a musician. He’s never let anyone but a few touch that part, never penned lines for anyone but a few, as if allowing someone into this space would bring all of it crashing back in like waves on an island— the fame, the money, the brightness of it all. Like a piss-poor deal; either the rockstar or the stamp collector. Not both. Not all or nothing. No access to the art, that spoke to them before Taehyung himself did.

And if he’s singing to Jeongguk right now, past three in the morning with that husk in his voice, isn’t it because Jeongguk, just by being— just by being, lights up that part of his brain (a fuse in every corner) that makes this art? Isn’t it repayment, almost, for keeping it going? This music that Taehyung has been making and wants to keep making; isn’t it now, more than ever, that Jeongguk is that figure in his imagination, in his studio, in his journal, of what makes his skin breathe?

Taehyung swallows against punch after punch of realisation and keeps singing, and when he makes the mistake of looking up into Jeongguk’s eyes, he sees that he’s not the only one taking punches. It’s always split-seconds with Jeongguk, like his favourite songs; a single glimmer in his eyes, a quiver of his parted lips, and it’s gone again.

What if I said no?

Half-there, half-not, Jeongguk’s way of loving Taehyung’s music hangs in the air between them, and Taehyung grabs it greedily, lights fuse after fuse. Feels like he could do anything.

 

◀︎

 

The next morning he comes back to the very same studio and opens up his journal. Stares at the coffee-stained title; In You. Calls Yoongi, then calls the rest of them.

 

◀︎

 

‘So I met Namjoon again,’ is what Bogum chooses as a form of greeting when he slides down beside Taehyung on the couch. ‘We had a few scenes in Jeju and I took a detour to l’Oignon. Get it? Detour? Michelin star?’

‘You tire me every day,’ Taehyung says, smiling at Amber as she rests a bottle on the table. ‘Is he doing well?’

‘He only had two bandaids on his hand so I think he’s progressing. Wine?’

‘Wine.’

It’s getting too cold to have anything but wine, honestly. Regardless of how warm it is inside the place, Taehyung’s one of those people who’re a little too in tune with the weather, mentally. Winter is wines and scarves for Taehyung, ciders and layers for Seokjin, cigars and boots for Mina. They all have their own take on it, but he prefers his. There’s nothing that a good bottle of wine can’t drastically improve.

Bogum, in turn, is a trench coat loyalist, which is no surprise to anyone. Taehyung doesn’t need to see it on him to know that that’s what he handed over in the cloakroom. He’s definitely got a trench coat tonight. Definitely.

‘You seem to have made your way through a bottle already,’ Bogum says, which is when Taehyung realises that he’s been snapping his fingers for attention. ‘What’s up?’

‘Just stuff,’ Taehyung says, falls back, head lolling against the backrest of the couch. ‘Recorded the single today. Just a rough version.’

Bogum whistles, reaches over to get a glass for himself. Taehyung watches as the almost-black liquid fills it up, stares at the slow trickle of it. ‘Already?’

‘Don’t act so surprised. You knew it was coming.’

‘True,’ comes the laughing reply. ‘My single took six months, though. Are you done with Jeongguk so soon?’

‘Done?’ Taehyung straightens up, reaches for the glass, then shrugs and reaches for the bottle. ‘What do you mean, done?’

‘You know.’ He doesn’t. ‘He inspired you, and it culminated, right? Like, this is your final project. Fruition. You found a way to immortalise it.’

‘Yeah, but immortal means it keeps going.’

‘Not when it comes to you, Taehyung.’ Bogum smiles, and it’s not even bitter, Taehyung knows, but he still feels his stomach drop a little. ‘Your whole thing is about capturing someone and putting them into song perfectly, so that you can move forward and keep them in your pocket.’

‘That’s.’ Taehyung swallows. ‘Is that what you think I—that I left—’

‘No, don’t get me wrong,’ he rushes to clarify, puts a cool hand on Taehyung’s. ‘No, I don’t feel left behind, shit. I’m honoured to have been part of the process.’

‘You’re not part of the process,’ Taehyung says weakly. ‘There’s no process. And if there was you wouldn’t just be a part of it— you’re, I mean. I want you to be there for every part of my life—’

‘I know.’ Bogum tightens his hold on Taehyung’s hand. ‘That’s why you put me in a song.’

 

◀︎

 

Then, rained in one day in November, Taehyung sends Jeongguk the file of the song, with no explanation attached.

(And that, actually, is where it really started. Because that’s also where it ended.)

 

◀︎

 

Unknown [15:19]
can we meet?

 

◀︎

 

The song, honestly, almost isn’t about Jeongguk, which is the worst part of all that follows when he hears it. But it almost isn’t about Jeongguk in the sense that it is so much about everything— in which Jeongguk is present— that there’s no need to say that it’s about him.

Taehyung and Yoongi work on most of the lyrics. This one’s all him, and they’re not even significant, that’s how real they are. No point of rhyming, no point of choosing words that go better together. Every once in a while songs turn into diary entries, pure feeling scrawled onto paper.

(As I see the earth, as I see the sky,)

Jeongguk steps into the living room without greeting, without taking off his coat or his beanie or his gloves. Taehyung shuts the door behind him and flicks a light on; it’s already getting dark. He waits for Jeongguk to sit, then leans against a wall when he doesn’t.

Jeongguk pulls the beanie off, then, and his gloves, runs a hand through his hair. When he turns around to look at Taehyung, his face is hard.

‘I can’t do this,’ he says flatly. Taehyung’s heart seizes. ‘You’re so stubborn it’s amazing.’

(the signs of you

are everywhere.)  

Taehyung wants to say something, I beg your pardon, but he just crosses his arms and waits for Jeongguk to continue.

‘Look,’ he says, after a pause. ‘You’re clearly adamant on looking at me like I’m a sorcerer.’

(Even the lands beyond the stars

are signs of you.)

‘I’m not, actually,’ Taehyung outright lies. ‘Did I profess my undying love to you? Why are you so offended? Can’t you take my word for it when I say I won’t let that get between us?’

‘Get between us?’ Jeongguk laughs, high and almost hysterical, runs a hand through his hair again (the beanie and gloves have fallen to the floor). ‘Just— you won’t let it? Because you, what, you actually have real feelings for me?’

‘I don’t know, what does real mean to you? Are you asking if this is the real deal? Because yes, it is, did you hear the fucking song?’

‘I did,’ he replies, through gritted teeth. Taehyung’s grasp on his own arms is getting tighter by the second, angry. ‘I heard the fucking song.’

What do those who've drowned in you

have to fear from the waves of the world?

In You, coffee on paper. Love itself.

‘I can’t do this,’ Jeongguk says again. ‘Look, I have feelings for you. Normal, human feelings. And I wish you had those for me too.’

Taehyung’s stunned for a second, but recovers as quickly as he can, even as his heart clambers back onto the stupid fucking treadmill that started this all. ‘I do. Oh my God, I have nothing but feelings for you, but maybe if you didn’t make this so hard and let me actually know what you’re thinking—’

‘I never told you anything about myself because I was scared,’ Jeongguk says, flat again. ‘I didn’t want to get attached to a fucking rockstar that tours the world, but it ended up happening anyway, so you know what, fine, I’ll tell you.

‘I can’t actually handle spicy food,’ he says, and Taehyung blinks. ‘And I’m more creeped out by bugs than I let on. My hair is ridiculously frizzy if I don’t put product in it. I was so nervous during college entrance exams that I left the entire mock paper blank.’

‘Jeongguk.’

‘No, just. I don’t want you to keep looking at me like everything I do is magic, okay? I’ve never, in my whole fucking life, felt like I did when I listened to that song— and I don’t want that to be the only thing you think of me. Why can’t you just— why can’t you love me without it being so— so monumental? So—’

‘This isn’t a tailorshop, Jeongguk,’ Taehyung snaps. Bogum’s smile, the tattoo under Hoseok’s heart that says take my life, first single. All or nothing, for fucking once. ‘I don’t do feelings to size. Why can’t you accept that?’  

Jeongguk stares at him for a long moment, face unreadable, back to square one.

‘Because it’s too perfect,’ he says. ‘And you’ll put it away in a glass case and you'll forget about it.’

Then, before Taehyung can reply, he bends over to pick up his things, and then he’s leaving.

 

◀︎

 

What do those to whom the sea gives life

have to fear from the waves of the sea?

 

◀︎

 

He spends the rest of the day sitting on his couch and staring at the spot where Jeongguk’s gloves had fallen. The rain carries on outside, and the day gets steadily darker until the only light is from the one lamp he’d thought to switch on coming in. There’s another not too far from his reach, but Taehyung ignores it in favour of staring at the same spot.

When he was eighteen and horrendously in love with Hoseok, he thought it would define his adulthood. In a way, it did; they built the band from the ground up and fucked every night in their shared studio. And in a way, it didn’t; it was so visceral and real in the moment in which it existed, that they forgot to learn each other outside of it. And before he knew it, they were famous, and he met Bogum, and there it went all over again.

Formative is a word that Taehyung has never understood, then. The idea that he can only evolve so much as a person, only have a few signatures on the canvas that is his life. It’s supposed to keep going.

And that’s why he didn’t understand, he realises, as he stares at where Jeongguk’s gloves had fallen. That’s why he didn’t understand why— how— what he does could be misunderstood like this. Didn’t right up until Jeongguk said you’ll forget about it and left. Because Taehyung, see, once Taehyung scrawls his imagined signatures on his skin, he’s satisfied. He can go wherever he wants from here; they’ll always be with him. But to them, he just collected an autograph and moved on.

‘Fuck,’ he says absently, out loud. And all this time he thought he’d never imposed on anybody.

He’s never really known what to do with something that lasts forever. Didn’t know what to do with the loose ends of his and Hoseok’s relationship, so he wrote and stomped and yelled it out into a handful of songs. Didn’t know how to thank Bogum for being a real friend, a guide, in an industry of sharks, so he took his acoustic and some chimes, the softest kiss. His form of closure, a parody of itself, the rockstar.

In a split-second, the flick of a switch, the walls close in on Taehyung. He could walk out without cover and probably not feel the winter air; the rain would slide off his skin. But nothing seems to be in reach, all of a sudden, so he shifts to lie down on the couch and doesn’t move his eyes off the floor.

You could have, at the very least, tried to sleep with me.

He never saved Jeongguk’s number, anyway.

 

◀︎

 

On the Sunday that follows, Taehyung sends a group text, asks them all if they can spare some time for a jam session. Instead of asking questions, Seokjin sets up a time slot and Yoongi and Hoseok agree, and Taehyung, almost half-asleep still, drives himself over to the studio.

They’re waiting for him, already setting up; Seokjin quietly tuning his guitar, Yoongi finishing up his coffee, Hoseok stretching. For a second, the visual is too much for Taehyung; bandmates, brothers, lovers. They’ve been doing this since they were practically children, and they’re still here. Yoongi might drag him to hell and back but he’s never not been ready to listen to a draft. Seokjin might be snappy and sarcastic but he booked those Jeju tickets himself; Taehyung knows. Hoseok— well, the simple fact of him being here, quiet, undemanding, sympathetic; Taehyung’s throat works against letting out an embarrassing sound.

Then he clears his head and walks in, closes the door behind him. They don’t even look up.

It starts slow, the way jam sessions always do. Relaxed, contemplative, still warming up. Humming a tune here and there, someone suggesting a song, everyone going for it. Taehyung works through covers and unreleased material and old time favourites. Lets go, loses himself in the pure sound filling the room. It still feels like it’s bouncing off him, and at the same time as if his voice is being ignored by the world; large valley, no echo. With no one to understand, no one who ever understood. But it’s loud, and it works just fine for him, and if he isn’t at home here he’ll never be at home.

Then there’s a lull between two songs and Taehyung opens his eyes, taking no time to adjust; the room’s dimly lit as it is, the others all but silhouettes. He takes a deep breath and looks up at the ceiling, and then steps to the microphone.

I stayed up all night,’ he sings, whispers, almost. He sees Seokjin shake his head but they catch up, start up. ‘I stayed up all night.’

(The thing is, when Dahyun left for Paris, Taehyung was personally offended. Considered dropping it all to join her, promptly came back to the ground, and drank for a solid six months. The one that got away; an angry song, selfish catharsis.)

But that’s just it, then. That’s just— every time Taehyung wrote a song, it was a keepsake, a trip back in time, a perfectly preserved snapshot of that moment in his life. Hoseok’s first tattoo and the line of his jaw, Bogum’s fragile hands and darling smile, Dahyun’s silky black hair splayed across his pillow. But the moment he sang them into life, they became more than just that— started belonging to everybody, the way he wanted his love to be. He understands that now, only now, years too late— they aren’t memories of people; they’re memories of feelings. Feelings that still make him shudder when he thinks of the mere concept of them.

And those are never static. Always immortal, in all the right ways.

Infinite, imperfect.

I stayed up all night,’ and this time he’s almost shouting, which the song asks for. It kicks up, and he goes higher, harder, heaving against the microphone as his shoulders shake. ‘I stayed up all night.’ The force of Hoseok’s drums, Yoongi’s fingers as nimble over the keys as Seokjin’s are over the strings, all of them focused to keep up with Taehyung’s designer breakdown. The room thrums with the roar of it, the rawest that music can possibly get, when it’s not about the words anymore but the sound they make when they leave someone’s lips.

When it ends, and it ends suddenly as the song always does, he’s flung into a vacuum for a split-second. He doesn’t coordinate it well, stands there blinking in shock, before he lets go of the microphone and walks away from it.

Then he thinks about the year he passed being unable to communicate with the world. Then he thinks about trying to write, and failing, and trying again, and failing again. Then he thinks about the summer breeze of Busan and how he said fuck it to a thousand people.

Then he thinks about Jeongguk’s laugh, the real one, and loses his mind entirely. Groans in frustration and grabs at his hair, kicks a padded wall with all the force he can, curses loud. And suddenly there are tears, and one stupid, stupid question.

‘Guys,’ he says, then doesn’t continue. Is this the real deal?

‘Go home, Taehyung,’ Hoseok replies. ‘Go home and sleep.’  

 

◀︎

 

He does go home, but he doesn’t sleep. Not right away. He strips down to his boxers and turns the heating a little low, and before lying down, he sits on the side of the bed and stares at his nightstand.

The sea salt candle he bought months ago is still unused. And Taehyung’s always loved the tortured artist cliché, so when he lights it up and the scent hits him along with the memory of Jeongguk’s unplaceable cologne, he doesn’t even mind that his heart climbs up to his throat.

Then he lies flat on his back and stares at the ceiling, and is asleep before he knows it.

 

◀︎

 

When he wakes up, it’s dark outside. That doesn’t mean a lot in November, so he checks the time and sees that it’s been a good five, six hours.

Then he opens the global clock and checks another time, before swiping it closed and opening up the keypad.

‘Fuck,’ he whispers as he hears some woman speak French that he doesn’t understand but assumes is an automatic responder. It gives him enough time to realise why following your instinct when you haven’t even woken up yet is not the best idea in the world. But by the time he cuts the call, Dahyun’s already seen it and is calling him back three seconds later.

‘You’d better be dying,’ she says, and Taehyung laughs, sinks back into his pillows. ‘Because I’m at the Sunday market and you know I take that shit seriously.’

‘No,’ Taehyung says. ‘Just, sorry, carry on. I know I never call out of the blue—’

‘Are you kidding? All you ever do is call out of the blue. Tell me what’s up.’

He turns on his side and looks at the candle he probably shouldn’t have left burning. It’s only a third through, little flame burning steadily. His head feels heavy, so he closes his eyes.

‘I am kind of dying,’ he says, and hears Dahyun snort even over the sound of what must be five hundred screaming children. ‘I mean, you know, artistic death and shit. Just. My brain is all over the place.’

‘Talk to me. Who hurt my baby Van Gogh?’

‘I did it myself.’ It sounds so stupid to say it out loud like that, so unnecessarily dramatic, but he gets a lump in his throat again, swallows against it. ‘I’m sorry I yelled at the whole world when you left me.’

‘Don’t be, it’s a great conversation starter. Hey, so I’m the one that Kim Taehyung wrote All Night about. No, I’m a nice person, promise.’

‘Shut up. I just…it wasn’t for you. I mean, it was, but it was just, it was. I just— that’s not you, okay?’

‘Oh, I’ve always known that.’ In the background, faint street music. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘Wait.’ Taehyung sits up at that, squints when it makes his head spin. ‘What do you mean, you’ve always known?’

‘I don’t know, Taetae,’ she says, so casual as if she isn’t about to splash Taehyung in the face with ice-cold water. ‘I think that one thing was clear to me throughout? I was the catalyst, sure, and you loved me something fierce. But it was still yours, you know? You did it all. The fuel might come from outside but the magic is yours. You take it where you go.’

Your whole thing is about capturing someone and putting them into song perfectly, so that you can move forward and keep them in your pocket.

‘Oh,’ is all he says in response.

‘No, no,’ Dahyun says, alert suddenly. ‘I know that sound very well. Whatever it is that you want to run off and do right away, promise me you’ll sleep on it first.’ 

‘All I’ve been doing is sleeping,’ Taehyung says, laughs a little wildly.

 

◀︎

 

Life isn’t one of Bogum’s movies. He doesn’t quite manage to go back to sleep but he doesn’t go anywhere either, and anyway, he has no idea yet of what he wants to say to Jeongguk. Paces around in his room, sits on the floor against a wall, lies in his bed, leans against the balcony door, lather, rinse, repeat. Around midnight when the sound of faraway traffic changes its rhythm, he goes and fixes himself something to eat. Falls asleep again, waking up every two hours with his own heartbeat hammering in his ears.

 

◀︎

 

Then, at six in the morning, he sends a text.

 

◀︎

 

Unknown [06:01]
you’re. what
on campus??? my campus??

 

◀︎

 

It’s been three days since he last saw Jeongguk, but so much has changed— or rather, he’s understood so much— that it’s like he’s looking…not at a different person, but differently. It’s probably also because it’s six in the fucking morning and Jeongguk is still in his pyjamas, with a jacket thrown on, a beanie against the light drizzle. He strides up to Taehyung’s car, looking ridiculous in the yellow streetlights, some kind of furious snowman marching to beat the crap out of Taehyung. (All right, he definitely didn’t sleep well. Definitely.)

The door’s already unlocked; Jeongguk settles in quickly and slams it shut, shrugs out of his jacket and throws it in the back.

‘You’re lucky it’s a Sunday,’ he says, and fuck, his voice is still hoarse from sleep. ‘If a single person had seen you— what are you even doing here.’

‘I want,’ Taehyung says, ‘to see your campus. Show me around.’

Jeongguk looks at him, hard, silently. Again, as always, Taehyung can’t imagine what he must be thinking— but for once, he doesn’t try. Just admires the curve of Jeongguk’s lashes, the curl of his messy bedhead, the soft, clumsy fade of the not-yet-morning shadows over his face. He looks young. Unprofessional. Off-duty.

Then: ‘Fine,’ he says. ‘Take a left.’

 

◀︎

 

Taehyung’s never been to university, but he’s always imagined it full of life, laughter, love. A place for a different kind of youth, the majority, who didn’t just say fuck it and pick up a guitar as their only way forward. Seeing it empty like this (except for the occasional drunk partygoer) is a whole different experience, but he prefers it. This way he can focus on what Jeongguk’s telling him.

And Jeongguk tells him so many things, more than he’s ever said before. Points out and explains the purpose of everything they see, there’s the swimming facility, that one’s the library but not really, it’s only got one room and the rest are archives. Which of his madcap friends (Taehyung doesn’t know about anyone but he snatches up every name he hears; Yugyeom, Minghao, Seulgi) threw up against the administration building and then immediately posed with a peace sign for Snapchat. He breaks off into laughter sometimes, lots of you had to be there accounts, other times pauses in adorable concentration, trying to remember what exam they once had in some hall that they weren’t supposed to be in.

Taehyung listens to it all, laughs along, drives slow and careful, pulls his scarf up when someone crosses them. If he ends up getting mobbed for real, Mina will never let him out of the house again. But he doesn’t, and by the time they’ve finished the tour, it’s only seven and the sun has yet to show up. And— that’s the thing. They’re in the thick of winter, bundled up in his car, far from anything resembling Jeju— and he doesn’t care. He could write a song right now, he could write one tomorrow. He could even if Jeongguk said no, and he would’ve been able to, even if they’d never met. Jeju isn’t a phenomenon; that would make it external. Jeju’s a feeling, one that is not under his control but is his own anyway.

So Taehyung slows the car near the exit and doesn’t mind that the sun isn’t up yet. Only smiles when he looks at Jeongguk in question, smiles wider when Jeongguk just looks ahead in answer, and takes a turn that’ll lead them, eventually, to the studio.

 

◀︎

 

He smells coffee right when they enter, exceptionally strong. That means Yoongi’s probably in, holed up in his room far down the hall. Taehyung feels strangely comforted by the idea, takes a deep breath when he unlocks the door to his own.

Jeongguk steps in after him and closes the door carefully, leans against it as Taehyung takes off his jacket, his scarf, his gloves. Dumps them on the couch and stands for a second, hands on his hips, blanking out.

Then he looks at Jeongguk and says, ‘Do you want to learn the chords to the streetheart song?’

Jeongguk blinks at him for a second, then laughs, brings a hand up to his mouth. ‘Sure. Yeah, sure. Fine.’

He picks out his newest acoustic that he bought last spring, and sits on the couch, pats the place next to him. Jeongguk hesitates for a second before coming to settle down beside him, and takes the guitar as gingerly from Taehyung as if it were made of glass.

‘Just so you know, I’ve never done this before.’

‘I know,’ Taehyung says. ‘I remember.’

It doesn’t really come as a surprise to either of them when Jeongguk shifts so that his back’s to Taehyung, and Taehyung shifts to move his arms around Jeongguk’s. His skin is warm, muscles so firm under his thin T-shirt, shoulders tense, pulse wild in his throat. Taehyung can feel it all, wonders what Jeongguk’s eyes look like right now in the dim red and gold of Taehyung’s sacred space, then closes his own. Fits his chin over Jeongguk’s shoulder and tightens his grip around his novice hands, the closest they’ve ever, ever been.

Fuck it, here’s What Happened To Us.

‘This is surreal,’ Jeongguk laughs when Taehyung slowly makes his way through the chords (at one point, Jeongguk just gives up and leans back into him, lets him take over). ‘I remember where I was when I listened to this song for the first time. This is ridiculous.’

‘I’m a musician,’ Taehyung says, then, his first real words of the morning. ‘I will never stop being a musician, and you need to know that. You have your way of loving my music, I have my way of loving the world. And you. Loving you. I don’t know any other way to do it.’

There’s silence for a while, just the quiet notes of the guitar, their synced breathing. He continues.

‘But,’ he says, ‘I tried too hard to— drag you into that world. Gave you a place and a pedestal and expected you to keep up. Fuck, I hadn’t even seen your campus until today—’

‘That’s on me,’ Jeongguk interrupts, tenses, and Taehyung loosens his grip, moves the guitar out of the way so that Jeongguk can face him. His cheeks are flushed, lips bitten raw already. ‘I— I told you. I didn’t want to…and then I told myself, if I don’t say anything, maybe you’ll come back for more.’

Taehyung really wants to laugh at that, the splendid irony of their twisted logic being the same all this time. They really are young and stupid, really, really.

‘I didn’t want to be just your muse,’ Jeongguk goes on. ‘I don’t. I don’t want to be something that easily moved on from. Because the truth is, Taehyung, that you’re one hell of a musician. You don’t need muses, you just need to decide they exist. The rest of it is you. And if you call me your muse, one day you won’t want me anymore.’

He swallows.

‘And I don’t want that,’ he says. ‘I want you. All of you. Today, tomorrow, the day after.’

 

◀︎

 

He understands, then, sitting across from Jeongguk in his pyjamas; finally. He understands that it’s not about any one thing. It’s about him, and how he reacts to each and every thing around him. Just because he reacted stronger than usual to one thing, doesn’t mean he’s not capable of reacting like that to the rest of the world.

He doesn’t need to see the magic in everything. He’s the one who puts magic into it; it doesn’t lie in what’s outside of him, but in his own regard. The real deal, every day I fall in love.

 

◀︎

 

Taehyung bends down to carefully lay the guitar on the carpet. Then he straightens up, puts his hands on Jeongguk’s face, and kisses him.

 

◀︎

 

What happened to us

what is this that happened to us?

 

◀︎

 

‘And then we banged in the studio,’ he finishes triumphantly. The triumph, unfortunately, lasts all of three seconds, before Jeongguk, as he does every single time they tell this story, corrects him.

‘We almost banged in the studio,’ he says, and Jimin ooh’s in understanding before going back to pouring out Taehyung’s magic cocktail. ‘But he didn’t have, uh, supplies, as it were.’

‘Hey,’ Taehyung says, pointing to Jeongguk with his eyebrows raised. ‘Be honoured. I’ve never almost-banged anyone in the studio before, that’s why there’s nothing in there.’

Jimin, suddenly, isn’t listening to them anymore. He’s frowning at Yoongi, who seems to be trying to shove a stirrer into his right ear.

‘What are you doing,’ Jimin says flatly.

‘I am attempting,’ Yoongi says, ‘to see if this stick just goes plain through one ear and out the other, considering that I have heard this story enough times for it to bore a hole in my head.’

Seokjin snorts without looking up from his phone, holds his hand up for a high-five that Yoongi lazily completes. Jeongguk’s laughing, too, patting Taehyung sympathetically on the shoulder. Taehyung shrugs his hand off and glares at him, and Jeongguk merely grins back, that obnoxious glint to his eyes.

The sun is just setting, and the light it casts on Jeongguk’s face is too much for Taehyung to handle. Behind him, Jimmy’s neon sign is slowly flickering on, some good fucking music finally starting up. Jeongguk isn't working here this year; the tourism department snatched him up to be a full-time trail guide. (Taehyung, in the six months’ warning he’s had before the start of summer, absolutely didn’t train for the trail and has consequently been put on a punishment workout program. He loathes himself every morning.)

‘One day you’ll all fall in love and realise,’ he says grandly. ‘Especially you, Jimin. Your cynical ass— Jimin. Listen to me. Jimin. Are you listening.’

Jimin, in fact, is not listening, again. And this time he isn’t frowning, either. In fact, on his face is a terrifyingly neutral expression, one that can only mean utter fury or utter shock, and Taehyung isn’t sure which one is better. He follows the trail of Jimin’s gaze and turns around, and swallows a shriek of laughter as he sees what it is.

He doesn’t know when Mina and Seokjin managed to convince Hoseok to finally ditch the red, but whether it was a slow process or a literal kidnapping event, around last week, things changed. Drastically. And he has to admit that the sight of Hoseok walking in the way he is, is bound to be upsetting. Hair shorter, darker now; translucent white shirt exposing his array of chest tattoos, gym rat legs falling golden on the sand. He’s still got his shades on, takes them off just as he gets closer to the bar.

Taehyung turns back to Jimin, practically bubbling over with sadistic glee and not making much of an attempt to control it anymore.

‘Why is his hair black,’ Jimin says, to no one in particular. Then, without waiting for a possible answer, he puts away the Sprite and pulls out the rum, and pours himself three shots. 'Tell Namjoon I love him.'

‘I love everything,’ Taehyung says to Jeongguk, who is also not listening.

‘Shut up,’ he says to Taehyung. ‘Do you realise what this means. I can get him to drink like, five whole Angry Dog’s. Park Jimin is going down tonight.’

‘Mina will be thoroughly disappointed in you,’ Seokjin calls from the other end of the bar, where he’s still discreetly sipping at his martini, in a fucking suit. Taehyung gets it, he’s going to ditch to cigar nation for prince-of-the-month in five, but still. A minimum of respect for the beach, come on. ‘However, I will buy you a bike if you get me a video of Jimin screaming.’

‘Deal,’ Jeongguk says, just as Hoseok actually reaches the bar and leans over it, smirks at Jimin as if he’s completely aware of everything. Taehyung rolls his eyes and climbs off his chair, leaves his slippers in the sand and bounds over to the shore. The waves are still tame; the water lukewarm.

Before long he feels a presence beside him, and reaches out to take Jeongguk’s hand automatically. Jeongguk, for his part, yanks Taehyung close without ceremony and presses their lips together.

(Seven months, and he’s yet to get used to it, actually. Yet to get used to waking up beside Jeongguk, actually knowing what he likes for breakfast, what time he has class. They didn’t so much start off in the wrong order as they did a few loops. Loving Jeongguk came before knowing the details of his life; knowing the details, now, he can love him better. It’s all compensated.)

‘Having a good day?’ Taehyung says against his lips, smiles when Jeongguk kisses him again. ‘You must be. You forgot to be annoying.’

‘Hey, it’s a lifestyle, not a performance,’ Jeongguk says. ‘I’m always annoying, you just don’t know when I’ll show it.’

‘Fair enough, fair enough.’ They pull apart to the sounds of Yoongi doing that crow laugh of his, and Hoseok yelling something indignantly. The music’s loud now, reaching them all the way here, some dance number, something beautiful like the sun going down, an end and a beginning at the same time. Taehyung closes his eyes and takes it in, the last warmth of the day, the waves washing over his feet, the scent of Jeongguk’s cologne.

‘Seokjin called me the other day,’ Jeongguk says. ‘Finally putting it out?’

Taehyung smiles, eyes still closed. It’s the longest he’s ever hesitated over a single, but he likes the full-circle of it. Wrote it here last year, release it here this year. A place to come back to. Looping forever, infinite.

‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Should’ve told you myself.’

‘I knew it was coming. Know you more than you think, streetheart.’

‘Shut up.’ Taehyung laughs, turns around, loops an arm around Jeongguk’s neck, brushes his unruly hair off his forehead. ‘And stop calling me that. You picked it up, didn’t you? Off the streets.’

Jeongguk pulls a face at the joke and groans exaggeratedly, but it turns into a smile before he can help it, and he pushes Taehyung away, walking away to the bar.

‘Hey, come back,’ Taehyung calls after him, voice high with giddy laughter. ‘Come on, promise, no more jokes!’

Jeongguk raises an arm high without turning around, flips him the bird, and Taehyung laughs harder. Turns around to look at the sea one more time before he'll follow after him, to where the others are, singing, celebrating.

So maybe he didn’t, not really. Maybe Taehyung’s the one who walked the streets on his own and stumbled upon it, on fire from an unattended fuse. But he picked it up and now it’s in his hands, the core of the magic inside him. And he’s definitely not letting go of it again.

Definitely.

Shaking his head, Taehyung lets out one wild cheer at the world, then turns around and starts to walk back.