There are two universal truths:
The first is that the only people that truly know how fucking awful swimming is are the ones that love it the most.
The second, similarly, is that nobody loves to complain about swimming more than the swimmers themselves.
At least, that’s what Jeon Jeongguk has noticed. He’s pretty sure it’s spot on, though, because he’s been swimming for the last twelve years of his life and all anyone ever talks about is how hungry they are and about how much they hate swimming and want to quit. Well, the freshmen don’t, but they’re new and haven’t had their spirits broken by the coach’s famous pyramid set.
“I want to quit,” Bambam announces as he enters the locker room. “I’m actually just going to walk about of this place and never touch a pool again.”
“You say that every time,” Jeongguk reminds him as he throws his gym bag down on the bench, kicking off his shoes. “You still have to follow through.”
Bambam huffs, fiddling with the combination lock on his locker. “It’s how I really feel, though. Especially today.”
A pit of dread opens up in Jeongguk’s stomach and he freezes as he’s about to take off his shirt. “Why?” He asks suspiciously. “Did Coach Choi already give you the set?”
“No,” Bambam says, and something in Jeongguk marginally relaxes, “but I just get this feeling, y’know? We had a recovery day last week and none of the freshmen have cried yet.”
“You’re not making me feel any better about today,” Jeongguk groans. “I hate Mondays, and I’m totally fucked because I skipped the captain’s practice yesterday.”
“Well, you’re the one who ate that expired Thai food on Saturday night,” Bambam says. “So I don’t feel bad for you at all. Though, if you vomit in the pool we won’t have to—”
“Are we planning to sabotage practice?” Seokjin asks, coming around the corner and rubbing his hands together. “Because I’m down.”
“Me too,” Chanyeol adds, whacking Seokjin hard on the back with his swim cap. “I looked at today’s set, and it’s going to be—”
“No, don’t,” Seokjin cuts him off, waving his hands. “I’ll cry if I hear it. I don’t want to swim today. My hair is already dead.”
“Besides, we can’t sabotage it if you’re involved,” Bambam points out. “You guys are the captains.”
“Doesn’t mean I love swimming,” Seokjin mutters, reaching around to rub his back. “Ouch, Chanyeol, that really hurt.”
Chanyeol hits Seokjin again, and Seokjin looks like he’s about to throw a punch when one of the freshmen come around the corners, jittery with excitement and ready to go. Seokjin drops his hands guiltily and switches on his smile, patting the freshman on the back.
“Hi, hyungs,” the kid says tentatively. Jeongguk can’t remember his name—there are four new freshman this year and he’s taken to calling numbers in his head. This one, he thinks, is Freshman Number Two. “Are you going out soon?”
“We still have to change,” Bambam says, gesturing to him and Jeongguk. Number Two looks a little sad, and Seokjin, because he’s got a weak spot for the freshman, tells him that he’s on his way.
Two looks thrilled, and possibly a little starstruck, at being directly acknowledged by their captain. Honestly, Jeongguk can understand; he’d been the same way when he was a freshman, learning that he was going to be on the same team as the guy who held the national record for the 100 yard fly. Jeongguk had been even more awestruck when he found out that Seokjin was funny and nice, good at swimming and a lot of other things, like boxing and cooking.
Jeongguk later realized that Kim Seokjin was also apparently fantastic at triggering sexuality crises. And that’s the story of how Jeongguk realized that he was gay and a little in love with him.
Chanyeol and Bambam snicker at the red welt on Seokjin’s back as he walks with Two, who’s enthusiastically talking about kick sets and how he’s been working on the third lap of his 200, aren’t you proud?
Bambam’s face wrinkles as he watches Two and Seokjin disappear behind the door. “That kid’s already sort of kicking my ass, and he apparently started swimming in high school.”
Jeongguk snorts, sorting through his locker to find his suit. “Maybe it’s just ‘cause you suck.”
“All of the freshman are kicking our asses,” Chanyeol says, crossing his arms. “Didn’t you see the girls’ team? There’s that one short kid who broke the mile record during the first meet.”
Bambam shudders. “God. They’re scary. Are we in drag again today?”
“I don’t even know why you’d ask that. If we were in drag yesterday, we’re in drag today,” Chanyeol says.
“Shit, I left mine in my dorm,” Jeongguk groans. “Which means I have to wear—”
“The drag suit of shame,” Bambam snickers, digging around in his locker and pulling it out. “Here you go, Guk-ah.”
“Oh my fucking god, not that thing,” Johnny complains as he walks by, stopping dead as Jeongguk pulls his suit on and shoves his clothes in his locker. “I actually get distracted every time I see it.”
“It says ‘hardcore’ on the ass,” Chanyeol remarks as Jeongguk puts it on. “So at least we know you’re taking practice seriously. Or not, because you hate it.”
“You hate it too. That’s why you’re still standing in here even though you’re the captain,” Jeongguk snarks back, unable to help himself. Chanyeol, despite being over six feet and ripped beyond hell, is actually really easy to tease, kind of like a defenseless puppy.
“Fair,” Chanyeol yields while Johnny cracks up behind them.
The locker room door slams open and they all startle. It’s Shiwoo, a junior, and the only freshman whose name Jeongguk can remember, Minjae. The only reason why Jeongguk knows his name is because they’re always in the same events, and with every meet Minjae gets closer and closer to beating him. It annoys Jeongguk, if he’s being honest. For his whole swim career, he’s always been The Sprinter. In terms of the 50 and 100 free, he was unrivaled, and not even the record-breaking seniors on any team could touch his times. Then in walked Minjae, new to Korea and new to university, and now it’s only a matter of time before Jeongguk really has to fight to stay ahead.
However, whatever grudge he holds against the kid immediately dissipates when he grins at Jeongguk and calls him hyung with what Jeongguk swears is adoration.
(Bambam tells Jeongguk it’s just Minjae plotting to take him down, but Bambam’s a liar and constantly out to make Jeongguk’s life harder. It’s partially the reason he gets along so well with Park Jimin, who’s also an untrustworthy bastard).
Most of the team is already on deck, which means Jeongguk can’t make a break for the pool in hopes that nobody will see his god-awful drag suit. Instead, everyone gets the full impact of it and it sends a wave of snickering through the team. Jeongguk fights his natural instinct to curl up and hide, instead opting to glare at as many people as he can.
Minjae comes up to them, smiling tentatively. Johnny says something to him in English—probably to show off—and Bambam rolls his eyes, turning to Jeongguk. “Let’s go look at the set. Can we be in lane three today, too? I don’t feel like going fast.”
“Minjae’s gonna be in lane three,” Jeongguk tells Bambam. “So I at least need to be in lane two. Maybe even one.”
Bambam pales. “Lane one? All for the sake of your superiority complex?”
“I do not have—” Jeongguk starts hotly.
“Oh hi, Minjae,” Bambam says cheerfully, and Jeongguk whirls around so fast he almost slips into the pool. “Guk and I were gonna swim in lane three today. Do you want to join?”
Minjae’s face goes a little pink. “Really?”
Jeongguk shoots Bambam a murderous glare over Minjae’s shoulder.
“Sure,” Bambam shrugs. He squints down at the set, which has already been stuck to a kickboard. “It’s all IM today, anyway. Neither of us are very good at that.”
“Chanyeol-hyung will be thrilled,” Jeongguk mutters. “He lives for IM.”
“He has the record in the 400, right?” Minjae asks, and when both Bambam and Jeongguk nod, his eyes go wide. “Wow. I could never swim that. That’s the hardest event in the whole meet.”
“Well, he’s a bit of a masochist,” Bambam says conversationally. “I think he likes feeling like he’s dying.”
“Boys,” their coach suddenly booms, “why are we just standing around?”
All of Jeongguk’s hair stands on edge as Coach Choi comes out of her office. She doesn’t look particularly threatening—she’s about a head shorter than Jeongguk, and she’s wearing tie-dye and blue glittery Crocs—but she commands every room that she steps into despite it. Her reputation precedes her, too, and Jeongguk can remember coming in as a freshmen, already quaking at the thought of having to meet Choi Eunji.
“The set isn’t going to swim itself,” she reminds them, crossing her arms. “Everyone’s in the water in thirty seconds or I’m doubling the yardage on tomorrow’s set.”
“Shit,” Bambam hisses, holding his cap out to Jeongguk. “Quick, cap me. I don’t want to do double yardage tomorrow—we’re sneaking out to see a movie with Jimin, remember?”
“Fuck, you’re right,” Jeongguk replies, grabbing the other end of Bambam’s cap and pulling it over his hair.
Minjae hesitates at the edge of their lane as Jiho, a senior, jumps into the pool, swearing loudly as he puts his goggles on. “Motherfucking—holy shit, it’s cold— hey, Jeongguk-ah, what’s the warm-up?”
“Uh, 200 SKIPS,” Jeongguk says, scanning the paper.
“Ooh, nice,” Jiho says.
“And then it’s IM.”
Jiho winces. “Less nice.” He takes a breath and pushes off the wall. Mingyu and Jaehyun, two other sophomores, hop in after him, followed by Bambam, who hisses as he ducks underwater. “It’s cold,” he warns Jeongguk. “Goddamn.”
“Ten seconds,” their coach says. “Johnny, don’t pull that bullshit with your cap to try to get out of the warm-up.”
Johnny, who’d been attempting to purposefully rip his cap, freezes in place and gives Coach Choi a guilty smile.
“And you two,” she says to Jeongguk and Minjae, “if you’re not in the water by the time Jiho gets back down here, you’re in a lot of trouble.”
Jeongguk doesn’t need to be told twice. He jumps in, feet stinging as he bounces off the bottom of the pool and pushes off before he can register the cold. He can feel Minjae splash in behind him but ignores it, relishing the way the way his muscles stretch painfully as starts to swim. He pushes hard through the first 50, and, as soon as he gets his breath back and the water starts to warm around him, he slows down so he stops swallowing the wake from Bambam’s kick.
They finish warm-up and Coach then puts them through the main set, which is a brutal combination of 400 IMs, 25 kicks and then four 100s of each stroke. While a part of him bristles every time Minjae touches the wall behind him, way too close, he’s really glad he’s in lane three and not lane one, because Two, who’d tried to impress their captains, has to climb out halfway through to go retch into the garbage can.
To say he’s exhausted at the end is an understatement. His whole body is worn-out to the point where he’s closing his eyes during cool-down and hoping he doesn’t crash into anyone. He has to use the ladder to get out of the pool, because he has no strength left in his arms.
Everyone wobbles into the locker room, complaining about muscles and burning lungs and hunger.
“I’m almost too tired to go get dinner,” Jeongguk says as he dries his hair off.
Bambam looks despairingly at his skinny jeans. “I can’t believe I have to put these back on.”
“Just wear your dryland shorts,” Jeongguk suggests.
“But it’s winter, ” Bambam whines. “I’ll freeze.”
“I’m not giving you my sweatpants,” Jeongguk says, pulling his shirt and hoodie over his head as one.
“I’ll buy you food,” Bambam tempts.
Jeongguk hesitates. “I’m already wearing them.”
“Fine,” Bambam huffs, grabbing his gym shorts out of his locker. “Well, when I freeze and die it’s your fault.”
Jeongguk shrugs. He feels a little bad about it, especially when Bambam’s teeth chatter as they shuffle across campus towards the dining hall, but his hair is frozen so he’s glad for whatever warmth he can get.
The dining hall is pretty full when they get there, but Jimin’s already at a table and he’s got a couple seats saved, so Jeongguk and Bambam join the line without any hurry.
“I want french fries,” Jeongguk says, standing on his tiptoes so he can see the counter. “Yes, they’ve got one left. They’re normally all gone by now.”
“Hey, who’s that guy with Jimin?” Bambam asks, elbowing Jeongguk so hard he stumbles into the guy in front of him.
“Whoa,” the guy in front of him starts, turning around.
“Sorry,” Jeongguk says apologetically, bowing his head a little.
“Oh,” the guy says, expression freezing and smile dropping instantly. “It’s you.”
Jeongguk blinks at him for a second. “What? Have we met?”
The guy snorts derisively. “Of course you wouldn’t remember, either.”
“Dude, I’ve literally never seen you in my life,” Jeongguk says, even as the guy’s face registers in his mind, though he’s still unable to place exactly where.
“I try not to stereotype,” he scoffs, “but you’re the exact douche-athlete combo I try to avoid.”
Jeongguk is almost too tired to fight back. Key word being almost.
“And you can tell that from a ten-second conversation?” Jeongguk asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Try an hour and a half,” he says. “Don’t strain yourself trying to remember, though.”
“Hey, what’s your problem?” Bambam jumps in, grabbing Jeongguk’s arm before he can do anything stupid and get himself kicked off the swim team. “Chill, okay?”
“Next,” the attendant at the register says.
The guy’s face smooths over in an instant, expression unbothered despite the disgust in his eyes. “Hi,” he says to the attendant, “can I have those french fries?”
“Four thousand won,” she replies, and the guy swipes his card and accepts the fries.
“Thanks,” he says. Then he turns, meets Jeongguk’s eyes, and dumps the french fries into the trash can next to the register.
“Bro,” Bambam says, half-impressed and half-upset.
Jeongguk can’t even find words to say. Something inside him boils angrily, rolling around in his chest. His palms tingle and he has a sudden, irrational desire to grab the guy by his neck and strangle him, or maybe shove him into the trash too.
“Have a nice day, Jeon Jeongguk,” he says, and then walks out of the dining hall.
Bambam turns to Jeongguk, mouth wide open. “What the actual fuck,” he says. “Did that just happen?”
Jeongguk stares at the spot where the guy had just been. “I didn’t think it was possible for me to actually hate someone,” he starts, “but after that, I think I might.”
“Ooh, like an archrival,” Bambam says, rubbing his hands together. “Or a nemesis.”
Jeongguk nods, searing that face into his memory. The angry thing in his chest bubbles, finally glad to have a purpose. “I’m going to kick that guy’s ass.”
“Yeah!” Bambam cheers. “He’ll regret ever meeting you. And he’ll especially regret throwing those french fries away.” He hesitates. “Do you even know his name?”
“No,” Jeongguk says, glowering, “but I’ll find it, don’t you worry.”
“Those are my fries,” Jimin says, but doesn’t try to stop Jeongguk from eating them. “And I think you’re being dramatic.”
Jeongguk shoves another fry into his mouth. “He dumped all of them into the trash can, Jimin.”
“Jimin- hyung,” Jimin reminds him.
“Yeah, but you’re an asshole,” Jeongguk shoots back. “I’ll call you hyung when you’re nice to me.”
“You’re such a fucking brat,” Jimin says, scowling. “I provide quality emotional support—”
“— and I give you my fries, but you still act like an ungrateful shithead.” Jimin reaches for a fry, only to find that Jeongguk’s eaten them all and has moved on to devouring his massive serving of fish and rice.
Jimin’s friend, who’d gone to the bathroom, suddenly reappears. He’s probably a dancer like Jimin, if his legs are any indication. He’s also extremely fucking hot, and if Jeongguk wasn’t thinking up ways to get away with murder, he’d definitely feel a lot more nervous.
“Oh yeah,” Jimin says, gesturing, “this is Kim Yugyeom. He just transferred into the dance program here.”
Bambam turns around, sees Yugyeom, and chokes. He drops his chopsticks with a loud clatter, spitting his food back onto his plate so he can breathe. Jeongguk, mouth full, reaches over to pound him on the back.
Jimin rolls his eyes, looking vaguely disgusted. “Yugyeom, these are Bambam and Jeongguk, my two best friends. They’re swimmers, so they think they’re allowed to be gross and eat all of my food.”
Bambam, eyes watering and face bright red, blinks at Yugyeom for a second.
“Nice to meet you,” Yugyeom says cautiously.
Bambam makes a strangled noise and continues to stare until Jeongguk drops an ice cube down his shirt.
“What the fuck,” Bambam shouts, wiggling. Jimin bursts into laughter and Jeongguk joins as best he can, because he’s so tired it physically hurts to do everything. “Hey, asshole, I’m wearing shorts, remember? I’m already freezing!”
“I have an extra pair of sweatpants, if you’d like,” Yugyeom offers.
“No, it’s okay,” Bambam says immediately, ignoring both Jeongguk and Jimin as they laugh even harder. Jimin’s eyes are squeezed shut, and Jeongguk’s crying a little at the pain, but Bambam’s face is so red and he looks like he’s going to implode if Yugyeom looks at him for a second longer.
Disaster gays, Jimin mouths at Jeongguk, who snorts.
“Really,” Yugyeom says, a little more insistently. “You should take them. I can see your goosebumps.”
“Okay,” Bambam relents, sighing. Yugyeom smiles winningly and begins to dig through his gym bag.
As Bambam mutters his thanks and pulls them on over his shorts, Jeongguk goes back to fuming about the french fries.
“I didn’t even catch his name,” Jeongguk mutters. “Now I’ll probably never see him again, and I’ll be eighty-five without ever getting revenge on my nemesis.”
“What’d he look like?” Yugyeom asks. “Maybe Jimin or I know him.”
“Uh,” Jeongguk says, closing one eye and trying to remember. “He had light hair. Not blonde, like Jimin, but it was dyed.”
“Helpful,” Jimin says, rolling his eyes. “What else?”
“Lots of ear piercings,” Bambam adds. “Like, three on each ear.”
“He’s skinny, too. Dressed kind of like a fashionable homeless man?” Jeongguk continues. Jimin frowns, clearly thinking hard.
“Does he kind of look like that one guy Jimin’s sleeping with?” Yugyeom asks.
“Yoongi-hyung?” Jimin asks. “He dresses like flat-out homeless man. There’s no fashion there.”
“I know what Yoongi looks like,” Jeongguk says. “It wasn’t him.”
“You’re literally giving me nothing to go on,” Jimin tells him.
“Does he look like he uses vintage cameras and lives off of vodka and cranberry juice?” Yugyeom asks.
Jeongguk’s about to say no, stops, thinks about it, then decides that despite how oddly specific it is, Yugyeom’s pretty spot on.
“Yeah,” he says. “Actually.”
“Kim Taehyung,” Yugyeom says, snapping his fingers. “I bet it was him.”
“Aww, Taehyungie?” Jimin says, clapping his hands together. “How can you hate him? He’s so sweet!”
“He dumped fries—” Jeongguk starts bitterly.
“In the trash can, yes, we know,” Jimin finishes, waving Jeongguk aside. “He’s kind of hard to read, and he’s kinda…out there, but he’s super nice. And really smart, too!”
“He’s also Jeongguk’s nemesis,” Bambam adds.
Jimin gives Bambam an exasperated look. “You’re not helping.” He turns back to Jeongguk, rolling his eyes. “Can’t you just let it go, Jeonggukkie?”
“No,” Jeongguk says stubbornly.
“Great,” Jimin mutters. “Well, I’ll warn Taehyung and tell him I tried to stop you.”
“It’s not my fault he decided to pick a fight with the wrong guy,” Jeongguk says darkly. “I’ll get revenge one day soon.”
“Sounds fun,” Bambam says, yawning and wincing as he stretches his arms above his head. “But can we do it later? I need to cover myself in IcyHot and sleep for twelve hours before I think about vengeance.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, “good idea.” Now that he’s full, exhaustion has hit him like a brick. His whole body protests at the idea of moving, but at the same time, his muscles scream for his bed.
“Aw, stay a little longer,” Jimin begs. “It’s only six-fifteen, and you don’t have a stupid required team dinner tonight.”
Bambam and Jeongguk exchange a look.
“Well, we did,” Bambam says sheepishly. “But you got so mad at us last time we didn’t eat with you, so we skipped. But we really shouldn’t miss the study hall, otherwise Chanyeol will be forced to kick our asses.”
“I always feel bad when he has to yell at people,” Jeongguk says. “He always looks like he’s about to cry.”
“So you have to go?” Jimin pouts, looking put-out. “I was gonna buy you dessert.”
“No you weren’t,” Jeongguk says, standing and shouldering his bag. “You were going to pick dessert out for me and then make me pay for it.”
Jimin shrugs, unabashed. “At least I’m consistent.”
“You’re an ass,” Jeongguk tells him.
“I love you,” Jimin replies, eyes curving into crescents as he smiles. “I’ll see you tomorrow night for the movie, ‘kay?”
“Yep,” Jeongguk says, and because he can’t help it, smiles back.
“Thanks for the pants, Yugyeom,” Bambam says. “I’ll wash them first otherwise they’ll smell like chlorine.”
Yugyeom nods. “It was nice to meet you both. See you later, hopefully?”
“Yeah,” Bambam says, and looks like he wants to say more—or maybe start drooling—but Jeongguk grabs his arm and hauls him out of the cafeteria, zipping up his coat against the freezing February air.
“I can’t believe Championships is just over a month away,” Bambam says as they jog towards their dorm, where they’d promised to meet Mingyu, Jaehyun and Chan for studying. “I’m kind of scared.”
Jeongguk bites his lip. “Me too. Mostly because I don’t want my events taken by Kim Minjae.”
“I can’t imagine how the seniors feel,” Bambam muses. “Like, Seokjin-hyung has the national record in butterfly, but for how much longer? And Jiho-hyung never gets put in anything besides the free relays nowadays.”
Something in Jeongguk’s stomach curdles at the thought of not being good enough. He’s worked his ass off for his whole goddamn life to get to this point, and still there’s a chance that he might not make it to his goal.
“Let’s not talk about this now,” Bambam says quickly, side-eyeing Jeongguk and reading everything on his face. “Did you do the Bio homework?”
Jeongguk groans, and decides he’ll feel insignificant later, when Bambam isn’t watching.
Study group isn’t so much studying as it is searching up answers and talking shit. They meet in Mingyu and Chan’s room and open their various textbooks and laptops…and that’s about the extent of their schoolwork.
Bambam gives the other sophomores a dramatic rendition of the French Fry Incident, as they’re now calling it, and Jaehyun cracks up a little as Bambam gets to the part where Kim Taehyung had looked Jeongguk dead in the eye as he’d ruined Jeongguk’s whole life. Or something.
“We’re enemies now,” Jeongguk declares as he scrolls through diagrams detailing dihybrid crosses.
“All because he took your fries?” Chan asks without looking up from his math homework.
“He took them on purpose,” Bambam clarifies. “He didn’t even eat them, just dumped them in the trash.”
Chan looks up at that. “He didn’t eat them? Not even one?”
Mingyu looks vaguely horrified. “But that’s perfectly good food!”
“Exactly,” Jeongguk says grimly. “So I have to get revenge on him. Luckily, Jimin and Yugyeom know him.”
“Who’s Yugyeom?” Jaehyun says through a mouthful of chips, spraying crumbs all over Mingyu’s phone.
“Jimin’s new dance friend,” Jeongguk says. “Bambam thinks he’s hot, apparently.”
“Is he?” Mingyu asks nonchalantly, and something in Jeongguk freezes over.
“Why would I know?” He says, a little too quickly. “It’s not like I’d notice…anything like that.”
Bambam gives him a look, a little exasperated. He’d come out to the whole swim team on day one of freshman year, had announced it like it was the easiest thing to say. And while Jeongguk trusts his friends, there’s still a small, potent part of him that fears their view of him might change, or that they’d somehow not be okay with him being gay, in particular. He’s not like Bambam, who’s colorful and wears eye makeup and skinny jeans and calls girls noona in a sing-song voice.
He’s just…Jeongguk. Tired, unfashionable, chlorine-scented, and also gay.
All of his friends are looking at him expectantly, and for a minute, Jeongguk’s terrified that they already know.
“That’s beside the point,” he babbles, awkwardly trying to make up for his fumble. “The point is that Bambam wants to get into his pants and it was hilarious to watch him mess up.”
“It wasn’t—I do not, ” Bambam snaps, but his face is bright red. Jaehyun cracks up again, and Jeongguk internally relaxes as the weird moment passes.
“Oh, you so do,” Mingyu cackles. “Also, Jaehyun, what the fuck, keep your fucking mouth shut.”
“You too, you gossiping ahjumma,” Jaehyun says as Mingyu brushes crumbs from his phone.
“Who remembers Euler’s method?” Chan asks suddenly, erasing something in his notebook.
There’s a short pause while everyone exchanges a blank look.
“Dude, your math’s got letters in it,” Mingyu says, shuddering. “I don’t fuck with demons like that. I’m an art major.”
Jaehyun snorts. “Yeah, and your parents are gonna disown you when they find out.”
Mingyu narrows his eyes. “And yours are gonna disown you when you don’t make Champs.”
“Pot, meet kettle,” Chan interrupts. “Neither of you are going to make Championships.”
“You’re not either,” Mingyu shoots back, and Chan nods.
“I know,” he says simply, and Mingyu’s mouth snaps shut—finally—as he’s unable to come up with something smart to reply with.
“Anyway, going back to revenge,” Chan continues, pushing his glasses up and putting his notebook aside, “how are you going to do it?”
“I don’t even know when I’ll see him again,” Jeongguk says, shrugging.
“There’s a party on Friday,” Mingyu says immediately, “at Park Ji-min’s house.”
“The girl?” Jaehyun asks.
“Yes,” Mingyu says. “Now don’t interrupt. She’s having a party on Friday, and if this Kim Taehyung is friends with both Jimin and Yugyeom, then he’ll definitely be there. Especially because Ji-min has vodka, and everyone loves vodka.”
Jeongguk fidgets at the word party. “I don’t know about a party. I, uh, don’t do well in that kinda situation.”
“Don’t be a coward,” Mingyu says jokingly, clapping Jeongguk on the back. “Don’t you want revenge?”
Bambam studies Jeongguk’s face carefully as he tries to hide his discomfort, not wanting to be read so easily. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Jeongguk-ah.”
Chan looks at him, measured. “I mean, it is your choice.”
“But you should,” Jaehyun says.
“Yeah,” Mingyu adds. “Whoop his ass.”
Jeongguk swallows and wipes his sweaty hands on his pants. “Alright,” he says, like he hadn’t been planning on going from the beginning—because what choice did he have in the first place, really—and nods. “I’ll go.”
The rest of the week drags by painfully. Each day is more of the same: he and Bambam wake up at five in the morning, pull hoodies and coats on over their pajamas, and shuffle-run across campus towards the athletic center to make it in the water by five-thirty. Two hours later they get out, change into semi-decent clothes—Jeongguk thinks they have an excuse to walk around in ratty sweatpants, wool socks, and slides all day because they wake up earlier than eighty percent of the campus—and go to class, where it’s nearly impossible not to fall asleep, especially after he’s eaten three bagels and downed four chocolate milks.
Jeongguk’s so tired that he falls asleep in the middle of getting ready to go to the movie with Jimin, so Bambam tucks him in and slips out their dorm window with practiced ease.
On Friday, the day of the party, Coach Choi offers them an ultimatum, because she’s crazy and likes to watch them suffer.
“Coach Wu’s wife went into labor today,” Coach Choi says, “so he won’t be here to help you with turn technique. So, I’m giving you guys a choice. Either you can do Monday’s lung buster set today and the kick set tomorrow, or you can do the kick set today and save the lung buster for Monday.”
“Kicking today,” Bambam immediately says. “Let’s get it over with.”
“Kick sets are way easier than any other set,” Mingyu argues back.
“Yeah, but you’re a good kicker, hyung,” Two chimes in.
“I say we do the harder one now,” Jung Shiwoo says. “I’m still numb from yesterday, so bring on the pain.”
Johnny groans. “Yeah, but I’m exhausted. I won’t make any of the intervals.”
The team quickly dissolves into side conversation as everyone forms an opinion. Coach Choi watches with thinly-veiled amusement, her lips pursed in a grin.
“How about this,” she finally says when they still haven’t reached a decision two minutes later. “If you guys give the lung buster your all, I’ll cut the pulling after and we can do relay starts.”
“Okay, yeah, that’s a pretty good deal,” Bambam says. “I’m down for that.”
“All in favor?” Seokjin says, and everyone but Mingyu raises their hand. “Okay, lung buster it is.”
They hop in the water after that, while Coach Choi prints out the new set so they can stick it onto kickboards. They rearrange lanes for the main set, which begins with pulling. Minjae gets out and grabs buoys and paddles for everyone. One 400 is all it takes to get Jeongguk breathing hard, and he has to really push himself to make the 1:10 interval for the 100 free sprint.
The set continues down after that, from 300 free with flippers and then three 100s on the 1:05, and then down to two 100s on the 1:00, and finally a 100 all-out for time, which Coach Choi carefully records in her phone.
“Minjae, you’re down a second from the last time,” she tells him, nodding proudly. “Keep that up and you’ll have no trouble qualifying for Championships.” She turns to Jeongguk. “Time?”
“Forty-eight flat,” he says, chest heaving. If he wasn’t so tired, he’d feel more smug for coming in half a second before Minjae did.
His coach lifts an eyebrow. “Good, Jeon. Keep it up and you’ll be dropping by Prelims.”
He smiles at her as she moves on to lane two. Bambam goes to hang on the lane line after Coach Choi gets his time, his whole chest and face bright red with exertion.
“I don’t know how I’ll get through this party,” Jeongguk says breathlessly. “I’m exhausted. I could go to sleep right here.”
“My arms are about to fall off,” Bambam groans. “Can’t we just skip?”
“Ooh,” Jiho says from behind them, “who wants to go underwater and listen to my shoulder crack?”
“I don’t think anyone—” Jeongguk starts, but Minjae dunks under and Jiho jerks his shoulder around next to his ear.
“Hyung, that’s not healthy,” Minjae says worriedly when they come up again.
“Yeah, I need surgery,” Jiho says, causal as can be. “But it hasn’t fallen off yet, so I’m good.”
“You know,” Bambam says as they climb out for relay starts, “most athletes would get that fixed, take a break, give their bodies a rest. But I’ve literally never seen a swimmer say, ‘oh, I’m going to see a doctor right away for the excruciating pain in my elbow.’”
“Kind of like Johnny-hyung,” Jeongguk says, nodding at the junior. “He’s got that KT tape on 24/7 because he can barely move without it.”
“What?” Johnny asks, looking up at his name.
“We were just talking about how you were broken,” Bambam replies conversationally.
“Oh, yeah,” Johnny says, patting the tape on his back with a smile. “My back’s totally fucked. I probably won’t be able to swim ever again as soon as I’m out of college.”
“You don’t sound too upset,” Minjae observes.
Johnny scoffs. “Of course I’m not upset. Fuck this sport, honestly.”
Minjae looks at him with a shocked expression, eyes comically wide. Chanyeol, overhearing, pats him gently on the back. “Don’t worry, Minjae-yah. Everyone kind of hates swimming. Johnny is just really vocal about it.”
Coach Choi puts them into relays and they practice starts, flinging themselves off the blocks and swimming halfway before coming back around so the next person can go.
“Be careful with that timing!” She yells to Jeongguk, who comes up for air after diving over Seokjin. “Any sooner and you’ll be DQ’d!”
Jeongguk nods, spouting water out and swimming head-up back to the wall. He watches the rest of his teammates take their turns, seeing if he can guess every single person based on their start or their stroke (spoiler alert: he can). There’s Bambam, who seems to take ten years before he hits the water, and Seokjin, whose start is so powerful the block creaks. Mingyu straight-arms his freestyle; Jiho’s all shoulders. Johnny spends the whole time underwater with his pullout and Chan’s dolphin kicks ripple the water despite how deep he is. Chanyeol’s backstroke is so pretty Jeongguk could weep, and Two, always trying to impress, goes all-out.
As they finish up, Coach Choi calls them away from the other half of the pool, where the divers are practicing and some people are tossing a water polo ball around.
“Good work today,” she tells them, looking around and nodding. “I’m liking what I’m seeing. For those of you that are really working towards Champs, you’ll get there.” She meets Jeongguk’s eyes just for a second. “Don’t lose faith. Keep pushing.”
They all nod.
“As for the rest of you,” she continues, “if you don’t want it, you’re already subconsciously not gonna work for it. But hey, I’m not your mom. You pick your priorities.”
Another nod. Across the circle, Jiho sets his jaw, looking determined, while Mingyu picks guiltily at his cuticles.
“Captains,” Coach Choi concedes, gesturing to Chanyeol and Seokjin.
Chanyeol looks pleadingly at Seokjin, who rolls his eyes. “We’ve got captain’s practice tomorrow. We managed to get the pool from the divers, too, so we’ll be in the water for an hour.”
“Nine a.m.,” Chanyeol clarifies. “We moved it back because of, uh, weekend activities.”
Besides Jeongguk, Bambam snorts. Chanyeol gives him a flat look while Seokjin adds a couple more comments before breaking the meeting.
They disperse, everyone scooping up their stuff and dissolving into side conversation as they head towards the locker room. Mingyu and Jaehyun come up behind Jeongguk, the former slinging an arm around the shoulder.
“You ready for this party? I heard it’s gonna be packed, and pretty wild,” Mingyu says, keeping his voice down as he glances surreptitiously as Coach Choi, who strongly disapproves of all Friday night activities except dinner, homework, and then sleep, in the exact order.
Sleep sounds pretty good right now, Jeongguk thinks sadly as he changes and follows his friends back to the dining hall, where they sit with the seniors and eat dinner.
“You awake down there?” Seokjin asks, flicking some rice at Jeongguk. He jerks upright, wrenching his eyes open as he attempts to focus on Seokjin.
“Yeah,” he says groggily, halfheartedly waving Bambam away as he steals the rest of Jeongguk’s meatballs. “I’m good.”
“I heard you’re going to Ji-min’s party,” Jiho says conversationally, setting his chopsticks down. “Finally had enough of being bored?”
“There’s a lot other fun things to do besides parties, Jiho-yah,” Chanyeol says mildly. “It’s not everyone’s first choice.”
Jeongguk shoots Chanyeol a grateful smile before turning back to Jiho. “I’m actually going to get revenge.”
Seokjin immediately perks up at that. “Ooh, revenge?”
“Here we go,” Jaehyun sighs. “I always knew Seokjin-hyung was a little crazy.”
“He’s fearless and chaotic,” Mingyu corrects. “It’s admirable.”
“You sound like you’re in love with him,” Jaehyun says.
“Everyone’s a little gay for Seokjin,” Mingyu replies, patting him on the shoulder. “It’s a fact of life.”
“What’s a fact?” Seokjin asks innocently, but both Jaehyun and Mingyu give him sweet smiles and wave him off.
“Nothing, nothing,” Mingyu says, grinning. “I’m done with dinner, though, and I really need help with this paper I’m writing for my historical design class. I’m just going to run over to the writing lab and see if I can get some advice.”
“I’ll come with,” Chan says. “My organic chem homework’s giving me a massive migraine, anyway.”
“How can you guys even think about homework,” Bambam groans. “Jeongguk, please don’t tell me you’re gonna do homework too. ”
Jeongguk thinks about the colossal amount of reading he has to do for his bio class and feels a little sick to his stomach. “Nope,” he says. “I’m just chilling.”
“Great,” Bambam says, relieved. “Glad my best friend pulls through, at least.” He glares at the other sophomores. “Unlike you guys, you traitors.”
Chan shrugs. “It’s my fault for taking hard classes.”
“And Mingyu’s just stupid,” Jaehyun adds, “so he needs all the help he can get. I read his paper, too. It’s a disaster.”
Mingyu groans and puts his head in his hands. “Don’t remind me.”
“Let’s just get it over with, Mingyu-yah,” Chan says, patting him on the back. “We’ll see you guys at the party.”
Dread settles like a stone in the base of Jeongguk’s stomach. “Right,” he says, sighing. “That.”
“Let’s go home,” Bambam says hurriedly. “It doesn’t start for a while so we can just sit in our dorm and eat the rest of the chips, okay?”
“And play Pokken,” Jeongguk says, already feeling better at the prospect of snacks and video games. “So I can kick your ass.”
Bambam rolls his eyes. “Fine, whatever.”
They say goodbye to their seniors and part ways with Chan and Mingyu, the latter looking like he’s about to cry as the two of them make their way over to the library. Bambam scans his card and unlocks the dorm, and they wait for the slow-ass elevator to come get them.
“We’d be at our dorm right now if we’d taken the stairs,” Jeongguk points out.
“No, we wouldn’t, we’d be dead, ” Bambam replies. “I’m still sorta catching my breath.”
The elevator dings.
“Good point,” Jeongguk says.
When they get up there, Jeongguk turns on all the lights and boots up his Switch while Bambam rummages around in their dresser for the chips they’d smuggled under Coach Choi’s nose. Jeongguk moves all of his pillows onto Bambam’s bed, because it’s facing the computer monitor the Switch hooks up to, and he’s got a mattress topper. Jeongguk, who hadn’t looked over the “What To Bring" guide last year, does not.
They cram together and Jeongguk whoops Bambam’s ass, as promised. When Bambam gets salty and turns off the game, they watch epic Olympic swimming compilations on Youtube until Bambam nudges Jeongguk gently and suggests they should change.
“What’s wrong with what I have on?” Jeongguk asks, looking down at his Drake t-shirt and sweatpants. Bambam gives him a look like, are you kidding me? and forcefully kicks him off the bed.
“Fuck,” Jeongguk mutters, rubbing his hip and glaring up at Bambam from the floor. “What was that for?”
“For being a brat,” Bambam says, crossing his arms. “You absolutely need to change.”
“You sound like Seokjin-hyung,” Jeongguk grumbles, but picks himself off the ground and lets Bambam dig through his clothes until he finds something that isn’t heather-grey sweatpants and graphic tees.
Half an hour later, face clean and wearing a pair of dark wash jeans and a flannel over a white shirt, Jeongguk regretfully hunts down his jacket as Bambam puts the finishing touches on his eye makeup in the mirror. He’s wearing all black, of course, and looks more like he’s going clubbing instead of to a house party. It’s just Bambam’s thing, Jeongguk supposes. Jimin’s sort of the same way.
Jeongguk may be used to it, but it’s still a little tiring waiting for Bambam to decide between two identical-looking bomber jackets.
“Seokjin-hyung’s driving us, so you don’t need to weigh each pro and con,” Jeongguk says as Bambam puts the warmer one on for the fifth time. “Just pick one and go.”
“Fine,” Bambam says, closing their closet door. “You’re acting really snippy, Jeongguk-ah.”
Jeongguk winces, ducking his head guiltily. “It’s, uh, because of the party,” he says quietly, and Bambam makes a small ah as he understands what Jeongguk’s getting at.
“You’re nervous,” his best friend says as they leave the dorm. “About Taehyung?”
“No, not about Taehyung,” Jeongguk says. “Just…you know how I am with parties. Big crowds in general.”
“Right,” Bambam says. “You really don’t have to go, if you don’t want to.”
“No, I’m going,” Jeongguk says, setting his shoulders.
“You’re so fucking stubborn,” Bambam mutters, and then sighs. “Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m not leaving without you, and I won’t just abandon you without saying anything.”
It does make Jeongguk feel better, but he doesn’t say anything, hoping Bambam picks up on it.
Seokjin’s waiting outside for them, thumbs tapping on the wheel to the song on the radio.
“Hey,” he greets cheerfully as they get in his car. He’s got the heat blasting, and Jeongguk gratefully sticks his hands in front of the vents, trying to get warmth back into his fingertips. All the blood has left his hands and feet from nervousness, and he’s trying to control the anxious sweat that’s building at his hairline.
“Ready?” Seokjin asks Jeongguk, watching him closely.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says after a moment, “I’m ready.”
Ji-min’s house is already full when they get there, and Jeongguk’s nerves immediately stretch tight, buzzing with nervous anxiety. Everything in him screams you shouldn’t be here! and you don’t know anybody! He huddles closer to Seokjin and Bambam as Park Ji-min, not to be confused with Park Jimin, who’s standing next to her with a surprised look on his face, answers the door.
“Jeongguk?” Jimin asks, eyebrows shooting up.
“Jeongguk!” Ji-min exclaims, and wraps her arms around Jeongguk. “Nice to meet you. Jimin was just talking about you.”
“I didn’t think you’d pull through,” Jimin admits as Ji-min stands aside to let the three of them into her house.
“I heard Kim Taehyung was going to be here,” Jeongguk tells him.
“Why’d you— oh. Really?” Jimin asks, exasperated. “You’re really carrying through with this whole revenge thing?”
“I wanna figure out what his deal is,” Jeongguk mutters, pressing himself flat against the wall as some guy goes past them, his arm tight around a girl. “As soon as that happens, I’m out of here.”
Ji-min purses her lips, noticing his discomfort. “Do you want something to drink, Jeongguk-ssi? My parents are in Busan visiting my grandma, so we have access to all my dad’s beer, plus whatever else people have brought.”
“How many people are here?” Jeongguk asks as she leads them down the hall.
“Oh, not many,” Ji-min responds. “Maybe fifty?”
“Fifty,” Jeongguk says nervously, and sticks his hands in his pockets so he doesn’t do something stupid, like grab Bambam’s hand or beg Seokjin to take him back to his dorm, where he’s safe from the peering eyes of people he doesn’t know or the inevitable awkward conversations he’ll have to engage in. It took him the better part of his freshman year to open up to his swim team, who he spends every day with—he doesn’t do well with first encounters. They make his hands sweat and his stomach churn as he tries to find something interesting to say.
He always fails, too, and then he’s stuck laughing awkwardly at his misstep before fleeing back to people he knows how to talk to.
Ji-min says something to him as they enter the living room, but it’s drowned out by the sound of Kendrick Lamar’s DNA, which is so loud Jeongguk can feel the vibrations of the bass through the soles of his shoes.
“What?” He asks, leaning close so he can hear her better.
“I said,” she repeats, yelling, “why are you looking for Kim Taehyung?”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, “well, he’s my nemesis.”
“What?” She shouts.
“My—oh, for fuck’s sake,” Jeongguk mutters as the song changes to something even louder and more-bass ridden. “NEVER MIND,” he yells. “DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” Ji-min replies, but Jeongguk’s reading her lips at this point because he can’t hear shit. He really needs to get out of here or his head will explode, so he gestures to the kitchen and grabs Bambam by the elbow.
The kitchen, thankfully, is partitioned off from the living room, so they can talk at more normal levels.
“Jeongguk-ah, what the hell,” Bambam whines. “I was just starting to dance.”
“Later,” Jeongguk says. “You need to help me with my revenge plan.”
“Well, get Chan and Mingyu to help you,” Bambam says crossly. “I look too hot to just stand around and be awkward.”
“Hey,” Jeongguk says weakly, even though it’s true. “I don’t see them.”
“See who?” Mingyu says right behind him, causing Jeongguk to jump and nearly elbow Jimin in the face, who’d followed them in to get more of whatever’s in his cup.
“You nearly broke my nose!” Jimin says dramatically, clutching his cup to his chest protectively.
“You would’ve deserved it,” Jeongguk shoots back.
“Fuck you,” Jimin says sweetly, eyeing a half-empty of bottle of vodka and adding a little.
“We’re here,” Mingyu announces unhelpfully. Chan’s there, too, standing a little behind him and taking the whole scene in with the same kind of straight-faced determination he approaches everything with, whether it be the mile free, organic chemistry, or a girl he really likes.
“I have it in good confidence that Kim Taehyung’s in the dining room right now,” Jimin says, taking a sip of his drink and wrinkling his nose.
“I say you just go in there and fight him,” Bambam says.
“As entertaining as that sounds,” Seokjin says, “I think you’ll be kicked off the team if you do.”
“Plus it wouldn’t be fair,” Mingyu says, smirking. “Jeongguk’s ripped.”
“I get the feeling that Kim Taehyung could kick his ass, though,” Chan says thoughtfully.
“Oh, he could,” Jimin confirms, hopping up to sit on the counter.
“Plan B, then,” Seokjin says, leaning against the fridge and tapping his chin. “Something that doesn’t involve injury.”
“Just spill a glass of water on him,” Chan offers. “Harmless enough, but also can seriously ruin a person’s night.”
“Ooh, that’s good one,” Mingyu says. “I’m impressed, Channie.”
“Don’t call me that,” Chan says. “And thanks.”
“Where’s Jaehyun, by the way?” Seokjin asks.
“He’s with a Tinder match right now,” Mingyu says, rolling his eyes. “They went back to her place.”
“God, how does he have the energy?” Seokjin marvels.
“Mood,” Bambam says, who’s collapsed into a chair, jelly-like. “Everything just caught up to me, and now I’m definitely not dancing. My bones hurt.”
“I think I have lung cancer,” Mingyu says. “From swimming.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Bambam says dubiously, eyebrows pulling together.
“That’s definitely not how it works,” Jeongguk agrees. “But also, same.”
“Okay,” Jimin interrupts, “I know you guys love complaining and all, but if you’re gonna do this, you have to do this.”
“Thanks,” Jeongguk says dryly. “Okay, ice water it is.”
Seokjin rummages around in the cabinets to find a cup and hands it to Mingyu, who fills it with ice and water from the sink. Then he hands it to Jeongguk, whose hands sting immediately at the cold.
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, steadying himself. “Revenge time.”
“Tell us how it goes,” Seokjin says encouragingly. Bambam offers him a high-five from his slouched position in the chair, where he looks like he’s about to fall asleep.
“Fighting,” Mingyu cheers. “You’ve got this.”
“Think about the french fries,” Bambam says seriously. “Avenge them.”
Jeongguk thinks about the french fries, and his nervousness recedes a little to make room for the stubborn determination that’s gotten him in trouble more times than he can count.
He starts to make his way back towards the living room.
“Wait, Jeongguk,” Jimin calls, and Jeongguk turns.
“Good luck,” Jimin says seriously, and Jeongguk nods, disappearing to the throng of people.
There’s a brief silence as his friends watch him go.
“How badly do you think this is gonna go?” Bambam asks suddenly.
“Pretty bad,” Mingyu says.
“Well,” Jimin says, grabbing the vodka again, “at least it’ll be funny.” And with that, he pours the rest of the bottle in his cup.
Kim Taehyung isn’t hard to find, because a), he’s really fucking loud, and b), he’s sitting directly on the table and doing soju shots.
Jeongguk lurks in the corner of the room, taking a sip of his water and pulling out his phone to make it look like he’s doing something other than waiting to purposefully dump a cup of water onto his self-sworn enemy.
Luckily, he doesn’t have to wait long. He’s halfway through composing a text to his mom when Taehyung slams his glass down and thanks all the people around him for their encouragement, but that he needs to stop and use the bathroom. He gets down from the table and Jeongguk subtly follows him. They veer towards each other and Jeongguk’s heart pounds as he gets closer until they finally make contact.
It doesn’t go exactly as planned, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. The water gets on both of them, but Taehyung definitely gets the worst of it, the front of his loose-fitting t-shirt getting drenched as the glass gets upturned between their bodies.
“Hey,” Taehyung starts mildly, but his demeanor changes in an instant when he sees it’s Jeongguk. “Oh,” he says scathingly, “it’s you. Of course.”
Reckless courage fills Jeongguk at the tone of his voice. “Good to see you too,” he bites back. “Throw any more french fries away?”
Taehyung meets his eyes dead on. “I realized after I bought them that I didn’t want them,” he says, and Jeongguk doesn’t actually know if Taehyung expects him to believe that. He doesn’t, right? Because poker face or not, Taehyung did it on purpose. Just to piss him off.
“Bullshit,” Jeongguk says immediately, surprising himself a little with his own forwardness. “You had it out for me and I want to know why.”
Taehyung lifts his drenched shirt away from his body. “Like I’m gonna tell you anything after you just dumped your water all over me.”
“It was an accident,” Jeongguk says innocently, though both he and Taehyung know it was anything but.
“An accident,” Taehyung repeats, raising an eyebrow and crossing his arms. “You’re telling me it’s coincidence that you, Jeon Jeongguk, who never comes to parties, shows up to this one and manages to bump into me at a precisely-timed moment with a full glass of water?”
“Must be karma,” Jeongguk says, mirroring Taehyung’s position and glaring at him. “For being an asshole.”
Taehyung lets out a short laugh. “Right, because you’re so nice yourself.”
“I literally still have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jeongguk reminds him. “Care to enlighten me?”
Taehyung narrows his eyes. “Well, while we’re here,” he says. “I sat down next to you at a party maybe two weeks ago, and, like a polite, social person I am, I tried to talk to you.”
A distant, foggy memory surfaces, clouded over with the haze of alcohol and his crippling social anxiety. He can remember feeling so out of place, curled up into the tiniest space he could fit while people stumbled around him, tripping on drugs Jeongguk’s made a point to stay very, very far from.
“At first, you just talked about swimming,” Taehyung says. “Which, fine, not a great conversation starter, but I could forgive you for that. No, the best part was when you suddenly declared I wasn’t worth your time, said you didn’t want to talk anymore, and then went to canoodle with your swimming buddies.”
A sick combination of guilt and shame starts to creep over Jeongguk’s skin. Now he can remember how Taehyung had tried to talk to him, and how Jeongguk awkwardly fumbled around and messed the conversation up. And he’d been tired, so, so tired, so when he left, all he’d been able to manage was a half-hearted excuse—which clearly had come off mean (not at all his intention) and had hurt Taehyung’s feelings as a result. It hadn’t helped that Taehyung was—is—pretty attractive, which always makes Jeongguk’s hands sweat, especially because he has to work hard to make sure nobody from the swim team catches him staring for too long.
Knowing this, Jeongguk begins to think that his hatred towards Taehyung is a little dramatic, and maybe he owes the guy an apology for being an ass, and perhaps even an explanation why. But just as Jeongguk’s steeling himself for the emotional outpour, Taehyung says:
“But I shouldn’t have expected anything from you, because all athletes can do is talk about themselves and look down on us weak non-sport people.”
He takes everything back. His hatred isn’t dramatic, and he owes Taehyung nothing, especially if he’s going to stand there and stereotype the shit out of him because of his motherfucking extracurricular.
“I was about to apologize for the party,” Jeongguk tells him hotly, “but clearly you’re not interested in that, because you’d rather make stupid accusations.”
“I would, actually,” Taehyung says, curling his lip.
“Well, fine,” Jeongguk replies, and he’s so fucking tired from swimming and even more tired of this conversation, which is doing nothing but making him angry and itchy all over. “You’re an asshole. I’m out of here.“
“Good,” Taehyung snaps, and Jeongguk glares at him again.
“I’d say sorry for dumping water on you,” Jeongguk says, “but I’m not.”
Taehyung’s mouth opens with some kind of retort, but Jeongguk’s already back in the living room, thumbs flying on his phone screen as he texts Bambam.
jjk: fuck this shit im getting out of here see you back at the dorm
bb: dude whoa what happened?????
jjk: i hate kim taehyung
bb: uh oh. taht bad??
jjk: yeah. he hates me because i’m an athlete and he’d rather just shit talk nonsense about swimmers than listen to me fuck im so angry
bb: oh jeez ok i’ll meet u at the front door and we can go together ??
Jeongguk sends back a confirmation, and a second later, Bambam’s pushing through people to meet him at the front door, face solemn.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” He asks Jeongguk tentatively as they wait for their taxi.
“It’s fine,” Jeongguk says, irritated. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s clearly bothering you,” Bambam prods, worried.
“Don’t worry about me, Bambam-ah,” Jeongguk says, and heaves a big sigh. “It’s fine.”
Bambam clearly doesn’t believe him, but he lets it go.
“Besides,” Jeongguk continues as their cab pulls up to the curb, “at least I won’t ever see him again.”
He sees Taehyung again.
A lot more, in fact. Like twice a week for the next month straight. Jeongguk runs into him everywhere—the grocery store, the dining hall, outside of his biology lecture hall. He comes along sometimes when Jimin invites them out, or he’ll be in line when Jeongguk goes to get coffee. Everywhere Jeongguk goes, Taehyung seems to be there.
It sucks, too, because Taehyung’s unfairly attractive and, just as Jimin had said, really actually sort of nice until he turns around, sees Jeongguk, and immediately freezes over. Jeongguk’s hatred comes back in full force during those moments, where Taehyung will look at him and glare a little, probably still holding the spilled water and scalding insults against him. Jeongguk doesn’t care. He’d deserved them.
He crops up often in Jeongguk’s thoughts, too, which makes it all worse. His remarks—clever, but absolutely merciless—float around Jeongguk’s head, caught on loop. He’ll replay Taehyung’s words again and again, trying to figure out why he had such a grudge against swimmers while he’s at practice, or bent over his homework.
Jeongguk’s on his way out of the building on Saturday when he runs into Taehyung for what’s got to be the fourth time this month, hat pulled low down over his hair and coat zipped to his chin.
“Hey,” Taehyung greets, almost familiarly. “How was another day of useless practice?”
“It was pretty good,” Jeongguk says, falling into their pattern immediately, “until you showed up.”
“Oh, so clever,” Taehyung replies, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms. “You should get an award for that one.”
Jeongguk gives him a flat look. “I’m tired. Give me a break.”
“You’re always tired,” Taehyung says. “Why would I give you a break now, especially when you don’t deserve one?”
“I think I deserve a fucking break,” Jeongguk mutters. “I’m working myself to the bone.”
“Sounds like your problem,” Taehyung says, smiling sweetly, though his tone is anything but. “What’s even the point of it? Egotistical posing? A sad attempt to boost your self-confidence?”
Jeongguk clenches his jaw and tries not to wince at that, but Taehyung’s not done.
“Because you know,” he continues, falling into step with Jeongguk even as he speeds up, “you’re really just working towards a goal you’ll probably achieve once, only to fade into anonymity when someone breaks your record and fills your space.”
Jeongguk stops dead in his tracks, heart sliding sideways with a painful jerk. That had hit a little too close to home, and he briefly wonders how the hell Taehyung had been able to pinpoint it so exactly. Maybe he’s some kind of mind reader, or an evil alien with advanced technology. God, that would be easier to come to terms with rather than the simple fact that Taehyung really just doesn’t like him.
Taehyung slows too, and an unrecognizable emotion passes over his face. The corners of his mouth tighten and Jeongguk looks up, blinking hard against the burning in his eyes. He feels a little like he’s going to be sick, remembering how Minjae had been scraping at his feet for the whole set, unphased and untired while Jeongguk had forced his mind and body to the limit, already reaching his max despite it being the middle of crunch time for Champs.
“At least,” Taehyung hurriedly corrects, “that’s what I hope. But knowing you, you’ll probably beat everyone and go to the Olympics or something just to spite me.” Taehyung sneaks a look at Jeongguk, like he’s checking to make sure he’s still there. “Jimin keeps telling me about how good a swimmer you are, but I just think he’s trying to make me like you. Which, as you know, won’t work.”
Taehyung’s cheeks are a little pink—with cold, or maybe something else, Jeongguk doesn’t know—and there’s a new ring to his voice, words softer and less biting.
Jeongguk’s breath catches in his throat as he realizes Taehyung had just apologized to him. Of course, it’d been in the most roundabout, least apologetic way possible, but still. The fact that he’d even been able to recognize Jeongguk’s discomfort is astounding.
Stroke of luck, he thinks to himself as Taehyung sneers at him again, calls him a jackass and takes his leave a second later without a look back. A fluke. There’s no way.
He thinks about it for the rest of the night, though, and can’t really focus on anything else.
What happens next is a complete accident.
They’d just finished dryland and a thousand swim. It was a captain’s practice, technically, so none of them had to be there, but Coach Choi had threatened anyone who skipped with an extra set on Monday.
The noise in the locker room has been dying down gradually, and Jeongguk spends extra time under the hot spray of the shower, trying desperately to keep himself upright even as exhaustion starts to creep in, as familiar and unstoppable as the tide.
“Do you think,” Johnny asks, one leg in his sweatpants, “if I slipped and cracked my head open right now, Coach would still make me swim the 200 breast?”
“Yeah,” Seokjin says, “because we’re short some people this meet. I’m pretty sure we’re all in four events.”
“Damn,” Johnny mutters. “Why’d Mingyu have to get sick so conveniently?”
“Maybe he knew that he’d have to swim both the 200 free and 200 breast,” Bambam says, toweling off his hair. “Jeongguk-ah, are you done in there?” He asks, peering into the shower area where Jeongguk is still standing, eyes closed.
“Maybe if I stand here long enough I’ll just melt,” Jeongguk says. “I’m so tired. I don’t even know why, either. I’ve been sleeping tons.”
Seokjin’s eyebrows crease. “Have you been eating enough?”
“Mmm,” Jeongguk confirms, feeling like he’s moving through molasses.
“Maybe take it easy tomorrow, then,” Chanyeol suggests. “You’re probably just over-tired. It happens to the best of us. Nobody will get mad if you have a slow day or two.”
“Right,” Jeongguk says, and closes his eyes again. “Thanks, hyung.”
“Sure,” Chanyeol says. “See you later, okay?”
There’s a chorus of ‘bye, hyungs!’ as Seokjin and Chanyeol leave together. Johnny’s next, dragging his feet, followed by some freshman.
“You can go,” Jeongguk tells Bambam when he comes out of the shower and finds his best friends fully dressed and waiting for him. “I know you’re going out with Yugyeom. Don’t be late waiting for me.”
“Are you sure?” Bambam asks, worrying at his lip.
“I’m fine,” Jeongguk says, smiling. “I’ll see you later.”
“Okay.” Bambam still looks unsure as he packs up his stuff, giving Jeongguk another glance before he leaves the locker room.
Jeongguk lets out a sigh as he’s finally left alone, dropping bonelessly onto the benches. Everything in him aches, and his shoulders crack as he shrugs into his shirt, not bothering to dry his hair and opting to pull a hat on instead.
He eventually gets to his feet, managing to get his suit off and his boxers and pants on without falling over.
The gym lobby is empty—Sunday mornings aren’t usually too busy—save for a couple people. Jeongguk’s just about to round the corner where the vending machines are when he hears a familiar voice. He stops short, pressing his body against the wall as he peers around the corner. Standing by the machines, his phone pressed to his ear, is Kim Taehyung, and he looks so miserable that it kind of knocks the breath from Jeongguk’s lungs.
Taehyung hasn’t seen him yet, either, so he hovers near the wall, curious as to what is making him so sad. Somewhere, he’s sure his mom is screaming at him for his terrible manners, but she’s not here to drag him away, so Jeongguk stays and listens.
“—can pay for it myself, if that’s really your biggest problem,” Taehyung is saying. “Mom, no, you’re not listening to me. This is what I want to do.”
The person on his other side—his mom—says something that makes Taehyung’s jaw clench. “This isn’t about you being worried about my future,” he says tightly. “This is about you not wanting to lose face with all those Bible group women.”
Another pause, and Jeongguk watches as Taehyung’s cheeks go red. “Why would you—how could—you know how much this means to me. Out of everyone, I thought you’d support me. I thought you’d be proud.”
Taehyung’s eyes are shiny, and Jeongguk suddenly knows he’s seen too much. Seeing Taehyung this vulnerable doesn’t sit right with Jeongguk’s image of him: snippy and wide-mouthed, insults hot and unforgiving as his glare. But there’s no heat or energy in Taehyung now. The slump of his shoulders screams defeat, and Jeongguk can tell he’s tired just from the way he runs a hand over his face.
“I guess,” Taehyung says softly, “if that’s how you feel. I’m sorry. We’ll talk later.”
Jeongguk realizes he’s hanging up a second too late, and whirls around noisily to make his speedy exit. Taehyung, however, has already seen him, and Jeongguk knows he’s been caught red-handed as soon as Taehyung calls his name.
Jeongguk guiltily slinks back over to the vending machines, bracing himself for another round of ego-shattering insults, but Taehyung’s uncharacteristically quiet, hugging his arms close to himself. His expression is shuttered, and Jeongguk can’t get a read on his posture or his face.
“You were eavesdropping,” Taehyung says. It’s not a question.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk admits, ears hot. There’s no point in lying if he’s already been caught. “Sorry. I just—I wanted a Gatorade and you sounded, uh, upset.”
Taehyung shifts, looking about as awkward as Jeongguk feels. “Yeah. Um. I switched my major to photography this year and my parents are taking it really hard.”
Jeongguk nods. He kind of gets where Taehyung’s coming from—his parents, originally, had wanted him to make swimming less of a priority. It took a lot of convincing to let him take the sports scholarship this school offered, and only now are they actually starting to understand.
“This was the first time I’ve talked to my mom in five months and it went terribly,” Taehyung whispers, and Jeongguk’s not sure if he knows he’s saying all of this out loud for Jeongguk, of all fucking people, to hear. “My dad still hasn’t said a single thing.” He rubs aggressively at his eyes, and something pinches oddly in Jeongguk’s chest.
“I get it,” he says quietly, and Taehyung looks up, startled, like he didn’t expect Jeongguk to still be standing there. “I do. Really. My parents did the same thing when I came here to swim. It’s hard to do what you want, I guess, when your parents don’t support you.”
Taehyung blinks for a second and Jeongguk immediately prepares to backtrack. He’s overstepped, he’s said too much, tried to offer advice to someone older and someone that he hates—
“Thanks,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk freezes. “I mean, you’re still a little shit and I hate you, but…not many people would let me ramble on like that.”
“No problem,” Jeongguk says weakly, hoping he doesn’t sound too awkward. “I guess I’m not so self-centered after all, right?”
“Hmm,” Taehyung says, shouldering his backpack and making his way back towards the entrance to the gym. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
They have a dual meet against Yonsei on a Friday about a week or so after this interaction, and to Jeongguk’s immense pleasure, it goes well. Really well, actually, despite them being down both Mingyu and Jihwan, the latter of whom had sprained his ankle playing soccer.
“Yet another reason why swimmers don’t belong on land,” Jihwan tells them at the beginning of the meet, his ankle wrapped up. “Who’s taking my 100 back?”
“I am,” Jeongguk says. “For some reason.”
“And I’ve got your spot in the B medley relay,” Minjae chimes in.
“Wonder why Coach put our freestylers in my events,” Jihwan says.
“Well, sprint free’s basically backstroke,” Johnny reasons. “Right?”
“No,” Chan says. “It’s totally different.”
Minjae goes pale.
“You’ll do great,” Chanyeol assures him quickly. “Channie, don’t scare him.”
“Don’t call me that,” Chan says. “And sorry, Minjae-yah.”
“I’ll do my best,” Minjae replies, though his face is still a little white.
They all put their team suits on and jump in the deep end to start warm-ups, which is only 1200. Yonsei comes walks on deck at 4, and they’re ready to start the meet by 5. Jeongguk swims the medley relay with Chanyeol, Seokjin and a freshman named Kibum. They come in first, out-touching the Yonsei team because Kibum’s a breaststroke genius and catches them on his turn, leaving Jeongguk to pull ahead with a 22-second 50 free.
He cheers for Chanyeol and Jaehyun in the 200 IM, standing down at the shallow end and screaming ‘GO’ at Jaehyun whenever he comes up for air during breaststroke. Then it’s the breathless, blink-and-you’ll-miss it 50 free, where Minjae collects another win for their team.
A little while later, it’s time for him to fill in for Jihwan. He’s dry by this point, so when he hops in at the whistle, the cold of the pool knocks the breath from him. His heart is in his mouth and his stomach is fluttering, the same nervous-sick anticipation that shivers through him as it always does when it comes to swimming.
“Swimmers, take your mark,” says the official, and Jeongguk lifts himself out of the water, feet pressed against the touchpad and hands gripping the handles on the block, shaking with cold and something else that knocks against his ribs. His muscles tense in preparation. Then there’s the sound of the buzzer, and Jeongguk’s mind goes blank.
If someone were to ask him what goes through his head when he swims, he wouldn’t have an answer. Because he thinks about nothing. Nothing, except his own voice telling him faster, you’re almost there, ignore the burn ignore the pain and breathe, breathebreathebreathe—
And just as he feels like he’s going to die, or puke, or sink to the bottom of the pool, there’s the touchpad, and Jeongguk grits his teeth and takes two more strokes until the palm of his hand stings with the force of his finish. The race is over and he reassembles, squinting at the board to catch his time—49.28.
Not bad—but also not as good as he was expecting.
He still got second, however, and his teammates slap him on the back as he pulls himself out of the water, arms shaking and head spinning. Bambam hands him an applesauce and Jeongguk takes off his cap, wrapping himself in his towel and sitting down heavily.
“You still have the 400 free relay, right?” Bambam asks.
Jeongguk nods. “I think we’re both A, with Jiho-hyung and Minjae.”
“Are you anchor?” Bambam asks as the next event starts, the official calling for silence. The buzzer goes off and Jeongguk jerks a little, a subconscious reaction.
“I think so,” Jeongguk says.
“Cool, then you’re starting off me,” Bambam replies, twisting so he can see the heat sheet taped to the wall behind them. “And Minjae’s going first because Coach Choi still doesn’t like his relay start. I think she’s secretly worried he’ll DQ us.”
Jeongguk feels a little thrill of satisfaction at that. “Interesting,” he says casually, trying to play it off.
“You’re making your smug face,” Bambam informs him.
Jeongguk chokes on his water and turns away. “I am not. I don’t even have a smug face.”
“Yes, you do. It’s the face you make when someone says Minjae isn’t as good as you.”
“What—” Jeongguk starts, but Seokjin jogs past them, gesturing.
“Don’t just sit there—Johnny, Kibum and Shiwoo are swimming right now!” He says frantically to them. “We have to cheer, get off your asses.”
“Wait, what event is this?” Bambam asks, panicked, as he stands. “100 breast? Already? Are you telling me that we’re next?”
“Ugh,” Jeongguk groans, heaving himself off of the bench with effort. “I can barely move. Why’d Coach put me in an off event? Why couldn’t it have been Two? Or Chan, who always gets his events?”
“Because Chan’s the only one that’ll willingly swim the mile,” Bambam says. “Here, quick, cap me. We have to find Jiho-hyung.”
“They’re already over there,” Jeongguk says, squinting at lane four and flipping Bambam’s cap onto his head. “Yeah, I can see them. Minjae’s doing his ridiculous arm circles.”
“Oh, like you don’t bounce up and down relentlessly when you’re behind the block,” Bambam says, following Jeongguk as he heads over there. “Or whack your legs.”
“It’s because I’m nervous,” Jeongguk says. “It’s different. I’m not showing off.”
“I think Minjae’s nervous too,” Bambam tells him. “So how is that any d—”
“Any what?” Minjae asks innocently, approaching them and offering Jeongguk the same tentative smile as he always does.
“Nothing,” Jeongguk says. “Okay, what’s the order?”
“I’m starting,” Minjae says, furrowing his brow. “And then…Bambam?”
Jiho joins them, hastily shoving the back part of his hair into his swim cap. “I’m second, I’m pretty sure.”
“Yeah, and I’m third,” Bambam adds, "and Jeongguk's anchoring."
“Yep,” Jeongguk says.
“You’re gonna do so good, hyung,” Minjae says, and damn, it’s hard to be upset at him when he looks at Jeongguk with admiration like that. “I’ll try my best to give us a good start.”
“You’ll be fine, Minjae,” Jiho assures him. “You’re fast.”
Minjae nods as the heat in front of them climbs out. Johnny’s breathing so hard he’s shaking, and Kibum pulls himself out on his belly, unable to do anything but brace his head between his knees and try not to vomit.
Relatable, Jeongguk thinks.
“I can’t believe they’re making Kibum swim in this relay,” Bambam says as the official blows his whistle. “Poor kid’s going to die.”
“I used to do the 100 breast and then the 400 relay in high school,” Jeongguk says, watching Kibum struggle to catch his breath. “It was terrible. It’s like, ‘oh, put all of your energy into this event but also all of your energy into this event too, which happens to be right after it.’”
Bambam shudders. Jiho elbows them to pay attention, and Jeongguk watches as Minjae bends over, fingers gripping the edge of the block. Then the buzzer sounds and he’s leaping forward, his start sending him much farther than any other lane.
“Goddamn, that kid’s insane,” Jiho says, stepping up to the block as Minjae races back, impossibly fast. The other people are already half a body length behind, unable to do anything but let Minjae get farther and father ahead of them.
Jiho snaps his goggles on as Minjae makes his final turn, Jeongguk joining Bambam in shouting as loud as he possibly can.
“Go, Minjae, go,” Jeongguk shouts. “Okay, hyung, keep it up, let’s go, let’s go!”
Minjae comes zooming in towards the wall, and Jiho swings his arms around, diving into the water just as Minjae’s hand hits the touchpad.
“Ooh, that was close,” Bambam says, biting his lip and eyeing the official. “Is he gonna call it?”
“No, it looks like we’re good,” Jeongguk says. Minjae heaves himself out of the water, looking so worn-out that Jeongguk feels compelled to say something nice to him.
“That was really good, Minjae-yah,” he says, patting him on the back. “You got us a huge lead.”
Minjae stares at Jeongguk for a second—long enough for Jeongguk to shift awkwardly—before he breaks into a massive smile.
“Thanks, hyung,” he says shyly. “Let’s cheer Jiho-hyung and Bambam-hyung on, too.”
Jiho comes flying back into the wall and Bambam launches off the block over him. Jiho climbs out as fast as he can and joins Jeongguk and Minjae in screaming Bambam’s name. His flip turn soaks them as he heads into his last lap, and Jeongguk tightens his goggles down so much they dig painfully into the bridge of his nose. Bambam makes his last turn, and Jeongguk watches as he comes closer and closer. He’s gone off Bambam so many times that he’s got the timing down pat, from the way his kicking picks up at the flags or how he strokes hard to the wall, cutting out the glide.
Bambam’s hand hits the touchpad; Jeongguk’s feet leave the blocks. His body is still aching from his backstroke, and his lungs protest at the only tiny breath he allows himself on the first 25. He’s tired—can feel it in his muscles, in the way his kick falters, in how he has to come up half a second early so he can breathe.
On his left, a boy from Yonsei is catching up, exactly even with Jeongguk, and that’s what really does him in. He’s good at this. He knows he’s good at this. Freestyle is his stroke, the 100 is his event, and he’s not about to let his team down.
As he flips into 75 mark, he briefly hears his teammates screaming at him, thinks he can make out Minjae’s voice.
God, he’s not going to let that kid beat him either.
With a burst of adrenaline, he picks up the pace of his strokes, digging his hands into the water and pulling as hard as his body will let him. He pushes his mind past the pain in his thighs and shoulders and kicks.
His whole body aches to give up but he forces himself forward. His flip turn is drilled into his muscle memory and his lungs burn as he pushes off the wall, streamline tight. Three dolphin kicks, and he’s back on the surface.
He counts his strokes.
One. Two. Three. Four.
He gives himself a breath. Watches the wall get closer, but not fast enough.
The guy on his left is right with him, stroke-for-stroke. There’s a matter of milliseconds between them now.
The corners of his vision are a little yellow.
One last exhale—there are the flags—push, push—
Thirteen fourteen fifteen, right in a row, and then Jeongguk’s hand is on the wall and his head is above the water and he’s dying, his body crumbling and consciousness slipping away.
God, he feels like he’s going to be sick.
He can barely get his goggles off to see the final standing. There are two numbers, right next to each other: 2:52.81 and 2:52.65.
And next to the faster one says their school name, along with a tiny yellow 1.
So that’s what all the noise is about, Jeongguk thinks faintly, leaning over the lane lines to shake the hands of the exhausted Yonsei swimmers. We won.
"Jeon Jeongguk, you fucking miracle-maker, ” Jiho crows, scooping him into a headlock as soon as he makes it out of the water. “Goddamn, I knew you’d pull through.”
Bambam grins at him and holds out a hand for a high-five. “Dude, that was awesome. I haven’t seen you swim that hard since Champs last year.”
“I honestly didn’t know I had it in me,” Jeongguk says, lurching forward when Jiho lets him go. “Oh, god. I think I’m gonna pass out.”
Right on cue, his vision yellows again, ears ringing.
“No, none of that,” Seokjin says hurriedly, rushing forward and catching him before his eyes can roll up in his head. “Coach’ll be so pissed if you pass out here.”
“Don’t feel so good,” Jeongguk says, leaning into Seokjin. He’s got his warmups on and looks really nice. Smells nice, too.
My fucking brain, Jeongguk thinks. He’s too tired, though, to do anything but let Seokjin half-drag, half-carry him over to the rest of the team, where they all jump on him, showering compliments and praise that make Jeongguk preen just a little bit. The freshmen go berserk, recounting the whole relay play-by-play until Bambam shoos them off.
Seokjin’s still got his arm around Jeongguk’s shoulder, and as soon as Jeongguk becomes aware of that he straightens as best he can, pushing away from the elder and glancing around to see if anybody had noticed anything.
Bambam gives him an exasperated look, but Jeongguk can’t help his paranoia. He doesn’t want anybody to find out before he’s ready—something that Bambam, as much as he wants to, doesn’t understand. He’d known he was gay when he was twelve.
Jaehyun comes up to Jeongguk and sticks a freezing cold hand against his back to get his attention. Jeongguk yelps and jumps away, nearly knocking Minjae over.
“Sorry, Minjae-yah,” Jeongguk says hurriedly.
“It’s okay, hyung,” Minjae replies, grinning brightly. “You swam really really well, by the way. I’m super happy I was on your relay.”
Something wiggly in Jeongguk—the part of him desperate for praise, no matter how old he acts—goes warm at the words.
“Thanks,” he says. “You, uh, also did good. I mean well,” he corrects hurriedly. “So, um, keep it up.”
There, he thinks with satisfaction as Minjae beams at him. I did it.
“Jeongguk, I’ll freeze your nipples off if you don’t come over here right now,” Jaehyun says.
“Jesus, you’re so violent,” Jeongguk says. “You’ve been spending too much time with Mingyu.”
“It’s Ten, actually,” Jaehyun says. “He’s a fucking menace. It’s rubbing off on me. But he’s always around because he’s got a massive crush on Johnny.”
Jeongguk chokes. “Johnny Seo?”
“How many other Johnnys do you know? This is South Korea, dude,” Jaehyun says. “Yes, Johnny Seo.”
“He’s gay?” Jeongguk asks, peering over Jaehyun’s shoulder at Johnny, who’s talking to the recently-returned Coach Wu.
Jaehyun shrugs. “I dunno. I don’t really care, either. I just want him to do something about Ten. He’s driving me crazy.” He frowns. “Wait, that’s not why I wanted to talk to you. I meant to come ask when we should go.”
“Go?” Jeongguk repeats blankly. “Like, go to bed?”
“No,” Jaehyun says. “Like, go to the party.”
Jaehyun sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You’re hopeless. I’ll come get you at eight.”
He starts to walk away, and Jeongguk panics. “Wait, Jaehyun, I’m not going—“
“Yes you are,” Jaehyun says, and that’s that.
God, he needs new friends.
And that’s how Jeon Jeongguk ends up at the biggest party he’s ever been to in his whole life, crammed on the sofa in some person’s living room and nursing a cup of water. Coach Wu had persuaded Coach Choi to shorten their practice tomorrow—a mere forty-five minutes at eleven in the morning.
Seokjin had given them all permission to drink (mostly because he wanted to drink but didn’t want to seem like a hypocrite) and then had promptly abandoned all of them for his physics friends. Jeongguk watches him now, interacting seamlessly with different people, and distantly wonders what it’d feel like to have more than one group of friends. All he really has—all he’d really had, too—is swimming. It’s his hobby, his passion, his social group—all aspects of his life are dominated by swimming. With the exception of Jimin, he doesn’t have any friends that aren’t on the swim team.
Bambam has slipped away with Yugyeom, who’d appeared with Jimin around an hour ago. Jimin himself is currently somewhere in the knot of sweaty people dancing to the overloud music, which isn’t helping with Jeongguk’s headache. Chan and Jaehyun had invited him to join them in some game involving alcohol and kissing, but just thinking about that makes Jeongguk’s headache worse.
Jeongguk swallows the rest of his water and tries to stop feeling bad for himself. He could always just leave, and go feel lonely in his dorm room, which at least had video games and comfy pillows.
After another minute of sitting alone on the couch, Jeongguk decides that going home is probably the best idea he’s had all night, but Bambam made him promise to tell someone before he left, so he gets up off the couch and goes to look for a familiar face.
He does a lap through the living room, and, when he can’t find anyone, moves through the kitchen and dining room. There’s a TV room tucked in the back, all hazed-over with smoke, and as he passes by it someone calls his name.
Jeongguk stops and hovers at the doorway, fighting the urge to wrinkle his nose at the smell of weed. There’s a small group of people in there, and he can barely make out Park Ji-min’s face, even when she says his name again and waves him into the room.
“Hi,” he says, breathing through his mouth.
“Jeongguk-ah,” she hums, eyes fluttering sleepily, “I heard about how you won the race. That’s pretty dope.”
“Yeah,” he says awkwardly. “Hey, uh, have you seen B—“
“Dude, you’re that one fast swimmer!” A guy pipes up. Jeongguk’s never seen him before but lifts his chin in acknowledgement anyway. “I watched a meet once. You’re really fucking fast.”
“Thanks,” Jeongguk says, bowing his head. “Hey, Ji-min, you really haven’t—“
“Hey, look what I’ve got,” the guy says, digging through his pockets and holding up a tiny baggie of white powder. “You’re not having too much fun, yeah? Well, this shit’s good. It’ll get you going.”
“I’m not into that kind of stuff,” Jeongguk says, feeling more and more awkward with each passing second, “but thanks for offering. I’m just looking for a friend.”
The guy snorts, tapping the girl next to him on her shoulder. “You hear this guy? He really just turned down my best shit.”
“I’m really just not interested,” Jeongguk explains desperately.
“He’s probably afraid, oppa,” the girl says, taking a long drag of her blunt. “It’s okay if you’re a pussy. We won’t hate you.”
Jeongguk’s stomach twists. “I think I’m gonna go,” he says quietly.
“Take a drag, at least,” the girl says, holding the blunt out to him. “One for the road.”
“I don’t smoke either,” Jeongguk replies, panic and desperation clogging his throat.
“Wow, you really are no fun,” she says, eyes wide. “I bet—“
“Hey,” a new voice behind him says, deep and familiar. Jeongguk startles as Kim Taehyung comes up next to him. “Back off,” he says to the room of people. “He said he didn’t want to.”
“Ah, Taehyung-ssi,” the girl with the blunt says, looking a little ashamed. “I was just joking.”
“Was it funny?” Taehyung asks, raising an eyebrow. He turns to Jeongguk. “Well? Was it?”
“N-no,” Jeongguk stutters, unsure if what’s happening is some sort of contact high or a hallucination. Why’s Taehyung here? No, scratch that—why’s Taehyung defending him like they’re friends, or something? Jeongguk knows Taehyung hates him, knows it like he knows the feel of water on his skin or the familiar burn of his muscles when he swims.
“He didn’t think it was funny,” Taehyung reports. “So, therefore, it’s not a joke.”
The girl stutters, and the boy next to her cracks up. Ji-min looks a little embarrassed.
“Sorry, Jeongguk-ah,” she whispers.
“It’s okay,” Jeongguk replies, waving her off. “Really.”
“Okay,” Taehyung announces, “we’re going now.” He grabs Jeongguk by the hand—another shocking move that confuses Jeongguk even more —and tugs him away from the smoky room, pushing his way through people until Taehyung stops, pulls Jeongguk into an empty bathroom, sits him down on the closed toilet and shuts the door behind him.
“Are you okay?” Taehyung asks, and if Jeongguk didn’t know him better, he’d swear there was real concern in his voice there, just for a second.
“Could use some air,” Jeongguk says quietly, and Taehyung nods, leaning over him to open the tiny window across from the shower. The air is cold and sharp, but it’s just what his lungs need, and Jeongguk takes several deep breaths to clear the smoke from them.
Taehyung watches him, face impassive. If Jeongguk was paying attention—which he isn’t—he’d note how good Taehyung looks in his navy floral-print shirt and bomber jacket, the rips in his pants pulling attention to how long his legs are. Taehyung notices him looking and his lips purse, an eyebrow hitching up as he stares right back.
The bathroom is suddenly very, very small.
Jeongguk’s face gets hot and he snaps his eyes down to his hands, which are twisted in his lap. “Thank you,” he says shyly.
The atmosphere relaxes, and Taehyung’s expression softens just a tiny bit. “No problem,” he says, crossing his arms. “They’re all really pushy people, and it’s hard to say no sometimes.”
“You know them?” Jeongguk asks, surprised.
“Yeah,” Taehyung replies, looking back at the door. “They used to be some of my best friends.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, trying to puzzle that sentence out. Used to.
“I haven’t touched anything other than alcohol in a year,” Taehyung explains, crossing his arms and leaning back against the sink. When Jeongguk blinks, startled, Taehyung laughs. “You were curious,” he says. “I could see it on your face.”
Jeongguk shrugs awkwardly. He’s not really sure what he’s supposed to say to Taehyung—he only really knows how to insult and make fun of him.
“I just don’t do any of it,” Jeongguk says, thinking he might as well attempt to be civil. “I don’t really drink, either.”
“Wow,” Taehyung drawls. “You come to all these parties and don’t drink?”
“I don’t swim as well if I do,” Jeongguk says, frowning. “Make fun of me all you want, but it gets me results.”
Taehyung holds up his hands. “I mean, it makes sense. You look like the kind of guy to get drunk off two beers.”
“And you dress like you live off vodka,” Jeongguk shoots back.
“I used to,” Taehyung laughs, and something in Jeongguk sort of dissolves at the sound, a part of his heart sliding sideways and settling in his ribcage.
Oh no, he thinks helplessly, watching the small smile that flickers across Taehyung’s face.
“Good to see you haven’t suddenly gone soft,” Taehyung teases. “That’d be a real shame.”
Jeongguk glares at him. “Why would I suddenly start liking my arch-nemesis?”
“Oh, I dunno,” Taehyung says sarcastically, “because I saved your poor fragile ego just now?”
There’s still no real heat behind his words, not like the derision he’d spoken with the first time they’d met in the cafeteria all those weeks ago.
“My ego’s doing just fine, thanks,” Jeongguk replies, “seeing as I just killed it at our last meet.”
Taehyung wrinkles his nose. “Yuck. Congrats, I guess.”
“Thanks,” Jeongguk says, leaning back against the toilet, feeling much lighter than he was ten minutes ago when he was curled up on the couch feeling sorry for himself. “I really should find my friends, though.”
“Sick of me at last?” Taehyung asks, doing that half-smile again.
“Yes,” Jeongguk fires back, swallowing down the very unexpected urge to tell him no, actually, this is the most comfortable I’ve felt all night.
Taehyung waits while Jeongguk struggles with himself, not sure where all of these ridiculous-sounding truths are coming from. Probably the masochistic side of him, the part that’s also responsible for how he keeps dragging himself to morning practices despite hating them with his whole being.
“I just— I mean,” he starts, looking back down at his hands so he doesn’t have to watch Taehyung’s face, “I don’t— I don’t like parties,” he finally gets out. “I never know how to talk to people.”
Taehyung doesn’t say anything for a second, and Jeongguk dares to glance up at his face, which is nothing but thoughtful. There’s no judgment in sight.
“That explains a lot,” he says slowly, looking down at Jeongguk. “Huh.”
Jeongguk knows there’s subtext to read into but he can’t decipher it, so he gives up because he’s too tired.
“I misjudged you, I think,” Taehyung tells him, so quietly Jeongguk thinks he’s imagined it for a second.
“What?” He asks, voice too loud for the tiny space.
“A truth for a truth,” Taehyung merely replies, giving him a long look. “Jimin’s in the living room, by the way.”
Then the bathroom door’s opening again, and Jeongguk can only watch as Taehyung leaves. The silence that falls over the room as soon as he’s gone feels weird, and the bathroom is suddenly too big for just one person.
Unsettled and thrown-off in a way he can’t quite put his finger on, Jeongguk goes to find Jimin. He’s in the living room just like Taehyung promised. Jeongguk had missed him when he’d gone through because there’s a man in his lap, blonde and fast asleep, his head tucked into Jimin’s shoulder.
“Is that Min Yoongi?” Jeongguk asks, and Jimin huffs irritably.
“Yes,” he says. “I invited him here so I could get laid, but the stupid idiot shows up and falls asleep as soon as he sits down.”
“You know you could just wake—“
“Do you see how cute he is,” Jimin says flatly, hugging Yoongi closer to him. “Look at him. Look at him.”
“I’m looking,” Jeongguk says, afraid to get any closer. Asleep or not, Min Yoongi still sort of scares him. “He’s pretty cute.”
“Then you know I can’t wake him up,” Jimin says matter-of-factly. “He’s even holding my hand.”
“He really is,” Jeongguk agrees, nodding.
Jimin narrows his eyes. “What happened to you?”
“What do you mean?” Jeongguk says, trying to keep his voice steady. There’s no way Jimin could know about the strange encounter in the bathroom, but Jeongguk’s still on edge.
“You’re not…in a bad mood,” Jimin says suspiciously, looking Jeongguk up and down. “Oh my god, did you get laid?”
“No!” Jeongguk bursts out, and when Jimin only looks more suspicious, he scowls. “No,” he repeats. “I just had…an enlightening conversation.”
Jimin’s eyebrows are about to leave his forehead. “Where?”
“The, uh, bathroom,” Jeongguk says, slowly realizing that he’s only digging a deeper hole.
“With who?” Jimin asks. “Jeongguk, come on, just tell me the whole story.”
“It was Kim Taehyung, okay,” Jeongguk finally says, looking down. “He helped me out. And then we talked.”
“And?” Jimin prompts, mouth curling up in a way that feels vaguely menacing.
“And nothing,” Jeongguk says, but he can feel his cheeks heating up and knows Jimin can read everything on his face. “Then he left. That’s—hey, don’t laugh at me—that’s it.”
“Uh huh,” Jimin says, shifting Yoongi in his lap and laughing some more. “Okay.”
“I’m going home,” Jeongguk sighs, giving up. He turns on his heel and starts towards the door.
“Taehyung looked really good tonight, didn’t he?” Jimin calls after him, and Jeongguk glances over his shoulder just as Jimin gives him a distinctly unsettling, knowing look.
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk replies. “I didn’t notice.”
It’s a lie, though, and they both know it.
After the party, things are irrevocably changed between him and Taehyung. It’s sort of like watching a car wreck happen in slow-motion, Jeongguk thinks, one horrifying thing unfolding after the other. First, it starts with him noticing everything about Taehyung, all the time. Like when he changes the studs in his ears to hoops, or that one day when he wore that white t-shirt that dipped low on his collarbones and distracted Jeongguk so much he put his elbow in his pasta. Or how his eyes fold when he smiles, or—the worst one yet—the way his voice sounds when he says Jeongguk’s name, not friendly but not disgusted either.
Jeongguk looks and looks and looks at Taehyung, and Taehyung stares right back. He never says anything, though, just waits wordlessly—though for what, Jeongguk can’t say.
Meanwhile, practice picks up in intensity. They enter the dreaded Hell Week and Jimin complains about how he never sees them anymore. Bambam and Yugyeom’s budding relationship takes a blow, staggering under Bambam’s disappearance, his life utterly consumed by swimming.
They walk onto the deck on Friday and are greeted by the sight of Johnny staring at their set in open-mouthed shock. Even Two, who takes on every set with way too much enthusiasm, looks a bit anxious.
“Oh god,” Bambam says immediately, and Jeongguk feels his stomach swoop as they approach Chanyeol, who looks like he’s about to cry. “How bad is it, hyung?”
“It’s all hard free,” Chanyeol says.
“There’s a ‘but’,” Bambam groans. “What’s the catch?”
“It’s purposeful interval failure,” Chanyeol continues. “Five 50s on the 30 at the end of the set.”
Bambam takes the paper from him, and Jeongguk reads over his shoulder. The set that greets them is truly a horrific sight—a gruesome mash-up of lung-busting 200s, followed by multiple rounds of 125s and 75s.
“I’m going to be sick,” Bambam mutters.
“It won’t do you any good,” Chanyeol replies quietly. “Coach Choi will make you get back in the water, and Wu is so afraid of her that he won’t let you sit for a round.”
“I’m afraid of her too,” Bambam says, eyeing their coach warily. “Only a demon would make us swim something like this.”
“Let’s just get it over with,” Jeongguk says, snapping his cap onto his head. “I already don’t feel good.”
“Still tired?” Chanyeol asks, frowning.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk admits. “It feels like all my muscles are melting away, too. I’ve never felt weaker in my life.”
Chanyeol purses his lips. “Are you getting all your vitamins?”
“I think so,” Jeongguk says, a little surprised. “Why?”
“I’m in nutritional science,” Chanyeol explains, “and if it’s continued fatigue and weakness, I wonder if it’s a medical condition.”
“Well, I’m eating a ton,” Jeongguk says, “and I sleep at least eight hours every night. So I just think it’s swimming.”
“There’s usually a fair chance that it is,” Chanyeol agrees.
“When in doubt, just blame the sport,” Bambam says. “I don’t think Yugyeom’s buying it, though.”
“Are you still not dating?” Mingyu asks, jumping into their conversation, fiddling with his goggles.
“Not yet,” Bambam says. “I’m trying to do this right. And it doesn’t involve hooking up with him at every available moment.”
“It doesn’t?” Mingyu asks, looking genuinely confused.
“No, you asshat,” Bambam huffs, whacking Mingyu on the back of the head. “ You’re the reason romance is dead.”
“And you’re the reason Yugyeom’s frustrated,” Mingyu points out. “Sexually frustrated.”
“I didn’t say I haven’t hooked up with him,” Bambam shoots back, wiggling his eyebrows and smiling greasily.
“Okay, I’m out,” Mingyu says, and Chanyeol, also looking vaguely panicked, follows him towards the pool. “I’m not in the mood to hear about your sex life, as thrilling as I’m sure it is.”
“You’re just jealous,” Bambam calls after him, but Mingyu ignores him.
“Ah, it’s so satisfying to get the upper hand on that guy,” Bambam tells Jeongguk, patting him on the back. “And now you know he’s okay with gay people. So, you can come out to him.”
Jeongguk gives Bambam an exasperated look. “Will you give it a rest? I’ll do it when I’m ready.”
Bambam opens his mouth to reply, but is cut off by Coach Wu, who comes out of his office and begs them to get in the water before Coach Choi shows up and yells at all of them.
“Please,” he says, waving them towards the pool, “she’s so scary. I’m already so high-strung because of the baby. Help me out here, boys.”
Warm-ups are surprisingly relaxing without Coach Choi breathing down their necks. Jeongguk is just starting to hope she’ll miss the main set when the deck door slams open.
“Speak of the devil,” Jeongguk mutters to himself while several of the other guys flinch back, ducking down into the water to make themselves smaller targets.
“Why are you at the wall?” She shouts at them, more irate than usual. “Get going or I’m adding another thousand!”
“On the bottom!” Seokjin calls hurriedly, and Jeongguk grips the wall, watching the clock. As soon as it hits thirty, he pushes off. He’s in the slower lane today—technically, he should be in lane two, but Chanyeol had gently talked him into moving down one, just so he’d feel better by tomorrow. As they get through the set, one aching round after another, Jeongguk begrudgingly admits that Chanyeol probably had a point. Even in lane three, he’s struggling to keep up—a couple of times, Bambam’s fingertips graze his feet, a warning of how slow he’d gotten. At some points, the longer intervals don’t feel much longer at all—he gets to the wall and has to leave immediately most of the time, and he never catches his breath.
What’s happening to me? He thinks as he pulls himself out of the water after the cool-down. Where did I screw up?
He’s half-afraid Coach Choi is going to confront him about his performance, but she storms off the deck as soon as practice is over, clearly still upset.
“I wonder what’s up,” Mingyu remarks as they drag themselves into the locker room.
“You know how she is, though,” Shiwoo comments. “Maybe it’s a woman thing.”
Seokjin whacks him on the head. “Or maybe it’s a human thing, and she’s just upset.”
Shiwoo looks appropriately reprimanded, and they scatter to go change.
“Are you coming to dinner and study group?” Bambam asks. “Or are you skipping with Jimin?”
“Jimin’s busy with Yoongi tonight, or something,” Jeongguk says, “so yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Cool,” Bambam says. “I could seriously use some downtime. Do you think we could convince the rest of the sophomores to just chill tonight?”
“Mingyu and Jaehyun never do any work, so yeah,” Jeongguk says. “And Chan’s given up on us, so I think we’re good.”
“Thank god,” Bambam groans, toweling off his hair. “I sort of feel like I have to cry, and if I do homework tonight I definitely will.”
Jeongguk nods. He knows where Bambam’s coming from, because he feels the same way. The exhausting pressure building in his chest, the clog in his throat, and the slow simmer of a mental breakdown in the back of his mind are all waiting to explode. It’s only a matter of time, really, before it happens. Everyone has one at least once a season, conveniently timed right when practices are at their hardest. Mingyu’s had been last night, where he’d called Jeongguk at two in the morning in a panicked daze and Jeongguk had gotten out of bed to track him down to where he’d been sitting on a bench at the edge of campus, talking about how he was never going to get faster and his ex-girlfriend kept hurting him and he was never going to amount to anything, period.
It’s nice, though, to be with his friends, and not do anything but fuck around and play Fortnite on Jaehyun’s iPad. It makes him feel human again, sitting next to Bambam with one headphone in, watching Chan kick Jaehyun’s ass while Mingyu dozes in his bed, hood pulled up over his wet hair. This is the best part about swim team, Jeongguk thinks. Coming from someone who doesn’t make friends easily, who can never find the right thing to say.
“I hate swimming,” Jeongguk announces suddenly, just because he can. “Goddamn, I’m tired.”
“Same,” Mingyu and Bambam chorus at the same time, while Chan rolls his eyes, nodding.
He’s about to ask Jaehyun for a turn when his phone buzzes three times in a row.
“Ugh, Jimin,” Jeongguk mutters, digging through his sweatshirt for his phone. “He always texts like that.”
pjm: you needa come right!!! now!!!!!!
pjm: [location attached]
Jeongguk leans over and shows Bambam the texts. “Where is this?”
“Uh, those are the on-campus apartments,” Bambam says. “For the juniors and seniors.”
“Should I go?” Jeongguk asks. “It doesn’t look urgent—”
pjm: ITS URGENT
pjm: jeongguk please if you love me you’d come
pjm: i’m sorta having a rough time??? idk how to explain
“Seems pretty urgent,” Bambam notes. “You should probably go. Jimin wouldn’t say something like that and joke around.”
“Are you fucking kidding me,” Jeongguk huffs, “that’s exactly what’d he do.”
Yet somehow, he still finds himself trekking across campus towards the location Jimin had given him, stopping in front of the fist apartment on the right. There’s a tall boy waiting there, hands jammed in his pockets. He squints as Jeongguk comes into the light, and Jeongguk stops, feeling like he’s not supposed to be here.
“You’re Jeon Jeongguk, right?” The boy asks. “I’m Kim Namjoon. Park Jimin said you’d be coming.”
“Is he okay?” Jeongguk asks right off the bat.
“Yeah,” Namjoon says, then pauses. “Well, sort of. He’s…actually, you’ll see.” He scans his card on the reader, and the apartment door unlocks. “Come on up.”
Namjoon takes him up the elevator and into his apartment, which is full of people wearing nice clothing and drinking out of cocktail glasses. Indie music trickles through the whole area, and Jeongguk distinctly feels like he’s stepped into an alternate dimension, only he’s out-of-place in his ratty sweatpants and the denim jacket he’d put on over his hoodie.
Namjoon points to a closed door. “He’s in that room.”
“You’re not gonna come in?” Jeongguk asks, feeling more and more worried with each passing second.
“I think he needs his best friends,” Namjoon says cryptically. “Good luck.”
Jeongguk’s stomach swoops, and he steps into the room. Jimin’s curled up on the bed inside, and Jeongguk can just make out his face in the half-light coming through the window. It’s not a pretty sight, either—Jimin’s eyes are red and his lips are cracked, face swollen from the tears that still slide over the bridge of his nose and onto the bedsheets.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk breathes, rushing to the bed.
“Guk-ah,” Jimin mumbles, pushing himself up. “You came.”
“What happened?” Jeongguk asks, climbing up next to him.
Jimin lets out a miserable sob and tips forward, nearly knocking Jeongguk over.
Jeongguk catches him, lets Jimin cry into his jacket and pats his back as best he can.
“What happened?” Jeongguk repeats when Jimin stops to catch his breath, wiping his eyes and sniffling. “Is it Yoongi-hyung?”
“Don’t say his name,” Jimin mumbles. “He fucking—I hate men, Jeongguk, fuck them, honestly. I’m going to find a girl who loves me and won’t be so fucking dense and call me a slut—”
“He did what,” Jeongguk hisses. “He called you a slut?”
“Not directly,” Jimin says, and sniffs, tears catching in his lashes. “But he said—he said he d-didn’t wanna see me if I was going to keep sleeping around and not t-taking things seriously.”
“Oh, fuck no,” Jeongguk says heatedly, bolting up. “I’m going to kick his ass the next time I see him. I don’t care if he’s older than me, he’s going down—”
“Jeongguk, no,” Jimin whispers, tugging him back down. “Don’t hurt him.”
“But he—!” Jeongguk tries, but Jimin cups a hand to his cheek before leaning forward and hugging him again. “What else did he say?” Jeongguk asks instead, and Jimin speaks into the fabric of his jacket.
“Nothing,” he answers. “I tried to tell him that it’s been only him for the last three months, that I haven’t gone home with a single person besides him—you know I’d been waiting for him to deal with his commitment issues so I could ask him out.”
“I know,” Jeongguk mutters. “And he didn’t believe you?”
Jimin sniffs wetly. “He said someone had told him they’d seen me walking home with the same guy every time I went out.”
“Who said it?” Jeongguk asks, trying not to sound too threatening and failing spectacularly.
“If I knew, I’d let you kick their ass,” Jimin says, and sits up as the bedroom door opens again. “Oh,” he mumbles, relieved. “Taehyung. Hi. I called Jeongguk, too.”
Taehyung meets Jeongguk’s eyes across the room, looking surprised. They stay there for a moment, just staring at each other, before Jimin clears his throat and holds his hand out of the water Taehyung’s brought with him. They both startle into motion, Taehyung reaching over to hand the water to Jimin while Jeongguk shifts awkwardly on the bed.
“Thanks,” Jimin says quietly, and it falls silent as Jeongguk and Taehyung go back to staring at each other, connected by something strange and humming.
“You didn’t need to come,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung shifts, scowling at his tone of voice.
“I was already here,” Taehyung points out. “How nice of you to come when your hyung calls you.”
Jeongguk knows it’s supposed to sound mocking, but it doesn’t feel like it—it’s strangely fond, and doesn’t sit quite right with him. Either way, though, he jumps to defend himself, because it’s Taehyung and everything he says is supposed to be nasty. But he finds that he still can’t dredge up the ability to snap back at Taehyung, and ends up sounding sincere instead of aggressive.
“Jimin’s my best friend,” Jeongguk says.
“Jeongguk,” Jimin admonishes, exasperated, but Jeongguk ignores him.
“I didn’t come here because he’s my hyung, or because I feel responsible for him,” Jeongguk continues, crossing his arms. “I came here because I care.”
Taehyung stares at him for a moment, blinking soundlessly. Then, unexpectedly, his face softens, shoulders relaxing as he comes nearer to the bed. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “That was—that was unfair of me to say.”
“Yeah it was,” Jeongguk says, unable to help himself. “But—yeah. I forgive you. And I’m sorry too, for snapping at you.”
“It’s okay,” Taehyung replies. “I’m sure you’re a great friend.” Jeongguk can feel Jimin start in surprise behind him. Honestly, things get so weird between them so frequently that Jeongguk doesn’t even think twice about how fast their conversation flipped around.
“I’d be an even better friend if Jimin let me go kick Yoongi’s ass,” Jeongguk says.
“For the last time—” Jimin starts, exasperated.
“I’ll help you if you save a punch for me,” Taehyung cuts in, and he and Jeongguk share a tentative smile.
“Okay, fuck this, I’m going to the bathroom,” Jimin declares, sliding off the bed. “You guys are weird.” He turns to Jeongguk, offering him a small smile. “Thanks for coming, Guk.”
“Yeah, always,” Jeongguk says, and then Jimin slips through the open door, leaving Jeongguk and Taehyung alone.
“He really does love you a lot,” Taehyung remarks. “How’d you guys become friends?”
Jeongguk turns pink. “Well, uh—it’s a funny story. Because I don’t make friends easily, right? It’s hard for me to have a conversation without fucking something up.”
“You’re doing a great job right now,” Taehyung points out, and Jeongguk gives him a fake smile.
“That’s because I’m not trying to be your friend, dumbass,” Jeongguk replies, but Taehyung merely crosses his arms, leaning back against the wall and gesturing for Jeongguk to continue.
“Anyways, long story short,” Jeongguk says, “Jimin vomited on my shoes, spent a whole day tracking me down, all but kidnapped me after swim practice and took me out to dinner. He didn’t give me much of a choice on whether I wanted to be friends with him or not.”
“Adorable,” Taehyung says, and it almost sounds like he means it. “Jeon Jeongguk has a heart after all.”
Jeongguk pauses here, because Taehyung’s got this odd look in his eye, something that sends a shiver down Jeongguk’s spine but also fills his stomach with butterflies. The strange humming is back, and Jeongguk can almost breathe it in. Taehyung takes a step closer, his eyes intently flickering over Jeongguk’s face.
Jeongguk freaks out a little, because he sort of knows what’s coming. He looks around desperately, and finds Jimin’s cup of water on the nightstand. “Maybe I don’t have a heart,” he says, and reaches for the cup.
Taehyung realizes what he’s going to do a second too late, and by then, Jeongguk’s already dumped it down the front of his nice white t-shirt with a cackle. The humming lets up, just a little, as Jeongguk laughs.
“You,” Taehyung says, face darkening, “are going to fucking die tonight, Jeon Jeongguk.”
“Not if you can’t catch me,” Jeongguk sings, feeling lighter than he has in ages as he bursts out of the bedroom. He shoves through the people in the hallway and nearly takes Jimin out, who ducks back into the bathroom with a confused look on his face. He can hear Taehyung behind him, apologizing to the same people Jeongguk had bowled through. He reaches a dead end, and before he can do something awesome like jump out a window or barrel-roll through Taehyung’s legs and escape the other way, Taehyung’s right up in his space, expression a cross between furious and amused.
“You’re such a little shit!” He exclaims. “Here I was, thinking you were aloof and goody-goody when in reality you’re stupid and demonic!”
“Goody-goody, huh,” Jeongguk snaps right back, “and aloof. You and your assumptions. You think you know everything about me, don’t you?”
“No,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk’s next words die on his tongue. “I don’t. But I’m trying.”
There’s an unreadable look on Taehyung’s face, his eyes dark as he studies Jeongguk.
“You—you’re what?” Jeongguk asks, unbelievably thrown-off.
“Not so clever now, are you,” Taehyung replies, and takes a single step closer—close enough that Jeongguk can smell his deodorant and see how his hair falls across his forehead, a little messy but still entrancing, just like the rest of him.
“What?” Jeongguk says, nothing really registering in his brain because Taehyung keeps looking, not saying anything. And Jeongguk—well, Jeongguk can’t do anything but stare back, pinned by that gaze and trapped in the space between them, the air in his lungs heavy with tension and sending a heady rush of feeling through his veins until his fingers tingle with anticipation of something.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk somehow knows to lean forward, mirroring his movement, and then they’re kissing and it’s like all of the bones in Jeongguk’s body have dissolved. His focus narrows down to Taehyung’s mouth on his, the tentative way he presses closer, one hand sliding up Jeongguk’s neck to his jaw, like he’s afraid to touch.
I’m kissing my arch-nemesis, Jeongguk thinks dizzily. Who’s a boy. In front of everyone.
But then Taehyung opens his mouth, and his tongue adds to the slow slide of lips and every rational thought in Jeongguk’s head scatters. All he can do is cling to Taehyung and let him lead, trying not to bump noses every time one of them shifts. Taehyung walks them backwards until Jeongguk makes contact with a wall, or a door—or maybe a person, but he doesn’t really care, because his nerves are short-circuiting and his blood is singing. Kissing Taehyung has made him reckless, and he’s just brave enough to reach out and grab Taehyung’s hip, pulling him forward until Jeongguk can feel the warmth of his body. Taehyung makes a low noise in the back of his throat—not quite a moan, but close—and there’s a terrifying spike of heat, low in Jeongguk’s abdomen, that makes him stop and finally pull away.
He’s out of breath, panting like he’s just sprinted a 50, and his lips are buzzing and a little numb. There’s a heavy fog in his head, too, and every part of him wants to lean right back in.
“Uh,” Jeongguk says eloquently, blinking at Taehyung, who looks a little messy too. It gives Jeongguk a distinct feeling of satisfaction, looking at Taehyung’s red lips and wild eyes and know he did that.
“See,” Taehyung says, “I’m trying to get to know you.”
“The inside of my mouth, more like,” Jeongguk mutters, and Taehyung goes a shade of pink that Jeongguk’s never seen on him before, and it only makes him want to kiss Taehyung more, if that’s even possible. Taehyung lifts his eyes to meet Jeongguk’s, and, just like always, doesn’t back down.
“So,” he says.
“So,” Jeongguk replies, shifting uncomfortably, and suddenly Taehyung is too close, and this whole situation is too overwhelming. Everything comes shattering down around him, like he’s been doused with a bucket Panic seizes in his chest, threatening to constrict his airway if he doesn’t get out of here right now. “That was a great kiss. See you around.”
“Wait, what?” Taehyung asks, and Jeongguk takes that moment of confusion to yank his hands away from Taehyung and make a run for it, crashing back down the hall and through the living room. He vaguely registers both Namjoon and Taehyung shouting his name, but it only spurs him on, and he vaults over the couch and towards the hallway. He bursts out of the apartment, taking the stairs two at a time, and when he finally emerges into the night, he doesn’t stop running until he’s halfway back home, just in case Taehyung was crazy enough to follow him.
After triple-checking to make sure he’s alone, Jeongguk finally lets himself breathe, gulping down lungfuls of the cold air and bracing his hands on his knees as his heart rate slows.
“Oh my fucking god, ” he says aloud, standing upright as everything finally catches up to him. His brain almost breaks in half as it catalogs every single aspect of the kiss, from the hitch in Taehyung’s breath to the feeling of his fingers on Jeongguk’s skin—
“NO,” Jeongguk shouts, setting his jaw and slapping his cheeks hard, trying to bring himself back. “I can’t believe I just kissed Kim Taehyung. And liked it.”
Saying it aloud, somehow, makes it fifteen times worse. Jeongguk has never wanted to drown himself more than he does right now.
It’s the ultimate walk of shame back to his dorm room, where Bambam is sitting on his bed, idly scrolling through Reddit, though he sits up with wide eyes as soon as Jeongguk opens the door.
“I thought you went to go help Jimin,” Bambam says, “so why do you look like that?”
“I did go to help Jimin,” Jeongguk says numbly, taking his shoes off and flopping down on his bed. “Yoongi was a fucking asshole to him and broke his heart.”
Bambam grimaces. “Oh, shit. Is he okay?”
“I think he will be,” Jeongguk replies. “Eventually.”
“And what about you? Are you gonna be okay?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says, and Bambam sets his phone down, waiting.
“Well?” He prompts when Jeongguk doesn’t say anything and continues to sit in shocked silence.
“Well,” Jeongguk starts slowly, “I, uh, maybe just made out with Taehyung.”
Bambam sits there for a second before he shrieks. “You what?” He shouts, diving forward off of his bed and grabbing Jeongguk by the shoulders. “What do you mean, you maybe made out with him?”
“I mean, he literally kissed me,” Jeongguk says, head jerking as Bambam shakes him violently. His face gets warm just thinking about it.
“Your face—holy shit, you liked it!” Bambam yells. “You kissed your nemesis and you liked it?”
“I liked it,” Jeongguk repeats in shell-shocked horror. “Oh my god.”
“Oh my god is fucking right!” Bambam exclaims, his face splitting into a grin. “Finally! My best friend’s getting some! The third member of the golden gay trio has long at last kissed another man in a semi-public place—”
“Okay, don’t say that, you’re going to give me a panic attack,” Jeongguk hisses. “It’s already bad enough.”
“How could this possibly be a bad thing?” Bambam demands, shaking Jeongguk a bit more. “Fuck, did he force himself on you? Was he a terrible kisser? Did he make unreasonable demands?”
“No, no, and no,” Jeongguk says. “I was probably the unreasonable one. I sorta…ran away?”
Bambam gives him an exasperated look before groaning and flopping forward on Jeongguk’s bed. “Of course you did. Jimin gives me so much shit for acting all panicked around Yugyeom, but at least I haven’t run away from him.”
Jeongguk shoves Bambam off his bed. “Fuck off. This is why I don’t tell you shit.”
“I’m your best friend,” Bambam cackles from the floor, climbing back into his own bed. “You’re obligated to tell me these things.”
“Sometimes I wish you were normal,” Jeongguk sighs, “and not ridiculous.”
“Too late,” Bambam says, but later, when they’re lying there in the dark, he listens seriously and doesn’t laugh, not even once.
“Maybe he hates me now,” Jeongguk says. “I mean, really hates me.”
Bambam turns onto his side. “He doesn’t.”
“Jeongguk,” Bambam interjects, “just go to sleep, okay? He doesn’t hate you. And if even if he did, we’d just take care of it in the morning, okay?”
Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut against the sudden wave of gratitude that threatens to make him say some stupid shit. “Okay. Night, Bam.”
“Night, Jeongguk,” Bambam says. “It’ll be alright.”
It is not, by anyone’s definition, alright. And it starts with a video.
They wake up at seven for their Saturday practice, and Bambam’s humming under his breath as he waits for Jeongguk to track down his other sneaker, mindlessly tapping through Snapchat. He’s not really looking, until he gets to a friend, who’s screenshotted and posted a five-second long video on his story of two guys, tucked into a corner and kissing, complete with a long ‘lololololol’ and ‘kids these days are wild’ captioned over it. It wouldn’t normally be a problem, of course—except one of the guys is Jeongguk, pressed up against the wall by whom Bambam assumes is Taehyung, even though the camera doesn’t get his face.
“All good?” Jeongguk asks, and Bambam hurriedly shuts his phone off and sticks it in his pocket, forcing what he hopes is a reassuring smile on his face.
“Yep,” Bambam says. “Peachy. Let’s go, or we’ll be late.”
The atmosphere in the locker room is…weird, to say the least. Seokjin gives Jeongguk a sympathetic look and Chanyeol pats him on the back, while Mingyu straight-up avoids him, brushing past him without so much as a hello.
“What’s wrong with him?” Jeongguk asks Jaehyun, who only gives him an unreadable look before going to join Chan at their lockers.
Jeongguk turns to Bambam. “Uh, what’s going on?” He asks, and watches a myriad of emotion flicker over Bambam’s face.
“Tell me,” Jeongguk demands. “What happened? Did I do something?”
“Sort of?” Bambam says, flinching away when Jeongguk takes a threatening step towards him. “It’s just…there’s a video. And you and Taehyung are kissing but you can’t tell it’s Taehyung because you can only see your face but it’s definitely a man.” He blurts this part out very fast, like he can somehow soften the blow.
Jeongguk feels something inside of him crumble, and he sways on his feet, barely catching himself on the wall.
“And you’re—you’re sure it’s me?” He whispers, and Bambam takes a worried step towards him.
“Yeah,” Bambam says. “And I’d—I’d message the guy to take it down, but it’s only a screen recording and I don’t know the original owner of the video.”
Jeongguk sits down hard, dropping his head into his hands. He’s vaguely aware that he and Bambam are the only ones left in the locker room, but can’t bring himself to care.
“This is literally exactly what I was afraid of,” Jeongguk admits, his voice a whisper. “This is what I was trying to avoid. They probably all hate me now. No wonder Mingyu didn’t talk to me when he came into the locker room.”
“Jeongguk, no,” Bambam says, but Jeongguk, feeling like his insides are filled with glass, storms past him, slamming out of the locker room and marching onto the pool deck.
“Anaerobic sprinting today,” Chanyeol say cautiously, looking between Jeongguk and the paper in hand like he’s nervous to make eye contact. “And we only have three lanes, so crowd in today.”
There’s a bunch of groaning.
“The faster we get in the water, the faster we get out of here,” Seokjin reminds them, spurring everyone back into action. Jeongguk stands away from them, silently putting his swim cap and goggles on and tying his drag suit tighter. Bambam finally emerges from the locker room, and Jeongguk ignores the pleading looks he sends his way. Deep down, he knows it’s not Bambam’s fault at all—but he blames his best friend anyway: because he’s the one that broke the news, because he never believed how badly Jeongguk’s coming out would go, and because Jeongguk’s anger needs something to latch onto, and Bambam is nearby.
So, while Mingyu continues to ignore Jeongguk in stiff silence, Jeongguk ignores Bambam. He can feel Bambam’s hurt and confusion rolling off him in waves, and Jeongguk almost gives in and apologizes, but then decides he’s not quite done being angry yet.
He goes to the first lane—something he hasn’t done in weeks, thanks to his everlasting fatigue and the weak feeling that plagues his body—and swears that he’s going to hold 13s for all the 25s. For each one that he misses, he’ll run half a mile, just as incentive to do well.
Jeongguk lets Jiho go first during the warmup, carefully holding back the tears that threaten to leak from his eyes. There’s something about having his face in the water that makes him so much more likely to cry—maybe it’s because nobody can see him, and even if they did, his goggles hide the red and the puffiness.
“Hyung, can I go in front of you?” Jeongguk asks when the main set arrives, a daunting number of 25s and 50s all printed out neatly on the page, repetitive and hard enough that they make Jeongguk’s lungs seize preemptively.
Jiho raises an eyebrow at him, like he’s insane for asking. “Yeah, be my guest,” Jiho says, and drifts to move behind Jeongguk. “Makes it a little easier for me.”
“I just want to push myself today,” Jeongguk mutters. “I’m not feeling too great.”
“Ah,” Jiho says, realization dawning on his face. “Yeah, I saw the video—”
“On the top,” Seokjin calls out. “Five seconds.”
Jiho looks like he wants to say more, but the clock reaches fifty-nine, and Jeongguk pushes off the wall before he can hear anything else.
The set is almost as much stamina work as it is anaerobic. The intervals are just long enough that they have time to rest before being forced to sprint again, but Jeongguk is also holding 13s, so he’s already being way harder on himself than the set is. He pushes himself until his lungs feel like they’re going to cave in, until his shoulders burn and his legs start to give out. He’s exhausted and in some of the worst pain of his life, but he doesn’t stop. There’s a tiny part of him that roars victoriously at each spasm, at the stitch in his side or the way his calves tighten to the point of agony.
He only misses three 25s, so the total mileage he has to run is only a mile and a half. Doable, even by swimmer standards—and swimmers and running don’t mix.
“Jeongguk,” Bambam calls from the lane across him, but Jeongguk is still ignoring him—he can’t even remember why, he’s so tired—so he doesn’t respond, slowly taking his cap and goggles off and dunking underneath the water.
“Hey, who’s that?” Minjae is asking Two, pointing to the bleachers. Jeongguk’s heart drops as he sees Kim Taehyung, leaning casually against the railing like he hasn’t just invaded Jeongguk’s swim practice.
“Dunno,” Two answers, getting out of the pool. “Looks like one of those art guys. Maybe he’s Mingyu’s friend.”
Jeongguk keeps low to the water, hoping Taehyung hasn’t spotted him yet while he thinks desperately. He’ll have to get out of the pool at some point, and it doesn’t look like Taehyung’s going anywhere. But at the same time, the minute he stands up, his cover’s blown, and he’ll be forced to talk to Taehyung about last night and about—about the kiss.
There’s a trickle of warmth down his spine just thinking about it, and he shrugs it off angrily. He’s in a goddamn shit storm all because of that stupid kiss, so it’s not the time to be remembering it in all its explicit detail—
“You need to get out of the pool, Jeongguk,” Chanyeol says, gesturing at him from the deck. “There’s a lifeguarding class next.”
Jeongguk looks around him, startled to see that the pool is now empty of the swim team. “Oh, yeah, sorry,” he mumbles, casting another look at Taehyung and stands up. Immediately, the back of his neck tingles, and a quick glance over his shoulder as he pulls himself out of the pool confirms that Taehyung is indeed staring. It makes Jeongguk feel awkward and smug all at once—but mostly awkward, so he hurries into the locker room as fast as he can without slipping.
He changes at the speed of light, hoping that he can maybe make a break for it before Taehyung corners him. Bambam seems to have understood that Jeongguk doesn’t want to talk to him, and is quiet while Jeongguk throws all his clothes on, sloppily knotting his shoelaces and pulling his hood up. He’s just about to make a successful escape from the locker room when Chan appears in front of him, brow set and arms crossed.
“Uh, hi,” Jeongguk says uncertainly, shifting on his feet. “I’m sorta late to something, so—”
Chan cuts him off. “I’m not mad at you.”
“You’re—you’re not?” Jeongguk stutters, eyes going wide.
“No. I get why you didn’t tell us. I mean, we’re your friends, and you really could’ve told us, but I understand that you needed to take your own time. And a video is a shitty way to have that exposed.”
Chan’s cheeks are bright pink, but he doesn’t move or break eye contact until Jeongguk nods.
“Okay,” Jeongguk says slowly. “Thanks, Chan. It really, uh—”
“Yeah,” Chan mutters, rubbing the back of his head. “Anytime.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says again, and god, it’s awkward, warm feeling aside. “Great.”
“Talk to Mingyu,” Chan reminds him. “I know it’s unreasonable, but he’s angry at you.”
Jeongguk blanches at the thought of having to face Mingyu while he’s upset. “No thanks.”
“I tried,” Chan sighs. “See you later.” He moves away from the door, and Jeongguk offers him a deprecating smile before he exits, pressing himself against the wall before he fully enters the lobby. He peers around the corner, scanning the people milling about for any sign of Taehyung, before stealthily moving to hide behind a pillar. He repeats this a couple times, quietly moving closer and closer to the door. He thinks he’s doing pretty well, too, until there’s a tap on his shoulder. Jeongguk startles, whirling around, and of course it’s Taehyung, wearing a giant winter jacket and a pair of sweatpants and looking insanely attractive as always, much to Jeongguk’s immense despair.
Taehyung raises an eyebrow. “Were you trying to hide from me?”
“Uh,” Jeongguk says, “no?”
Taehyung gives him a look, like, really?
Jeongguk’s heart thuds loudly in his chest, and the same panic that had threatened his airways last night returns—only, it’s worse, because there’s the whole video thing that happened, and Jeongguk is very, very out to everyone now and it’s all Taehyung’s fault.
“Oh, look at that,” he says weakly, pointing, and Taehyung almost turns. It’s enough of an opening, though, and Jeongguk runs away for the second time in 24 hours, bursting through the gym doors and out into the morning sun. He can hear Taehyung shout his name behind him but he doesn’t stop, laughing a little hysterically at the deja-vu.
There’s a clatter behind him that tempts him to turn back—what if Taehyung had fallen or hurt himself? But he shakes off the urge and pushes himself to run faster, muscles burning from overuse and his lungs quivering at the cold, clean, non-chlorinated air.
“Jeongguk, stop, ” Taehyung shouts, closer than Jeongguk had expected.
“I’m not going to kiss you again!” Jeongguk replies breathlessly, veering right and nearly tripping over his feet. “Leave me alone!”
“I’m not trying to kiss you!” Taehyung replies. “I just—want—to talk! God-fucking-dammit, why are you so fast? ”
“I’m in a pile of shit because of you!” Jeongguk snaps, approaching a staircase and, before he can think about it, jumps it—all eight massive stairs—and lands hard on his feet, staggering a bit.
“I know—” Taehyung starts, but then there’s a massive CRASH behind him and a shriek, and that’s enough to make Jeongguk turn around, skidding to a halt when he sees Taehyung lying on the ground at the base of the stairs, tangled up in a bicycle.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk breathes, jogging over to him, but before he can help, Taehyung irritably kicks the bike to the side and stands, wincing a little.
“I know about the video,” he finishes. “Ouch, fuck, that hurt.”
“The video?” Jeongguk repeats. “You saw it?”
“Of course I saw it,” Taehyung says, hissing his he lifts his hands, the palms torn and bloody. There’s a huge hole in his sweatpants too, his knee all scraped up through the ruined fabric. “I already tracked down the girl that took it and asked her to take it off her story. I think I got the majority of the reposts, too.”
Jeongguk can’t find the words to respond, struck dumb by the statement. Taehyung had said it so casually—I already tracked down the girl. What had totally fucked Jeongguk over in minutes was fixed just as quickly by the boy standing in front of him—his so-called nemesis, the same one he’d been kissing last night. His mouth moves soundlessly as he stares at Taehyung, torn between lurching forward into his arms and running away again. He’s leaning towards the second option, but Taehyung—somehow—reads it on his face, striding forward and grabbing him by the back of the jacket before he can turn and bolt.
“If you run away from me one more time,” Taehyung says, glowering, “then—”
“Then what,” Jeongguk taunts, “what are you gonna do? You can’t catch me on foot—”
“I’ll kiss you again,” Taehyung threatens, and that gets Jeongguk to shut up, the blood leaving his face as he slowly steps out of Taehyung’s reach. “Just. Stand still and listen for a sec, okay?”
Jeongguk nods. Taehyung goes to cross his arms, remembers his hands, and starts to tuck them in his pockets.
“No!” Jeongguk panics, startling both himself and Taehyung. He grabs Taehyung’s wrists. “Don’t do that. They’ll get infected.”
Taehyung looks between his hands and Jeongguk’s face, expression thoughtful.
“I mean,” Jeongguk hurriedly corrects, “Whatever. Get infected and die, see if I care.”
Taehyung snorts. “You’re not very convincing.”
Jeongguk narrows his eyes. “We don’t like each other, remember? I don’t care about your stupid hands.”
“I went out of my way to take that video down and this is what I get?” Taehyung teases, and Jeongguk suddenly feels very, very guilty. He hadn’t even said thank-you.
“No, I didn’t say that to make you feel bad,” Taehyung blurts. “I only—I mean, I could tell it was going to bother you, especially since you hadn’t come out to your friends—”
“Whoa, what?” Jeongguk interrupts. “How did you know that? When did I say that?”
Taehyung’s eyebrows draw together. “You mentioned it last week? Two weeks ago? I don’t remember—it was super offhand. I don’t even think you meant to tell me in the first place.”
“And you remember?”
“Sure,” Taehyung says easily, and Jeongguk is struck dumb again at the simplicity of his response, like it’s obviously natural to remember things Jeongguk says—and Jeongguk thought he was the only one cataloging their conversations to the point where it bordered on friendly, or even worse— affectionate.
“Thanks,” Jeongguk tries, and is thoroughly unprepared when Taehyung smiles at him, lips pulling over white teeth and eyes scrunching up. It absolutely transforms his whole demeanor, and if Jeongguk thought he wanted to kiss Taehyung before (he did) then he really wants to kiss him now. It’s looking at Taehyung face that muddles his thoughts, and he doesn’t realize he’s saying something until Taehyung’s eyes go wide.
“What?” Taehyung asks, eyebrows raising.
Jeongguk’s heart does the stupid mushy thing again. “I—uh, go out for coffee with me?”
Taehyung’s next smile is slow, slightly confused but still warm, and dangerously affectionate.
“If you want,” Jeongguk tacks on at the end. “Unless you think you’re too cool for me.”
“Only if you promise you won’t run away again,” Taehyung says. “You look ugly when you run. All pink-faced and sweaty.”
“Uh-huh,” Jeongguk replies, crossing his arms. “You’re the one that fell off the bike. Whose is it, anyway?”
“Seokjin-hyung’s,” Taehyung answers. “I said I needed it so I could hunt you down and kill you.”
“And he just let you take it?” Jeongguk yelps. “He’s such an asshole.”
Taehyung shrugs. “You deserve it.”
“I’m taking back my offer for coffee. I hope you fall down the stairs again.”
“I didn’t fall down them,” Taehyung scoffs, “I just didn’t see them. I think I did pretty alright for my third time on a bike ever.”
“Ever?” Jeongguk asks dubiously as Taehyung preens proudly, like he didn’t crash said bike and tear his clothes and palms up.
“You’re unbelievable,” Jeongguk declares.
“I had to catch you,” Taehyung says, like that explains everything. “And you’re an athlete. I had no chance of getting you on foot.”
“I’m a swimmer,” Jeongguk reminds him. “We can’t run.”
Taehyung lifts a brow, a motion that is quickly becoming familiar to Jeongguk. “You admit you can’t do something? Do I sense character development?”
“I can’t do a lot of things,” Jeongguk says, catching himself before he rolls of the proverbial cliff of self-deprecation. “But I can punch you in the face.”
“And I can just leave you to get coffee by yourself like the loser you are,” Taehyung quips back, and Jeongguk glares at him.
“You’re an asshole,” he mutters.
Taehyung grins again. “Great!” He chirps. “I know just the place. They have good muffins.”
As they head off towards the edge of the campus, Chanyeol turns to Seokjin where they stand at the top of the steps. “How did they not notice us the whole time?”
“Love makes us blind,” Seokjin sighs, picking his way down the staircase. “When I said he could use my bike, I didn’t say he could crash it.”
“Yeah, but did you see him and Taehyung?” Chanyeol asks as Seokjin inspects the tires. “I thought they hated each other.”
“Well, it’s really hard to hate someone you get along really well with,” Seokjin comments. “I haven’t seen Jeongguk that comfortable talking to someone besides Bambam or Jimin in a long time.”
Chanyeol hums thoughtfully. “You saw that video, right? Of them kissing?”
Seokjin nods. “I already knew Jeongguk was gay, though.”
“How?” Chanyeol asks, frowning. Seokjin stands, propping his bike up and brushing his hands off.
“Because I saw how he looked at Taehyung from the very beginning,” he says, matter-of-fact, “and it was like he was falling in love.”
Jeongguk finds that when he and Taehyung aren’t spending every breath to insult one another, they actually get long extremely well. First, it starts with Taehyung humming a song under his breath and Jeongguk immediately recognizing it, despite it being a Soundcloud-only release from the artist. Then it’s when they settle into a corner of the cafe and talk easily for hours, their conversation never feeling forced or awkward or even the slightest bit uncomfortable. Sure, there’s definitely an odd… charge to the air, but Jeongguk thinks that’s normal, seeing as they’d literally made out last night.
And it’s not like he’s suddenly friends with Taehyung. There’s still a bitter taste in his mouth when Taehyung talks about how so many athletes he’s met are self-centered, and when Jeongguk broaches the topic of swimming, Taehyung cuts him off before he can get going. There’s still their usual trade of insults, back-and-forth until someone bursts into laughter or apologizes.
They stop by a drugstore where Jeongguk buys rubbing alcohol and gauze, and makes Taehyung sit on the curb while he disinfects his hands and his knee. He can feel the bemused look Taehyung’s giving him, tangible on the back of his neck, but ignores it, resolutely focusing on wrapping Taehyung’s hands up.
“You’re full of surprises, Jeon,” Taehyung remarks when Jeongguk’s done studying his knee. “Who knew you were so good at taking care of people?”
Jeongguk flicks him in the shin. “I’m not taking care of you, asshole. You crashed because of me, and now my debt’s repaid.”
Taehyung gives him a look, far too charged and dark for where they are, crouched outside a pharmacy during the late afternoon. “Is it now.”
Jeongguk’s head spins from the proximity, and he leans back in an attempt to get some air. “Yeah, it is.” He stands, and his phone buzzes three times in a row. “Ah, fuck, Jimin just texted me.”
“What’s he say?” Taehyung asks, prodding at the gauze on his palms.
Jeongguk unlocks his phone, and scans Jimin’s texts:
pjm: guk-ah i saw the video
pjm: are you okay?
pjm: we also should talk about last night im sorry for crying all over you :(
Jeongguk pauses and reads the texts aloud. A new one comes in as he does so, and Jeongguk reads that one too.
“He wants to meet up,” Jeongguk says, looking down at Taehyung. “Is…that okay?”
He immediately feels stupid for asking, especially when Taehyung’s face scrunches up as he laughs. “Why are you asking me?” Taehyung asks.
“I dunno,” Jeongguk immediately defends. “Because we were hanging out, I guess?
“I’ll see you tonight,” Taehyung says.
Jeongguk blinks. “Tonight?”
Taehyung’s smile is a little worrisome, purposeful and secretive, like he knows something Jeongguk doesn’t. “Yeah. Ji-min’s house. It’s pretty small, starts at nine.”
“And how do I know that you’re not luring me into a trap so you can kidnap me and force me to watch as you dump perfectly good french fries in the trash can again?” Jeongguk demands.
“I guess you’ll have to find out,” Taehyung says, winking. The effect of it is slightly ruined by him stepping on his own foot when he stands, and Jeongguk catches him by the shoulders before pulling back like he’s been burned. “See you later, Gukkie.”
“Bye,” Jeongguk says automatically, not registering the nickname before it’s too late. By the time he gets annoyed, Taehyung’s already gone, disappearing from sight as he rounds a corner.
Jeongguk watches him go for a second, conflicted. Then he shakes his head, clearing his mind, and texts Jimin back.
jjk: sure. where you you want to meet?
pjm: im in the undergrad library
pjm: hurry before i fall asleep lololol
pjm: or text min yoongi
jjk: DONT DO ANY OF THAT i’ll be there in 10
Jeongguk pockets his phone and starts jogging back the way he came, crossing a couple streets before he gets back onto campus. The sight of the stairs is almost enough to make him laugh as he remembers Taehyung’s expression, tangled in the spokes on the bike tire, the handlebar digging into his stomach. Something warm settles in his chest, and he almost slams into a tree in his hurry to repress all good and happy memories related to Taehyung. There aren’t many (not yet, something sly in the back of his mind whispers), but there are enough to make him worried.
Uh oh, Jeongguk thinks, not for the first time, and shakes his head again. Some water finally dislodges from his ear as he does so and he quietly rejoices not being half-deaf.
Jimin is a welcome respite from whatever’s stewing in his mind right now. His best friend’s face is pinched with worry, and he’s staring off into space, textbook open and abandoned in front of him. Jeongguk comes up behind him and taps him on the shoulder, startling him out of his daze.
“Oh, hi,” Jimin says, smiling wanly at Jeongguk. “Sit down.”
Jeongguk sits and squints at Jimin’s computer, which is showing results for how to get over a guy. Jimin slams the lid shut with a guilty look at Jeongguk, twisting his hands together.
“The video,” Jimin says immediately, “did it get taken down? I was looking for it a couple hours ago but I couldn’t find it, not even any reposts. Did you talk to someone?”
“No, uh,” Jeongguk says, “it was Taehyung.”
Jimin’s eyes widen. “Kim Taehyung?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk replies, suddenly shy. He looks down at his hands, twisting his fingers together. “He took them all down.”
“Goddamn,” Jimin whistles slowly. “That doesn’t sound like hate to me, Guk-ah, that sounds like—”
“Don’t say it!” Jeongguk bursts out, and several heads lift as people glare at him for being too loud. “I mean,” he corrects in a hasty whisper, “he just did it because he didn’t want to be in it.”
Jimin clearly doesn’t believe him. Jeongguk doesn’t even really believe himself either, but it’s either half-hearted lies or the truth, which he’s definitely not emotionally equipped to handle.
“Okay, about Yoongi,” Jeongguk says, changing the subject and watching smugly as it’s Jimin’s turn to squirm uncomfortably. “You said—you said he accused you?”
Jimin nods briefly, slouching slow in his chair and curling his arms close to his chest. “Also, he called me last night,” Jimin says. “But I didn’t pick up.”
“He probably realized you’re the best thing that happened to him,” Jeongguk assures him. “And now he’s come crawling back.”
Jimin’s brow wrinkles. “I don’t know about that,” he says dubiously. “I mean, he’s two years older than me, and he’s graduating this year. Maybe he’s found something—someone better than me already.”
Jeongguk slams his hand down on the table, getting more glares. He ignores the pointed look from the librarian’s desk and looks straight at Jimin. “Listen to me,” he says. “There isn’t anybody better than you, because there’s nobody like you in the first place. And if Min-fucking-Yoongi doesn’t think you’re good enough for him, it’s because he’s not good enough for you.” He takes a deep breath. “So don’t let him come back and call you things again. You deserve the best fucking guy on the planet, hyung. If Yoongi’s not gonna apologize like a man, then it’s not him.”
Jimin’s eyes are watering, which makes the sting of Jeongguk’s palm worth it.
“Jeongguk,” Jimin whispers.
“Don’t look at me,” Jeongguk replies, holding out a hand, “or I’ll cry too. And I’m not in the mood.”
Jimin gets up from his chair and shuffles towards Jeongguk, bending forward awkwardly and wrapping Jeongguk up into the tightest hug he’s received in his whole life.
“I love you,” Jimin says, and Jeongguk grips the back of Jimin’s shirt briefly, hoping it can convey everything he’s too awkward to put into words. “You’re my best friend, you know? I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Go to more parties, probably,” Jeongguk says, grinning, as Jimin pulls away and sits back down. Jimin waves a hand at him, bracelets and rings jingling and catching the light.
“Parties are overrated,” Jimin tells him. “We don’t ever have to go to one ever again, if you don’t want. I won’t even miss it.”
“I’m going to a party tonight,” Jeongguk says, and Jimin’s demeanor changes entirely, his whole face lighting up.
Ah, Jeongguk thinks, there he is.
“Oh, thank god,” Jimin breathes. “I don’t know how I’d live if I never got to go to another party. I’d be a changed man. I wouldn’t even know myself.” Then he seems to realize what Jeongguk’s said, and his eyes narrow. “Wait a second,” he says slowly. “Did you just say you’re going a party tonight?”
Jeongguk clears his throat. “Yeah,” he says. “I am.”
Jimin’s eyes get even narrower. “Who are you and what have you done with the Jeon Jeongguk I know and love? What are you planning, Guk-ah? What’s so important that it’s drawn you out for two parties in a row?”
Jeongguk hesitates, debating on whether to tell Jimin the truth or not. Lying would save his ego, but the truth is much more straightforward, and he doesn’t want another Mingyu incident.
“Taehyung told me to show up,” he says at last, and Jimin gives him a sly look, eyebrows wiggling. “No, you ass, it’s not like that.”
It’s probably like that, the same snide voice from before says.
Jeongguk shuts that part of him up. Panic—gay panic, specifically, is something he’s been hard-pressed to avoid this whole time, especially given the fact that he’s never slept with another guy before.
“It’s the one at Ji-min’s house again, right?” Jimin asks, leaning back in his chair. When Jeongguk nods, he makes an appreciative noise. “Ooh, that’ll be fun. I heard it’s only supposed to be about thirty people or so.” He gives Jeongguk a look. “It’ll be good for you. Less claustrophobic. Besides, you’ll have Taehyung, and you’re absolutely yourself when you talk to him. It’s astounding.”
“Thanks,” Jeongguk says, not even sure if Jimin’s complimenting him or not. He checks the time on his phone and groans. “Ah, shit, it’s almost one. I need lunch and a nap if I want to survive tonight.”
Jimin looks back down at his textbook with a forlorn expression. “And I have to finish this. Maybe I should just go home.”
“Can I come with you?” Jeongguk begs. “Bambam probably hates me by now and I really don’t want to face him.”
Jimin studies his face. “You got angry with him, didn’t you? For the video?”
Jeongguk doesn’t need to say anything. He’s sure Jimin can read the shame in his expression.
Jimin tuts, patting Jeongguk on the shoulder. “You need to talk to him, Guk-ah. Bambam’s a real big baby, remember? He’s probably beating himself up over you being a stupid brat.”
“Hey,” Jeongguk protests weakly, even if it’s true. Jimin crosses his arms, and Jeongguk relents. “Alright, I’ll go talk to him.”
“Great,” Jimin says, snatching up his phone. “Good luck. Have a nice nap and I’ll see you tonight, mm?”
“I guess,” Jeongguk answers, gathering his bag and standing. “See you later, hyung.”
“Bye,” Jimin says, not even looking up from his phone. “See you.”
Across campus, Bambam’s phone buzzes, and he lifts his head from his pillow, emerging from the self-pity party he’d been throwing himself.
pjm: jeongguk incoming!!! call mingyu!!
pjm: you wont get another chance like this!!
pjm: he’s in a good mood bc taehyung. but GOD dont tell him i said that lolol
Bambam stares at his screen for a second before he scrambles into motion, and opens up a new message to Mingyu and Jaehyun:
bb: mingyu, jaehyun, get over here jeongguk wants to talk to you guys
kmy: FINALLY ugh what a little shit
jjh: he’s got a bit of explaining to do. this better be good
bb: just come over ok??? and just listen to him.
When Jeongguk gets back to his dorm room, steeled and ready to face Bambam, he’s ambushed by the two people he wanted to absolutely avoid today: Mingyu and Jaehyun, sitting on Bambam’s bed like disappointed parents.
Jeongguk has reached his maximum limit for running away, so he fights all his instincts and stays where he is, knuckles turning white where he grips the doorframe.
“Hi,” he says timidly. He tries not to wince when Bambam lowers his hood. He looks miserable, and Jeongguk recognizes his self-pity and deprecation in an instant, the set of his shoulders and mouth a tell-all.
Mingyu crosses his arms tightly, and Jaehyun just gestures wordlessly at the desk chair.
Jeongguk sighs and drops his bag. Clearly, they’re not going to let him off easy.
“So,” Jaehyun says when he’s seated, blunt and to-the-point as always. “You’re gay.”
Jeongguk flinches, wishing the floor would swallow him up. “Uh.”
“You were kissing a guy,” Jaehyun reminds him.
“That doesn’t mean he’s gay, Jaehyun,” Mingyu says quietly. “He could be bi. Or pan.”
“I’m gay,” Jeongguk confirms, and Jaehyun nods, like he’d known it all along.
“I knew it all along,” Jaehyun says proudly.
“You did fucking not,” Bambam retorts. “Just last week you said Jeongguk was the straightest guy you met.”
“That’s a lie,” Jaehyun says, casting a hasty glance in Jeongguk’s direction. “What I meant was, uh, that you don’t…act gay? Or, uh, look it?”
Bambam scoffs. “So there’s a way we’re supposed to act and look now, is there?”
“No,” Jaehyun says, brow shining a little as he just digs himself deeper and deeper. Jeongguk watches in part-amusement, part-embarrassment. “I don’t know.”
“Well, we’re gonna work on that,” Bambam says, kicking Jaehyun hard in the side. “You can’t just say shit like that, dude. It’s like saying that all butterflyers swim and act the same.”
Jaehyun’s nose wrinkles. “God, I hope not. Can you imagine if my stroke looked like Two’s?”
“Point made,” Bambam says, kicking Jaehyun again. “Don’t be an asshole.”
“Sorry,” Jaehyun says to Jeongguk. “I mean, it’s totally cool, but, like…why didn’t you tell us?”
“Yeah,” Mingyu echoes, still subdued. Hurt flickers over his face. “I thought…well, this is sort of a big deal for you, Jeongguk, and I really, really thought you trusted us enough to tell us.”
“You’re good with it?” Jeongguk asks, unable to help himself.
Jaehyun lets out a startled laugh. “Dude, you being gay isn’t the problem. It’s why you didn’t tell us that we can’t understand.”
Behind him, Bambam meets his eyes. Jeongguk feels a wave of guilt and hot-faced shame wash over him. He owes Bambam a whole different set of apologies.
“I was afraid,” Jeongguk says. “I didn’t want it to change the way you treated me, or the way you looked at me.”
“Gotta admit,” Jaehyun admits, “it’s a little hard to wrap my head around. Like, it’s you.”
Bambam kicks him again, and Jaehyun backtracks.
“But I still love you,” Jaehyun assures him. “And you can bet I’m not going anywhere.”
“Thanks, Jaehyun,” Jeongguk tells him, and then turns to Mingyu. “I’m sorry for not telling you, Mingyu-yah. I never meant to fuck up this bad. I had every intention of coming out to you guys and I’m sorry it was like this. I should’ve done it sooner.”
Mingyu’s face is impassive for a second, before he finally softens and offers Jeongguk a smile. “It’s okay,” he says. “We’re you’re friends, Guk-ah. You don’t really need to apologize, but I’ll take it anyway.”
Jeongguk meets Bambam’s eyes again, and Mingyu catches it. “We’ll be around,” Mingyu says. “Maybe we can talk about this more later?”
Jeongguk nods, feeling something a little like hope and a lot like gratitude fluttering against his rib cage. “That’d be alright, yeah.”
Mingyu tugs at Jaehyun’s arm. “Let’s go to the vending machine,” he says. “Give Bam and Jeongguk a second to talk.”
Jaehyun looks between the two of them before agreeing, getting to his feet alongside Mingyu. “Thanks for sorting this out, Guk,” he says. “We’ll see you later, okay?”
“Sounds good,” Jeongguk says, and they both give him one last smile before leaving the room. With just him and Bambam, the air grows thick with awkwardness, and Jeongguk, for the first time in a long time, doesn’t know how to talk to his best friend.
“Sorry I was an asshole,” Jeongguk says eventually, and all tension melts from Bambam’s face. “I was upset, and I took it out on you. That was unfair.”
“Yeah, it was,” Bambam replies. “But it’s okay. I forgive you.”
Jeongguk lets out a huge breath. “Thank god. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you were gonna stay mad at me.”
Bambam smiles, and holds his arms open. With a groan, Jeongguk pulls himself out of his chair and lets the life be squeezed out of him for the second time today.
“Next time, jerkwad, tell me what’s going on inside your head,” Bambam says, stepping back and whacking Jeongguk on the head. “Don’t be an idiot.”
“It’s hard,” Jeongguk mumbles, fidgeting.
“If it’s hard, it’s worth doing,” Bambam tells him firmly. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Jeongguk agrees. “Now can I please, please take a nap? I’m exhausted.”
“Where the hell did you go after practice?” Bambam asks. “Seokjin gave his bike to some guy, apparently, and then found it at the base of the steps towards the west end.” He looks at Jeongguk. “Wait a sec, that was you?”
“I didn’t take the bike,” Jeongguk explains reluctantly. “Taehyung did. To chase me. And then we went out for coffee.”
Bambam stares at him for a long moment, clearly trying to decide if Jeongguk’s being serious or not.
“I swear I’m not making this up,” Jeongguk assures him.
“I don’t understand you guys,” Bambam says. “Do you hate him? Or not?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t—Jeongguk, how the fuck can you not know? You literally made out with him last night.”
Jeongguk shrugs helplessly. “He’s sort of assuming, a little mean, and confuses the fuck out of me at every chance he gets.”
“Yeah,” Bambam says, gesturing vaguely. “Why do you like him?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk replies desperately. “Don’t ask me these kinds of things. I’m going to sleep.”
Bambam sighs in exasperation as Jeongguk crawls into his bed, turning his back firmly on his friend and trying his best to shut his brain off before it burns itself out coming up with an answer to Bambam’s question.
As soon as his head hits the pillow, luckily, he’s out like a light, ignoring the rumble in his stomach.
His dreams are strange and colorful, and shift every time he focuses too hard. At one point, he can hear Minjae laughing at him as his coach tells him he didn’t make it to Champs, but it feels like he’s underwater.
Then it’s Taehyung, so very real and so very close, his face a hundred different colors, and when he kisses Jeongguk it’s like someone’s doused him in warm water. It gets worse after that—Taehyung suddenly isn’t wearing a shirt, and then he’s not wearing pants, and wherever his mouth touches Jeongguk starts to glow.
You’re okay, Dream Taehyung asks, right?
Jeongguk wants to nod, but he can’t move on his own volition. His tongue sits heavily in his mouth as Taehyung moves down, hands blue and gold and making Jeongguk’s vision swim. His whole body is erupting in light now, and right as Taehyung gets to the button on the front of his pants, Jeongguk yanks himself out of the dream.
He gasps awake, bolting upright. His body and mind scream sluggishly at him, and he’s so disoriented and sweaty, buried in his hoodie and blankets. Heat simmers low in his stomach, and he’s so glad he’s got his quilt over him. Bambam looks up from his computer, nodding at Jeongguk.
“Oh my god,” Jeongguk groans, feeling like his head’s full of cotton. “Jesus. How long did I sleep for?”
“Uh,” Bambam says, squinting at his computer, “five hours? It’s six-thirty.”
“Holy shit.” Jeongguk leans his head back against the wall, feeling sticky and weird, like he’d been turned inside out. “That nap just seriously fucked me up.”
“You were talking in your sleep,” Bambam says.
“What did I say?” Jeongguk asks, trying not to sound too concerned. If it was anything about Taehyung—
“Something about swimming,” Bambam says. “About Minjae and Champs.”
Jeongguk deflates. “Oh. Well, I’m sort of stressed about it.”
“You’re gonna make the cut,” Bambam snorts. “You have the fastest 100 time out of anybody on the whole team.”
“Not recently,” Jeongguk mumbles. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Every time I swim it feels like my muscles are melting and I run out of breath so fast. Like, walking up the stairs to our dorm makes me feel lightheaded.”
Bambam laughs. “You’re just overtired, Guk. Give yourself a couple more five-hour naps and I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Jeongguk stretches, his spine and shoulders cracking in a way that normally would be concerning—but he’s a swimmer, so his body is constantly making concerning noises. “I guess.”
“I’m right,” Bambam tells him. “Don’t let your anxiety win out. Do you wanna get dinner? Jimin said you guys were going to a party tonight.”
“Yeah, we are,” Jeongguk says, pulling his hoodie off and feeling like he can breathe again. “Do you want to come with?”
“Nah,” Bambam says. “I’m going out with Yugyeom tonight, since we’re free from hell.”
“True,” Jeongguk agrees. “Are we going to the fancy dining hall? Or the close one?”
“Let’s do the close one,” Bambam says, “even though it’s not as good. I don’t feel like walking.”
Jeongguk changes into a non-sweaty t-shirt and forces the last effects of the dream away, splashing cold water on his face to get rid of the pink splotches on his cheeks. They walk over to the dining hall, talking about swimming (well, complaining is closer to the truth), and Bambam even manages to weasel out a couple details about Taehyung and their kiss last night.
There are, thankfully, french fries left when Jeongguk gets to the register, as well as fried chicken, so he gets both and hopes his parents don’t check his dining hall balance, because he’s been on a bit of a spending spree recently with food.
He frets nervously when he gets back to the dorm, rummaging through his clothes and cursing his past self for bringing six pairs of sweatpants and a whole closet’s worth of ratty t-shirts and not much else. Bambam stands in the doorway of their tiny closet and laughs at him as he tears through hanger after hanger of clothing.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” Bambam teases. “Jeon Jeongguk, panicking because he doesn’t know what to wear. What happened to the same pair of jeans a t-shirt without a logo on it?”
“Taehyung’s going to be there,” Jeongguk says frantically, and Bambam laughs even harder, doubling over and cackling so loudly Jeongguk is forced to throw a shoe at him.
“Gay panic!” Bambam exclaims, hysterical. “It strikes again!”
“Fuck it, I’m going with black,” Jeongguk declares, ignoring him and yanking a t-shirt off the hanger.
“But I thought you wanted to impress Taehyung,” Bambam says, wiggling his eyebrows, “and wow him with your style.”
Jeongguk heaves a sigh. “I don’t have any style. I’m too tired for style. And fancy clothes hold the smell of chlorine for ages.”
Bambam gives him a look of fake-sympathy. “Poor Guk,” he simpers, but rifles through his side of the closet for a second before pulling out a couple things. “Here. Wear these.” He hands them to Jeongguk, who eyes it for a second.
“Bambam, is this sheer? ” He asks.
“No,” Bambam says quickly.
Jeongguk gives him a look.
“Okay, it’s sort of sheer. But you’re fit so you’ll look really good. Trust me.”
“I don’t know about this,” Jeongguk mutters. “I really just want to wear this t-shirt.”
“It’s time to move past t-shirts, Jeongguk,” Bambam says firmly. “Wear this. Look, I even gave you jeans. And you can put on those Vans you got the other month, and your earrings are in the bathroom.” He gives Jeongguk an encouraging smile. “People won’t even recognize you when you walk into that house, that’s how good you’ll look.”
Jeongguk bites his lip. He really doesn’t think he’ll be comfortable in what Bambam’s given him, but his best friend has an earnest look on his face, and Jeongguk still feels a little guilty for taking his anger out on him earlier. So, he complies, pulling on the jeans—a size too big on Bambam, so they fit Jeongguk—and the shirt, fidgeting awkwardly as Bambam instructs him on how to tuck it in, and the correct way to cuff his pants.
“And now,” Bambam announces, stepping forward with his small container of hair product, “time to get rid of your bedhead.”
Jeongguk protests for a pathetic three seconds before he caves and lets Bambam carefully tousle his hair, combing it back from his face. Jeongguk shies away from a mirror when he’s done, because he knows as soon as he sees his reflection he’ll lose confidence and burrow back into hoodies and sweatpants and lie in his bed for the rest of the night.
He doesn’t even need a mirror, not when Jimin, who meets him outside of their building, spends five minutes miming being shot through the heart and five more fluttering around Jeongguk and saying things like wow I can’t believe your body isn’t sweatshirt shaped! and oh my god you have a six pack!
“If you weren’t my best friend and I wasn’t in a thing with Yoongi,” Jimin tells Jeongguk as they walk, “I’d totally hook up with you.”
“That’s really gross to think about,” Jeongguk says, wrinkling his nose. “Thanks.”
Jimin pats him on the shoulder, humming cheerfully.
“You’re in a good mood,” Jeongguk notes as they turn onto Park Ji-min’s street.
Jimin shrugs. “I’m just glad that you and Taehyung are working out, is all. I really, really hoped you guys would click.”
“He’s my nemesis,” Jeongguk reminds him. “I hate him.”
“That’s more than you can say about a lot of people,” Jimin counters. “I know you like to pretend and all, but you look more comfortable with him than basically anyone else.”
“It’s because I don’t feel like he’s expecting anything from me,” Jeongguk says easily. “Like, he’s not impressed that I’m a swimmer, or that I’m fast, or anything. He just doesn’t like me, and because of that, I can be myself.”
“You may think he’s not impressed now, ” Jimin comments, “but I guarantee he will when he sees you in this. Goddamn, Jeongguk, you look so good. I’m really proud of you.”
“Don’t turn this into a sappy friendship moment,” Jeongguk threatens.
“Too late,” Jimin sings, latching onto Jeongguk’s arm as they walk up the path to Ji-min’s house. Jimin checks his watch. “Fifteen minutes late,” he says. “Perfect. Everyone will be here.” He turns to Jeongguk. “Are you ready?”
Jeongguk thinks about his dream, about the kiss, and about Taehyung, and feels a little faint.
“No,” he says.
“Great,” Jimin replies. “Let’s go.”
The party is in full swing when Ji-min opens the door, her face brightening as she sees the two of them.
“Jeongguk-ssi!” She says, delighted. “Hey, you made it!”
Jeongguk nods politely, leaning forward to hug her briefly. She turns to Jimin, hands planted on her hips. “What’d you do to convince him to come?” She asks, and Jimin grins.
“Wasn’t me,” Jimin says. “He decided all on his own.”
While it’s not technically true—Taehyung had made the decision for him—it’s easier to explain than the actual story, which is more embarrassing.
Ji-min smiles. “Well, I’m glad you came back. I was afraid you hated me after what happened last time.”
“No, it’s okay,” Jeongguk assures her, waving his hands. “I don’t blame you at all. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Oh, good,” Ji-min says, her shoulders dropping. “Either way, I didn’t invite them this time. I made a strict no-drugs policy this time around. It’s only drinking. No smoking, nothing else.”
“Ah,” he says, a little embarrassed, “you didn’t have to.”
Ji-min shrugs. “They’re no friends of mine if they’re going to say mean shit and pressure people. This isn’t high school, for fuck’s sake. They should know better.”
“Thanks,” Jeongguk says.
“No problem,” Ji-min replies, and gestures at the both of them. “Well, come in. It’s cold, and we’ve got plenty of food and drinks inside.” She opens the door wider to let Jimin and Jeongguk in, and then closes it behind them. “Can I take your coats?”
“Sure,” Jimin says, shrugging out of his and handing it to her. “Jeongguk?”
Jeongguk fiddles with the zipper on his, suddenly very aware of the shirt he’s wearing underneath. He glances over Ji-min’s shoulder into the living room, which is filled with people he doesn’t recognize.
“I’m good for right now,” he says, and Jimin gives him a disappointed look.
“Closet’s open if you get hot,” Ji-min replies, sticking Jimin’s coat in there. She begins to lead them farther into the house, snagging a couple of unopened beers from the cooler and offering them up.
“I’m good,” Jeongguk says, and Ji-min nods, giving one to Jimin and sticking the other back into the ice. Even if he did drink—which he mostly doesn’t, because swimming—he’s not sure if he would right now, given how jittery and nervous he already is. Everyone always says how alcohol relaxes them, but Jeongguk has only found that it makes him more sick to his stomach.
“Make yourselves at home,” Ji-min says cheerfully. “Stay out of the bathroom at the end of the hall, the toilet’s broken.” She looks at both of them, and Jeongguk suddenly feels like she sees more than she lets on. “If you need anything,” she says, keeping her eyes on Jeongguk, “let me know, okay? I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable.”
Jeongguk keeps his eyes on his hands, putting an inordinate amount of energy into keeping his posture relaxed and his face neutral.
“Cool,” Jimin says, taking a long sip of his drink. “Also, before you go—do you know if Taehyung’s here yet?”
“I think so,” Ji-min says, scanning the crowd. “He should be in here somewhere.”
“Great, thanks,” Jimin says casually, ignoring the evil look Jeongguk gives him. Ji-min pats him on the shoulder before she slips into the throng of people.
“Do I go and say hi to Taehyung?” Jeongguk asks when she’s gone, turning to Jimin.
“Not with your goddamn coat on, you don’t,” Jimin huffs, tugging at his sleeve. “Let him see you without it. Please, Jeongguk, you look so good.”
“Yeah, but I feel stupid,” Jeongguk mutters. “And uncomfortable.”
Jimin grabs him by the shoulders and looks him in the eyes, the seriousness of his expression slightly ruined by the fact that he has to get on his tiptoes a little. “Jeongguk, I love you, I really do,” he says, “but it’s time to get out of your comfort zone.”
Jeongguk sighs, and Jimin cheers and wiggles happily as he Jeongguk unzips his jacket, immediately missing the warmth and coverage of it when Jimin snatches it from him and runs to hang it up.
“Okay, you’re also so keyed-up you’re driving me crazy,” Jimin reports when he comes back, poking Jeongguk in the shoulder. “And you won’t drink—“
“—so let’s go talk to some people you like,” Jimin continues, ignoring Jeongguk. He looks through the crowd, grabbing Jeongguk’s arm and pointing. “Look, there’s Johnny from your swim team.”
Jeongguk does a double take when he realizes Jimin is right—it really is Johnny, with his hair pushed away from his face and dressed neatly in dark jeans and a button-down, face clean and posture straight. He’s talking to a guy Jeongguk recognizes faintly from last night.
Jimin drags Jeongguk over to the two of them, and Johnny grins when he sees Jeongguk. “Who’s the party boy now?” Johnny teases lightly, but before Jeongguk can go hide in the coat closet, he nudges the familiar guy next to him—Namjoon, Jeongguk remembers in a rush. “Have you met Kim Namjoon?”
“We met last night,” Namjoon confirms, nodding his head. “Jeongguk’s friends with Taehyung.”
“Kim Taehyung?” Johnny asks, looking surprised. “Damn! He’s pretty cool, Jeongguk. I always knew you had it in you.”
“He’s right over there, if you want to talk to him,” Namjoon says, pointing over Jeongguk’s shoulder. He turns, and sure enough, there’s Taehyung, wearing red and skinny jeans and looking so, so good. Like he can hear Jeongguk’s thoughts, Taehyung’s head lifts and they make eye contact across the room, heat simmering between them as Taehyung drags his gaze slowly down Jeongguk’s body and back up again, eyes dark. His lips quirk in a smile, and his eyebrow raises for a second before he turns back to his conversation. Jeongguk’s skin is tingling as he tries to figure out what his friends are talking about, left a little breathless and feeling pathetic about it because it was just a glance. A single second of eye contact, and that was it.
“I’m going to get another drink,” Jimin announces over the music, and grabs Namjoon by the arm. “Come with me!”
Jeongguk shoots Jimin a panicked look, but he’s shrugged off and left with Johnny. Luckily, his hyung has enough friendly charisma for the both of them, and Jeongguk finds himself enjoying the conversation they fall into, starting with swimming (of course) and naturally shifting towards Johnny’s home all the way back in America, about how he and Minjae speak English because he’s afraid he’s going to somehow forget it.
There’s a light tap on his shoulder about five, ten minutes into the conversation, and Jeongguk turns to see Min Yoongi, looking worn-out and pale.
“Hyung,” he says, surprised, and then remembers that Yoongi hurt Jimin’s feelings and sets his jaw, glaring.
“Uh, good to see you,” Johnny says with a concerned glance in Jeongguk’s direction.
“Hi, Jeongguk,” Yoongi says tiredly. “And Johnny Seo.”
“What’s up,” Johnny replies, and lifts his glass. “I’m gonna get more booze. I’ll be back in a second.”
Jeongguk nods, and looks back at Yoongi, crossing his arms. Yoongi notices and sighs, looking resigned. “Have you seen Jimin?” he asks, cutting straight to the chase. “He hasn’t been answering his phone, and I really, really need to talk to him.”
“I don’t think you get to talk to him,” Jeongguk says brusquely. “You really hurt his feelings, you know. You can’t just call people shit like that and then expect to get away with it.”
Yoongi winces. “I—“
“I really should punch you in the head,” Jeongguk adds, in case Yoongi doesn’t understand how serious he is. “But I promised Jimin I wouldn’t.” Jeongguk eyes Yoongi, not sure how much he knows how much damage he caused, how he reduced Jimin to tears. Yoongi meets Jeongguk’s gaze and crosses his arms, lips pursed as he waits for Jeongguk’s verdict.
“He likes you a lot,” Jeongguk continues after a beat, “but you messed up really bad.”
Yoongi nods, not even bothering to deny it. “I know. And I was wrong about all of it, and I want a chance to apologize and start over, if he’ll have me.” He curls his arms over his chest, like he’s trying to hold himself together. “I’m miserable without him.”
Goddamn, Jeongguk thinks, how can I stay angry at him after that? He studies Yoongi for a second, small and upset. He’s a lot less threatening in the night, Jeongguk decides. Min Yoongi during the day is sort of scary, but this Yoongi just looks like he wants to go to bed. He does, however, look pretty serious about apologizing.
Jeongguk debates for a second longer before he relaxes his shoulders, decision made.
“He’s in the kitchen,” Jeongguk says at last, and Yoongi looks up, face full of hope. “Don’t mess up again. I work out, and I will hit you in the face if you do.”
Yoongi looks appropriately threatened. “Okay. I’ll remember that.”
Johnny comes back, one cup in each hand. He nods to Yoongi in acknowledgement.
“Thanks,” Yoongi tells Jeongguk, giving him a meaningful look. “I’ll see you later.”
Johnny and Jeongguk watch Yoongi go, slipping through the space between people like a ghost.
Johnny hands Jeongguk a cup. “Sort of a scary dude, isn’t he?”
“He better not mess up with Jimin-hyung again,” Jeongguk says under his breath. He takes the cup from Johnny, looking into it curiously.
“Just water,” Johnny says, and Jeongguk smiles gratefully and takes a sip. As he does, though, all the hair on the back of his neck stands on end. Taehyung’s staring at him again, unabashed, gaze cutting through the air between them like a knife. Jeongguk feels warm all over, and this time, when Taehyung smiles, it sings with promise, with intent, with something too hot for where they are.
Jeongguk swallows, his throat clicking dryly, and turns back to Johnny. “Let’s do something,” he says desperately.
“What?” Johnny asks, eyebrows pulling together. “Whoa—hey, are you okay?”
“Fine,” Jeongguk says. “Is there dancing? Can we dance?”
Johnny purses his lips. “I don’t dance. I’m not that great at it.”
“Look, there’s Ten,” Jeongguk says, pointing towards the living room, where all the furniture has once again been pushed against the wall to make room for the people in the center, gripping drinks and moving to the music. “He’s your friend, isn’t he?”
“More like a colossal pain in the ass,” Johnny says, throwing back the rest of his drink and setting the cup down. “Okay. Let’s go.”
He marches towards the living room, leaving Jeongguk to stare after him in confusion. Then he decides it’s not even worth trying to figure out what’s going on there, so he reluctantly follows Johnny, already regretting suggesting the one activity that will surround him with people and ask him to perform a skill he doesn’t have. Then again, it’s either this or face Taehyung, and Jeongguk isn’t even close to brave enough to do that. So, he follows Johnny into the living room, hovering awkwardly on the fringe as Ten is introduced, gripping his drink so tightly his knuckles are going white. He doesn’t say much, but that doesn’t seem to discourage Ten, who pulls him right into the center of the living room with a bright, slightly wicked smile.
“You’re cute,” Ten comments. “You swim too?”
Jeongguk nods, trying desperately not to look affected and not sure if it’s working or not.
“Does Johnny talk about me a lot?” Ten asks, and oh, now Jeongguk sees why Ten’s interested in him.
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says. “He, uh—is he gay?”
Ten looks at Jeongguk for a long second. “Are you?”
“Uh,” Jeongguk says again. “Yes?”
“So when that boy comes over,” Ten asks, nodding somewhere off to their right, “and pulls you away, it’s okay?”
Jeongguk is suddenly overheating again, and he very purposefully doesn’t look to where he knows Taehyung is standing and looking.
“He’s looking?” Jeongguk asks faintly.
Ten smirks, eyeshadow glittering in the light. “Of course he’s looking. You’re hot and dressed like that.”
Jeongguk takes a deep breath, not wanting to have a breakdown in front of a stranger but also unsure if he can stop himself. “Okay. What, uh, should I do?”
Ten shrugs. “Don’t know. Either way, good luck. He’s coming this way now.”
“What,” Jeongguk hisses, but before he can grab him, Ten grabs Johnny’s arm and leads them farther into the crowd of people.
There’s a light tap on his shoulder, and Jeongguk startles so violently his back cracks. He turns slowly, almost dreading the big reveal, and finally comes face-to-face with Taehyung.
God, is he a sight to behold: the color is high in his cheeks, lips red and curled at the corners, and his eyes flicker over Jeongguk’s face, full with a sort of hunger that makes heat curl in the base of Jeongguk’s stomach.
“Hey,” Taehyung says, breath fanning over Jeongguk’s skin. The smell of soju tickles Jeongguk’s nose, undercut by the clean scent of Taehyung’s cologne and of course whatever clings to his clothes, heady and light at the same time, pulling Jeongguk in. “Long time no see. Thanks for coming.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk responds, clenching his hands at his sides to quell the urge to reach out and touch Taehyung. “It’s been okay so far.”
“You look really really good,” Taehyung says, smiling. It’s disarmingly sweet, and far more honest than Jeongguk was expecting, and he subconsciously relaxes. This is Taehyung, after all, whom he knows and hates, who’s never judged him and never will.
Jeongguk stuffs his hands into his pockets and smiles back. “Thanks. It was Bambam’s doing, mostly.”
Taehyung’s phone lights up in his hand, and he glances down at it, his face immediately creasing. “Sorry,” he says distractedly, unlocking it and bringing up the text. “It’s just—it’s my mom, and you know how she is—“
“Are they still giving you a ton of shit?” Jeongguk asks, but his words are lost as a new song starts, the bass heavy and booming, shaking him down through the soles of his feet.
“What?” Taehyung shouts, leaning in. Jeongguk sighs and takes him by the arm, leading him through the dancing people and upstairs, where the noise abruptly dies down when Jeongguk brings them through an open door.
“I asked if your parents still giving you a hard time,” Jeongguk repeats, and Taehyung bites his lip, looking troubled.
“Yes,” he admits after a second. “I changed my major officially yesterday, put it in print and everything, and—” he pauses, sucking in a deep breath, “and then they told me I shouldn’t bother coming home until I’ve ‘got my head on straight.’” Taehyung’s fingers form quotes around the last bit, his voice bitter and wet.
“But would you be happy?” Jeongguk asks, and Taehyung’s eyebrows rise.
“What do you mean?” He asks cautiously. “If you’re going to tell me—“
“C’mon, answer the question,” Jeongguk prompts.
“Yes,” Taehyung says without pause. “Yes, god, it’d make me so happy. This is what I want to do, what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ll chase photography to the end of the world.”
“My parents wanted me to go to law school,” Jeongguk explains, “so I could work with my dad as a consultant. But I went to swim instead, and they didn’t talk to me for so long because of it.”
Taehyung looks up at him. “But they came around?”
Jeongguk nods firmly, gathering up his courage to step forward and interlock their fingers. “They came to a swim meet last spring, and saw how happy I was.” He squeezes Taehyung’s hand. “Your parents love you. They’ll realize soon enough that photography is your version of swimming.”
Taehyung stares at him for long moment—long enough for Jeongguk to start wondering if he’d said something wrong. Instead, Taehyung lets out a little laugh. “That was a terrible metaphor,” he says, and then pulls Jeongguk in and kisses him hard.
The air between them immediately shifts, turning electric, charged, until the hair on Jeongguk’s arm stands on end. Taehyung’s fingers grip his hips, and Jeongguk shuffles closer until their chests brush. Taehyung licks into his mouth and Jeongguk’s heart stumbles, willing his hands to still as he runs his fingers through Taehyung’s hair. It’s hot— too hot, and he has to take a second to lean back and breathe.
“I’ve been wanting to do that all night,” Taehyung whispers. “Actually, I’ve been wanting to kiss you like that since forever.”
“Since forever?” Jeongguk stutters, trying to keep his breathing steady and Taehyung slowly untucks his shirt from his pants.
“Mmhm,” Taehyung hums. “You knew that.”
“Well, sort of,” Jeongguk says, taking a step back. Taehyung follows him, fingers still knotted in the hem of Jeongguk’s shirt. “You sort—you look at me, sometimes. Or you stare, and don’t turn away, and—“
“And that’s when I knew,” Jeongguk finishes. “When you looked.”
Taehyung settles his hands on Jeongguk’s waist again, looking pleased. “I’m going to kiss you again, okay?”
Jeongguk nods, and falls back into Taehyung when he leans forward again, suspending Jeongguk’s breath in his lungs and sending his heart skittering. Jeongguk is filled with the same heady rush of bravery as last time and hooks his fingers through Taehyung’s belt loops, pulling him until they line up perfectly, noses and collarbones, all the way down to their hips. Which is—well, it’s a lot, and completely new, and a little scary, like teetering on the edge of something too big. His head is all fogged over, and Taehyung’s got his mouth underneath Jeongguk’s jaw and a hand up his shirt, and there’s a curious touch over the front of his pants.
That’s when Jeongguk finds enough sanity to break away, breathing heavily. Taehyung, looking thoroughly kissed and red-cheeked, looks up at him in alarm. “Are you okay? Was that too far?”
“No,” Jeongguk says, tightening his grip on Taehyung before he can step away. “I liked it. It’s just—I mean—” He tries to find a way to say what’s on his mind— I want to, but I haven’t before— but can’t come up with anything, and ends up mouthing uselessly at words that won’t form.
Taehyung must have mind-reading skills—or, god forbid, he knows Jeongguk—because he makes a soft sound of realization.
“You haven’t slept with a guy before,” Taehyung says gently, without judgement.
Jeongguk groans and drops his head on Taehyung’s shoulder. “It’s embarrassing.”
“It’s not,” Taehyung protests, looping his arms around Jeongguk’s middle and squeezing. “It’s totally fine.”
“I want to, though,” Jeongguk mutters, pressing his mouth to the junction of Taehyung’s shoulder and neck. “With you.”
Taehyung shudders when Jeongguk lingers, teeth grazing skin. “Okay.” He tilts his head back as Jeongguk moves up the side of his throat. “I’ll—I have stuff.”
Anticipatory excitement joins the jittery nervousness in Jeongguk’s chest, mingling with the heat that quickly returns as Taehyung walking them away from the wall until he tips backwards, taking Jeongguk with him.
“What the—“ Jeongguk says, but Taehyung just laughs as the bed catches them. Jeongguk crawls forward until their knees touch.
“Wait a sec,” Taehyung says, running a hand down Jeongguk’s front, fingers catching on the buttons. “Can I take this off?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, helping with the top buttons as Taehyung works on the bottom. “Don’t tear it or Bambam’ll kill me.”
“Noted,” Taehyung grins, pushing the sleeves down and helping Jeongguk get out of it. “Holy shit, Jeongguk, you’re hot.”
Jeongguk feels like he might set on fire. It’s been a while since he’s been this self-conscious about having his shirt off—he’s constantly in a swimsuit, after all—but under Taehyung’s darkening gaze, his skin is suddenly too tight. “You always look,” Jeongguk complains breathlessly as Taehyung reaches out to touch, trailing the tips of fingers over Jeongguk’s chest. “It’s rude.”
“Oh, baby,” Taehyung coos, sliding into Jeongguk’s lap and kissing him, long and slow. “You deserve to be stared at.”
“Don’t call me that,” Jeongguk mumbles into Taehyung’s mouth. “I hate you, remember?”
Taehyung laughs, and shifts down with aching purpose. Jeongguk jumps, but Taehyung laughs again, light and teasing. “How do you want to do this, Gukkie?”
The nickname makes something inside of Jeongguk rattle. Nobody’s been allowed to call him that, not even when he was a little kid—but from Taehyung’s mouth, covered in honey and wrapped in affection, a different kind of warmth, he doesn’t mind it so much.
“Uh, I have no idea,” Jeongguk admits, wide-eyed and distracted as Taehyung shimmies out of his pants and his shirt, until he’s sitting in Jeongguk’s lap in nothing but blue briefs, skin yellow-silver in the light coming through the window. Jeongguk’s heart is racing so fast his chest hurts, and Taehyung puts his hand over it, smile far too gentle for someone Jeongguk’s supposed to hate.
“Shh,” Taehyung murmurs, stroking a thumb across Jeongguk’s collarbones. “Kiss me again and let me take care of you, okay?”
Jeongguk does, lets himself tip back onto the sheets until Taehyung is hovering above him, and then it’s just like Jeongguk’s dream, where Taehyung kisses down his throat and his chest, looking up when he gets to the button on Jeongguk’s pants.
“Yes,” Jeongguk says, the palms of his hands sweating a little.
Taehyung must sense whatever he’s feeling, because as soon as he opens the button on Jeongguk’s jeans, he crawls back up to press his nose to Jeongguk’s, staring deep into his eyes.
“We don’t have to do this,” he whispers, lips brushing Jeongguk’s with every word.
“I really, really want to,” Jeongguk answers. “I’m just nervous.”
Taehyung cards his fingers through Jeongguk’s hair. “Do you trust me?”
“You’re my arch-nemesis,” Jeongguk reminds him.
Taehyung presses his lips to Jeongguk’s, once, twice, and then a third time before he answers.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk whispers. “I do.”
“Good,” Taehyung says, and reaches down to link their hands together. “You can close your eyes, okay? I’ll take care of you.”
And somehow, Jeongguk believes him. Jeongguk believes him enough to close his eyes and hold Taehyung’s hand a little tighter, and it’s. It’s nothing, it’s everything, too much and too little all at the same time but addicting nonetheless. By the end, Taehyung’s got Jeongguk breathless and weak-kneed, lying on the bed and wondering how he got here, and how he’ll possibly ever leave.
Taehyung wipes them both down and strips the sheets off the bed before pulling his boxers on and flopping down next to Jeongguk.
“You’re sweaty,” Jeongguk complains when Taehyung refuses to get off him, but doesn’t make any effort to move either of them.
“And you smell like a pool,” Taehyung snaps back, flicking Jeongguk’s nipple in retaliation. “Gross.”
“It’s in my pores at this point,” Jeongguk says, shifting around to get more comfortable. “There’s no stopping it.”
They’re quiet for a moment, and Jeongguk stews in his thoughts until Taehyung asks, “do you regret it?”
“What, swimming? Or sleeping with you?”
“Both, I guess,” Taehyung says.
“I don’t regret it,” Jeongguk answers. “You or swimming.”
“Hmm,” Taehyung hums. “Really?”
“That was really, really good sex,” Jeongguk admits, and Taehyung laughs, poking Jeongguk in the side. “And as for swimming—as much as I hate it, and as much as it eats away all my time and makes me feel like I’m dying, I love it. The racing, the burn in my muscles, the fact that you’re always trying to beat yourself.”
Taehyung looks up at him, face wide open and bright, something like understanding or awe glimmering in his eyes.
“It makes me feel alive,” Jeongguk finishes, and glances back down at Taehyung, unable to help himself.
Taehyung smiles, soft and unreadable. “The things worth keeping usually do.”
After that, it’s like a switch has been flipped. Taehyung cannot physically keep his hands off of Jeongguk, to the point where Jeongguk has to tell him no, people are looking, please let go of me before someone sees.
At the same time, it’s not like he’s doing much better—most of his thoughts are about Taehyung, and not even anything explicit. It’s stupid things, like the way he’d fallen asleep with his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder watching a movie, or how the ever-brightening spring light had turned the honey-brown strands of his hair gold. Jeongguk plays back their afternoons and nights together and laughs underwater at their jokes, nearly misses the wall trying to figure out when he can make time to see him again.
Championships creep ever-closer, and the swim team prepares for their last dual meet of the season, hyping each other up in the locker room. Jeongguk, despite having slept well last night, is feeling more exhausted than ever, and his ears ring faintly when he stands up too quickly, vision fogging dangerously in the corners. He manages to catch himself on his open locker before he falls over, and looks around, hoping nobody had noticed. Bambam, luckily, is chattering excitedly to Jaehyun and Mingyu, and Chanyeol is helping Minjae unknot the drawstring on his suit. Seokjin, however, is looking right at him, brow furrowed worriedly.
Jeongguk ducks out of his view, silently gathering his warmups and towel. He starts to head for the door, intent on following the rest of his team out onto deck, but Seokjin blocks his way, looking concerned.
“Jeongguk,” Seokjin says, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m really, really worried about you.”
Jeongguk shifts. “I’m fine.”
Seokjin’s gaze is sharp, and Jeongguk distinctly feels like he’s being x-rayed. “I don’t believe you. You keep going down in weight during dryland, for one. Not to mention, you’re letting Minjae go in front of you during sprint sets, which never happens—I know how much you compete with him, Jeongguk, and this isn’t like you.”
Jeongguk’s cheeks heat guiltily, and he looks down at his feet. He didn’t know that Seokjin even paid that much attention to him, much less cared about whether or not something was going on.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” Seokjin finishes softly. “Ask Jiho to switch with you. Get him to swim the 400 freelay.”
“No,” Jeongguk says stubbornly. “I’m okay. I can swim it.”
“Let me rephrase,” Seokjin answers, voice getting steely, “I am going to tell Jiho to switch with you, and he’ll swim the relay so you can rest.”
Jeongguk opens his mouth to argue, but Seokjin gives him a firm look. “I’m your hyung and your captain. You can’t argue with me.”
Jeongguk shuts his mouth, trying not to pout. “Fine.”
“Good,” Seokjin says, and releases him. He’s back to all smiles a second later, opening the locker room door. “Let’s go warm up.”
Warm-ups go terribly. Jeongguk pulls himself out the pool after finishing the 1200 yards, feeling uncomfortable and achy. He can’t quite catch his breath, either, not even when he drops tiredly on the bench and watch as relay groups line up for the 200 medley. Bambam shoots him a concerned look from his spot behind the block, but Jeongguk waves him off, clutching his towel tighter around himself and willing his heart to slow. By the time he’s capped and ready to swim the 50, he’s feeling nearly back to normal, despite the pounding headache and the general uneasiness that sits low in his throat, bitter and heavy.
Two short whistle blasts signal him to get ready, and he snaps his goggles on, pre-race jitters building and pushing his discomfort away. The official blows the whistle again, one long note, and Jeongguk clambers onto the starting block with the rest of the swimmers, shaking out his arms and hitting his thighs a couple times before he bends over. His concentration narrows down to a single focal point, and the noise in the bleachers quiets until all he can hear is the rushing in his head and the water, lapping at the edge of the pool.
“Take your mark,” the official says. There’s strange sense of disconnect when it’s said, like Jeongguk’s not quite in his own head but rather like he’s hearing it from far away. His body, luckily, knows what it’s supposed to do, and he doesn’t even register the sound of the buzzer until he hits the water.
Oh yeah, he thinks distantly, I’m supposed to race.
A switch finally flips somewhere in his brain and he plunges forward in a panic, suddenly very aware of how slow his breakout had been, how weak his starting stroke had felt against surface of the water. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see his opponents, already a hand’s length in front of him, already at the wall.
He knows the pool like the back of his hand, knows the feeling of this race better than he knows anything else. He tenses, flips, pushes off the wall; muscles burning with something other than fatigue.
Something’s wrong, a voice whispers. Something’s very, very wrong.
There’s not enough air. Well, there’s never enough air, but this is the first time in his whole swim career that Jeongguk has felt this unsettled, this wrong. He’s motion sick, and the world is slowly tilting upside down, but still, he moves, trying to get to the wall. After what feels like years, his hand slams into the touchpad, the force of it ringing through his bones and making his head throb. He can’t make out any voices—or sound at all—when he shakily drags himself towards the lip of the pool, and only distantly registers his name, his time, and the tiny little 8 next to it.
Bambam’s crouching next to the starting block, his eyes wide and his mouth forming words Jeongguk wishes he could hear over the ringing in his ears.
There’s a funny bitter taste in the back of his throat, and a heavy sensation in his nose—when he touches his face, his hand comes away red.
“Oh,” he says, and his vision goes yellow around the corners.
“Jeongguk,” Bambam says, sounding like he’s standing in a tunnel, “you have to get out. C’mon, dude.”
Jeongguk can’t catch his breath, and he certainly can’t muster up the strength to pull himself out of the pool. Bambam turns around and shouts something, and then Chanyeol is there too, his hair wet and his ears sticking out too far on his head. There’s something wrong with Jeongguk’s brain because he finds that inordinately funny, laughing weakly as Chanyeol and Bambam haul him out of the water.
Seokjin appears suddenly, shoving a handful of tissues in Jeongguk’s face. “Jeongguk-ah?” He asks, peering into Jeongguk’s eyes. “Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
“I can’t catch my breath,” Jeongguk wheezes, leaning heavily on Bambam. “Feel sorta funny.”
He can hear his heartbeat in his head now, and his vision is turning from yellow to white. The ringing gets louder and louder with each passing second, and there’s someone’s hand on his face, and another around his shoulders.
“Tired,” he mumbles, not sure if anyone hears him. Then his vision finally darkens, the ringing cuts out, and he slides sideways into unconsciousness.
What feels like ten days is only about three minutes, it turns out, because when Jeongguk wakes up, he’s still in the pool area, only he’s lying on the pool deck while Seokjin and Chanyeol clear an area around him. The fluorescent lights blind him when he cracks his eyes open, and he feels so awful that he half-wishes he was still unconscious.
“Give him some space!” Seokjin orders, waving his arms. Coach Choi breaks through the mob of swimmers and drops to her knees next to him, her fingers cold where they press against his forehead and cheek.
“Jeongguk,” she says sharply, “hey, talk to me.”
With great effort, Jeongguk lifts his head up from the pool deck. “‘M okay, Coach.”
Coach Choi puts a firm hand against his back and helps him sit up, positioning herself so he’s leaning on her. He starts coming back into his body, which aches all over, and shivers violently.
“Here are his warmups,” Bambam says, coming up behind them, “and his towel— oh, he’s awake.” He tosses Jeongguk’s stuff into his lap and bends down so he’s eye-level.
“How?” Jeongguk asks, reaching up and touching his face. His nose is still bleeding—he can taste it, unfortunately, but someone’s taken the liberty in shoving a tissue up his nose, so it’s not a total disaster.
Now that he’s sitting up, however, people have started to edge closer again, and Jeongguk feels his anxiety return, claustrophobia bordering on panic making it even harder to breathe.
Bambam, who’d been helping him into his jacket, notices.
“Okay, Seokjin, we have to get these people back,” Bambam calls. An official pushes through the crowd and bends over near Coach Choi, his face too close and the smell of his clothes overpowering. His vision goes spotty again, and his stomach rolls uncomfortably. Jeongguk gags, and Bambam lunges for him, pulling him away from Coach Choi and the official.
“Hey, hey,” Bambam says, voice pitched higher than normal, “stay with me.”
“I’m not dying,” Jeongguk croaks, though it feels like he is. “I’m just—I just passed out.”
“Sure, just passed out,” Bambam mutters, “not to mention you’re pale as a ghost, you’re bleeding out of both nostrils and your lips are blue.”
“Too many people,” Jeongguk says, watching as Seokjin tries to hold back Jaehyun and Mingyu, who are shouting loudly and pointing to him. A couple swimmers from the other team are whispering to each other, their gazes hot and itchy. Jeongguk’s throat threatens to close, and his palms are sweaty as he takes in all of the eyes on him. He struggles to get to his feet but his legs won’t work, and any motion he tries to make sends his vision spinning again. But he can’t just sit here like an animal in the zoo, with a bloody nose to boot.
“Excuse me,” a new voice says loudly, and Jeongguk jolts as soon as he recognizes it. Something in his head immediately clears as Kim Taehyung pushes past Chanyeol and Seokjin, glowing white and radiant, sort of like he’s descended from heaven to rescue Jeongguk. Or maybe those are the spots in Jeongguk’s vision.
“Taehyung,” he mumbles, too tired to feel embarrassed even when Taehyung gives him a look steeped in sympathy.
“Hi, Jeongguk,” Taehyung replies, squatting down. “Let’s get you out of here, okay?” He looks over his shoulder at Coach Choi. “That’s fine, right?”
Coach Choi frowns. “Who’re you?”
Taehyung glances at Jeongguk briefly. “I’m his b—“
“My nemesis,” Jeongguk cuts in unconvincingly. Coach Choi’s frown deepens.
“His friend,” Taehyung corrects. “And Bambam’s, too.”
Bambam nods. “Yep.”
“Okay, yes, then take him,” Coach Choi says. “But I want him taken straight to the doctor, alright?”
“Got it,” Taehyung confirms.
“I want Bambam to go with you,” she instructs. “Just in case he passes out again. Bambam, I’ll get Shiwoo to cover your relay, and I’ll put Chan in the 500.” Coach Choi purses her lips. “What else—oh, and get Dr. Yang to email me when she does the tests.”
Bambam salutes her. “Will do.” He turns to Taehyung and Jeongguk. “I’m gonna throw some clothes on, and then I’ll meet you out front. Jeongguk, what’s your locker code so I can grab your shoes and coat?”
“25-01-18,” Jeongguk recites. “But I can’t walk.”
“I’ve got you, Gukkie,” Taehyung says quietly, slipping an arm around his waist and bracing Jeongguk’s shoulder against his. Out of the corner of his eye, Jeongguk sees Bambam mouth Gukkie? and raise his eyebrows. Jeongguk glares at him with as much strength as he can muster, but he can’t do anything but lean into Taehyung as he gets to his feet.
“Meet you in the lobby, Bambam,” Taehyung says, and Bambam nods, making a break for the locker rooms.
Jeongguk starts to feel a little better as soon as they leave the pool area, the air clean and quiet. He’s not shivering quite as much, either, with Taehyung pressed against him, his arm warm around Jeongguk’s shoulders. Together, he and Bambam help Jeongguk into his warmups and shoes, and Bambam holds the doors open as Jeongguk slowly finds his balance again.
Even as Jeongguk starts walking on his own, Taehyung doesn’t let go of him, squeezing his hand every time he needs to stop and catch his breath.
They get to the doctor without difficulty—the office isn’t too far away, and there are only a couple people waiting in there when they enter.
“He just passed out,” Bambam tells the man at the desk. “Coach Choi sent us. His name’s Jeon Jeongguk.”
The man nods, and leans forward to dial a number on the phone. After a moment, he sets it back down and gestures at them. “Dr. Yang says you can come back.” He eyes the three of them. “Are you family?” He asks Bambam and Taehyung.
“No,” Bambam says, “but I really think—“
“I’m staying with him,” Taehyung announces, stepping closer to Jeongguk.
“He can stay,” Jeongguk agrees before he can think about it.
The man looks between them, lost. “I guess,” he relents. “If it’s okay with the patient.”
“The patient says it’s okay,” Jeongguk confirms. “Let’s go, Taehyung.”
“I’ll wait here,” Bambam says, biting his lip. “Keep me updated, okay?”
Taehyung offers him a thumbs up, and they make their way through the curtain to the back room. Dr. Yang, who’s in her mid-thirties and wearing a rumpled lab coat, looks up from her computer when they come in.
“You must be Jeon Jeongguk,” she says. “And who’s this?”
“Kim Taehyung,” Taehyung says. “He said I could stay here.”
“That’s fine,” Dr. Yang says mildly. “Take a seat, Jeongguk-ssi.” She gestures to the bed. Jeongguk obeys, his body crying out in relief as soon as he does so.
“You said you passed out?” She asks, brow wrinkling. “Can you tell me how you felt before?”
Jeongguk nods, carefully recounting the weakness, the shortness of breath, and the spotting of his vision. When he mentions a nosebleed, Dr. Yang’s brow furrows, and something passes over her face.
“And this is the first time you’ve felt like this?” She asks.
Jeongguk hesitates, glancing over to Taehyung, who been looking more and more worried with everything Jeongguk’s said. “No,” he admits. “It feels a lot like…like I’ve been building up to this for a while.”
Dr. Yang frowns deeper. “Interesting. Do you remember the last time you had blood work done?”
“Not since before I came to college,” Jeongguk says. “I just haven’t felt the need. I’m perfectly healthy—I eat right and I sleep a lot.”
“Well, you said this has been going on for a while,” Dr. Yang says, typing something into her computer, “and you’re due for lab work anyway. I have an idea as to what’s going on, but I’d really like to do a couple tests before I say anything.”
“What do you think it might be?” Taehyung asks, voicing the question Jeongguk had been too afraid to say aloud.
Dr. Yang purses her lips. “I want to double-check.”
“Doctor,” Jeongguk says hoarsely, “what’s wrong with me?”
“It’s nothing too drastic,” Dr. Yang says slowly, “but it sounds like anemia.”
There’s a light knock on the door before it opens, and nurse pushes in a cart full of things.
“I’m going to take some blood,” Dr. Yang explains, “and we’ll do rapid testing. Results in 10 minutes.”
Jeongguk closes his eyes when the nurse approaches him. A sting, a prick, and about a minute later, there’s a band-aid on his arm and they’re wheeling the cart out.
“I’ll be right back,” Dr. Yang says. The curtain drifts closed behind her as she and the nurse leave.
Jeongguk fumbles around in his jacket pocket, pulling out his phone and searching up “anemia” with shaking fingers. He taps on the first result that comes up, his stomach a knotted mess and his head and heart pounding to the same painful beat.
Anemia, the website reads, is a condition in which you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says softly.
Having anemia may make you feel tired and weak.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung repeats, more firmly this time. “I know you just searched it up. Don’t read it. You’re only making it worse.”
“Taehyung, my body hates me,” Jeongguk whispers, staring at his phone. “I may—I may never feel normal again, and it’s all because of some stupid red blood cells, or something—“
“Hey,” Taehyung snaps, jumping to his feet and crossing over to Jeongguk in two long strides. “Stop.” He gets right up in Jeongguk’s face, standing between his legs with a scowl.
Jeongguk freezes, a little startled. He clicks his phone off guiltily, sliding it back into his pocket.
“You’re going to be fine,” Taehyung tells him, putting both his hands on Jeongguk’s shoulders. “There’s tons of medicine that can help, diet changes, all of that. You may just need to help your body out a little.”
“I can’t believe this happened two weeks before Championships,” Jeongguk groans, covering his face with his hands. “Fuck, I’m so screwed. Coach’ll never let me swim now.”
“You’re being dramatic,” Taehyung says flatly.
“Fuck off,” Jeongguk huffs. “You’re not the one who passed out.”
“Yeah, and who came to your rescue?”
Taehyung scoffs. “You’re such a brat.” There’s a moment of silence, and then Taehyung tugs lightly at his hands, pulling them away so he can look Jeongguk in the eye. “You’re gonna be okay, Gukkie. You’ll figure it out and you’ll still be able to swim. Also, you’ve got me.”
Jeongguk feels his eyes widen at that last bit. Taehyung’s cheeks go pink, but he doesn’t take back any of his words, just continues to look earnestly at Jeongguk until he relents, sighing and resting his forehead on Taehyung’s chest.
A couple minutes later, Dr. Yang comes back with a handful of papers.
“You’re anemic,” she tells Jeongguk, who feels like he might pass out again. “But it’s not hereditary, or caused by any sort of chronic illness.” She scans the first paper, eyes flickering across data Jeongguk can’t read from here. He holds his breath as she pauses at a bottom section, and then nods firmly. “Yep, you’ve got low RBC count due to iron and vitamin B12 deficiency.” She looks up at him. “What are you eating?”
“Uh, chicken and rice, mostly,” Jeongguk says. “And bagels. And cereal.”
“Yep, that’ll do it,” Dr. Yang mutters. “I have a note from your doctor citing previous B12 deficiency because you were vegetarian?”
“Not on purpose,” Jeongguk admits, “but meat used to be really hard for me to digest because my anxiety was so bad.”
“Well, the outcome looks good,” Dr. Yang says. “No more vegetarianism for you, especially since you exercise so much. I’m going to write down a couple vitamin brands for you to buy—there’s a list on the back of this document here about things I want you to include in your diet.” She looks over the paper once more. “Legumes—like beans, or nuts, fish, red meat, etcetera. Just balance your diet, and you won’t need to come back.”
Jeongguk accepts the paper from her, his heart swelling with an odd sort of hope. “So I’ll—I’ll be fine?”
“If you take those supplements and eat better,” Dr. Yang says, “you’ll be right back to normal in no time.”
He can’t help the sigh of relief that escapes him, and Taehyung gives him a bright-eyed smile from across the room. “Thank you,” Jeongguk says honestly to Dr. Yang. “Really.”
Dr. Yang waves it off. “It’s unfortunate that you waited this long to come in. I find that’s a very common thing with athletes.” She gives him a look. “Send in the rest of your teammates when the season’s done. I think one of them has been swimming with a fractured ankle for two weeks, and another one had bronchitis.”
“Speaking of swimming—“
“Take tomorrow off,” Dr. Yang instructs. “I’ve already told your coach, and your body needs the rest.”
He’s about to protest when Taehyung gives him a dead-eyed look, so he reels it back in, swallows his complaints, and thanks Dr. Yang again. Taehyung helps him to his feet and the two of them rejoin Bambam, the sunset in the distance turning the sky pink and orange as they make their way back to Jeongguk’s dorm.
“Hey, you should come stay with me for the night,” Taehyung says after Jeongguk’s finished updating Bambam on what’s happened. “So when Bambam gets up tomorrow morning, he won’t wake you.”
Bambam smirks a little and cuts him off. “Sounds like a good idea to me. Wouldn’t it be good to stay with a regular…friend?”
“Yeah, we can stay up and watch movies,” Taehyung says. “I don’t have class until one tomorrow. You know, just like good ol’ pals.”
“I’m not supposed to be good ol’ pals with you,” Jeongguk grumbles, even as he curls closer into Taehyung as the wind ruffles his hair and clothes. “I’m supposed to be your nemesis.”
“Emphasis on ‘supposed to be,’” Bambam says, dramatically air-quoting the last bit. “Go, Jeongguk. It’ll be good for you.”
Jeongguk looks between the two of them, feeling very much ganged-up on. “But—“
“Look, we’ll pick up some clothes, go to the pharmacy and then I’ll take you out for dinner,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk can’t find it within himself to argue.
He thinks about this later that night—much later, when the moon has replaced the sun and Taehyung has gone soft and sleepy, backlit by the pale light coming through the window. Later, after they’ve spent hours combing through blockbuster movies, ice cream melting between them, and after Jeongguk had leaned towards Taehyung, into Taehyung, his mind clouded with something sweet and singing with promise, that promise, the one he’s been trying to avoid.
He lies in Taehyung’s bed, with the now-familiar weight of Taehyung’s arm warming him through his pajama shirt, and wonders how his world has flipped so far upside down.
He wonders about kissing Taehyung, why it makes him feel the same way swimming does—like he’s more himself, more real.
It’s this thought that terrifies him most of all.
Jeongguk’s lulled into a false sense of security rather quickly, after that. He fixes his diet and takes his supplements, convinces Coach Choi that he’s alright, and moves back to lane one for sprint sets. He lets Taehyung kiss him in nearly-public places—the corner of the gym lobby, the elevator to his dorm, the sidewalk in front of the noodle restaurant Jeongguk takes Taehyung to. They hold hands, and Jeongguk learns to ignore the knowing looks that come from his hyungs and his friends when Taehyung meets him after practice sometimes.
Taehyung seamlessly integrates himself into Jeongguk’s life, without a word, without a sound, without disturbing the careful balance that Jeongguk has worked so hard to obtain.
On Friday night, he goes out for barbecue at Two’s family’s restaurant with his team to celebrate the last day of Hell Week and the first day of taper.
“It’s cruising here on out,” Shiwoo says, raising his soda. “Twelve days of tapering, and then we swim Championships!”
Everyone cheers in response, though Jeongguk can sense tension in the air. Coach Choi has mentioned that she’s been putting together the Championship lineups—and she’s also dropped hints that not everybody’s going.
“We need to have the advantage,” she’d told them all when they’d gathered after tonight’s practice. “I need swimmers that will do well in the prelims, but still drop time in the finals.”
Her words had chilled Jeongguk to the bone, and even now, just thinking about them, he’s still nervous.
Bambam’s clearly able to pick something up, because he leans over and dumps what looks like a ton of meat on Jeongguk’s plate.
“You need your vitamins,” he says, nudging Jeongguk. “Stop worrying about whether or not you’ll make it and eat.”
Jeongguk glances up at Bambam, who gives him a grin. “You know I’m right,” Bambam tells him.
“Can you guys stop talking about it?” Mingyu asks quietly, with a desperation that’s unlike him. His knuckles are going white where he grips his chopsticks, and he hasn’t touched any of his food.
“Mingyu—“ Bambam starts, but Mingyu shakes his head.
“Look,” Mingyu says, careful to keep his voice down, “I know I’m not going to make it, because Johnny’s had better times in breaststroke, and I can’t swim anything else.”
“There’s always a relay,” Jeongguk suggests tentatively.
“She’ll give priority to Jiho-hyung,” Mingyu continues, deprecating. “And Minjae, too, because he’s fast and there’s no way he won’t go to Championships.” He sets his chopsticks down and forces a smile when he sees both Bambam and Jeongguk’s expressions, frozen between sympathy and sadness. “The season’s over for me, you guys. Me and a whole bunch of others. So if you could just let me…have this moment, that’d be great.”
“Sorry, Mingyu-yah,” Bambam whispers.
“It’s okay, Bammie,” Mingyu replies, patting him on the back. “I’ll get over it. Just, not right now.”
“Mingyu-hyung!” Two shouts excitedly from the other side of the table, holding up a massive plate of kimchi, “you want some? My mom says take as much as we want!”
“Sure,” Mingyu says, his face relaxing as he reaches out to accept the kimchi. “Thanks, Jiwoo.”
Jiwoo, Jeongguk thinks determinedly, staring at Two’s face. I have to remember that.
He enjoys the rest of the dinner as best he can, though there’s a pervasive, uncomfortable tension in the air, a sort of sadness that weighs heavy on so many of his teammates. He looks across at some of the seniors—Seunghoon, who’d needed shoulder surgery, and had come back six months later only to find out he’d been left behind, and Kyung, who’d been struggling for a while now, trying to find a place in a team where he wasn’t the fastest, overshadowed by sophomores and freshman with times twice as good as his.
Jeongguk’s heart breaks a little for them, for the hyungs that only wanted one more Championship meet, one more chance behind the blocks, to pour their heart and soul into prelims and then do it again in finals, to be a part of a relay team and win, or to drop time on their 100. And while Jeongguk wants to assure them that they still have a chance, that Coach Choi hasn’t cut them yet—a part of him knows that their season, like Mingyu’s, is also done. All because they’d been half a second slower.
He knows this, but it still doesn’t make it easy to hear when Coach Choi pulls them all together at the beginning of practice the next day, still dressed. It’s strange to see everyone dry-haired and dressed in their street clothes, rather than swimsuits or warmups. Jeongguk doesn’t think he’s seen Chanyeol in anything but slides and hoodies a size too small.
“So I have results,” Coach Choi starts, her voice echoing through the pool deck. It’s quiet today, and all that Jeongguk can hear is the sound of the water trickling through the filters, and the nervous hitch in his friends’ breathing. “And some of you already know what’s going to happen here, because you know how you swam.”
She shuffles the papers she’s holding in her hands, unusually reluctant. “This is not a reflection of you as a person, or as a swimmer. This is a single number, a blip in your radars.” She takes a deep breath. “I am immensely proud of all of you,” she says firmly, looking at the seniors in particular. “Seniors—it has been an honor to see you all grow for the last four years. You are all fantastic, capable men.”
Seokjin makes a choked-up noise, and Chanyeol purses his lips until they’re white. Coach Choi’s eyes shine a little wetly as she smiles at them. “You’re going to go out and do things,” she continues, “and maybe it won’t be swimming. And you’re going to be goddamn awesome. ”
Jiho clenches his jaw, and Seokjin gives in and tilts his head into Chanyeol’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut.
“Now,” Coach Choi says, “here’s our Championship team.” She clears her throat, takes another breath, and squints at the papers. “We’ve qualified for two relays—the 200 medley, and the 400 freelay. In the 200, I’ve got Park Chanyeol, Johnny Seo, Kim Seokjin, and Jeon Jeongguk.”
Relief sweeps through Jeongguk, and if he was alone, he’d cheer. He hadn’t fucked up badly enough in the last meet to warrant being kicked off the relay.
“The 400 goes as follows,” Coach Choi continues over the chatter that’s broken out. “Lee Minjae, Woo Jiho, Bhuwakul Bambam, and Jeon Jeongguk.”
“WHAT,” Jiho shouts, startling Jiwoo. “You’re fucking kidding me, Coach.” He wheels around and grabs Coach Wu, who’d been lurking in the back, by his shoulders. “Tell me she’s kidding,” he demands.
“She’s not kidding,” Coach Wu says timidly, and Jiho shouts again, joy breaking across his face.
“You performed exceptionally well last time you were on this particular lineup,” Coach Choi comments wryly. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t do better after taper.”
“Holy shit,” Jiho breathes. “Thank you.”
Coach Choi offers him a smile. “Don’t thank me. You delivered results all on your own.” She glances back down at her papers. “Now. Individual qualifiers. Wu, did you print those?”
“Yes,” Wu says. “Uh, Park Chanyeol, 200 back, 200 IM. Kim Seokjin, 100 butterfly.”
Disbelief clouds Seokjin’s face. “Oh my god, ” he breathes. “I did it.”
“—Johnny, 100 breast, uh, Bambam, 500 free—“
Bambam fist-pumps so hard he nearly loses balance, catching himself on Jeongguk’s elbow. “Hell yes I qualified,” he says, grabbing Jeongguk.
“Dude,” Jeongguk replies, grinning wide, “you broke the school record this season. Of course you qualified.”
Bambam laughs, and high-fives Jeongguk. He’s about to say something else when Wu announces his name.
“Lee Minjae, 50 free, Jeon Jeongguk, 100 free, and Park Jiwoo, 100 fly.”
Minjae looks so adorably shocked that Jeongguk can’t even dredge up the energy to be annoyed at him for qualifying also in sprint free. Instead, he pushes through everyone to compliment him, because the 50 is one of the hardest events to qualify for, seeing as you’re edging competitors out by mere milliseconds, and the fact that Minjae’s done it as a freshman is—though it sort of pains him to admit it—pretty cool. He tells Minjae this, too, and watches in partial embarrassment as Minjae’s face goes bright red.
“Thanks, hyung,” he says, eyes wide. “I still can’t believe that I did it. Not as cool as you in the 100, though, but I'll try my best!”
“Let’s both work hard together,” Jeongguk offers, holding up his hand. Minjae blinks at him for a second before he grins, reaching up and high-fiving Jeongguk.
Coach Choi doesn’t let them celebrate for long, though, and their strange session of nostalgia, melancholy and euphoria gets cut short when she orders them back to the locker room. “Championships team, I want you on deck in ten. The rest of you, if you want to stay, you can. If not, you’re free to go.” She looks around once more, lingering on their faces. “It was a good season. A real good season. Thank you for working hard.”
She puts a hand over her heart and nods firmly. “You’ve made me extremely proud.”
Taper season begins, and everyone rejoices. Well, mostly everyone—there’s still a lingering feeling sadness in the air as the eight of them continue to show up, morning and afternoon, to a pool that feels too big. Practice slowly gets shorter, and by the end of the week they’re only swimming 2000 yards total. Jeongguk has never felt so rested in his whole life, plus his body’s not dying anymore thanks to his improved diets and supplements. He has time to finish his homework for the first time all semester, and starts arranging his notes so he can study for midterms, which happen the week after swim season ends. Mingyu, Jaehyun, and Chan come over and they eat together in the dining hall, and nothing’s really changed.
Except for Taehyung. That’s changed. Jeongguk doesn’t even know how, either, or when—he only knows that it has, irreversibly and unimaginably so. Somewhere between hating him and making out with him, Taehyung had wiggled his way into Jeongguk’s heart and had decided to stay there, stubbornly stuck for what feels like a long time. Which is absolutely terrifying, Jeongguk thinks. Putting a long time and Taehyung in the same sentence a month ago would never have occurred to Jeongguk—but neither would’ve kissing him, sleeping with him (both literally and non-literally) holding his hand, and doing other terrible, cheesy shit like taking pictures of him while he slept or letting him cry after a long day.
God, everything’s so fucked up. Jeongguk’s head feels like it’s on backwards, and he’s never been more confused in his life. Plus, he’s driving himself crazy just thinking about it, so he does the only thing he can: he calls Jimin.
Jimin meets him thirty minutes later for sushi, wearing a massive puffy coat, a pink hat and a huge grin.
“I refuse to say anything until you pay for me,” Jeongguk leads off, forgoing a hello. “Tell me how Yoongi’s going.”
“No fucking way,” Jimin replies. “I’m not telling you anything until you spill the beans.”
“Buy me sushi,” Jeongguk demands, fully aware of how bratty he sounds. But he’s hungry, and he’s broke, because unlike Jimin, his mom doesn’t just deposit fifty thousand won into his bank account because she misses him.
“No. You’re a menace,” Jimin huffs, crossing his arms.
“Hyung, please,” Jeongguk says, pushing Jimin closer to the hostess podium. “I’ll tell you everything if you do.”
Jimin shoots him a look before he caves. “Honorifics shouldn’t make me so weak,” he grumbles, marching up to the hostess and asking for a table. “But they do, because you never use them. You’re a terrible dongsaeng.”
“Seokjin loves me,” Jeongguk points out.
“Seokjin loves you because you’re too much like him,” Jimin counters, picking up the menu. “Now shut up and order, and then tell me about Taehyung.”
Jeongguk glares. “How’d you know it’s about T—“
“When is it not?” Jimin sighs dramatically, but he lets Jeongguk order fifteen pieces of sushi and edamame and gyoza. And in return, Jeongguk tries his best to outline the state of emergency his mind is in now.
Jimin listens carefully, not taking his eyes off Jeongguk even when the food arrives.
“Do you want my advice and my opinion?” Jimin asks cautiously when Jeongguk is done.
Panic overrides Jeongguk’s desire to be a good friend. He suspects Jimin might hold an essential fact, a piece of the puzzle that he refuses to fit into the bigger picture. For good reason, too. He’s not sure he can stand the whole truth. “No,” he blurts. “I just wanted you to listen.”
Amusement glimmers in Jimin’s eyes. “Alright, Guk. Whatever you say.”
They eat in silence for a second longer.
“Oh yeah,” Jeongguk says, nudging Jimin. “How are you and Yoongi-hyung?”
“Much better,” Jimin replies, setting down his chopsticks. “I think he realized at some point that he’d fucked up pretty badly.”
“So you guys talked?”
Jimin nods, and small, shy smile creeps across his face. “Yeah. He listened to everything I had to say, and then I got the whole truth from him, too. And then I forgave him.”
“Just like that?” Jeongguk asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Well, not quite,” Jimin admits. “He’s still got a ways to go. We both do, actually. But we’re working on it. It’s nice to at least be with him again. I forgot about how much I missed his d—“
“Okay, great, so happy for you,” Jeongguk says loudly before Jimin can finish.
Jimin laughs, cheeks pink, and Jeongguk rolls his eyes before grinning back.
They finish up their meal and pack up the leftovers, which Jimin gives to Jeongguk as a present.
“It’s my ‘swim really fast’ present,” Jimin explains, patting the carry-out box tenderly. “You’re gonna do great on Friday.”
“But you’ll be there?” Jeongguk asks anxiously.
Jimin nods. “I’ll come on the last day for finals,” he promises. “Don’t worry.”
He gives Jeongguk one last hug after that, and then they part ways, each heading back to their respective houses. Halfway back to his dorm, Jeongguk’s phone buzzes with a text from Taehyung—unusual, because Taehyung hasn’t texted him since last Saturday, when they’d spent the afternoon camped out on Taehyung’s couch, making out and only half-paying attention to the TV. The text from him now reads:
kth: hey are you awake?? if yes can we meet up i wanna talk to you about something
Jeongguk replies, thumbs flying over the screen as he switches directions, already heading towards where he knows Taehyung’s apartment is.
jjk: yeah ofc im otw to your place now. is everything ok???
Taehyung’s response is quick.
kth: yep everything’s fine
kth: i’m actually outside the library by your dorm. lol i was trying to study for finals. meet me there??
He makes a beeline for the library, cutting through the trees and ignoring the way the wind bitterly stings his cheeks and nose. He curls his hands in his jacket pockets, desperately wishing he’d brought something heavier, or maybe even a hat. Despite it being nearly spring, the nights were still freezing.
He can see Taehyung in the distance, silhouetted in the light coming from inside the library. He’s got a pom-pom on his hat and he’s wearing his long jacket, the one with the busted pocket that used to belong to his dad. As Jeongguk gets closer, he can see how dry his under-eyes are from exhaustion, and the way the skin around his lips is red, chapped and bitten. He looks tired. He looks beautiful.
Jeongguk wants to kiss him. He almost does, too, but Taehyung keeps an odd amount of space between them, twisting his hands together and looking down.
“Um,” he says quietly, still not meeting Jeongguk’s eyes. “Hi.”
“Uh,” Jeongguk replies. “You said there was nothing wrong.”
Taehyung’s head snaps up. “There’s not!” He says hurriedly, waving his hands. “It’s not…wrong. Don’t worry. I’m not in trouble, and I’m not in danger.”
Jeongguk deflates a little bit, soothed by Taehyung’s words. “So, then…what’s up?”
“I,” Taehyung starts, and then balks, biting his lip and fidgeting with his hands some more. “God, this is so hard. You’re going to hate me for this.”
A little flicker tickles the back of Jeongguk’s mind, screaming at him. He has an inkling of what’s going to happen—an inkling that grows to a suspicion the longer Taehyung delays, scuffing his shoes against the ground and taking breath after shaky breath.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says lowly, but Taehyung shakes his head.
“Let me say this, Gukkie,” he whispers.
Panic starts to mount in his chest, threatening to close down his throat and lungs like it’s done so many times before.
“I know you never asked for this,” Taehyung says, trembling a little, “and I know you never—never asked for me—but from the beginning, Jeongguk, I liked you. You didn’t pay any attention to me, of course, and then I hated you.” He laughs, the sound out-of-tune and colorless.
Jeongguk opens his mouth, but he doesn’t have anything to say. His heart is sprinting in his chest, and his head is starting to hurt from the force of it.
“I assumed you thought you were better than me,” Taehyung continues. “I thought I had you all figured out, with your self-absorbed thoughts and little clique-y friend group. And it was even easier to hate you, to dump your french fries in the trash and call it a day.”
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk repeats, his voice shaky.
“But then I was wrong,” Taehyung forges on, lifting his face to the sky and sniffing. “You weren’t any of that, and then I couldn’t hate you anymore because—because I love you, Jeon Jeongguk, and I see who you are and I love that, too.”
Jeongguk’s heart stops. “We—I’m supposed to hate—” He trails off, words drying up in his mouth.
Taehyung finally looks him in the eye, and he’s crying, eyes puffy and swollen, great, fat tears sliding down his cheeks and dripping off his chin.
“I know you never wanted any of this,” Taehyung repeats hollowly, voice cracking. “But I had to tell you.”
Everything is too loud and too quiet all at once in Jeongguk’s head. He can’t force any part of himself to move, feels like he’s a spectator in his own body. He screams at himself to say something, to do something, achingly aware of how every passing second in silence only hurts Taehyung more. But he can’t do anything, only lets his body shut down from sensory overload, his fingers going numb and his ears filling with the sound of grey static.
Taehyung doesn’t look surprised when Jeongguk doesn’t move and the silence goes on. Somehow, that makes it infinitely worse.
“It’s okay, Gukkie,” Taehyung says, wiping his eyes forcefully and giving him a thin, watery smile. “Don’t worry about it. And don’t worry about things getting awkward, either—you won’t, uh, see me again.”
Taehyung, Jeongguk thinks desperately, his eyes prickling as Taehyung gives him another awful smile and backs away apologetically. But he still has no words, and Taehyung has nothing left to say, and Jeongguk’s heart breaks a little as he fades into the shadow.
Taehyung doesn’t look back.
Jeongguk learns very quickly that the world does not stop for a broken heart.
His friends push and prod, try to get him to tell them what happened, but Jeongguk keeps his lips sealed, drags himself out of bed at 6am Friday morning and stumbles, bleary-eyed and guilt-ridden, onto the bus that will take them to central Seoul, where Championships are being held.
It’s rowdier than usual—excitement, plus the fact that most of the team’s on the bus with them. It’s only been a week since they’ve ended their season, but they’re already fond of the sport again—it’s been just enough time for the agony of morning practice to start fading, and seasonal injuries to stop hurting all the time. They’re all here because they’ve remembered what it’s like to miss swimming, despite how much many of them claim to hate it.
Bambam puts his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder as soon as Coach Choi takes attendance and knocks out, snoring lightly. Jeongguk, whose stomach is a twisty mess, stays awake for the whole ride, staring out the window as the bus makes its way through morning traffic.
When they get there, the parking lot is already crowded with buses that look exactly like theirs, unloading swim team after swim team, all violently dressed in their school colors and lugging massive bags behind them.
Jeongguk nudges Bambam awake as their team starts to unload from the bus. They’re smaller than the other schools, as their team has only been around for a decade, rather than nearly a century, and they’ve got way fewer swimmers entered into prelims. Jeongguk thinks it’s easier this way, because prelims always take forever and then finals take even longer than that, and they’d be waiting until the end of time for this meet to be over.
“I’m nervous,” Bambam says quietly as they follow their friends off the bus and towards the entrance to the pool. He huddles back in his coat, looking a little pale. “Like, really nervous.”
“It’s Champs, Bammie,” Jeongguk says, patting him on the shoulder. “I think you’re allowed to be nervous.”
Bambam grabs Jeongguk’s hand as they shuffle forward, lost in the crowd of swimmers. They part ways with the rest of their team at the locker rooms, Mingyu scooping the two of them into a tight hug right before they go. “Swim well, you guys,” he says.
“Fighting,” Jaehyun offers, and he and Chan raise their fists.
“C’mon, you two,” Chanyeol calls, beckoning. “We’re gonna be late for warm-ups.”
Mingyu squeezes them one last time and then Jeongguk and Bambam walk through the locker room, squeezing between guys in various states of undress as they follow Chanyeol to the very back, where the other guys are pulling things out of their bags. Nobody really says anything as they change, and Jeongguk finds his mind finally drifting over to Taehyung. He’d avoided thinking about it for the last two days, consumed with nervousness about the swim meet, but now that he’s here, he’s hyperaware of the pain in his chest and the lump that sits in the back of his throat. Taehyung’s expressions play again and again in his mind, a constant look of heartbreak and pain, and his words, I know you never wanted any of this.
Jeongguk’s eyes burn, and he scrubs at his face angrily. Stupid Taehyung and his stupid assumptions, thinking that he knows exactly what’s going on in Jeongguk’s head, all the time. But also, stupid him, for not having enough courage to admit the truth, for fucking up and saying the wrong thing, especially since—
Especially since it’s a lie. It’s all a massive fucking lie and Jeongguk had believed it because he’s afraid—he’s terrified —of being in love with Taehyung.
This admission to himself is quiet. Nobody even notices the small way his expression shifts as this truth sinks down through him like a stone, dissolving everything he’d been telling himself for the last couple weeks.
He’s too late, though. Taehyung’s gone, wrapped up in assumptions, and Jeongguk’s a prideful coward who couldn’t find it within himself to tell someone how he really felt for once in his goddamn life.
“Jeongguk?” Bambam prods worriedly, waving his hand in front of Jeongguk’s face. “You with us?”
Jeongguk startles, trying not to cry as he thinks about Taehyung’s face again. “Yeah,” he says, voice cracking. “I’m here.”
“Okay,” Bambam says slowly, clearly trying to figure out what’s wrong. “You need to change. Our warm-up time starts in five minutes.”
Jeongguk looks down, where he’s got a white-knuckle grip on his tech suit. “Yep. I’ll be right out.”
Bambam gives him a doubtful look. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” he replies, and takes a deep breath. “I don’t really have any other choice.”
Championship warm-ups are always a disaster, and today is no exception. They cram into a lane that’s already got ten other swimmers in it, and Jeongguk spends the next forty-five minutes swimming on top of Seokjin, flipping too close to the wall, and slowing his sprint 25s so he doesn’t run someone over.
Then they get out, do starts, and then the waiting begins. Jeongguk thinks about Taehyung, mostly, and curls into his towel and feels bad about himself. The stands around the pool are filling up quickly; the noise of the spectators soothes him a little, reminds him that he’s not trapped in his own head, as much as it feels like that.
“I forgot Championships have this fucked-up event order,” Bambam says, squinting at the heat sheet that Chanyeol passes him. “The 500 is literally the third event, and if that isn’t the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve heard all day, I don’t know what is.” He looks up at Jeongguk. “You’ll count for me, right?”
Jeongguk shakes himself out of his thoughts again, and forces himself to be present. Bambam looks about as terrified as he feels, and he momentarily feels really bad for ignoring him. Here they are at the biggest meet of the season, tapered and ready to go, and Jeongguk’s thinking about what-ifs.
“Yes,” he tells Bambam. “Of course.”
Bambam lets out a relieved sigh, and fiddles with the strings on his hoodie. “Good, ‘cause I didn’t wanna teach Seokjin or Johnny my cues.”
“I’ve got your back,” Jeongguk says, and Bambam gives him a grateful smile.
“Swimmers, please clear the pool,” a woman says over the PA system, and the last round of people clamber onto the bulkhead, retreating to where their team has been assigned. “Now, please rise for the national anthem.”
Everyone gets to their feet, and Jeongguk can hear his heart pounding in his ears as the pool quiets down, the first notes of the national anthem coming through PA speakers, tinny and strained. Jeongguk breathes through his nose and remembers that he didn’t take his supplements today, because Taehyung hadn’t reminded him.
He doesn’t register the end of the national anthem until Seokjin nudges him gently and snaps him out of it.
“Jeongguk,” Seokjin says, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Jeongguk mutters, but Seokjin most definitely doesn’t believe him. He must sense not to push, though, because he lets Jeongguk go and sulk in the corner next to Two.
Prelims start with the 800 freestyle relay—an event Jeongguk’s only been in once, because he’s a sprinter—and continues to drag slowly, each heat seeming to take fifteen years to start and go through. He doesn’t really think about much, and nobody that’s swimming is particularly talkative.
Bambam’s in the fourth heat of the 500 free, so when heat three approaches their last lap and the official sounds the horn, Jeongguk switches out his sweatpants and hoodie for a pair of shorts, because he doesn’t want to get any of his stuff wet since Bambam has a notoriously splashy flip turn.
Heat three climbs out, and Jeongguk makes his way down to the bulkhead, picking up the long wooden pole the counter’s attached to. He can see Bambam at the blocks, rocking back and forth on his heels and shaking his arms out.
At the long whistle, he steps up to the blocks, and then they’re off. Jeongguk keeps careful track of Bambam’s pace, looking over to Coach Choi to see if he’s holding the time he wants to go. At about 350, when Bambam starts to slow, Jeongguk shakes the counter violently in the water, watching with satisfaction as his best friend speeds up again, his kick breaking the surface.
A 150 later, Bambam touches the wall three seconds ahead of everyone else. Soon, he’ll find out that he came in sixth overall in that event, and made it to the finals. Their relay will also make it thanks to Jiho, who swims the fastest out of all four of them and PRs. Jeongguk, though he comes last in his heat, also makes it to the final event for the 100 free.
When prelims finally end, it’s five in the evening and Jeongguk has never been so exhausted in his whole entire life. He’s happy, yes, that he made it to the finals, and he’s happy for his teammates, too, but deep down he knows that he could’ve—should’ve—done much, much better. How he swam this afternoon felt like swimming pre-fainting, before he knew he was anemic.
He talks with his parents on the phone briefly, struggling to keep his eyes open as he shovels rice and fish into his mouth.
“You still have finals tomorrow, right?” His mother asks. “Are you feeling okay? Are you taking your medicine?”
“Yes, Mom,” Jeongguk answers, mouth full. “I’m going to shower and go to bed soon, too, because I have to wake up early.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your meet,” his mother says sadly. “I know…we weren’t supportive of you, but you’re my son, and I am proud of you for working hard.”
Jeongguk’s eyes prick. God, he’s been crying a lot recently. “Thanks,” he says thickly. “Is Dad there?”
“Yes, he’s here,” his mom says. “Honey, come say goodnight to Jeonggukkie!”
The sound of footsteps come through the phone, and then there’s his father’s voice, gruff but warm.
“Swim well tomorrow, Jeongguk-ah,” his father says. “Make us proud.”
Jeongguk swallows the last of his dinner. “I will,” he says. “Night, Dad.”
There’s a pause as his father leaves, probably to go change into his pajamas or sit on the couch and watch TV. Something in his heart aches as he listens to his mom breathe quietly on the other side of the phone, and suddenly he wants to be there, wants her to hug him and let him cry all over her shirt just like he used to when he’d skin his knees skateboarding.
They haven’t had the easiest relationship, him and his mom. But he’s never once doubted her love for him.
“Hey, Mom?” He asks timidly.
He bites his lip, looking over to where Bambam’s got his head down on the table, mostly asleep. “I…well, uh, recently, I really hurt someone’s feelings, I think. I said things that weren’t true, and I acted stupid and cowardly.”
“Mm,” his mother says. “But?”
“But he keeps making assumptions about how I feel, and it’s pissing me off because I don’t think he’ll wanna listen to me if I ask him to talk.”
His mother sighs. “Listen, Jeonggukkie. You’re a good boy. Anyone who knows you can see that. I think anything you did can be forgiven. So you have to ask yourself if this other boy, who won’t listen and thinks you’re someone you’re not, is worth talking to.”
“He is,” Jeongguk says immediately. “I—I told myself the truth, first. And now I wanna tell him.”
“And he cares about you?”
I love you, Jeon Jeongguk.
“Yeah,” he says. “He does.”
“Then he’ll listen, Jeonggukkie. All you have to do is ask.”
The next morning feels very much like the first, only Jeongguk’s less sad this morning than he is nervous, obsessively checking his phone for a response from Jimin. Today are the finals, and it’ll go much faster than yesterday—there’s only two heats for each event, A finals and B finals. Sixteen swimmers for each race. There won’t be any camping out this time; Chanyeol didn’t bring the blankets, and Seokjin’s brought significantly less snacks. Jeongguk won’t have to watch in half-exasperation, half-fondness as Minaje falls asleep on him, won’t have to help Johnny apply and re-apply KT tape to his back. Coach Choi won’t go through five bottles of Gatorade, and Bambam won’t spend fifteen minutes behind the blocks, shivering and waiting for his heat.
They rise once again for the national anthem, and Jeongguk’s phone buzzes as he digs through his bag for a spare cap, because Jiwoo’s just ripped his.
pjm: sorry service is bad in here
pjm: but yes
pjm: i told him
Jeongguk starts to feel nervous, reading the texts. He knows he can’t afford to, not now, when his whole swim career—everything he’s worked for—is on the line. The biggest moment of the year so far has suddenly turned insignificant because of a text message. His anxiety, already so close to the surface, grabs ahold of Jimin’s words and starts spinning them into something different, something sticky and twisted, making his stomach jerk uncomfortably and his hands sweat.
His phone buzzes again, but he can’t stand to look at it, so he turns it off and shoves it deep into his bag, forcefully exhaling through his nose.
Focus, he tells himself.
Bambam’s shaking both of his legs, sitting on the edge of the bench with his hands clenched and his headphones in. He looks totally unlike himself, easygoing charisma and bright smile gone, replaced by white-lipped tension and cold hands.
Right as Bambam’s about to stand up, though, Jeongguk catches sight of Jimin making his way through the bleachers, wearing a green jacket and looking far too fashionable for a swim meet. Behind him is Kim Yugyeom, who’s scanning the pool deck intently—probably looking for Bambam.
“Look, Bam-ah,” Jeongguk says, elbowing him. “There’s Yuygeom.”
Bambam yanks out one of his headphones and looks up to where Jeongguk’s pointing. Jeongguk watches the moment their eyes meet, and the relief that washes over Bambam is noticeable. One second he’s wound-up and the next he’s smiling widely and waving, color flooding back into his cheeks. He turns to Jeongguk, beaming.
“I’m gonna PR,” he says simply.
And he does. Actually, he doesn’t just PR, he totally shatters the school record by five seconds, comes in second, and gets pulled into a group hug as soon as he gets out of the water, chest and face nearly purple. He looks like he’s on the verge of tears, laughter breathless and relieved, as he clambers up on the block to accept his second-place medal.
“If I can do it,” Bambam says as Jeongguk gears up for the medley relay, “so can you.”
Jeongguk glances up towards the bleachers again, but it’s still only Jimin and Yugyeom up there. His stomach twists, and a bitter taste fills his mouth. “I’m going,” he mutters to Bambam, gesturing at Chanyeol, Johnny and Seokjin. “My heat’s next.”
They crowd behind the block in lane four, pressed close together amongst dozens of other swimmers. Chanyeol’s saying something, or he’s thanking them, but Jeongguk’s focus has narrowed down to a single focal point—his hands, which shake a little as he stretches his cap out and over his head.
Breathe, he tells himself. Breathe, Jeongguk.
Three long whistles sound, and the previous anchor hauls himself out of the water.
“Good luck,” he tells them breathlessly, and his hand is cold on Jeongguk’s back.
The official blows his whistle again, one long blast. Chanyeol steps up to the lip of the pool and slides in, positioning himself and gripping the handlebars on the blocks.
“Take your mark,” the official says.
“Here we go,” Bambam whispers, and Jeongguk tenses subconsciously as as Chanyeol raises himself out of the water.
There’s the sound of the starter, and Chanyeol throws himself backwards, swimming hard. The whole pool area bursts into deafening cheers, rattling his whole body. It’s so loud it feels like there’s no noise at all, just a constant, immense roar that envelops him.
Chanyeol comes speeding back to the blocks and Johnny steps up, his relay start neat and perfectly timed. Chanyeol braces an arm on Jeongguk’s back, out-of-breath, and they both lean forward and scream go! every time Johnny’s head breaks the water.
“We’re in the lead, we’re the in the lead,” Chanyeol says. “Keep it up, Seokjin!”
Seokjin nods once, and then Johnny touches the wall and he’s diving off the blocks. Johnny drags himself out of the water and flops bonelessly on the ground, shouting Seokjin’s name as Jeongguk puts his goggles on, feeling like he’s going to vomit and pass out at the same time. He glances up at the bleachers one more time as Seokjin approaches, but it’s still just Jimin and Yugyeom, and he can’t help the disappointment that sinks through him.
Something in his mind screams at him as Seokjin comes into the wall, and Jeongguk throws himself off the block half a second too late, fully registering his hyung at the wall before he hits the water.
Shit, he thinks distantly, and starts to swim. But his mind doesn’t disconnect from his body, and he can’t quite get his arms up fast enough because he’s still here, still in his own head rather than floating through blissful emptiness. There’s no spark of feeling, not even as his lungs start to burn and his kick starts to feel painful.
He knows he’s lost their lead as soon as he touches the wall; a glance at the scoreboard confirms it. They’ve come in second, 30 milliseconds behind the team in the next lane. The disappointment on his hyungs’ faces is well-disguised, but Jeongguk can see it anyway in the low set of their shoulders and the way Chanyeol purses his lips.
Shame burns hot through Jeongguk’s veins. He’s let them down, especially the seniors—this was both Chanyeol and Seokjin’s last relay, and they got second because of him, because he’d been too busy moping. They accept their medals and congratulate Jeongguk, which makes him feel even worse, and he avoids Coach Choi because he knows she’ll have something to say about his shitty performance.
He spends the next couple events feeling bad for himself, sharing Bambam’s music and halfheartedly eating a banana while he waits for his 100.
The event before, Seokjin comes over and whacks him on the head. “Jeongguk-ah,” he starts seriously, “I don’t know what’s going on with you, and I’m not going to push you to tell me, but you just swam like shit and you need to do something about it.”
Jeongguk blinks at him. “Hyung—“
“Okay, that’s all from me,” Seokjin says. “Figure it out, Jeongguk, or I’m actually going to hit you.” He smiles sweetly. “Love you. Good luck in your 100.”
Bambam turns to look at Jeongguk, confused. “What was that about?” He asks, eyebrows drawing together.
Jeongguk swallows around the lump in his throat. “I don’t know,” he lies, and glances up at the board, where the current event is on the A final. “I’m going to line up.”
“Okay,” Bambam says, grinning. “You can do it, Jeongguk-ah! Fighting!”
“Fighting,” Jeongguk repeats weakly, pulling off his warmups and grabbing his cap and goggles. He high-fives a couple of people on the way out; Mingyu and Jaehyun both cheer for him. Chan even looks up from his homework to give him an encouraging smile.
Jeongguk takes his place in lane three, focusing on breathing deeply and shaking out his limbs. He’s jittery, even more than he was for the relay. He’s cold and hot at the same time, and his heart doesn’t feel like it’s beating, but swooping through his chest, his nervousness washing back and forth in his chest like a tide.
“100 free, A final,” the woman says over the PA system.
The whistle—three short blasts, one long one. Then he’s on the block, heart thundering along, his palms sweaty and his knees like jelly.
Seokjin’s words run through his head, but Jeongguk is stubborn, and even after being scolded, he hasn’t given up on hoping. And it is this hope that makes him tilt his head up to where Yugyeom and Jimin are—only, this time, there’s a third person sitting up there with them.
Kim Taehyung makes eye contact with Jeongguk all the way across the pool, and something warm bursts in his chest, filling his veins and his lungs. His mind clears, his anxiety relents, and it’s like everything in his life has suddenly led to this moment, standing here, on this block, looking at Taehyung and thinking about something that feels a lot like love.
“Take your mark,” the starter says, and Jeongguk bends down. He can focus now, can feel the adrenaline in his veins, the tingle in his palms. His legs tense and his view narrows down to a single point on the surface of the water, which is glassy, untouched and ready to be broken.
There’s the sound of the buzzer and Jeongguk dives forward. It’s quiet underwater for a second, for two seconds, and then he breaks the water and starts to swim. Immediately, he can tell this is going to be the best he’s ever done, because his mind slips away with a victorious shout of joy and his body rejoices at the smoothness of his stroke. Every nerve sparks with electricity because he’s alive, and he’s swimming—and it’s terrible, because everything hurts, and his lungs are screaming and his muscles tell him to stop—but this is it. This is what he’s worked for, this is why he’s here in this pool, in this world. He’s here to swim, goddammit, and that’s what he’s going to do.
He flips at the shallow end for the last time and launches into the last 25 with everything he can, with everything he’s got left—because if he’s going to apologize to Taehyung, he might as well apologize to himself, too. Love-hate is a fine line, he knows. Or maybe it’s hate-love. Either way, he’s got some grievances and one last 25 to air them, so he screams into the water and thinks about the pain in his shoulders, about the chlorine-scented mornings, the smiles on his teammates’ faces and breaking records.
He hates, and he loves, and he feels alive. Complete.
And then as soon as it’s begun, it’s over, and his bones ring out painfully as he slams his hand into the touchpad and lifts his head to the astonished shouting of his teammates.
This is a new level of exhaustion, he thinks, but he manages to pull his goggles off his head and squint up at the board. There, right next to his name, is a tiny orange 1 and the time 41.02.
His mind goes perfectly blank, and the next five minutes go past in a shocked blur: shaking hands with the guys in the lane next to him, being hauled out of the pool by Johnny and Bambam, standing on the block and accepting his medal, hugging everyone, hugging Coach Choi, Mingyu blabbering about how they’ll have to replace the old 100 free record from 2009, and the text from Taehyung, which only says incredible and nothing else.
The rest of the meet goes well—or Jeongguk thinks it does. He’s still reeling from his 100, and from the fact that Taehyung’s really up there, in the bleachers, watching. He’d asked Jimin to text him extremely last-minute, and knew that it was unlikely that Taehyung even turn up in the first place. But Taehyung had come, and Jeongguk had won his race.
He’s still there, too, sitting and smiling. So Jeongguk allows himself to hope, just a little bit.
Exiting the pool after a meet always feels a little like coming back to earth. The air cuts through the fantastical fog that’s wrapped them up, reminding them that despite all their wins, despite their euphoria, real life is still here.
All the spectators are milling around outside, and the weather’s cleared up, leaving the sky blue and bright. The sun is warm on Jeongguk’s face, and he pushes his hood down so he can look up at it. Chanyeol breaks away to go talk to his parents, and Seokjin spots his mom through the crowd. Coach Choi is shaking hands and looking important, and the rest of his teammates disperse, finding their own friends and family.
Someone shouts Jeongguk’s name, and then he’s being hugged from behind. It’s Jimin, of course, who’s babbling ceaselessly about how cool that was, about how he’s never seen anyone swim so fast in his life.
Yugyeom’s right behind him too, but he only says a couple things to Jeongguk before Bambam screams his name and leaps into his arms.
Jimin turns back to Jeongguk, smiling a little. “Anyways, you did gr—Jeongguk?” Jimin stops, waving his hand in front of Jeongguk’s face. “Hey, what’s wrong?” When Jeongguk doesn’t move, Jimin turns to see why. As he spots Taehyung approaching them cautiously, he sighs. “Oh,” he says quietly. “Of course.” He pats Jeongguk on the shoulder. “I’ll see you later, okay?”
Jeongguk nods absentmindedly, still not taking his eyes off Taehyung. It’s significantly quieter, now, as people have started to leave, and he and Taehyung are the only ones left on this side of the building.
“Hi,” Taehyung says softly when he gets near enough.
“Hi,” Jeongguk breathes. “I didn’t think you’d show.”
“I almost didn’t,” Taehyung admits. “I didn’t think—“
“Didn’t think what?”
Taehyung bites his lip. “I didn’t think that you had anything left to say to me.”
“Why do you always assume things?” Jeongguk asks, unable to keep the note of irritation out of his voice. “I never actually told you how I feel, Taehyung. You just walked away.”
“Yeah, but you said we were supposed to hate each other,” Taehyung replies, curling his arms around his middle. “That’s not really something you say to people you want to talk to again.”
“I know,” Jeongguk says. “That’s why I’m here. To apologize.”
Taehyung looks up sharply. “You…what?”
Jeongguk gathers his thoughts. He’d rehearsed this, had planned what to say—now all he needs to do is work up the courage to say it.
“I’m sorry for saying that,” Jeongguk starts, “because it was stupid, and it was a lie. And I’m sorry I couldn’t explain myself, either. I was afraid, of, uh, what we could be.”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says sadly, “you don’t need to apologize. I don’t—I don’t expect an explanation from you, and I don’t want you to feel obligated to apologize. I mean, I appreciate it, but. I knew what I was getting into.” He tugs at the hem of his shirt. “I never expected you to, um. Reciprocate. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay,” Jeongguk says, heated. “Taehyung, you’re jumping to conclusions! Again! I’m apologizing to you because I care about you! Not because I feel obligated, or whatever!”
Taehyung, who’d been about to protest, closes his mouth with an audible click.
“That’s why I said sorry for lying,” Jeongguk explains, stepping closer. “I never hated you, Tae, not really. You make me comfortable. I can be myself. Talking to you is like—well, it’s easy. It’s really easy.”
Taehyung still doesn’t say anything, but there’s color blooming in his cheeks, and Jeongguk takes his chance and grabs the hem on Taehyung’s shirt, looking into his eyes so his point is heard. His heart is pounding, and it feels like he’s stepping up to the blocks all over again, except instead of water in front of him, it’s a boy, stunning, quiet and shy.
“I love you,” Jeongguk says, trembling and looking down. This time, he can’t stop the tears that leak from the corners of his eyes. “I love you so, so much and I’m sorry it took me this long to tell you.”
“Gukkie,” Taehyung says gently, reaching up to cradle Jeongguk’s face, thumbs brushing away the tears on his cheeks. “Shh, don’t cry.”
“You’re always—making assumptions,” Jeongguk says, gritting his teeth. “How could you not see that I was fucking lying? That I was goddamn head-over-heels for you?”
“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers, voice cracking. “I messed up. I got lost in my own feelings. In my own hurt.” Jeongguk sniffs, and Taehyung continues. “I know how hard it is for you to say these things and—and I’m sorry I didn’t give you the time or space.”
“I already forgave you a long time ago,” Jeongguk admits, and Taehyung laughs, the sound a little wet. “Stupid.” Then he grabs Taehyung and hugs him tight, tucking his face into Taehyung’s shoulder. A second later, Taehyung’s arms wrap around his waist and he steps closer.
For now, this is how they stay. But later, Jeongguk will ask Taehyung out—properly, forwardly, holding his hand—and after, Taehyung will kiss him and they’ll lie together. And Jeongguk’s heart will hum like he’s back in the pool and his veins will fill with that same joy, because he’s here, he’s in love, and Taehyung makes him feel alive.
And the things that make him feel alive are worth keeping.