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Taehyung breaks up with his latest fling on a Tuesday morning, and by Wednesday afternoon he’s already texting someone new.

“I don’t know how I feel about this one yet,” he says distractedly, tapping out a reply to Minhyuk’s latest message with one hand and stealing Jeongguk’s boba with the other. He takes a sip of boba and almost gags. “Ew, what is this?”

“Almond milk tea?” says Jeongguk. “The same thing I always get?”

“Why isn’t it sweet?”

“Oh. I got quarter sweet instead of full, I’m trying to decrease my sugar intake.”

Taehyung stops in the middle of the sidewalk and finally tears his gaze away from his phone to stare at Jeongguk, incredulous. “Decrease your—Gukie, you have, like, zero percent body fat. If anything you should be increasing your sugar intake. How many abs do you even have now? Fourteen? Oh my god, sixteen?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not humanly possible to have more than eight,” Jeongguk says dryly.

“Well, you’ve always been overly competitive.” Taehyung forgets all about his conversation with Minhyuk—it was getting kind of boring, anyway, both of them flirting half-heartedly at best, plus Minhyuk seems to have little to no grasp of meme culture—and reaches out to poke at Jeongguk’s cheek. “Seriously, why are you on a diet? I keep telling you I miss your cute little baby face.”

“That makes one of us.”

“Aw, Gukie just wants to be a grown-up,” Taehyung coos. “Too bad, you’re still a baby to me.”

“Awesome,” says Jeongguk. He tugs his stupid bucket hat down to cover his forehead and starts walking again, charging off down the sidewalk without even checking to see if Taehyung’s following.

“It’s not a bad thing!” Taehyung calls after him. “Hey, wait up! I can’t walk too fast, I’ll spill your boba!”

For a moment, Taehyung actually thinks Jeongguk might not wait for him. But then Jeongguk stops, and turns around, and his cheeks are pink from the summer heat, and he looks sort of half-pouty and half-irritated, which is what he always looks like when Taehyung teases him; he gets all flushed and scowly and bright-eyed, like there’s a fire in his belly and the sparks are floating up into the darkness of his eyes. It’s why Taehyung spends half his life teasing Jeongguk, provoking him, egging him on; he’s chasing that look. He’s been chasing that look since Jeongguk was fifteen years old, teeny-tiny, with bony little wrists and a terrible haircut. Back then, Jeongguk was so shy that he could barely get through half a sentence without stammering—unless you pissed him off.

Taehyung’s always had a knack for pissing people off.

“I’m not a baby,” Jeongguk says as soon as Taehyung catches up to him. Taehyung offers the boba but Jeongguk doesn’t take it, doesn’t even look at it, his eyes fixed on Taehyung’s face. “I’m twenty years old,” he continues. “I’m not a dumb kid anymore, and—and my twenty-first birthday is in two weeks. Remember?”

“Of course I remember your birthday.”

“No, not that part, I mean, do you remember—you know—my twenty-first birthday?”

“Yes? Didn’t I just say that?”

“That’s not what I—,” Jeongguk huffs, looking even more frustrated. “You—I—twenty-one. Remember?”

“Uh. I think you’ve lost me.”

Jeongguk’s lips thin. “Whatever, never mind.”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung tries. “About the kid thing. I was just teasing.”

“Were you?”

“Yes? I mean, yeah, mostly.”

“Mostly,” Jeongguk repeats. “What does that mean?”

Taehyung shrugs. He feels a little helpless, a little off-kilter—Jeongguk’s staring at him like whatever Taehyung says next will either be incredibly cutting or incredibly profound, and frankly the only caffeine in Taehyung’s body is from that single sip of boba and he is so not prepared for this weirdly intense conversation. He’s not quite sure how they went from a totally normal and chill hangout—grabbing lunch between classes—to this. Whatever this is, this thing where they’re blocking off the sidewalk in front of the Life Sciences building and the August sun is white and terrible in Taehyung’s eyes and he feels gross and sweaty and overheated and Jeongguk is staring at him.

“I guess some part of me will always see you as that kid,” Taehyung says. “That’s how I knew you first, you know? Cute little Jeonggukie following me around.” He smiles and Jeongguk doesn’t smile back and then Taehyung starts feeling guilty for real. “Hey, I’m really sorry,” he says quietly. “Do you want me to stop teasing you?

“No,” says Jeongguk. “I want—,” he yanks off his bucket hat and rakes a hand through his hair, jaw tight like it always is when he’s upset about something. “Never mind, don’t worry about it. Sorry. I’m being dramatic. I don’t care if you tease me.”

“Okay, but—”

“I’m gonna be late for class,” Jeongguk says. “You can have the rest of my boba.”

Then he claps Taehyung on the shoulder and jogs off, never once looking back.

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
hey hyung
do u remember that thing i asked u about

koala hyung
the sperm whale thing?
unfortunately, yes. i do remember. and i still don’t have an answer for you.

jeongguk
no not that thing
the other thing
the t**********g thing

koala hyung
approximately how many letters do you think are in taehyung’s name

jeongguk
um can u maybe nOT just fling his name about willy nilly like that?????????
omfg
@ the fbi agent reading this chat this has nothing to do with ta****hy***ng haha :)

koala hyung
we live in korea
there is no fbi here
please for the love of god get off twitter and go outside for like. an hour
i’m begging you

jeongguk
look are u gonna help me or not.
pls ur one of like 2 people i know who are in a functional relationship
the other person being ur bf

koala hyung
? what about yoongi and jin?

jeongguk
keyword was “functional”
stop changing the subject
plsssssssss namjoon hyung plssssss

koala hyung
ugh
why do i already feel like i’m gonna regret this

 

*

 

Technically, the first time they met was on Jeongguk’s first birthday.

Taehyung maintains that it doesn’t really count as their first meeting, because neither of them remember it. But technically, Taehyung and his parents took a train from Daegu to Busan for the celebration, and technically, Taehyung’s mom has this picture in one of her photo albums: two-year-old Taehyung in the Jeon family living room, baby Jeongguk in his lap. Jeongguk is wearing a little blue hanbok and a hogeon hat, and Taehyung is beaming at the camera, and there are oranges scattered across the floor.

Then fourteen years passed.

The backstory goes like this: their moms were roommates at Ewha Women’s University and kept in touch after graduation. Even after Taehyung’s mom followed his dad to Daegu and Jeongguk’s mom moved back to her hometown of Busan, they kept in touch. They attended each other’s weddings. After the complicated birth of Jeongguk’s older brother, Taehyung’s mom took the first bus out to Busan and stayed with Jeongguk’s mom for almost two weeks, helping out around the house, making soup.

Years passed, and their families grew, and they didn’t often find the time to visit each other. But they wrote letters and talked on the phone and then, later, texted and called and Facebook messaged and sometimes even Skyped. Not every week, or even every month, but often enough that the connection was always there, a red string between two dots on a map.

So: the birthday party, the little blue hanbok, the oranges. Jeongguk’s tiny hand curled around Taehyung’s wrist. And a few years later, when thirteen-year-old Taehyung got a full scholarship to a performing arts high school in Seoul, Jeongguk’s mom was one of the first to know. And a few years after that, when little Jeon Jeongguk got into the same school, his mom called Taehyung’s mom immediately.

Oh my goodness, that’s wonderful, said Taehyung’s mom. Taehyung knows because he was with her at the time; it was spring break of his sophomore year at SPAHS and he’d taken the train back home. Taehyungie can give him the grand tour! she said, wiggling her eyebrows at Taehyung. Oh, it’ll be so nice for Jeongguk to have a friend in Seoul. I was so worried when Taehyung went up there all alone….

Mom, Taehyung complained. Isn’t Jeongguk like, twelve years old?

He’ll be fifteen this year, said Taehyung’s mom, covering the phone so Jeongguk’s mom couldn’t hear. And you’re going to be nice to him, you understand me? He’s a good kid. He’s just a little shy.

Taehyung pouted. I’m always nice, he grumbled, and snuck an extra box of custard cakes into the shopping cart.

Six months later: standing on his tip-toes in the middle of Seoul Station at the crack of freaking dawn, searching the crowd for a kid he’d only ever seen before in pictures. His phone kept going off in his pocket—all from his mom, all increasingly frantic variations of IS JEONGGUK THERE YET???? DID HE MAKE IT TO SEOUL OK????? HOW DOES HE LOOK??? HAS HE EATEN???? WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE’S NOT THERE YET???? WHERE IS HE??? DID YOU LOSE HIM???? ARE YOU SURE HE’S NOT THERE YET???? ARE YOU EVEN LOOKING??? KIM TAEHYUNG DID YOU LOSE MY OLDEST FRIEND’S YOUNGEST CHILD?????—and usually Taehyung really liked making new friends, but today he was chilly and tired and stressed about the new semester, and he didn’t want to make small talk with a shy fifteen-year-old, he just wanted to go home and sleep for thirty hours. 

His phone buzzed. Again. And again. Taehyung sighed, taking off his beanie and running a hand through his unwashed hair, and then he looked up and someone was staring at him.

A short, skinny someone. A very nervous-looking someone. A someone with huge dark eyes and acne scars and a terrible haircut.

What Taehyung didn’t say: You look like a baby fennec fox. You look like Euophrys kataokai, the cutest of the jumping spiders. You look like you’re about to throw up.

What Taehyung did say: “Hi, are you Jeon Jeongguk?”

And the someone said, “No.” And then, “O-oh, wait, what was the question?” And then, “I’m so sorry, yes, I—I’m Jeon Jeongguk. Sorry. Oh my god.”

“Cool. It’s really nice to meet you,” Taehyung said, smiling at him. “I’m Taehyung. Welcome to Seoul.”

“Thanks,” Jeongguk mumbled. His face had gone blotchy and the tips of his ears were bright red. His suitcase was covered with Pokémon stickers. He looked freaked out, and miserable, and embarrassed, and out of place, and Taehyung just—felt for him. Just really, really felt for him. Felt the halls of his heart shuffle around a little, making room for this new person.

Maybe it was because he was so used to being the oldest. Maybe it was because he’d spent so long taking care of his siblings, his cousins, his classmates, the neighborhood kids. It was instinct. You see the scared, awkward kid and you do whatever it takes to make them smile.

“Hey, so, you’re probably pretty tired,” Taehyung said, moving forward to take Jeongguk’s suitcase. “But I’m like, super hungry right now? How do you feel about grabbing some ramen? I’m buying.”

“Oh, n-no, it’s okay,” said Jeongguk, eyes going impossibly wider, “I’m fine, you don’t have to—”

“You’d really be doing me a favor. I’m the hungry one, remember? ‘Sides, I wanna hear about your singing thing. My mom said you’re super talented.”

Jeongguk’s face went from blotchy to violently red. “Um….”

“C’mon, please?”

“Um. O-okay, I guess,” said Jeongguk. He was staring at Taehyung again, a weird expression on his face, almost thunderstruck. “Um, sure. Yeah.”

Taehyung grinned at him, wide and warm. “Sweet. Let’s go, then. I know this awesome place in Hoehyeondong.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk whispered. He rubbed at his nose, cleared his throat, and then followed Taehyung out of Seoul Station and into the morning, the crisp autumn air, the noise of a waking city.

 

*

 

You know how it goes. They became inseparable. Taehyung graduated first and stayed in Seoul for university, SNU, major in music composition with a concentration in saxophone, and two years later Jeongguk did the same. SNU. Vocal Performance. Jeongguk lived in the dorms for his freshman year, but didn’t really like his roommate and ended up sleeping at Taehyung’s off-campus apartment more often than not. And Taehyung’s roommate was moving in with her girlfriend after their lease was up, and the timing happened to coincide perfectly with Jeongguk’s search for a new place, so like, it made sense to move in together for Taehyung’s senior year. It made sense.

Like so many other things with Jeongguk, it made sense.

 

*

 

Anyway.

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
are u srue this is gonna work

koala hyung
i mean, no

jeongguk
……………………………..

koala hyung
how could i possibly be sure about something like that??
i can’t read his mind, you know
i’m just saying:
everyone appreciates a little romance and sophistication sometimes

jeongguk
oh god
ok.
if this is a disaster im blaming u

koala hyung
i can live with that.

 

*

 

“Seriously, what’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Jeongguk says unconvincingly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes.

They’re having a night in for the first time in a while, what with the school year starting up again. Usually, their nights in consist of takeout and video games and sometimes shitty weed, but tonight Jeongguk seems to have other ideas. As in, he asked Taehyung to bring home wine.

Neither of them drink wine. Taehyung is really more of a Sex on the Beach kind of person, and Jeongguk’s drink of choice is fucking Bailey’s in chocolate milk, so there’s absolutely no reason for them to be introducing wine to their previous plans of eating fried chicken and passing out on the couch. But whatever, what does Taehyung know.

“What are we watching tonight?” he calls from the kitchen, pouring out two glasses (glasses, not even mugs, this is adulthood) of wine and dumping the chicken boxes into the trash. “Please don’t say Goblin, I’m not in the mood to cry for three hours.”

“Okay, got it, no Goblin,” Jeongguk says. He scoots over on the couch when Taehyung comes back, accepting a glass of wine. “I dunno. What’s popular right now?”

“Why are you asking that like you think I’d know?”

“Good point,” says Jeongguk. And then, as Taehyung watches, he brings his wine to his nose and takes a deep whiff. He nods to himself, swirls the wine around in the glass for a while, and then brings it to his nose again, sniffing it so aggressively that he snorts a little.

Taehyung raises his eyebrows.

Jeongguk lets out a breath and sniffs the wine again, closing his eyes. He even wafts the smell toward him with one hand.

After a long pause, he opens his eyes and looks at Taehyung.

“This wine smells great,” he says.

“…Yes,” Taehyung agrees. “It’s, um, a red. I think from…France? I don’t know. Honestly, I only bought it because I thought the label looked cool.” He shows Jeongguk the bottle. “See? There’s a mermaid and a spooky pirate ship.”

“Wow. That is cool.”

Taehyung takes a sip of wine, smiling around the rim of his glass. He feels good. Like, really good, all warm and soft and relaxed, like he’s just slipped into a hot bath or his bed after a long day, and he’s not even tipsy yet. He generally feels good around Jeongguk. Taehyung isn’t an anxious or socially awkward person, and he’s got tons of friends, but he still finds himself putting on a persona with most of them. A slightly louder, brighter, more enthusiastic version of himself, his regular personality dialed up a couple notches. He almost always becomes the person at the party who makes things easier and more comfortable for everyone else—breaking the silences, laughing at everyone’s jokes, making eye contact, drawing people out of their shells and into conversation. He likes being that person. He’s a natural smoother-outer.

But it gets tiring, sometimes.

He likes to be quiet, sometimes.

Likes to curl up on the couch in pajama pants and a big sweater and not feel like he has to be Funny! and Fascinating! and Gregarious! all at once.

He finishes his first glass of wine and pours another, and when he settles back on the couch he ends up pressed against Jeongguk’s side. Jeongguk puts an arm around him, which is relatively normal, but what’s less normal is that the arm isn’t draped across Taehyung’s shoulders. It’s around his waist. And Jeongguk’s hand ends up on Taehyung’s hip, pulling him even closer, and the whole thing feels much more intimate than their usual physical contact M.O., which mostly consists of playful shoves and the occasional piggyback ride. But when Taehyung tries to meet Jeongguk’s eyes, Jeongguk seems intensely focused on the TV.

Well…whatever. Everyone knows Taehyung’s a cuddler.

They watch TV for a while, neither of them really paying attention—the drama is cute, but Taehyung’s all warm and sleepy from the wine and he’s just sort of drifting. Also, Jeongguk smells really good. Like lavender, and something dark and sweet; maybe blackberries. Taehyung leans into him, curling into Jeongguk’s side with his knees drawn up practically in Jeongguk’s lap, and wonders if it would be too much to rest his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder—

“So,” says Jeongguk. “How do you feel about capitalism?”

Taehyung blinks.

“…Excuse me?”

“Capitalism,” says Jeongguk, and clears his throat. “Do you have…thoughts?”

“Uh.” Taehyung sits up. “Are you talking about, like, capitalism as a concept? Or specifically post-World War II late-stage capitalism?”

“The…the second one,” says Jeongguk.

“Well,” says Taehyung. “I mean. I think it’s pretty unequivocally evil. People always talk about how communism looks great on paper but fails in practice, like they’re trying to contrast it to the ‘success’ of capitalism, but—capitalism is what created the ridiculous gap between upper and lower class, like, the fact that you have people living in 100 billion-won houses right next to neighborhoods where half the kids are starving. You know? And of course the government gives tax breaks to billionaires and mega-corporations instead of the people who actually need it, and those same mega-corporations are the ones commodifying and monetizing literally every aspect of our lives, including things that are inherently anti-capitalist and shouldn’t be used to sell more hamburgers or overpriced lattes. Like when companies realize it’s trendy to care about gay rights so all of a sudden they’re selling rainbow T-shirts or whatever, and they don’t even give a percentage of the profits to a pro-LGBTQ organization.” Taehyung sighs. “So yeah. Capitalism: 0/10, would not recommend. Why do you ask?”

Jeongguk is quiet for long enough that Taehyung twists around so he can look at Jeongguk’s face and not just the underside of his chin. He frowns when he sees that Jeongguk’s current expression is somewhere between “just got caught TP-ing the neighbor’s house” and “peed pants during class presentation.”

“You okay?” Taehyung asks.

“Yup, just fine,” says Jeongguk. “Um, I totally agree with you, by the way. Capitalism sucks.”

“Mm.” Taehyung shifts around again, settling back into Jeongguk’s side. “Yeah. God, I was actually just reading this article on Elon Musk—”

“I KNOW WHO THAT IS,” Jeongguk says loudly. “THE TESLA GUY.”

“Yeah. Did you read the article? It was trending on Naver for like an entire day because of the whole SEC thing.”

“Uh—it’s, um, I think it’s open on my phone but I haven’t, um, gotten to it yet.”

“You should read it, it’s mostly stuff that’s already common knowledge, but there’s a really well-researched timeline of his bullshit going back to the 90s. He can seriously suck my ass.”

Jeongguk coughs. “I thought—uh, I thought Teslas were supposed to be good? Because—the environment?”

“Sure,” says Taehyung. “But if you buy a Tesla you’re basically saying ‘I’m okay with being complicit in Elon Musk’s refusal to pay his factory workers a livable wage despite being one of the richest men in the world.’ Like, he cares more about making it possible for rich people to vacation on the moon than he does about the thousands of people who, you know, build all of his shit. He’s just the space geek version of Jeff Bezos. They’re both horrible.”

“Got it,” Jeongguk says. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, I was just making sure.”

Then he goes quiet again.

“Sorry for rambling,” Taehyung says. “You can always just tell me to shut up.”

Jeongguk shoves his cold hand up Taehyung’s shirt.

Taehyung screeches and tries to wriggle away, but Jeongguk’s still got his other arm around Taehyung’s waist, holding him tight so he can’t escape. “Have mercy!” Taehyung shrieks, but he’s already breathless with laughter as Jeongguk digs his fingers into Taehyung’s ribs, his most ticklish spot.

After a few moments of desperate squirming, Taehyung manages to escape Jeongguk’s grip—only to overbalance, eyes widening as he feels himself begin to fall backward off the couch. There’s a split second in which he realizes he’s about to crack his skull open on the edge of the coffee table—he can already see the headlines, Idiot Millennial Latest Victim of IKEA Trülstörp—but then Jeongguk grabs the front of his shirt and tugs him forward again. Taehyung ends up halfway in Jeongguk’s lap, hands braced on Jeongguk’s dumb muscular chest.

“Oh my god I almost died,” he gasps, and starts laughing.

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “You wouldn’t have died.”

“I could have! People die from hitting their heads on coffee tables all the time! Haven’t you ever seen a TV show?”

“Okay, well, I’m sorry you almost died, but it’s your fault for being so squirmy.”

“I was only squirming because you were torturing me!”

“Let’s just say it was both of our faults.”

“Unbelievable,” says Taehyung, trying to sound indignant, but it’s not very convincing because he’s still giggling a little. He bats Jeongguk’s hands away and climbs out of his lap, but only so he can lie down on the couch with his head resting on Jeongguk’s thighs.

“Oh,” says Jeongguk. “Oh, um, okay. This is happening, I guess.”

“Yup,” says Taehyung. “Hey, so while I’m here, you should pet my hair.”

Jeongguk doesn’t move. Taehyung huffs and reaches up to grab one of Jeongguk’s hands, placing it firmly on his own head. It takes a second, but then Jeongguk begins to run his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, slow and gentle, his fingernails the lightest scrape on Taehyung’s scalp.

“Don’t mess with my bangs,” Taehyung murmurs, eyes drifting shut. If he were a cat, he’d be purring. “Don’t want my forehead to show.”

“Why not?”

“I dunno. It’s kinda big.”

“Oh, please,” says Jeongguk. “You know you’re perfect.”

Taehyung opens his eyes. Jeongguk is gazing down at him, but the second they make eye contact Jeongguk looks away. The light from the TV washes him out, makes him look pale and ghostly, the shadow of his jawline even sharper than usual. The drama is still playing out onscreen, but Jeongguk must have muted it at some point. Taehyung didn’t even notice.

Why does he feel so weird all of a sudden?

“I didn’t know that, actually,” he says.

His heart hurts.

“Ha,” says Jeongguk above him. “And I thought you were so smart.”

 

*

 

jeongguk >> smol hyung
hey are u gonna be at practice later

smol hyung
…yes?
just like every single other day?

jeongguk
coooooooooool

smol hyung
is that all you wanted or

jeongguk
so like
ur,,, somewhat mature

smol hyung
loving this conversation so far :)

jeongguk
and more importantly
ur bf is objectively the best human being on this bitch of an earth

smol hyung
wow don’t let tae hear you say that

jeongguk
uhh tae agrees with me
we’ve had extensive conversations about this
we would both die for namjoon hyung without hesitation

smol hyung
would you not die for me?????

jeongguk
:\\\
i mean. i’d probably get maimed for u
idk about die tho

smol hyung
i literally can’t believe this

jeongguk
n e way
i just had a quick question
which is:
how did u become cool enough 2 make namjoon hyung fall in love with u.

smol hyung
aaawwwwwWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW
JEONGGUKIEEEEEEEEE
THIS IS SO CUTE OH MY GODDDDDDDDD

jeongguk
oh no PLS STOP

smol hyung
lesson number one
it’s not about being cool
it’s about being hot ;)

 

*

 

Ghosting Minhyuk is easy, considering that neither of them were really feeling a spark. Within two days of deleting their chat, Taehyung is sending flirty SNOW pics back and forth with a guy named Kyungjae.

Or is it Kyungsoo?

Whatever.

Anyway, Friday afternoon finds Taehyung sprawled out on the living room floor, trying to nail the perfect cute-but-also-totally-bangable selfie look. He takes what is probably the fifteenth photo of himself in the exact same position with the exact same filter and scrutinizes it for a moment.

Then he yells, “JEONGGUK!”

Jeongguk skids into the living room two seconds later, looking wide-eyed and very harassed. “What’s happening?” he demands. “Are you okay? Did you try to make stir-fry again?”

Taehyung pushes himself upright. “Do I look bangable?”

Jeongguk’s face does like five different things at once.

“Be honest,” Taehyung tells him. “I can take it. Objectively, would you bang me?”

“I—I don’t—that’s, um.” Jeongguk’s mouth opens and then closes. “I, um.”

“Was that too crass?” Taehyung rolls his eyes. “Fine, I’ll rephrase. Would you make love to me.”

Jeongguk slaps himself hard across the face.

“Huh,” he says, even as Taehyung stares at him in shock. “I’m awake.”

“Are you having a nervous breakdown?” Taehyung asks. He forgets all about taking a selfie for Kyungjae and scrambles to his feet, hurrying over to Jeongguk and pressing a hand to his forehead. “No fever…. Is this like last semester? Gukie, why didn’t you tell me?” He grabs Jeongguk’s face with both hands and turns it from side to side. “Your eyes aren’t any more bloodshot than normal. Are you sleeping okay? Oh, wow, why is your face so warm? Maybe you do have a fever.”

“I’m fine!” Jeongguk yelps, wrenching away from Taehyung’s hands. “I was just, um, just working out.”

“Working out? …In your bedroom?”

“Yes.”

“Gukie,” Taehyung says seriously. “It’s okay if you were jacking off.”

Jeongguk’s face goes from pink to a deep, spectacular red. He opens his mouth but no words come out.

“Really! I don’t mind!” Taehyung assures him. “It’s totally normal and healthy, you know? I jacked off just this morning. And also last night, twice.”

“Oh my god,” Jeongguk whimpers. “This isn’t happening. This is not happening.” He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and then another. “Taehyung,” he says at last, in an oddly strapped-down voice. “I am not having a nervous breakdown, and I was notdoing that. Can you please just explain to me why you need to know if you look bangable.”

“Oh, right,” says Taehyung. “I wanna send a sexy selfie to this guy.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes.

“Ah,” he says.

“I’ve taken like fifteen and I can’t even tell anymore. It’s like when you read the same word over and over again and it stops looking like a word? That, but with my own face.”

Jeongguk stares at him for a second and then says, “Yeah, so I’m gonna go ahead and finish my workout, if that’s okay?”

“Why do you need my permission?” asks Taehyung. He’s already got his phone out again, opening SNOW and turning around in a slow circle, trying to find the best lighting. “God knows I won’t join you, but I’ll happily count off your power squats or gluteus dips or whatever it is that you do.”

“Ha. Thanks.”

Taehyung flops down on the couch. It takes a couple more tries, but he finally takes an acceptable selfie and fires it off to Kyungjae with the caption booooored and a bunch of cute emojis. Kyungjae responds within a minute, which is a nice little ego boost, but it’s a dressing room mirror pic and all it says is Haha sux Im shoppin w fam.

Ugh.

He’s trying to figure out how the heck to reply to that—or if it’s even worth it—when Jeongguk crosses directly into his field of vision.

Carrying a chair.

An armchair, to be specific. The only seating option in the apartment other than the couch and the kitchen chairs, because Taehyung and Jeongguk furnished basically their entire apartment with stuff they found abandoned on the sidewalk. So Jeongguk is, like, waddling across the living room in a squat position, carrying this massive fucking armchair. He stops right in front of Taehyung and lowers himself into an even deeper squat.

“I have a question,” says Taehyung.

Jeongguk grunts. It looks like his face is smushed into the back of the armchair. He might be incapable of speech.

“My question is: Why?” says Taehyung. “And my follow-up question is: Really?”

“I don’t own any weights,” Jeongguk says, slightly garbled.

“Okay, hold up, do you do this often? Is this like a regular thing for you?”

“Yes.”

“How did I not know that,” Taehyung whispers to himself.

Jeongguk does another squat. And then another. At first it’s just ridiculous, but after a while Taehyung has to admit that there’s something kind of impressive about a guy doing deep squats in the middle of a living room using a floral armchair as a weight. Also, Jeongguk’s wearing these tightish athletic shorts that Taehyung’s never seen before, and—from a purely objective standpoint—they’re doing some heavy-lifting of their own. The thing is that Jeongguk usually dresses like he thinks flashing some ankle will get him sent to the gulag, so like, Taehyung hasn’t seen his bare legs for a hot minute, and the shorts cut off about halfway up his thighs, and it’s—nice.

Taehyung has the soul of an artist; of course he fosters a healthy appreciation for the human form.

He doesn’t realize he’s staring until Jeongguk puts the armchair down and pants out, “What are you looking at?”

“What?” says Taehyung. “Nothing. The wall. What?”

“Your face was doing something really weird.”

“How rude.” Taehyung sticks his tongue at Jeongguk, who sticks his tongue out right back, and then they get locked into a contest of who can make the most horrible face. Jeongguk eventually wins because he has this disgusting ability to roll his eyes back so far that you can only see the whites. It’s so gross.

Taehyung begins to retaliate, flaring his nostrils and crossing his eyes, and then he hears the telltale sound of a camera shutter.

He gasps. “Did you just take a photo of me?”

“Maybe,” snickers Jeongguk, lowering his phone.

“You did!”

“I will neither confirm nor deny.”

“Delete it! You have enough blackmail material already.”

Jeongguk shrugs. “You said you wanted a sexy pic.”

“There is not a person on this earth who would find that sexy, you dingus.”

Jeongguk shrugs again. Then he lugs the armchair back to its rightful place and goes for the coffee table next, clearing off Taehyung’s growing collection of books and random writing utensils and half-filled coffee mugs and—

“Hey,” Taehyung whines. “Be careful, that’s my special rock I found in the gutter last week. Don’t drop him.”

“Oh, shoot, I’m sorry,” says Jeongguk, immediately setting down the haphazard stack of Taehyung’s stuff. He picks up the rock with careful hands. “What’s his name?”

“Sylvester. As in Sylvester the Stone.”

“Okay. Sorry, Sylvester.” Jeongguk brings the rock over to the windowsill and sets it down in a patch of sunlight. He gives it a little pat and says, “There you go, buddy.” To Taehyung, he says, “Better?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says softly. “Thank you.”

Jeongguk smiles.

“Guk,” says Taehyung.

“Yeah?”

“I—,” Taehyung blinks. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I said that.”

“…Okay, I hate to be an enabler, but I think you need some more caffeine,” says Jeongguk, snorting, and steps away from the windowsill, sunlight sliding off of him like water. “I’ll make another pot of coffee.”

 

*

 

jeongguk >> lamb skewers hyung
henlo
hope ur doin RADICAL

lamb skewers hyung
what’s happening
why did you send me a cowboy
is that a new emoji? do i have that one?

jeongguk
deer od

lamb skewers hyung
if that’s a meme, i don’t get it and i won’t respond to it.

jeongguk
no offense, bc u know i love u,
but literally How did u get jin hyung to be ur bf

lamb skewers hyung
bold of you to assume i “did” anything

jeongguk
pls i need ur help

lamb skewers hyung
i’m being serious
i don’t know how it happened
one second we were fighting over the last sweet potato garlic roll at paris baguette and then i think i went into a prolonged fugue state and i woke up a month later and he was like “you’re my boyfriend now” and i was like “yes sir thank you so much.”

jeongguk
ok wow ur somehow even less helpful than joon hyung and jimin
i didnt think that would be possible
but here we are

lamb skewers hyung
what do you want me to say
hyung is a force of nature
he tells me to do things and i do them and it turns out great
that’s all i got

jeongguk
but like
ok this is gonna sound stupid.
but
hes older than u
i know just by a little but still
and i was just wondering like
……..ugh nvm its not the same thing at all haha
sorry 2 bother u

lamb skewers hyung
hey. none of that
okay look
for me
one of the hardest parts about growing older
and getting into more serious relationships
was like. allowing myself to care that much
opening myself up to the possibility of getting hurt
putting it all on the line

jeongguk
yeah

lamb skewers hyung
i’m no good at talking
that’s why i make music
to figure out what i’m feeling and turning into something understandable
something shareable
i don’t really know where i’m going with this.
i guess just
let yourself feel
and let it show
you know?

 

*

 

Kyungjae kind of sucks. He’s boring and humorless and the only thing he seems to care about is getting “turnt” on the weekends (and sometimes in the middle of the week). He never asks any questions about Taehyung. Not even What’s up. Taehyung knows every last detail about Kyungjae’s classes and his petty gripes and what he wants to do after graduation (nothing, really), but Kyungjae probably couldn’t name Taehyung’s major if you paid him.

So why did Taehyung agree to a date?

Even he doesn’t know.

“Do I look okay?” he asks Jeongguk, peering at himself in the mirror. He’s not sure where Kyungjae’s taking him, only that it’s “a restaurant.” Cool. So he figured it’s better to be overdressed than under-, and went with a pair of black slacks and a loose, silky button-down. He even put on eyeliner and a dangly earring, not that Kyungjae deserves it in the least.

Why are you bothering with this? Jimin had asked him earlier.

And Taehyung wasn’t able to come up with an answer.

“You look nice,” says Jeongguk.

He’s leaning against the doorjamb of Taehyung’s bedroom, arms crossed over his chest. It’s obvious he’s unhappy about something, but he won’t talk, he’s been avoiding Taehyung’s eyes and questions all day. Taehyung is probably more upset about it than he should be.

“Thanks,” he mumbles. He should get going, he’s meeting Kyungjae in Myeongdong and he doesn’t want to be late, but he’s so nervous inside. Not about Kyungjae. God, who fucking cares about Kyungjae.

“Hey, so—”

“Are you mad at me?”

He and Jeongguk stare at each other, surprised. They’d spoken at the exact same time.

“You go first,” says Jeongguk.

And then there’s nothing else for Taehyung to do but repeat himself in a tiny, miserable voice, his stomach curdling with something hot and sour. “Did I do something? Are you mad at me?”

“What? No,” says Jeongguk, blinking. And then he takes a closer look at Taehyung’s face and his expression sort of—crumples, or collapses, and he says, “Oh, shit. Shit, Tae, I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. I’m just an idiot.”

“But—but you’ve been—,” Taehyung gestures between them. “Like, all day, and—if I did something, you can just—”

Jeongguk crosses the room in two strides and stands in front of Taehyung, hands hovering awkwardly like he wants to touch Taehyung but doesn’t know how, or if it would be all right. His eyes are wide; he looks almost frantic. “You didn’t do anything,” he says. “I promise. I’m just having a bad day, sorry, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Are you okay? Do you need me to stay home?”

“Um.” Jeongguk looks away for a second, clears his throat. “No, you go on your date.”

“Are you sure? Seriously, Gukie. Say the word and I’ll stay.”

“No, it’s fine. You should go have fun. Really.”

“Okay,” says Taehyung, refusing to examine why he feels almost disappointed. “Well—I should get going, I guess. You’re sure I look okay?”

“Quite sure, yeah,” says Jeongguk. “Oh—wait.”

He reaches up to fix Taehyung’s bangs, fingertips quick and light against Taehyung’s forehead. Standing so close together, Taehyung can smell Jeongguk’s lavender shampoo, his soap-smell, his boy-smell; he takes a deep breath and then realizes what he’s doing. What he’s done.

I want to inhale you, he thinks dizzily, even as Jeongguk finishes messing with his bangs and takes a step back. No, don’t go.

“Have fun,” says Jeongguk. “Be safe.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung breathes.

 

*

 

The date with Kyungjae isn’t even worth talking about. But Taehyung still calls Jimin on the way home.

“You were right,” he says the moment Jimin picks up. He presses his forehead against the bus window, speaking softly so none of the other passengers can hear. “You were right. I shouldn’t have gone.”

Jimin could say I told you so, but instead he asks, “Are you okay?” and that’s why Taehyung loves him.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” The bus slows to a stop and Taehyung watches a river of people surge forward into the crosswalk, the streets of Seoul awake and pulsing with the Friday night crowd. Big groups of college students on their way to the clubs in Hongdae, the night markets in Myeongdong. “He wasn’t, like, horrible. He just wasn’t very nice.”

“What do you mean?”

Taehyung sighs. “The ‘restaurant’ was a McDonald’s, he made me walk ten feet behind him, and he kept calling me bro really loudly. Like, to the point where people were giving us weird looks, which seems ironic. Then he asked if I wanted to go home with him.”

“Jesus Christ,” says Jimin. “That’s not horrible to you?”

“I don’t even wanna bother getting angry about it, you know? I don’t wanna give him that much power. He was a douchebag, I’m not gonna see him again, end of story.”

“I’d like to propose an alternate ending in which I kill him dead.”

“Okay, maybe take a deep breath,” says Taehyung. “You can’t bang Namjoon if you’re in prison.”

“Obviously he’d help me bury the body,” Jimin says darkly. “My baby is ride or die, bitch.” He gasps. “Oh my god, and then if we get caught we can get assigned to the same prison and they’ll make a TV show based on our lives called Jimin is the New Black.”

“Namjoon doesn’t even get his name in the title? That’s cold, Jimin-ah.”

“It doesn’t make sense if it’s both our names!”

“It doesn’t make sense anyway, ‘Jimin’ isn’t a color.”

“We can hash out the details later,” Jimin huffs. “Just—seriously, are you okay? Are you almost home?”

“Two more stops.”

“You didn’t answer the first question.”

Taehyung shrugs even though he knows Jimin can’t see him. “I’m okay. I just—I wish it wasn’t always like this. Why is it always like this? Do I just have terrible taste in men?”

“I mean…yeah, kinda.”

“Ouch.”

“Sorry, babe, but come on. Have you ever thought about why you always go for guys like Kyungjae?”

“Are you saying it’s my fault guys are mean to me?” Taehyung asks, stung.

“No,” says Jimin. “No, god, of course not. I’m just saying…you could do so much better. And I think you know that. But—maybe it’s a little bit easier to go after douchebags and then dump them because, hey, they’re douchebags, why wouldn’t you dump them?”

“I don’t understand.”

When Jimin speaks, his voice is impossibly gentle. “Taetae. Even if Kyungjae had been a perfect gentleman tonight, even if he’d treated you with all the respect and kindness you deserve, somehow I still don’t think you’d want a second date.”

Taehyung swallows hard.

“Because even if Kyungjae was perfect, he wouldn’t be—”

“Stop,” says Taehyung.

Jimin lets out a breath, a rush of static in Taehyung’s ear.

“I know,” says Taehyung. “I know. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Jimin.

They’re quiet for a moment. Taehyung listens to the squeaks and rattles of the bus, the sounds of traffic all around them, the faint pop music emanating from the earbuds of the girl sitting in front of him. Outside the window, the darkness is scattered by a thousand different traffic lights, head- and taillights, glowing neon city lights advertising a thousand different bars and restaurants and noraebangs and pharmacies and convenience stores.

“So I just found Kyungjae’s Insta,” says Jimin. “Want me to ruin his life?”

 

*

 

Taehyung trudges into the apartment expecting to find it dark—he’d assumed Jeongguk would be holed up in his room watching anime, or maybe trawling through the Dragon Age message boards if he’s feeling extra feisty. But instead there’s a light on in the living room and Jeongguk is asleep on the couch with the standing fan pointed directly at his face, countering the late August heat. He jerks awake when Taehyung closes the front door.

“Hi, sorry, didn’t mean to wake you,” Taehyung whispers from the doorway. He toes off his shoes and heads straight for his bedroom, peeling off his date clothes like a snakeskin, changing into a pair of pajama pants and an oversized T-shirt that used to be Jeongguk’s. Then he drags himself back out into the living room and worms his way onto the couch beside Jeongguk, their legs tangled together at one end and Taehyung’s face shoved into Jeongguk’s collarbones.

“Hey,” Jeongguk says blearily. “Time’s it?”

“Almost ten.”

“Mm.”

Taehyung closes his eyes. He wasn’t sleepy five minutes ago, too keyed up on frustration and embarrassment over his shitty date, but now that he’s back home, on his own familiar couch in his own familiar living room, breathing in the scent of Jeongguk’s skin—he feels all the bad things blur and fade, meaningless, forgettable.

“…Wait,” says Jeongguk. His chin moves against Taehyung’s head when he speaks. “Wait, ’s only ten? ‘N you’re back?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. But—how’d it go?”

“Bad.”

Jeongguk stiffens. He sounds much more awake when he asks, “Bad how? Are you okay? What happened?”

“I’m fine.” Taehyung gives him the same brief summary he gave Jimin: McDonald’s. Douchebaggery. Kyungjae’s obvious shame. “So it just, you know, sucked,” he finishes. “But it’s chill. I kinda knew I wouldn’t like him.”

“If you knew you wouldn’t like him, then why…?”

“Dunno,” Taehyung lies.

And thankfully, Jeongguk lets it drop. He curls an arm around Taehyung’s back and pulls him in closer, away from the edge of the couch. It feels good in a way that also aches. Usually Taehyung likes being the big spoon, especially with Jeongguk, but right now he just wants to be held, sweetly, by someone who isn’t ashamed of him. He buries his face in Jeongguk’s chest and finds himself marveling (for perhaps the thousandth time over the past year or so) about the fact that Jeongguk is so solid. In the physical sense, yes, but it’s more than that; it’s his heart, his soul; all of him solid and steady and always right there, sort of like the way he used to follow Taehyung around, bony little fingers gripping the hem of Taehyung’s shirt, H-hey, T-Taehyungie-hyung, wait up, where are you going, can I come? Sort of like that but also not at all, not anymore. Jeongguk isn’t behind Taehyung anymore. He’s beside him.

“Did you fall asleep,” Jeongguk whispers into Taehyung’s hair.

Taehyung shakes his head.

“Do you need to?”

Another shake.

“Then—can I get your opinion on something?”

Taehyung frowns and pulls back to look at Jeongguk. “What, right now?”

“Um. Yeah, if that’s chill.”

“Depends. Do I have to get up?”

“No.”

“Then it’s chill,” Taehyung says happily, rubbing his nose against Jeongguk’s neck like a puppy. “Wow, you smell even better than usual.”

Jeongguk clears his throat. “You—you think I smell good?”

“Mm, like lavender. I love it, it’s like free aromatherapy every time I hug you. I’ve never met anyone who smells as good as you.”

“Oh,” says Jeongguk, sounding very pleased. “Cool.”

“…Are you flexing your biceps right now?”

“What? No. Shut up. What?”

“Anyway,” says Taehyung. “What did you want my opinion on?”

“So it’s like not a big deal at all,” Jeongguk mumbles. “It’s just this, um, this thing I’ve been working on, not for class but in my spare time, and I just, you know, wanted to share it with—yeah—because you have, like, pretty okay taste in music, and—um. Again, it’s not a big deal, I’ve been working on this between classes for like, not even a week, so it’s super rough, and, um, you know what, maybe I’m gonna wait on this. Yeah. Sorry. Never mind.”

He says all of this in a rush. It takes a second for Taehyung to pick past the irrelevant bits and figure out what the heck Jeongguk is even talking about.

“Gukie,” he says. “Are you writing a new song?”

Jeongguk whimpers.

“You are! Oh my god, tell me everything. Sing it for me. No wait, what’s it about? What kind of song is it?” Taehyung scrambles upright, hovering over Jeongguk. “Are you gonna perform it anywhere? Are you gonna play guitar? Oh my god, are you—”

“Tae,” Jeongguk breaks in. “One question at a time.”

“Okay. What’s it about?”

Jeongguk goes pink. “It’s, um. It’s about, like, wanting to be—good enough for someone. Worrying that you’re not.”

And somehow, a combination of everything—Jeongguk’s blush, his nervousness, the way his fingers are trembling against Taehyung’s spine, the way he suddenly wants a second opinion when in the past he’s always been intensely private about his songwriting—makes Taehyung realize something.

This isn’t just any song.

This is a song about a person who actually exists.

Jeongguk—

Jeongguk likes someone.

The smile freezes on Taehyung’s face. He stares down at Jeongguk, who is still blushing and looking away, muttering something about how this is just a first draft, trust me I know it sucks, and feels like all his insides are crumpling up, like he’s been transported to the deep deep ocean where the pressure is strong enough to crush a submarine.

“Um,” he says quietly, cutting through Jeongguk’s continued rambling. “Um, I’m kinda tired, so if you could maybe….”

“Right. Sorry. Okay, I’ll—okay.”

Jeongguk’s blushing so hard. He’s gripping the hem of his T-shirt with both hands, knuckles white like bone. He opens his mouth—

“Would it be easier if I turned off the light?” Taehyung asks.

Relief washes over Jeongguk’s face. “Yes. Thank you.”

“No worries.” Taehyung gets up and turns off the lamp, the living room falling into darkness. He picks his way back to the couch by memory, sidestepping the coffee table, and when his eyes finally adjust he sees that Jeongguk has pulled himself upright. Taehyung wedges himself into the tiny bit of space between Jeongguk and the arm of the couch, shoving his toes under Jeongguk’s thigh.

“Okay, well, I’m just gonna—,” says Jeongguk, and then he begins, in a small and shaky voice, to sing.

It’s a really pretty song.

Jeongguk’s voice in the darkness is so pretty. Soft and tentative and crystalline, each word a drop of light, some of them whispered and some of them flawlessly held, notes rising and hanging in the air. His only accompaniment is the quiet hum of the standing fan. And Taehyung’s heartbeat, but that’s pattering along too quickly for such a slow, lovely song.

Slow and lovely and sad.

Why are you so sad? Taehyung wants to ask. How could someone make you this sad? 

And filled with longing.

Taehyung wants to close his eyes but doesn’t let himself do it. Jeongguk sings, and Taehyung forces himself to watch, and it’s strange to feel so simultaneously proud and hurt and blown away and hopeless.

The last note rises, falls, fades away. Jeongguk clears his throat and turns to meet Taehyung’s eyes.

“So yeah,” he says.

“Jeongguk,” says Taehyung. It’s not what he meant to say at all, but it’s the only thing that comes out of his mouth. He tries to find the right words—that was incredible, you’re incredible, that was so good, you’ve improved so much, you must have worked so hard, how could someone make you this sad—and still nothing comes.

“Do you…understand what I’m trying to say?” Jeongguk whispers.

“Yes,” says Taehyung. “I think so.”

But who is it?

“Um, and do you, like—have any thoughts? About that?”

Some part of Taehyung’s brain registers the tremor in Jeongguk’s voice, but the rest of him is still reeling, still frantically analyzing everything Jeongguk’s done over the past few months, everyone he’s mentioned or hung out with, who is it who is it who is it, how could I not know? One hit after another. Who is it? How long? Why didn’t you tell me?

“I think it was a beautiful, beautiful song,” Taehyung manages. “You should be really proud of yourself, Jeonggukie.”

“O-okay, but—”

“Thank you for sharing it with me, I’m honored. It was so good, Gukie. Really great work.” He fakes a yawn. “Wow, sorry, I’m beat. I’m gonna go to bed now, but seriously, thank you so much for letting me listen, you did such a great job.” Taehyung ruffles Jeongguk’s hair and then stands up, stretching. “Well, goodnight.”

And he escapes into his bedroom and crawls under the covers and does not sleep.

 

*

 

jeongguk >> handsome hyung
are u avail i need advice :(

handsome hyung
Be gay. Do crime

jeongguk
different advice

handsome hyung
Ok hold on I gotta put on my sage advice outfit
Ok I’m back

jeongguk
…whats ur sage advice outfit

handsome hyung
A snuggie. For maximum comfort

jeongguk
just like over ur regular clothes?

handsome hyung
Did I say that? No
I said a snuggie
Full stop

jeongguk
oh hm horrible

handsome hyung
Yoongi says hi btw
Oh wait he wants to do it himself
Here he is
hey kid. hope you’re doing well

jeongguk
hi hyung
yeah im okay

handsome hyung
okay. jin put on his sage advice outfit so i wanted to make sure.

jeongguk
is he ,, rly naked under the snuggie

handsome hyung
yup

jeongguk
:(

handsome hyung
funny, i feel the exact opposite

jeongguk
:(((

handsome hyung
well i’ll let you guys get back to it
dinner soon? hyung’s treat

jeongguk
yes plsssssss <3

handsome hyung
Hello it’s Jin again
Come my child, come sit on father’s knee and tell me of your woes

jeongguk
Hmmmmmm No Thanks !

handsome hyung
Whatever
Yoongi’s already sitting there so you missed your chance anyway
Father’s knee is occupado
But seriously what’s up

jeongguk
um so
idk how much u’ve heard but like
so ive sort of had a crush on this one person for a while

handsome hyung
Whaaaaaaat
A cruuuuushhhhh
No waaaaaaayyyy

jeongguk
…………ok so i guess u know what im talking about.

handsome hyung
Ohh Jeongguk
You sweet soft-boiled egg
I’m really not trying to be mean rn but literally everyone knows you’ve been in love with Taehyung for, gee how long’s it been, oh yeah, 37 years
Literally everyone.
I asked Hyuna and she said 1. she knows and 2. you guys suck

jeongguk
i know ur joking about meeting hyuna but if you ever actually did meet hyuna and didnt tell me our friendship would be over
also. when u say everyone

handsome hyung
Ok, yes, Taehyung doesn’t know
Out of 7.442 billion people in the world
Taehyung is the only one who doesn’t know

jeongguk
or he does know and hes trying 2 subtly let me down easy haha :-)

handsome hyung
Nah trust me he doesn’t
He would have said something to Jimin who would have said something to Namjoon who would have said something to Hobi who would have said something to Yoongi who would have said something to me

jeongguk
cool haha
um so anyway not to be Gay
but ur like. the most confident & fearless person i know

handsome hyung
I’m tearing up

jeongguk
STOP
JUST
U *ARE*
AND LIKE
i was wondering idk if u have any idk tips
on how i could become more like u

handsome hyung
:)
:)))
:))))))
:))))))))))))))

jeongguk
oh god

 

*

 

Sunday morning begins with a scream.

Taehyung’s, specifically. And then Jeongguk’s a moment later.

“I’M SO SORRY,” Taehyung wails. He’s lying on the floor outside Jeongguk’s bedroom door, covering his eyes with both hands and writhing around like a horrified maggot. A horrified maggot who just walked in on his best friend taking weirdly athletic nudes. “I’m SORRY, I didn’t even know you were home, I was just gonna steal your phone charger—”

“Can you just shut up for a second!” Jeongguk shrieks from behind the closed door. “Please just shut up, oh my god, stop yelling, you are not the victim here! I am the victim! Why didn’t you knock, Taehyung?”

“I didn’t know you were home! Or I thought you’d still be asleep!”

“It’s nine a.m. on a Sunday, where the fuck else would I be, and you know I’ve been conditioned to wake up at six for my morning workout! I’m always up this early! You’re the one who sleeps in until two p.m.!”

“I was just gonna steal your phone charger!” Taehyung yells. “It’s not my fault you were filming softcore porn in there!”

The bedroom door bursts open to reveal Jeongguk, now fully clothed. His entire face is bright red, the tips of his ears look ready to catch fire, and his expression is equal parts furious and mortified.

“I was not filming porn,” he hisses.

“Then what the hell were you doing! What was that pose?”

“It’s none of your business!”

“You were fully erect!”

“Why are you still talking about this?” Jeongguk says shrilly. “Shut up! Go back to bed! This never happened!”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whines. “Seriously, I’m really sorry, I should have knocked.”

“Yes, you should have!”

“I didn’t see much, if that makes you feel better.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You literally just admitted that you saw my erect penis, Taehyung.”

“It’s a very nice penis,” Taehyung says, trying for soothing. “Lots of character.”

“Oh. My god. Oh my god, I can’t have this conversation. Right now or ever. Please please please stop talking.” He sounds like he’s about to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says again. “I’m really sorry, Gukie. I’ll totally forget everything, okay? It’s already forgotten.” He pushes up onto his elbows and pretends to look around in confusion. “Whoa, why am I on the floor? How did I get here?”

Jeongguk’s lips twitch.

“Did I sleepwalk again?” Taehyung continues. “I used to do that as a kid. One time I sleepwalked all the way down the hall to my parents’ room, and like, okay for context I would always sleep in this white T-shirt that used to be my dad’s so it was huge. Anyway, I sleepwalked to my parents’ room, and according to my mom, she woke up to me just standing there in the doorway, staring straight at her. She screamed so loud it woke the neighbors.”

“Oh wow,” Jeongguk says, and giggles into his hand.

“She thought I was a ghost, obviously. A very tiny ghost.” He gets to his feet, brushing the dust off his pajamas. They really need to deep clean this place. “And when she screamed it snapped me out of it, and it startled me so bad that I peed myself.” Taehyung sighs. “I used to pee myself a lot. Have I ever told you that? I peed the bed until like fifth grade. I don’t even know why.”

“I’m never sharing a bed with you again.”

“Yeah, I’m gross, I know.”

“I wasn’t filming anything,” Jeongguk says suddenly.

“Oh hell, Gukie, it’s fine if you were, I shouldn’t have said that like it was a bad thing, I was just freaking out—”

“No, but I wasn’t. I was—it’s dumb, but Jin-hyung told me that something he does when he’s feeling, like, less than confident, is that he just. Stands in front of the mirror and says good stuff about himself. Or takes nice selfies, or—well, you saw.” Jeongguk breathes out shakily. “That’s all.”

“That’s not dumb.”

“Hyung said that a really big part of self-love is like, fake it till you make it.”

“Is that something you’re working on?” Taehyung asks. “Self-love?”

“Um. A bit, yeah.”

“That’s really cool, Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, smiling at him. He can tell that it’s the wrong kind of smile, it’s too gentle, too obvious, but he can’t help it. “I’m glad you’re doing that.”

Jeongguk shrugs. Looks at Taehyung with those big round fawn eyes, dark and bottomless eyes, unknowable. Taehyung wishes they weren’t. Or maybe not; maybe that’s part of the charm, the pull.

Jeongguk says, “I just want to be a little less afraid.”

 

*

 

jeongguk >> sunshine hyung
from one thot to another

sunshine hyung
uhhh hold up
I’mma stop you right there
did you just refer to yourself as a thot

jeongguk
what of it

sunshine hyung
Jeongguk
darling.
you know I’d do just about anything for you
but the one thing I cannot do is lie

jeongguk
excuse me????

sunshine hyung
you’re just like
you’re not a thot, babe.
you’re the opposite of a thot
I’m sorry :(

jeongguk
im a hoe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
u can be a virgin and still be a hoe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

sunshine hyung
yeah I know but
you don’t have the hoe mindset?
like you just don’t
you’ve been married to Taehyungie for like 6 years

jeongguk
uhh actually we Haven’t been married for 6 years
thats kind of the problem
NOT that i wanna marry him! i dont haha lol

sunshine hyung
just out of curiosity, what would your wedding colors be

jeongguk
off the top of my head,
spring - apricot, pale yellow, & teal, summer - shades of pink & orange, fall - cranberry, plum, & gold, winter - ivory & royal blue w/ accents of silver & champagne gold

sunshine hyung
okay.

jeongguk
so anyway ive been asking everyone for advice

sunshine hyung
yeah Yoongi mentioned

jeongguk
its just that
you guys are all older than me
and. i dunno
i just want tae to stop seeing me as like
this dumb little kid
like the kid i was when we first met

sunshine hyung
I really don’t think Tae sees you like that tho

jeongguk
no he does. trust me.
and its fine
on some level
like i just wanna be around him
and be in his life
so
its ok if its not as his bf.
if thats the answer he gives me in the end
but i wanna at least try
before that

sunshine hyung
try to do what?
shoot your shot?

jeongguk
not even that
idk
i just want him to see me
like really see me.

sunshine hyung
hmmmmmmmmmmmm.
okay so like, not to be all Namjoon about it
but are you sure you’re seeing yourself?

jeongguk
complicated sentence what it mean

sunshine hyung
I dunno
you’ve just been so hung up on Tae for so long
have you ever, like……been on an actual date?

jeongguk
yes

sunshine hyung
more than one?

jeongguk
yes

sunshine hyung
more than one since high school?

jeongguk
…no comment

sunshine hyung
yeah so like I don’t wanna tell you to do things or whatever
but
Idk
I guess I just !! don’t want my lil baby to miss out on life experiences bc he’s been pining for my other lil baby since before the Earth was formed

jeongguk
isnt it unfair to go on a date w/ someone when i already have feelings for someone else?

sunshine hyung
ehh
it’s just a date
you’re not promising your hand in marriage
maybe you’ll even make a new friend!!!!! :D
I’ve met so many friends through failed Tinder dates lol

jeongguk
thats bc u have extrovert superpowers
but ok
i’ll
think about it

sunshine hyung
that’s all I ask~

 

*

 

It’s been a long goddamn day, and the elevator in their apartment building is out of order for the fifth time in three months.

Taehyung drags himself up the stairs, temples throbbing with exhaustion. It’s not even dinnertime yet but all he wants to do is change into his jammies, curl up in bed, and watch webtoons until he passes out. Maybe bribe Jeongguk into cuddling him for a while. Nothing particularly terrible happened today, but it started with Taehyung waking up forty minutes late for his morning class and went downhill from there, a series of small fuckups (and a mediocre test score) piling up until Taehyung felt sad and stupid and generally embarrassed by his own existence. He wants tea. He wants a hug. He wants to smell Jeongguk’s hair.

He lets himself into the apartment and heads straight for Jeongguk’s room, not even bothering to change out of his jeans. “Hey, Gukie,” he calls, knocking on the bedroom door. “Guk, today was shit, do you wanna order in and—”

The door opens.

Jeongguk is standing there, but he’s clearly not planning on a night in. He’s wearing tight black jeans and a black silk button-down and—and he’s got a bit of a fucking smoky eye going on, and maybe some lip color, and his hair is styled in a way Taehyung’s never seen before, parted like usual but tousled, wavy, like he’s put some real effort into it, and he smells like cologne.

Taehyung stares.

“Oh hi,” says Jeongguk, oblivious. “What were you saying?”

“Are you going somewhere?” Taehyung asks.

“Ah. Well, um, yes.”

Taehyung waits, but Jeongguk doesn’t elaborate. “Like—with a friend?”

He already knows the answer.

He already knows it’s not a friend; he knows why Jeongguk’s dressed up like this.

But somehow it still hurts when Jeongguk says, “Um, actually, I’m kind of going on a date.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says, and then realizes he’s still staring and also that he probably looks and sounds haunted, so he forces his gruesome Picasso face into something more like a smile. “Wow! That’s really great, Jeonggukie! Wow, fun. Who’s the lucky guy?”

Jeongguk coughs. “He’s from dance.”

“Wow!” How many times has he said wow? Too many? Is he smiling too wide? “Cool, that’s so cool, I had no idea you were—um, well, anyway, that sounds fun. Dates are so fun.” Tone it down, idiot. “Where’s he taking you?”

“I think we’re just gonna grab a drink and then hit up a club or something.”

“Cool, yeah, that makes sense, dance club, you’re both dancers,” why the fuck is Taehyung still talking, “yeah, for sure.”

“Uh, yeah.”

And then something happens that—in six years of friendship—has never before happened between Taehyung and Jeongguk.

There’s an awkward silence.

They stare at each other, Jeongguk on one side of the threshold and Taehyung on the other, Jeongguk looking beautiful, ethereal, really fucking hot, and Taehyung in holey jeans and a gigantic pink hoodie he stole from Jin, and Jeongguk is going on a date, and—oh, god, he’s from dance, this must be the guy. The guy he wrote that fucking song about, the guy he likes, fuck. Fuck.

“I’m glad,” Taehyung says. His voice comes out a little hoarse so he clears his throat and tries again. “I’m glad.”

“You are?”

“Yes.” Taehyung remembers how nervous Jeongguk was that night, the way his voice had wavered as he sang. “You—must like him a lot, right?”

Something passes across Jeongguk’s face. For a moment he looks almost guilty.

God. Maybe he knows.

“So I’m glad,” says Taehyung. “Of course I’m glad, why wouldn’t I be? You’re my best friend. I hope you have an amazing time, Jeongguk.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk whispers.

“Hey. Um. Look at me.”

Jeongguk looks up. His eyes are wide, coal-dark, flicking across Taehyung’s face.

“You are enough,” Taehyung tells him, low and fierce. “You have always been enough; you will always be enough. For him, for anyone. For everyone. That’s not something you need to worry about, okay? There is not a single thing about you that’s lacking. I should know.”

I know you best; I knew you first.

Jeongguk’s lips part, but he doesn’t say anything. He looks stunned.

“…I just wanted to tell you that,” Taehyung finishes lamely. “I wanted you to know.”

Jeongguk still doesn’t speak.

“Okay. Well.” Taehyung backs away, leaving Jeongguk there, framed in the doorway to his bedroom. “Have fun on your date. Be safe.” And right as he slips into his own bedroom, into the cool and blessed dark: “I hope it’s everything you want it to be.”

 

*

 

taehyung >> soulmate
can i come over

soulmate
for sure boo
not much going on here, we’re probs gonna get wine drunk and watch goblin but that’s it
are you okay?

taehyung
um
ill keep u posted on that one

soulmate
oh no :( yeah get over here

taehyung
ok

 

*

 

“You’re in luck,” says Jimin. “There’s juice in the fridge, and I’m pretty sure Joonie bought some fruit soju the other day. Green apple, maybe? Or peach? I know it’s around here somewhere…if he put it on the top shelf again I swear to—oh, here we go.” He produces a few small green bottles from the back of the cupboard. “Wow, Joonie really went all out. Sure you don’t wanna try the wine, too?”

Taehyung makes a face.

“Yeah, yeah,” Jimin says, rolling his eyes. “Baby can’t handle anything stronger than a mimosa, I get it. Well, there’s green apple, peach, pomegranate, watermelon…this one is just ‘blue’ flavor but I’m sure it’s yummy?”

“Pomegranate,” says Taehyung. “And watermelon. And blue, please.”

Jimin gives him a look. “If you’re gonna drink all my liquor, you gotta pay the troll toll.”

“I’ll talk, I promise. After I get a drink in me.”

“Fine.”

Jimin pours two glasses of wine, plus a glass of soju heavily diluted with strawberry juice for Taehyung. Namjoon is already in the living room setting up the TV. It’s their date night, and Taehyung is crashing it because he’s a big dumb idiot who can’t handle Jeongguk going out with—

He stops himself before thinking the words someone else.

It’s not someone else if you were never in the running to begin with.

“Hey, Tae,” says Namjoon, scooting over to make room on the couch. He smiles at Taehyung, his eyes soft and unassuming, and his face is doing that Namjoon thing where he gazes at you like he could see into your soul if he wanted to, but he’d never do it without your express permission. Namjoon also looks genuinely pleased to see Taehyung and not at all like an overworked grad student who just wanted a night in with his boyfriend and is now being forced to deal with said boyfriend’s emotionally unstable best friend.

“Hi, hyung,” says Taehyung.

“How are you?” asks Namjoon.

“I’m like, so great,” says Taehyung, and starts crying. Which is really confusing because there was no warning, no lump in his throat or hot itch behind his eyes; one second he’s fine and the next there are tears streaming down his face, the sting of salt on his lips, and when he touches his cheek his fingertips come away wet.

“Taetae, oh no,” Jimin murmurs from somewhere behind him.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. His nose is starting to run, tears are dripping off his chin, this is so embarrassing. “Wow, I’m so sorry, I don’t—I’m seriously fine, sorry, maybe a little tired, but that’s all.”

Then he doubles over and sobs into what is probably Namjoon’s thigh.

A pair of arms wrap around him, a head drops onto his shoulder—poor sweet Tae, Jimin whispers, you’re okay, let it out—and a hand much bigger than Jimin’s is stroking his hair. Taehyung thinks about Jeongguk in love with someone and cries and thinks about Jeongguk on a date and cries and thinks about Jeongguk and cries. It hurts, it really hurts so bad, not just emotionally but physically; it feels like a toothache, or the aftermath: after the tooth falls out but the pain hasn’t faded yet and you can’t stop poking at the empty socket with your tongue. Taehyung’s whole chest feels like that. A sick hollow ache.

Eventually the sobbing turns to sniffling, and Taehyung cries himself out. He sits up, too exhausted to feel guilty about the wet spot on Namjoon’s sweatpants, and takes a deep, shaky breath.

“Sorry,” he rasps. “I didn’t mean to ruin your night.”

“You didn’t ruin anything,” says Namjoon. He’s looking at Taehyung with so much concern that Taehyung nearly bursts into tears all over again. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

“C’mon, Taetae,” Jimin coaxes. “Tell us what’s going on.”

Taehyung pauses. He’s not sure how to phrase this, how to explain the magnitude of his feelings. He’s never said it out loud before: I love him. Even in his head it seems trite. Love isn’t the right word, really. Love was the right word when Jeongguk was fifteen and looked like a starving cat and Taehyung was seventeen and hid choco pies in the pockets of Jeongguk’s winter coats. That was love. It lived in Taehyung’s eyes, on his fingertips; it skittered across his skin like static electricity. It was abstract and shallow and sexless and new.

This feels old.

This feels less like something Taehyung fell into and more like something that has always been inside him, dormant. It lives in his dark parts, in his belly and lungs and the halls of his heart, in his lizard brain. It feels like an underground river. It feels like a tidal pull. It feels like something he’s not supposed to feel at twenty-three.

What is there to say?

“I’m angry at myself,” he says finally. “For being so selfish about him. It sucks.”

“What do you mean?” asks Jimin.

Taehyung gives a weak laugh. “He’s on a date right now. I’m having a meltdown about it instead of being happy for him.” He sniffles. “This is so stupid. I can’t believe I’m reacting like this. I was just—surprised? But I shouldn’t have been, I should’ve seen it coming, I shouldn’t be this fucking upset.”

God, he’s pathetic. He sniffles again, wiping at his eyes.

“Um,” says Namjoon. “To clarify, you’re talking about Jeongguk?”

Jimin groans. “Oh my god, babe, where have you been.”

“I was just making sure!”

“Obviously he’s talking about Jeongguk! Who else would he be talking about? G-Dragon?”

“I wish it was G-Dragon,” Taehyung mumbles. “I’d probably have more of a chance.”

“Tae, I love you, but that’s ridiculous,” says Jimin. “G-Dragon is worth 33 billion won. Jeongguk is worth, like, five thousand and a packet of shrimp chips.”

Taehyung bites him.

“Okay, rude,” says Jimin, after he’s shoved Taehyung away. “That was completely uncalled for!”

“You insulted the great love of my life!”

“You also implied that Taehyung couldn’t bag G-Dragon,” Namjoon points out.

Jimin glares at him. “Whose side are you on?”

“I am on nobody’s side,” says Namjoon. “Because nobody is on my side.”

“I think the fact that I understood that reference means I am on your side, because I love you enough to sit through the extended editions and the DVD extras not just once but on an annual basis—”

“Guys?” Taehyung interrupts. “Sorry, it’s just, I’m still having a crisis.”

“Oh, Taetae,” Jimin says immediately, throwing his arms back around Taehyung and squeezing him tight. “It’ll be okay, I prom…wait. Wait. Wait, hold up. Did you say Jeongguk is on a date right now?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “Someone from dance. He’s, um, liked this guy for a while, I think.”

“…Interesting,” says Jimin. “That is very, very interesting.”

“Uh. I guess.”

“Hyung,” says Jimin, in a voice that is somehow both casual and utterly terrifying. “Please pass me my phone.”

Namjoon passes Jimin his phone.

Taehyung doesn’t understand what’s going on, but he does understand this: he feels gross and miserable and empty, and he wants to stop feeling like that, wants to stop feeling anything at all, at least temporarily. Wants a distraction. Wants to forget, for tonight.

So he picks up his glass of soju and strawberry juice and downs it in three gulps.

He hears Namjoon mutter, “Oh boy.”

But Taehyung’s already reaching for the small, half-gone bottle of pomegranate soju, dumping the rest into his empty glass and tossing it back, cringing at the sickly sweet taste. Namjoon and Jimin are having some sort of whispered conversation over his head, probably debating whether or not to let poor heartbroken (and total lightweight) Taehyung get white girl wasted on their couch right now.

Too late, he thinks, staring into the bottom of his glass.

Then he pretty much stops thinking.

 

*

 

He drinks the pomegranate.

The watermelon.

The mysterious blue.

He even tries to drink the peach and the green apple, but that’s when Namjoon and Jimin cut him off. Which is actually fine, because Taehyung realizes only a few minutes after finishing his most recent mix of juice and soju that, yeah, he needs to stop or he’s probably gonna puke later. So he just sits there on the couch, steeped in his own melancholy, drifting in and out of awareness. Jimin pets his hair and Namjoon makes him drink water, and Taehyung cries and watches a YouTube compilation of the Top 10 Cutest Teacup Pigs and cries some more.

At some point he basically cries himself to sleep on Namjoon’s shoulder. He can hear Jimin saying something and Namjoon replying, his voice a rumble in Taehyung’s ear, but it’s so warm and Namjoon smells like books and black tea and Taehyung is so, so exhausted. He dozes, slipping in and out of a quiet, drunken place.

“…being an idiot. I mean, they both are, but especially him. I swear to god, next time I see that kid I’m gonna wring his scrawny little neck.”

“I forgot how vengeful you get on wine.”

“He made Taehyung sad,” Jimin hisses. “He has to die.”

“I think if you kill him Taehyung would be even more sad.”

“Baby, I literally love you so much, but if you keep being logical I’m breaking up with you.”

Namjoon sighs. “Okay. You can kill Jeongguk.”

“Thank you.”

There’s a shuffling sound and then one of them drapes a blanket over Taehyung’s body, tucking him in. He shifts, smushing his nose into Namjoon’s shoulder, but doesn’t open his eyes.

After a long silence, Namjoon takes a breath. “They’re both scared,” he says softly. “But I think Jeongguk’s been scared for longer. And that kind of fear…it’s hard to overcome. It’s so hard to just be honest. Because in his eyes, he’s not just facing Taehyung. He’s facing all of it.”

“Yeah,” Jimin murmurs. “I know.”

“They’ll be okay. I know you want to just—save them. But they’ll figure it out and they’ll be okay.”

“Mm.”

Another long pause. Taehyung drifts, floating through weird half-dreams.

Then Jimin whispers, “How are you so good.”

“Oh love,” says Namjoon. “I was gonna ask you the same thing.”

 

*

 

“Taehyung.”

Someone’s shaking him.

“Taetae, babe, you gotta get up now.”

He whines and shoves his face deeper into his pillow, which is perhaps bonier than one might normally expect from a pillow, but who cares. He’s comfy.

“C’mon, Taehyungie, someone’s under the impression that you need a ride home.”

A ride?

Taehyung cracks one eye open to see Jimin standing over him, a look of deep annoyance on his face. But it’s not directed at Taehyung—Jimin is glaring at something behind him, over by the front door.

“Didn’t call a taxi,” Taehyung mumbles. “‘M comfy, don’t wanna move.”

“Hear that?” Jimin says sharply. “He’s comfy. He doesn’t wanna move. So how about Taetae sleeps here and you can just—”

“Hyung,” comes a new voice.

Taehyung is suddenly very, very awake. He stiffens all over, and his pillow—which, huh, is actually Namjoon, that’s nice—pats his head soothingly.

“Hyung, he asked me to come get him,” says Jeongguk. “Sorry, I just, like, he texted me.”

“He did not,” Jimin snaps. Then he rounds on Taehyung. “Did you text Jeongguk?”

Did he?

Taehyung fishes his phone out of his pocket and taps at it with slow, clumsy fingers, cringing away from the brightness of the screen. Sure enough, it opens to his KKT chat with Jeongguk.

 

taehyung >> gukie <3
jfhey can u come nGet me

gukie <3
??? tae???
are u ok?????
hey tae can u maybe answer pls lol
tae
tae
TAEHYUNG.

taehyung
yah im fine sryr jsut a lil bit drunk : )
wait fujck ignrore me ur out on a date wow omg sry
sorry ignore me !!
ennjfoy ur night

gukie <3
where are you?
are you alone?

taehyung
nnnononono im w jimin n joon
im sreriously fine
ok byeee !

gukie <3
u dont need to worry about my date
im already on my way home haha
do u want me to stop by jimins place and pick you up?

taehyung
no its fine im g,ood
gna crash here it hink

gukie <3
u dont seem good
why did u ask me to come get u?
taehyung?
ugh
well .
im gonna stop by and u can come home w me or not ok?
whatever u want
ill see u soon tae

 

Taehyung winces.

“Um,” he says. “It appears that I may have texted Jeongguk.”

Jimin makes an exasperated noise. “Okay, well, fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that Taehyung can just sleep here and go home in the morning.”

“I know, all I’m saying is that he texted me—”

“Here’s a wacky idea,” says Namjoon, carefully dislodging Taehyung from his shoulder and pushing him upright. “How about Taehyung decides for himself, and then we all go to bed.”

Everyone looks at Taehyung.

His head is spinning. “I—I wanna go home.”

“But—,” Jimin starts, and then huffs. “Fine, all right.” He whirls around and jabs a finger at Jeongguk. “Make sure he drinks water and don’t let him sleep on his back, he’ll throw up and die.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “Actually, I was thinking about letting my drunk best friend sleep in the gutter, with the rats.”

“That’s okay, I loved Ratatouille,” Taehyung mumbles, eyes slipping shut again.

Jimin sighs loudly. Then Taehyung maybe dozes off for a second, because the next thing he’s aware of is the smell of lavender and a pair of hands on his waist, pulling him to his feet.

“C’mon, Tae,” Jeongguk whispers, his lips brushing the shell of Taehyung’s ear. “Let’s go home.”

 

*

 

He wakes up again when the car slows to a stop outside their building and Jeongguk flips on the interior lights. For a moment Taehyung doesn’t know where he is—part of him is caught in a half-dream, half-memory of being six years old, curled up in the backseat of his dad’s sedan on the way home from Somewhere, late at night, falling asleep in the darkness, waking up when they got home but pretending to be asleep so his dad would carry him inside. It’s such a visceral memory—waking up to a wash of yellow from the interior lights. Squinting, rubbing his eyes.

“Time to wake up, hyung,” says Jeongguk, turning off the engine. He gets out of the driver’s seat and comes around the car to open the passenger door for Taehyung, standing over him like a very beautiful chauffeur. He leans down, peering at Taehyung’s face. “You good? You’re not gonna puke, are you?”

Taehyung shakes his head. “‘M fine, just tired.”

“Cool. Let’s go upstairs, okay? Then you can get in bed.”

“Why’re you so nice,” Taehyung says, sleepiness and soju blending his words together. “So nice to me, J’nggukie.”

“I’m a very nice young man. Now c’mon, hyung, you gotta get out of the car.”

“Don’t wanna. I’ll sleep here.”

“You will not, because it’s not safe and also Jimin would actually murder me.”

Taehyung pouts at him. Like really Pouts, capital P, veering closer to aegyo territory than Sober Taehyung is generally comfortable with. He blinks up at Jeongguk with wide eyes, sticks out his lower lip, and says, “Piggyback?”

“Uh,” says Jeongguk.

“Please, Gukie? For hyung?”

Jeongguk coughs. “Okay, god, fine, you’re so greasy, can you just—stop with the face, oh my god.” His ears are visibly red even under the sodium lights. “I’ll piggyback you. Just stand up.”

“‘Kay.” Taehyung pulls himself to his feet, stumbling and catching himself on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “‘M up, let’s go.”

It takes some maneuvering to get Taehyung onto Jeongguk’s back, mostly because Taehyung is a useless deadweight at this point, but after a couple minutes of struggle Taehyung is able to loop his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, hoisting himself up and hooking his chin over Jeongguk’s shoulder. Jeongguk’s hands are so warm beneath his thighs.

Solid, Taehyung thinks again, nosing at Jeongguk’s hair.

Jeongguk shivers.

“How are you cold?” Taehyung murmurs into his ear. “’S barely even chilly out.”

Jeongguk doesn’t respond.

He carries Taehyung into their building, the single fluorescent light in the entryway turning everything the color of ghosts, hurting Taehyung’s eyes. He buries his face in Jeongguk’s neck. All the bad feelings from earlier are rising up again, the hurt and jealousy and self-loathing and the terrible sadness, and he’s still drunk enough to be sleepy and clumsy but no longer drunk enough to not think about anything. He wonders how Jeongguk’s date went. Amazing, probably. Which is a good thing.

Jeongguk stops short. “Oh god,” he groans. “The elevator’s still out.”

“That sucks,” Taehyung says. Then he realizes the problem. “Oh, sorry, I’ll get off.”

He tries to slide down off Jeongguk’s back, but Jeongguk just grips him tighter. “No, I said I’d piggyback you, so I’ll piggyback you.”

“It’s six flights of stairs, Gukie.”

Jeongguk seems to take that as a challenge, which in retrospect is not surprising. “I can do it,” he says. “I’m swole.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No buts.” He hitches Taehyung up a little further. “This’ll probably be faster anyway. I don’t trust you to not fall asleep in the middle of the stairwell.”

And with that he heads for the stairs. Taehyung sighs and lets his chin drop back onto Jeongguk’s shoulder, closing his eyes. It’s calming, the movement of Jeongguk’s body beneath him, the warmth of him against Taehyung’s front, the scent of lavender. He presses his face into Jeongguk’s neck, breathing in.

“W’nna hear all about your date,” he mumbles, lips brushing Jeongguk’s skin. “Hope it was good. Sorry you had to come pick me up, and now you’re taking care of me, ugh, ‘m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” says Jeongguk. “I don’t mind. You take care of me all the time.”

“Ah.” Taehyung tightens his arms around Jeongguk’s neck. “You’d be such a good boyfriend, Gukie.”

Jeongguk trips over the next step and pitches forward. Taehyung squeaks in terror, clinging to his back like a monkey, but thankfully Jeongguk finds his footing again a moment later and manages to not send both of them tumbling down an entire flight of stairs to certain death. Or at least a bad concussion.

“Sorry!” Jeongguk gasps. “Sorry, sorry, you good?”

Taehyung’s stomach is still swooping. “Don’t drop me,” he whispers, curling his hands into the front of Jeongguk’s shirt. The silk is cool and slippery between his fingers and it reminds him of Jeongguk’s date all over again. “I don’t wanna die in this outfit.”

“Sorry.”

They reach the third floor landing. Jeongguk is definitely getting winded—he’s panting a little and going slower than he did in the beginning—but Taehyung knows he’d rather die than admit it. Always so competitive, so stubborn. Sweet and shy right up until you challenge him, until there’s a fight to be won, and then: that look. That flushed and scowly and bright-eyed look. Forget soju—that look is fucking intoxicating.

“What—,” Jeongguk starts, and then clears his throat. “What, um, what did you mean by that?”

“By what?”

“When. When you said, um. The thing about me being a good boyfriend.”

Taehyung hums. “Meant exactly what I said.” He squirms a little, pushing himself up a couple inches so he can rub his nose all over Jeongguk’s cheekbone like a dog. “Oh, your face smells good. How does your face smell good?”

“Uh—um, lotion?”

“Mm. Love it. What is that, rose?”

“Y-yeah, I think so.”

And Taehyung’s not sure what makes him do it. Blame it on the drinks, the warmth, the dizzying exhaustion. Blame it on the scent of roses, the silk under his fingertips, the heat of Jeongguk’s hands on his thighs, the mess of feelings in his chest, the old desire, the new desire. Blame it on the tidal pull. Blame it on the way Jeongguk’s rocking that smoky eye. Blame it on sadness and selfishness and want. Maybe just blame it on want.

It doesn’t really matter, because the bottom line is that Taehyung laughs and sighs and presses his lips to Jeongguk’s cheek. He kisses Jeongguk once, lightly, on the cheekbone, and then giggles—at the absurdity? at his own daring? at the way Jeongguk just froze midstep?—and kisses him on the ear.

“Okay, whoa,” Jeongguk says, his voice echoing strangely in the stairwell. He’s still frozen, one foot on the fifth floor landing, fingers digging into Taehyung’s thighs. “What, um, what are you doing?”

Great question. “I dunno,” says Taehyung. “Just, you’re so sweet, wanna say thanks.”

Jeongguk swallows hard. Taehyung watches, entranced by the flicker of movement in his throat, and then sways forward again and kisses the side of Jeongguk’s neck, pressing his mouth to that smooth tan skin.

“Oh my god, how much did you fucking drink,” Jeongguk mutters, twisting away from Taehyung’s lips. He takes the last flight of stairs two steps at a time, breathing hard, and carries Taehyung through the stairwell door, down the narrow hallway. He unlocks their door onehanded and carries Taehyung inside, into the familiar dark.

Taehyung lets go of Jeongguk’s shirt in favor of hugging him tighter, arms around his neck. “Carry me to bed,” he breathes into Jeongguk’s ear, and laughs, startled, when Jeongguk shudders. “Wow, still cold?”

“Nope,” Jeongguk says. “Okay, let’s get you to bed. You—you gotta sleep this off.”

He makes a beeline for Taehyung’s bedroom, not even bothering to turn on any lights. Taehyung’s eyelids are so heavy; he closes them for a second and then opens them again to find that he and Jeongguk are in Taehyung’s room, next to his bed, which is unmade as always, the blankets rumpled. Faint light comes in through the window, yellowish and artificial, not moonlight. It must be cloudy tonight.

“I’m gonna put you down now,” Jeongguk murmurs. “Ready?”

Taehyung nods against his shoulder.

“…Tae. You have to, like, let go of me.”

“No,” says Taehyung.

“Taehyung. Come on.”

“No,” Taehyung repeats. Then, still holding on tight, he sort of throws himself backward—Jeongguk yelps—and together they fall ungracefully onto the bed. Taehyung’s back hits the mattress and Jeongguk lands on top of him, still in piggyback position, just more—horizontal.

Above them, the glow-in-the-dark stars on Taehyung’s ceiling form a pale greenish constellation.

“I think your elbow just permanently damaged my kidney,” Taehyung whispers.

Jeongguk makes a strangled noise and tries to wriggle his way free of Taehyung’s death grip. He only manages to turn around so they’re facing each other, Taehyung’s arms still looped around Jeongguk’s neck, Jeongguk holding himself over Taehyung with one elbow planted on the bed by Taehyung’s shoulder.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Taehyung says, trying not to laugh. Jeongguk looks so shocked.

“You’re—,” Jeongguk blinks down at him once, slowly, and then his gaze darts away from Taehyung’s face. “You’re so gone, Tae, what the hell did Jimin let you drink?”

Taehyung frowns. “Jimin doesn’t let me do anything. ‘M an adult.”

“Okay, so what did you choose to drink?”

“A lot of soju,” Taehyung sighs. “Like, a lot.

“Christ.”

They’re so close together. Scant inches between their faces, bodies pressed together all the way down, one of Taehyung’s legs still hooked around Jeongguk’s waist. Jeongguk is holding himself up with one arm but his other arm is draped across Taehyung’s body, fingers curled loosely around Taehyung’s hip.

And Taehyung—maybe isn’t as drunk as he’s letting Jeongguk believe.

It’s easier this way.

“You still haven’t told me,” Taehyung says, so quietly.

“Told you what?”

“How your date went.”

Jeongguk’s mouth twists. “There’s not much to tell.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“I don’t know, hyung. It was—a bad idea to begin with. It was never gonna work.” Before Taehyung can ask why, Jeongguk continues. “He was fine. He’s in one of my dance classes, but we only started talking because we matched on Tinder. Texted for like two days and decided to grab a drink. It was fine.” He shrugs one shoulder. “Nothing else to say, really.”

A handful of questions float to the surface of Taehyung’s mind—But don’t you have a crush on him? Didn’t you write a song for him? Since when you have a Tinder?—but he doesn’t voice any of them aloud.

“I’m sorry,” he says instead. “That it didn’t work out.”

“It’s okay.”

“But—”

“It’s okay,” Jeongguk says. His free hand comes up to play with the strings of Taehyung’s stolen hoodie, winding them around his fingers. “He wasn’t—what I was looking for.”

What are you looking for?

Taehyung can’t speak. Jeongguk’s hand drops onto his chest, right above his sternum. When Taehyung takes a breath, Jeongguk’s hand rises with his lungs.

So close together in the dark, looking feels like touching, like hands on skin. Taehyung finds himself tracing Jeongguk with his eyes. Memorizing the outline of his body in faint yellow light. The breadth of his shoulders, the cut of his jaw. The shape of his mouth, which over the past year has become particularly fascinating: the lower lip so soft and full, the upper a perfect cupid’s bow, such a distinctive shape, such a captivating mouth, clever, quick to laugh, a little Rococo, that same inherent playfulness, that sense of a secret in the corners of the lips. Taehyung’s had dreams of Jeongguk in blue silk against a lush, opulent background, framed in shadows and sprays of fat pink roses. Dreams of Jeongguk’s face as an echo of Marie-Gabrielle Capet, that one self-portrait, huge dark eyes and lips curled into something almost teasing. It’s ridiculous how often Taehyung’s subconscious turns Jeongguk into art.

“It’s okay,” Jeongguk says for a third time, eyes flicking across Taehyung’s face. His fingers spread out across Taehyung’s sternum and Taehyung hopes to god that Jeongguk can’t feel the racket of his heartbeat. “You wanna know something funny?”

Taehyung nods. His bangs fall into his eyes and Jeongguk reaches up immediately, brushing them away, and his hand lingers on Taehyung’s face. The space between their mouths—is it shrinking? Is Jeongguk leaning down?

“He didn’t make me laugh even once,” says Jeongguk.

Something sharp and pleased makes itself known in Taehyung’s chest. He’s going to feel so guilty about this in the morning, because—

I do, whispers the sharp thing, flicking its tail. But I do. All the time.

 

*

 

[interlude]

 

“I was off-key.”

“For like two seconds,” says Taehyung.

“No, but I was, and I messed up the second bridge, did you notice that? I said ‘were you’ instead of ‘are you.’”

“Huh,” says Taehyung, frowning. “I thought it was supposed to be like that. I feel like it’s more poignant with ‘were you’ anyway.”

Jeongguk shakes his head so hard that his hair flops into his eyes. “But those aren’t the right words. And I’m not great at ad-libbing and sometimes I get ahead of myself and start rushing, so it’s off-key and off-tempo, and I still can’t hit that freaking Bb5, my voice always cracks, but it sounds so lame in falsetto, like, it totally weakens the entire song, and I’ve been thinking about it and maybe I should just rescind my application and—”

Taehyung shoves an eggroll into Jeongguk’s open mouth.

“It’s my turn to talk,” he says, ignoring the way Jeongguk sputters around the eggroll, bits of shredded cabbage littering the tabletop. He reaches across the table and grabs Jeongguk’s face with both hands, squishing his cute little cheeks. He can’t help but notice that there’s less to squish than there used to be. Lately Jeongguk’s been fully embracing the gym bro culture, lifting weights and drinking protein shakes and using #legday unironically. He says he wants to get “swole” before he goes to college, which Taehyung finds equal parts adorable and tragic. He already misses Jeongguk’s baby face.

“Look at me, Jeon Jeongguk,” he orders. “Look deep into my eyes.”

The look Jeongguk gives him is more of a glare than anything else, but Taehyung will take it. He’s magnanimous like that.

“Gukie,” he says. “Do you know why my eyes are so big?”

Jeongguk gives a strangled groan.

“Answer me! Do you know why my eyes are so big?”

“Nmgffh?”

“Exactly,” says Taehyung, letting go of Jeongguk’s face. “It’s because I can see into the future. I’m very powerful and my soul stretches out in all directions like Indra’s net and you’re going to ace your audition and get into college and make art and make mistakes and live a very long and happy life and get a dog and still get scared sometimes and everything will be okay. Please swallow your eggroll.”

Jeongguk swallows his eggroll.

“Great job,” says Taehyung. “Okay, so how are we feeling?”

“Freaking terrified.”

“That’s fine! That’s totally fine, that’s normal. But you gotta do stuff anyway, you know? You gotta work through the fear, you can’t just give up. You’ve never been a quitter. Are you a quitter, Gukie?”

“…No.”

“NO YOU’RE NOT,” Taehyung agrees, loudly enough that he gets some weird looks from the surrounding tables. Jeongguk slides down in his chair a little, ears red. “You’re not a quitter. If you want something, you go after it. You fight for it. You figure out what you have to do and then you do it. Understand me?”

“I—I think so,” Jeongguk says. His eyes are even wider than usual, his cheeks pink with what must be determination and a renewed vigor to succeed. God, Taehyung is so good at this whole motivational speech thing.

“So don’t you dare rescind your application,” Taehyung says through a mouthful of kung pao chicken. “Don’t you dare. I will physically fight you, Jeon Jeongguk.”

“You’d lose,” says Jeongguk.

Taehyung’s jaw drops.

“Oh, gross, hyung,” Jeongguk complains, wrinkling his nose. “I really didn’t need to see your chewed-up chicken.”

“Well—that’s what you get when you don’t respect your elders!”

“You’re my elder by like, barely two years.”

“Two years of hard living, you punk,” Taehyung says. “God, kids these days.”

He scoops some more rice into his bowl of chicken. When he looks up, Jeongguk is staring at him.

“What?” Taehyung asks, pausing with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. “If there’s sauce on my face, don’t even bother telling me, it’s just gonna keep happening until I’m done eating. Gotta pick your battles, you know?”

Jeongguk shakes his head once, blinking. “N-no, there’s nothing on your face.”

“Then why are you looking at me like that?”

“I just—,” Jeongguk’s jaw works for a moment. “I, I just, I’m really not a kid anymore.”

Taehyung can’t help it. He laughs, surprised.

Jeongguk’s flush deepens. “I mean it,” he says. “I’m seventeen, I’m applying for college. I’m an adult.”

“Seventeen is still kind of a kid, Gukie.”

“Then what isn’t?”

“Sorry, I’m not following.”

“What isn’t?” Jeongguk repeats. He leans forward over the table, eyes on Taehyung’s face. It’s a little unnerving how serious he looks. “How old do I have to be for you to—to stop saying I’m a kid?”

“Uh.” Taehyung feels like this conversation took a very odd turn somewhere, and he’s not entirely sure where they’ve ended up. “Uh, I dunno. I’m nineteen and most of the time I feel like I’m still a kid, if that tells you anything. So I guess older than me?”

“Okay, how much older?”

Jesus Christ. Jeongguk’s stubbornness flares up at the weirdest times.

“I…don’t know?” Taehyung says slowly.

This is so confusing. He wants to go back to half an hour ago, when they were eating Chinese food and arguing about video games and Jeongguk made Taehyung laugh so hard that he choked on a dumpling, which made Jeongguk laugh so hard he nearly fell out of his chair. Taehyung wants to go back to that. So he makes up an answer.

“Twenty-one,” he says. “I’ll stop calling you a kid when you turn twenty-one. Okay?”

Jeongguk stares down at his plate of noodles. For a moment—shoulders hunched, eyes downcast—he looks very small.

Then he straightens up. Squares his shoulders. Looks Taehyung in the eye.

“Fine,” he says. “Twenty-one, then.”

“Sure thing,” says Taehyung, and goes back to his chicken.

It only takes a few minutes before they’re arguing about Undertale again, laughing and teasing and eating off each other’s plates. Then they walk down the street to a manga store and hang out for a couple hours, catching up on the latest issues of Shonen Jump, and then Taehyung’s mom does the thing where she calls him once a week to update him on the latest crime activity in Seoul, of which there is very little, and tells him about all the preventative measures he can take to avoid becoming a statistic. She says hello to Jeongguk, too, wishes him luck on his audition. Jeongguk blushes and stutters and almost drops Taehyung’s phone.

And somewhere in the midst of all this, Taehyung forgets all about the weird conversation in the Chinese restaurant.

 

*

 

“He didn’t make me laugh even once,” says Jeongguk, and all of Taehyung’s dark parts whisper, But I do.

The shame crashes over him almost immediately, but it’s too late, he’s already had the ugly thought. Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut. What a nasty, possessive, selfish thought. What a terrible thing to feel smug about—someone not making Jeongguk laugh. Everyone should make Jeongguk laugh; Jeongguk should be laughing always, or at least very often.

“Um,” he says, eyes still closed. He can’t look at Jeongguk’s face right now. “Um, Gukie, I’m like, really tired.”

“…Oh,” Jeongguk says, and then, “oh fuck, sorry, you’re drunk, you’re—fuck. Okay.” He scrambles off the bed, all his warmth leaving Taehyung in an instant. “Let me just grab you some water, okay? Be right back.”

“Guk,” Taehyung starts, but when he opens his eyes Jeongguk is gone, the door half-open behind him. He comes back a second later with a glass of water and watches as Taehyung drinks the whole thing. Then he pushes Taehyung gently down onto the mattress, reminding him not to sleep on his back. He does all of this without ever once meeting Taehyung’s eyes.

Then Jeongguk says goodnight and goes, closing the door behind him.

Taehyung curls up in a ball, hugs his pillow, and doesn’t cry.

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
i dont think i can do this

koala hyung
yes you can

jeongguk
no but like i cant
i rly rly cant

koala hyung
yes. you can.
you really really can

jeongguk
sfjdjfkd jfk j fuck
im sorry im being such a freak rn but like
my brain keeps churning out these worst case scenarios
and like LOGICALLY i know taes not gonna throw me out of the apartment & tell me hes been secretly dating rihanna this whole time

koala hyung
why rihanna just curious

jeongguk
BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY I COUDL NEVER COMPETE WITH RIHANNA
THATS GAME OVER NAMJOON
CHRIST

koala hyung
deep breaths

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
ok no
you know what?
im gonna do it.
its been 6 years i just
i //have// to know
even if its bad i have to know

koala hyung
i think that’s the right choice!
proud of you

jeongguk
<3

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
but what if its bad though

koala hyung
i mean
for the record, i reeeeally don’t think it will be bad

jeongguk
haha but also the only time hes ever been remotely flirty w me was after he drank half a liquor store

koala hyung
knowing taehyung it was more like a single glass of white wine, but okay
wait
are you talking about the other night?
after you guys left?

jeongguk
yeah
when we got home we sort of,, cuddled,,, agh
and he was giving me this Look
i cant even describe it
and i s2g i thought like
i thought he was gonna say somethign
or do something
but then he was just like Ok well goodnight!!
also, again, he was drunk, nothing couldve happened anyway

koala hyung
a drunk mind speaks a sober heart

jeongguk
is that from shrek?

koala hyung
i believe it was french philosopher jean-jacques rousseau but close enough

jeongguk
i just feel like im setting myself up for heartbreak
and total humiliation haha :-)

koala hyung
i understand why you feel like that
but please trust me on this
i really, really think everything will turn out okay

jeongguk
ughghghhhhh

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
ur right
everything will turn out ok
i just have 2 be brave
i have to be brave and go after the things i want
and it’ll be ok
even if he doesnt give the answer im looking for
its not the end of the world and i’ll be okay.

koala hyung
yes! that’s the spirit
you are surrounded by so many people who love you
i hope you know that

jeongguk
,,,wow im tearing up a little
i love u hyung

koala hyung
love you too
see now wasn’t that easy

jeongguk
har har har.
ok
fuck
i’m ??? gonna do it
i really am
im finally gonna do it
6 fuckin years and im Finally gonna do it

koala hyung
i believe in you, guk
you got this

jeongguk
<3

koala hyung
<3

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung
i changed my mind i cant do it.

koala hyung
hold on

[CALL - jeongguk + koala hyung - DURATION 01:47:06 ]

 

*

 

Jeongguk’s twenty-first birthday falls on a Friday.

On Thursday, the last day of August, Taehyung skips his afternoon classes to make Jeongguk a birthday cake.

“Can’t you just…buy him a cake? From a nice bakery?” Jimin asks. They’re FaceTiming, ostensibly because Taehyung isn’t supposed to use any major kitchen appliances without supervision after the stir-fry incident, but really just because Jimin enjoys heckling him. “That’s what you did last year, isn’t it? That cake was amazing. Sometimes I still get sex dreams about candied mango.”

Taehyung raises an eyebrow at his phone. “About candied mango, or featuring candied mango?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Jimin sniffs.

“Gross.” Taehyung cracks an egg against the side of the mixing bowl and only a couple shards of eggshell fall into the cake batter, which is progress. He fishes them out, glancing again at the recipe. “Hey, Jimin-ah, do I really need to sift all the dry ingredients? That’s probably not necessary, right? And before you answer, keep in mind that I don’t own a sifter or even really know what that is.”

“…I’m sure it’s not necessary,” says Jimin.

“Nice, thanks. Also, to answer your question, yes I could just buy him a cake, but there’s nothing special about that.”

“Aw,” Jimin coos. “How romantic.”

Taehyung splutters. “That’s not—it’s just a birthday cake! Don’t make it weird!”

“Oh, sorry, I forgot we’re still doing that whole charade.”

“You’re so mean to me.” Taehyung picks up his phone to give Jimin a better view of him sticking his tongue out. “I’m gonna fire you from being my soulmate.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Who should be my soulmate now, I wonder? Maybe Namjoon-hyung?”

“I will gut you like a fish,” Jimin hisses.

“Wow, okay, consider a chill pill. Oh shit,” Taehyung says, staring in horror at the swirl of dark brown vanilla extract in the mixing bowl. He definitely only meant to put in a teaspoon and he definitely just spilled an extra, like, three tablespoons in there. “Huh. Well. That’s probably fine. Everyone likes vanilla.”

“Oh god, what did you do now?”

“Nothing! Don’t worry about it!”

They hang up a few minutes later so Jimin can go to class. Then Taehyung is alone in the kitchen, which is steadily looking less like a kitchen and more like what would happen if you set a herd of chickens loose in a flour factory. There’s flour on the counters and floor (and in Taehyung’s hair), eggshells and dropped yolks in the sink, gritty sugar underfoot. Taehyung also ruined a mug because he was trying to melt some chocolate chips in the microwave and set the timer for three minutes instead of thirty seconds, so now they’re down a mug and also the kitchen smells like burnt chocolate, which is less pleasant and more acrid than you might think.

Taehyung should probably just go buy a perfect bakery cake and forget this ever happened.

But—he really wants to make this birthday special. The last time they did something really fun for Jeongguk’s birthday was two years ago, his nineteenth, because of course their friend group had to celebrate the youngest finally hitting legal drinking age. All seven of them went out for barbeque and got uproariously drunk, laughing and shouting over each other until two in the morning, buying Jeongguk drink after drink and teasing him about the glow on his cheeks. Then last year, Jeongguk was in Busan for his aunt’s wedding and Taehyung had to sing Happy Birthday to him over Skype. He and Jimin threw a small party once Jeongguk returned to Seoul, but half the group couldn’t make it and it was mostly just a movie night with added cake.

This year is going to be different. First of all, Taehyung made absolutely sure that everyone is free on Saturday, which was a fucking hassle involving three different Doodle polls and two Excel spreadsheets. But he did it, and on Saturday they’re taking Jeongguk bowling, and then to a nice restaurant for dinner, and then to a noraebang. According to Taehyung’s very scientific calculations, this is the perfect combination of Jeongguk’s three favorite activities: eating meat, destroying his hyungs in competition, and wailing love ballads.

That’s tomorrow. September first.

Tonight, Taehyung’s got other plans.

Making a cake from scratch is part of those plans, which maybe doesn’t bode well for the rest of the evening. But he’s doing his best.

Right as he’s sliding the cake pan into the oven, his phone lights up with a text.

 

gukie <3
hey i got out of class early
might grab food on the way home u want anythign?

taehyung
NO

gukie <3
uh
ok,,,,
no chicken 4 u i guess

taehyung
NO I MEAN
DONT GET ANY FOOD
DO NOT
AND ALSO DONT COME HOME FOR ANOTHER LIKE. 2 HOURS

gukie <3
………….why……………

taehyung
DONT ASK QUESTIONS

gukie <3
can u at least confirm for me that our apt building is still standing

taehyung

[IMAGE SENT]

gukie <3
thats. thats not confirmation thats just a selfie
what is that white stuff on ur face
baby powder??????
ur making me very nervous

taehyung
i said DONT ASK QUESTIONS
just go sit in a cafe for a couple hours and i will let u know when you can return
BUT DONT EAT ANYTHING
u can have tea and THATS IT

gukie <3
ok.
i will do that.

taehyung
thanks bby (ノ>ω<)ノ :。•:*:•゚’★,。•:*:•゚’☆
uwu

gukie <3
:\

 

*

 

taehyung >> gukie <3
ok you can come home now but theres rules
1. ur not allowed to come inside
2. u can give ur backpack 2 me and i will put it inside but u shall not enter under ANY circumstances
3. then we’re goin out :)

gukie <3
going out??
should i change or something???

taehyung
unless ur wearing a garbage bag im sure u look fine

gukie <3
dfjdfjfjjf
u realize my bday isnt until tomorrow right

taehyung
What? Birthday? No idea what you’re talking about! :)

gukie <3
sigh
be home in 10

 

*

 

“Stay right there!” Taehyung yells as soon as he hears Jeongguk’s keys in the lock. “Don’t open the door!”

“But you said I could put my stuff inside,” comes Jeongguk’s muffled voice.

“No, I said you can pass your backpack to me through the door! And you have to keep your eyes closed the entire time!”

“Oh my god, Tae.”

“I’m serious!” Taehyung says. He looks through the peephole to see Jeongguk rolling his eyes. “Don’t you roll your eyes at me!”

Jeongguk makes a face.

“I saw that one too!” Taehyung yells.

“Good! You were supposed to!”

A couple minutes later, Jeongguk’s stuff is safely inside and Taehyung is slipping out the door, careful to not show Jeongguk even a glimpse of the apartment behind him. He catches the way Jeongguk’s eyes linger on him, on his slacks and loose button-down and thin silver bracelets.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t change?” Jeongguk asks, still eyeing Taehyung’s outfit. “You’re all”—he gestures vaguely—“and I’m just in jeans.”

“Doesn’t matter,” says Taehyung. “C’mon, time’s a-wastin’, chop chop.”

He grabs Jeongguk’s hand and drags him down the hallway. He only lets go when they’re in the elevator, untangling their fingers and reaching into his pocket.

“Close your eyes,” he instructs Jeongguk.

“Tae, what—”

“Just do it.”

Huffing, Jeongguk closes his eyes. Even in the harsh light of the elevator, he looks so good. His face is a little pink, his lips chapped, the tiny scar on his cheek in sharp relief, and he looks so good.

“Hold out your hands,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk does. He frowns when Taehyung drops a tiny parcel into his upturned palms.

“Tae…?”

“Okay, you can open your eyes now.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes and stares down at the parcel. “I keep telling you, my birthday’s not till tomorrow,” he says, looking oddly flustered.

“Wow, I had no idea,” Taehyung deadpans. “Just open it.”

Slowly, as if he’s afraid something’s going to leap out and bite him, Jeongguk unwraps the parcel. “Oh,” he breathes, peeling away the last layer of tissue paper to reveal a pair of delicate silver hoop earrings.

“I really was gonna wait until tomorrow,” Taehyung blurts out. “But you were worried about not looking nice enough, so. Yeah.” He scratches the back of his head. “Don’t worry, this isn’t your only present, it’s actually the smallest of like five, so—”

“Tae,” Jeongguk says. “Will you help me put them on?”

“Oh, um.”

“It’s hard without a mirror.”

“Right,” Taehyung says. “Yeah, sure, c’mere.”

The elevator pings and the doors slide open. They step out into the entryway and Jeongguk gives Taehyung the earrings. Then he goes very still, tilting his chin up and closing his eyes and goddamn, what is Taehyung supposed to be doing again?

Jeongguk cracks an eye open. “Weren’t you the one telling me to hurry up?”

Right, yeah. Taehyung steps into Jeongguk’s space and hooks the hoops through his ears as quickly as possible, trying not to let his fingertips brush Jeongguk’s neck. This close together he can smell Jeongguk’s hair and the flowery laundry detergent they both use.

He takes a step back. “You’re all set.”

Jeongguk reaches up to touch the earrings. It looks like he’s biting back a smile. “How do I look?” he asks. “Classy?”

“Yeah, I barely recognize you.”

“Ha ha ha.” 

Myeongdong is only a couple subway stops from their apartment. They emerge from the underground right at the edge of a night market, a crowded street lined on both sides with street food carts: ddeokbokki and seafood pancakes, candied sweet potatoes and honeycomb ice cream, brown sugar hotteok, pomegranate juice and beef skewers and fat white dumplings. The air is warm and smoky, thick with the smell of sizzling meat. Taehyung has to grab Jeongguk’s hand again so they don’t lose each other in the Friday night crowd.

Jeongguk gets a beef skewer and a cup of spicy chicken and a pouch of fresh-squeezed juice, only protesting a little when Taehyung insists on paying for everything. For himself, Taehyung buys a plate of ddeokbokki and a churro, and then he leads Jeongguk out of the market and onto the steps of a nearby office building, away from the noise.

“Do you remember the first time we came here?” he asks after they’ve sat down.

“Yes,” Jeongguk says immediately, and then shoves a chunk of beef into his mouth. “I mean, yeah, I think so,” he says, garbled.

“You were so cute back then,” Taehyung sighs. He takes a bite of ddeokbokki, piping hot and perfect, and leans back against the step behind him. Looks out over the lights of the market, the ever-shifting crowd. “I think we would have become friends even if our moms didn’t know each other. Or, I like to think that. I don’t know. Maybe it would’ve taken a couple more years, but I like to think we would have found each other. Like, maybe I’d be walking through the music building and hear someone singing and it would be you. Or you’d be trying to sleep but there’s some asshole nearby practicing sax at two a.m., and you’d go to yell at them and it would be me.”

He can feel Jeongguk’s gaze on the side of his face.

Taehyung smiles, rueful. “Maybe that’s dumb.”

“It’s not,” Jeongguk says. “I—I think you’re right. I think I would have found you.”

“How do you know I wouldn’t be the one to find you?”

Jeongguk just shrugs.

They eat quietly for a few minutes, people-watching, stealing bites of each other’s food. Taehyung finishes his ddeokbokki and gives Jeongguk the first bite of his churro and then says, “I think it would have been me.”

“What?” says Jeongguk.

“It would have been me,” Taehyung says confidently. “I would have found you. Like a magic power, almost. Spidey-senses. I’d be chilling in the dining hall one morning and then it would be like, ‘Ahh, my hands, why are they tingling?’ And I would’ve looked up and seen you across the hall and been like—,” he snaps his fingers. “Like, ’Wow, hi, future best friend, best boy, hello.’”

“Oh my god.”

“I’m serious! Magic is real and the stars know everything and I would’ve found you.”

Jeongguk ducks his head. “Why are you being so cheesy,” he mumbles.

“Mm, that’s a secret,” says Taehyung. “Now hurry up and finish your dinner, I wanna walk around.”

They end up staying in Myeongdong for almost two hours, just wandering around. They go into every single makeup shop on the main street and Taehyung watches, snickering, as Jeongguk is pressured into buying expensive hand cream by a very persuasive salesgirl. Then Jeongguk gets his revenge not even ten minutes later when Taehyung is accosted in Innisfree by a trio of older saleswomen who seem very upset about his looks.

“My favorite was, ‘How dare you come in here with a face like that!’” Jeongguk says, still cackling, after Taehyung has finally managed to escape and is dragging him down the sidewalk, not stopping until they’re a safe distance away. “‘Are you a model? Are you going to be an idol?’ Oh my god, hyung, you looked so scared. ‘Yah! So handsome, I want to hit you!’” He cracks up, doubling over in the middle of the sidewalk. “And you were just—‘Uh, uh, thank you?’”

Taehyung groans. “What was I supposed to say?”

“I don’t know, maybe something like, ‘Sorry I’m so disgustingly beautiful, I know it’s infuriating that I’m not even wearing makeup right now and I still just look like this, you can hit me if you want’?”

They pass a café, a chicken stall, a bakery. Taehyung pauses in front of the bakery, staring at the trays of golden-brown pastries in the window, the sesame buns and almond croissants and tiny, perfect cakes. It always makes him feel weird when people comment on his looks. He knows—because he’s been told, over and over again—that he is handsome. But he doesn’t really understand why that makes him special or different. He doesn’t like it when people treat him better than they treat other people just because of his face. It’s nice to occasionally get a free coffee or a discounted meal—always with a wink, a slow smile; for you? no charge—but it’s not like people give him those things because of anything he’s done. It’s not because of his heart. It’s because of his face, which is pretty much the only thing about himself that he can’t control.

“Hey,” says Jeongguk, tugging on Taehyung’s sleeve.

Taehyung startles. He turns away from the bakery window to give Jeongguk a questioning look.

“Do you wanna go home and watch Spirited Away?” Jeongguk asks.

“Oh,” says Taehyung. “Yes.”

 

*

 

On the subway ride home, Taehyung’s phone buzzes.

 

soulmate
YOU SLUT

taehyung
????? ? ?? ?

soulmate
THE SNAPCHAT JEONGGUKIE SENT OUT?

 

Taehyung quickly angles his phone so Jeongguk can’t see it. He thinks back to the Snapchat in question—it was just a quick photo of their reflections in a shop window, nothing out of the ordinary.

 

taehyung
???? what about it omg

soulmate
DON’T PLAY DUMB WITH ME
THOSE ARE YOUR FUCK ME SLACKS
WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING KIM TAEHYUNG

taehyung
….gotta blast

soulmate
OH NO YOU DON’T
GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW
TAE
TAEHYUNG!!

 

“Is that Jimin?” Jeongguk asks.

Taehyung shoves his phone back into his pocket and tries to look nonchalant. “Yeah, why?”

“Um.” Jeongguk bites his lip. His eyes are downcast, and he keeps tapping his foot and twisting the hem of his shirt around his fingers. He started looking anxious when they reached the subway station, and the closer they get to home the worse it gets. “He didn’t say anything…weird, did he?”

“Weird?”

“Like, I don’t know, anything—,” Jeongguk breaks off. “Never mind.”

“Hey, are you okay?” Taehyung asks, lowering his voice. The subway car isn’t too crowded, but frankly Jeongguk looks halfway to a panic attack and Taehyung doesn’t want to draw any attention to him. “Did something happen?”

“What? N-no, I’m fine.”

“You look like you’re about to pass out. Do you wanna get off the train?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” says Jeongguk, even though he’s literally shaking all over and his entire face has gone white and bloodless. “We’re—almost home.”

“I have a surprise for you at home,” Taehyung says, trying to distract him. “An early birthday surprise! I think it actually turned out pretty great.” He takes one of Jeongguk’s hands into his own, rubbing his thumb over the bone-white knuckles. “I worked really hard on it, so even if it sucks please pretend it doesn’t for the sake of my emotional well-being.”

Jeongguk lets out a noise that is at least laugh-adjacent.

“I almost died,” Taehyung continues dramatically. “Which will make more sense once you learn what the surprise is, but I actually did almost die. Oh, but it was for a good cause, though.”

“What cause is that,” Jeongguk says.

“True love, obviously.

Jeongguk looks pained. “…What time is it?” he asks.

“Let’s see.” Taehyung checks his phone. “Oh, wow, it’s almost ten. How did that happen?”

He doesn’t get a response. Their train howls through the underground, and Jeongguk is silent.

 

*

 

“Okay, so, first of all,” says Taehyung, standing in front of the closed door to their apartment with his arms spread so Jeongguk can’t even think about entering, “I want to reiterate that I tried my best. Also, it’s the thought that counts.”

Jeongguk raises his eyebrows.

Taehyung attempts to look cute and angelic. He’s not sure if he’s pulling it off.

Thankfully, the walk from the subway station to their building seems to have helped Jeongguk calm down. He’s still pretty twitchy, but most of the color has returned to his cheeks, and he’s currently demonstrating the renewed ability to look at Taehyung with deep suspicion and judgment instead of just abject fear. So there’s that.

“Did you finally destroy our apartment for real?” Jeongguk asks, narrowing his eyes. “Hyung, tell the truth. Are we going to be evicted?”

“No!” Taehyung says. “I’m offended that you would even think that!”

Jeongguk looks unimpressed.

“Look, just close your eyes and follow my lead,” Taehyung tells him.

“Okay….”

“And maybe consider having, like, the tiniest bit of faith in me, you butthole.”

“Oh, I considered it,” says Jeongguk, closing his eyes.

“Rude.”

Taehyung unlocks the door and grabs Jeongguk by the shoulders, pushing him inside. He steers Jeongguk to the kitchen, leaving all the lights off on the way, and then lets go of his shoulders, taking a step back. It takes about thirty seconds to put the finishing touches on the surprise, and then Taehyung clears his throat.

“Okay,” he says. “You can open your eyes.”

And Jeongguk does.

“Oh,” he says, a breathless, punched-out sound. “Oh, Tae.”

“Happy almost birthday, Gukie.”

It’s not the biggest surprise ever. It’s just a birthday cake on the counter and strings of fairy lights lining the kitchen, casting a soft, warm glow. It’s really not much. But Jeongguk’s looking around like Taehyung filled the entire place with roses, just like Taehyung knew he would.

“Oh my god,” Jeongguk says, hushed. “You remembered.”

Taehyung grins. His heart is the size of a blue whale heart but only one thousandth of the weight. “I follow you on Pinterest, you cute little hipster. I know you’ve got a thing for fairy lights.”

Jeongguk shoves him lightly. “They’re just pretty. They make everything look like a festival, or like Christmas.” He’s smiling, wide and toothy, the fairy lights reflecting in his eyes, tiny lanterns in the dark. “When did you do this?”

“Earlier today. Right before I”—Taehyung pauses for dramatic effect—“made you a birthday cake from scratch.”

Jeongguk’s jaw drops.

“Oh yeah,” says Taehyung. He gestures at the cake with a flourish. “Feast your eyes, Jeon Jeongguk. I made that. With real ingredients, not a box mix. I followed a recipe from the internet and it had like ten steps and I did all of them and then cake happened. Like magic.”

“Or…science,” says Jeongguk.

Taehyung pouts at him. “But look how beautiful it is. And I made it from scratch. And I didn’t even die or burn down the building.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry, that’s definitely magical.” Jeongguk says, leaning down to inspect the cake. He’s still smiling, biting his lip. “Wow. Is that honeycomb on top?”

“Yes, and the recipe didn’t even tell me to do that! I thought of it all by myself!”

“I love honeycomb.”

“I know!” Taehyung screeches.

Jeongguk giggles, high-pitched and goofy and bright, and straightens back up. His eyes are shining like something Taehyung doesn’t have a name for, like the ultraviolet markings on flowers that only bees can see. “So can I have some now, or do I have to wait until my actual birthday?”

They cut two big slices of cake, Taehyung has a brief emotional breakdown because he forgot to buy birthday candles, Jeongguk laughs and smears icing on Taehyung’s cheek and says the fairy lights can count for that, and then they curl up on the couch and put on Spirited Away. And Taehyung tries to concentrate on it, he really does, but the Thing has been on his mind all day (week) (month) (year), hovering in the background like a helium balloon, and now it’s floating to the forefront of his mind. The Thing. There’s a weird back-and-forth rhythm to Taehyung’s obsessive thoughts, a Mad Girl’s Love Song kind of beat: Tonight might really be your only chance (I think he’s writing songs for someone else.)/His answer doesn’t have to be a yes (I think he’s writing songs for someone else.). He wants to be honest—he doesn’t want Jeongguk to date someone else—he’s scared that his feelings are too big and messy for anyone to handle—he wants to tell Jeongguk the truth—he doesn’t want to damage their friendship—Jeongguk deserves to know that someone loves him. The scales keep wobbling, balancing out, tipping inevitably in that direction: Taehyung is terrified of rejection and terrified of being too much and terrified of losing Jeongguk but Jeongguk deserves to know that someone loves him. He just does. Love is a good thing, right? It must be nice to know that someone loves you, even if the love you have for them is slightly different. Right?

Taehyung’s heart feels tight-skinned and tender like a rotting fruit. It won’t break; it will burst. Nasty all over Jeongguk’s hands. This is gonna be so bad.

“…Tae?”

He blinks.

Jeongguk is looking at him.

“Sorry,” Taehyung says. “I was spacing out.”

“I could tell. You okay?”

“Yes. Are you?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says quietly. He looks away, focusing back on the TV. They’re more than halfway through the movie. Taehyung doesn’t remember anything past the scene where Chihiro's parents first turn into pigs.

“I want more cake,” Taehyung blurts out, and scrambles to his feet. Oh, god. He doesn’t actually want more cake (it’s edible, but the taste of vanilla is a bit, um, overpowering) but he feels itchy all over, restless. He escapes to the kitchen and just stands there for a second, shaking his hands out.

“Tae?” comes Jeongguk’s voice. He’s leaning against the doorway to the kitchen, eyebrows raised. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re acting really weird.”

“I’m so good,” Taehyung manages. “I’m awesome. Are you awesome?” He laughs, sharp and too loud. It’s a strange reversal of the subway ride home: this time Taehyung is the one freaking out and Jeongguk is the one approaching him slowly, trying to calm him down. “I’m fine, seriously.”

Jeongguk steps into his space, too close, peering at him. “You’re like, hyperventilating.”

“What? No.”

“Tae—”

“Um, so, anyway,” Taehyung starts, and he doesn’t know where he’s going with this, but his heart is pounding in his ears and it’s time, it’s time, the Thing is right behind his eyes, pressing up against the soft spots in his brain, just do it, just tell him, he deserves to know, it’s okay if he likes someone else, he’s not cruel, you’ll be okay, just tell him. Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut for a second. Tonight might really be your only chance. Before Jeongguk goes on another date with someone else, before he writes another love song for someone Taehyung doesn’t know. Come on.

“Taehyung, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”

Taehyung shakes his head.

Opens his eyes.

Jeongguk’s face is so close. He looks so concerned, wide eyes and a sad little curve to his mouth, he looks so good. Sweet, gentle boy. Golden-hearted boy. It’s not so bad to be hurt by him.

“Hey,” Taehyung rasps. He shuffles closer, a roaring in his ears, like the ocean, or rolling thunder, too loud. “Hey, so, just tell me no if it’s no, okay?”

“What—?”

He leans in and presses a kiss to the corner of Jeongguk’s mouth.

It’s soft, and warm, and light. Taehyung lingers only for a moment, eyes closed, and then leans back to check Jeongguk’s reaction.

Which, huh.

That’s…maybe not good.

That’s, okay, all right, that’s maybe not the reaction Taehyung was hoping for. Jeongguk is staring at him, stricken, but not in a “oh wow, this is so shocking but so wonderful, let’s get married!” kind of way, no, no, oh no, he actually looks a little pissed off, like he’s about to start—

“Are you fucking kidding me!” Jeongguk shrieks.

Taehyung’s heart hits the fucking floor. Bursts open. Mess everywhere.

Oh, god.

“I, I’m,” he stammers, feeling cold all over, “Guk, I’m, I’m sorry, I—”

“No!” Jeongguk says. “No, no fucking way, it’s fucking—it’s 11:58, are you fucking kidding me, Taehyung!”

Are you fucking kidding me, Taehyung?

To his horror, Taehyung’s eyes burn with tears. His throat closes up. He’s really about to start crying, right in front of his best friend who is currently rejecting him in the worst and most traumatizing way possible, fuck, that’s so—that’s so humiliating. Oh god, everything about this is so bad. His heart is on the floor but also it’s inside his chest, shuddering, sucker-punched, and it hurts, it really hurts a lot, Taehyung can’t—breathe.

“O-okay, yeah,” he mumbles, taking a step back, hiding his face with one hand so Jeongguk can’t see him cry. “Okay, got it, sorry, ‘m sorry, I’ll go.”

Jeongguk doesn’t even seem to be listening. “It’s eleven fifty-eight!” he wails, sinking to a crouch on the kitchen floor, grabbing handfuls of his hair like he’s about to have a fucking breakdown. “You—I was gonna—six years—and you just—all night I’ve been—oh my god, Tae, what the fuck! What the fuck!”

“I—I’m sorry.”

“No, oh my god, no no no no, I can’t believe this—”

“I get it,” says Taehyung. “You can stop, I get it.”

“No you don’t! You don’t get it, you really fucking don’t get it, Taehyung, holy shit.” Jeongguk’s voice cracks. “You don’t get it, I’ve been so—so—you have no idea. You have no fucking idea.”

“You’re being really mean,” Taehyung tells him, shaking. “You didn’t have to say yes but this is really mean.” He swipes at the tears on his face, angry at Jeongguk for being so cruel but furious at himself for being so stupid. “I’m going to Jimin’s,” he chokes out. “Sorry again. Happy birthday.”

“—W-wait, what?”

But Taehyung doesn’t answer. He turns around and tries to escape the apartment as quickly as possible without actually running—not that he has even a scrap of dignity left at this point, but running still seems a little too scorned-love-interest-in-a-bad-drama. His face is hot and his vision is blurry with tears and it takes him two tries to grab his keys, and then he’s shoving his feet into the nearest pair of sandals, and shit, he’s really crying now, fuck. Where’s his phone? In the kitchen, shit, but he can’t go back to get it, there’s no way he can face Jeongguk right now.

Are you fucking kidding me, Taehyung?

That was so bad. Wow, that was really the worst it could have been. He—he really might have ruined things with Jeongguk forever. Oh, wow. Oh, god, that’s so bad, that’s really so bad, it’s starting to sink in—

Taehyung reaches the front door but is stopped by a hand on his wrist. He sucks in a breath, ready to snap at Jeongguk to stop it, leave me alone, just let me go, please don’t do this. He’s ready, he’s so ready, but then Jeongguk’s tugging him back around, and Taehyung barely even has time to register the frantic look in his best friend’s eyes before Jeongguk pulls him into a hard, desperate kiss.

Shocked, Taehyung stumbles back a step. Jeongguk moves with him, falls against him, crowding him up against the front door. He kisses Taehyung a second time, rushed, off-center, and then pulls back just far enough to put some space between their mouths, to press their foreheads together. Only then does he let go of Taehyung’s wrist, reaching up with both hands to grip the front of Taehyung’s shirt.

His fingers are trembling.

“Tae,” he gasps. “Tae, I’m so sorry, please don’t go.”

“You’re—?” Taehyung’s mind is reeling; he can’t think. “What are you—what’s going on?”

Jeongguk makes a terrible, cut-off noise.

“I’m so sorry,” he says again. “I freaked out, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“But—I don’t understand.”

“I had this whole plan,” Jeongguk says miserably.

“Plan? What plan, what are you talking about.”

“You said—no, but I guess you don’t remember it, I mentioned it a few weeks ago and you clearly had no idea what I was talking about, and now—god. Fuck. Okay. I just have to, um, do this, I think.” He’s mumbling, talking to himself. “I really just have to do this.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Taehyung says, frustrated. He moves away so they’re not touching foreheads anymore, but that’s almost worse because now he can see Jeongguk’s pale, horrified face. “Let me go, Jeongguk.”

“Hyung, wait,” Jeongguk pleads. “I-I’m so sorry, I fucked up, please don’t go, just—just wait a second, I just have to, um, I have to tell you something really quick, and then you can go, you can go to Jimin’s or anywhere you want, but please just give me, like, one minute. Thirty seconds. Please.”

“Fine,” says Taehyung. “Thirty seconds. Go.”

Jeongguk opens his mouth and nothing comes out.

Taehyung waits. He’s stopped crying and now the tears are dry and itchy on his face. The numbness is settling in, the dull, throbbing shock: You ruined everything. His lips taste like salt.

“…Right,” he mutters, after about ten seconds of silence. “Okay. Well. I’m gonna—”

“You always saw me as a kid!” Jeongguk gasps out. He screws his eyes shut, knuckles white where he’s gripping Taehyung’s shirt. “You always saw me as a kid.”

“What…?”

“In the beginning it was fine,” Jeongguk says, talking over him. “It was fine, I was fifteen, I knew you just thought of me as, like, an obnoxious little brother, but it was fine, because you were still so nice. You were always so nice to me. It must’ve been so freaking annoying that your mom basically forced you to babysit me, but you were so nice. You didn’t have to do it. You could have just said hi to me in the hallways and ignored me the rest of the time, but you—you actually hung out with me, you let me tag along with you and your friends even though you guys were all so much cooler than I was, and—and you listened when I spoke. Nobody ever listened but you did, you did, even when it took me ten minutes to get a single fucking sentence out, you listened. You were so—and back then I didn’t even care that I was just some dumb kid to you, I didn’t care if I was a pest, I didn’t care. Because all I wanted was to be around you. That’s all I wanted. To like, be in your light. I would have done anything. Been anything.” His breaths are shaky, uneven. “But. But, Tae, I mean. Come on. I saw you and I heard bells, you know? The first time and every time after. Fuck.”

Bells.

Oh, but that’s—

That means—

Jeongguk opens his eyes. He blinks once and the tears spill over, streaking down his face. He doesn’t even seem to notice. “It was fine,” he says, staring sightlessly at his own hands on Taehyung’s chest. “It was fine. But then I grew up, a-and nothing changed. I was still just…little Jeonggukie, following you around. And, and I guess maybe you don’t remember this, but I asked you. I asked you. ’When are you gonna stop calling me a kid?’ Like. ‘What do I have to do to make you see me?’” He sniffles hard. “And you said twenty-one. When I turned twenty-one.”

The faintest memory: spring in Seoul, years ago, a Chinese restaurant with a red neon sign. Jeongguk sitting across from him. That strange intensity in his voice.

“So I waited,” Jeongguk continues. “I waited. But—don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t broken over it. Please don’t think I was sad. It’s not like that. You’re my best friend. You don’t need to be anything else. You exist and that’s enough, it makes me so happy, you make me so—yeah. It was just, in the back of my mind, it was there. Like, ‘Maybe someday I’ll get a chance.’ Just a chance, that’s all, just—‘yes or no,’ and if it’s no, that’s okay, I’ll be okay.”

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung whispers.

“No, don’t, just—hold on. Not yet. I have to do this.” Jeongguk takes a deep, shuddering breath. “So I had this whole plan. I even, oh my god, it’s so dumb, I even asked the other hyungs for advice. Sometimes it was great and sometimes it was kind of a disaster. That stupid date.” He sniffles again. “A-anyway, I had a plan. For…for my birthday.”

Oh, Taehyung thinks dazedly, oh, oh my god.

Jeongguk grimaces. “This is so embarrassing. But, um. I was gonna do it at midnight. Like, exactly midnight. I was finally gonna tell you.”

“…Oh my god,” Taehyung groans. “And then I kissed you. I fucking kissed you at eleven fifty-eight.”

“I’ve been so nervous,” Jeongguk says. The color is coming back to his cheeks, a flush of red. “For days. Weeks, really. I’m sure I’ve been driving everyone crazy, especially Namjoon-hyung. And today was the worst of it, I’ve been having this horrible drawn-out anxiety attack all night, like, just thinking about every single thing that could go wrong, thinking about you hating me, or, or laughing at me, and I know you’d never do that but I can’t help it—”

“I know,” Taehyung reminds him gently.

“Yeah. So. Just—the worst anxiety of my entire stupid life. And then it was getting closer to midnight and I was trying to look chill but panicking so bad and I couldn’t think about anything but oh god oh god I’m gonna do it I’m gonna tell him and then. You kissed me.”

“And it broke your brain.”

“And it broke my brain.”

“Oh man,” Taehyung says. “Oh my god, I can’t believe this. I’m the worst.”

Jeongguk’s head snaps up. “No!” he says, finally looking at Taehyung. “No, I’m the one who—I’m such an idiot. I made you cry.”

“Guess we’re even, then,” says Taehyung. He brushes Jeongguk’s bangs out of his eyes, smiling when he hears the breath catch in Jeongguk’s throat. “Hey. Can I say something now?”

“O-okay.”

“Please don’t talk about fifteen-year-old Jeongguk like that,” Taehyung says, gentle but serious. “He wasn’t dumb. He wasn’t a pest. I loved that kid, okay? I loved that kid with everything in me, and I always will. But. The person that kid became….”

“Wait!” says Jeongguk. “Wait, stop. I wanna say it first.”

Taehyung shuts his mouth, nods. So fond he could die.

“Okay,” says Jeongguk, lifting his chin. His eyes are bloodshot, his nose bright pink, his entire face all blotchy and tearstained, and Jesus Christ, the word beautiful doesn’t even begin to cover it. Doesn’t even come close. Standing before Taehyung in the doorway, Jeongguk looks like every good thing Taehyung’s ever known. He looks like a golden-hearted boy, like a candle flame, an unwavering band of light. He looks like a Kandinsky. He looks terrified and determined and stubborn and hopeful and true.

“Taehyung,” he says. “Taehyung, I love you. I’m in love with you.” He’s crying again. “Taehyung, I’ve been in love with you for a really long time.”

And Taehyung laughs. He laughs, he can’t help it, there’s a moonbeam inside him, it’s spilling over. “Thank god,” he says, and laughs again. “Oh, thank god. Hey, Jeonggukie.”

“Yeah?”

“I love you. I really love you so much.”

“That’s fucking lit,” Jeongguk breathes, and kisses him.

It’s ridiculous. They’re both teary-eyed, grinning, laughing into each other’s mouths. Taehyung melts into the kiss immediately, wrapping both arms around Jeongguk’s body, squeezing him so tight that he can feel a twin heartbeat racing against his own, so tight that he actually lifts Jeongguk a couple inches off the floor. Jeongguk squeaks, startled, but doesn’t break the kiss. He just throws his arms around Taehyung’s neck until Taehyung lowers him back down, and even then he doesn’t let go.

They’re kissing, and kissing, and then Jeongguk’s knees give out and he slumps against Taehyung’s chest, shaking hard with what must be adrenaline, or the comedown, and Taehyung laughs and holds him upright and kisses his open mouth. Kisses his teeth. Kisses all over Jeongguk’s face, his cheeks and temples and the curve of his jaw, his chin, his mouth again, the bridge of his nose. He drops a kiss on Jeongguk’s forehead, the shell of his ear. Presses his mouth to the side of Jeongguk’s head and lingers there for a moment, breathing him in, sweet lavender.

“You always do that,” Jeongguk says softly.

“Do what?”

“Like…,” He sounds unsure. “I don’t know, smelling me? Is that a thing for you?”

“Yes. One hundred percent,” says Taehyung.

Jeongguk pulls back. “Wait, really?”

“Hell yeah. I told you before, you smell so good. I’m obsessed with it.”

“Oh. Wow.” Jeongguk blinks, absorbing this information. “Okay. That’s, huh, that’s neat.”

“Mm.” Taehyung noses at his earlobe, the hinge of his jaw, aimless, touching just to touch, kissing just to kiss. “Are you gonna fall over if I stop holding you up?”

“No,” Jeongguk says, petulant. “…Um, but maybe don’t stop, though.”

“Just for a minute.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause I wanna do this.”

Carefully, still not convinced he can trust Jeongguk to remain upright on his own, Taehyung gives Jeongguk one last full-body squeeze before letting go, taking a step back. Jeongguk’s arms drop back down to his sides and he frowns, confused.

“Tae, what…?”

“I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time,” Taehyung says. “It’s important to me that I do it right.” The part he leaves unspoken is that he knows for a fact Jeongguk doesn’t have a lot of experience in this area, definitely not as much as he does, and Taehyung doesn’t want to rush him. Doesn’t want to skip over a single kiss or soft-eyed look. “Can I do that?”

Jeongguk’s eyes widen. His lips part in surprise.

Then, blushing, he gives a tiny nod.

“Cool,” Taehyung whispers, the river of his heart surging up and over the banks, a total overflow, a snowmelt flood, and he curls his hands around Jeongguk’s face and leans up to kiss the center of Jeongguk’s forehead. He kisses the center and then moves down, pressing another kiss to the spot between Jeongguk’s brows, and from there he trails his lips along one eyebrow, over the delicate skin of the temple, down the curve of Jeongguk’s face. Soft, barely-there kisses. Taehyung’s never kissed anyone like this before, never kissed anyone just to feel their skin beneath his lips. He pulls back to see that Jeongguk’s eyes are closed. He brushes a kiss to both eyelids and watches, amazed, as Jeongguk shivers.

“Goddamn,” Taehyung murmurs, moving lower. He works his way down the column of Jeongguk’s throat, letting his mouth fall open just enough to leave a trace of wetness, bottom lip catching and dragging on Jeongguk’s skin. That pretty golden skin, smooth and sun-browned, summer-colored, paler at the collarbones, below the collar of his shirt.

“Tae.”

He mouths lazily at Jeongguk’s pulse point, fascinated by the heartbeat flicker.

“Taehyung.”

He raises his head.

Jeongguk is breathing shallowly, face pink and eyes bright. He swallows hard and reaches up to curl his fingers around Taehyung’s wrists. “Please,” he says.

“Oh, whoops,” says Taehyung. “Sorry, got a little carried away. It’s good that you stopped me, I could’ve done that for hours.”

“You can,” says Jeongguk, eyes dropping to Taehyung’s mouth. “You can. I want you to. But, um, later. Not right now.”

“What do you want me to do right now?” Taehyung teases.

He’s hoping for another blush, but Jeongguk rises to the challenge.

“Just kiss me,” he says. “Just kiss me. That’s all I want.”

“Well, if you insist,” says Taehyung.

They’ve already kissed each other desperately, with all the fear and heartache, so this time Taehyung makes sure they take it slow. He thumbs at Jeongguk’s cheekbone and leans in, pressing their lips together, and for a moment he just stays there: not moving, not making any attempts to deepen the kiss; just marveling at the softness of Jeongguk’s mouth under his own. He can feel Jeongguk’s eyelashes on his cheek, a moth-wing flutter. It’s so lovely to be here. With Jeongguk. Kissing him in the doorway to their home. Kissing him like this, warm, unhurried.

He pulls back. He’s never seen Jeongguk’s eyes so dark, like they’re swallowing the light. Jeongguk’s mouth is pink and open, a sheen on his bottom lip. Taehyung’s kiss.

“Again,” Jeongguk says, eyes half-lidded. “Again. Tae.”

“Yeah,” says Taehyung, and leans in, bringing their mouths together in a slow, unfurling kiss, hand dropping from Jeongguk’s face to his neck. He takes Jeongguk’s bottom lip into his mouth and sucks on it gently, releases it red and wet, kisses the wetness off Jeongguk’s mouth. Kisses him again. And again. And then Taehyung changes the angle, tilting his head so he can slot their mouths together more firmly, and Jeongguk melts. He just melts. He makes a weak little noise into the kiss and curls his fingers into the collar of Taehyung’s shirt, pressing in further. But he’s still following Taehyung’s lead, and Taehyung is still taking it slow; the kiss is heated but closemouthed, lips moving together, catching over and over again, until—oh—Jeongguk pushes up on his toes and—yes—loops his arms around Taehyung’s neck. Yes, oh yes, fuck. Taehyung wraps his arms around Jeongguk’s back and pulls him close, sighing into the next kiss, making an offering of his open mouth, trembling when Jeongguk takes it: when Jeongguk works his tongue inside, licks at Taehyung’s teeth, inexperienced but sweet; eager. Jeongguk’s breaths are hot and wet. He tastes like honeycomb, like icing sugar. Like Taehyung, now.

They sink into a series of slow, deep kisses, Jeongguk raking his fingers through Taehyung’s hair. They’re kissing and kissing and Taehyung’s losing himself in it, in the revelation of kissing this boy, this boy, and they’re kissing and Jeongguk moans into it, a soft broken sound, and they’re kissing and Taehyung pulls away for a single heartbeat, whispers in Jeongguk’s ear, smiles at the look on his face, the sweet stunned look, the instant flush. Smiles and kisses him again.

“I still can’t believe this is like, actually happening,” Jeongguk says, later, after they’ve moved from the foyer to the couch, and he’s sitting sideways across Taehyung’s lap, and they’re trading kisses like secrets back and forth. It’s nearly one in the morning at this point. Taehyung keeps pausing to say happy actual birthday, and Jeongguk keeps giggling and rolling his eyes.

“What do you mean?” Taehyung asks, lips on Jeongguk’s pulse.

“Like. I’ve just been thinking about this for so long. You, I mean. Having you like this.” He’s blushing. It’s so fucking cute. “And now it’s happening and it still hasn’t—sunk in, I guess? That this is real. That you, um, you know.”

“That I love you?”

Jeongguk whines. “Shut up. You can’t just say it like that.”

“What, do you want a warning or something? ‘Declaration of love incoming, T-minus 10 seconds’?”

“Yes!”

“Hm. Nah, too much work.” Taehyung begins to kiss his way up Jeongguk’s throat, grinning dopily when Jeongguk squirms in his lap. “So how long do you think it’ll take you? To believe this is real?”

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says. “Maybe a few days. A few sleeps. Then I’ll know that I’m definitely not dreaming.”

“Dreaming? Oh my god, Guk, that’s so greasy.”

“I—shut up!”

Taehyung pulls back to look at him. “Wait. Have you actually had dreams like this?”

Jeongguk slumps forward, hiding his face in Taehyung’s shoulder. His ears and the back of his neck are bright red.

“Oh my god,” says Taehyung. “Wait, tell me everything. Oh my god.” He pokes at Jeongguk’s ribs. “Tell me!”

“Nope. No way.”

“Please, Gukie?”

Jeongguk groans. “Maybe. But definitely not right now. And you’re not allowed to argue because it’s my birthday and you have to do what I want.”

“I do what you want always,” Taehyung points out. “So does everyone else.”

“Well, still.”

Jeongguk shifts, getting comfortable with his head on Taehyung’s shoulder. Taehyung drops a kiss on the top of his head and grabs a blanket from the end of the couch, draping it over their bodies. He tucks it in around Jeongguk’s feet.

“Are we really gonna sleep out here?” Jeongguk mumbles. He already sounds half-asleep; like Taehyung, he’s probably crashing hard from all the adrenaline of earlier, and the hours of anxiety before that.

“I mean.” Taehyung runs a hand over his spine. “Do you feel like moving?”

“…No.”

“There’s your answer.”

He feels Jeongguk’s lips curl into a smile.

The light is still on across the room, but Taehyung’s definitely not getting up to turn it off. So he just sits there, curled up on the couch under a blanket, admiring the way the lamplight turns Jeongguk’s dark hair to filaments of gold. Jeongguk is: a warm, solid weight in Taehyung’s lap, a hand on his sternum, the smell of lavender and blackberries, the taste of honeycomb, the warm imprint of a kiss on Taehyung’s mouth, the faint ache from so much kissing, the way his lips feel bruised. Such a good ache. Such a good hurt. Taehyung thinks maybe this is how trees feel when they keep growing around the scar of a lightning strike. Something hot and bright and stunning happened here. It left a mark.

Taehyung presses his mouth to Jeongguk’s temple.

He hopes that in the morning, when they wake up together, Jeongguk will realize that this new thing between them is real: not a dream, not a fantasy, but something lasting; something true. Taehyung hopes for that. But as his eyes slip shut, as the world gives way to a wide and welcoming dark, Taehyung thinks that it’s okay if it takes a while for Jeongguk to believe in this. It’s okay, it’s okay. Taehyung is more than willing to wait.

 

*

 

jeongguk >> koala hyung

[IMAGE SENT]

koala hyung
ahh!!
oh my god!! wonderful!!!!

jeongguk
:)))

koala hyung
you did it!!! and it worked out! congratulations my son
also, happy birthday! i’ll see you soon!
also,
i am really, really proud of you.

jeongguk
thank u hyung
hey
u wanna know something?

koala hyung
yes

jeongguk
im proud of me, too.
<3

 

[end]