When Kim Namjoon was seventeen, he wanted two things very, very badly: He wanted to be a rapper, and he wanted to kiss Cha Eunwoo. The first thing, that was easy. Namjoon listened to rap all day, every day. He listened to Drake and Nas and Dre and Jay and he studied them, their flow, their enunciation. When he got home from his after-school study program, he practiced rapping in front of a mirror, using a hairbrush as a mic. Namjoon knew that the more he practiced, the better he’d get. It was just work, and Namjoon knew how to work. The more effort he put in, the better he’d be. And he was talented. Nobody at school was as good as he was, hell, he’d seen guys on the forums with thousands of followers who weren’t as good as he was. The right people hadn’t recognized him yet, but he was getting there.
Eunwoo was a different story. She wasn’t one of the popular girls or one of the girls who got teased all the time. She was smart and quiet and dryly funny, or at least he thought so, from what he could overhear when she was talking to her friends. When they had physical education, she wore her hair up in a high ponytail and wisps would fall out into her eyes for the rest of the day. Her face was soft and a little round, she had bright eyes, and there was just something about her. Namjoon couldn’t stop looking at her, or thinking about her, or imagining what it would be like to finally get her alone and kiss her. One time, she wore a bra that was darker than the white of her uniform shirt, and Namjoon couldn’t think about anything else for the rest of the day.
The tricky part was, Namjoon hadn’t ever talked to her. He’d never figured out that part. One time she’d borrowed a pen from him, and even then he’d just handed it over silently. When he thought about trying to talk to her, his tongue got stuck in his mouth and he choked on his words. Sometimes, it seemed like the only words he had were the ones in his notebook, the ones he spit in front of his bedroom mirror.
When he was a famous rapper, he would have so many gorgeous women onstage. So many. Maybe he’d even date another rapper, like CL or Yoonmirae, someone he could talk music with. When he was alone in his bed, he thought about CL onstage with him,spitting fire, coming closer, dropping to her knees, licking her lips...god, he was going to be the next Tablo. The next G-Dragon. G-Dragon wasn’t hot, not like Tablo was, but G-Dragon had that something. That charisma. G-Dragon wasn’t tall and he wasn’t hot, but it didn’t matter. Everyone wanted him, everyone respected him. Namjoon wasn’t hot but he was practicing, getting better, and he was going to blow everyone out of the water someday. He was going to be tougher, harder, faster, better, and then he’d find someone.
Namjoon wasn’t one of the popular guys or one of the guys who got bullied either. He wasn’t hot, like Lee Sooyoung, who was leaving to train as an idol. Sooyoung was shorter than Namoon, but had a sharp jaw and small features and perfectly glossy black hair that he styled like T.O.P. There was no way Sooyoung could rap like T.O.P., Namjoon was sure he had him beat there, but in the looks department? Sooyoung was prettier than half the boys in the school.
And Cha Eunwoo was in love with him. She doodled his name in her notebook and tripped as he walked by and Namjoon just. Watched. He watched her watch him and his heart ached. Look at me, he wanted to say.
It wasn’t fair, the way some guys got all the girls. It wasn’t fair, the way Namjoon couldn’t just leave school to do music 24 hours a day. It wasn’t fair that he had to study until his eyes hurt and then go to university and study law or business and then marry some girl who was probably nowhere as pretty as Cha Eunwoo. It wasn’t fair that nobody else his age seemed to realize how horrible and injust the world was, and they were all racing, as fast as they could, toward the same finish line that they’d never reach.
Namjoon felt like he’d burn up with it, sometimes, how unfair the whole world was.
“Oppa!!” Namjoon dropped the hairbrush he was holding and backed away from the mirror. His sister pounded on the door twice then just walked in, like he’d told her not to a thousand times already. “Mom wants you.” She wrinkled her nose. “It smells in here.”
“How about you never come in here again, problem solved.” Namjoon tried to shove her back out the door, but she ducked under his arm. “Seriously, go away, nobody wants you.”
“Dad told you last week to be nice to me, I heard him.” She had a little smile on her face that made Namjoon want to explode. It was true, Namjoon’s father had pulled him aside and given him a talking-to about being responsible for his sister, his duties as a man in the world and as an older brother. He’d left the conversation writhing with shame and embarrassment, determined to do better, but she always made it so difficult.
“Fine,” Namjoon gritted out. “I’m being nice. Now leave my room so I can go talk to mom.”
Unnecessarily slowly, she walked out, wrinkling her nose one more time. Namjoon took a few deep, slow breaths to calm himself before going downstairs.
When he got to the kitchen, his mother was unpacking groceries. “Namjoon-ah, I need you to put this stuff away,” she was saying as she heaved the last bag onto the counter. “I did something to my back on our hike last weekend.” She winced, twisting to the side. “I have to get off my feet.”
As she moved, Namjoon noticed a streak of silver in her hair that he hadn’t noticed before. She was pretty, his mother, everyone said so. Athletic, energetic, a sweetly imposing presence in Namjoon’s life, a giant in his eyes, even though he was now almost a foot taller than her. But now he could see the silver in her hair, a few new fine lines tracing the corners of her eyes. Impulsively, Namjoon darted forward and hugged her wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
“Aish,” she said, pulling his face down to kiss his cheeks. “My baby.”
“I’m too big to be your baby,” Namjoon muttered.
“You’ll always be my baby.” She kissed his cheeks again. “Now go, put these away. I’m ordering food for supper, your father is going to be late.”
“Okay,” Namjoon sighed, and started putting things in the fridge.
“And don’t make plans for this weekend, we’re having people over. An old university friend of mine is moving to the area, she has a son around your age.”
“Mmm,” Namjoon said, inspecting a bag of chips. He wanted to whine that he was too old for playdates, but he was also too old for whining.
“He plays the piano,” his mother called as she went back to her room. “You can talk about music together.”
Yeah, right, okay. Sure.
Namjoon’s sister was away on a camping trip for school, so she was gone the night his mom’s friend came over. His mother had been cooking all day, fussing for him to get out of the kitchen, then yelling for him to come back in and help until he was stomping around in frustration. A sharp look from his father stopped the stomping, but he was still in a bad mood when the evening rolled around.
Whoever this kid was, even if he didn’t know Nas from RZA, Namjoon still wanted to impress him. Part of him wanted to show off a little, for sure, but also, under his resentment and annoyance, he wanted to make a decent effort to get to know the kid for his mom’s sake, to make her happy. For all his complaining sometimes, he wasn’t rebellious in a way that would hurt his parents, who had been nothing but supportive of him and his dreams, even if those dreams involved music.
So he showered and put on cologne, his favorite jeans, and an oversized Stussy shirt he’d gotten for dirt cheap at the mall. He fussed with his hair, flopping his bangs to one side and using the straightener to fix the one cowlick he had. Namjoon had been bothering his mother for months to get a perm to go along with his fade, but she’d refused, saying “Namjoon. You’ll look ridiculous,” like she knew anything about what was cool. When he was done getting dressed, he thought about a hat, then reconsidered, then thought about it again, then decided that his hair probably looked good enough for no hat.
Last week he’d been out shopping with his friend Jinho, and they’d bought these gold chains for 2,000 won. It looked like something from a music video, and he was already thinking about wearing it for the first time he got the guts to film himself rapping. Namjoon put one of those on, smiling as he fingered the gold links. The plating was already starting to flake off a little, but that was okay. You couldn’t really tell. He put that on as well, then another few sprays of cologne just in case.
His mother’s friend arrived with her husband, who was holding a nice bottle of wine that he presented to Namjoon’s father. His mom greeted her friend with a flurry of excited hugs and smiles, and Namjoon felt bad for having an attitude earlier. This was his mom's dear friend, (who he was instructed to call Auntie Heejin) someone she'd missed and he didn't need to ruin it for her. He saw someone walk in behind Auntie Heejin, but he couldn't get a good look in between all of the adults.
"You're so tall!" Auntie Heejin exclaimed, looking up at him. Namjoon fought not to roll his eyes. Yes, he was tall, he didn’t understand why everyone needed to comment on it. "Look at him, he's growing so well." She tsked behind her teeth,"I wish my Yoongi would grow a little more."
"It's not like I can help it," came a quiet voice from behind her. She stepped aside and Namjoon got his first glimpse of Min Yoongi.
Min Yoongi was short, quite a bit shorter than Namjoon. He had round cheeks, tousled, choppy hair, and darting, fox-like eyes. He had on a long, dark coat that looked like it would have been worn by someone much older and he had on a really stupid-looking hat. His hands were in his coat pocket and he looked sullen. Namjoon groaned internally. This guy clearly had nothing in common with him.
"This is Yoongi," Auntie Heejin was saying, "and he's your hyung."
Namjoon and Yoongi awkwardly bobbed their heads at each other.
"Why don't you boys get to know each other," Namjoon's mother said, eyeing him so he knew it was a dismissal, not a request.
"Um. My room's up here," Namjoon mumbled, and led Yoongi up the stairs. Yoongi didn't say anything on the way up or once they got into his room, just kept his hands shoved in the pockets of his weird coat and his gaze on the floor.
Namjoon tried to see his own room through Yoongi’s eyes. The striped blue and white bedspread, half-pulled up to his pillow. The overhanging scent of cologne to try and drown out the smell of laundry that hadn’t been done in a while. Posters on every wall, mostly rappers, but one landscape of a waterfall in South America, and one of happy dogs swimming. He cringed at how childish the happy dogs poster probably looked, but something about the dogs’ faces made him feel good. Somehow, he felt soothed that there were creatures in the world that experienced that kind of joy, and a little sad that he might not ever feel that kind of uncomplicated happiness himself.
The silence in the room dragged on a hair too long as they both looked around awkwardly, then Yoongi nodded toward one of the walls and said, "Oh, you like hip-hop?" He started to wander around Namjoon's room, looking at the posters, his computer, the stuff on his desk.
"Yeah, and you uh, play the piano?" Namjoon cringed the second it came out of his mouth. He could hear how judgemental he sounded.
Yoongi threw him a look he couldn't read and, very mildly, said "Yeah, I've been playing most of my life.” He touched the edge of Namjoon's Kanye poster and let his hand drop. "I like Eminem better than Kanye, though." Weird choice for someone who liked the piano, Namjoon would have thought he'd be more into the Neptunes or something.
Namjoon tried to think of something else to say. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked. Yoongi seemed like the kind of cool, self-contained guy that girls would like. He was sort of good-looking too, when he smiled. And he played the piano -- Namjoon knew there were a lot of girls who were into music too.
“Uh.” Yoongi looked out of Namjoon’s window, even though there was nothing to see out there except the back wall of his neighbor’s house. “No. I was sort of seeing someone back in Daegu, but we moved, so.” He shrugged.
“Ah that sucks,” Namjoon said. “I don’t have a girlfriend, but I’m working on it. She kind of likes someone else.”
“Maybe you should find a different girl,” Yoongi said, shrugging. “If this one is into someone else. Girls get to choose who they want to go out with.”
“I know that,” Namjoon said, and he hated how young he sounded. “I just really like her, okay?”
“Sure,” Yoongi said. “Tell me about the school anyway, which teachers suck?”
“Well, you want to stay away from the chemistry teacher, he’s just sadistic,” Namjoon said, then launched into a whole diatribe about how bullshit it was that kids had no power, that they were at the mercy of a cruel system they didn’t even build, and they were pitted against each other in this race toward nothing...and, to his shock, Yoongi leaned forward and said, “Oh hell yeah,” and started going off on his own little rant.
Namjoon realized with a shock that Yoongi was actually cooll. Even with his bad hair and weird laugh and stupid hat.. He was sitting there listening to Namjoon with this intent look on his face, just radiating coolness in the way he carried himself, seeming so self-assured in his own opinions. Namjoon hadn’t noticed it before, under everything else.
Namjoon felt uncomfortable and awkward, too big for his skin. He thought about his gold necklace and probably knockoff Stussy shirt and his face got hot, shame swamping through him. Namjoon wanted desperately to be cool, confident, the kind of guy that could command a room like his father was, or like Min Yoongi was commanding his attention right now. Instead, he was all limbs and cheap clothes, ambition and fear wafting off him alongside his cologne. He needed to do better, try harder.
"I like Eminem too," Namjoon said,trying to bring the conversation back to music, because he really needed to know more about Yoongi’s music opinions, "but not as much as Dre." Namjoon wanted to show Yoongi his own music, show him just how good he really was. He was good, he knew he was good, but it was also really personal, the things he wrote about, and he wasn't ready to share that with someone he met a few minutes ago. Maybe he could casually work it into conversation, so Yoongi knew he was dealing with an actual rapper here and not just a casual fan.
"Mmmm," Yoongi said, and smiled. His whole face lit up when he smiled, like he was a different person. He looked young and cute and excitable, like there was no way this tiny, adorable kid could be his hyung. "I taught myself all of Mockingbird last summer, which sucked because I don't speak English. Epik High is much easier."
Namjoon jolted, like he'd been hit with something. He had this moment of feeling seen, like there was someone else in this world who liked the things he liked and knew the things he knew, a moment of connection that flooded him with excitement. "Wait, taught yourself, what do you mean--"
"Namjoon! Yoongi! Dinner!' Namjoon's mother called from downstairs. Damn it. "I love Epik High," Namjoon blurted out. "Like so, so much, um, do you want to listen to them later? And then I can show you some of my stuff?"
"NAMJOON!" His mother called again, with the worst sense of timing in the history of humanity. He needed to quiz Yoongi, figure out what he liked and what he knew, and did he-- was he a rapper? Namjoon was vibrating with excitement.
"Yeah," Yoongi said, already on his feet. "Definitely."
After dinner, (interminable, his father talked about Namjoon’s English grades for seven whole minutes) they were sent to do the dishes while the adults drank and talked in the other room. Namjoon washed and Yoongi dried, because Namjoon's mother had said, "He's dropped more than one of my good glasses," which was horribly embarrassing. Namjoon really wasn't sure what to make of Yoongi, but he was positive he didn't want to be embarrassed in front of him.
Namjoon was trying to think of a good way to bring up the rap thing when Yoongi asked, "Do you play basketball?" and Namjoon fought the urge to sigh. Like he hadn’t heard that before.
He picked up one of the plates more enthusiastically than he'd meant to and it started to slip out of his hands. He scrabbled in the soapy water for a second, then finally got a grip on it. "Not all tall people play basketball," he said, sharper than he meant to in his annoyance.
"Uh, no shit," Yoongi said, shooting him a look. "I only asked because I play, I'm a guard."
Namjoon had no idea what that was. He'd tried to avoid the jocks in his school; they seemed to have their own language that Namjoon never understood. Plus, every adult he knew, even the ones who'd seen him tripping over thin air, constantly asked him if he played sports. He'd end up breaking something if he tried to play basketball.
"No," he said honestly. "I can barely walk. I think jumping might break me."
Yoongi laughed, a creaky, screechy sound. Babyish, like his smile, under his old man clothes and quiet, withdrawn demeanor. It was weird, but kind of cool.
Namjoon couldn’t figure out where Yoongi fit in the world; he wasn't anything like what Namjoon had been expecting. He still wasn't sure if he liked Yoongi, it was too early for that, but he was intrigued by him; he didn't spout the same kind of bullshit as most of the kids Namjoon met, and that put him a notch above most people, in his book.
“Hey um,” he said, “you said you were teaching yourself Eminem and Epik High. Do you rap?” Namjoon glanced over to where Yoongi was putting the dishes neatly in rows, each plate carefully aligned.
“Yeah.” Yoongi put the last glass in place, blinked at it, then set it in the next slot over. “I rap.” He dropped his hands and looked over at Namjoon. Sly, like he was sharing a secret. “And I’m good.”
Namjoon scoffed. “You haven’t heard me.” He felt that again, that connection, like a wire between them. Sparking, intermittent, but there. Yoongi was weird but he knew rap, he knew Eminem and Epik High and probably had opinions on pre-and-post ODB Wu-Tang. Maybe Yoongi was good, maybe he wasn’t; Namjoon was confident he was better, he was better than anyone else he’d met his age. Either way, he was dying to find out.
Up in Namjoon’s room he practically flung himself at his computer. “Do you have a website?” he asked. “Is your stuff online?”
“Yeah hang on.” Yoongi leaned over Namjoon’s shoulder to tap at the keyboard. He felt solid, not as scrawny as he looked, and he smelled good, like cologne. “Okay, here.”
The website had a picture of Yoongi on it, looking totally different. He had a bandanna around his neck and a sleeveless shirt and sunglasses. He looked totally different, pouting moodily into the camera. He looked like he could have been in a music video. He looked cool as fuck.
“Whoa,” Namjoon said. “You should dress like that all the time.”
“But I don’t want to,” Yoongi said, shooting him a slightly annoyed look. “That’s just stage shit. Anyway, here.” He clicked the music player below Yoongi’s picture.
Yoongi was good. Good good. Fast and aggressive and emotional and agile, spitting fury without stumbling. His lyrics were much more simple than Namjoon’s, almost to the point of being blunt, but that just made them more effective. Namjoon wanted to jump up and yell, or cry, or hit something, he was so filled with pulsing, expanding emotion. He didn’t know what he was feeling -- euphoria, a little jealousy, admiration -- but whatever it was, it was a lot.
“Wow,” he breathed. “Um, yeah, wow, fuck, hyung, you’re great.”
“I know,” Yoongi said, but he looked pleased and a little defensive, like he wanted to punch the compliment.
They listened to Yoongi for a bit, Namjoon trying to take in every word, his heart pounding in his chest. When the song faded away, Namjoon asked, “My turn?”
He put on his latest track, maybe not his most elegant song, but it showed off his breath control and flow variety better than anything else.
It was absolutely worth it for the way Yoongi startled, his eyes going wide and catlike for a second as he jolted in his chair. Namjoon felt a rush of satisfaction down to his toes, grinning to himself. “Not bad, huh?” he said.
“Shush.” Yoongi waved a hand at him. “Listening.” It was all Namjoon could do not to lean back and giggle into his hands. He loved surprising people.
When it was over, Yoongi turned to him and demanded, “play the rest.”
They got through three more songs before Yoongi’s mom called for them to come down and say goodbye. Namjoon had watched Yoongi’s face for any kind of reaction to the music, but he had been just nodding along, stone-faced, occasionally giving appreciative grunts.
With some reluctance, Namjoon stood up to walk Yoongi downstairs.
“Hey,” Yoongi said, looking out the window again and scratching the back of his neck. “If you want, we can hang out over the break before school starts again. Talk music or something. Maybe I’ll teach you how to make a free throw.”
Namjoon felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin. Somehow, hanging out with Yoongi was suddenly the most important thing in his life right now. More important than lovely, distant Cha Eunwoo. Namjoon was already fantasizing a little about hanging out with Yoongi, trading mixes and making music, getting ice cream and hanging out at the park together. Namjoon had friends, but none of them really got him, and he felt like...well, he felt like Yoongi was different somehow.
“I told you,” Namjoon said, scrubbing at his suddenly warm cheeks. “I’m going to break something if I try to do sports.”
“Ah,” Yoongi said, smiling down into his hands. “Hyung’ll take care of you,” he mumbled. “Don’t worry.”
Namjoon rubbed his chest, trying to contain the fluttering he felt there. This was going to be the best year ever.