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I burn, I pine, I perish -

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Maybe it’s because the room is so dark that the look in Taehyung’s eyes doesn’t hurt as much as the venom in his voice when he spits, “Fuck you.”

Jeongguk shoves the unfamiliar warm body off him, struggling to pull his pants back up around his waist, and tries to stumble after the retreating figure of the only person who was never supposed to see this. But the hallway is empty when he reaches it, dark and bleak and vacant in both directions, and the faint complaints from the couch behind him join the roar in his ears to coalesce into something deafening, suffocating.

He holds onto the doorframe as his legs give out, crouching over the threshold as he pants roughly, and wonders why he feels like the victim.

--

The words hadn’t just slipped out. He’d planned them out for a while, longer than he’d ever planned out anything. He’d known exactly what he would say if one of the members dared to ask him, because that’s what fear does to a person.

The longer that it went on, the more it felt like Taehyung was starting to notice, to let his dark eyes linger, to let his beautiful brain churn. And any time he came too close, the exact definition of which ranged from a whole stage’s length away to mere centimeters from Jeongguk’s face, it felt like combustion was imminent, like Jeongguk would erupt into flames and take everything with him.

So when it happened, it was no accident, it was no panic, it was exactly what he’d intended. And it had seemed so safe.

--

Taehyung was the last member to join BTS.

Their first proper meeting was just after Jeongguk finished solo practice in one of the empty ground-floor rooms, and when he stood there, small and sweaty and studying Taehyung, it hadn’t felt like a groundbreaking moment. It hadn’t felt like anything at all. Their debut was official, now that all the members were in, and he knew that he liked the other five well enough. From here onward, it was about getting himself ready and developing a bond amongst the seven of them. That was all. That was all he’d counted on.

And then Taehyung had shaken Namjoon’s hand with the shyest smile, tipping his head to move his hair out of his eyes, and Jeongguk took a deep breath.

He hadn’t counted on that.

--

When he runs back into the hotel suite, only Yoongi and Hoseok are out in the common area, cradling teacups as they lounge at the kitchen table.

“Where’s Tae?” he gasps, knowing that his panicked face and half-unbuttoned shirt are all that they can see.

Thankfully, Hoseok sobers and sits up, brow furrowed with concern. “He locked himself in his room. I tried to go in, but it’s – “ he cuts off when Jeongguk strides past, jogging through the hallway. His hand shakes as he raises it to knock, and he freezes in shock when the door swings open before his knuckle even touches the wood.

He takes in Taehyung, whose face is hard and cold and unforgiving. His breath catches in his throat when they both merely stare at each other. Taehyung has always been broad and settled in his wide frame, but this is the first time that he’s ever felt so huge and Jeongguk smaller than anything.

“I’m sorry,” he finally chokes out, hands fumbling in front of him.

Taehyung blinks, impassive. His gaze slides to the bitten, sweaty skin exposed by Jeongguk’s splayed collar, something akin to disgust on his face when he meets his eyes again. “For what?”

For so much. There’s so much. For lying. For lying and also getting caught. For letting himself get caught. For whatever else is going through Taehyung’s mind right now, for that. For who Jeongguk is, maybe, and for who he isn’t. His mouth moves around empty air as he tries to articulate all that he regrets, but he takes too long.

Taehyung slams the door in his face and the sound of the lock echoes.

--

The first boy he ever loved was Taehyung.

Taehyung and his long legs, long fingers, long eyelashes. His utter contentedness in being within his skin, his ease of interpersonal connection. His laughter, his smiles. The way he picked up, from the very start, how each member expressed himself and then molded himself so as to be palatable to the six who came before him.

He handled Jeongguk so well, so carefully. The tense, anxious kid he’d been up to and following debut was difficult to be around, but Taehyung’s easy touches and adaptable humor made it seem like maybe Jeongguk wasn’t made all wrong, like maybe he just was what he was. As if they’d known each other forever, they shared songs, memes, clips of their own performances, selfies, shots of steaming plates of food, and everything else under the sun, and for the first time Jeongguk felt like he really had a friend. The kind that he saw in movies and read about in books, the kind that he couldn’t quite figure out how to obtain. Taehyung was it. And Jeongguk hadn’t even had to earn him. Losing him wasn't an option.

When Taehyung started filling out his shoulders and figuring out his style, Jeongguk had noticed. When Taehyung started being pulled aside backstage at award shows by blushing idols, Jeongguk had noticed. When Taehyung started giggling into his phone late in the evenings, Jeongguk had of course noticed. But at the end of it all, it was himself and the boys that Taehyung spent all day with, every day, and at night they all slept mere walls apart, if that, and it was enough.

When Taehyung started dating a trainee named Harin, Jeongguk watched with mere pained curiosity, because it was only par for the course. Eventually, when they disbanded – and who knew how soon that might be? – Taehyung would get married and have babies and become someone that Jeongguk wouldn’t know anymore. While Harin could be the one who would. But a few weeks along, things got nasty, Taehyung spent days scowling at nothing and looking empty inside, and that was the end of that.

After Harin came Sooah, and Eunae, and Jiah, and the story never changed. There was a discernible pattern – giggles and gushing and smiling while he typed on his phone, then frowns and scowls and irritability, and then a period of darkness wherein Taehyung was unreachable and inconsolable, and the dorms stayed quiet in a way that echoed.

So Jeongguk took a careful look around at all the times that the other members had dated, at the way this lifestyle seemed to drown every spark of joy that ever got dropped into it, at the incontestable fact that every single time anyone took that leap of faith, it ended with a breakup and a little chunk of hope floating away. There came days, two or three years in, when he prayed for disbandment simply because he was so tired of it all. Because with fame comes something nobody’s ever prepared for: utter, ineluctable loneliness.

So feeling what he felt for Taehyung was a reckless gamble. Hoping ever to act on it was a fantasy. The fact that they were both boys hardly skimmed the surface, because that whole mountain didn't even register when he looked at the very real cliff's edge of losing Taehyung forever. And if he so much as entertained the possibility of acting on his feelings, history told him that the risk was really more of a guarantee. Losing Taehyung wasn't an option.

And the loneliness hurt so much that the fearful attachment turned into this private obsession, this tiny hidden bit of himself that he protected aggressively. Maybe that’s why it turned unhealthy and twisted somehow. Taehyung was not just the first one Jeongguk ever loved; even ten years later, Taehyung was the only one.

--

He must have seen everything Jeongguk tried to bury. Because it didn’t matter how deep he dug, if Taehyung had x-ray vision. He’d always been the only one who saw right through him.

When Taehyung pinched his cheeks and rubbed his nape and gently held his waist, it all made Jeongguk’s breath catch and his brain freeze. When Taehyung dyed his hair and posed in front of Jeongguk’s camera and stuck his tongue out flirtily, it made Jeongguk’s muscles tense and his heart shudder. But when Taehyung stepped in close and smiled at him like they were the only two around for miles, it made his very skin melt and flay, bearing his innards for Taehyung’s eyes.

How wonderful, how terrible it was, when Taehyung seemed to take a good look at them and still not run in the other direction.

--

There are quiet shuffles on the cushions as Sungmin dresses himself, while Jeongguk stays kneeling on the floor with his face dug deep into his kneecaps, trembling.

“Hey, what’s going on? Are you okay?”

Jeongguk straightens, stumbles against the wall as he turns around. He can barely look at the stranger’s face without wanting to cry.

He’d only met him at the awards ceremony, a security team member whose eyes had lingered on Jeongguk as he led him up from the changing rooms. He’d started fumbling with his water bottle to ignore how much the guy’s long hair and wide eyes reminded him of Taehyung, the quirky dances he’d do with one of the managers while waiting for the band to get dressed, the raspy laugh he’d let out when Jimin nearly fell on his way to the stage.

And at the end of the day, Jeongguk doesn’t know what it’s like, cannot even imagine. He’s never dated, he’s never walked out on a limb like that and gone after what he wanted, and this guy looks just like Taehyung.

So he follows him from the bathrooms down an abandoned corridor beneath the MAMA stadium, catches his eye when the other glances at him sideways, and lets himself be pushed into a little empty office room. The taste of him is new and the smell of his detergent isn't peach and the texture of his hair is alien, but it’s nice, it’s exactly what Jeongguk is willing to accept.

Taehyung barging in when Jeongguk’s dick is in the guy’s mouth – that isn’t.

--

It happened in the back of a van, as they were speeding through empty moonlit streets to the hotel that was waiting for them near the Tokyo Dome, and all the other five were asleep. Taehyung was slumped, pressed into Jeongguk’s side as the youngest peered at his profile fondly, headphones in while he watched some video of baby animals.

Taehyung snickered, which triggered a wave of warmth through Jeongguk’s chest, and they made eye contact through the depthless darkness occasionally broken up by passing streetlights.

Taehyung’s hand fell, leaving his phone still playing colorful scenes up at the ceiling, but nobody could see the flickers save for the driver who was busy fiddling with the radio, and suddenly it had been fifteen seconds and Taehyung still hadn’t stopped looking at him.

When he leaned in and gently brushed his lips against Jeongguk’s, it was everything. It was the end of everything.

And, just like he had steadfastly planned, Jeongguk pulled carefully away and turned his head toward the window. His heartbeat was so loud, and his hands shook where he was shoving them deep in his hoodie pockets.

“Guk?” Taehyung’s voice was small, the weight of him against Jeongguk’s ribs already dissipating. “I thought – was  I - ?”

He glanced up, finding Taehyung with wide eyes and two fingers pressed to his lips, lips that were softer than Jeongguk had ever even imagined, ever let himself imagine. He looked so scared and pale. “I don’t like you,” he probably should have said, or “I’m not into you, specifically.” But he was. He wanted Taehyung more than he wanted anything. And the thought of denying something so very important to him felt like peeling off one of his fingernails.

So he’d just swallowed and avoided Taehyung’s eyes and whispered, “I’m straight.”

--

The subsequent practices are thick with tension and ridiculously quiet.

Taehyung always shows up late with dark circles under his eyes, headphones on at every break so nobody can talk to him, and he leaves as soon as practice is over, his hood up over his face and steps quick as though fans are chasing him.

Jimin corners Jeongguk outside the studio, scowl fierce and stance quarrelsome. “Fix it.”

Jeongguk fiddles with the strap of his bag, eyes downcast. “I don’t know how.”

“Beg for forgiveness. Genuflect to your heart’s content. Whatever it is that you did, he’s never hurt like this before. So fix it.”

And that’s easy to say, not knowing the horrendous depths of Jeongguk’s crime. He wishes Taehyung had punched him, once, twice, as many times as it took for Jeongguk to lose consciousness. He wishes Taehyung would just do what he needs to feel better. Because no words out of Jeongguk’s mouth will undo the damage he has done. It’s funny to think that he’d feared losing Taehyung so much that he did exactly what it took to lose him.

So funny, he cries himself to sleep about it.

--

Jeongguk did not date, so it was easy to keep up the lie for as long as he did. Years passed without incident, years where he could with plausible deniability let his eyes veer where they wanted, years where he still looked at Taehyung but now without Taehyung ever looking back. Still, it was nicer, safer, because he’d allowed Taehyung to take the little thread that had begun to string itself between them and cut it.

In a way, he was even freer then than he had been before. Taehyung tried to distance himself for a bit, right after the kiss, as though to let Jeongguk know that he wouldn’t keep pushing it, but the lie allowed Jeongguk to spit all over that and shove himself into Taehyung’s space without fear. After a while of Jeongguk’s insistent affection, Taehyung resumed pressing himself to Jeongguk’s side when they listened to new songs together, cuddling him on shared beds, and tugging on his ears when he made him fond.

Those years, between the lie and its consequences, those were their happiest ones, he thought.

--

“What will it take for you to forgive me?” he mumbles one early morning, less than a week later, as he sits in the kitchen and watches Taehyung stonily make himself a fruit bowl as though Jeongguk isn’t there. He thinks he's apologized a thousand times at this point, but the sorrow he feels is offering to apologize a thousand more. “Please, please, forgive me.”

The others are asleep, so the dorm is achingly silent for the long minutes when Taehyung doesn’t speak. Jeongguk’s halfway convinced he’ll just ignore him before heading back to his room, when Taehyung finally grits out, “For what?”

Jeongguk blinks. Is it so unclear? “For – for what I did. All of it. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry – “

“Not good enough,” Taehyung thunders, voice just loud enough to be heard in the bedrooms, but likely not loud enough to wake their occupants. He sets the knife he was using into the sink, then rinses his hands and digs out a fork from a drawer.

As he makes to pass Jeongguk out of the kitchen, he gets desperate, stands in the doorway to block his path. “Please. Taehyung, what will it take?”

Dark, beautiful eyes inspect him with indifference. He never knew this side of Taehyung, had not seen the dark side of the moon until they were both shoved so far out of orbit, because even on the very day they met, even when they were complete strangers Taehyung had been determined to love him.

“I don’t know why you think you owe me an apology.” Taehyung advances on him, steady and unreadable, until Jeongguk has to step away to let him pass. “And I don’t think I know who you are.”

The sound of the bedroom door when it slips closed behind the elder is enough to make Jeongguk fold himself onto the floor and sob soundlessly.

--

There was something really nice about the little thrum of electricity that traveled all over Jeongguk’s skin in the weeks and months leading up to the kiss.

Every moment spent laughing with Taehyung had been euphoric, every bout of random wrestling over something or other was exciting, and every moment he could feel Taehyung’s eyes on him from across the room was like standing on a precipice and hoping for a gust of wind.

He loved Taehyung in a way very unlike the way he loved anyone else. He was selfish about it, but only in his head; he was loud about it, but only in his heart; he was open and honest and fervent with it, but only in the ways that didn’t hurt.

He knew the potential was there, he knew that he shared more in common with Taehyung than any of the girls who had come and gone over the years, but therein lay the entire problem. Taehyung was devastated even when Jiah left, Jiah who didn’t like video games and thought purple was an obnoxious color and found art to be pretentious. And the possibility, however small, that something might tear them apart in the end just like it’s ripped up everything else, it was too high of a risk. Compared to Jiah, their friendship gave them so much more to lose.

He liked to think it was a decision he made for both their sakes, but Jeongguk could admit that a bigger part of him was merely selfish. Because having Taehyung around every moment of every day was nice, even if it hurt so much to keep them from changing course, even if it hurt so much to keep his feet firmly on the line he’d drawn in the sand. Taehyung was his laughter and his curiosity and his trivial knowledge about Bach and his late night walking trips around Paris and his Gucci sweaters and his headbands and his hair and that very tenderly affectionate look he got sometimes when Jeongguk would do something wacky without explaining it. Taehyung was his adolescence and his entire life as an idol, Taehyung was everything he knew about the world he lived in now, because he’d never been in it without him. If Taehyung ever left, if they ended up ruining themselves by taking that step forward together, Jeongguk wouldn’t just lose Taehyung, he’d lose himself, too.

So he didn’t let himself feel badly about lying. He didn’t want to think that he was transgressing at all. He was saving them, both of them, from years of discomfort and messing up the equilibrium of the group, from disappointment in one another, from the loss of a real, extant bond that was so much more important than the potential one that lingered on the horizon.

He was so confident in the plan that he was halfway convinced that he wasn’t even lying, that looking Taehyung in the eyes and telling him that he wasn’t gay was the only thing anyone could possibly have done in his shoes.

--

It goes on like that for months, deliberate silences and physical avoidance and no eye contact even when the other members are present. And Jeongguk knows that it’s on him to keep pushing for a truce, but he doesn’t even know where to begin. He doesn’t know how he could possibly tell Taehyung that everything he’d done had been stupid and desperate and in a bid to escape exactly the hell he was living in now.

Jimin’s given up on threatening Jeongguk, just offering his comfort to both of them in turn when it gets really bad, while the others all steadfastly stay out of it because of their total lack of knowledge of the issue. Taehyung hadn’t told a soul about what happened, maybe because he wanted to spare Jeongguk. But most probably because the nature of Jeongguk’s betrayal becoming public knowledge would hurt him even more. Taehyung had never come out to anybody else.

Jeongguk doesn’t fare well, punishing himself with a strict diet and hellish workout regimen, little to no happiness, and barely any interaction with the others. By mere fortune, the whole mess has imploded right during a sluggish period just before a comeback, and neither of the two of them is required to be in each other’s presence whatsoever.

One evening he walks into the kitchen quietly after spending some hours alone practicing their new choreo, the gym bag on his shoulder feeling heavy, the bones under his skin feeling brittle.

It’s as he’s reaching for an apple in the fridge that it happens. Between one moment and the next, he’s suddenly on the floor, a reverberating ache pounding through his right arm, a piercing pain at the back of his head. He hears faint inquisitive voices from the other room, but he can’t seem to keep his eyes open or to make his body cooperate, so he slumps and lets darkness take him.

--

He awakens to the expansive white ceiling of the common area, a pulsating throb all over his body and two faces hovering over his own.

“You’re awake. Can you see and hear everything okay?”

Jeongguk blinks, licks his cracked lips. He grunts weakly when he tries fruitlessly to formulate some words, and then a third face appears, Taehyung’s, frazzled and alarmed and so, so dear.

“Blink twice if you need a hospital.”

He frowns slightly but keeps unwavering eye contact with him, ignoring Namjoon and Yoongi.

“Blink three times if you feel like something’s broken.”

Jeongguk grunts again, one hand rising a little to try to sit up, but his body resists, begging him to stay immobile. He’s so tired.

“Jin-hyung is making you food, and we’re going to sit you up against the cushions here, okay?”

Then he’s being hefted up and gently placed onto the warm couch near the bookcase, his body melting into it willingly. He peers dumbly down at his socked feet, wondering who pulled his shoes off him. Taehyung used to do that when he’d fall asleep in random places. Suddenly, the last few months come flooding back, and Jeongguk’s face crumples, making the room fall silent once more. He sticks his face in his hands and whimpers, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

A gentle hand brushes over his hair, and then drops to stay on his nape, accompanied by a firm weight landing beside him. Taehyung tugs him in until he’s got his face buried in the elder’s neck, mewling uncontrollably.

“I know, Guk,” he murmurs back, wide hand on the side of Jeongguk’s head as he keeps him still. “I know you are.”

When he manages to run out of tears some time later – might be hours – the room is empty save for the two of them, and the lights are dimmed. Night fell before he even got back to the dorms, so he’d reckon it’s early morning now, but Taehyung’s eyes are open and glued to the floor on the other side of the room.

Jeongguk sees a bowl of soup near the arm of the couch and a blanket dropped over their legs. He sniffles quietly for a time, waiting for his breathing to calm and his limbs to stop trembling, and then looks at the side of Taehyung’s face. “I lied to you because I love you. So much.”

The elder blinks, startled, but doesn’t shift his gaze, still keeping it leveled at the carpet.

“I couldn’t believe that the thing I’d considered so completely forbidden to me was actually right beside me, kissing me. I couldn’t possibly justify letting myself have you when it also meant accepting that I will lose you.” He scoffs. “Seems so stupid now.”

Taehyung’s hand, which had been buried in his hair and totally still, starts to card through the strands gently.

“I’ve wanted you since before I knew what it meant to want anyone. And my fear was more than I could handle. I’m still learning.”

They fall into another silence then, only the ticking of Taehyung’s watch keeping them company, the faint sounds of the city outside filtering through the closed windows. Through the eerie nighttime filter that clouds everything and makes it less real, Jeongguk can almost imagine that it’s a year prior, and they’re up late together after watching a movie cuddled up on the couch. With how little function his mind is capable of now, with all the energy in his body being sucked up just to have this conversation, he thinks tomorrow he could easily write this all off as a dream.

“I forgive you,” Taehyung finally says, voice cracking from disuse. “But I don’t know where to go from here.”

“We don’t have to go anywhere,” Jeongguk mumbles, curling in on himself. Taehyung seems to notice, tilting in his direction as though to follow him. “I just want you to know that I love you.”

Taehyung leans his head back against the wall and blinks up at the ceiling.

“I know I hurt you, so much, with the way I did things. And what happened after MAMA was … horrible. I just – I couldn’t have you, I couldn’t have you and I could have him and he looked exactly like you, and it was the worst thing I’ve ever done. You were never – you were just never easy for me to let go of. And I didn’t handle it well.”

“No, you didn’t,” Taehyung scoffs, but his hand in Jeongguk’s hair tightens just a bit before relaxing and brushing gently down over his neck. “But I think I get it.”

Jeongguk swallows, takes a deep breath, and presses into Taehyung’s side bravely, forehead brushing against his jaw. “This is enough for me. I just want you back, I don’t want anything else.”

“And what about Sungmin?”

Taehyung’s eyes are already on him when he blinks up at him, gaze guarded and lips pursed. Jeongguk tilts his head in confusion, struggles to think that he’s ever heard that name before. “Who?”

For a moment, Taehyung looks bemused, suspicious, fearful. Then, with his eyes roving over Jeongguk’s puzzled face, he relaxes and snorts quietly, turning his face back up to the ceiling. His hand tightens in Jeongguk’s hair and tugs him down until his nose is pressed into his neck once more, breathing in that familiar, beloved scent of peach detergent. They lie there companionably until Jeongguk feels himself start to drift off, dozing in a pool of relief and comfort, his mind gradually quieting under the weight of his body’s grief. He thinks he hears Taehyung say something quietly, but he can’t make it out from where he’s floating in the haze.

Lips graze softly along his temple and then the corner of his mouth, and Jeongguk lets himself dip fully below the surface, finally certain once more that Taehyung won't let him drown.