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PART One: Winter

“Our future will only have happiness,
So put away your fear.”
I'm Fine, BTS

2 January 2018 – Hannam the Hill

Sometimes when they lie in bed together, he wonders if he has any right to be this happy.

He keeps looking at his bracelet, dangling it above his eyes, staring at its interlocking links until they blur into gleams beneath the lamplight. In that way, they look like infinity.

Beside him, Seokjin sleeps face down in his pillows, his dark hair covering the sweep of his cheek. His arm loops over Taehyung's waist, his palm cupped loosely on his hip. He can't be comfortable twisted up that way, but Seokjin's always been a pretzel when he's sleeping. Taehyung doesn't try to move him.

Instead, he burrows deeper into the duvet. It's warm and smells like a forest – a combination of Seokjin's muscle cream and his sandalwood face wash. It's quiet – save for the feathery scuffles of the sugar gliders in their cage – and it's clean, like freshly-fallen snow.

He holds up the bracelet again. It glistens like starlight.

As if a farm in Daegu hadn't been enough.

As if months of patience and planning hadn't been enough.

Seokjin took him shopping for his birthday. It's becoming a sort of tradition with Seokjin. He likes the occasion of it, the opportunity to spend one-on-one time together. They go for dinner, maybe a drink or two, and then they go to a shop where he buys matching pieces of jewelry to commemorate the day. Friendship bracelets with Jimin, Hope, and Kook; a necklace with Yoongi; an earring set with Namjoon.

And with Taehyung, this.

He holds it up again, to gaze at it beneath the light. He traces the rings with his thumb.

“This is the one you want?” Seokjin had asked. “This one?”

He'd sounded amused and incredulous.

“Why?” Taehyung had asked. “It's beautiful.”

Seokjin had shrugged, had glanced at the store clerk as if enlisting her assistance.

“It is beautiful,” she said, taking Taehyung’s side.

“It looks like handcuffs,” Seokjin said.

Grinning, Taehyung had answered in English, “We like handcuffs.” The clerk smiled like she wanted to agree, but she didn’t understand.

“Fine,” Seokjin said. He rolled his eyes before fastening the clasp. “You have to wear it everyday.”

“Everyday,” Taehyung repeated.

“And you have to show everyone.”

“Everyone. I promise.”

Seokjin had enclosed Taehyung's wrist in his hands. His fingers trembled. Taehyung could feel his pulse beneath his thumb.

Then they came home. They set their phones to silent, and they spent the day in each other's arms. Now it's late, or early? and Taehyung lays beside him, thinking back on the year that has passed, looking forward to the year that is to come.

Though he's been slow to realize, he knows the true gift he's received. Undeserving as he was, Seokjin showed him mercy. And Taehyung understands: A part of him he didn't know was wounded has quietly begun to heal.

The dorm apartment sighs beneath the snowfall outside. Namjoon, Jimin, and Jungkook went home to visit family. Yoongi and Hoseok disappeared after the song festival, and they’ve been absent from their chat ever since. At the end of the bed, Yeontan scritches his ear, his collar jingling like a silver bell.  

Beside Taehyung, Seokjin mutters, “Did you chop the leeks?”

“What?”

“Yah, the leeks,” Seokjin says. “Did you chop them?”

“Hyung, are you cooking in your sleep again?”

Seokjin mumbles, “I need the number one pan.”

Taehyung chews his lip to keep from laughing. He says, “I am your number one pan.”

Before leaving Daegu, Taehyung's sister, Eunjin, had roped them into watching an episode of Oh My Ghost . It was a show about this meek chef's assistant who wanted to be a cook. She gets possessed by another, much bolder girl who had been a cook before she was murdered. She possessed the body of the meek girl and became entangled with the famous chef who yelled at her all the time.

Eunjin adored the chef. She and Seokjin bonded over him. Seokjin liked his style; Eunjin liked his acting. Several times on the drive back to Seoul, Seokjin mentioned to his father how much he missed cooking, and how much he liked the chef's character.

Taehyung had enjoyed seeing his sister and his boyfriend so fully absorbed in conversation. They'd met a few times, here and there over the years, but this was the first time they really talked. Seokjin already chats regularly with Taehyung's Mom. Now he imagines Seokjin and Eunjin FaceTiming over k-dramas, and again, he has to smile.

He catches himself projecting to the future, to Chuseoks and Seollals, birthdays and anniversaries. It's easy to do, knowing they've got a place adjacent to his Grandfather's and this promise of forever linked between them.

Seokjin slides sideways and opens his eyes. He shakes his head before tucking Taehyung against him. He murmurs, “You should be asleep.”

“I know,” Taehyung says.

After a moment, Seokjin asks, “Is your mouth hurting again?”

“Nope.”

“The ghost nightmare?”

“No, hyung. I'm fine.”

Seokjin brushes his face against Taehyung's neck. His voice gruff, he groans, “Jagiya, go to sleep.”

“Yes, love,” he says. Their arms snug together. If not for the bracelet, Taehyung might have difficulty telling where Seokjin’s end and his begin. He angles his wrist so the rings catch the light.

Does he deserve this happiness?

Not yet, he thinks. But I’m going to.

Because Seokjin’s not the only one capable of making plans.

Chapter Text

“We’re just a lie away
From proving to ourselves
We’re not afraid. ”
Reprieve, Vallis Alps

3 January 2018 - Seoul Forest Trimage

The upside to falling for your best friend is that when you wake up beside them in bed, there’s no need to explain to them that you are crap in the mornings.

Nor do you need to tell them that you’re useless without coffee.

Nor do you need to let them know how you take your coffee.

Because your best friend already knows.

He also knows that you’re useless without proper sleep, which means that you’re effectively useless 98 percent of the time. During the remaining two percent, you’re mostly kind of an asshole.

Yoongi finger-styles his bangs over his eyebrows, aiming for a carefree, sleep-tousled look, like he’s just rolled out of bed, and not like he’s been in Hoseok’s bathroom for half an hour, semi-freaking out.

Because the downside of falling for your best friend is that if you fuck everything up, you fuck it up forever.

“So for fuck’s sake, Min Yoongi,” he mutters to his reflection, “do NOT fuck this up.”

He rucks his bangs back and exhales. Then with a breathe, he steps through the door.

Yoongi crosses the hall into the softly-lit kitchen. Hoseok sits at a bar stool, one foot up on the seat to expose his lean, well-muscled calf. He’s wearing rimless reading glasses that perch on the end of his nose, making him look like the unassumingly handsome headmaster of an all-girls school. To complete this look, Hoseok is reading something on his tablet while singing along with the the music on the bluetooth. It’s something warm and Latin, cheery but tinged with a kind of forlorn lamenting, and damned if that doesn’t perfectly frame Yoogi’s current state of mind.

Yoongi crosses the toasty kitchen floor. He bypasses the bar (and Hoseok) to shoulder-roll into the buttery-soft leather sofa in the living room. Hoseok has already lit the apricot-fig scented candle on the coffee table; its scent fills the room with its earthy, autumn-y scent.

As Yoongi curls beneath the cashmere throw, Hoseok glances over and asks, “So. How’d you sleep?”

“Terrible,” Yoongi groans. “My bedmate’s such a cover hog.”

“Hm-hm,” Hoseok says. “But he smells fantastic.”

“Sure, if you like the scent of muscles and raw… sweat,” Yoongi says, aware that this is not the clever retort he hoped for. Heat creeps up behind his ears, and he’s dead certain that he’s turned the same shade as the inside of the stargazer lilies arranged on Hoseok’s table.

The gleam of a smile lights on Hoseok’s lips. “I heard zero complaints.”

“Probably because you were communicating with dolphins,” Yoongi shoots back.

Hoseok taps his finger to his lips in mock-consideration. “Yeah, I get pretty loud,” he says. “But it’s my place, so I can be as loud as I want.”

Yeah, about that ... Yoongi thinks. He’s still too groggy to process what he really wants to say. He peels himself from the sofa and lumbers toward the bar. Wordlessly, Hoseok pushes a mug in his direction. Yoongi perches on the opposite stool and sips. He shuts his eyes and whispers an inward prayer, because it is exactly how he likes it.

“Too strong to be dessert, too sweet to be breakfast,” Hoseok says.

Yoongi squints. “You don’t know everything,” he says.

“I know enough,” Hoseok counters. This time when he smiles, it produces a distinctive pull in Yoongi’s gut. He has to drag his attention away before his blush isn’t the only thing to rise in this kitchen.

The song switches from the Spanish love ballad to something lo-fi and atmospheric. Yoongi blows across the surface of his coffee, wimpling ripples over the reflection of his face. He thinks about this place of Hoseok’s, with its plush, homey, lived-in feel. Hoseok’s had it for two years, and though it’s never been a secret, he confided last night that Yoongi’s the first among their members to visit.

And now that he’s here, he can’t help but think… who else has Hoseok brought to this place when it is so clearly set up to entertain overnight guests?  Because this apartment, with its expensive coffee and lavender-scented linen spray, is set up for entertaining.

It doesn’t matter, Yoongi reminds himself. Yoongi kept his feelings for Hoseok closely guarded, so it’s not like they were beholden to each other. Except… it does matter. Because now they are beholden to each other, and it bothers him to think about who else might have shared Hobi’s bed.

Yoongi doesn’t even know how this is supposed to work. Do they tell people now? Do they tell each other? What can they possibly tell? They aren’t a couple of dumb kids in love. Except, they are dumb, and they are kind of in love. Fuck.

His thoughts dart to Seokjin – goddamned Seokjin, with his romance, and his plans. Yoongi recalls the day he discovered him and Taehyung in the broom cupboard of their old studio, and how they’d been at it for months in secret, and—

“Uh oh,” Hoseok says.

Yoongi cuts his eyes at him. “What?”

“You have broody face.”

Yoongi scoffs. “I do not.”

“Lemme guess,” Hoseok taps his fingers to his lips again. So distracting. He says, “You’re thinking, Whatever you do, don’t screw this up. Close?”

Yoongi scoffs. “Not remotely.”

Hoseok leans across the bar. He squeezes his hands over Yoongi’s. The mug’s warmth steams heat against their palms. He says, “My sister will be here in two hours.”

“Oh.” Yoongi straightens. His best friend also knows his complicated family history, and his tendency to flake on anything family related. So Yoongi pulls out his hands and smooths down his hair. “Yeah, Hope. No worries. I’ll clear out, I gotta ton of work to do, so—”

“—No, dork,” Hoseok says, reaching again to clasp his hand. “She wants the place. She’s got a boyfriend.” He rolls his eyes. “Another boyfriend.”

Yoongi stiffens. He glances around, taking in the room as if seeing it for the first time. The lavender spray, the earth-toned decor. Yoongi figured maybe Hope was getting to express a side of himself he couldn’t show at home, but now he thinks, maybe they’re for her?

Then Yoongi recalls the bathroom, the shell-pink bathrobe slung over the hook, the Etude House skincare crowded around the sink. These could be Hoseok’s, but Yoongi knows better.

“Your sister,” he murmurs. “Isn’t she too busy for boyfriends?”

“Uh, aren’t we?” Hoseok counters.

Yoongi scrunches his nose. “Valid point,” he says. “So… she spends a lot of time here?”

“Damned near every weekend,” Hoseok says. “It used to be more of a bachelor pad, a place where I’d, you know…?” Hoseok nods.  “You do know, right?”

Yoongi sits up. He scrubs his palms over his face. He’s not burly by any standard of manhood, but there’s a decent amount of scruff stubbling his chin. “That you bring people home here?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Hoseok says. “I mean, I did. I have, before. Girls, though. Not men.”

“I figured,” Yoongi answers, and Hoseok grimaces. Yoongi rushes to reassure him. “Not to suggest you lack experience, Hope, that is not what I meant.”

“It’s okay, Yoongs,” Hoseok says. “I'm well aware of the value of practice.”

Yoongi’s smile widens so much he can feel it behind his eyes. “Wow,” he says, “So when are Jin-hyung and Tae going to visit his uncle?”

Hoseok drinks from his mug. “Not til Friday.”

“And the Busan boys?”

“They return on Friday.”

Yoongi sniffs. Hoseok slides a hand across the table. After a moment’s hesitation, Yoongi reaches to take it.

“So where will we go?” Hoseok asks.

“Hear me out,” Yoongi says. “I have this vinyl sofa thing in the lab...”

Hoseok beams at him. “No,” he says. “That thing was gross before debut. Also, it’s so busted we’d both break our backs, and I have a delicate dancer’s build…”

They’re both laughing as Yoongi says, “You know, Seokjin and Tae started out in a fucking broom closet. They had a folded-up gym mat. Now that was love.”

“That was insanity,” Hoseok corrects. He nibbles his lip, looking for a moment like he’s misty-eyed with nostalgia. “So much of what they did was completely insane.”

“Now they own a farm in Daegu,” Yoongi muses.

“Yeah,” Hoseok says. “Wow. Insane.”

“So do we go home?” Yoongi asks. He smooths the pads of his fingers against the inside of Hoseok’s cupped palm.

Hoseok says, “I suppose we could.”

Then Yoongi finally asks the question they’ve both been hoping to avoid. “But do we tell them?”

Emotions flicker across Hoseok’s face. The music shifts again, this time to Coldplay, a song that serves to deepen their reminiscence. He says, “How did they manage? Jin-hyung and Tae?”

Yoongi mutters, “I dunno.” Then he adds, “But I kinda get now why Jimin and Kook never officially came out because—”

“—it changes things,” Hoseok finishes.

“Yeah, but does it have to?” Yoongi asks. “Can we just… not… tell them?”

Hoseok says, “Oh, I have an idea.”

“Finally,” Yoongi says.

“We’ll continue on as we are,” Hoseok says. “And if they say anything, we’ll tell them we’ve been this way forever, and how self-involved are they that they’re only noticing now?”

Yoongi nods along until he hits the snag in Hoseok’s logic. “Yeeaah, Jin-hyung knows.”

“What? How?” Hoseok asks.

“I might’ve told him.”

“Ruined it,” Hoseok tsks. “It’s too bad. I liked that plan.”

“Oh, I’m still on board.” They spend a moment grinning dumbly at one another when Yoongi says, “I really liked this alone time with you.”

“Shh, don’t jinx it.”

It’s such a school-kid response, yet it sends a shiver straight through him. Yoongi goes, “So you’re as scared about all this as I am?”

“You know, you’d think so. I am scared of lots of things,” Hoseok says. “But never of you, and never of this.”

The words thunder on repeat in Yoongi’s brain, Do not fuck this up, do not fuck this up. And then there’s this nattering worry that maybe he already has. He gathers it all and strangles it down. “Well then,” Yoongi decides. “I guess we go home.”

Hoseok peers absently into his mug. The music shuffles from Coldplay to Kehlani. He says, “We do still have two hours.”

“Hm, true,” Yoongi agrees.

Hoseok flashes him his sunburst smile. It melts every remaining resistance away. Yoongi yawns, stretching in an effort to cover the sudden spike in his blood pressure. He edges from the barstool, feeling dizzy as Hoseok rounds the bar to take his hand. He’s leading him back across the cozy living room, back down the hall, back to the disheveled bed they’ve shared since New Year’s night.

He closes the door and presses Yoongi against it. Heat radiates from his skin. The places where they connect seem to smolder, and Yoongi drinks it in. The scent of him – sweat and raw muscles, yeah – but there’s a sweetness beneath it, caramel-rich and darkly intoxicating.  

“Well, Hope,” Yoongi says and Hoseok strips him out of his t-shirt, and Yoongi strips him out of his briefs. “I have a confession.”

Hoseok nips along his jaw, daring to dart his tongue into his ear. He says, “I’m listening.”

Yoongi pushes him back onto the bed. He climbs astride his naked thighs and grins down into the face of his best friend. “Yeah,” he says. “I’m afraid it’s all downhill from here.”

Hoseok smacks his ass and they tangle, drowning for a moment in each other and the bedclothes, until Hoseok comes up for air, and Yoongi realizes that they’re laughing. He never guessed it could be like this, not when sex had always been such aggressively serious business for him before. But then again, this might be another upside to falling for your best friend.

Chapter Text

"Even if the desert becomes cracked
No matter who shakes this world
Don't let go of the hand you're holding
Please don’t wake up from this dream.”
Euphoria, BTS

4 January 2018 – Dadaepo Beach – Busan

“Why do we keep doing this?” Jimin rattles through his teeth. Then he penguins up against Jungkook, burying his frozen nose into his neck.

This is why, Jungkook thinks, but he doesn’t speak it aloud. Like so many things between them now, it doesn’t require words. This trip to Dadaepo Beach, for example, which has become a kind of unspoken tradition. Every winter break, they make a pilgrimage to this windy, frigid strip of shoreline before returning home to Seoul.

Icy clouds marble the sky, setting the evening aglow. The briny tang of the sea braces in their noses and lungs, and a constant gale razes through their coats. Yet they willingly boarded two buses and endured a five-block hike to arrive here, where few would dare to venture, all for the sake of tradition.

Jimin dances along the lace-edged surf, singing to the waves as he teases close. Jungkook itches with the temptation to break out his camera, because Jimin’s doing it again: Being unmistakably, adorably him.

But Jungkook packed his camera on purpose. It’s in his carry-on bag, propped by the door of Jimin’s parents’ place, where they’ll return before taking the 10 p.m. train.

Then their time alone will abruptly cease, for as it happens, they’re splitting up for a while. For all of January through part of March, Jimin, Hoseok, and Taehyung will record and promote in Japan, while the other four will remain in Seoul, working on various projects at home.

Jungkook would like to think that this plan was solely motivated by business, that PD-nim, in his far-reaching wisdom, designed a schedule that would maximize their efforts in the Japanese market while meeting the needs of their creative team here.

After all, Yoongi’s far too entrenched in his studio to relocate to Tokyo. Namjoon’s busy setting up Mon World, and Seokjin starts another semester’s classes after Seollal. Taehyung, of course, is fluent in Japanese, so he’s a logical choice for filming. Plus, Hoseok has already passed off Hope World to Hyowon and Donghyuk for mixing, so him going to work with the Japanese songwriters makes sense.

Which leaves him and Jimin.

“Jungkookie, look,” Jimin shouts, waving to the sun. He cups his hands beneath it, causing Jungkook to wish again for his camera.

Jimin crouches, pretending to push the sun up above his head. “Ai, it’s so heavy!” he yells, laughing. “Come help me hold it up, so the day can keep going forever.”

“It’s too cold,” Jungkook protests. But he tags over, his eyes streaming, to play along with Jimin’s prevention of the sunset.

They gather close, Jimin’s breath warm on his cheek. He tiptoes up to brush his lips, and Jungkook tenses, worried that someone is watching, even though he knows that only fools would venture to the beach today. Jungkook lifts an arm around Jimin’s shoulder, guarding them against the cold and the eyes of passing strangers. He kisses him, savoring the mingled tastes of onions and spearmint, and the distinct, sweet flavor beneath that, which can only be his Jimin.

He wonders if it’s true, that a person only understands how much someone means to them when they’re afraid of losing them. He and Jimin have been apart before, but never quite this long. Jimin seems to be handling the idea far better than Jungkook, not that anyone would notice.

Jungkook’s been careful to hide it. That, and his shame. Because he knows it’s his fault. He’s the one to blame for this separation. Him, and his stupid camera.

Jimin shifts, moving to link their gloved fingers. He clumsily teases out his phone.

“Let’s get a selfie.” Jimin pulls off his glove with his teeth. He angles the camera, positioning the sun behind them, perched like a shining eye between their cheeks. He raises a V beneath their chins and snaps the frame. The afterimage burns black circles in Jungkook’s vision.

He had been so proud of his video of them in Tokyo. All of the footage he’d collected of Jimin and then distilled down into the sweetest, purest moments of their time together. Jimin dancing and eating and playing, alive with love and and laughter and light. Jungkook had chosen the perfect song and edited the scenes together with an artist’s touch, not really focused on how much of the story it would tell about them.

It had told a story, though. Enough that in December, after Jungkook posted the video online, Bang PD had pulled him aside. Casually, man to man.

He wasn’t in trouble, PD-nim had assured him of that. He wasn’t scolding him, and he wouldn’t ask him to take the video down (this time).

“But in the future,” Sihyuk had said, “I urge you to use more discretion. You’re not a child any more, and I expect more shrewdness of character. Now is a time for caution, not selfishness.”

Jungkook hadn’t thought of it that way, but in the days that followed, he re-watched the video and thought of Taehyung and Seokjin. Years ago now, in the throes of reckless adoration, Seokjin had kissed Taehyung on stage. Then someone sent seven seconds of blurry fancam to Bang Sihyuk, prompting their manager, Minyeong, to try and confiscate their phones.

In his panic, Seokjin had thrown his phone into the river, and Taehyung sent every photo, text, and video they ever exchanged to Jimin.

Jungkook didn’t understand their reactions then. For him, this had been an act of love, one of many he’d witnessed over the years. But he grew up seeing it from the inside, watching Seokjin and Taehyung grow and change together until they no longer resembled who they once had been.

His discussion with Bang PD forced Jungkook to look at them – and at Jimin and himself – from the outside. He had to admit to himself that, beneath the shelter of the staff and the other members, he’d become complacent. They could safely be themselves and in love within that bubble, but outside, the world could rip them apart.

So Jungkook didn’t tell Jimin about his conversation with Bang Sihyuk. He didn’t tell anyone, and he can no longer watch the video, which had given him such joy. He wishes he could take it down, but Jimin would never understand. Therefore, Jungkook has resolved to do what he can to make amends. Starting with what’s right in front of them.

“Hey, don’t post it, okay,” Jungkook says.

Jimin, too intuitive for his own good, scowls down at the screen. “How come?” he asks. “Don’t you like it? We’ll take another. Here.” He raises the phone, ready for second photo, but they’ve lost the sun now, and it’s time to go home.

“No, baby, it’s perfect,” Jungkook says, brushing Jimin’s nose with his own. “But let’s let this one be just for us.”

Chapter Text

“If you’re lonely, it’s because you’re looking down.
Raise your chin and you’ll know know that people love you.”
Seokjin’s fortune cookie, 32nd Annual Golden Disk Awards

11 January 2018 - Seoul - Backstage at the Golden Disk Awards

Seokjin tugs into his jeans and tucks in his pockets. He’s hunting for his phone and his battery pack – and did Jungkook take his headphones again? – when Namjoon yells that their cars are here. They’ve wrapped their filming for the Golden Disk Awards, which means they get to eat. He’ll meet the others, and they’ll all go to dinner, but first, he has to find his belongings.

“Yep,” Seokjin calls back, reaching for his hoodie and searching for his shoes. He finds his phone on the back of the sofa, drained down to four percent. Several interns bustle and clamor around him, zipping up garment bags and lifting out empty trays. He catches an intern and asks, “Have you seen my battery pack?”

“Sorry,” she says, “I think Jimin-ssi has it.”

Befuddled, he opens a chat window, muttering, “We don’t even have the same phone,” when a pair of assistants squeeze around him with a cart still piled with pastries. Seokjin gets a whiff of the sugar, and his stomach grumbles. If they’re going to get food, it needs to be soon, because donuts are not the answer. Not with Muster two days away and the Seoul Music Awards next week. He and Taehyung gorged too much on ramen and rice cakes during their private holiday, and though they tried their best to work everything off, he can feel the added weight when he dances. And that is not okay.

Neither is Jimin taking his battery pack without permission. He’s typing this to Jimin as he stuffs his feet into his loafers, shuffling into them and then into the hall where he promptly bumps headlong into someone.

That someone roughly shoves him back before going, “Oh. It’s you.”

“Yah,” Seokjin says, sneering. “What do you want?”

The someone hooks his thumbs into his belt loops. “I was hoping to tempt my way into Taehyung’s heart, but it seems I’ve found his protector instead.” Seokjin stares at him, steadfastly refusing to show any sign of weakness, when Hyungsik goes, “Eh, you’ll do,” and yanks Seokjin into a hug.

“Hey,” Seokjin yells, cuffing his shoulder. “I am spoken for.”

“So I’ve heard,” Hyungsik says.

Seokjin loops an arm around his shoulder, guiding Hyungsik down the hall. “Taehyung-ah’s probably at the car. We try to rein him in early since he’s the likeliest to wander off.” They dip around a tailor hurrying along the corridor with stacks of sequined jackets draped across her arms.

“I have witnessed this myself,” Hyungsik says. “Chasing him must be a full-time job.”

“But it is never boring,” Seokjin says. His phone bleeps. It’s a selfie of Jimin, pouting at the camera. His text reads, I thought it was Hoseokie-hyung’s, I’m sorry!

Seokjin rolls his eyes as he responds with, Where is Hoseok’s charger?

Jimin sends back, IDK and another selfie, this one an exaggerated shrug with his index finger resting on his chin.

Seeing this, Hyungsik chuckles. He says, “You have your hands full.”

A swell of protectiveness rises in Seokjin, even if he knows he can’t debate Hyungsik’s point. On their very best days, they are a handful and then some. But Jimin’s grown up so much in the last few years, it almost brings tears to Seokjin’s eyes.

He pockets his phone. When he’s sure his voice won’t crack and betray him, he says, “Yeah, I’m the hyung, but I am definitely not alone.”

“No, I can see that,” Hyungsik says. They come to the end of a hallway flanked with dressing suites and hang a left to find Namjoon waiting at the stairwell.

“The elevators are swamped,” Namjoon explains as he opens the door for them. “I figure this is the quickest way to the garage.”

“What’s the hurry?” Hyungsik asks. “Got another broadcast or secret stage?”

“No, they’re ravenous,” Namjoon explains as they hurry down the steps. “If we don’t feed JK soon, he might make a snack out of Yoongi.”

“Then there goes one-third of our rapline,” Seokjin says. “And then where would we be?”

“Probably in jail for cannibalism,” Hyungsik says. At the landing, he pauses to catch Namjoon’s sleeve. “I’m Hyungsik, by the way,” he says.

“Right, right, I remember,” Namjoon says, his eyes widening. He bows, flushing slightly. “I mean, I know who you are, and it’s nice to meet you, properly.”

Hyungsik glances from Seokjin to Namjoon.

Seokjin tugs nervously at his ear. He says, “Joon-ah helped me with the ambush on the night of the Melon Awards.”

“Hm.” Hyungsik’s grin never falters. “That.”

“Yeah, man, I apologize,” Namjoon says, squinching up his eyes.“We thought something else was going on entirely.”

“Hey, no hard feelings,” Hyungsik says. “You’ve got each other’s backs. Can’t fault you for that. However...”

Namjoon sends a wary look to Seokjin. Seokjin responds with wincing grin.

“Revenge is sweet,” Hyungsik finishes.

“Yah, revenge?” Seokjin says, laughing. He chucks Hyungsik on the shoulder again. “Can you believe this guy?”

“A little bit, yeah,” Namjoon admits.

“No, he’s joking,” Seokjin says, though he feels due for some teasing from Hyungsik. After all, he did threaten him with physical violence on the night of their first meeting. But he’s been out with Hyungsik and Taehyung three times now, so he’s certain they’re okay.

“I really thought he was going to thrash me,” Hyungsik explains to Namjoon.

Never one for exaggeration, Namjoon admits, “I really thought he might, too.” Then he adds, “And if you had hurt our Taehyung, I would’ve helped.”

Hyungsik leans on the handrail. He says, “See, that’s what we’ve got in common. We’re all looking out for our V.”

“Yep,” Seokjin says. “That’s true.”

“So.” Hyungsik steps past them, continuing down the stairs. “Mind if I whisk him off tonight? We’re supposed to have a call with Seojoon.”

“He is his own man,” Seokjin says. “He can go with you if he wants.”

“I think this is our level,” Namjoon calls down. He pushes between them, opening the door to the car park, where dozens of SUVs and passenger vans wait in the exit queue. Above the engine noise and the jumbled mix of music pouring from the various sound systems, a number of voices shout in celebration.

Amused, Hyungsik murmurs, “Party in the parking garage?”

Namjoon consults his phone. “This way,” he says. A second later, a feral screech fills the garage, followed by incoherent shouting, followed by what sounds like a diesel train chugging toward them. Seokjin flattens against the wall as Jungkook and Taehyung pound up the concrete, darting between idling vehicles in a wild effort to reach Namjoon first. Jungkook wins, narrowly missing Hyungsik and Seokjin as he crashes into the wall.

“Hyung, we’re hungry,” Jungkook pants, looping Seokjin’s arm over his shoulder to drag him forward. Taehyung wedges between them, displacing Jungkook, who goes to tug on Namjoon instead.

Seokjin gestures wordlessly to Hyungsik. Upon noticing him, Taehyung crushes him into a hug.

“When did you get here?” Taehyung asks. The five of them fall into step as Jungkook leads the way to their vans.

“Well, I was a presenter,” Hyungsik said.

“No, I know,” Taehyung says. He slings his arms over Seokjin’s and Hyungsik’s shoulders. “But I thought you’d be gone by now.”

“Nah, I wanted to come congratulate you,” Hyungsik says.  “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Namjoon says, and Jungkook raises his hand. They descend to the lower level, where they spy Hoseok dancing in an empty parking spot while Jimin films from between their cars. Yoongi lolls from the back window, languidly waving a streamer of confetti in Hoseok’s direction.

“There they are,” Seokjin says, breaking away from Taehyung to wave at Yoongi and Jimin.

Hyungsik turns to Taehyung. “You wanna grab dinner?” Hyungsik asks. “I told Seojoon we’d FaceTime.”

Taehyung reaches for Seokjin’s forearm before he gets too far away. “How long do we have before the cars get out of this garage?”

Seokjin does a quick mental calculation. “About twenty minutes?”

Taehyung nods He says, “I really wanna do the call. But can we reschedule dinner for later? Like, maybe next week?”

“Sure, yeah,” Hyungsik says. “Let’s do that. Good?” He glances at Seokjin, and Seokjin gets it. It’s not about permission; Hyungsik’s trying to honor their relationship. It’s the first time anyone outside their own group has made such an effort, and Seokjin feels quietly gratified.

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “Good.”

“All right,” Hyunsik says. “Let’s go upstairs. It’s too noisy out here to make a call.”

“A quick call,” Jungkook reminds them.

“For Yoongi’s sake,” Namjoon adds, giving Hyungsik a wink.

Hyungsik and Taehyung part. Jungkook, Namjoon, and Seokjin climb into one of the cars and Jimin slings in beside them. “Is Taehyungie going with that Hyungsik guy?” he asks, not able to mask his disappointment.

“He’ll be back,” Seokjin says, patting Jimin’s knee. “They’re just making a call.”

“Good.” Jimin puffs up, pleased. Then he goes, “Oh, Hobi-hyung has your battery pack, but I’ve got his. Here.” He pulls it from his pocket. “You guys can trade back later.”

Seokjin takes out his phone and plugs in his charger. The screen brightens, and almost immediately, he receives a text from Taehyung. It says, Jinnie, wait for me.

You know I will, Seokjin writes back. He sets his phone aside and joins in the dinner discussion, warmed by the knowledge that his Taehyung has returned.  

Chapter Text

“Say it all. Get it out.
Let it go.”
Love Myself, Velvetears

(These videos: 1 - Hyungsik shouts out to Taehyung 2 -   Seokjin claims Taehyung )

25 January 2018 - Seoul

The cold knifes through their goosedown coats as if they’re made of cotton. The sky above is a bleak, blank gray pockmarked with blurry stars. Seokjin has discovered, to his dismay, that he has lost all feeling in his toes, and that he can’t squeeze the hot packs in his pockets if he’s also holding a paper cup of tea. Nor can he wipe his nose, which runs freely and has probably chafed to a vivid, stoplight red. Also, his hips ache, which means it’s probably going to sleet.

Yet Hyungsik and Seojoon plow along to yet another divey Gwangjang restaurant in search of the perfect tteokguk, even if it’s technically still too early for New Year’s soup.

“This is it,” Seojoon says as they bundle into a greasy booth in the back corner of an all-night bar.

“Hyung, that’s what you said about the last three places,” Taehyung says. He passes tin cups around the table, and as the youngest, he sets about pouring them each a splash of water.

“No no no,” Hyungsik corrects. “He said the last place had the best mandu.”

“And it did not,” Seokjin puts in.

“No, I will agree that place has gone down in quality since my uni days,” Seojoon says. “But the Soju was good.”

“The Soju is always good,” Hyungsik says.

“We need more,” Taehyung says. He’s beaming flamingo pink beneath his sweater cap. In the uncertain shadows of the bar, Seokjin can only see the shine of his cheeks and the tip of his nose. He cranes up out of the seat to beckon to the lone bartender, who huffs as he crosses to their table, like he’s already put out with the only four patrons in his bar.

Hyungsik orders Soju and cream beer. Seojoon orders their soup. Then for a moment they bask in the sweaty warmth of the space heater while Seokjin tries to remember what it was like to feel his toes.

Taehyung slides his hand under the table and begins to knead the muscle of Seokjin’s thigh. He’s slightly beyond the border of drunk tonight. But he’s exuberant, bursting with light like a fuse that’s lit and throwing off sparks.

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says. “I haven’t seen you drink this much since… since Japan, I think, when was that?”

“Two years,” Taehyung says. He sips his water.

“Two years, no,” Seojoon says. “He drank with us.”

“Had to,” Hyungsik says. “ Hwarang production dinners, all those meetings and wrap parties.”

“Every filming day, a wrap party!” Seojoon adds.

The bartender trundles over with their soup and drinks, plunking them all down like it pains him to do so. Still, Seokjin and Taehyung thank him, because it’s late, and it’s cold, and they’re the foolish ones who braved the mid-winter ice in search of Seojoon’s favorite soup.

“I didn’t drink then,” Taehyung says. He cracks the seal on the beer bottle and pours a cup for Seojoon.

“No, you must have,” Hyungsik says. “We all did. I remember you getting tipsy.”

“Once,” Taehyung says. “On champagne. At the very, very end.”

“Int’resting,” Seojoon says.

Taehyung pours, and they toast before drinking. And then, the moment of truth, they sample the soup.

“Nope,” Seojoon declares.

“Uh, no,” Hyungsik agrees.

“Hyung can make better than this,” Taehyung says, poking Seokjin’s shoulder.

“Oh, I definitely can,” Seokjin says. “Is this laundry water?”

“It might be.” Hyungsik grimaces. “Next on the list?”

Seojoon sighs. “A place near Yeouido, kinda far.” 

“Then more drinks first,” Hyungsik proclaims.

“More drinks!” Seojoon and Taehyung chorus together, and the bartender hisses a long-suffering sigh.

When it’s time to pay the check, Hyungsik’s the one to snag it. “The price of my revenge,” he says, grinning at Seokjin.

“That’s nonsense,” Seokjin says, but he finds Taehyung gazing at him, looking dazed and lovesick, and his heart lurches. Because six hours ago, Hyungsik proclaimed on an awards show his belief that Taehyung is the most handsome man in the world. Seokjin's response to this baffled him, because he's not a jealous person; he’s really not. But at the end of their performance, in front of everyone, Seokjin snatched Taehyung up in what can only be described as a fiercely possessive embrace. Then, into the skin of Taehyung's neck, he whispered, “Never forget, my love. You are mine.”

And Taehyung’s been giving him these sappy, lovelorn glances ever since.

 

By the time their taxi arrives in Yeouido, it’s after 2 a.m. Most of the street-front stalls have buttoned up for the night in anticipation of the plummeting cold. The thin ice clouds have blown north, leaving the city crisply exposed, and the temperature drops from unpleasant to punishing.

Yet here they are, stumping through sleepy riverside alleys in search of… Seokjin can’t even remember. They’re drinking warm persimmon wine now, from white mugs Seokjin worries they may have taken from a restaurant without permission. But every time he thinks about returning them, he realizes he no longer knows where they are.

He’s lagging behind but still within earshot when they crest the street to come upon the river. There’s practically no traffic, so Hyungsik and Seojoon cross the middle of the road, jogging to keep the wine from sloshing from their cups. After a moment’s hesitation, Taehyung follows, only looking back at Seokjin once he’s safely across.

“Yah, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin mutters to himself. “Did you learn nothing from our highlight reels?” He double checks the street, and finding nothing but a lone recycling truck, he dashes over to join Taehyung. They link their arms, huddling for warmth, as they fall into pace behind Hyungsik and Seojoon.

Getting his bearings, Seokjin asks, “You remember this bridge?”

Taehyung squints, attempting to focus his bleary eyes. “We came here on our first date,” he whispers.

“You remember that?”

“So clearly,” Taehyung says. “We had waffles with cream, and Jimin texted us, and we lied to him.”

“We did,” Seokjin remembers. “We told him we were seeing a movie.”

“Well we did make videos,” Taehyung says, and Seokjin smacks his arm.

“Porn stars,” Seokjin says, and they hold onto each other, trying to stifle their laughter.

Seojoon pauses to let them catch up. He loops his arm around Taehyung’s waist and slurs, “What’re we laughing about?”

“Our acting careers,” Seokjin says.

Hyungsik drops back to Seokjin’s side. “Yeah, about that.” He has to think for a second, one finger in the air, before he goes, “You’ve got an acting degree, and you’re ridiculously good-looking.”

“True,” Seokjin says.

“So why haven’t you debuted?”

“After Taehyung-ah’s horror stories?” Seokjin asks. “No. Someday, yes. But for now, I think I can wait.”

Taehyung nudges his hip. “Plus we get the chance to act in our MVs, right hyung?”

“And we’re so busy,” Seokjin adds.

“Oh, true, you guys are the busiest men in Korea,” Seojoon says.

“Says you, Mr. Movie Star,” Hyungsik chuckles. “You’re in everything right now.”

Seojoon shrugs. “What can I say? I am handsome and well-liked.”

“Still,” Seokjin says. The Soju and wine blur in his blood. It feels like it takes him forever to get his head around what he wants to say. “I’m grateful, for you helping our VV. He came to us so upset. We said we couldn’t help, but that we'd be there to support him. He had a hard time, and you helped.”

“Not us so much,” Hyungsik says.

“More Minho than us,” Seojoon agrees.

“Yeah.” Hyungsik nods. “Minho.”

The name works its way down through the Soju haze, where it strikes Seokjin like a thunderclap. He stops on the sidewalk, and Seojoon and Hyungsik walk on, dragging Taehyung with them a few more steps before he turns to face Seokjin.

“Hyung?” he says.

“Minho.” He mouths the name, and he knows. “It was Minho, wasn’t it?”

Taehyung’s eyes betray everything. He stands there, wordless, his gloved fingers opening and closing at his sides.

“Hyung,” he says again. He looks helpless, like a small black bird with wings too weak for flight.

Seojoon calls back to them. Seokjin says, “Go on, we’ll catch up.” Seojoon nods as he and Hyungsik stumble their way across the dead grass toward the river.

“I should have told you,” Taehyung mumbles. He rubs his nose on the back of his hand.

Seokjin wants to run. He has to fight to stand his ground. He says, “You can tell me now.”

Chapter Text

“How could I love you right?
You knew I didn’t love myself.”
Love Myself, Velvetears

26 January 2018 - Seoul

Taehyung pans a slow half-circle. He takes in the bridge and the black river beyond, the city glowing through its shroud of mist like something from a distant dream. He presses his hands together, touching them to his lips like a prayer. “It was here,” he murmurs, nodding. Tears fill his eyes. “It happened here.”

“Wait,” Seokjin says, backing away. “Maybe this isn’t the best place for—”

“—Jin-ah.” Taehyung rushes forward. He takes Seokjin’s hand in his. “Please.”

“I’m okay,” Seokjin says. “Of course, it’s Minho. Only, I’ve met him. Remember? We met him last winter, and he was charming—”

“—It is not what you think,” Taehyung says.

“But you kissed him,” Seokjin says. His voice is too loud. His breath snags in his throat. He can’t—

“Yes,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin touches his fingers to his forehead. Then he remembers the white mug in his hand, and the hot, sweet wine inside it. He downs it fast, spluttering as it ignites in his throat. Then he throws the mug and it bounces down the dry grass mound, rolling to a stop at the sidewalk’s edge. Irritated, Seokjin goes to scoop it up. He cradles it close to his body before scowling back at Taehyung. “Well,” he snaps. “What else?”

Taehyung stares for a moment, his forehead creased with concern. He says, slowly, “Please understand, hyung. I was… confused. And lost. And very, very drunk.”

“Drunk?” Seokjin again fights the urge to run. “You were drunk?

“I…” A tear splashes down Taehyung’s cheek. “I hated who I was. I hated what I was feeling, so I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to lose that me, and I didn’t know how. So I did everything I could that was unlike me.”

“Everything?” Seokjin gulps.

“Not everything,” Taehyung says. He takes a step forward. Seokjin steps back.

“Then what?”

Taehyung says, “We went to a place in Sinchon.”

“No. Taehyung-ah. No.”

“It was happening so fast,” Taehyung says. His voice sounds thready, like it’s so frayed it’s going to break. “He bit me, here,” he says. He touches his thumb to the spot on his neck. “And then he touched me and I… I panicked, hyung. Because I let it go too far. Me. I let it go too far. I let that happen.” His eyes shine with stolen street light. He covers his face. “I stopped him. But I shouldn’t have been there. Why was I even there?”

Taehyung lowers his hands. Seokjin’s standing there, his shoulders slumped like some of the air’s gone out of him. Taehyung can only think of holding him, of brushing the cold from his skin.

Seokjin asks, “Do you love him?”

“No,” Taehyung answers, honestly. “It was never like that.”

Biting out every syllable, Seokjin asks, “Then what was it like?”

“I don’t know.” Taehyung’s shoulders lift. “Temptation? Something forbidden, something different?”

“Stop,” Seokjin growls. “Please stop.”

“But you asked.”

“I know I did, shut up,” Seokjin shouts.

Taehyung stares into Seokjin’s face. He knows him well enough to understand that when he’s truly angry, he moves beyond tears. So it is no surprise that his eyes are dry.

Even so, Seokjin’s voice hitches when he’s finally able to speak. “Taehyung-ah,” he says. “I’m going to need some time.”

“Well... How long?”

“You don’t get to ask,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung can hear his own breathing. He can hear traffic sounds on the bridge, and the distant rumble of a train. There’s the wind from the river, and somewhere far off, the clamor of a siren bleeding into the night. He closes his eyes and sees the lantern he released here on the banks of the river, four months and a lifetime ago. Remembering the words he scrawled, he speaks them now, knowing they have never been more true.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Seokjin stares into the empty cup. “Me too.” He staggers a few paces before turning to amble back the way they came.

Taehyung wrestles with indecision. Sure, Seokjin said he needs time, but Taehyung can’t let him just wander aimlessly around Hangang Park. Also, Seojoon and Hyungsik linger at the river’s edge, and if they caught anything of what just happened, they’re probably worried about them.

But it’s stupid. Taehyung already knows what he has to do, so he wastes no more time in doing it.

 

Seokjin makes it to the base of the steps that lead up to the bridge before he realizes that he’s lost and too drunk to help himself. Also it’s cold as hell, and his boyfriend kissed someone else, which he already knew, but he didn’t know who, and now that he knows, it’s all he can see. Choi Minho, kissing his Taehyung.

“Shit,” Seokjin gasps. He presses the cool mug to his forehead and leans on the icy handrail. He said he didn’t want to know, and this is why.

“Hyung.” Taehyung’s at his elbow.

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Don’t, then. Let me take you home.”

“No.” Seokjin cringes away, but he doesn’t leave. After a heartbeat, Taehyung slips an arm around his waist to guide him. Since it’s in the direction Seokjin already wants to go, he allows it.

Halfway up the steps, Seokjin says, “You left your friends.”

“They’re our friends,” Taehyung says. “I told them you weren’t feeling well.”

“Because of you.” Seokjin sniffs.

“I thought you didn’t want to talk.”

“I don’t.” Seokjin swallows a sob. “Pabo.

Taehyung gets him to the top of the stairs. It’s not long before they hail a taxi. Taehyung slides in beside Seokjin, careful to give him space, but Seokjin crowds against him, his whole body shuddering from the cold. The sweetness of the persimmon wine radiates from his skin, and his cheeks glow pink in the sallow cab light. Taehyung puts his arm around him, gripping him tighter than he has ever dared in public. Seokjin cups the mug between his palms, holding it in his lap like a sleeping kitten.

His voice gruff, Seokjin says, “It’s for my tears.”

“The mug?”

Seokjin coughs what might be a laugh, though Taehyung believes that might be wishful thinking. Then Seokjin asks, “Where’s yours?”

“My... what?” Then Taehyung remembers. He had a mug, too. They all did. They took them from some restaurant, where Seojoon promised the sweet, old ahjumma they'd return them someday. “I don’t know,” Taehyung admits. “I must’ve set it down somewhere.”

“Figures.” Seokjin turns his face to his. His eyes are swollen, his face, puffy. Taehyung gingerly smooths a wisp of Seokjin’s bangs caught in the edge of his lashes.

Shivering, Seokjin says, “Lonely little mug.”   

An ache twists in Taehyung’s heart. “I love you so much,” he says.

“I love you, too,” Seokjin answers. “And I’m really upset with you.”

Taehyung nods. He squeezes his eyes shut, dashing a few hot tears onto their hands. Seokjin presses against him, and they ride the rest of the way home in silence. Taehyung’s mind is a tumult of noise, and within that riot, there rests a quiet truth. He understands that loving Seokjin means he has to give him what he needs, even if it means that isn’t him.

Chapter Text

“I wonder what you can see at the end of this crossroad.
I wonder what you can see when you pass this obstacle.
It feels good just taking this first rough step.”
Switch, NCT 127

2 February 2018 - Jamsil (Episode 40 of Run)

The first night at Seokjin's brother’s place, he and Seokjung gorge on pizza and video games until 4 a.m. It was mindless fun, but it wrecks his 7 a.m. camera call. He arrives at the studio, puffy-eyed from the massive amounts of salt and Soju he’d consumed the night before, only to find Taehyung in a similar state of dishevelment.

They both smell like day-old grease and slept-in sweatsuits, but Taehyung looks like he’s watched Grave of the Fireflies by himself again, something he promised he would never, ever do. Sensing the tension, Jimin hovers around like a well-meaning honeybee. Once everyone meets in the dressing room to change into their hanboks, all they can do is small-talk about Namjoon’s impending surgery and where everyone is going for the holiday.

It’s a fake topic, though – Jimin’s attempt to keep things light and friction free. Everybody knows they’ll visit their childhood homes for Seollal. Barring the rare filming opportunity or severe family disagreements, it’s the one holiday they always try to keep.

Last night, Seokjung told Seokjin that this year, he intends to bring his girlfriend to meet their grandparents. This news aches in Seokjin like swallowed glass. He wants to share it with Taehyung, but he holds on to it, as if this one shard of personal news will keep all the other pieces of himself from fracturing apart.

It’s easier once they’re in their hanboks, because putting on a costume helps him to maintain his icy veneer of professionalism. As they migrate to the set to film their Seollal episode of Run, Seokjin resolves to do as Jimin does. He doesn’t ignore Taehyung, but he doesn’t engage with him either. Instead, he teases and plays with Jimin and Jungkook, who are more than willing to joke around with their hyung for the sake of filming.

Yet Taehyung is not okay. He gets upset during a game of yutnori, tossing his shoes and retreating to the sidelines to sulk. The camera crew continues to film, steamrolling over the incident to keep to their deadline. Seokjin casts a sickened look to Namjoon, who can only raise his shoulders in disbelief. Distantly, sorely, Seokjin wonders how the editors plan to handle it.

He hates that this is how it’s happening. He hates how perverse it is that he and Taehyung are silently imploding, but they have to be here, in front of everyone, without any hope of grace or reprieve.

After wrapping the episode, Seokjin hides in the washroom where he calls his brother from the stall.

Not bothering to mask his surprise, Seokjung asks, “What? Two nights in a row?”

Seokjin exhales a shaky sigh. “It’s not too much of an inconvenience, is it?”

“Not at all, Jin-Jin,” Seokjung says. “I’ve got a work thing tonight, but you should come. It’ll be fun, hanging with the normals.”

“I’m a normal,” Seokjin says. Even to his own ears, the words ring false.

“Little brother, you never, ever were,” Seokjung teases. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Seokjin listens for the others in the corridor. His knees feel weak, his heartbeat erratic, but once he can talk without the warble of tears in his voice, he calls Sejin to drive him to his brother’s.


That evening, they go out with Seokjung’s friends, all young professionals Seokjung’s age and older, schoolmates who have made headway into their various fields of business. Some of them have done their military service, but most are like him and Seokjung, biding their time until conscription.

During dinner, they drink enough to fill a swimming pool. They talk about business and girls while eating a metric ton of precious Korean beef. They harass the young server, asking her repeatedly if she’s married, even though she’s told them multiple times that she is not.

None of them tease Seokjin or even mention the fact that he’s an idol. In a way, it’s freeing. It lets him pretend he’s someone else. He feels safe within this circle of borrowed friends, insulated and protected, and he imagines a simpler life like the one his brother lives.

Halfway through dinner, one of Seokjung’s friends – Injung or Jaehwa – leans over to Seokjin to say, “Hey, I saw your friend last week.”

Chuckling, Seokjin says, “Of the two that I have, you mean?”

“You know the one.” He mimes at his shoulders, sweeping the motion over his chest. Seokjin thinks he means pigtails, which confuses him, until he realizes the man means breasts, and then he’s momentarily mortified.

The young man sends a blurry look to Seokjung for support. “You know the one, Jung-ssi? She went to grade school with you in Gwacheon.”

“Hahn Minha,” Seokjung says, patting Seokjin’s shoulder. “Yeah, our families have been friends since forever. Hey, Jin-Jin, you ever thought of asking Minnie out? She’s really sweet, and you’ve always gotten along so well.”

Seokjin chokes on the lump of meat he’s been chewing. He coughs and coughs until another of Seokjung’s friends passes him a cup of water. But even after drinking it, Seokjin cannot catch his breath. He excuses himself and slips outside to get some air.

He leans in the corner of the restaurant’s cramped patio, feeling the icy metal handrail bite into his hip. He feels disconnected now, even as he breathes through the tightness in his chest.

He takes out his phone and reads a pair of messages from the property agent with whom he’s been consulting over the last two days. In response to his inquiry, she sent him a quote and specs on the villa, and in the second message, she sent him the date of availability. If he can get the money together, Seokjin could move in by March 15th.

The question isn’t so much about money at this point, but nerve. Yes, Hoseok bought a place of his own already, but it’s not as though he lives there. This would be a bold move on Seokjin’s part, one that could be seen as a statement, and he’s not certain he’s ready for that.

The scrape of the sliding door jolts him back to reality. Seokjung waves sympathetically as he steps out into the cold.

Seokjin folds his phone into his pocket.

“Sorry about that,” Seokjung says, settling against the railing.

Seokjin waves it off.

“It’s a good thought, though,” Seokjung says. “You and Minnie.”

Seokjin’s heart rustles at what his brother is suggesting. “Sure,” he says, coolly, “except that I’m hopelessly in love with my boyfriend.”

Seokjung sucks his teeth. “You’re still on that?” he asks.

Seokjin strains to keep his tone even. “Yes, I’m still on that. He is the love of my life.”

Seokjung reclines against the opaque glass door. “Except you’re young, so how can you know?”

Seokjin blinks, mystified. This is a topic he and his brother have tacitly agreed to avoid, so why the hell is he bringing it up now? “Let me ask,” Seokjin says. “Is your problem with Taehyung, or with me being gay?”

“C’mon,” Seokjung says in a low voice, like the whispers of a conspiracy.

“No, hyung,” Seokjin says. “Please answer the question.”

“You’re not gay,” Seokjung says.

Seokjin hums out a laugh. “My four-year relationship with a man begs to differ.”

“No,” Seokjung says. He leans close, as if he’s sharing a secret. “Your time in Australia refutes it,” he whispers. “We all heard the stories. You were a legend.”

“Rumors,” Seokjin scoffs. “Most of which can be attributed to my… size.” He cringes at the sheer audacity of this conversation.

His brother jabs him in his ribs. “We have that in common,” he jokes. “We come from a… prominent family.”

“Hyung,” Seokjin says. “Lots of things happened in Australia, not just with girls.”

“So you’re experimental,” Seokjung says, but then he frowns like he’s not sure that’s a consolation.

And this is when Seokjin decides he’s had enough of this discussion. He kicks away from the handrail, heading for the door.

His brother snags his shoulder. “Look, you know me,” he says. “I’m not against the gays. But I don’t want to encourage any delusions that you and he might have a life together.”

Seokjin knows he’s being disrespectful as he yanks away from him. He tugs the door open, lilting out a warm wave of smoke and conversation across the patio.

Seokjung holds up his hands. “I only think you should consider your future—”

“—You think I haven’t?” Seokjin barks, realizing in that moment that he is far too close to tears.

Fortunately, Seokjung doesn’t notice. He says, “And if he’s the so-called love of your life, then why are you staying with me?”

A smirk twists Seokjin’s lips. “Can’t I visit my hyung?” he asks.

“Three years I’ve lived there, Jin-Jin. You’ve never spent more than an evening.”

“That’s because your friends are…” Seokjin trails off, catching himself before landing on the right word.

“Please do tell me what my friends are, since yours are so perfect.”

“They’re assholes, Jungie-hyung. Your friends are assholes.”

“Welcome to Corporate Korea,” Seokjung deadpans. Then, “No. You know what? They might look like jerks, but they’re only out to get what’s theirs, same as anybody else. And that could be your life, too. You know there’s still a chance. You can literally get any girl you want. You could have a wife, a family—”

“—You’re the oldest,” Seokjin shouts. “You have the family. And you never know. We might have kids. Taehyung-ah wants kids.”

Seokjung darts a wary eye into the restaurant. Tightly, he says, “No one’s gonna give you children, Jin.”

“They will in America,” Seokjin says, proud of the note of defiance in his tone.

“Yeah,” Seokjung says. “I wouldn’t bet on that.”

“You know," Seokjin has to swallow. "I thought you’d be different. After what I endured with our parents, I thought you would be more understanding.”

“Don’t be that way,” Seokjung says. He labors with the door, trying to drag it closed. Seokjin braces it open, letting the cold seep inside, hoping to disturb the warm, calm patrons within.

“And how should I be?” Seokjin asks. He stares at Seokjung’s circle of friends, their duplicate suits, their matching haircuts. Did he really think he could be safe in there with them? “Everyone seems content to tell me how I should live,” he goes on. “But hyung, I think I’ve done well enough on my own.”

“Don’t be mad,” Seokjung says.

“Don’t tell me how to feel,” Seokjin snaps.

“Fine,” his brother bites back. Then, quieter, he adds, “Seriously. Seokjin. What is going on?”

Seokjin sags against the door. The whole point of hanging out with his brother had been to avoid thinking about that one thing: what is going on with Taehyung. Then, all at once, Seokjin realizes that he’s no longer mad. 

He had been. He’d been furious. He’d been sick with rage and regret, but somehow, when he wasn’t looking, the anger evaporated, gone the way of winter frost and puddles beneath the sun. He had wanted to run and hide and drink until he could no longer stand, but none of that would help them, and anyway, that's over. Now, all he wants is to go home. But Seokjin realizes that his idea of this has changed. Home has begun to take on a different shape, and he only needed some time away to understand it.

“I had to think through a few things,” Seokjin answers, his words ponderous and soft. “To make a plan, without distractions.”

“We’ve had almost non-stop distractions from the moment you arrived,” Seokjung quips.

“I know,” Seokjin agrees. “And thank you. But I think, now, it’s time for me to go.”

His brother’s face clouds. “What? No. Jin-Jin, you just got here.”

“I have some things I need to do,” Seokjin says. “I’ll take a taxi back to your place. I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“I can drive you,” Seokjung offers.

Seokjin can see his brother is trying to salvage the night. He allows that maybe, in his slightly inebriated state, Seokjung said more than he intended. On some level, he also gets that everything Seokjung said, he said out of concern. But Seokjin can’t take care of his brother’s feelings while tending to his own.

“No,” Seokjin says. “I need to be alone. I’ll message when I get there.”

Resigned, Seokjung pushes his glasses up his nose. “All right,” he says. “You know the door code?”

“Yes, hyung. I know the code.”   

On his way out of the restaurant, Seokjin stops to settle his bill. He toys with the idea of picking up the tab for the whole party. He could. Easily. He makes enough money to buy the meals for every person in the place.

But that’s his pride talking, and he knows it. Whatever their differences, Seokjung doesn’t deserve that kind of disrespect. So Seokjin pays his portion and returns to Seokjung’s apartment alone.

Chapter Text

“The distance between us,
It sharpens me like a knife.”
Hold Me Tight, or Don't, Fall Out Boy

4 February 2018 - Jamsil

Eomuk and Odeng flit beneath their thick canopy of leaves as Seokjin attempts to lift one of them from their cage. He coos softly, trying to soothe them, but it’s no use. It’s one of those violently bright February days outside, and Seokjung’s apartment seems to be made entirely of windows.

His brother comes in from the hallway, still chattering about a news report he saw about the crumbling infrastructure of southeast Seoul, pausing long enough to flick a switch on the wall. There’s a juddering sound as a bank of blackout curtains unfurl down the length of the windows, slicing out the brightness like a blade. Seokjung continues to elaborate on the gentrification of Gildong as he comes to crouch at Seokjin’s side.

It seems, Seokjin thinks, that in times of crisis, Seokjung does as everyone else in our family does. He pretends it didn’t happen in the hopes that it will go away.

“Anyway,” Seokjung says, plucking Odeng from his hanging topiary. “Did Abeoji talk with you about our latest venture?”

“Hm, no,” Seokjin says. “We haven’t talked about anything other than going to Grandma’s for Seollal.”

“You are going, right?”

“Of course,” Seokjin says. He and Seokjung share an awkward moment, reliving their last Seollal when their father steadfastly refused to speak to Seokjin. Even though they both remember it, neither of them says a word. Seokjin eases Odeng from Seokjung’s palm, nuzzling his nose before easing him into his sling. Odeng nestles into it, curling up to fuss with his tail.

“It’s a business deal. You'll want in on it.” He crouches beside Seokjin, tapping on the cage to get Eomuk’s attention. Eomuk burrows further into the greenery.

Seokjin smirks. “Why?” he asks. “Because I bought land in Daegu and you want to develop it?”

“No,” Seokjung says, brushing off the idea. But it’s too quick and too dismissive, which means his brother has at least given it a passing thought. Seokjung is enough like their father to recognize a business opportunity when he sees it.

“So what is it?” Seokjin asks.

“Restaurants,” Seokjung says. “Two of them.”

“Really?” Seokjin smooths his palm over the outside of the sling to comfort Odeng, who has begun to rut around in search of Eomuk.

“Don’t sound so shocked,” Seokjung says. “It’s part of Apa’s expansion into more tangible holdings.”

“But you’re an architect,” Seokjin reasons. He reaches into the cage, cupping one hand under the topiary.

“And you’re a pop idol with a degree in business—”

“—film arts,” Seokjin corrects.

“I mean your masters,” Seokjung says.

“Which I haven’t completed,” Seokjin says.

Eomuk scuffles to the topiary’s edge, nudging against Seokjin’s thumb. Seokjin kisses encouragingly toward him, but the sugar glider remains perched and immovable. Seokjung reaches for him; Seokjin lifts his elbow to bar his brother’s way.

“Give him a second, he’s shy.”

“I know how they are, Jin,” Seokjung says. “They stay with me more than they do with you.”

Seokjin sighs. “Thank you for that, by the way.”

“No problem, little brother,” Seokjung says, squeezing Seokjin’s shoulder. “They give you a good reason to visit.”

Seokjin prickles. It’s true that the sugar gliders have provided safe topics of communication between them. Without the fuzzy creatures to keep their attention, it's all business deals, dicey family situations, and gay denial. And after their stand-off last night, Seokjin knows his brother doesn't mean well by the comment.

Seokjin silently wills Eomuk to hurry the hell up.

After a copious amount of cajoling, Eomuk finally slinks forward, gripping Seokjin’s thumb with his claw. Seokjin clicks his tongue and Eomuk rolls, changing his mind halfway into Seokjin’s palm before scrabbling back beneath the leaves. Seokjin cups him, somewhat clumsily, finally jostling him from the cage and into the carrier with Odeng.

Seokjin purses the sling open, murmuring down to the sugar gliders inside. It’s the middle of the night for them, so they’re right to be upset. But still…

“Eomuk-ie doesn’t look so great,” Seokjung says, voicing Seokjin’s concern.

“He’s always had to struggle,” Seokjin says.

“Yeah.” Seokjung stands to help Seokjin to his feet. “So. How long will you be in Seoul this time?”

Seokjin leafs through his mental calendar, grateful for the distraction since he doesn’t want to think about Eomuk’s troubled health. “April, I think? We go to Japan in April.”

“Good,” Seokjung says, gathering up the sugar gliders toys. “They miss you when you’re gone.”

Another family trait: Hedging your true feelings behind something else.

Seokjin plays along. “Yeah. I miss them, too.”

“Am I driving you home?” Seokjung asks.

“No, I’m staying with my friend Sandeul,” Seokjin says. “Probably just for today. I have a few more things to finalize before returning to the dorm.”

“I see.” Seokjung doesn’t hide his disappointment. “I need to make a few calls, but then I’ll be ready to drive you.”


Seokjin knows how much he’s worth, down to the last jeon. He saw his financial report last fall when he purchased the farm in Daegu. He knows he can get the money together, and he feels that this must be fate, considering that he only conducted the property search on a whim last week after he finally let Taehyung confess. All of the barriers and blindspots, all the ways he’d been protecting himself crumbled away, and beneath that wreckage Seokjin found... something.

Beyond Seokjung’s panoramic windows, the contrails of passing planes crisscross the crystalline sky. Seokjin hunches at his brother’s black faux-marble bar, hastily reading the property agent’s texts.  

His brother is on the phone with his girlfriend, pacing back and forth before the window while he talks. His animated conversation makes it hard for Seokjin to focus on the revolving wheel of messages he’s sending to Bang Sihyuk and the property agent. The transaction is happening fast, but Seokjin feels like it’s a fever, and he has to draw it out. So he keeps pushing, keeps bargaining and arranging, until he has a price he can manage (in cash), and an offer Bang Sihyuk will approve.  

Seokjung clatters his phone onto the bar. “What’s that?”

“Maybe it’s a song?” Seokjin lies. He pockets his phone. “Sometimes I write songs, you know. Because I’m an idol in this group called BTS. Maybe you’ve heard of us?”

His brother scowls. “You know I’ve always supported that decision,” he says.

“Have you?” Seokjin stands up, leaving the question hanging between them. He moves for the door, and Seokjung follows, swiping his keys from the table. In silence, they stomp into their shoes and hassle into their coats.

In the elevator, Seokjung pushes. “You should know I support you.”

“You say you support me, yet here you are with an alternative,” Seokjin says.

“What’re you talking about?”

“The restaurants, hyung,” Seokjin says. He lowers his voice as they cross the lobby. The cold outside slaps them like an Arctic blast. “Is that yours and Abeoji’s plan B for me, in case the idol thing doesn’t pan out? Which is ridiculous, by the way. We are very successful—”

“—I only thought you’d be interested since you’ve always liked to cook,” Seokjung answers. His voice bobbles, betraying his emotion. “It’s not a statement about your… lifestyle.”

“You mean as an artist or as a gay man?”

Seokjung pales. He hisses, “We are on the street.”

“And I care... why?” Seokjin asks. His tone feels strident. He enjoys the tingle of it in his blood. “They aren’t listening, they don’t care. And why should they have control over what I say to my own brother, in my own city?”

Seokjung angles them down the alley where he parked his SUV. Seokjin slides into the passenger seat, settling the seatbelt beneath the sugar gliders’ sling. He wishes now that Taehyung was here, because Seokjung wouldn’t dare broach this subject with him around.

Or would he? Seokjung’s edging up to marrying age. He’s firmly set into the wheel that will churn him through military service, marriage, career, and kids. Perhaps it’s logical for him to worry for his baby brother, who has never taken the ‘normal’ path to anything.

Looking at it from Seokjung’s point of view, it must be frightening to know that Seokjin could lose everything because of his love for Taehyung. So his brother offers another option. A wife. A restaurant. Security. A future.

Seokjin risks a glance at his brother as he slots the car into mid-morning traffic. Behind his sunglasses, Seokjung blinks rapidly, something they both do when they’re anxious, a trait they inherited from their mother.

“Look, Jung-hyung,” Seokjin says. He’s recovered his voice now; his words sound level and calm. “I’m planning to marry him. I want to spend the rest of my life with him.”

As he speaks these words, he feels the truth in them. Despite everything they went through last year – their on-camera fight, their almost break-up, Taehyung’s crush on Minho – and everything they’ve gone through in years past – Minyeong’s threats, their coming out, and Seokjin’s tendency to bolt everytime something went wrong – this part has always been true: They want to be together.

But Seokjung is shaking his head. “What about your military service? Hm?” His gloved hands grip the steering wheel. “I hear it changes you.”

Seokjin sniffs. “It won’t make me not gay,” he says.

“But they could hurt you,” Seokjung says. “If they find out, they’ll…” he seethes out a rattling sigh.

“Who’s gonna tell them?” Seokjin soothes.

Seokjung’s frown deepens. It’s a long moment before he says, “I don’t like it.”

“Then don’t be gay,” Seokjin says.

Seokjung cuts his eyes at him, a quick flash before refocusing on the road. “You’re my brother,” he says, his voice pinched and reedy. “I despise the idea of someone hurting you.”

Seokjin fights a knee-jerk response to make a joke, to break the tension, to do anything to suspend the pain caught between them. Instead, he puts his hand on his brother’s arm, because there is nothing else they can say.

Chapter Text

“I leave the darkness that finds my heart.
Even the cold shadow that covers the night starts to harden.”
Melted, AKMU

5 February 2018 - Seoul

Jimin tucks a fleecy blanket around Namjoon’s shoulders and plumps the pillow behind his shoulders. He’s still loopy after his surgery, and his nose looks uncomfortably puffy. Jimin doesn’t know if there’s anything he can do to help him, but at least, he thinks he should offer. “Can we get you anything?” he asks.

“Chicken,” Namjoon answers.

Jimin glances at Jungkook, who shakes his head.

“Not yet, hyung,” Jimin says. “But, maybe soup?”

Namjoon groans.

“Do you need medicine?” Jimin asks.

“Too soon,” Jungkook says. He rattles out the bottle of pills from the pharmacy and scans the label. “He can have these at 2. Until then, he needs rest and fluids.”

“That’s so long,” Jimin pouts.

“Honestly, he should sleep,” Jungkook says.

“I don’t wanna,” Namjoon mumbles, but his eyes are already blinking unevenly as he fights to stay awake.

“Aw, hyung,” Jimin says, brushing Namjoon’s bangs from his forehead. “It’ll be okay. We’ll be right here.” With that, Namjoon gives them a dozy smile before sliding smoothly into sleep.

Jungkook rests his chin on Jimin’s shoulder. For a moment, they watch Namjoon drawing long, even breaths through his mouth.

“We did good, didn’t we?” Jimin whispers.

I did,” he says, kneading his chin into the ticklish place along Jimin’s collarbone.

Jimin wheels on him. “Jeon Jungkook, you would’ve been lost without me.”

“We did get lost,” Jungkook reminds him. He links their fingers to drag Jimin from the living room.

“A minor turnaround,” Jimin allows. “On a tricky one-way street. Totally acceptable since, because of me, we left here thirty minutes early so we’d get him to his appointment on time.”

Jungkook sputters a laugh as he opens the refrigerator. “We left early because of me.”

Jimin opens his mouth to protest but knows it’s useless. If not for Jungkook, Namjoon would have still been reading his book at the time of his appointment, and Jimin would have still been in the shower.

Jungkook passes a bottle of water to Jimin. He says, “You know what’s funny?”

“That Namjoon asked us instead of Hobi-hyung or Jin-hyung to take him to his appointment?”

“Huh, no,” Jungkook says. “More like Joon-hyung getting this surgery when he finally has a room of his own.”

Jimin giggles. “That is funny.” They’re sitting across from each other, playing with each other’s fingers, when Taehyung sulks into the kitchen, his hair a matted nest against his head. He glances at them, glowers, and continues to the refrigerator, going directly for the cola.

“Hyung,” Jungkook says, “Don’t you think it’s a bit early for that?”

Taehyung cracks it open and takes a long, resentful swig.

“Can’t be good for your teeth,” Jimin says.

“I don’t recall asking,” Taehyung grumbles, “but thank you for the advice.” He comes to the table and shrugs into a chair. He grips the bottle between his hands, glaring down into it like a drunk with a cheap pint of wine.

Jimin squeezes his knee. “We brought Namjoonie-hyung home from his surgery.”

“Oh,” Taehyung sighs. “How is he?”

“He sounds funny when he talks,” Jungkook says.

“Like his head’s stuffed with cotton,” Jimin says.

“Because it is,” Jungkook tells him.

Taehyung looks both disgusted and amazed.

“Yeah,” Jimin says. “They said it could take months for his nasal passages to properly settle.”

“But he’s okay, right?” Taehyung says.

“He will be,” Jungkook says. “And he’ll have more breath control, and no more snoring.”

Taehyung barks one short chuckle before sinking back into his sullen mood.

Jungkook asks, “Hey, where’s Tan-ah?”

“Asleep,” Taehyung answers.

“We can take him for a walk later,” Jimin suggests. “Some of our neighbors were in the dog park earlier, maybe he can make some new friends.”

“Sure,” Taehyung says.

“Taehyungie!” Jimin moans. “What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” Taehyung says. Then he shakes his head. “Everything.” In a jumbled, almost unintelligible rush, Taehyung spills the whole story, confessing to Jimin and Jungkook what he told Seokjin on Friday night. It comes out as one long run-on sentence, and in the wake of his words, they can only gape at him.

Then, after a cold, uncomfortable silence, Jungkook finally speaks. “You’re an idiot,” he says.

“Jungkookie,” Jimin gasps.

“No,” Jungkook bites out. “It’s not okay. After all he’s done for us. After all he’s done for you.” Jungkook pushes the table. “This is why he’s been gone, why he’s staying with his brother. Because of you .”

Jimin notes the tightness in Jungkook’s jaw, and the way his nostrils flare as he struggles to order his thoughts.

Jungkook shoves up from the table and says, “I can’t even look at you right now.”

Taehyung shuts his eyes. He mutters, “Same.”

Jungkook brushes Jimin’s shoulder as he leaves the room. Namjoon moans something, and Jungkook answers, so Jimin knows they’re both safely occupied. Which gives him and Taehyung a chance to talk.

“Taetae,” he says, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t tell anyone,” Taehyung drones.

“But you kissed someone else?”

“He kissed me,” Taehyung says. He meets Jimin’s eyes.

“Taehyung,” Jimin says, surprised by the sternness in his tone.

“Yes,” Taehyung says. “I know. But Jin-hyung and I, we made up. I told him about it back in Busan, before we went to Japan with my family. We talked, and we made up. And he bought us a farm, so that must mean… doesn’t that mean he wants us to be together?”

“Well,” Jimin tells him, “He said he needs time. You know Jin-hyung, he likes to think things through.”

“I know he does,” Taehyung says. His face crumples, and he hides behind his hands. “God, I am an idiot.”

Jimin scoots beside him. He puts his forehead against Taehyung’s, so close that he can smell the ginseng of his shampoo. Taehyung inhales deeply, several slow, determined breaths.

He says, “But I have a plan.”

“Do you?” Jimin smooths the nape of Taehyung’s neck. “That’s good.”

“I can’t take back what I did, but I can show him.” He sniffs and shudders out a sigh. “I can let him know what he means to me. If he needs time, he’ll have it. If he never wants to be with me again—” Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, “—I’ll understand. But I’m gonna show him.”

A footfall sounds in the archway. They turn to find Jungkook hovering there, his arms folded firmly across his chest.

“He has a plan, Jungkookie,” Jimin says. “He’s gonna make things right.”

“How?” Jungkook shakes his head. “It doesn’t work that way. Once you break a bone, you’ll always know it was broken.”

“Sometimes it heals stronger,” Taehyung says.

Jungkook scoffs. “Don’t kid yourself.”  Jungkook’s posture is rigid. His fists clench.

Taehyung shouts, “Why are you so angry? Not even hyung reacted this way.”

“That’s because Jin-hyung hides everything,” Jungkook bites out. His eyes go glassy with tears. A flicker of panic flares up in Jimin, because he can’t remember the last time he saw him this upset. “He is so in love with you, Taehyung. And he has always been there for you—”

“—Well, except for when he wasn't,” Jimin says, realizing the moment he speaks that he’s throwing grenades into a house that’s already on fire.

“Really?” Jungkook says. A muscle in his jaw jumps.

“Um, yeah,” Jimin says. He’s standing now but doesn’t recall getting to his feet. “Remember Mexico, and that time in LA, and all those years ago in Japan? Remember every time he shut Taehyung out, and we sat with him while he cried? We were the ones holding Taehyung’s hands every time Seokjin-hyung broke his heart.”

“That doesn’t excuse what he did,” Jungkook shouts.

“No, it doesn’t,” Jimin says, measuring his volume, because Namjoon’s supposed to be resting in the next room. “But they have both hurt each other, and they have come through it all so far, so… how about let’s help Taehyung instead of making him feel more guilty than he already does?”

Jungkook squints. “How about, No ,” he says. “How about, I can’t do that . How about, Maybe I need some time, too?

Taehyung slouches deeper into his chair. “Fine,” he mutters. “It’s fine.”

“Yeah,” Jungkook sneers. “So. I’ll be in my room.”

“Jungkookie,” Jimin calls, but Jungkook doesn’t turn back. His door shuts, one firm click, and then there’s nothing but the mechanical lull of the refrigerator and the hush of Namjoon’s breathing.

Taehyung sips his Coke. He grimaces at its acidic sweetness, but he keeps drinking until it’s gone. Then he presses his hand to his cheek, wincing at the pain of the ulcer he’s been fighting off and on since July.

Jimin reaches to comfort him. “You should go to the doctor,” he says. “I can go with you. I did just take Namjoon, and he seems to be recovering beautifully—”

“—No,” Taehyung sighs. “I’m fine.” He gets up and pads to the bathroom. After a few minutes, Jimin hears the shower run.

Sighing, Jimin strays into the living room to find Namjoon sitting up and writing.

“Hyung, you should be resting,” Jimin chides.

“No, I had a…” Namjoon says distractedly. He gestures to the page and continues to scribble.

Jimin hovers, feeling torn, because he knows Jungkook is probably waiting for him to come talk about what happened. And normally, he would take Jungkook’s side. There wouldn’t even be a question. But right now, Jimin’s not certain how he feels.

He wants to talk to Namjoon, but he also doesn’t want to disturb his creative flow.

Frustrated, Jimin flings himself into the chair beside Namjoon. He presses his thumbs to his eyes, but somehow, he isn't crying. He thinks back to when they took Seokjin to a nightclub in Osaka, and how Seokjin insisted back then that he had to let Taehyung figure things out on his own. Then Jungkook had led Jimin out onto the street. He assured him he wasn’t like Taehyung. He told Jimin that, with him, it’s either one hundred percent, or nothing. Then he kissed him, and until now, Jimin hasn’t given another thought to what he said.

But Jimin gets it now.

He breathes out, “Jungkookie has to figure this out on his own.”

Namjoon goes, “Hm?”

“Sorry, hyung,” Jimin says. “I’m being loud.”

Namjoon lowers his pencil. “You wanna talk?”

“No, hyung. Please keep going. I’m fine.”

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. He jots a few words. “People say that when they’re not fine.” He tables the notebook. “I heard you guys in the kitchen.”

“You heard everything? Even what Taehyungie said?”

“Not all of it,” Namjoon says. “But enough.” He taps the pencil tip on the page. “I was dreaming about a lakeside and fog, and then… Did I hear something break?”

“No.” Jimin sighs. “Just yelling.” Then he says, “You know, I was thinking maybe heartbreak isn’t like a broken bone.”

Namjoon’s brows arch. “Mmkay?”

“Maybe a heart can’t be fixed in a day or healed in a week,” Jimin continues. “It takes patience and openness, right? It takes learning, and pain, and vulnerability. So maybe a broken heart’s more like an open wound.”

“Jimin-ah,” Namjoon says. “You okay?”

“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Jimin says.

“How can it be good?” Namjoon wonders.

“Well okay,” Jimin leans forward. “When you open your heart to someone, you run the risk of getting hurt. I mean you have to, right? Even the most perfect people fight sometimes. So when you fall in love, you let that person see you for real. You’re totally exposed, and that’s so scary. And sometimes, it’s like you’re seeing yourself reflected in them. Like a mirror, sort of, but…broken or distorted? Hyung, I don’t know—”

“—Jimin,” Namjoon says, “You should write lyrics. That’s really deep.”

“Yeah. Right.” Jimin rolls his eyes. “Maybe I’m getting smarter.”

Namjoon grins. “We are all in trouble now.”

“Hyung, don’t tease me.”

“No, I’m serious,” Namjoon says. “I always knew you were smart. It’s time you knew it, too.”

“Stop,” Jimin says in a way that means Please continue forever. “Keep writing your song. I’ll quit bothering you.”

“You never bother me,” Namjoon says, reaching again for the tablet.

Jimin gets up. He squeezes Namjoon’s shoulder. “Thank you, hyung,” he says. “Let me know if you need anything.” And then he goes into Jungkook’s room, to see if there’s any way to soothe him.

Chapter Text

“You gave me the world, so I feel I owed you
I been lookin' through the mirror, and that's the old you
I'ma get it right now, don't know how
But I promise that we're gonna make it somehow.”
Start Again, OneRepublic and Logic

Kakaotalk
12 February 2018
20:14

BabyAngelJin: VV, what are you doing rn?

PrinceV: Feeding Tannie

BabyAngelJin: Again?
BabyAngelJin: He’s going to get fat.

PrinceV: Fat like Odeng-ie fat?

BagyAngelJin: Don’t you start on Odeng-ie.
BabyAngelJin: He is wearing his winter weight.

PrinceV: LOL Nope.

BabyAngelJin: What are you doing after you finish feeding Tannie?
BabyAngelJin: Nvmd, I know what you're doing.

PrinceV: Oh? Really?

BabyAngelJin: You’re meeting me here <external.naver.link >

PrinceV: What is this?

BabyAngelJin: You have eight minutes before I leave.

PrinceV: Jin-hyung!
PrinceV: JIN!!
PrinceV: ajfd;kj Fine.

The bittersweet scent of woodsmoke tinges the air. Streetlamps pool light along the snow-swept path, creating deep wells of shadow between. From where Seokjin stands, he can see a swingset and a slide, each glimmering beneath a sheen of frost. Above the park, behind a screen of evergreens, he can still see the balconies of the Hannam apartments.

Seokjin gave Taehyung eight minutes. He appears, panting and red-faced, with a minute and eighteen seconds to spare. A thorn of guilt nettles Seokjin’s heart, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t also feel gratified. He lingers, watching Taehyung from behind ice-glazed branches, waiting for him to wander into range.

Taehyung moves through the park, his eyes alert under his fleece-lined cap. He checks his phone. He sends a message that Seokjin ignores. He’d set his notifications to silent, so there’s nothing to give him away.

When texting fails, Taehyung stuffs his hands into his coat. He treads along the path, taking in the sharp, clear night, the hard-packed snow, the silent playground. He hums to himself, two bars of a nervous tune, before calling out, “Hyung?”

Seokjin suppresses the urge to answer. He listens to the crisp of gravel beneath Taehyung’s boots. He measures his breath. He counts his heartbeats. He waits.

Taehyung edges into the bend, to the place where the holly hedge parts to make a shortcut into the park. From here, the path slopes into darkness. The trail crosses into more somber, uncertain light, which is why Seokjin chose it. He can hide here and talk, and Taehyung won’t be able to see him.

At the bottom of the path, Taehyung pauses, twisting around in search of Seokjin. He’s anxious, Seokjin can see that. He wrings his hands. He blows on his fingers to warm them. Then he moves forward again, a few steps and a few more, until he slips beneath the shadow.

“I’ve been thinking,” Seokjin says.

Startled, Taehyung jumps. Spinning in the direction of the voice, he scans the trees. Finding nothing, he says, “Hyung, where are you?”

Taehyung sounds scared. Seokjin feels horrible for making him afraid.

He says, “We never would have made it, you know?”

Taehyung falls still.

Seokjin says, “If we lived apart, we never would have made it.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Taehyung says.

“No, I know it is,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung inches forward. Seokjin fights every impulse to shrink away.

“But we do live together,” Seokjin goes on. “And in our way, we have made it. All this time.”

“We have,” Taehyung says, eager in his agreement. “Why are you hiding?”

So far, Seokjin has predicted Taehyung's every response. He has an answer for everything. He says, “Because I need to say some things to you, but I won’t be able to if you can see my face.”

“Hyung, that’s…” Taehyung breaks off. He says, “W-what are you going to say?”

Seokjin steels himself. He says, “When we were in Hawaii, I let you go because I would have rather done that than feel us grow apart anymore. I always knew that you would realize, someday, that you didn't actually get a chance to make your own decision, to choose who you wanted to be with. And that we only stayed together because… What other choice did you have?”

Taehyung rushes forward. Involuntarily, Seokjin winces back, but he manages to keep the screen of the trees undisturbed. Taehyung’s a meter away, facing the wrong direction.

Seokjin crouches and waits until his breathing calms. Then he says, “That was stupid. You did have a choice. And you chose Minho.”

He watches Taehyung as he lowers his face. Shadows obscure his features, and for that, Seokjin is grateful. But he knows he’s crying, and Taehyung’s tears give him no joy.

“I know I said it didn’t matter,” Seokjin whispers. “I know I said as long as we end up together, it’s okay. But I can’t stop seeing him. I hate that you did this, Taehyung, and I hate Choi Minho. I want to punch him in his stupid, smiling face. I hate …” Tears well up, smothering his words. He stands up, disrupting the branches, and Taehyung turns toward the sound.

Seokjin catches him, though, gripping his shoulders to keep him at arm’s length. He says, “I’m not done.”

His voice small, Taehyung says, “Okay.”

“And I’m going to tell you some things that will upset you,” Seokjin says, “But you have to promise to listen.”

Taehyung holds a breath and exhales it, nodding as he lets it go. He turns, pulling Seokjin from his hiding place. Tonight, Taehyung smells like cinnamon. He’s warm in spite of the cold, and so, for a moment, Seokjin follows. But he’s not ready to be so easily led. As they pass the swings, he drops into one, looping his hands into the frozen chains.

Taehyung seems at first like he might challenge him, but then he sits in the next swing over. He shoves his legs to their full extension and then releases, swinging forward in a gentle arc. The chains squeal in soft protest, and Seokjin notices then that, beneath his coat, Taehyung is still in his pajamas.

A wave of remorse crests in Seokjin’s heart. He didn’t have to do this to Taehyung. It’s complicated and dramatic, but then, Seokjin realizes that this is the way with most of his plans.

He stares at Taehyung as he swings, at the set of his jaw, almost grim in his concentration. Each time he arches forward, his bracelet twinkles in the light.

“I want you to know I’m not angry anymore,” Seokjin says. “And I dragged you out here tonight, in the cold, in your pajamas, which was mean, and I’m sorry. But there is a reason.” He sneaks a sideways glance at him, breathes, and then just says it. “I’m moving out of the dorm.”

“What?” Taehyung shouts. “Hyung, no!”

Seokjin leans to place his fingers to Taehyung lips. “Shh. VV, listen—”

Taehyung tears away from him. “But this is how it starts,” he cries. “This is how the end of us begins. First Hobi-hyung, now you? Next it’ll be Yoongi and Joon’s always talking with Adora on chat and—”

“—No. Taehyung-ah, stop,” Seokjin says. “Look.” He very gently tilts Taehyung’s chin, following with a gesture toward the building beyond the trees. “It’s right here,” Seokjin explains. “In Hannam.”

All Seokjin can hear for several seconds is Taehyung’s struggle to speak. When he’s able, he whispers, “Here? In Hannam?”

Seokjin exhales. “It took all of six minutes and forty-two seconds for you to get here,”  he says. “Granted, you were at a full run, and again, for that, I’m sorry, but—”

“—We’ll be neighbors?” Taehyung asks. Tears glint like frost in his eyes.

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “This, Taehyung. It’s a place for us. No more nights in love hotels. No more sneaking away. No more hiding. No more rules. We’re done with that. Living together forced us work to learn how to work through our issues—”

“—Like training wheels?" Taehyung says.

Seokjin chuckles, softly. “Yeah,” he says. “Like training wheels. But now, we’re taking them off. This can be a place of our own, where you and I can come and go as we please. Like grown-ups.”

Taehyung’s eyes gleam. He nods, but he doesn’t speak.

“Also, I missed you,” Seokjin says. “I miss you. So I’m done now, with being angry. I’ll still feel compelled to hit Minho if we ever see him… but I won’t. I know he’s been through enough.”

“Yeah.” Taehyung rubs tears from his neck. “He has.”

“But I’m done with us having to hide, too,” Seokjin says. “I know we have to play the role when we’re in public, but you and me, Taehyung, we should have something of our own. We have earned that much.”

After a moment, Taehyung asks, “What will we tell Jimin?”

“You know what?” Seokjin sniffs. “Jimin’s a grown man. He will have to understand. And the others, too. I’m gonna tell them before we leave for Seollal, but I wanted you to know first.”

Taehyung pouts up at him through his frowny smile.

“I can’t worry about them,” Seokjin says. “Right now, I have to take care of me and my future, which, I hope, includes you.”

“Always,” he says. Then he tangles an arm in Seokjin’s chains, jostling them together for a kiss. Seokjin leans into it, feeling warmth spread throughout his body as his heartbeat begins to race.

They seem to spark upon the same idea at the exact same moment as Taehyung glances toward the new apartment.

“Ahh, not until March,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung squinches his eyes shut. He casts a longing look at the villa balcony before sliding to his feet. Then he leans down to kiss him. It’s tender but no longer tentative, and Seokjin finally feels like it’s time for them to go home.

Chapter Text

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Rumi

15 February 2018 - Achasan  (Behind the Scenes of Episode 44, BTS Run, only available on Vlive +) but here’s a post by JinsJade that contains the same information.)

Cosmic latte, Namjoon thinks as he and Taehyung crouch on the frozen stone ledge of Achasan peak. Recently, he read an article that declared this to be the color of the universe – a softly glowing beige-y blue, like the color of the sky before dawn.

It might be his favorite color.

He inhales and wonders, do colors have scents? It seems that if the universe could have a color, then it could also have a scent.  If so, cosmic latte would smell like this, like stone and snow and sunrise.

Smiling at this, Namjoon spoons out the final piece of tteok from the soup Seokjin packed for them. Taehyung hunts through his thermos, dredging out bits of egg and beef as though he’s deconstructing the soup rather than eating it. Sejin-nim scrabbles along the ledge, filming establishing shots of the city and the sun, allowing them space to eat their breakfast in peace. Seokjin sent along a thermos for Sejin, too, but he hasn’t been able to eat it yet.

Namjoon and Taehyung lost a challenge to take this hike, but Namjoon wonders – as he often wonders – what Sejin must have done to weather this punishment with them. He’s their senior manager. He could roust rookie staffers from their cozy beds on this frigid February morning, but Sejin’s the one who slogs through it with them, as if he actually enjoys doing it.

“A funny story,” Taehyung says through a mouthful of soup. “When we came here before debut, it was supposed to be only me and Jin-hyung, but Jiminie invited himself along.”

Namjoon chuckles. “This does not surprise me.”

Taehyung slurps his broth. “We would’ve sat here together. I would’ve tried to hold his hand,” he says. “Jin-hyung’s, I mean.”

“Risky,” Namjoon says, tracking Sejin’s movements with his eyes. At this distance, the mic can't pick up their conversation, and the rushing winds serve as a further buffer. Still, though, Taehyung should be careful.

Only, maybe not. Sejin knows about Seokjin and Taehyung. He even took part in a plot Namjoon and Seokjin hatched against Park Hyungsik, which sparked an unwitting friendship between the four of them. Also, the staff has been keen in their editing, carefully slicing out anything that could be misconstrued.

Except with Jimin and Jungkook, because, honestly, if they cut out every moment between them, there would be no footage left.

“Think about this, hyung,” Taehyung muses, peering into the steaming thermos on his knee. “Jin-hyung planned this menu ahead of time, right?”

“He must have.”

“Because he bought groceries,” Taehyung says. “Which means he went shopping.”

Namjoon wonders where Taehyung is going with this. He scratches under his ushanka as he considers. “Maybe he sent one of the staff?”

Taehyung grunts. “Yeah. He was in his pajamas. He probably asked the staff. But still…”

“He had to put together a list,” Namjoon says.

“Exactly.” Taehyung sips. He says, “Then he got up, and he cooked. Even though he’s barely been home the last week. He took special care to make it nice for us. He didn’t have to do any of those things. He could have boiled ramen, and we would’ve been happy.”

“True.”

“He hasn’t even cooked in months,” Taehyung says. His voice cracks, and Namjoon’s suddenly concerned that he might be on the verge of crying. He leans forward to look, but Taehyung’s eyes are clear.

Sejin skirts nearer, zooming in on them. He says, “Let’s say bye to the Run BTS viewers and wrap this up.”

Taehyung speaks his Seollal greeting from the heart, quick and unscripted, getting it all in one take. Namjoon has to think about his, because Taehyung expresses everything he wanted to say. Namjoon discards anything too esoteric – his reflections on the color of the universe, for example – and focuses instead on their future hopes. He wishes for a happier year, he thanks the staff, their family and their friends, and of course, their fans. Sejin shuts off the camera and stows it.

“You guys okay up here for a while?”

“Sure,” Namjoon answers. “We’ll finish eating and head down.”

Sejin smiles. “I’ll get the van warm for us.” He touches his satchel to remind them, “Don’t forget your containers.”

Sejin hurries down the path, and Namjoon can’t blame him. He says, “Our staff is so great, Taehyung. What would we do without them?”

Taehyung grins. “Starve. Get lost. Be forever without our chargers and wallets.”

“I can never find my wallet,” Namjoon confides.

They huddle in, watching as the sun climbs, spilling light into the valley of Seoul. Lotte World tower gleams green in the foreground, shimmering within the layers of haze that skim in from the river. Small birds flit and scratch along the trail’s edge, and another bevy of geese wings across the sky.

Taehyung grows pensive. He’s stroking the linked rings of his bracelet, the gift Seokjin gave him for his birthday. One of the gifts, Namjoon amends. The other one is slightly too large to encompass a single holiday, or even a single year.

“Everything okay?” Namjoon ventures, knowing that it is not.

Taehyung makes a noncommittal movement as he watches the skyline.

“You can talk to me, y’know,” Namjoon says. “Cameras’re gone. It’s only you and me.”

Emotions flit across Taehyung’s face. “Like old times, huh?”

“Yeah,” Namjoon says, watching as Taehyung begins to pensively roll a pebble beneath the heel of his boot. “Like old times.”

Taehyung massages under his jaw. He says, “Hyung, do you believe it’s true, what Jungkook said?”

“You mean when he said it’s your that fault Jin-hyung’s moving out?” Namjoon clarifies.

Taehyung tenses, like he’s bracing for impact, afraid of what Namjoon will say.

Because, of course he is. Two days ago, when Seokjin told them he’d bought his own villa at Hannam, their reactions had been… not great. Since then, there’s been a dicey silence as each member works to understand what this means for them as a group. Jungkook’s words hit the hardest, probably because they’re salted with the truth. Even if Namjoon agrees with Jungkook, he knows that saying so outright will only alienate Taehyung. So instead, he asks, “What do you believe is true?”

After a moment, Taehyung says, “Pierre Renoir was a painter in France who fell in love with a seamstress and together, they had a child, a little girl named Jeanne.”

“Oh,” Namjoon says. “Okay.”

“For his whole life, Renoir never gave her his name, never called her his daughter,” Taehyung goes on. “The woman, the seamstress, he loved her. She became the focus of so many paintings. But at the same time, he wouldn’t claim their child as his.”

Namjoon holds his breath while withholding his observations. He knows sometimes Taehyung sometimes takes the long way around, so he simply waits and listens.

“Here’s what I’ve been thinking,” Taehyung says. He sips his soup. “Can a person be right and wrong at the same time?”

“Uh. I think so, yeah,” Namjoon says.

“I know I was wrong,” Taehyung says. “I let feelings develop for someone else. I followed them. But I was right, too, because in the end, I trusted my heart. I went into a dark place and came home. Jin-hyung was right, because he gave me that space. But he was also wrong, because for a while, he wouldn’t let us talk about it, and that, for both us, was really painful.

“And now Jungkook,” Taehyung says, “he is right to be mad at me. But he’s wrong, too, because Seokjin is his own man, responsible for his own actions, so I’m not to blame for what he does. Seokjin bought that apartment, not me.”

Namjoon purses his lips and considers. “It’s fair,” he says.

“And Renoir, he was wrong,” Taehyung goes on. “But he’s also right. Because… he was this great painter, this man who saw beauty in simple things, like people and dancing and sunrises and cafes. But he denied the simplest, most beautiful thing, which was love. He divided up his heart, locking things away inside, which meant he couldn’t fully love anything, only parts of things. I like Renoir, but I’ve decided, I don’t wanna be like him.”

Namjoon wonders if there’s such a thing as mental whiplash, because if so, that’s what he’s feeling right now. This is what happens when you open the conversational door with Taehyung. One moment, you’re talking about basic things like soup. The next, it’s a philosophical digression about Renoir that somehow manages to weave everything back in.

“That’s the big question, I guess,” Namjoon agrees. “Who do you wanna be?”

“Me,” Taehyung answers. Then he murmurs a laugh like he knows that’s too easy. “But, I’m still trying to figure out who that is.”

“Same,” Namjoon says. They tip their cups together, clinking them in salute. “So that’s it, right? What it comes down to for all of us, this never-ending quest for identity.”

Taehyung hums his agreement.

“It’s comforting, knowing that, creatively at least, this thread will continue to bind us,” Namjoon says. “We are all still trying to define ourselves.”

Taehyung’s got a far-off look in his eyes, like he’s seeing beyond the horizon and the rising sun. His tone deep and pondering, he asks, “Hyung, can you keep a secret?”

Namjoon cringes. “You know, Taehyung, I’d really rather not.”

Taehyung goes on like he hasn’t heard him. “I’m gonna ask him to marry me.”

“What?” Again, mental whiplash. “I’m sorry, what?

A smile lights Taehyung’s eyes. “We were gonna wait until after our military service. But, with recent things... He needs to know. I can't ever give him as much as he's given me. But Seokjin needs to see that I’m serious.”

Namjoon wrestles with incredulity before abruptly throwing it off. This is not at all surprising. Outside of his own family, Seokjin and Taehyung have been together longer than anyone he’s known, and though they’re young, they have always been clear about wanting to spend their lives together.

“Well,” Namjoon says. “When?”

“That’s where I need your help,” Taehyung says. “‘Cause it’s gonna be a surprise. And Jinnie’s the one who makes plans, and I really don’t. Like, ever.”

“I guess that’s true,” Namjoon says.

“But I’m learning who I wanna be,” Taehyung says. “I want to be a man who loves with his whole heart, who doesn’t hide or shy away. I want to show him the kind of man I can be.”

“Wow, Taehyung.” It’s moments like these when Namjoon wonders if it’s possible to transcend their physical limitations. It’s below freezing at the top of Achasan. The wind has chafed his sinuses raw, and his fingers feel as brittle as twigs. Yet, somehow, he feels light and intangible, as though everything normal has been cut away, and he’s floating through the sky.

Namjoon sips his soup, still processing, still stalling for time. The rest of the group might be steadily going to pieces, but Taehyung seems to finally be putting himself together. What else can Namjoon do but try and help?

“I want the world for all of you,” Namjoon says. “You know that, right?”

Taehyung nods, going suddenly shy. “Hyung… does that mean—?”

“Yes, Taehyung,” Namjoon says. “Yes. You’ve got my full support.”

 

Chapter Text

“Love makes a person go crazy.
Yeah, this is a crazy guy’s determination,
Substituting myself to be the most me.”
Her, BTS

18 February 2018 - Seoul - (Hoseok’s birthday Vlive feat. Jimin )

“Oppa, what did you do today?”

Hoseok reads the question aloud from the Vlive comments and ponders before he answers. It’s been a full day, mostly spent with his family, who are, like him, brimming with energy. He spent time with his puppy, who is also wriggly with energy, and then he came home, feeling as though his batteries have been recharged.

He doesn’t get enough time with his family. They’re three hours away by train, and they have always been as busy as he is… Well, okay, maybe not as busy as he is now , but coordinating visits with them seems akin to plotting a large-scale naval siege.

Hoseok keeps his broadcast upbeat and light, branching into the topics of dance, his mixtape, his schedule, his favorite songs.

Then, of course, Jimin shows up.

“I don’t often come into the office,” Jimin proclaims, feigning innocence for the camera, but Hoseok knows better. Somehow, Jimin magically appears anytime someone’s doing a broadcast. Their manager, Jigaemae, probably sends Jimin an alert when one of them films; he’s always been helpful in that way. Not that Hoseok minds; broadcasting feels more natural when there’s someone else beside you.

It’s only that, Jimin’s not the person he expected to show up.

At midnight, Hoseok shuts the broadcast down. As he’s tabbing out of open windows, he hears someone grabbling outside his studio door.

So it’s not only Jimin, then, Hoseok thinks with a smile.

Hoseok flings open the door, whooping wildly, hoping to startle them, and they play along – four of them flailing each other into his path. He catches Taehyung, twisting an arm around his back. He shoves his face under Taehyung’s chin, right into the spastic spot that renders him useless. The others escape down the hall, but he hears them around the corner, snickering.

Hoseok places two fingers on Taehyung’s bony hip, and he falls still.

“Who’m I dealing with, TaeTae?” Hoseok growls against his ear.

“I’ll never tell,” Taehyung announces. Hoseok jabs Taehyung’s hip, and the younger buckles, dropping to his knees.

“Namjoon-ah,” Tae gasps.

“And?”

“Jimin-ah.”

“I knew that one,” Hoseok says, knuckling into Taehyung’s ribs. “Who else?”

Breathless, Taehyung stammers, “Jin-hyung.”

Hoseok hauls him up like a bundle of sticks. “You did well,” he says. “You get cake.”

“Yay! Thank you, hyung.” They creep down the hall a few centimeters at a time. “I say we go for Joonie-hyung,” Taehyung whispers. “He’s still recovering from surgery.”

“I’m thinking Jimin,” Hoseok counters. “Teeny, short legs.”

Jimin goes, “Hey!”

And then they pounce, Hoseok leaping blindly around the corner, colliding with Namjoon, who ricochets off Seokjin. They scrabble en masse , managing to take the stairs without injury, until they spill noisily into the first floor lobby.

Panting, Taehyung says, “Are you ready for your birthday dinner?”

“I ate with my family—” Hoseok checks his watch, “—four hours ago. Yeah. I guess I could eat.” He takes out his phone. “Lemme just—” So many messages. He scrolls through them, searching for one among the dozens of birthday wishes.

Giving up, he opens KKT and texts Yoongi a quick, Hey are you okay?

“We have a busy schedule tomorrow,” Seokjin says, tucking an arm around Hoseok’s shoulder. “I checked out a car, and we’re thinking noodles. Because it’s pasta our bedtime.”

Behind them, Jimin convulses into giggles. Namjoon covers his face with his hands.

“Is that your birthday gift to me?” Hoseok deadpans. “Because I’d like to return it.”

“Sorry, hyung,” Taehyung says, opening the lobby door to let them pass. “We’re pasta the point of no return.”

Pretending to faint, Hoseok lets them bundle him into the car.

“You’re a bad influence on him,” Namjoon says to Seokjin.

“He’s a bad influence on everyone,” Hoseok agrees. He checks his phone again. No new messages.

“Everyone, buckle up,” Seokjin commands, and Hoseok does as he’s told.


By noodles, they mean an Italian place near the studio, one with a private loft that gives them the whole upstairs to themselves. The restaurant smells of garlic and olive oil, and they serve heaping bowls of pasta family-style, with loads of toasty bread on the side.

“So many carbs,” Seokjin exults as he shovels penne rustica into his bowl.

“We’ll work it off tomorrow,” Namjoon says.

“Why tomorrow?” Taehyung says, alarmed. “We don’t have choreo tomorrow. Do we?”

Seokjin pats his shoulder. “We’re filming a sports challenge, remember? That place with the climbing wall.”

“Right,” Taehyung says, like he doesn’t remember at all. “Right?”

“Must be why JK stayed home,” Namjoon ventures. “He always likes to win those.”

“Yeah, and Yoongi-hyung has to rest, otherwise, he’ll never survive,” Jimin jokes. But Hoseok detects the hollow note in Jimin’s words, the one thing to give his grief away. Jimin wishes Jungkook was here, and they all know exactly why he’s not.

While they were in Japan, promoting for AbemaTV, Jimin and Hoseok spoke a little about the recent disagreement between Jungkook and Taehyung. Jimin skirted the dodgiest details, but the gist of their argument had to do with Taehyung’s behavior toward Seokjin throughout the summer, something about which Hoseok (thankfully) knows very little.

“Honestly, I don’t get it,” Jimin had confided to him in the hotel’s sauna after a tedious day of shooting promos. “If Seokjin and Taehyung are okay now, why is Jungkook so upset?”

Hoseok had agreed with Jimin. He couldn’t explain it, either. As a group, they have a long-standing, unspoken tradition of keeping out of Seokjin’s and Taehyung’s business. But he remembers the day he spent with them in Vegas. He came away thinking they must be a little crazy, to put up with each other as they have.

But now that Hoseok’s in a relationship (of sorts), he’s beginning to think everyone in love might live on the border of insanity.

“Hey, Jay,” Namjoon says, gesturing at him with a pasta fork. “You gonna answer that?”

Hoseok glances at his phone. It’s on silent but pulsing with rolling waves of light. The ID reads Hwagae Market. Hoseok dashes up from the table, racking his head on a low ceiling beam, but that barely registers as he thumbs the button to answer.

Yoongi says, “Hey, SeokSeok.”

Hoseok clambers out onto a smoker’s ledge barely a meter wide. The street below glistens with scattered neon. His heart pounds out a frenetic rhythm, so it’s a full fifteen seconds before he can speak.

“Hey, Yoongs,” he breathes. “You’re missing all the fun.”

“Yeah, doubt it,” he answers. “Sorry I didn’t make it, though.”

“You okay?”

“Mostly.” He exhales. “Working on something.”

“Good.” Hoseok shuts his eyes. He presses against the restaurant’s concrete facade, feeling the chill nip into his shoulder. “Can’t wait to hear it.”

“I wanna say happy birthday,” Yoongi says.

“Well, what’s stopping you?” Hoseok asks.

“Nothing, I just said it.”

“Wait, that was it?” Hoseok’s grinning. He’s glad the others aren’t there to witness.

“I didn’t have to call,” Yoongi reminds him.

“You did if you ever wanted to see my… how’d you describe it again? The tightest ass this side of England?”

Yoongi hisses over the line. “They will hear you,” he says. Hoseok hears the smile that underscores his voice.

“Nah,” Hoseok says. He cranes down to watch the others, packed around the wooden table, making a whole rowdy mess of their meal. “I think I figured something out.”

“Impart your wisdom, old man.”

Hoseok balks. Yoongi utters a soft, alluring chuckle. Hoseok thinks he might be willing to sell his soul in exchange for that one laugh on repeat for the rest of their lives. “I’ve said before that love makes you crazy—”

“—Me specifically, or people in general?”

“Quiet, you, I’m imparting.”

“Right. ’Kay. Go on.”

“Love makes people crazy,” Hoseok continues. “And the reason Seokjin and Taehyung managed to stay secret so long is because of us.”

Yoongi says, “Us, specifically, or—?”

“All of us,” Hoseok confirms. Through the patio glass, he watches as Taehyung feeds Seokjin a hunk of bread. “We were so wrapped up in our own things, we never saw them.”

“Until I caught them banging in a broom closet,” Yoongi reminds him.

“First step in avoiding detection,” Hoseok says. “No fucking in public areas.”

“Except for Hope World,” Yoongi says.

“And Genius Lab,” Hoseok says.

“Whoops.” Yoongi laughs again. Hoseok’s knees go a little weak.

“No fucking in public areas that don’t have locks on the doors,” Hoseok amends.

“You’re spoiling all my fantasies, Hope,” Yoongi says. “I say we risk it, starting with—”

Jimin yells Hoseok’s name. He gestures meaningfully toward him.

“File that thought for later, Yoongs. I think Jimin wants a group pic.”

Yoongi groans. He says, “Let’s celebrate on our own, all right?”

“Soon,” Hoseok promises. They linger in awkward silence, neither wanting to be the one to end the call.

“Hey, Hope,” Yoongi says.

“Yeah?”

“I, um—” A breath. Then, “Happy birthday.”

Coward, Hoseok thinks, grinning to himself. I love you, too.

Then he hangs up as Jimin comes to haul Hoseok back inside.

Chapter Text

KAKAOTALK
22 February 2018
7:25 a.m.

Adorable_Trap: FYI, we have several conferences with our new trainees today. Our schedule is very, very tight. Please do not be late to today’s production meeting.

KimTaehyung/V: yeah, Jimin ㅋㅋㅋ

ParkJimin: Okay, Taehyung ㅋㅋㅋㅋ

Adorable_Trap: Both of you. DO NOT be late.

ParkJimin:

KimTaehyung/V: We promise.

 

“Spread out a little bit,” Namjoon says. “We don’t want him to think this is, like, a meeting with the headmaster or anything.”

Yoongi and Jungkook wing their chairs out, giving Namjoon an arm’s length of space on either side. Still, Namjoon looks concerned.

“Hyung, maybe we should move to the sofas?” Jungkook suggests. “Form a circle?”

“Will the power cord reach? My tablet’s almost dead,” Namjoon says.

“Of course it is,” Yoongi grumbles. It’s too early for this, or perhaps too late from Namjoon’s and Jungkook’s perspective, but what Yoongi needs right now is industrial-grade coffee, dimmer overhead lights, and eight hours of uninterrupted creativity.

And anyway, after reading the latest song sent over from the songwriting team in Japan, Yoongi doubts that their placement around the tables will matter too much to Seokjin.

Yet Jungkook’s snaking the exceedingly long extension cord over the back of the sofa, while Namjoon follows gingerly behind, dodging their various backpacks and discarded jackets to arrange themselves around the coffee table.

“Pass me that folder,” Namjoon says, leaning back to Yoongi.

Yoongi grates out a long-suffering sigh. He slides the folder to Namjoon.

“And my water bottle,” Namjoon says. “And my pen.”

Yoongi can reach neither of these items easily. He catches Namjoon’s smirk and knows he knows it, too. Yoongi shoves up from the chair, squeezing around the table’s edge to collect Namjoon’s belongings. On his way to the bank of couches, he begins a litany of complaints.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t do this over email,” Yoongi tells them. “We’re busy men. This is sensitive material, and it’s so fucking cold outside, the last thing Jin-hyung wants to do on any day is discuss his private life with me and Kookie as an audience.” Yoongi drops to the sofa. “At the very least, you coulda brought coffee.”

“First,” Namjoon says. “Because this is such a sensitive subject, we could not do it via email. Second, we’re already meeting with the production team today so we might as well have this out beforehand, and third—”

The outer door opens. Seokjin appears at the glass wall, balancing a cardboard tray of coffees, fruit cups, and pastries across his arms.

“—Jin-hyung said he’s bringing food,” Namjoon finishes.

Jungkook springs up, heading for the door to let Seokjin in. He enters, exclaiming loudly about the cold and his gratitude for Jungkook’s help. He strips off his coat, shucks his gloves, and joins them at the table.

Seokjin smells like a mixture of wind and sugar. His eyes are bright, his skin glowing like cherry blooms, and Yoongi has one of those moments where he wonders how the hell they ever managed to snag this guy. He doesn’t even seem real. Then it turns out he can sing like a goddamned angel, with a voice that can make the toughest among them cry. The rest are all marshmallows, so Yoongi being toughest doesn’t amount to much, but still...

Seokjin’s gabbling about something Yeontan did that frightened Odeng as he pops open the fruit cups with his thumbs. Jungkook reaches for one; Seokjin smacks his hand away to pass the first one to their leader.

Namjoon stares into the cup a moment before setting it aside. “Jin-hyung,” he says. “We need you to read something.”

Seokjin goes rigid. He says, “That doesn’t sound good.”

Yoongi rolls his eyes. “No, it is good,” he says. “Joon-ah, we talked about this. We said we were gonna lead with the positive.”

“All I said was that he needs to read it,” Namjoon shoots back. “Where’s the negative in that?”

“It’s the way you said it, hyung,” Jungkook says, finally grabbing his fruit cup.

“Is it a message from PD-nim?” Seokjin asks. “Is it about Taehyung?”

“No,” Namjoon says. Then, “Well, sorta.”

“Aish, Joon,” Yoongi says. He takes Namjoon’s tablet and flips it around for Seokjin. As Seokjin skims the text on the screen, Yoongi explains, “This is a song they want to include on Face Yourself. We’ll flesh out the rap parts later, but… I think you’ll understand why we felt you should read it.”

Seokjin darts a glance at him. “Oh,” he breathes, then, “Wow.”

“So, about that,” Namjoon begins.

“It’s a beautiful song,” Yoongi interrupts.

“It is,” Seokjin agrees. His eyes flit to the top of the screen and skim down the column of lyrics again. “It’s—” He looks at Namjoon. “—Did you write this?”

“Man, I didn’t even consult with the team on it,” Namjoon says.

“But, how?” Seokjin says. He scruffs a hand through his shaggy bangs. “This is about me and Taehyung, but I’ve only ever told the two of you about this.” He jabs a hand at the tablet.  “How do they know?”

“I don’t think they do, really,” Namjoon reasons. “And remember, this isn’t the first time this has happened, where our songs parallel real life.”

“But not like this,” Seokjin says. He continues to scan the verses, his lashes flicking through the lines. “Best of Me isn’t like this. I mean, this song is about letting go, and all the hell we went through last year. Who is this Jun anyway? And how closely is he watching us? How much do the songwriters know about us?”

Yoongi says, “Look, hyung, it’s vague enough that it could be about anyone—”

“—But it’s not about anyone,” Seokjin says, his voice edging up to panic. “This song’s about us.”

Yoongi’s list of needs upgrades from coffee and creative time to a deep, steamy soak bath and two bottles of merlot.

“The point is, hyung,” Namjoon hems in. “What we need to know is, can you perform it? Can you get up on stage and sing these lines with Taehyung a meter away? Can you do that?”

Seokjin gives them a hollow chuckle. “What if I can’t?”

Jungkook shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Namjoon gnaws his thumbnail. Yoongi sucks air through his teeth. It’s moments like this that make Yoongi glad Namjoon’s the leader and not him. Yoongi would botch this. He’d tell Seokjin that this is part of the business, and to suck it up because this is the work they signed up to do.

“You already know the answer,” Namjoon tells him. “If you don’t sing it, they’ll assign the part to JK. They’ll split up the harmonies, and you’ll be on stage, dancing without a song again—”

“—There’s choreo?” Seokjin moans.

“For the fanmeeting,” Jungkook puts in.

“Ah, kill me now,” Seokjin mutters. But then he shakes himself, an exaggerated whole-body shudder. He exhales. He wipes his eyes. He reads through Let Go once more. Then he says, “No, I can do it. I can do this. I won’t be able to look at him, but I can do it.”

Namjoon flicks a cautious look at Yoongi. He says, “You’re sure?”

Yoongi’s seen this kind of thing with Seokjin before, this kind of purposeful recentering, in which Seokjin takes an unpleasant or frightening experience and just stuffs it down like he’s repacking a parachute. Experts might call it repression, but hell, you know, whatever gets him through the day.

Seokjin’s not crying, though; Yoongi takes this as a good sign. He’s thinking about how proud he is of Seokjin, how strong and mature he’s become, when Jungkook lets out a strangled little sigh.

“I don’t understand it,” he says.

And all at once, they realize that Jungkook’s the one who’s fighting back tears. “I don’t get how you can look at Taehyung after what he did to you. It just… it doesn’t make any sense.”

Yoongi goes, “What d’you mean? What’d he do?”

Jungkook glares at Seokjin.

“That’s his business and mine,” Seokjin says.

“Fuck that,” Yoongi snorts. “We live together. What affects you guys affects us all.” Even as he says this, he understands what a hypocritical assertion it is, given that he is currently banging Jung Hoseok in secret.

“Don’t worry,” Seokjin says, crisply. “We won’t be living together much longer.”

At this, they all watch as Jungkook struggles not to lose it. He murmurs out a few incoherent phrases before Namjoon finally comes to his rescue.

“Hey, look,” Namjoon says. “Okay. Taehyung grew a lot last year. He’s grateful to Seokjin for allowing him that space, and they’re working hard to put things right.” Namjoon reaches way across the table to squeeze Seokjin’s knee. “JK, these two taught me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about unconditional love. Which is why…” Namjoon shakes his head. “Hyung, you should do this song. If you connect with it on an emotional level, you’ll be able to sing the hell out of it, and that will probably feel really good.”

“Does Taehyung know?” Seokjin asks.

“Not yet,” Namjoon says. “We wanted to clear it with you first, in case you wanted to switch with JK.”

“Clear it with me.” Again, Seokjin forces a fake little laugh. “Clear the calories in my coffee, while you’re at it,” he says, raising his cup. “And the color of my hair, and the length of my bangs. And what I’ll eat for breakfast. It’s steak, by the way. I’m having steak—”

“—I know, hyung,” Namjoon says, softly. “We’re grown men, and they make these decisions for us—”

“—No, I get it,” Seokjin says, sobering. “I’m fine, really. We’re not so different from everyone else. People are always telling us what to do and how to live, and who to love, apparently, and when to wake up, and when to sleep. But it’s fine. Really.” He pats down his hair. He sips his coffee. “It’s fine.”

Namjoon hesitates a moment longer before saying, “You’re sure?”

Seokjin nods. Namjoon shifts the tablet between them. They begin, tentatively, to discuss line distribution, bantering over each other in the way they do when they’re ready to get to work.

But Yoongi senses that while they’re eager to move on, Jungkook is not. The maknae watches Namjoon and Seokjin, his forehead peaked above his brows.

“What about this still upsets you?” Yoongi asks. He possesses the tact of a ten-year-old child, so the words come off like a taunt. He immediately regrets speaking.

“I don’t see how you could forgive him,” Jungkook says, still addressing Seokjin. “I wouldn’t. I haven’t. And now you’re leaving us and—”

“—You know what, it doesn’t matter,” Yoongi says.

Jungkook says, “Hyung, you just said—”

“—Yeah I know what I said, now listen,” Yoongi shoots back. “This is what we signed up for. ‘Always assume we’re on camera,’ remember that? It means that in exchange for the massive fortunes piled in our bank accounts and the huge amounts of fame and praise we receive, we live our lives in willing captivity. We’re like zoo animals, alright? We are completely exposed.”

They gawk at him; he forges on.

“You’re surprised these songs are about us?” Yoongi says. “Don’t be. Believe me, they – we: Namjoon, me, our songwriting teams – we are all watching. We soak it up and spit it out. And you, Jin-hyung,” Yoongi shakes his head. “You and Taehyung should never have gotten together.”

He hates the wounded look in Seokjin’s eyes, hates that his words have caused it. Yet he keeps speaking. “Hyung, don’t,” Yoongi says. “I told you way back when I caught you two fucking in a cupboard: This is the kind of thing that brings idol groups down. It’s a distraction. It takes away from our mission. You do remember, right? The promise we made: Give the world the music it needs. That’s bigger than you and me, and all these petty things. And yes, that goes for you and Jimin, too.”

And me and Hope, Yoongi thinks but doesn’t have the balls to say.

“You know, we don’t have to keep doing this,” Yoongi tells them. “You think it’s unfair, they write songs about you, tell you what to eat, how to live? Guess what, there’s the door. Our contracts expire soon; let’s talk options. But if, like me, you wanna keep working on this dream, then, by all means, fucking get to work. Either way, stop whining about it. It’s giving me a fucking headache.”

The others gape at him, because how can they respond to that? It comes off like a scolding, the headmaster’s conference Namjoon so hoped to avoid. And in its wake, Yoongi has a brand new desire. He wishes wistfully for Hoseok’s bed, which smells of lavender, and Hoseok’s arms, which smell of warmth and greenness, like a hillside after rain, and he thinks, holy fuck, Hoseok has rendered me pathetic.

More pathetic. Whatever.

But it’s the heart of Yoongi’s problem.

Whatever he and Hoseok might have, Yoongi can’t keep it. He has work to do. Real, honest, tangible work, and not… this . Meanwhile, they are in the process of unraveling, so maybe it’s best to remind them what’s at stake.

“All right, then,” Namjoon says. “When the others get here, we’ll discuss this.”

Yoongi reels with inward horror. This is not what he expected Namjoon to say. Nor did he anticipate the nods of assent around the table from Jungkook and Seokjin. Yoongi sets his coffee down. He tells himself to move slowly, to breathe, to keep calm, even though his heart pulses like a distant, dying star.

“Well,” he grumbles. “This has been exhausting.” He pushes to his feet. “I’ma take a break. Do anything that’s not this… Call me when the others arrive”

“Jiminie’s on his way,” Jungkook says, reading from his phone. “Taehyungie, too. Looks like they’ll be on time for a change.”

“Adora’s on her way up. And Hope as well,” Namjoon says. “So when they get in, I guess we’ll have a talk.”

Chapter Text

“Hold my head inside your hands
I need someone who understands
I need someone, someone who hears
For you, I've waited all these years.”
Til Kingdom Come, Coldplay

9 March 2018 - Yoongi’s birthday

Hoseok stands outside Genius Lab with the cake in his hands, wondering if this is such a great idea.

The others got the message. Yoongi’s busy. He’s working on three albums at once. He doesn’t have time for cake and distraction. Also, no one’s been in a particularly festive mood since they had the big, scary talk about whether they want to continue this whole insane, chaotic idol life. But Jimin dismissed their objections.

With what is becoming a habitual fake laugh, he’d told him, “Hoseokie-hyung. Everyone has time for cake.”

So they borrowed a studio car. They drove to e-Mart, and as they picked out a modest chocolate cake, Jimin reassured him. “He’s been working too hard, hyung,” Jimin had said. “Five minutes isn’t too much of a break. He should take a rest, right?”

“Right,” Hoseok had answered. “You’re right.”

Yet Yoongi had been clear. He took the briefest break to celebrate the release of Hope World. As a group, they went to dinner with Bang PD, and then as a secret couple, they went back to Hoseok’s place.

Hoseok could tell then that something was wrong. When he pressed Yoongi to talk with him, he’d been vague on the details, playing the we’re-above-such-drama card as a means of luring Hoseok back to bed.

Which hadn’t taken much. Things between him and Yoongi still feel all sparkly and new. Plus, they’ve been insanely busy, promoting in separate countries, working on albums and mixtapes, burying themselves in various projects.

They had an amazingly fantastic night, and then Yoongi vanished, disappearing back down the rabbit hole that is his brain. The thing is, Hoseok knows how Yoongi gets when he’s working. To mix literary references, he’s like Theseus in the Labyrinth, searching out answers in the dark catacombs of his mind. Hoseok knows better than to interfere with the man’s process. Yoongi’s ability to dredge through his misery to find deeper meaning has brought them no small amount of success.

But Hoseok does wonder – as he often wonders – at what cost?

Surely Yoongi’s psyche is too great a price. And if so, then Jimin is right. Cake and distraction can only serve as a reminder that Yoongi is loved.

Only as Hoseok stands there on Yoongi’s door mat – a very Suga-looking cat flipping them off beneath the words Go Away! – he questions the purity of his own motives. Is Hoseok deliberately ignoring Yoongi’s boundaries in an effort to chip into the protective shell he wears when he’s creating?

And Jimin, who has made a career of disregarding boundaries in the name of bolstering morale, beams proudly as he waves Hoseok to the door.

“Go ahead, knock,” Jimin laughs, holding up his phone.

Dread pricks at Hoseok’s gut. The smell of burnt wax and frosting stings his nose. He forces a smile as he taps on Yoongi’s door.

Yoongi peeks out. Jimin and Hoseok begin to sing. Yoongi emits a strangled squeak, moving quickly to correct his error. As Hoseok heels the door open, Yoongi yanks his sleeve to drag him inside, slamming the door behind him.

Yoongi blows out the candles. Into the closeness between them, he mutters, “If we’re quiet, do you think he’ll go away?”

At the door, Jimin sings, “Hyung, I can hear you.”

“Thank you,” Yoongi calls. “Good night.” He shoves Hoseok behind him.

Jimin rattles the doorknob. “Hyung…”

“I’m busy. Bye bye.” Then Yoongi moves to his chair and drops into it. He drags his hands through his hair, and then he doesn’t move for a long, still stretch of time.

Hoseok exhales a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He parts the door a sliver, enough to see Jimin’s face, still looking cheery and hopeful on the other side. Hoseok passes the cake through to him.

“Take it home, will you please?” Hoseok says.

Jimin’s expression morphs from delight to concern. He mouths, “Is he okay?”

“Sure. Of course,” Hoseok says, knowing it’s a lie, knowing he needs to say something to appease Jimin, who only ever wants to help. “You know how he gets when he’s working.”

Jimin considers for a moment. Then, over Hoseok’s shoulder, he yells, “Happy birthday, Yoongi-hyung. I love you.”

Yoongi still doesn’t move.

A fist knots in Hoseok’s stomach. This is worse than he thought.

“He says he loves you, too. Now go, before the cake melts.” Then before Jimin can object, Hoseok shuts the door.

Back before debut, back when Hoseok shared a room with Yoongi and Namjoon and a revolving wheel of fellow trainees, Yoongi liked to hide out in the recording room. Liked is maybe too strong a word. Escaped is more accurate. Yoongi escaped into the cramped, mildew-crusted cubicle where he burrowed into his work. There, he lost himself beneath piles of musty sweatshirts, fly-specked take-out boxes, and harrowing despair.

They laugh about it now, at how desperate and disgusting it was – that haven for young men to hash out the injustices of their youth. He and Yoongi passed endless hours in that room, discussing the heartbreaks and disappointments of their childhoods. This habit continued from one studio building to another, and though the Genius Lab is a far cry from the glorified closet that was their first recording room, it remains for Yoongi his ultimate hiding place.

Yoongi sits there, rigid at his desk, his fists in his hair, and Hoseok knows things have gone beyond Yoongi’s basic need for escape.

In times like these, Hoseok runs down his checklist of worries to gauge the severity of Yoongi’s condition. Is he nonresponsive? Yep. Has he regressed into an anti-social state? Definitely. Is his body wracked by crippling anxiety? Regrettably, undeniably, yes.

As Hoseok hovers in the doorway, wondering how to proceed, Yoongi croaks, “Hey Hope.”

This snaps his paralysis. He comes over to kneel at Yoongi’s side. “Hey Yoongs,” he says.

On his monitor, an avalanche of open tabs bathes his face with an icy glow. Yoongi drops a hand to his mouse, flicking through a few screens, bringing them each in succession to the top.

“It’s my birthday, isn’t it?” Yoongi asks.

“Kinda.”

“I lost track… I’ve been working.”

And here we have losing time, another symptom on the checklist.

“I see that,” Hoseok says. He keeps his focus tightly trained on Yoongi’s eyes. They’re red and crusty, but lit with a kind of manic fire that sets Hoseok’s nerves on edge.

“It’s good, Hope,” Yoongi says. “It’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. Some of my best work, right here, on this screen.”

“I’m not surprised,” Hoseok says. “This is the Genius Lab, not Mediocrity Corner.”

Yoongi coughs a laugh. He says, “Lame.”

Hoseok angles forward to kiss the corner of his mouth. Yoongi’s shoulders stiffen, and that’s when Hoseok understands.

This is about them.

“Yoongs,” Hoseok asks. “What’s going on?”

Yoongi clears his throat. He says, “Everyone is watching us.”

And there’s the paranoia: check and mate. Hoseok says, “Should I contact a doctor?”

“No.” Yoongi twists toward him, moving like an ailing, ancient man. “No, it’s not like that.” To Hoseok’s undoubtedly dubious look, Yoongi raises a hand. “I promise.”

Hoseok shifts to sit, his legs crossed, his back against the wall. Yoongi swivels to face him. His fingers worry at a stain on his pants, something days old and crispy. He grimaces as he realizes how unkempt he must look to Hoseok.

He says, “You know how this goes.” His voice sounds thready and thin.

“I do.” Hoseok hooks his pinky with Yoongi’s.

“You know I gotta stay focused, right? No birthdays, no... distractions.” Then he twists a lock of his hair and gives it a tug. “You’re not a distraction. That’s not what I mean.”

“I know,” Hoseok says. Pressure aches behind his eyes.

“And I don’t want to be one of those pathetic artist types who claims that suffering sharpens the blade of creativity or whatever, but…”

“But what?” Hoseok asks.

Yoongi meets his eyes, and there’s a flash of frailty in them. “But what if I am?” he asks, and then he smiles, his toothiest, gummiest smile. “What if I’m no good when I’m happy? What if I’m only as good as my pain?”

Hoseok catches both of Yoongi’s hands in his own. He squares them on Yoongi’s knees. “Hey,” he says, pulling Yoongi’s attention down to him. “You’re not. And this fear you’re feeling, it’s real and understandable.”

“To you it is, because you’re my lifeline. You’re right here with me. But to other people? To our fans?” Yoongi scrubs the several-days-old stubble on his chin. “Our lives are so different now. We are so different. We’re way beyond the stratosphere, Hope. How can anyone relate to what we’re going through?”

Hoseok doesn’t have the answer to that.

Yoongi pulls a hand free to click through his cascade of open files. Then he turns back to Hoseok. He says, “You know I'm proud of you, right? Hope World deserves every bit of the praise it's receiving.”

Hoseok plays along with this ploy to distract him. “Sure, and it only took three years to do it...”

“Good work takes time,” Yoongi says.

“Yoongs,” Hoseok says. “Really. What is this about?”

Yoongi steeples his fingers over his nose. Then he pushes the keyboard. He fiddles with the mouse. He says, “I can’t stop thinking about what I said to Seokjin. I told him he and Taehyung should never have gotten together, and right now, this minute, he’s packing up his dorm, and I... Hope, can you believe I said that to him?”

“Well.” Hoseok frowns. “Do you believe it?”

“Sometimes.” Yoongi wipes his nose on the back of his hand. “And then I think about us.” His smile wavers. He says, “Thing is, Hope, there’s something still poisoned—” He touches his chest. “—in here. With me. I’m certain I will hurt you, the way Taehyung hurt Seokjin, and I can’t do that. I can’t. So until I figure this out… I shouldn’t be an Us.”

Hoseok's shoulder blades ache against the wall. “You need time,” he hears himself say.

Yoongi’s face pales with relief. He says, “It’s unfair to ask—”

“—Let me decide what’s fair for myself," Hoseok cuts in. "And anyway, it’s not like you can ghost on me. We’re still together, all the time.”

“Good.” Yoongi stares at him. “And I promise once I'm healed…” he gestures toward the screen. “I’ll be there. I can promise that, you know?”

“Counting on it.” Hoseok scrapes to his feet. He feels floaty and light-headed, like he’s detached from the earth and drifting. He says, “However long it takes, Yoongs. I’ll be here.”

“Hope, I—” Yoongi catches his arm. He wraps himself around it, burying his face against his elbow. “I’m sorry.”

“None of that.” Hoseok presses his lips to the top of his head. There’s an ache in him, but it’s not unfamiliar or even unpleasant. It’s an understanding, and maybe that can be enough. “I’m gonna go, okay.” He lets Yoongi extricate himself and resettle in front of his computer.

Yoongi looks small and pale in the reflected light of the screen. He says, “Thank you, for checking in on me.”

“Babe, I believe in you,” Hoseok says.

“Lame,” Yoongi says again, but he looks ridiculously relieved.

Which, despite everything, makes Hoseok smile. “I’ll see you when you get home,” and then he leaves Yoongi to his work.

END of PART ONE

Chapter Text

PART Two: Spring

 

“If you start to like someone else,
If I get used to not being with you,
When that time comes, when it’s that time
Only then...”
Only Then, cover by Jungkook

14 March 2018 – Seonjaedo

The buds on the cherry trees thrust like tight green fists against the wind. Across the inlet, the breeze carries the scent of roasting squid and kerosene. Because this video’s supposed to be set during a warmer time, Jungkook and Jimin must shed their heavy coats between takes. While they’re filming, they’re running around, Jungkook dashing after Jimin across an abandoned lot, or running with him down an empty street. Once the take is done, they huddle under thin sunlight, chilled from their sweat beneath the layers of their clothes.

Between takes, Jimin shows him clips and photos from his latest trip to Japan.

“They’re so blurry,” Jungkook jokes as Jimin thumbs through them.

“Don’t make fun of me,” Jimin says. “We were so busy, Jungkookie. We barely had time to sleep. Look, I put on weight.” He sneaks up the edge of his sweater, exposing the barest slice of his hip.

“Jimin-ssi,” he whispers, tugging it back down.

Jimin grins because he knows full well what he’s doing. “Nothing but convenience store kimbap and ramen from the mini-bar. Look how fat.”

Jungkook twists the hem of Jimin’s sweater, grazing his knuckles across the smooth skin of Jimin’s tummy. Jimin catches his wrist, but it’s unclear whether he wants to push Jungkook away or pull him closer. He’s laughing, and his breath is sweet. His black hair sweeps into his eyes, and he can’t rake it back because Jungkook has him pinned.

Bongsun, the camera operator, shouts down from an adjacent building. Jungkook freezes, remembering Yoongi’s assertion that people are watching them. Then he remembers PD-nim’s quiet censure, reminding Jungkook that he’s no longer a child. He’s certain someone’s going to come yell at them for playing, but when Hobeom answers back, Jungkook realizes they’re all going about the normal business of setting up the cameras.

So it’s unlikely they’ll notice if Jungkook takes the opportunity to slide his cold hands up Jimin’s shirt.

Jimin shivers. “Jungkookie, you missed me, didn’t you?”

He glances up at the sky. “Hm, were you gone?”

Jimin shoves him. Jungkook catches his arms. He stares at Jimin’s lips and thinks about how long it’s been since he’s had the chance to kiss him.

“Yeah,” he admits, his voice all gruff and throaty. “I missed you.”

“Wait.” Jimin tilts his head. He’s too good at reading him, and too intuitive to let it go. “You’re still upset. You’re still upset about the other day, aren’t you?”

“No, Jimin,” he says. “Now’s not the time.”

“You can talk to me,” Jimin says. “I’m mad, too, about Seokjin moving out, and what Yoongi said. You can tell me. I’ll listen.”

“Baby, I know,” Jungkook says. He taps Jimin’s shoulder and points. The unit director, Wonju, is trundling toward them with a bike. He explains that Jungkook will chase him while Jimin rides around in a circle.

Jungkook goes to his mark. An intern takes his coat and combs his hair into place. Jimin’s standing on the pedals, ready to fly. When Wonju yells action, Jungkook runs his heart out to catch him.

 

Jungkook and Jimin wrap their filming before the second unit does. They head down the main road to where the caterer’s truck and company vans block the street. Across the road, beyond the sea wall, families in mud boots mash around the tidal flats in search of shellfish, their children racing among them in parkas bright as flags. A pang of nostalgia stabs at Jungkook as he recalls his boyhood in Busan, times when he and his Dad picked along the shoreline, scuffing out chunks of stone and seashells.

It wasn’t so long ago, really; only a handful of years. He hasn’t missed those times, not until recently. He knows he thought those endless summer days with his family would last forever, and the fact that they so abruptly ceased, without even a little bit of ceremony, makes him all the more unsettled about what’s happening now.

But that’s so big, it’s like a stone he’s swallowed whole; he cannot breathe around it. He can’t think or even see, and Jimin, with his unflinching persistence, keeps trying to coax it out of him.

They hunch together in the backseat of a van, texting back and forth because Jimin’s favorite manager, Gaemae, dozes beside them, his head on Jimin’s shoulder, a sweater bunched beneath his cheek.

Jungkook relays his feelings about what Yoongi said. It’s easier this way, in the same way things seem simpler through his camera lens. Talking through chat, Jungkook can parse out his feelings so they don’t overwhelm him. And Jimin remains, warm and present at his side. He gets the benefits of Jimin’s empathetic reactions without having to speak the words aloud.

Jimin writes, You’re still mad at Taehyungie?

Jungkook answers, Does it matter if I am?

Jimin writes, It matters to me.

Jungkook breathes out. He writes, It’s not that I’m mad. I don’t understand.

Jimin whispers, “What can I do to help?”

He doubts there’s anything they can do. He shrugs and twines his fingers with Jimin’s. Gaemae shifts in his sleep. Their driver and Hobeom walk by, immersed in a hushed conversation about orchids or swordfish, two things about which Jungkook knows very little.

He doesn’t know much about anything, really. He thinks Yoongi is right; this, with Jimin, it’s a distraction. But he also thinks that kissing Jimin that day in Bangkok was one of the best things he’s ever done. It was foolish and impulsive, something he dreamed of but never dared, until Jimin stood there, flustered over Taehyung running after Seokjin, and Jungkook just… moved.

Ever since, it’s been easy.

Loving Jimin is easy.

This is something he knows, but he’s never stopped to wonder why.

Jimin reads a message from the chat. He whispers, “Do we know what the caterers brought to eat?”

Gaemae knows, but they don’t want to wake him.

“I think chicken, maybe noodles?” Jungkook guesses, because those seem to be the most common options for their catered fare.

Speaking aloud as he types, Jimin says, “Jungkookie says he would like to have noodles because he wants to be as chubby as me.”

Jungkook squeezes Jimin’s hand as he lunges for the phone. Suppressing a squeal, Jimin arches as far away as he can, dislodging Gaemae from his rest. He blinks at them, owl-eyed, before gently chiding Jimin for being so squirmy. While Jimin’s sincerely promising to be more careful, he lets down his guard long enough for Jungkook to snatch his phone.

He reads the message that Jimin sent: Jungkook says chicken or noodles.

Jimin smiles, his eyes disappearing beneath his cheeks. He singsongs, “Can’t believe you fell for that.”

At that moment, the second unit vans pull into the cordoned intersection. Hoseok springs from the first one, stretching lavishly as he crosses the lot. He’s followed by Namjoon and Yoongi, then Seokjin and Taehyung. Within minutes, the whole street swarms with BigHit staff, a whole village of activity descending upon the caterer’s truck and its array of portable tables.

Like prisoners in a jail mess hall, Jimin and Jungkook join the line for lunch.

“Noodles,” Jimin says, opening his box for Jungkook. They linger a moment, giggling over this tiny, private joke, which draws Seokjin’s attention. After a moment’s hesitation, Taehyung joins them, too, and then they’re all sitting and talking together as if nothing has changed.

Jungkook gazes around the tables. The stylists dyed their hair to matching shades of black, and in that one way, the seven of them are unified. But in truth, it seems they have never been further apart. Since Seokjin bought his villa, it’s as though, as a group, they decided that if he could get a place of his own, then they all would. Bang Sihyuk agreed, and so with their new contracts in effect, the hunt for individual apartments began, exactly as Jungkook feared.

Everyone started searching except for Jimin, who clings with hopeful tenacity to the idea that this is just a phase – like Seokjin’s all-chicken diet, or Namjoon’s penchant for binging on foreign TV.

But Jungkook already knows, this is the beginning of the end. He’s watching it unfold, powerless to stop it, and the man responsible for everything sits across the table, sharing a series of images with Jimin from his phone.

“See how he was able to express energy and emotion through chaos?” Taehyung enthuses.

“You would like the chaos,” Jungkook sniffs. Taehyung darts a hurt look at Jimin, who bleeds out a breathy giggle.

“Nevermind Jungkookie,” Jimin breezes. “He’s just cold and hungry. Anyway, I like the colors.”

Seokjin leans over. “This again?” he teases. “Taehyung-ah, you could do that.”

Taehyung puffs up, clearly pleased. Seokjin rolls his eyes.

“No, VV, I mean anyone can do that. It’s like a giant sneezed paint on a canvas.” Seokjin gestures with his chopsticks. “Tan-ah could do it. Give Odengie a paintbrush, he could do it. Now that would be an expression of chaos.”

Taehyung scoffs. “You said the same about Klimt.”

“Wrong. I like Klimt,” Seokjin says. “He uses bling.”

At the head of the table, Hoseok chuckles as he stirs gochujang into his noodles.

“Hold up. Let me get this straight, hyung,” Namjoon chimes in. “It’s the presence of gold that makes it art?”

“It’s the presence of talent that makes it art,” Seokjin states with an air of complete authority.

This is talent,” Taehyung objects. “Jackson Pollock did something that no one ever did before. That’s what makes him an example of legendary talent.”

“Taehyung, he’s a fake,” Seokjin says. Taehyung points fervently at the phone screen; Seokjin steamrolls over his protests. “If anything, he’s a scam artist, because I’ve seen this exact thing on the walls of hotel bathrooms all over the world. The only difference is, this guy got lucky with people who knew good PR.”

“Also he died young,” Yoongi throws in.

“Don’t say that,” Hoseok hisses.

Yoongi grunts, “What? He did!”

“Let’s be pleasant,” Hoseok tells him. “We’re trying to eat.”

“I like him,” Taehyung insists. “Someday I’ll buy his work, and I’ll hang it in our house.”

“You’re a fool,” Seokjin says. Then he adds, “Hang it in the bathroom then, where it belongs.”

Taehyung narrows his eyes. “I’ll hang it above the bed.”

Smirking, Seokjin goes, “You’ll have to move the Klimt.”

And everyone collapses into laughter as Taehyung, conceding defeat, gives Seokjin his boxy frown of a smile. Then Taehyung gives Seokjin all the chicken from his bowl.

It makes Jungkook feel sick, so he pushes his noodles away.

Jimin angles close. “Do you not like it?” he whispers. “Do you want me to see if they have something else?”

“No,” Jungkook barks. It’s too sharp, and Jimin flinches, though he recovers so quickly Jungkook can almost believe it didn’t happen. He can’t fully account for the bolt of anger that follows, or his irritation that he can’t pinpoint its cause.

That’s stupid, though. He’s not upset with Jimin; he’s mad at Taehyung. Though on the tail of that thought, Jungkook realizes it’s not entirely true.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers to Jimin. “I just… I hate that they’re joking like this when—”

“—It’s fine, Jungkookie.” Jimin dismisses it with a flourish. “We’re all tired. Drink some tea, you’ll feel better.” Jimin motions up the table, and Taehyung, reading the gesture, pours them each a cup.

Jungkook feels wretched as he begrudgingly accepts the cup and sips. “I hate that they’re joking like this when our bruises are still so tender,” he mutters. The words ripple the surface of tea, but beyond that, no one hears him. They’ve shifted the subject to excited talk of Hoseok’s mixtape and their upcoming promotions in Japan. They’re rowdy in their teasing, laughing as if to show the world that they’re all okay.

Only Jungkook and Taehyung are quiet. For Taehyung’s part, he remains vigilant, attentive to Seokjin’s every action and word, like he was in the beginning when they first fell in love.

Jungkook turns to Jimin. He wants to ask Jimin why all this hurts him so much. Seokjin and Taehyung are supposed to love each other, so why can’t Jungkook just let them be? But Jimin is radiant as he laughs with them, content to be at the heart of their warmth and humor.

Jimin won’t get it. He’ll make excuses for Jungkook’s bad temper. He'll laugh it off with an offer of tea. And maybe Jimin’s right. Maybe it’s not their business what happens between Seokjin and Taehyung.

Except it is, Jungkook thinks. They’re family, so it is.

So Jungkook keeps watching and failing to understand.

 

For the rest of the day, they film at an abandoned factory. In the evening, the interns pack up props and wardrobes while they wait for the sun to set. It’s one of those long, glorious ordeals where the sun’s rays elongate in golden sweeps through gauzy clouds, drawing the night down from orange to scarlet to a deep, silken blue. There’s the scent of old tires and the tide on the wind, and though it’s even colder now, they dress Jungkook in pajamas that might as well be made of paper.

The other five have all fled the rooftop in favor of the heated vans below, but Jimin hangs back with Bongsun at the primary camera, watching as they film. Jungkook perches on a ledge that’s meant to look perilous, though in truth, he’s only a meter off the rooftop. Even so, when he closes his eyes, he pretends like he’s falling.

He thinks, It’s easy to pretend from a place of safety.

Then he thinks, Is that what Jimin is for me? My safety net? Are we pretending, too?

He wonders what it means for them if this is true.

Wonju calls action. Jungkook opens his eyes. He spreads his arms. He thinks of Jimin, and he smiles.

If the mere thought of Jimin gives him joy, then Jungkook decides he shouldn’t feel afraid. With everything that’s changing, maybe right now, that’s all he needs to know.

Chapter Text

“Let’s make a door. It’s in your heart.
Open the door, and this place will await.”
Magic Shop, BTS

22 March 2018 – Seoraksan – ( Seokjin’s photo )

“You’re the one who wanted to hike,” Seokjin says, kneading his thumbs into the back of Taehyung’s thigh.

“I wanted to see these mountains of your childhood,” Taehyung corrects, breathless and wincing, as Seokjin works the knots from his muscles.

“Well, now you’ve seen them,” Seokjin says. He flexes his fingers, wiggling them to work the feeling back in. “Was it worth it?”

“Very much.” Taehyung rolls onto his back. He pushes his head into Seokjin’s lap. His black hair feathers across Seokjin’s legs like a crown, and Seokjin combs through it, smoothing out the tangles the wind has made.

Seokjin breathes in the smell of Taehyung, a boyish scent of earth and fresh air. The dust that cakes around his eyes gives Seokjin a preview of what Taehyung might look like as an old man. He’ll remain beautiful, Seokjin knows, and strong in the way of pottery from an ancient civilization. Fragile, yet resilient. Able to withstand hardship and time.

Seokjin moves to trace Taehyung’s eyebrow. Taehyung arches up to bite his thumb, and Seokjin veers away.

“I thought you were tired,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung flicks a glance at the bathroom door, which hangs open to expose a wedge of marble tile. “Does that tub look deep enough for both of us?”

Seokjin knows it is. It’s the reason he booked the room.

“We could try it out.”

“We should definitely try it out.”

Seokjin bends forward to press a kiss to the mole on Taehyung’s nose.

“Later,” Taehyung says. “Let’s try it later.” He moves fluidly, sliding them to their sides. “Right now, let’s do this.”

“Yes, love,” Seokjin tells him. Taehyung rolls into the pillows. His eyes take on a glow of excitement, and it’s enough to dispel the last remnants of exhaustion from their bones.

Seokjin moves Taehyung’s own hand to touch himself, guiding his palm from base to tip, gratified to find him growing harder with every stroke. He slides beneath Taehyung’s hips, hooking one of his legs around Seokjin’s waist. Seokjin’s ready, too, but he plans to take his time with Taehyung. He reaches over their heads to the bag on the bedside table, puzzling out the bottle of banana-flavored lube.

He knows they’re good at this. He knows Taehyung’s body as well as he knows his own. He knows what to tease and press to make him writhe and cry out. He loves watching his face, from the tight wince of pain as he enters him to the flood of release when he comes.

And Taehyung laughs when he comes. It’s like a wave of joy unleashing deep inside him. It rolls through him and into Seokjin, and he comes, too, in a rush that renders them both speechless.

It has taken them so long to master this one thing, this beautiful, simultaneous release, but now they manage to pull it off even after an eight-kilometer hike in the mountains. And as they lie there, spent and panting, Seokjin murmurs, “Is it absurd how proud I am for how far we’ve come?”

Taehyung chuckles gruffly. “Pun intended?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Seokjin says. He stretches, deepening the angle of his penetration, and Taehyung sharply inhales. He wraps his arms around Taehyung’s shoulders, gathering their bodies together. They’re reluctant to part, hesitant to break this closeness.

Seokjin buries his nose into the bend of Taehyung’s neck. He breathes in the salt and sweat of him, fighting down the temptation to bite. He knows from experience that tickling Taehyung will violently disrupt the heavy softness between them.

Instead, he whispers into his skin, “My VV, do you know how wonderful you are?”

He feels the brush of Taehyung’s hair against his ear as he shakes his head no.

Seokjin folds his hand around Taehyung’s.

He asks, “Do you know how loved you are?”

“Yes,” Taehyung answers. Then, softer, “But I don’t know why.”

Seokjin nips kisses along the top of Taehyung’s shoulder while he thinks. Through magic or some sort of alchemy, they managed to transform the pain and uncertainty of last year into this quiet, calm, and present strength. It is not what Seokjin expected. When he thought putting trust into Taehyung would lose him the world, the last thing Seokjin thought he’d find at the center of all that chaos was his faith. Knowing that they chose each other, knowing they both could have walked away but didn’t – this has given Seokjin the answer to a question he barely understood, until now.

“I know what we have,” Seokjin tells him. “And you are my reason why.”

He feels Taehyung sigh against him. Seokjin eases them apart. Taehyung tucks his head under Seokjin’s chin to hide his face. Seokjin pulls the blanket over them. He’s aware that he’s making a mess of their bed, but he doesn’t care. They’ll deal with it later. Right now, they bundle into a tight knot, all sticky and sore and serene.

“You know, I’ve never been this close to anyone before you,” Seokjin says.

“Not even your Mom?” Taehyung asks. He sniffs. “I mean... you know what I mean.”

“I do. But no, I don’t think so,” Seokjin says. He looks down at their bodies beneath the blanket, their arms entangled, Taehyung’s leg slung over his, the thin, light hair of his thigh a near match to Seokjin’s own.

Taehyung leans his head back. His eyes are wide and full of uncertainty. Seokjin brushes his forehead with his own.

He goes, “Tub?”

Taehyung nods. “Tub.”

 

Instead of a long, languid soak, they opt for a shower, scrubbing each other down with spa towels beneath the scalding spray. Afterward, they order room service and lounge around in their hotel robes, eating crepes with strawberries and chocolate cream. They have the TV on in the background, some travel show about cooking, but it’s muted so Taehyung can play his swing/jazz playlist over the Bluetooth.

“We could open a pension hotel in Daegu,” Taehyung says, smearing a dollop of cream from his plate. “People could come to pick their own strawberries and then have them for breakfast the next day.”

“Why would they want to pick their own?” Seokjin asks. “Wouldn’t they want us to pick them?”

“A lot of city people are doing that now,” Taehyung says. He licks his fingers. “They visit the country to pick apples, or milk cows.”

“Where do they milk cows?”

“In Belgium,” Taehyung says, but he grins like he’s probably guessing.

“Do you even know where Belgium is?”

“It’s in Europe,” he says, all smug.

Seokjin slides his foot onto Taehyung’s knee. Taehyung immediately presses his thumb to the insole, rubbing outward along the arch. “Taehyung-ah, my Dad wants an answer about the restaurant.”

“Hyung, you should do it,” Taehyung says. He puts down his spoon and goes to work on Seokjin’s foot with both hands.

“We really don’t have any time, though,” Seokjin says. “We’re going to Saipan this summer, and then to Malta, and then we’ll probably tour again.”

“You think so?”

“The pace at which Yoongi’s working, they’ll have Answer done soon,” Seokjin says. He groans as Taehyung strikes a sore spot beneath his heel. “So, yes, another world tour. And I still have classes, and… I wanna spend time with you.”

“We spend time together on tour,” Taehyung says. He taps the calf of Seokjin’s other leg. Seokjin grants him full access to his other foot.

“You know what that’s like,” Seokjin says, surprised at the bitterness in his tone.

“Yeah.”

Taehyung’s watching him again. Quietly wary, like he’s worried Seokjin might change his mind about all this and leave him.

“You know what I wish?” Seokjin says.

Taehyung’s expression tightens, like he’s waiting for Seokjin to make a joke. Seokjin supposes he’s earned that, after all.

He says, “We’ve been together all this time. Yet when I went home for Seollal, I couldn’t talk about you. At least this time, Abeoji spoke to me, but all he wanted was to talk about this restaurant idea with me and Jungie.

“And then at dinner, my cousins told stories about the girls they’ve been dating, and my uncle kept saying, ‘Next time, bring her. Next year, we’ll meet her.’ And my grandparents, they still ask me about Minnie, even though my parents know—” The swell of emotion is so sudden it chokes him. Taehyung cups Seokjin’s foot and squeezes. “—I want you there with me.” The words sound ragged; Seokjin speaks them anyway. “I wish you could be there with me.”

Taehyung’s expression brightens, a momentary flicker that he quickly schools away.

“What?” Seokjin says.

“Nothing,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin thinks, He’s up to something. Then he thinks, He is worse than Jimin at hiding things. But he says, “I just poured out my heart to you, and you say nothing.

“No, hyung,” Taehyung says. “I was only thinking—”

“—Were you even listening?” Seokjin teases.

“I was.” Taehyung slides his hands behind Seokjin’s knees. He works his way down Seokjin’s calves, knowing they’re always the sorest spots on his body. “I was listening, and I was thinking, you should come home with me instead.”

Seokjin inhales. He pudges out his lips. He sighs. “I love these times with you,” he says. “We don’t have to lie or hide. We can just be.”

“Healing times,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin ruffles his hair. He says, “Seems like we’ll never slow down, will we?”

“I hope not,” Taehyung says.

“You like it, don’t you?” Seokjin says. “The excitement, the noise, the constant chaos.”

Taehyung shrugs. “I love it.”

Seokjin’s nodding. “Taehyung-ah, with you, I think we could make this work,” he says. “The restaurant could be a piece of a plan, something for our future. What do you think?”

“I think, with us, it’s a start,” Taehyung says. He dredges a piece of strawberry through chocolate sauce and offers it to Seokjin. He nibbles it from his fingers, but a drip of it drizzles onto Seokjin’s chest. Taehyung’s eyes gleam.

“Oh no,” Seokjin says, feigning despair as he turns his head to the side. “What have you done?”

“Don’t move,” Taehyung says. He crouches beside Seokjin’s chair and runs his tongue up Seokjin’s body, bellybutton to collarbone, one long, teasing sweep.

He misses on the first try.

Pabo,” Seokjin gasps, trying not to laugh.

“Am I, though?” Taehyung says. He repeats the motion again, this time managing to lick one nipple in the process. Then Taehyung sits back on his heels. He stares up at him, smiling now, pleased at how flustered he’s made his Seokjin.

“I guess,” Seokjin says. “Let’s do this.”

“The restaurant, or Seollal?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin gives him a lofty sigh. “I guess I’ll go there, too,” he says.

Meaning anywhere. Or any time. Ever.

Seokjin cups Taehyung’s chin in his hand. Taehyung leans into it, like a cat. “You are my VV, aren’t you?” he says.

“I’m gonna show you,” Taehyung says. “For the rest of our lives, you’ll see.”

Seokjin bends double to kiss him. In the back of his mind, he’s already begun his plans. Because if Taehyung intends to show him, then he’ll just have to show Taehyung, too.

Chapter Text

“In all chaos, there is a cosmos, in all disorder, a secret order.”
Carl Jung


31 March 2018 – Seokchon Lake, Seoul

Namjoon pushes through a drape of plastic sheeting to step into the gloomy main room. Sawdust and plaster litter the floor, which is strewn with haphazard stacks of plywood and cardboard. He picks carefully among them, adjusting his face mask, as he calls out for Seokjin.

He turns beneath the grainy light to listen for movement. The rhythmic clatter of a jackhammer punctuates the tinny trill of a radio program, and there’s the grumble of buses blended with the music of sidewalk conversations. It’s early and warm out, the perfect day to see the first blooms of spring. But he’s here, in this gritty halflight, poking around in what could be the wrong place, which means he might actually be trespassing on a construction site.  

Double-checking his phone for details, he calls out, “Jin-hyung?”

“Yep,” he answers. “I’m here.” He emerges from a back room, dressed in sleek gray trousers and a tailored business shirt, with a candy-yellow hard hat mashed down over his bangs. He sidles between upended tables and a pyramid of flooring tiles to meet Namjoon. His eyes sparkle above his own face mask, and when he speaks, though his voice sounds muffled, there’s a measure of excitement beneath his words.

“What d’you think?” he asks.

“Honestly, a bit grim for my taste,” Namjoon jokes. “But it’s good, I guess.”

“Come see,” Seokjin says. But before Namjoon can follow, Seokjin places a hard hat onto his head, too. “Safety,” he says, giving him a thumbs up. Then he leads them into a narrow back room similarly piled with boxes and grayed with dust. A bank of stainless steel cabinets line one wall, their surfaces still coated with a thin layer of plastic. There’s a deep double sink with a metal rack above it, and a long enamel countertop.

Seokjin crosses the room to pull open the latch of a massive walk-in cooler. The waft of chilled air that tickles his face is fresh and metallic, like the sky after a storm.

“This is a restaurant?” Namjoon asks.

“It will be,” Seokjin says. “My father bought it. He wants me to run it.”

With the hard hat and the mask, it’s difficult for Namjoon to gauge Seokjin’s true feelings on the matter. Before he can ask, though, Seokjin continues.

“Actually, he bought two restaurants,” Seokjin explains. “One for each of us – Seokjung and me. This one’s the first.”

“And he wants you to run it?” Namjoon says. “Doesn’t he know you’re kinda busy?”

“He does,” Seokjin assures him. “We’ll be on the executive board until after our military service. Until then, they’ll be placed in a trust with the rest of Abeoji’s holdings.”

“You’re buying farms and villas, your Dad’s expanding into foodservice,” Namjoon muses. “Sounds like a Kim family empire.”

Seokjin gives him a papery chuckle.

“So,” Namjoon asks. “What’s the catch?”

Seokjin leans against the countertop. “He insists there isn’t one.” He folds his arms. “But I keep thinking back to what Minyeong once told me—”

“—That guy?” Namjoon’s temper spikes at the mere mention of their former manager. “Hyung, no, you can’t believe a word he had to say—”

Seokjin raises a finger. “Not like that,” he says. “And thank you, by the way. But.” He takes a moment to compose his thoughts. “My father plans ahead. He knows the way the idol industry works, and he knows about Taehyung and me. He doesn't like that part, but he's coming to terms with it, in his own way. This place, the farm in Daegu, my villa at Hannam, these are things they can’t take away if...” Seokjin thumbs his mask from his face. “No one can take them from us, if what Minyeong threatened ever comes true.”

Namjoon wants to object. He wants to ensure Seokjin that nothing so terrible could ever happen. They both know he would be lying. What Yoongi said back in the studio still haunts them: People are watching. Namjoon disagrees with Yoongi about Seokjin and Taehyung never getting into this relationship; but since they’ve been together for years now, perhaps it is wise to plan for the possibility that someone might try to exploit them.

“So I’m thinking,” Seokjin goes on. “If I’m going to do this, maybe I can use it to help us.”

“You mean, like a partnership with BigHit? Like what you did with the place in Daegu?” Namjoon guesses.

“Exactly. We wouldn’t have to use outside catering anymore,” Seokjin goes on. “We could provide food for our fan-meetings and our filmings. And since going to a restaurant with all of us has become increasingly challenging—”

“—This could really work,” Namjoon says.  

“A BTS family empire,” Seokjin nods. “And it really is a ridiculously good location.”

Seokjin isn’t wrong about that. It’s across from Jamsil Station, adjacent to the lake, and a few blocks from Lotte World Tower. The sun slants through a row of tinted windows high above them, glistening on the dust motes that drift in the air. The place brims with possibility, and Namjoon feels a stir of excitement as he considers all that might entail.

He glances to Seokjin, who is staring at the countertop, absorbed in his own thoughts. His previous elation has evaporated, replaced by a pensive deliberation.

Namjoon pauses to think this through, starting with Seokjin calling him down here, alone, to this location. Seokjin might rely on Namjoon for advice, but he certainly doesn’t need his approval. Back in July, when Seokjin made his plans for Taehyung’s birthday, he’d consulted with Bang Sihyuk first, but that was because he was borrowing money against his company account.

So Namjoon asks, “Have you talked with PD-nim?”

“Not yet, but soon,” Seokjin says. “I know I’m supposed to focus on the present, to live in this moment, and we have so many things going on, so many distractions to occupy my mind.” With two fingers, Seokjin draws a wide circle in the dust. “But I guess I am my father’s son, after all. I always look to the future.”

“It’s something I really like about you,” Namjoon says.

“Me too.” Seokjin says. “We’re not in any hurry, of course, but Taehyung is part of my future.” He draws another circle interlocking with the first. “I want him to know. So I’m planning to propose.”

Namjoon chokes. He stammers out, “Uh w-when?”

Seokjin folds his arms. “That’s why I wanted to talk here, in private,” he says. “I have a plan, but I’ll need your help—”

“—Certainly,” Namjoon says, too quickly.

Seokjin eyes him sidewise a few seconds before he saying, “I haven’t even told you what it is.”

“Right, right,” Namjoon says, trying his best to stay calm. Because Seokjin doesn’t know – he can’t possibly know – that Taehyung already has a plan of his own. Of course, they would both choose this time to propose to each other, and of course, they would each ask Namjoon for help, and...

Seokjin watches him. “You okay?”

“Dust,” Namjoon creaks.

“Right.” Seokjin slips the loop of Namjoon’s mask back over his ear, securing it across his mouth. “When it opens,” Seokjin says. “Dust won’t be on the menu.”

Namjoon chuckles. “So you’re gonna do it?” he asks.

“The proposal? Yes,” Seokjin says.

“The restaurant,” Namjoon corrects.

“That too.” Seokjin touches a hand to his forehead. “In all my life, I never imagined even half of what we’ve done and seen. And I don’t care what Yoongi says. Well, I mean, I do, but... I think he’s wrong, Joon. I don’t know who I’d be without Taehyung. Even through heartbreak, we find each other. I don’t think that happens every day.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Namjoon says. "And I will help out, Jin-hyung. Anyway I can."

Somewhere in the distance, a power saw whirs out a wide, grating whine. The scent of metal fills the air, and Seokjin touches Namjoon’s shoulder. He points toward a hallway, and together they exit up a short climb of steps to the street. They emerge, blinking against the sting of the morning’s brightness. They leave their hard hats with the foreman and strike out toward Jamsil.

“I talked with Yoongi a little about what he said, but he seemed pretty distracted,” Namjoon muses.

“He’s been holed up in his studio for weeks,” Seokjin says. “He didn’t even come out for his birthday.”

“True. He has been really busy. But then again, so have you.”

“So have we all,” Seokjin says.

Namjoon stops with him at the corner where Seokchon Street meets the park. From here, he can smell boiled beondegi, frying gochu, and burnt sugar candy. He turns to take in the broad, tree-lined avenue, the lake to one side, the tower on the other.

Whistling softly, Namjoon says, “This is a damned good location.”   

Seokjin nods. “My father is some kind of businessing wizard,” he agrees. He squints back to the restaurant, half screened by the trees. “And he loves me very much.”

“Yeah,” Namjoon agrees, touching Seokjin’s shoulder. “I believe he really does.”

Chapter Text

“There’s nothing that works out as I wanted
There’s even fewer places for me to hide
It’s already been a while since the dice were rolled
If you dawdle, you’ll be swept away. ”
So What, BTS

23 April 2018 – Osaka (The next two chapters are based on this GCF )

“Taehyung-ssi,” Sejin says through the door. “It’s time.”

“Thank you, hyungnim,” Taehyung answers, dog-earing his page in Life Balancer before tucking the book into his bag.

He got through almost a whole page this morning, which is not so great considering that this book is about improving one’s focus in life. But they are in the middle of promotions, rehearsals, and costume fittings, so maybe striking a balance between health, fitness, and well-being will have to wait until a calmer time.

“Jin-hyung,” Taehyung yells toward the back of the suite. “I’m heading out.”

Seokjin makes a noise of acknowledgement, though it’s nearly drowned out by the sound of the shower.

At the van, Sejin slides back the door. “You have your phone?” he asks.

“Yes sir,” Taehyung says, patting his pockets to make sure before ducking inside. Then he pauses as Jimin and Jungkook break off mid-conversation to peer up at him from the back-most seat. Jimin brightens, but Jungkook raises his camera, framing Taehyung in his shot.

Sejin taps Taehyung’s hip. “Gotta go,” he nudges, gently, and Taehyung drops into the seat. Sejin leaves the door ajar as he disappears back into the hotel. In the meantime, Taehyung adjusts to the idea that this will not be the relaxing Hoseok-Taehyung evening he’d signed up for, but in fact a romantic Jimin-Jungkook date on which Taehyung will now be third-wheeling.

Oh, how the tables have turned.

“Taehyungie,” Jimin beams. “We didn’t know you’d be joining us.”

Taehyung nudges Jimin’s boot with the toe of his sandal. “I thought it’d be Hope and me,” he says. “We’re supposed to go shopping.”

“Hope-hyung wasn’t feeling well,” Jungkook monotones.

“Oh. Should I check on him?” Taehyung asks.

“No, don’t wake him,” Jimin says. “He should rest.”

Taehyung wonders if there’s still time to back out. He could return to their hotel room and snuggle up with Seokjin. Lately, he’s been exhausted with his family’s business and classwork and stuff. They could watch anime and not eat, since Seokjin’s trying again to lose weight. But they could be alone together, which would be preferable since Jungkook’s been aloof and kinda judgey after Taehyung told them about what happened between him and Seokjin last year. Then Seokjin moved out, and Jungkook blames Taehyung, which is fair; Seokjin did move out because of Taehyung, but not for the reasons Jungkook thinks.

Anyway, Taehyung spends too much time internally debating because Sejin returns, slides the van door shut, and waves them all goodbye. Taehyung twists in the seat. Jimin flashes him a thumbs up. Jungkook stares into his camera screen.

So much for balancing his stress.

 

Yet Osaka in April is lovely. The streets smell fresh, like spring rain and orchids, and it doesn’t take long for Jimin to lift Taehyung’s mood. Soon, they’re dancing from boutique shops to clothing salons, constantly clowning for Jungkook’s camera, which he directs at them like a shield. They try their best to ignore their Japanese security detail, who hovers like a shadow at the entrance of every store.

Side by side in a sunglasses outlet, Jimin says, offhandedly, “I hope Hobi-hyung’s okay.”

“He’ll be fine,” Taehyung assures him. “He’s super-healthy, and he knows when to take a break. That book Joon-hyung gave me talks about how important it is to know when your body needs a rest, and Hobi-hyung does that better than any of us.”

Jimin pops on a pair of cat’s eye shades, proceeding to vogue for Jungkook’s camera. “I dunno,” he says between poses. “He’s the one I worry for most of all.”

“Really?” Taehyung asks. “Him?”

Jimin slides the glasses onto Taehyung’s face. “Look, look,” Jimin says, directing him toward the mirror.

“Stormtrooper fashion,” Jungkook chuckles. “Turn this way.”

Taehyung pivots, modeling his face-mask cats-eye combo for the camera. Jungkook nods behind the lens, and Taehyung hopes maybe things are thawing out between them?

Then Jimin says, “Yeah, you know what they say. The ones who smile the most are hiding the deepest pain.”

“Baby, you smile the most,” Jungkook says.

“That’s because I’m happy,” Jimin says, swanning in to almost kiss Jungkook, but veering off in the last second, feigning a dramatic interest in a cascade of colored scarves.

“Jimin-ssi,” Jungkook teases. “Look here.” Jungkook leads Jimin away, toward the entrance and the adjacent shop.

Trailing after them, Taehyung says, “You realize that cancels out what you said about Hope?”

But Jimin is distracted as he and Jungkook become immersed in some pantomime drama involving dance and references only Jimin and Jungkook understand. Taehyung drops back beside their security guard. In Japanese, he says, “You believe these two?”

“They do seem very close,” the security guy allows, but he keeps his guard up, watching them with his back to a column, making sure no one approaches or interferes.

A thousand thoughts simmer into Taehyung’s mind as he ponders Jimin and Jungkook, how they seem to travel in this protective bubble all the time, how they can touch and nearly kiss in public, how Jungkook can post coupley videos of the two of them on holiday, and no one either cares or intervenes.

Meanwhile, he and Seokjin can’t exchange a look across a crowded room without Yoongi remarking about it or Namjoon cautioning them that ‘they push things too far.’

Seokjin would remind Taehyung that they must be more careful on camera because Seokjin’s super-conservative family watches all of their content. But Jungkook’s family is famously straight-laced, and Jimin’s parents aren’t exactly out there brandishing rainbow flags. Don’t they watch everything, too?

Is it because they never officially came out that they can get away with all their blatant PDA? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t it be called Plausible Deniability Affection instead?

Taehyung chuckles, pulling up his phone to text this to Seokjin, who he knows will appreciate the play on words. Then he remembers his concern for Hoseok. After sending his message to Seokjin, he pulls up his KKT with Hoseok and texts a quick message, checking in.

The security guard sweeps Taehyung along to the street. Jimin wings in close to Taehyung, conscious of how they might have excluded him. They play around a while, filming bits for Jungkook, when Jimin asks, “Okay, Tae-Tae, where do you wanna go now?”

His plan with Hoseok had been to shop for shoes, but that’s not something in which the three of them have a particular interest. He thinks maybe he can advance his proposal scheme for Seokjin, since he hasn’t had any time to devote to it since coming to Japan.

He pans a slow circle, taking in the shopping arcade, when a familiar blue and silver logo snags his attention.

“There,” he says, pointing.

“Tiffany & Company,” Jimin says. “Nice. Kookie?”

“Let’s get it,” Jungkook says, and they cross the street to the Abeno Q.


Jungkook films the whole time. They manage to wrangle their security guy into the game, and he turns out to be handsomely shy beneath the camera’s gaze. Taehyung resists the temptation to flirt with him. That’s his and Seokjin’s game with new staff, a way to kid around and break the ice, especially with someone as unaccustomed to the whole BigHit experience as this man is.

But Jungkook’s keeping a laser focus on Taehyung. He probably wouldn’t see the humor in it. And besides, Taehyung did learn from his transgressions last year, when what began as harmless flirting with Minho developed into something unwelcome and overwhelming.

Considering that, Taehyung thinks maybe Jungkook is right to judge him? And on the heels of this understanding, Taehyung decides he doesn’t feel much like shopping. He wants to return to the hotel and continue reading his book, because the sooner he starts balancing his life, the better.

Only he can’t bail on the trip now. If he calls Sejin to come get him, it means Jimin and Jungkook would have to return, too. They don’t often get the chance to do these normal, everyday things, and it would be selfish of him to pull the plug on their excursion just because he feels an attack of guilty conscience.

So they amble into Tiffany & Company, drawn by the gleam of every shiny thing. His brain feels so full, it builds a dull pressure behind his eyes. To distract himself, Taehyung checks his phone.

One message from Hoseok with an effusive apology for not joining him.

Another from Seokjin, a purple heart and the words, My VV, you better save that quick tongue for me.

He’s preparing a response when he sees it, displayed on ice-blue satin within a glittering glass case. A plain platinum band set with a row of  diamonds, a match to the bracelet on Taehyung’s wrist.

“Jungkook-ah, don’t film in here,” he says. Then he beckons to the woman at the counter.

Jimin slides up beside him. “Hey, that’s the same style as your bracelet,” he says. His face sparkles with the gleam of diamonds uplit from the glass display. “You gonna get it?”

“It’s perfect,” Taehyung whispers, reverent, as the woman lifts the ring from the case.

“You’re getting it for Jin-hyung?” Jungkook asks, his voice quiet, too.

Taehyung knows better than to tell them his plans. Jimin would burst at the seams before they even made it back to the hotel. In fact, it might be too much for Jimin to even see him purchase the ring.

Thinking of what Seokjin would do, Taehyung adjusts his tack. “Maybe,” he hedges. “It is really expensive.”

“No more expensive than the bracelet he bought you,” Jungkook says. His tone is neither quiet nor calm. “Don’t you think he deserves to receive as much as he gives?”

Taehyung glances at the shop clerk, who thankfully doesn’t seem to understand Korean. In Japanese, she asks, “Would you like to try it on?”

“One moment,” Taehyung answers.

He’s still standing there with the ring on its satin pillow, when Jungkook says, “When are you gonna grow up and show him what he means to you?”

“Jungkookie,” Jimin hisses. “Now is not the time.”

“When is, Jimin?” Jungkook asks. “Camera’s not on. Security can’t hear us. Everyone here speaks Japanese. Now’s as good a time as we’ll ever get.”

Anger boils up inside Taehyung. Though everything Jungkook says is true, Taehyung still feels attacked, and he refuses to respond when it’s not even Jungkook’s business.

The first lessons of his book flag into his mind: Take a deep breath and disengage.

Taehyung centers himself. He breathes. To the shop woman, he says, calmly, in Japanese, “May I place this on hold and have it delivered to my hotel? It has to be a secret, so these two friends can’t know I’ve bought it.”

She breaks into a relieved smile. “Of course,” she says, taking the ring from him. “You can give your credit information and delivery instructions online.” Then she adds, “I’ll wait until you’ve gone to package it up.”

“Good,” Taehyung says. “Thank you.”

He turns and cuts between Jimin and Jungkook, not waiting for them to follow.

In the corridor outside, Jimin tags up, apologies or explanations on his lips, but Taehyung raises a hand to stop him.

“I’m working on a plan,” he says, quietly. He senses Jungkook behind him, playing at disinterest, but Taehyung knows him too well. Jungkook is always listening. “I am intending to show him, but it will be my way, on my terms. And if you both can’t understand that—“

“—We can,” Jimin says, his voice a needle of pleading. “Please don’t fight any more. We’ll try to understand.”

Taehyung looks over his shoulder to gauge Jungkook’s expression, but he’s filming again, hiding behind the lens.

“Thank you, Jimin,” he whispers. Then he turns to their security guard and addresses him in Japanese. “I’m ready to return,” he says. “I can find my own way back, if these two want to stay.”

“Are you leaving?” Jimin asks. “’Cause we’ll go, too.” And Jungkook rolls his eyes.

Taehyung leans close to Jimin. He says, “He blames me.”

“I know he does,” Jimin says. “But it’s okay. We’re all together. We’re all here. In time, he’ll see, too. He’ll understand.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Taehyung says. He realizes that it’s the truth, too. What Jungkook thought of him used to matter more than anything, but now Taehyung understands. What matters most now is what Taehyung thinks of himself.

And he’s actually, finally, starting to like himself again.

A grin sneaks onto Taehyung’s lips. It feels like a weight lifting from his stomach, and for the first time in months, he can fully breathe. “I’m going back,” he says. He pulls Jimin in and kisses his cheek. “I’ll see you later.” Then he leaves, striking off into the heart of Osaka on his own.

As he walks, the first pulse of a song begins to form, and he knows, once it comes to him, that it will be part of his gift to Seokjin. A song about them, and the story of their love.

Chapter Text

“You’re my beginning and my end. That is all.”
Tear, BTS

25 April 2018 – Osaka 

Hoseok enters the waiting room, ready to rustle the members to order, only to find them all in various stages of sleep.

“Jimin,” he asks, “Are you packed? Taehyung-ie…?” Hoseok points to them. Jimin blinks up, puffy-eyed, but after a moment, he nods. Taehyung swings his leg over Seokjin’s thigh and nuzzles against his shoulder.

“He’s packed,” Seokjin yawns, not glancing up from his phone. He shifts to accommodate for Taehyung’s weight, and for a moment they look as though they could both slip into slumber, despite the noise of the staff packing up their equipment for transport.

Hoseok casts around for something to keep him occupied. A pyramid of muffins half-topples on a roll-away cart, filling the air with their ginger-sweet scent. There’s an electric kettle, too, and packets of tea, which he could sneak back to Yoongi’s room. He could make his best friend some tea and stuff him with muffins. There are no laws against it; in fact, it might fall into the realm of hyungly kindness, and who could fault him for that?

Except that Yoongi asked for time. 

And hasn’t Hoseok given it? Now the album is 98 percent through production, and they’ve completed their Japanese fanmeet, couldn’t tea and muffins serve as a bridge back to something tangible between them?  

Hoseok decides it cannot hurt. But as he moves to snatch the kettle, Namjoon trails in, singing to himself as he does a quick headcount. Then he goes, “Where’re JK and Yoongi?”

“Wh— Am I Yoongi’s keeper?” Hoseok snaps, sounding far more defensive than he’d intended. 

“Kinda, yeah,” Namjoon answers. “Whither thou goest, and all that.” Then Namjoon cocks his head to the side in the way that he does when he senses there’s something up. He is unnervingly good at it. 

Hoseok pastes on a smile. “I will just go find him then.”

“Nah, let’s take a walk,” Namjoon offers. “Grab some coffee.”

That’s code for ‘let’s have a deep discussion about things that have been going on with Yoongi’ and Hoseok desperately wants to avoid that conversation. 

He says, “Don’t we have to load our bags?”

“Ours’re done,” Namjoon says. 

“I’ll go, too,” Seokjin says. He pushes Taehyung’s leg, skirts from beneath it, and folds Taehyung against Jimin. “If I don’t get some caffeine, I’ll sleep on the flight, and then I’ll wake up all bloaty like Jimin—”

“—Hyung, I am still awake,” Jimin groans. 

“Oh, I know,” Seokjin says, airily. “So, coffee?”

Namjoon presses his lips into a thin smile, and Hoseok feels a wash of relief. If Seokjin goes, they’ll probably talk about Odengie or Yeontan or the progress of Seokjin’s restaurant, all of which is fascinating and positive, and far from the agony of delving into Yoongi’s mental state. 

“There’s a place in the lobby,” Namjoon says. And Hoseok goes along, secure in the belief that he has, for another day, escaped their scrutiny.

 

Though he really should have known better. The moment they step onto the sidewalk with their lattes, Seokjin says, “So we’ve noticed Yoongi’s been a little—”

“—Distant, lately,” Namjoon cuts in. “And avoidant. Like, maybe on the edge of an episode. So we’re concerned for him and wanted your take on it. Have you… noticed anything?”

Hoseok keeps smiling as he stirs froth into his cup. While they walk a moment in silence, he wonders how he can answer their question without incriminating him and Yoongi. Then he thinks, incriminating is such a harsh and frustratingly accurate word. Technically, what they were doing is illegal. As is what Seokjin and Taehyung do on a regular basis, and Jimin and Jungkook, too, and it’s crazy, really, to put themselves at risk when they lead such public lives. And if any of them were found out, it would ruin them, and—

They come to a crosswalk. Namjoon thumbs the button. 

“Well,” Hoseok stalls. “You know how he gets when he’s working.”

“Is that it, though?” Seokjin asks. “Since we don’t share a room anymore, we don’t check in like we used to.”

The light changes. Namjoon leads them across the street. A long string of children bobbles between them, each of them holding hands as they follow their teacher through the crosswalk. Seokjin absolutely loses his mind over them. He greets the teacher and asks if he can take a photo for his friend, which she allows.

They mingle among the students for a few blocks, before Namjoon cuts along a side street, leading them away from the crowds. Seokjin’s distracted now, busily gushing with Taehyung over the cuteness of the schoolkids. 

But Namjoon’s too astute to let their conversation slide.

“Yeah, when I talked to Yoongi, he copped to that whole ‘this is me when I’m working’ bit, too,” Namjoon says. 

Yoongi’s voice echoes in Hoseok’s head, telling him that something inside him is broken, that he can’t be good for Hoseok until he figures it out. Hoseok sips his latte. He says, “Sounds like he’s all right, then.” 

Seokjin lowers his phone. “Sounds like,” he says. He looks to Namjoon, who shrugs like he’s inclined to agree. Then Namjoon guides them into a pocket park screened in by blooming pear trees. Stepping inside feels like walking through a portal into a secret haven, and they all three fall silent, almost reverent, as they take the stony path toward the garden’s heart.

“How’d you find this place?” Seokjin wonders. 

“The other night, I went out walking on my own,” Namjoon says. “Thought it’d be a good place to take a rest.” 

Hoseok pans a glance between them, realizing in the moment that this is a trap.

Namjoon goes, “We gotta keep checking in with each other, Hope. We gotta make sure everyone’s really doing okay.”

“I do that,” Hoseok rebuffs. “All the time.”

Namjoon guides him over to a low, concrete bench. Hoseok sits down, feeling the April chill of the stone bite into his thighs.

“We know you do,” Seokjin says. 

“And we know Yoongi has a serious mental condition,” Namjoon adds. “And some of the material he’s working on, it’s heavy stuff, which means he’s dredging up a lot of past grief and pain. But he doesn’t have to do it alone.”

“Of course not,” Hoseok says, working hard to hide the sudden knot in his throat.

“And we’re telling you all this because,” Seokjin says, “We wanna make sure you’re okay, too.”

Hoseok wrinkles his nose. “Guys,” he says. “I’m fine.”

Seokjin sits beside him. Hoseok fights the urge to stand back up. He lets Seokjin’s hand come to rest on his forearm as he says, “You can talk with us, you know?”

Hoseok scans the small park, its flower beds and benches hemmed in with vine-laced shrubs. Through the gaps in the branches, the spring sun bounces off the chrome of passing cars. Hundreds of people hurry by, each in their own little world as they head toward their daily grind. Inside Hoseok’s chest, his heart begins to pound.

He wishes now that he’d just sucked it up and gone shopping with Taehyung. Because of course him cancelling certain raised red flags, and now here they are in the name of friendly intervention, and he knows they can’t afford to waste this kind of time.

“I really can’t," Hoseok whispers, surprising himself, because truly, it’s the opposite of what he intended to say.

Seokjin rubs Hoseok’s knuckles with his thumb. He says, “Hobi, you work so hard to take care of us.”

Hoseok cringes. Heat creeps into his face. “No, come on,” he says. “That’s—”

“—the truth,” Namjoon tells him. “We operate on the daily ’cause of you. And if something’s wrong...”

“Okay.” Hoseok gets to his feet. “Fine. Right now, I feel like I’m one of those wind-up toys. You know, the ones you crank up and they go teetering across the floor? That’s me. I feel like if I don’t stay wound up, I will wobble apart, and we don’t have time for that.”

Namjoon worries at a patch of stubble on his cheek. He says, “We can make time.”

Hoseok chuckles. Again, it sounds more bitter than he intends. “When?” he asks. “Before or after we go to America? Before or after we film our video? Before or after we release the new album? I’m not complaining, Joon, believe me. I’m as excited about that as any of us, but it means we can’t ease off the pressure, not even a little bit, not if we want to keep climbing.”

Namjoon watches him, a stricken look on his face. The park casts them in shadow, darkening the circles around his eyes, making him look far older than his 25 years. 

Hoseok opens his mouth to speak when Seokjin gets a text. Then, as he goes to read it, Hoseok and Namjoon receive messages, too.

Probably Sejin, Hoseok thinks, pulling out his phone to read what is most likely a terse reminder that they are bound by the airport‘s boarding schedule, and would they please kindly wander back to their hotel?

But it isn’t Sejin. The message is from Bang PD, and it includes their finalized schedule for their world tour.

“We’re going to Paris,” Seokjin murmurs. He gazes up to Hoseok and Namjoon, but when they both fail to give him the response he desires, he repeats it again, this time nearly shouting it to the trees. 

“Yes, we’re going to Paris,” Hoseok says. “And Germany, and Amsterdam, and other places we’ve never been—”

“—No!” Seokjin bounds up. There’s a manic light in his eyes as he grips Namjoon’s shoulder. “Yah! You know what this means?”

“Do I?” Namjoon asks. But there’s a thinly-veiled gleam in his eyes, which means he knows more than he’s letting on. So these two are scheming, Hoseok realizes. Bringing him out here for a talk is one thing, but whatever’s might go down in Paris, that’s something else altogether.

But Hoseok feels glad. Now the focus can shift from him.

Seokjin paces away, stretching his shoulders and steadying his breath. Namjoon begins to dip around the concrete bench in search of something. At that moment, a bumblebee the size of a shark hums down toward Hoseok. He shrieks away from it, darting to hide behind Namjoon.

“I’d like to go back now please,” Hoseok cries, turning Namjoon like a shield against the bee.

“Uh, Jin-hyung,” Namjoon calls. “Did you pay for the coffee or did I?”

Seokjin turns to them, his hands high on his waist. “You did, remember? I left my wallet in my case.”

The bee continues its purposeful journey around Hoseok, probably lured in by his lemon-verbena hand cream.

“Right, right,” Namjoon says. “Yeah. I think I left my wallet in the shop.”

“Of course you did,” Hoseok and Seokjin say at the same time. 

Namjoon huffs, but he can’t hold on to his indignation. The bee trolls off toward Seokjin, then, who chops at it like he’s a ninja. Finally deterred, the bumblebee trundles off to the floral hedge, leaving Hoseok flustered and relieved.

“Come on, let’s go get your wallet,” Seokjin says, looping arms with Namjoon. At that moment, Hoseok receives another text. 

He opens his KKT to find a wall of frowns and storm clouds. Then a message from Yoongi that reads, Somehow we’re all waiting on you guys? Where are you?

Hoseok trails after Namjoon and Seokjin, recounting for Yoongi their trek to the park, the children in the crosswalk, the encounter with the bee, and Namjoon’s lost wallet. He doesn’t relay the part about Seokjin and Namjoon being concerned for him. The way Hoseok sees it, he and Yoongi worry enough for each other as it is.

They return to the coffee place, where Namjoon finds his wallet at the register, and where he scores the cashier’s Snapchat before they leave. 

Hoseok relates this bit of trivia to Yoongi, too. 

Yoongi responds with a sunshine and a flower. He writes, You are my Hope.

Hoseok’s smiling to himself as they enter the elevator, so he doesn’t see the pique of interest that Seokjin and Namjoon exchange.

Thanks, Yoongs, Hoseok writes back. Can’t tell you how much I needed that

Chapter Text

“We build our idols so we can tear them down.”
Asia Argento in Parts Unknown

9 May 2018 – Seoul

“This is the worst day ever,” Jimin says. He’s leaning on the door jamb, hugging his elbows across his chest, doing his best to block the doorway.

“Jimin-ah, don’t be that way,” Taehyung says, but he’s distracted by Yeontan, who’s excitedly investigating the stacks of boxes along Seokjin’s bed.

“Do you mean don’t be true to my heart?” Jimin asks. “Because aren’t we supposed to be?”

Seokjin comes out of the bathroom with a caddy full of shampoos and fancy soaps. “Yah, don’t be so dramatic,” he says. Then he turns to Taehyung. “You still want this brushy thing?”

Taehyung sniffs it. He tests the bristles on his palm. “New one?”

“New one,” Seokjin agrees.

Jimin grates out a noise of disgust. “You said you wanted to live with us forever,” he moans. “You lied to us.”

Seokjin sets down the caddy. “I didn’t lie,” he says, but his tone tells Jimin that his patience is wearing thin. “I’m still gonna live here.”

“Oh. Sure,” Jimin says. 

Seokjin spins on him, his hands high on his waist. “Hobi got his own place, too, remember? I don’t see you yelling at him—”

“—First off, hyung, no one yells at J-Hope,” Jimin says.

“True,” Taehyung intones.

“Second, he’s hardly ever in his place because it’s across town,” Jimin says. “But your brand new ‘villa’ or whatever, is only five minutes away—”

“—Ten,” Taehyung corrects, ignoring Jimin’s scoff of indignation. “Walking at a leisurely, Yeontan-ish pace, it’s ten minutes.”

“Of course, you’re overjoyed,” Jimin snaps. “You get your precious Jinnie-hyung all to yourself.”

Taehyung lifts his shoulders. “Well, I mean…”

Jimin rolls his eyes. “Worst day ever,” he mumbles.

Jungkook appears at the end of the hall, rubbing a towel through his hair. He gives Jimin a look of concern, which Jimin reads as sympathy for the tragedy that is Seokjin moving out of their dorm.

Jungkook greets Taehyung and Seokjin at the door, but he keeps a tight focus on Jimin.

“Where’s your phone?” he asks, quietly. “Joon-hyung’s been trying to reach you.”

“Joonie-hyung? Why?” 

“Jimin,” Seokjin calls from behind them. He’s reading his phone as he says, “We need to get to the studio. Joon says he’s been trying to reach you.”

A twist of fear curls inside him. “Why?” he asks. “What’s happened?”

Seokjin crosses his room, phone in hand. “He only says it’s urgent.”

“And it’s about me?”

Taehyung joins the other three at the door, peering between them to read Namjoon’s text. 

“Apparently,” Jungkook says. “I’ll go get dressed.”

 

By the time the meeting concludes, Jimin realizes he can’t remember any of it. The only thing he can think, over and over, is that someone wants him dead. Whatever the others said, whatever assurances Bang Sihyuk gave, they bled through him like water through a storm drain, and he think of nothing else beyond avoiding death.

Jimin grips the steering wheel, focused on keeping the sedan in its proper lane. He maneuvers through early evening traffic, grateful for the distraction. After the meeting with Bang PD, Jimin had asked to drive to the restaurant. Namjoon figured that Jimin practicing his driving would be a good way to keep his brain occupied, and the others, also operating in similar states of shock, agreed with him.

Though it was probably not the wisest of their leader’s decisions. Even with the controlled chaos of Gangnam traffic to divert him, Jimin still sees the Tweet and imagines, with heart-stopping clarity, a gun sighted at his head.   

“You’re thinking about it again,” Hoseok says from the passenger seat. “Try not to think about it.”

“I’m not, Hoseokie-hyung,” Jimin lies. He checks his mirrors. “I promise, I’m not.”

From the back seat, Taehyung says, “You know we’d never let anyone touch you, right?”

“He’s right,” Namjoon says. “We won’t let anyone hurt you.”

The light turns green. Jimin surges through the intersection, following Seokjin and the others in a company SUV. 

“I know,” Jimin says, keeping his voice as bright as possible. He signals a left-hand turn at the next light, easing between buses and motorbikes to keep Seokjin’s vehicle in view. 

“Yoongi says there’s parking on the next block,” Hoseok says. He’s speaking quietly, as if they’re in the room with a recovering patient instead of a car-full of dinner-bound friends. If Jimin’s not supposed to be thinking about The Awful Thing That Happened, then Hoseok’s doing a terrible job of not reminding him. 

Then Jimin feels guilty, because Hoseok’s doing the best he can. 

But could they really help me? Jimin wonders. If someone wanted to hurt me, if someone wanted to shoot me…

“Jimin-ah,” Namjoon says, his tone edging toward alarm. “Turn left at the next block.”

“Right!” Jimin gasps, clicking on his blinker and swerving hard into the lane. The driver behind them blasts their horn, jolting a rush of adrenaline through Jimin’s already frazzled nerves. Jimin manages to execute the left turn that will take them into the block where Yoongi’s guiding them to dinner. 

“Actually, left,” Namjoon quips, trying and failing to diffuse the tension, though Hoseok gives him a pained half-smile out of charity.

“There,” Taehyung shouts, pointing at an open spot along the street. Seokjin has already whipped the SUV into a space several cars ahead, so Jimin cuts toward the open slot. He fails to check for oncoming traffic and nearly gets skewered by a courier bike. The cyclist screeches onto the sidewalk, narrowly missing the collision. She bellows at them, her fist raised, as she slaloms between pedestrians before spurting back out into traffic. 

Many seconds lapse before Jimin’s able to peel his fingers from the steering wheel. Namjoon, scared stoic, says, gently, “Next time, Taehyung-ah, please try not to yell at our driver.”

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung says. “Sorry, hyung.” 

Yoongi appears at Hoseok’s window, his face equally ashen, having witnessed their close call with the cyclist.  

“You all right?” Yoongi asks, softly, helping Hoseok onto the curb. A surge of nausea wells up in Jimin, numbing his fingers and flushing his face. 

“My driving wasn’t that bad,” he huffs, pushing the car into park.

“You did well,” Namjoon assures him. “We’re all just a little keyed up.”

Jimin tries not to roll his eyes. Taking the keys from the ignition, he murmurs to himself, “What’s hyung so stressed about? No one wants to kill him.” 

 

The seven of them crowd onto squat, fat cushions around a low table, while Namjoon and Seokjin order their food. Once the waitperson exits, sliding the door shut behind her, they clatter their phones onto the table and take a long, still moment to breathe. 

They keep watching Jimin, sending supportive looks his way, and though he’s grateful for the attention, part of him wishes they would stop.  

No one starts talking until the server returns with their food. It’s traditional Chinese served family-style, and the small dining room fills with pungent scents of onions, plum sauce, and oily fried fish. Jimin, who had been adamantly un-hungry when Bang Sihyuk sent them away to discuss things, feels his stomach grumble at the smell. 

Seokjin carves up the roast squid with a pair of kitchen scissors. Jungkook pours everyone a cup of water. Jimin notices that Namjoon did not order alcohol, which means he’s taken Bang PD’s advice to heart. They’re here to reach a compromise tonight, and whatever they decide, Bang Sihyuk has assured them he will honor their decision.

“Here you go, Jimin-ah,” Taehyung says, sliding him the first plate of food.

“Guys, really…” Jimin attempts, but his throat closes off the rest of what he might say. 

“No, you eat,” Hoseok commands. “You look like you’re made of paper. Eat.” 

So he does, and he’s ravenous. He hasn’t eaten anything since breakfast, most of which he threw up after Bang Sihyuk showed them the Tweet. Jimin stuffs down a mouthful of steamed rice and scallion beef, swallowing without even chewing, feeling the heat of it bake against the back of his throat. He’s well into his third bite before Namjoon decides it’s time to begin. 

“This is not the first time one of us has had this kind of thing happen,” he begins.

“And it won’t be the last,” Yoongi throws in.

“But this one was,” Namjoon blows out a breath, “Graphic, and specific. And like Bang PD says, we don’t intend to take it lightly.”

“Even with all that said, Joon,” Seokjin says, “We need to know our options.”

“Here’s one,” Jungkook calls out. “Let’s cancel our shows in Texas.”

Jimin was thinking it, but he didn’t dare say it. He’s overwhelmingly grateful that Jungkook had the guts. 

Namjoon rubs tension from the back of his neck. He looks pained, but he says, “That is one option.”

“Or Jimin could skip his song,” Jungkook suggests. Taehyung gasps, sharply, as Jungkook rushes to explain. “I know we don’t want that, but it’d only be for those two shows. After that, we’ll return  to our regular lineup.” 

“That’s an option, too,” Namjoon says. 

Seokjin ladles a heap of steamed bok choy onto Namjoon’s plate. He pokes at it, idly, waiting for someone else to weigh in.

“We did cancel that fansign in New York when someone threatened you,” Hoseok points out.

“True, we did.” 

“And we had to refund tickets in – where was that, Atlanta? – that time they oversold the venue and people got super upset?” Seokjin asks.

“I dunno, man,” Namjoon says. “Some place in the south of the US, but, like all of that’s a blur to me.”

“Same,” Jungkook and Yoongi say, before giving each other a wry smile.

“We could reschedule those dates,” Taehyung says. “We’ve done that before, when Yoongi-hyung and I got sick.”

“Yes,” Seokjin says, “but if someone in Texas wanted to hurt Jimin at one show, who’s to say he—”

“—Or she,” Yoongi adds.

“Or she,” Seokjin allows. “Who’s to say they wouldn’t turn up at a rescheduled show, too?”

“They totally would,” Yoongi says. “Changing a date won’t change their mind.”

They lapse into silence as they ponder this. Then Namjoon takes it back up. “Okay. Here are some things to consider before we make up our minds. One, whoever made this threat, they weren’t very smart about it. They got reported, which means the local authorities probably already know who and where they are. That’s a good thing.

“Two,” Namjoon goes on, “The convention center in Fort Worth has already been in contact with BigHit, letting us know they’re tightening their security. They want us there, so they’re very dedicated to keeping us safe.

“Finally, we have our own security guys, and you know – Sejin, Benji, Gaemae – They're like our family. Whether we’re here or over there, we know they’ve got our backs,” Namjoon says. “I believe that we’ll be well-protected throughout this tour, whether it’s here in Seoul or in Texas or LA. But I understand your fear, Jimin, and we will defer to whatever you decide.”

Heat creeps into Jimin’s face as they all wait for him to answer. And he hates this. 

He hates that this morning, Seokjin moved his belongings from the dorm into his villa. He hates that this afternoon, Bang Sihyuk learned of a threat on Jimin’s life. And he hates that now he’s the one to decide their fate: Will they perform those concerts, both of which are already sold out, or will Jimin be the one to pull the plug?

Really, the only question Jimin wants to ask, the only one for which he needs an answer is, Why him?   Why, when he works so hard to be good, to be worthy, to be liked, why would someone hate him so much that they would want him dead?

“Baby, you don’t need to answer right now,” Jungkook whispers, startling Jimin from his thoughts. 

Jimin says the first thing that springs into his mind, which is, “I don’t wanna die.” His stomach roils, and a new wave of nausea whirls inside him.

Seokjin reaches to pat his head. “We won’t let anyone touch you,” he says, echoing Taehyung's words from earlier.

“How?” Jimin says. He pulls away. He folds his arms. He notices, then, that he’s dredged the cuff of his jacket through the oyster sauce, and a flare of temper blooms inside his gut. 

Jimin begins to wrestle off his jacket, bumping bowls and cups as he struggles. “How can anyone protect us? Ever?” He flails one sleeve, which snags on his elbow. “Because if someone wants to hurt us – to shoot us? – who can stop them?” Frustrated, he tugs and tugs, but it’s more like a straightjacket now, and he’s sweating and panting and the others all watch as he fitfully implodes. “I mean, s-sure,” he stammers. “We’re the Bulletproof Boy Scouts, but we’re not literally bulletproof. If someone shoots us, we will die, and there is nothing any of us can do to stop them.”

Jimin freezes at the sound of Taehyung’s sob. He lowers his arm, which is still caught in his sleeve, and finally raises his eyes. The others gape at him, each registering varying degrees of empathy and dismay.

Everyone except Yoongi, who says, simply, “You done?”

Jimin stumps his arm back into his sleeve. “I guess,” he mumbles.

“Good.” Yoongi tears into a packet of hand wipes and tosses it to Jimin. “Clean yourself up. Then I need you to listen. ’Kay?”

Jimin dabs a damp tissue against his sleeve. Tears burn his eyes, but after a moment, he nods that he’s ready to listen.

“We don’t answer hate with fear,” Yoongi tells him. “Not now, not ever. This person wants you dead? You can bet there are hundreds, maybe thousands – hell, maybe even millions – who wish that fate for us every single day.” His shoulders lift – the slightest shrug. “We can’t let that stop us from living. Yeah?” 

Jimin feels a stir of emotion at the wisdom of Yoongi’s words. He loves and hates them, all at once, mostly because it's Yoongi who's taken the time to speak them. 

“Yeah,” Jimin agrees.

“Okay,” Yoongi says. “Think about that when you make your decision.”

“No, I already have,” Jimin says. He leans over to thumb away Taehyung’s tears. Then he rests his head against Jungkook’s shoulder, scrubbing his own eyes against the denim. “I think... you’re right. We have to do the shows like we planned, and I have to sing. ‘Cause, like you said, if we start responding with fear… they win, right? And we’ve worked too hard to let that happen.”

Namjoon sniffs a short laugh. He says, “All right, then, when you put it that way. Do we even need to vote?”

“Nope,” Hoseok says. Jimin sees him give his sweetest smile to Yoongi, who does his best to stare at anything in the room that isn’t one of them. 

“Then it’s settled,” Namjoon says. He stabs at his bok choy and finally begins to eat. 

Chapter Text

“It’s not much different from yesterday.
Same old days, except you’re not here.”
134340, BTS

13 May 2018 Seoul

Despite multiple warnings against mixing alcohol with medication, Yoongi slouches in a lounge chair on the studio terrace, sipping a bottle of Sapporo. The sun spears gold through the skyline, threading the buildings with glittery light. It’s achingly beautiful, almost more than he can take. 

Yoongi sips his beer. He rubs his eyes. He savors the ongoing ache of his bones. A breeze whispers up, the green scent of spring that nearly buries the oily odor of car exhaust. 

Just as winter has released the city from its claws, Yoongi feels as though the album has finally relinquished its grip on him. They went into production three weeks ago when pre-order sales began to tick into the millions. They’re in the middle of a choreo cycle for Fake Love, which they’ll debut on American TV, and tonight they posted the tracklist, which for him, makes it all official.

With everything that’s going well around him –  their success, the weather, the revelation that Hoseok is Bi when Yoongi had been convinced that he was straight – he knows how great he should feel.

Even though someone threatened to kill Jimin (or perhaps because someone threatened to kill him), Yoongi knows he shouldn’t feel like he wants to die. 

But he does. And that’s how he knows something’s wrong.

With this album, Yoongi pushed himself far beyond pain and hunger, beyond stress and anxiety, into a state of boneless apathy. Within that frame of mind, he can manage his thoughts, which normally assail him with worst-case scenarios and crippling what-ifs. Like, for instance, what happens if their fans don’t like the music this time? What if they grow bored with their message? What if they’re attracted to the newest, brightest thing, and that’s no longer them? 

Boneless apathy, Yoongi thinks, forcing himself to breathe. He sips his beer again. He shuts his eyes. The sun paints dark coronas against the inside of his eyelids, a reminder that even in his joy, there exists this afterimage of darkness. 

Yoongi hears the grate of a door opening. He opens his eyes, expecting to find Hoseok. Then he battles down his disappointment that it’s only Namjoon.

“Thought I’d find you up here,” he says, scraping up a chair beside him. He cracks open a bottle of Singha and salutes the setting sun.

Yoongi follows suit. He sips, relishing the foam on its way down. 

“Well we did it,” Namjoon says. “Another full album on the books.”

“Getting pressed and packaged as we speak,” Yoongi says. 

“Sounds so assembly-line,” Namjoon says. 

“Hey, if the capitalism fits,” Yoongi quips. 

Namjoon laughs. “Yeah, here’s to hoping.”

A moment of silence envelopes them. It’s a nice alternative to weeks of shouting at each other, followed by weeks of taciturn avoidance, followed then by several days of intense pressure as together, they haggled the final tracklist with Bang PD.

In the end, Sihyuk had taken their suggestions. Most of them, anyway. Some of Namjoon’s best work went into the ‘save for later’ file, but the album’s still a victory. A cause for celebration. 

Yet if that’s so, then why are they both up here?

Yoongi says, “Aren’t you missing the afterparty downstairs?”

Namjoon shrugs. 

“Oh. I get it,” Yoongi snorts. “You’re checking up on me.”

“I am,” Namjoon says, cutting his eyes away from the sunset. “You mind?”

Yoongi burrows deeper into his chair. “Nah,” he says.

Maybe in years past, he would have. His depression and all conversations related to it would send Yoongi into retreat mode, largely because he fears a return to the psych ward his parents sent him to as a kid. 

Since it’s the kind of secret that could ruin him, only Namjoon, Hoseok, and now Seokjin know about it. Because he’d been a minor at the time, his parents had his records sealed. Even so, a diagnosis of mental illness would impact future employment, his military service, his ability to sign legal documents, or even hold property. So yeah, it’s a secret he’s held onto since his life literally depends upon it.

Then there’s the teeny, trivial detail of his antidepressants, which no longer seem to be working.

Wading into the silence, Namjoon says, “So. I wanted to thank you for what you said the other night to Jimin. We were all in panic mode, and you really helped him out.”

Yoongi nods. “One of my finer moments.”

“Definitely,” Namjoon says. “Classic Min Yoongi. And, happily, we have just wrapped on our comeback show...”

Yoongi raises his beer. “Cheers to that.” 

Namjoon clinks his bottle to Yoongi’s and continues. “Which means, we’re no longer working on the album.”

Yoongi smirks. “We’re no longer working on that album,” he corrects. 

Answer’ s a repackage and you know it.”

“So?”

“So, most of the work is done on that, too.”

“Most.” Yoongi sips. “Not all. We’re still lacking a title track.”

Namjoon squints against the coppering sun. He says, “How ’bout we skip all this back and forth, and you just tell me what’s going on?”

“How ’bout you’re our leader, not my Dad?” Yoongi tosses back.

“I know I’m not your dad,” Namjoon says, “‘Cause I’m still here.”

Yoongi cranes his head very slowly to face Namjoon. He feels his own jaw unhinge. 

“Yeah. I said it,” Namjoon tells him. His face betrays neither pity nor regret, but he is also not smiling, not even a little bit. “I’m here to help, not judge, okay? I know you, man. I can tell when something’s up.” 

Yoongi hisses over his teeth. “Can’t we just watch the sunset in peace?”

Namjoon goes, “We can do that, too.”

“Have you barred the door?” Yoongi asks. “You got Jimin on the other side, standing guard in case I make a break for it?”

“Actually, it's Seokjin,” Namjoon says. 

Yoongi squints at the horizon. “Clever, Joon. Evil, but clever.” 

“He’s the only one you can’t intimidate,” Namjoon says. “'Cept maybe Hobi, but he’d probably just take you out for ice cream.”

“Ah, Hope.” Yoongi's heart twists. He exhales hard to ground himself. Then he says, “Fine. Okay. You wanna know what’s bothering me?”

Namjoon gestures as if to say Be my guest

And Yoongi thinks, Fuck it. Namjoon knows almost everything else. Might as well give him something. Not everything, but...something.

“I think…that I’m… an idiot.”

“Okay, but you’re not,” Namjoon begins, and Yoongi cuts him off.

“Hear me out, Joon,” Yoongi says. “When we began all this almost ten years ago, you and me, we wanted to tell the truth about who we are. Because we were hiding something.”

“True,” Namjoon says, nodding his encouragement.

“So we’ve aired our grievances, right? Everything that hurt us, from the unfair school system to our various mental issues, we dug them up and wrote them out. We tell people that it’s okay to have depression, that it’s okay to ask for help. We tell them that we should be who we are – gay, straight, tall, short, pale, tanned, thick... And that we should love ourselves.”

Namjoon balances his bottle on his knee. “Yeah, we do.”

“Then why does my brain resist?” Yoongi says. “Joon. What is wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“No, but there is,” Yoongi says. He taps his breastbone. “In here, there’s something broken. Something isn’t right.”

Yoongi releases a breath. It was easier, saying these things to Hoseok. With Namjoon, it feels like a personal failing, like he’s unable to carry out his end of the deal they made when they first started this whole Bangtan thing together.

 “I’m working hard to fix it,” Yoongi assures him. “But it’s like I’m in the engine room of the Titanic with all the alarms going off and the water’s rushing in, and I want…”

Yoongi hovers on the word, aware that he’s gone up to the edge of something too big and too frightening to speak aloud.

Namoon sits forward, too damned alert. He says, “You want... what?

“Oh don’t give me that look,” Yoongi groans. 

“What look? What’d I do?” Namjoon asks.

Yoongi huffs, “I’m not gonna off myself—”

“—I never said you would—”

“—But you were thinking it,” Yoongi says.

“I mean,” Namjoon rolls his shoulders, “I know you, dude. I know what happened when you were a kid. So, yeah. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry.”

“I wouldn’t do it,” Yoongi states. Then his heart hollows as he recalls the darkest moments of the last few months. “But sometimes. Yeah,” he says, “Sometimes I fantasize about plane crashes, or natural disasters, or dying in my sleep and I… I feel relieved, Joon. And I know that isn’t right. I should want to live, because I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been.” He nods through his certainty. “But there is something wrong with me. And I’m really tired of trying hold back the flood.”

Namjoon drinks his beer. The sun vanishes behind the mountains, bruising the sky with lavender and gold. A chill brisks up, and they’re both in short sleeves. Before long, one of them will cave and make them go back inside. Yoongi’s determined that it won’t be him.

“What about your medication?” Namjoon asks.

Yoongi’s shoulders lift. “I don’t think it’s working.”

“You could change your prescription, right? Adjust the dosage?”

“Yeah, it was risky before, getting these meds,” Yoongi says. “I would have to see a doctor to change or adjust anything. I can just imagine some sasaeng tailing me to the doctor’s office, paying off a nurse for information. And no, I’m not being paranoid. You know better than most what this country thinks of famous people who talk about mental illness.” Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Plus, meds have side effects and adjusting to new dosage takes time, which we don’t have.”

“You and Hope, man,” Namjoon whistles. “Always so concerned with time.”

“Which we don’t have,” Yoongi repeats. “We’re leaving for LA tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Namjoon says, sitting forward. “Let’s think about this. Talk out some options. I think I know someone you can speak to.”

“Oh god,” Yoongi whinges. “You want me to talk to someone? About my problems?”

“Sure, of course.”

“I can think of nothing more excruciating,” he says. “I did that at the institute, remember? They had me committed.”

Your parents had you committed. It wouldn’t be like that now,” Namjoon says. “Mr. Choi has helped me through so much over the years.”

Yoongi levels him with what must be a dubious look because Namjoon hurries to explain.

“Yes, he’s a history and lit professor,” he says, “but he has a legit degree in psychology from an American university. Trust me, he knows what he’s doing.”

Yoongi narrows his eyes. “And you’re the proof, right?” 

“I feel I’m a fairly productive member of society,” Namjoon says. 

Yoongi’s mind attempts to throw up some sarcastic roadblock in response, but he can find nothing to co-opt Namjoon’s statement. He has, in fact, managed to funnel his rowdy, rebellious, self-destructive energy into something beyond functional. It’s inspiring, really, how well he’s grown up, and if this Mr. Choi guy helped him along that path, then maybe Yoongi shouldn’t dismiss it.

They lapse into quiet, watching the traffic spangle lights across the buildings below. A lilt of music drifts up from the river, something raggedly upbeat and nostalgic. A helicopter weaves along the highway, and above it, a sliver of moon pierces the sky. 

“Thing is,” Yoongi sighs. “I’ve been watching Seokjin and Taehyung. And they seem, in spite of everything, to finally be doing okay.”

“Unbelievably so,” Namjoon agrees.

“Meanwhile, I’m a fucking wreck.” Yoongi chuckles, darkly. “Don’t you dare tell them I said that.”

“I would never.”

“Someday,” Yoongi scratches his chin. “I wanna have something like that.” He nods. “I wanna be okay enough to have that. Pathetic, right?”

“It’s really not,” Namjoon says. “Actually, I want that, too. Someday.” Then he stands up. “I’ll send you Mr. Choi’s number but, man, it’s cold up here. Let’s go in. We got an early flight, you know?”

“Yep,” Yoongi says, and after one last look at the ledge, and the sunset, and the street down below, he follows Namjoon inside.

Chapter Text

Microsoft Outlook
14 May 2018
6:13 a.m.

To: choi.youngchul@olleh.com
From: agust_dsuga@skt.net

Dear Mr. Choi.

Yoongi backspaces.

Hello, Mr. Choi, he types. 

My name is Suga.

He erases it. He types, My name is Min Yoongi.  
My friend Kim Namjoon recommended that I contact you.

Before we begin, here are some facts about me:

I am 25 years old. 

I am a musician with a comically fucked-up family history. 

I once received treatment at a mental facility for chronic depression and suicidal thinking. Since then, I have been taking the medication Zoloft, but I no longer think it’s working. I’ve started to wean myself off of it, but that’s not going so great.

Hm. More about me…

I am sexually confused. No. Not confused. I am gay, and it’s one of the only things about myself I actually like. Everything else is a minefield of contradictions. Basically, a living hell inside a soundproof box where no one can hear me screaming. 

But enough about me lol

Yoongi sneers as he highlights everything up to the introduction and clicks delete.

Then he writes, Please help me, I want to die.

He hits send before he can stop himself. He waits, his mouth against his fists. A minute ticks by, then another. He’s about to walk away when the reply lights up his inbox. 

Good morning, Min Yoongi.

Namjoon said you might message me. I’m glad that you did.

I’m here to listen if you’d like to talk.

Yoongi stares breathless at the screen, wondering where the hell he should begin.

Then Mr. Choi writes, Do you prefer email or FaceTime?

Yoongi hasn’t bathed in days. He looks like something dragged from the sea on rusty hooks. He writes, Email is fine.

Okay, Mr. Choi answers. Let’s continue here.

Yoongi writes, I don’t really want to die, in case you’ve got the psych ward on speed dial.

I don’t, Mr. Choi replies. It’s only you and me.

And the scary spybots who crawl through all our messages, Yoongi writes. Then he backspaces that, because really, he doesn’t need the guy thinking he’s a paranoid nutcase in addition to a weak and whiny weirdo who can’t manage to keep his emotions in check. Poor baby Yoongi, don’t you have enough fame and fortune to satisfy you yet? 

I can assure you, Mr. Min , Mr. Choi writes. All of our communication here is completely confidential. I have programs installed against malware attacks. These days, we can’t be too careful.

“Mr. Min!” Yoongi balks aloud to his empty room. His own voice startles him. He’s shaking with nerves and uneasy laughter as he types, Mr. Choi, please call me Yoongi. Anything more than that and my head will grow too big for all my hats.

Very well, Yoongi. Where would you like to begin?

Yoongi glances around the small, cold room lit by only the firefly glow of his laptop. Unlike his studio, which contains a month’s worth of dirty laundry piled around various plush toys, instruments, album cases, and candy wrappers, this room remains bland to the point of sterile. It’s airless, odorless, devoid of decoration. They’ve lived in this new dorm for five months, but Yoongi has yet to truly move in.

“Guess I’ll start here,” he says. He types, I feel

He waits for the right word, and when it comes, he sends it before he can edit himself.

abandoned

But it’s pathetic. He is surrounded by people who love and care for him. They check in on him, feed him, make sure he’s getting sleep… It’s way more than his own parents did, but he understood the absence of his working class family, how his parents had to make certain sacrifices to keep their children clothed and fed. 

Yet somehow, here, he feels alone, like people are moving around him while he remains still. He wants to move forward with them, but he also wants to stay, because he’s only recently started to figure out who he is, and who he wants to be, and now everything’s starting to change again.

So he types all of that, too, and then he sends it. Before Mr. Choi responds, Yoongi adds, I am a burden to them. The thing is, I know myself, Mr. Choi. I know I’m broken and prone to sabotage and kind of a pain the ass. It’s really no wonder Hoseok and Seokjin got their own places. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of them go, too, and then

Yoongi’s whole body trembles as he glares at the last words and the infuriatingly persistent blink of the cursor, waiting and waiting for him to continue.

He types out: Who I am without them?

Then he adds, I don’t want to know. 

Not even a minute lapses before Mr. Choi responds. It’s okay, Yoongi . What you’re experiencing is real and valid. It is understandable for people to feel this way when they have achieved a certain level of success, and your group has achieved so much, so quickly. 

It’s also important to remember that changes are always daunting, even positive ones. But we will figure out the answer to your question.

“I cannot believe I’m doing this,” Yoongi mutters. He stares at the screen, trying to pick apart Mr. Choi’s words, searching for some clever quip to hurl back at the man to keep him at bay. But the response feels benign; sincere, even, and Yoongi can think of nothing that won’t make himself sound like the sulky, ungrateful brat that he is.

Yoongi hears his father’s voice in those words: Weak. Whiny. Ingrate. Brat. His father’s words, which have become his own. When the hell did that happen? 

So how does this work, Mr. Choi? Do I write to you when I’m feeling like I wish a building would fall on my head or… what?

No, Mr. Choi answers. We will try something called CBT: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You can research it if you like. It’s widely used in the US, and gaining ground here.

“Cognitive therapy,” Yoongi speaks aloud. “Does this mean there’s something wrong with my brain?” He types, But you’re a professor, right? Not a doctor?

By trade, yes, I teach history and literature, Mr. Choi answers. But I am also a licensed therapist. 

Yoongi pauses to consider this. While he’s thinking, Mr. Choi sends, CBT will work well via email, though when you’re ready and have time, I would want to meet face to face. CBT is a structured treatment plan that helps people see the way their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions influence each other. It’s designed to help people achieve stronger mental health by developing coping strategies and learning positive self talk.  
“Positive self talk?” Yoongi groans to the screen. “What’s that, like, I’m a strong, beautiful butterfly ?”

Yoongi writes, This is what Namjoon’s been doing all these years?

Mr. Choi answers, You may speak more with him about his experiences, if you like.

“Yeah, fuck that,” Yoongi says. “Namjoon’s got enough on his plate without worrying about me.” 

Yoongi writes, So we’ll check in via email?

Yes, Mr. Choi responds. 

They spend several minutes more hammering down a schedule before Yoongi hears someone rustling around in the kitchen. As usual, Yoongi has put off packing until this morning, which means he’s already lagging behind. He wonders, wistfully, if it’s Hoseok in there, setting up coffee before the staff arrive.

Then he stops himself. Until he answers the whole, big question of what’s broken inside him, Yoongi has no business dragging Hoseok down into the poisoned abyss that is his heart. 

“Ugh,” Yoongi groans, scrubbing his hands over his eyes. “Why are you still like this?”

He types, Mr. Choi, I have to go. But I will message you again Friday morning KST.

You may message me anytime, or call, if you prefer. My number’s included in the contact information. I’m online except for when I’m in classes, but I will always reply to you. 

And you won’t tell Namjoon what we’ve discussed? Yoongi adds.

Complete confidentiality, Mr. Choi assures him. Otherwise, I don’t think this would work. 

Do you?  

No, I guess you’re right, Yoongi writes. Then, Til Friday.  

He signs out of his email, but before joining whoever’s in the kitchen, he makes sure to clear his browser history.

Chapter Text

“This damn love, because of you
I can’t quit, even if I’m hurt.
Even if I die, it’s only you.”
It’s Definitely You, V and Jin

2-3 June 2018 – BigHit Studios

At the washroom mirror, Taehyung tugs out his earbud to glare at Seokjin. “I cannot believe you don’t know these lyrics by heart.” 

Seokjin has to work to conceal his amusement. “How could I?” he asks. “We had less than a week to learn it, one day to record it, and we haven’t sung it since.”

You haven’t sung it,” Taehyung fires back. “I sing it every day.”

“When?” Seokjin asks. He elbows Jungkook to edge him away from the sink. 

Taehyung squints at him. “In my heart.”

Jungkook grates out a noise of frustration. He continues to finger-style his bangs while simultaneously hip-bumping Seokjin out of the way. 

“This only proves what I already knew,” Taehyung says

“Which is?” Seokjin asks.

Taehyung says, “That I love you more than you love me.”

Jungkook snaps upright, spilling Seokjin forward against the basin. “You take that back,” he growls.

But Seokjin runs water over his toothbrush, watching them both in the reflection. “That’s ludicrous,” Seokjin says, though neither Taehyung nor Jungkook know which of them he’s addressing. He begins to brush his teeth, and through the foam he says, “You probably don’t even know the words.”

“Oh I know them,” Taehyung says. 

Jungkook stares at him a moment before yelling, “Jimin-ssi!” In response, Jimin’s voice rings out somewhere in the practice room, and Jungkook trudges off to find him. 

Taehyung can only spend a moment to worry about Jungkook’s behavior before Seokjin says, with certainty, “You don’t know it.”

“What’ll you bet me if I do?” Taehyung asks. Surreptitiously, he tabs up the lyrics on his phone. 

Seokjin rinses his mouth, then slowly traces his bottom lip with his middle finger. “I’ll do that thing you love.”

Taehyung’s throat goes dry. Seokjin steps close enough for him to feel his breath on his neck. “And if I don’t know it?” Taehyung whispers.

“Then you’ll do that thing I love,” Seokjin says.

A throaty groan sounds from the door as Yoongi steps into the restroom. “Is there no place safe?” Yoongi drones.

Seokjin rakes his teeth over the tender vein in Taehyung’s neck. Then he steps around him and Yoongi into the hall, leaving Taehyung all tingly and bothered, and at Yoongi’s mercy.

“Apparently not?” Taehyung says. 

Yoongi heaves a sigh. “Get out.”

And Taehyung does as he’s told.

 

Taehyung does not know the lyrics by heart. It’s painfully apparent on the first run-through, when Taehyung must continually check his phone to sing his verse.

Seokjin keeps casting smug looks at him, but Taehyung holds up his phone in self-defense. “I know all the words, hyung,” he shouts. “Just not in the right order.”

“It’s okay, VV,” Seokjin says, breezily. “I’ve already won.”

They clown through the song on the first dozen practice runs, loose and silly one time, sexy and seductive the next. Jimin hovers, watching but not filming, as Taehyung grinds up on Seokjin, hooking his leg around his thigh like a tango dancer. They put on a show to make Jimin laugh, exaggerating every move and singing into each other’s faces like the leads in a Broadway play. 

It’s so fun, and they’re so good at it, that for a moment, Taehyung feels sad that it’s not acceptable for two men to dance in this way.

Jimin calls, “What will your costumes be?”

“Pajamas,” Yoongi answers from the other side of the room. Until that moment, Taehyung didn’t know Yoongi had entered. He whips around to see Yoongi scrunched into a swivel chair, his chin on his knees, an almost wistful look in his eyes. He schools it away the moment Taehyung meets his gaze, but Taehyung begins to wonder...

“I was thinking your Hwarang clothes,” Jimin says, drawing attention back to their conversation. “Then you could have a sword fight in the middle, all whoosh - clang - hyah!” Jimin fake stabs Seokjin in his kidney. In response, Seokjin crumples to his knees in fake agony.

“Pajamas,” Yoongi states, flatly. “Because they need to get a room.”

A moment later, Rapline comes in to rehearse Ddaeng. Afterward, Jimin and Jungkook practice their choreo for Black & White. Then they block Fake Love for their comeback stage, and they run through it again and again and again. During their downtime, Seokjin reads through his MC script for KBS Music Bank, and he practices tag-teaming the song again with Taehyung. 

Well after midnight, they go home for four hours of rest. Taehyung spends half of that time at Seokjin’s new place, doing the thing that Seokjin loves, as per the terms of their agreement.

 

So the next day, they’re a little punchy during rehearsal, despite the fact that they are rapidly running out of time. 

Again, Jimin asks, “What will your costumes be?” This time Jungkook is with him, and they distract themselves by playing frisbee with their black and white hats. 

“Onesies,” Seokjin answers. 

“RJ and Tata,” Taehyung says, because they have no idea what they want to wear, and because they’ve been too busy fooling around with their song instead of getting their wardrobe done, and because fooling around like this has been way too much fun.

Focus, Taehyung inwardly growls. And that determination holds until they begin to cross the stage. Yoongi’s in the corner of the room, pretending not to watch them, but Taehyung keeps him in his line of sight. As soon as he and Seokjin enter kissing range, Yoongi’s expression morphs from one of leery watchfulness to something that looks like…

“Heartbreak,” Taehyung murmurs. The realization strikes him like an arctic blast, wrenching him completely from the rhythm of their song. 

“Taehyung-ah, that’s not the line,” Seokjin sings. But then he must read Taehyung’s face, because he steps in, his mouth to his ear, to mutter, softly, “VV, what is it?”

Jimin cuts the vocal track, marooning them in silence. Taehyung whispers, “Next time, watch Yoongi-hyung.” 

Seokjin glances over. Yoongi scowls back. “Jin-hyung, let’s not have another Mexico, alright? No almost-maybe-but-yeah-actually-kissing on stage.” Then Yoongi frowns down at his phone, suddenly absorbed by whatever’s on his screen. 

Jimin cues the music again. This time, they watch Yoongi. Halfway through the song, Namjoon and Hoseok enter the practice room.

If Taehyung had to describe the change in Yoongi, he would say it was like watching a sunflower bloom in time lapse, all its petals bursting into vivid color, and then withering just as suddenly into a dull, dry husk. The transformation stuns Taehyung so much that he once again loses his place in the song.

“What is it now?” Jungkook jokes. “Did your heart forget the words again?”

“Don’t tease him, Jungkookie,” Jimin says. “Their verses really are so similar.”

“They’re not that similar,” Jungkook counters.

“Can we try again?” Seokjin asks, guiding Taehyung toward his mark.

“Do we have time before Ddaeng?” Namjoon asks Hoseok.

“Of course,” Hoseok smiles. 

“No more goofing around,” Yoongi snaps.

“We’re good,” Seokjin says. To Taehyung, he adds, “One more time?”

“Watch them,” Taehyung mouths. As Jimin resets the music, Seokjin nods that he will. This time, Yoongi’s reaction is impossible to miss. 

 

Taehyung scrapes each hanger over the clothing rail, not so much looking at the items as he is keeping his hands busy.

“He’s in love?” Taehyung hisses. 

“Yes,” Seokjin says.

“The way he looked at Hobi-hyung,” Taehyung says. “He’s in love with Hobi-hyung?”

“Shh. Yes.” Seokjin stirs honey into a cup of melon tea, filling the small room with its sweetness. “Drink this.”

Taehyung sips, scalding the roof of his mouth and setting the sore spot on his jaw aflame.

“Too sweet?” Seokjin asks, taking the cup to test it for himself.

“More, please,” Taehyung says. He shoves through silky shirts and velvety jackets, feeling overwhelmed by the textures and the noise and the revelation that Yoongi’s in love with Hoseok.

“VV,” Seokjin says, dragging him from the clothing rail. “Sit down.”

Taehyung sits. Seokjin presses the cup into his hands. 

“Sip it.”

Taehyung sips.

Seokjin says, “I already knew.”

Taehyung blinks. He sips again. “You already knew?” Then, “Wait. You already knew ?”

Seokjin nods. 

“For how long?”

A light shrug. “Two years.”

Taehyung gapes a long, still moment. 

“I told Yoongi to tell him,” Seokjin explains. “I don’t know if he did. But after what he said to me back when we recorded Let Go, I have to think he didn’t.” Seokjin’s brow darkens. “Or maybe he did, and it didn’t go as he’d hoped.”

Taehyung pushes hard to remember. He wasn’t there when Yoongi berated Seokjin and Jungkook for being distracted by their relationships, but Seokjin told Taehyung enough to explain how deeply Yoongi’s words had wounded him. 

“Well…” Taehyung sips again. “Is Hobi gay?” Then he goes, “Is Yoongi gay?”

Seokjin lifts his hands. “I really don’t know,” he says. 

“Hm.” Taehyung blows on his tea. His thoughts begin to gradually untangle. 

“Taehyung, I have an idea,” Seokjin says.

“You think the purple satin jacket and matchy glitter pants?” Taehyung asks.

“No.” Seokjin squints. “I mean, yes, for the pants. But an idea for Yoongi and Hope.”

Taehyung lowers his cup. “What’re you thinking?”

Seokjin’s face takes on that tense look he gets when he’s planning. “We should find out what’s going on with them.”

“What if it’s nothing?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin’s brows lift. He says, “Then we should do something about that, too.”

“Are you making one of your plans?” Taehyung asks.

“Yep,” Seokjin says. “A plan for them. And you’re gonna help me.”

Chapter Text

“How long will beautiful things in the world stay?
Rain shower in the midsummer, flowers endure strong
Last winter snow storm, trees stand tall
Can everything under the sky stand alone? ”
Autumn Outside the Post Office, Kim Hyunsung

6 June 2018 Ossu Seiromushi (Seokjin’s restaurant

Seokjin sits on the counter, a bamboo basket squared between his and Taehyung’s knees. From the basket spills the warm, steamy fragrance of pork dumplings, roast chicken, and ribbon-thin Australian beef. He’s trying to pace himself, to taste each item with care, but they are so delicious, and he is so ridiculously proud, that he keeps shoveling in bite after bite, as if he hasn’t eaten for weeks.

“Abeoji,” Seokjin calls around a piping hot bite of mandu. “These are my favorite!”

His father looks up from the ledger he and Seokjung are poring over. “You said that about the last three things,” he calls back.

“They’re all my favorite,” Seokjin tells Taehyung.

“Me too.” Taehyung grins as he scoops a sliver of beef from the basket. 

“Well, then what happened?” Seokjin’s mother asks, knuckling his knee for him to continue. He’d been in the middle of a story about a failed prank they tried to pull while they were in LA, but the sweetly-savory dumpling had thoroughly derailed the retelling.

“Nothing happened,” Seokjin says, laughing behind his hand. “Yoongi never even came down from his room.”

His mother slaps the table. “You’re kidding me?” she says. “After all that elaborate planning?” In her lap, her new puppy squirms up at the noise. She feeds him a lump of dumpling to keep him calm.

“Yes, Eomma,” Seokjin muses. “After all our hard work, Yoongi outwitted us by being lazy.” 

“By being himself,” Taehyung amends. 

Seokjin glances across the counter at Taehyung, at his scruffy hair and stubbly chin. He looks ragged, as they all do, having sprinted through their promotions in America to bounce right back into rehearsals for Festa. Still, he glows, like he has basked in the radiance of the restaurant’s kitchen, and now it’s gleaming through his eyes and his honey-golden skin.

The gravity of the night isn’t lost on either of them. Though Seokjung and his Dad have been conveniently busy the whole evening, this is their first time together, he and Taehyung, in the presence of Seokjin’s family.

“It’s true, Eomma,” Seokjin says, tearing his eyes from Taehyung. “Though Yoongi’s not really lazy.”

“No, how could he be,” Mrs. Kim says. “As hard as you all work?”

Seokjung comes to the edge of the counter. “Hard work?” he says, cuffing Seokjin’s shoulder. “Don’t be fooled, Eomma. They sing and dance all day.” 

“Oh? When was the last time you went to the BBMAs?” Seokjin jokes.

“Is that work?” Seokjung asks.

“We got to meet John Legend,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin’s mother brightens. “Is that a singer?”

“Eomma, he’s a Legend!” Seokjin says. “And also a singer.”

“Our favorite,” Taehyung adds.

“Wow. That sounds grueling,” Seokjung deadpans.

“Yah, you stare at scribbles on computer screens,” Seokjin says. “Suddenly this is hard work?”

“Sometimes I print them out. Hey, Eomma,” Seokjung says, snagging a dumpling from her plate. “What do you call an architect who is the sad son of a king?”

“Those are for the dog, Jungie,” Ms. Kim singsongs as Seokjung pops the mandu into his mouth.

“A dumpling is a dumpling,” Seokjung says as he chews. “Right, Apa?”

Their father, who is busy somewhere in the storeroom, calls back, “Whatever your mother says is right.”

Taehyung covers his mouth to hide his smile. 

“Blueprints,” Seokjung says, and he and Seokjin smack at each other as they crumble into laughter.

Seokjin’s mother looks to Taehyung with an expression that seems to say, Do you see what you’re getting into? and it makes Seokjin’s heart skip a beat.

He takes a bite of chicken to hide the sudden lump in his throat. Because this is the closest thing they’ve ever had to a family dinner, and they’re laughing and joking and not-so-sneakily feeding the dog under the table, and Seokjin wants it to never end. 

Seokjung reaches to nip a strand of beef from Taehyung’s basket. Taehyung expertly chopstick blocks him, and Seokjung flashes Seokjin a smile.

 “So," Seokjung says, "Jin-Jin tells me you play Overwatch.” 

“Sometimes,” Taehyung shyly replies. 

“Who do you main?” 

“D.Va,” Taehyung says. 

“Nice, nice,” Seokjung says with an appreciative nod. “We should play sometime.”

“Really?” Taehyung squinches his eyes in a smile.

“Absolutely,” Seokjung says. “You know, when you’re not traipsing across the planet, or whatever.”

“Traipsing?” Seokjin cries. “Eomma, do you hear this—?” 

Then their father comes grumbling in, pinching the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. He continues to study the sheaf of papers in his hand as he says, “Officially, we’ll open next month, but we can have a soft opening within a week—”

Taehyung nearly chokes over the words ‘soft opening.’ Reading his naughty mind, Seokjin jabs his chopstick into the side of Taehyung’s thigh. 

Without looking up from his reports, Mr. Kim says, “Aish, why are they sitting on the counter?”

“The chairs are all stacked against the wall, aren’t they?” his mother responds. When he glances up to verify, Ms. Kim continues. “They waxed the floors and they’re still not dry, so don’t even think about dragging them out.”

His father grunts. Then he gestures to Taehyung with his chin. “So which is it?” he asks.

Taehyung flashes a mildly hurt look at Seokjin. “I’m… Kim Taehyung,” he says. “We met—”

“—No, no.” Seokjin’s father gives an irritated wave. “Which do you want for the event? Mandu, chicken, beef?”

“Abeoji,” Seokjin chides, softly. 

“What? Can’t I ask him? You already said you like them all,” Mr. Kim says. 

Taehyung clears his throat. “I like the chicken, Mr. Kim.” 

“Really?” Seokjin asks. “Not the beef?”

Taehyung scoops up a slice of chicken, but when he bites into it, he cringes against a sudden, sharp pain in his jaw. He tries to cover it, but Seokjin’s mother catches on immediately.

“What was that?” she asks. 

“Nothing, Ama Kim,” Taehyung says, reaching for his Soju. “It’s nothing.” 

“It’s not nothing,” Seokjin says. “It’s this place on his jaw that keeps getting infected.”

Taehyung, who was slowly sipping his Soju behind his hand, splutters it back into his cup. “Jin-hyung,” he whispers, “Let’s not talk about that now?”

“You’re right,” Seokjin says, trying to convey his regret through his eyebrows. “I’m sorry.” He pours Taehyung another splash of Soju, hoping that will relay his apology instead.  

But his father is watching them, his lips pursed, his arms resting lightly across his broad chest. Seokjin knows this pose, the measured thoughtfulness behind it. He knows he should expect what happens next, and yet it still surprises him.

“Young man, dental pain is not a laughing matter,” Mr. Kim announces. 

Taehyung’s eyes widen. 

Mr. Kim points to Seokjung. “Who was that friend of yours, the one whose brother died of a heart attack, what was that, two years ago?”

Seokjung taps a finger to his lips. “Ah, yeah, Kwan Wonpil. Jin-Jin, you remember him? He drove the red Bentley—”

“—Did he die?” Seokjin balks.

“No, his brother did,” Seokjung says.

“Of a heart attack?” Ms. Kim says. “What on earth does that have to do with a hurt tooth?”

“It’s not my tooth, just my jaw,” Taehyung clarifies. 

Mr. Kim nods his head very slowly. He levels his hand to point two fingers at Seokjin. “The heart attack was caused by an abscessed tooth,” Mr. Kim says. “Blood poisoning. Went straight to his heart – Bam! – dead at 33.” Mr. Kim pokes his own chest for emphasis.

“Fiction!” Seokjin says. “Abeoji, did you actually talk to his dentist?”

“We played golf with him,” Seokjung says. 

And Seokjin goes, “Oh.” 

Because this truth illuminates a whole new web of potential risks that Seokjin has never even considered. Taehyung’s been nursing this infection in his jaw off and on for nearly a year. The blood poisoning could already be on its way to his heart, and instead of beautiful, vibrant Taehyung, he would become a freak statistic of dental hygiene, or worse, a cautionary tale shared during a random game of golf. 

Without thinking about boundaries or propriety, Seokjin reaches up to cup Taehyung’s cheek. He finds, with that one touch, that what he thought was the effusive glow of Taehyung’s happiness, is in fact, a fever. 

“Taehyung-ah!” Seokjin shouts. “You’re burning up.”

“Am I?” Taehyung says, looking legitimately confused.

“Yes. Eomma!” 

Ms. Kim passes her dog to Seokjung. She stands to press her palm to Taehyung’s face. “Low grade.” She tsks. “But yes, I think he’s right.”

“Well, they can’t perform a surgery if you have an infection,” Mr. Kim says.

“Surgery?” Taehyung moans.

“If it’s an abscess, of course you’ll have to have a surgery,” Mr. Kim tells him. 

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin soothes. “He is a businessman, not a dentist. But can we get it checked out now, please? Just in case?”

“I mean, I want to,” Taehyung says, “but when?” He pans a pleading glance to each member of the Kim family. “You know how busy we are.”

“He’s right.” Seokjin sighs. “We were lucky to be here tonight, all the Festa business and the Inkigayo broadcast.”

“Oh, so busy with all your singing and dancing,” Seokjung teases. Seokjin cuts his eyes at his brother, but he recognizes in an instant what he’s trying to do. He knows, because it’s what Seokjin would do as well: Attempt to lighten the mood.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” Mr. Kim says, clapping his hands together. “When you leave here, go straight to the clinic. There’s one up on the next corner, 24-hours. Explain your symptoms to the doctor on staff. She knows us, understand? We send construction guys there from time to time. She’ll give you an emergency prescription for antibiotics. Are you allergic?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says. “Shellfish.”

“He means antibiotics,” Seokjin whispers.

“Oh. Right.” Taehyung’s forehead wimples. “Penicillin.”

“Really?” Seokjin asks, because this seems like something vital that he, as the long-term boyfriend, should already know.

“Be sure to tell them,” Mr. Kim says. 

“Yes, Abeoji,” Seokjin says. 

“Then Seokjung-ie will send you Dr. Lee’s information. You set up an appointment,” Mr. Kim says. “Sooner the better, but you’ll have to reduce the swelling in the area if you have to have a surgery.”

“Yes, sir,” Taehyung says.

Mr. Kim turns to his wife. “They’ve decided chicken.”

“Our first catering order.” She scrubs the scruff of her puppy’s chin. 

He squints at his sons. Then to Seokjung, he says, “Clear off that counter. We have work to do.”

 

With their meal done and the Festa menu decided, the Kims walk them to the back entrance of the restaurant. Seokjung and Taehyung exchange gamertags for League of Legends, which in Seokjung-speak is the equivalent of giving his blessing. There’s a round of hugs, when Seokjin’s mother pulls him aside.

“Now you go with him to his appointment,” she tells him. 

“But, he’s a grown man, Eomma,” Seokjin whispers. “Shouldn’t he go on his own?”

His mother gives him a shake of her head. “Nonsense, Seokjinnie. I go with your father to every doctor’s visit, and he goes with me to mine. It’s not the most romantic thing, I know, but it’s an unspoken perk of being a couple. You don’t have to do these things alone.”

“Thank you,” he says. When he leans in to kiss her cheek, he whispers, very carefully, “I’m gonna marry him, you know?” 

“I know,” she says. Then she caresses his cheek before sending him up the stairs to Taehyung.

 

At first, the full force of her words don’t hit him. 

At first, he and Taehyung walk quietly through the lively spring night, each of them thinking through the events of the evening. It’s humid but cool, the air a whisper away from drizzle, and though they’re not quite holding hands, their fingers brush together with every step. 

They speak with the clinic doctor, who gives Taehyung a temporary antibiotic to take care of his infection. She pretty much tells them what Seokjin’s father did – to follow up with a dentist – which Taehyung promises to do.

On the way home, Taehyung says, “I remember, once, you worried that your parents aren’t in love.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin murmurs.”I remember that.”

“They are, though,” Taehyung says. “Not as out loud as my parents, but they are.”

Seokjin laces their fingers. Taehyung stiffens at first, surprised by the publicness of the gesture, but after a few steps, he eases into it, and it feels… right.

“She called us a couple,” Seokjin says. “My Eomma.”

“She did?” 

Seokjin pulls him close. He wraps his arms around him. Rain begins to trickle down through the branches in soft, pattering drops, smelling of sweetness and summer. It’s dark and they have the cover of the leaves, but even if that wasn’t true, Seokjin would be tempted to kiss him.

And so he does. Beneath the blurry, starlit dusk, Seokjin kisses him, and for once, for always, he doesn’t care who sees. 

Chapter Text

KAKAOTALK - KBS Music Fest
Tteokguk Group Chat
9 June 2018

PrinceSeokjin: Seojoon-ssi.

Seojoon-hyung: Yes, Seokjin-ssi?

PrinceSeokjin: I learned something recently. 
PrinceSeokjin: Quite by accident.
PrinceSeokjin: From our mutual friend Taehyung.

Seojoon-hyung: Is that so?

PrinceSeokjin: It seems that you and he have the same sized hands. Isn’t that interesting?

Seojoon-hyung: A fact we learned, also quite by accident, while filming Hwarang.
Seojoon-hyung: ㅋㅋㅋ Please don’t destroy me.
Seojoon-hyung: ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

PrinceSeokjin: On the contrary.
PrinceSeokjin: As our hyung, I would like to ask you a favor.

Seojoon-hyung: Like a mission?

PrinceSeokjin: Precisely.

Seojoon-hyung: Like the one you’ve got Hyungsik working on?

PrinceSeokjin: In fact, the very same.

Seojoon-hyung: *eyes you from across the field* and it relates to me having the same size hands as Taehyung’s? I wonder what this mission could be?

PrinceSeokjin: ㅋㅋㅋ Seojoon-ah, do you accept?

Seojoon-hyung: Do I have a choice? 

PrinceSeokjin: ଘ(੭*ˊᵕˋ)੭* None at all.

Seojoon-hyung: ☺Send me the details. I’ll see Hyungsik-ie next week. We’ll have lunch and coordinate.

PrinceSeokjin: :💜 Welcome to Mission La Vie En Rose.

Seojoon-hyung: Seriously excited, Seokjin. We will see you soon. XOX

 

9 June 2018 - KBS Music Fest Pre-Recording

Jimin’s nose is practically touching Seokjin’s ear when his hyung finally lowers his phone to notice him.

With a sigh of mild annoyance, Seokjin shoves him away.

Undeterred, Jimin returns, pressing his face close to Seokjin’s. “Hey, hyung?” he sings. “Whatcha doin?”

 Seokjin squints. “Nothing.” He scans their dressing room to learn what Jimin already knows. The other five have either gone to massage therapy, makeup, or wardrobe, abandoning Jimin, who’s still in his street clothes, with Seokjin, who’s already pressed and polished in his fancy MC tuxedo.

Jimin relaxes back a few centimeters, but remains perched at Seokjin’s shoulder, close enough to read the KKT on his phone.

“You’re like a vulture,” Seokjin murmurs. 

“That’s not nice, Jin-hyung,” Jimin gasps. “I’m only hanging around because you smell good.”

“So, like a vulture.” Seokjin continues to text. “Go away.”

Jimin goes limp and slides against him. “Hyung, I’m boooored.” He reads a snatch of the group chat and goes, “What’s Mission La Vie En Rose?”

Seokjin finally lowers his phone. He meets Jimin’s eager gaze. “It’s a secret,” he tells him.

“It’s for Taehyung-ie, isn’t it?” Jimin gushes. “It’s a surprise, for his birthday?”

“Nope,” Seokjin answers.

“You’re such a liar.” Jimin tries again. “It’s for your anniversary, right? One of your secret plans.”

Seokjin says, “Do you understand the meaning of the word secret?” 

Jimin frowns. “Not really, no.” Then he adds, “But I really wanna know.”

Seokjin gives him a considering look. Jimin tries not to be too excited. 

“It is a plan,” Seokjin whispers. 

“Ooh.” Jimin draws up straight in his chair. “What kind?”

“You wouldn’t be able to tell anyone, Jimin,” Seokjin says, leaning in, looking all crisp and smelling wonderful. “Not even Jungkook. Can you do that?”

Probably not , Jimin thinks. He tells Jungkook everything. Like, everything. But Jungkook doesn’t repeat what Jimin tells him, so a secret would still be safe. Especially if he asked Jungkook not to say anything, which he totally would.

“Okay,” Jimin says. “I promise.”

Seokjin seems antsy as he gets up to cross the room. He stops rifling through their duffel bags when a pair of interns enter, hunting for Namjoon’s missing denim jacket. Once they depart, Seokjin renews the search, mumbling to himself as he digs through their belongings. 

Then he finds it. He brings the object over and places it in Jimin’s hands.

Jimin stares at it. He considers for a moment that Seokjin might be pranking him. 

“This is Taehyung’s book,” Jimin says, turning the worn, somewhat sticky copy of Life Balancer between his hands. 

“Open it,” Seokjin says. 

Jimin lets it fall open between his palms. It parts to a notecard taped to a mostly-empty page. On it, written in Seokjin’s loopy print, is a list of instructions for Taehyung.

Jimin reads the list. Then, speechless, he gapes up at Seokjin.

“You see why it has to be a secret?” Seokjin tells him. “Why you can’t tell Jungkook yet? Why it has to remain between the us three?” 

Jimin has to swallow before he can answer. “I never guessed,” he mumbles. “I mean, I should have, but… are you sure?”

“Very sure,” Seokjin says. “And now that you know, you’ll see it all the time, too.” He slides into his seat again, his knees touching Jimin’s. “But here’s what Taehyung-ie and I are thinking. Yoongi, being Yoongi, will never act on it. He’s too afraid that he’ll mess up their friendship. And Hoseok, being Hoseok, will never act on it either, because he thinks he has to be loyal to us.”

“Whoa,” Jimin breathes. “It’s true, though. That makes total sense.”

“But,” Seokjin says. “You and I know better, don’t we? We know you can be with the one you love, without hurting us or each other. So, the way we figure it, all Yoongi and Hobi need is a little push.”

“From us?” Jimin asks. 

Seokjin smiles. “From us.” 

“Wha!” Jimin exclaims, feeling his cheeks tinge pink. “But that would mean Yoongi-hyung and—”

“—Shh,” Seokjin says, laying a finger across Jimin’s lips. They hear Hoseok and Taehyung in the hallway, discussing tonight’s lineup with Gaemae and the showrunner for KBS. “Remember,” he whispers. “Just us three.”

“Promise,” Jimin says. And though he means it in the moment, he feels like he might burst if he doesn’t tell Jungkook soon.

 

It’s almost too easy, Seokjin thinks, to put the pieces into place. At the mirror, he watches his reflection, the smooth curve of his jaw, the elegant arch of his brows. His full lips, parted, as if waiting for a kiss. He tilts his head to see Jimin at the stage edge, chatting with Jungkook and a few members of AOA. 

Like Jimin, everyone – the staff, their managers, the Hwarang hyungs – has been eager to help with his plans. They’ve gone along willingly, because they like him, and because they want to be a part of something. He has slowly come to realize that this is his father’s way. In business, Mr. Kim operates people. He understands them. He moves them. By itself, it’s not an evil trait. But Seokjin knows it can be, and he’s worked his whole life to avoid that. 

Because, as a child, Seokjin feared his father. Not that he was ever violent or blustery. Quite the opposite, in fact. In answer to an offense, or in the case of a punishment, his father becomes icily silent, withdrawing every trace of camaraderie or affection. 

Seokjin understands, now, that he can embrace one aspect of his father without assuming his other qualities. He can launch simultaneous, intricate plans for his friends and for the man he wants to marry, in the way that his father initiates a detailed takeover bid in business. But Seokjin no longer has to retreat to that same cold, dark place when he feels threatened or afraid.

This realization has been a long time coming, and so he’s smiling when Taehyung appears at the dressing table, still sweaty from rehearsal, a bottle of water in hand. He’s wearing a silver lip ring, and even if it’s fake, Seokjin can barely deny his desire to taste it…

“You’ve got something, right there,” Seokjin purrs, reaching to touch the ring. Taehyung runs his tongue over it, and Seokjin shudders. 

“Wear it tonight,” Seokjin says.

A low laugh. “Yeah?” 

“Oh.” Seokjin swallows. “Yeah.” 

The girls from AOA exit backstage, leaving Jimin alone with Jungkook. Namjoon cuts around them, business-like, guiding two men in caterer’s clothes. Behind Seokjin and Taehyung, safely beyond earshot, Solbin lets a stylist retouch her foundation.

“The caterers are here,” Seokjin tells Taehyung. “We don’t have much time.”

Taehyung meets his eye. “Is Jimin on board?”

“VV, it was too easy,” Seokjin says. 

“And Jungkook?”

“Please,” Seokjin casts a quick glance at the pair of them, already immersed in conversation. “He’ll know before the end of the night.” 

“Then our plan’s in motion,” Taehyung says.

Our plan.” Seokjin smiles. “VV, do you know how nice that sounds?”

“Perfect,” Taehyung says.

“How’s your tooth?” Seokjin asks.

“Less perfect.” He tongues the spot and winces. “Also, it still hurts.” 

“Things take time to heal,” Seokjin says. “But we’ll get it fixed.”

“Shh.” Taehyung squeezes his hand. “Solbin’s coming.” 

“Go,” Seokjin whispers. “Meet me later.” 

Taehyung peels off backstage to join the others. Then the stage crew and stylists surge in, making last-minute adjustments to his hair, his mic, and his lapels. He can’t spare another thought for Taehyung and Jimin, or any of their budding schemes. But the excitement he gleans from them remains to warm him through the night and the next day, until his father calls.

Chapter Text

“Can I lay by your side, next to you, you?
And make sure you're alright
I'll take care of you.”
Lay Me Down, Sam Smith and John Legend

13 June 2018 – Hannam the Hill 

Yeontan pushes between the curtains, splitting light into their little world. Seokjin folds away from it, burrowing his face against Taehyung’s chest. He floats a moment, oddly disconnected in the sleepy halflight. Something puzzles at the edge of his memory, some dream or difficulty that, in his exhaustion, he has willfully and blissfully abandoned in Taehyung's embrace. 

“Tan-ah,” Taehyung calls, scruffling his fingers across the sheets, but the puppy remains at the window, softly snarling at someone on the sidewalk below.

Seokjin feels Taehyung’s weight shift. Then he hears the shutter-snap of his camera. Seokjin slits his eyes, carefully, permitting the smallest amount of light between his lashes. Taehyung kneels above him, the phone to his eye as he clicks several shots of Seokjin.

“What’re you doing?” Seokjin rubs his knuckles on Taehyung’s thigh.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll save them off my phone when I go home.”

Seokjin curls his body around Taehyung’s legs. A tenderness aches within him, a distant echo of pain. He shuts his eyes against it, as if the daylight will bring his memories back.

Taehyung pushes a hand through Seokjin’s hair. “Am I your prisoner now?” 

Seokjin nods. Taehyung traces the whorl of Seokjin’s ear.  

“Good.” 

Yeontan gives up on the window. He skirts the bed, his collar jingling, and Taehyung scoops him up between them. Yeontan pokes his cold nose into Seokjin’s armpit and then into his neck. Seokjin whimpers, wrapping his arms around the dog, much to Yeontan’s bewilderment. Seokjin rolls, taking Yeontan with him, mashing his face into the grassy scent of the puppy’s fur. 

Taehyung frames them with his camera, catching several shots before Yeontan squiggles free. The little dog snuffles, indignant, shaking himself to fan out his pouf, before skipping from the bed. He returns to the window to part the room again into dark and light.

Taehyung slides beside Seokjin. He pillows Seokjin’s head beneath his arm so that they can both skim through Taehyung’s pictures.

“See,” Taehyung says. “Even in sadness, you’re beautiful.”

Seokjin catches his question before he speaks it. He was going to ask why he’s sad, because until that moment, he’d forcefully forgotten. The mention of sadness opens the door for reality to slowly seep back in.

He gazes across the pillow at Taehyung, his face awash with the glow of his phone. His cheeks appear puffy, his jaw, swollen. This is the side effect of antibiotics, or perhaps a week-long diet of soft foods and ice cream. Probably a combination of the two, but – thankfully – his fever has broken and he has an appointment with a dentist during the last week of July. 

The thought of their calendar clicks another piece of reality into place. In June, they’ll travel to Saipan. At the funeral, Seokjin spoke to his brother about arrangements for their pets.

“Jungie says he can keep Tan-ah while we’re in Saipan,” Seokjin says.

“Aw, that’s good,” Taehyung says.

Upon hearing his name, Yeontan bounds back into the bed. Taehyung drags him back up between them. The dog allows them each about three seconds of snuggling before he skitters back down, his toenails rattling across the tile in the kitchen.  

“He needs to go out,” Taehyung says. 

Seokjin pulls Taehyung tighter. 

Taehyung brushes Seokjin’s nose with his own. “Can I get you anything?”

Seokjin shakes his head. “Just come back soon.”

Taehyung sits up to tug on his pants. “Time us,” he says. He bends to kiss between Seokjin’s brows. “We’ll be quick.”


Seokjin stretches into the place Taehyung vacated, soaking up every last trace of his warmth. A sliver of morning spills through the curtains, bringing with it an awareness of the dawning day. Birds chirp and flit in the birches that fringe his patio. There’s the ever-present hush of traffic, though its muffled here at Hannam, where swathes of parkland buffer them from the city beyond the gates. 

Within the quiet, a heavy haze of melancholy falls.

He thinks of his mother, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, her soft hand enfolded in his father’s as they sat, side by side, at the ceremony. There are so many things he should focus on, so many things Seokjin needs to remember, but he keeps returning to his mother’s delicate hands, her trim nails painted tastefully pink. He remembers how she touched Taehyung’s face to determine that he’d had a fever. He remembers her caressing his cheek as she told him good night. He thinks there’s nothing in the world that compares to his mother’s hands, and he aches for her, for what she has recently lost.  

Taehyung returns. He climbs into the bed. He kisses away Seokjin’s tears. Yeontan goes to the window to yip at the birds, and Seokjin slips effortlessly into sleep.

He wakes again to the sharp, acidic tang of ginseng. His stomach knots with hunger, and he rolls from bed to shuffle into his kitchen, where Taehyung is portioning out two bowls of soup. He’s got his headphones in and he’s singing, so he doesn’t hear Seokjin come up behind him. Seokjin loops his arms around Taehyung’s hips. He presses his cheek to the back of Taehyung’s neck. He’s warm but not fever-warm, and his clothes smell like dust and trees, the welcome scent of the outside world. 

Taehyung turns within his arms. “How’re you feeling?” he asks. He’s loud because of his headphones. Seokjin reaches to tug them out.

“How are you feeling?” Seokjin asks. 

Taehyung tentatively tests the curve of his jaw. “Better,” he decides. “Not solid food better, but—”

“—Soup better.” Seokjin nods to the bowls. 

“Aw, hyung,” Taehyung frowns. “You sound like a caveman.”

“Soup good,” Seokjin grunts. 

“Yes.” Taehyung smiles. “Eat.”

Seokjin lifts Taehyung’s fingers to his lips. He has what might be paint or maybe crayon beneath his nails. They’re both unwashed, bare-faced and unshaven, and Taehyung’s pores appear deep and black and waxy from days without a facial. Seokjin knows he looks worse for wear, too. His hair’s a snarl on the back of his head. He can’t recall the last time he brushed his teeth or put on a fresh pair of underpants. 

None of this matters, though, because he can be this way with Taehyung. He can cry all day if he needs to. He can not trim his toenails. He can go to bed without washing his face. He can feel empty, and ugly, and Taehyung will love him. And he will love Taehyung, too.

His mind wanders back to his Eomma, to the moment a week ago, when she pulled him aside at the base of the restaurant steps. She told him then, You don’t have to do these things alone , and though he listened, he didn’t fully understand.

But this is what she meant. Strip away the gleam of first love, the shiny polish of weekend getaways and overblown romantic gestures, and if you’re lucky, this is what remains: A strong foundation. A starting place. A home where they can rest.

“Thank you,”  Seokjin says, “for letting me heal.” 

Taehyung pulls Seokjin against him. Seokjin melts into the embrace, aware that Taehyung’s bearing most of his weight. “We needed this,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin enfolds Taehyung’s hand in his own. 

“Here.” Taehyung guides him to the table. “Sit.” He brings over their bowls. “Eat.”

Yeontan skims around their ankles, tickling them as he trips between their toes. 

“So Jungie-hyung’s keeping Odengie?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin nods.

“And he’ll take Yeontannie while we’re gone?” he asks. “It won’t be too much to ask?”

Seokjin reaches to scrub Yeontan’s head. The dog nudges his nose between his fingers, furtively searching for a treat. “Go to your Apa,” Seokjin tells him. 

Yeontan barks.

Taehyung says, “He says you’re his Apa.” 

“Oh. Then…” Seokjin reaches for the can of treats. “Sit up straight, young man. Looks like I’ll be paying your tuition.” Seokjin brandishes the treat. Yeontan sinks back on his haunches, his paws outstretched. Seokjin tosses the treat, and Yeontan catches it. 

“Yeah, Jungie will love it,” Seokjin decides. 

“Yeah?” Taehyung stirs his noodles. He lifts his brows. “Tan-ah, wanna stay with Uncle Jungie?”

Yeontan wriggles, his bead-black eyes twinkling with excitement.

“My brother likes you,” Seokjin muses. He chops his egg into his udon. “My whole family does.” Tears sting his throat. “I wish—”

“—I know,” Taehyung says, catching his hand and holding it. “I know.”

“It’s dumb to waste time, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says. His words sound thin and reedy. “It’s dumb to hold back, when all we want to do is share our lives...”

His nose is running. He’s hungry, but he doesn’t want to eat. His clothes feel tight. He wants to peel them off and go back to bed. 

“Eat,” Taehyung says. 

Seokjin lifts the bowl to his lips. The broth warms him all the way down. 

As he lowers the bowl, he says, “Did you see my Abeoji, at the… at the ceremony?”

Taehyung watches him. “He cried,” he says.

“I’ve never seen him do that,” Seokjin says.

“In public?”

Seokjin shakes his head, slowly. “Ever.” 

His mother’s words return to him: You don’t have to do these things alone

Thank god, he thinks. Because right now, without Taehyung, he’d be a naked, starving, shambling mess. Or, more probably, he’d let his concerns for everyone else consume him. He’d be at the gym, lifting weights while concealing his pain beneath the effort to keep them fed and happy.

Seokjin is concerned for his Eomma, too, but knowing his Abeoji is there for her is a burden lifted from his heart. 

He is still worried about Jimin, who has spiraled into a torrent of self-doubt and overwork. And Seokjin worries about Yoongi, for whom he feels a constant sense of responsibility. Seokjin encouraged Yoongi to confess his love to Hoseok, and then Seokjin moved out, so maybe it’s no wonder that ever since, Yoongi’s been distant and resentful.

Then there are the plans he set into motion with Namjoon, plans they’ve back-burnered since their schedule had them hopping back and forth between Tokyo, LA, and Seoul for the last two months. 

Not to mention his rapidly-approaching finals, the debut of his restaurant, and a trip to Saipan for summer package, Then they’ll go to Malta, and then the album repackage, and—

“Seokjin-ah,” Taehyung says. “Breathe.”

His voice is like a lifeline, drawing him up from the depths. Seokjin swallows a mouthful of broth. He exhales a long, steady breath before lowering his bowl. 

“You wanna tell me some stories from your childhood?” Taehyung suggests. 

Seokjin waves his chopsticks. “They’re boring,” he says.

“You never wanna talk about them,” Taehyung says. “How come?”

“I um—” He hesitates, his breath like a runner’s hitch in his side. He says, “Why focus on the past?”

“It’s the underpainting,” Taehyung says. “Like the sketch beneath who you are.”

“The bones,” Seokjin mutters. 

Taehyung’s mouth bends into his frowny smile. “Yes, hyung, the bones.”

There are too many places he can take this, too many ways he can sidestep and make light, to twist this moment into a joke. Judging by Taehyung’s posture, he expects it. He’s braced for it, which means he knows his Seokjin all too well. He takes in the roundness of Taehyung’s chin, the fullness of his jaw, the scraggle of his hair beneath his cap. With his recent weight gain, and his struggles to keep up appearances despite the gnawing pain of his tooth, Taehyung looks pretty rough. The seven of them have seen each other at their worst, but this is different.

This is their everyday life. These are the bones of who they are, together.

Seokjin reaches for Taehyung’s hand. “Did I ever tell you...” he begins, tentative about what to give and half expecting a quaint story about his grandmother, when he says, instead, “...that I was homeschooled?”

Taehyung tilts his head, intrigued. “Really,” he whispers, wary of a potential punchline. Then, “Why?”

Seokjin swallows, thickly. He feels his eyes twitch, that old tell, and he has to force out his breath before speaking. “In grade school, I had a… a nervous disorder, a sort of… facial tick,” he says. “And um, a stutter.” He smiles to ease Taehyung’s worried expression. “My parents hired a specialist. Several specialists.” Another smile, this one for himself. “So they could make me normal.”

Taehyung presses his mouth to Seokjin’s forehead. Against the skin, he whispers, “They failed, hyung. You’re still extraordinary.” 

Seokjin tilts his head back to stare into Taehyung’s eyes. “I never told anyone.”

“Because you were afraid,” Taehyung says.

“That something’s wrong with me,” Seokjin nods. “That if I’m not careful, people will find out, and they’ll hate me.” He looks down at their linked hands, at Taehyung’s stained nails and Seokjin’s crooked fingers. “That’s why Minyeong scared me so much,” he goes on, quietly. “I thought he could see me, underneath. I thought he could tell that I’m... a freak.”

“If you are, then we all are,” Taehyung says. 

Seokjin releases a breathy chuckle. “Yeah we are,” he agrees. 

“Here,” Taehyung says, hauling him to his feet. “Let’s move to the sofa, and you can tell me more.”  

“More?” Seokjin balks. But they take their bowls, and Yeontan follows them into the living room, where they settle into a pleasant, heavy muddle of limbs. “Seems a little greedy.”

“I want everything,” Taehyung tells him. “All the freckles and dandruff and scars.”

“I don’t have dandruff,” Seokjin scoffs. 

“Everything,” Taehyung says again. 

Seokjin nods, once. “Okay, love,” he says. “All of it. From now on.”

 

END of PART TWO

 

.

Chapter Text

PART Three: Summer

“I love you
Without compromise.”
That’s Not Me, The Black Skirts

23 June 2018 Saipan

Jimin glides his feet back and forth in the sand, making an imprint of angel’s wings.

“I can’t believe they didn’t want to come with us,” he calls over his shoulder to Namjoon and Jungkook, who are scuffing through the surf to stir up shimmers of shiny fish.

“Well, it is late,” Jungkook says, tilting his camera toward Jimin.

“But night time on the beach!” Jimin says. “It’s never too late for that.”

“Also, they’re really tired,” Namjoon says. 

Jimin pirouettes, his fingers arcing toward stars. “We’re all really tired,” he says. “Taehyungie should have come out, at least. With his medicine, he has to stay out of the sunlight.”

Jungkook hooks his fingers toward Jimin. “V is for vampire,” he hisses, clawing playfully at his shirt. Jimin spins away, nearly losing his balance, but Namjoon catches his shirttail to keep him steady.

“Anyway,” Namjoon says. “I think he finished that medicine.”

“Yeah?” Jungkook asks. They wander up from the hardpack, to the rocky tidal pools that fringe the shoreline. “That’d be good.”

“Definitely good,” Namjoon says. “Then he can finally get his tooth extracted.”

“Oh yay,” Jungkook deadpans. “There’s a fine use for some downtime.” 

“Been there,” Namjoon agrees. “You two took good care of me. You’ll take good care of him, too.”

Jungkook cuffs Namjoon’s shoulder, then points to a dark outcrop of rocks. Jimin follows, but he keeps to the water’s edge. He savors the silky, sandy feel of the ocean lapping at his heels, but he also wants to listen in on Jungkook’s conversation with Namjoon about Taehyung. This is the first time in months since he’s heard Jungkook mention Taehyung in a positive way, or even in a neutral way, and he wants to see if this means they’re finally mending things. 

But once he gets close to Jungkook and Namjoon again, he realizes they’ve moved on to discussing the various types of urchins and crabs that live in the Mariana Islands.

Jimin will just have to ask Jungkook later. In the meantime, he turns a circle on the sand, taking in the dark, broad-leaved palms bordering the resort and the jaggy rocks framing the beach on either side. The stars sprawl out above, interlaced with luminous clouds. It’s the perfect, private hideaway for the seven of them, and he doesn’t get how the other four could choose to hole up in their rooms.

“I really wish they were here,” he muses. “Like, I get that Seokjin’s been busy with all the moving and family stuff, and I guess I understand Taehyung recovering from being sick. They’re probably in Jin-hyung’s suite right now, being all boyfriendly and stuff. But Yoongi-hyung and Hobi-hyung? Why didn’t they wanna come?”

“Jet lag,” Namjoon and Jungkook say at the same time. They chuckle together, patting each other’s shoulders, and Jimin struggles down an ambiguous pang of jealousy. 

“Jungkookie,” he says, before he can stop himself. “Come play with me.”

Jungkook lifts his camera. “Do something cute,” he says.

“Can you film in the dark like this?” Namjoon asks.

“Jimin makes his own light,” Jungkook says.

Jimin fake-retches, and Namjoon pretends to kick sand at Jungkook’s shoes. 

Jungkook squats down for a wider angle. In pretend-voiceover, he says, “Here we have the rare, exquisite nightbird Jiminous Cuteous in his natural habitat.”

Jimin giggles. He can practically feel the heat of Namjoon’s embarrassment baking against his skin. 

“Wow, what a dork,” Namjoon says.

Jungkook goes on in stage-whisper, “If we’re patient and very lucky, perhaps we will witness his exotic courtship ritual.”

Jimin bends double, howling with laughter.

“There it is!” Jungkook chuckles. “And we’ve caught it on camera.”

Jimin rushes him, bowling Jungkook into the sand. They tumble together, Jimin scrabbling for the camera, Jungkook dangling it beyond his reach. 

For a bright, sparkling moment, Jimin feels certain they’re going to kiss. He closes his eyes, drinking down the chocolate scent of Jungkook’s breath and the briny coolness of the beach. But Jungkook gently tips Jimin upright, setting him on the sand.

“There’s no audio on that, right?” Namjoon asks.

“Don’t worry, hyung,” Jungkook says. “It won’t pick up anything over the waves.”

“Right, right,” Namjoon says. He tucks his hands in his pockets. “Can’t wait to see this place during the day.”

Jungkook takes this as their cue to leave. He gets up, dusting sand from his shorts. He reaches down to haul Jimin up. As they traverse the leafy path to the resort, Jungkook holds the camera between them, sharing his footage as they follow Namjoon inside.

“Let’s come back tomorrow,” Namjoon calls to them as he wings off toward their rooms.

At the paving stones, Jimin leans in. “You’ll come see me, right?”

“Of course, Jimin-ssi,” Jungkook says. He kisses him, one light peck on his cheek, before they step on the sidewalk like respectable gentlemen heading in after an evening stroll. 

 

In his room, in his bed, Jimin coos, “Jungkookie. You ate all my chocolates.” 

They lay naked, curved against each other, the crisp, cool breath of the AC blowing chills across their skin.

“I ate all mine, too,” Jungkook admits.

“Jungkookie!”

“They’re good,” he shrugs. “Don’t worry. I’ll get us more.”

“How?”

“I’ll steal Taehyung’s,” he says.

Jimin smacks Jungkook’s chest, Then, deciding he likes the feeling of his sweaty pectorals, he lets his fingers linger there to trace the tight oval of his nipple.

“He shouldn’t eat them anyway,” Jungkook says.

Jimin gasps. “He had a mouth infection,” he says. “He could only eat soft things.”

With a smirk, Jungkook says, “I didn’t mean like that. I meant if his tooth’s hurting him, he shouldn’t have sweets.”

Jimin narrows his eyes. “Are you still mad at him?” he asks.

Jungkook arches back. “I never was,” he says, for the thousandth time.  “I don’t understand him. And I can’t figured out how to forgive him.”

“You could talk to him,” Jimin suggests. 

Jungkook makes a face. He says, “Taehyung and I don’t… talk. We play games. We watch videos. It’s been literal months since we talked about anything other than singing or Yeontan.”

A hook of sadness tugs in Jimin’s gut. He says, “Are you not friends anymore?”

Jungkook shrugs. “I don’t even think I know him,” he answers.

“Yes you do,” Jimin giggles. “He’s Taehyung.”

“He was." His shoulders lift. "Now he’s just…”

“Jungkookie, he’s the same as always,” Jimin insists. “Plus, everything is fine now with him and Jin-hyung. Tae played on stage with that Minho guy a couple weeks ago, and hyung never even said a word—” 

“—No, because he wouldn’t,"  Jungkook snaps. “Because the things that really bother him, he doesn’t talk about.” 

Jimin fires back, “If he doesn’t talk about them, then how do you know?” It's a push too far, and Jungkook pulls away from him.

“Jimin,” he says, “What Tae did was unforgivable. The Taehyung I thought I knew would never have done that—”

“—But if you talk to him—”

“—There is nothing to talk about. It only makes you mad, and I don’t wanna talk about it.” Jungkook shoves to the edge of the bed; Jimin catches his arms to keep him close, but Jungkook slips easily from his grip and folds his arms tight across his chest.

Jimin sits up, dragging a pillow into his lap. He tastes tears in his throat, but he swallows them. He says, “Okay, then. But just tell me, please, what other things you consider unforgivable, so I can make sure I never do them.”

“How about don’t kiss someone?” Jungkook hisses. 

“It was a mistake, Kookie,” Jimin says. “Taehyungie made a mistake.”

“No. Jimin. A mistake is bumping someone’s car when you’re parking on the street.” Jungkook straightens, his posture mirroring Jimin’s. “A mistake is taking the last melon milk from the fridge when Yoongi specifically told us not to. What Taehyung did was planned and deliberate—”

“—He didn’t plan it, it just happened,” Jimin says. His voice sounds shrill and goosey, and he hates it when it gets that way. He draws a breath to keep it steady. 

“Yeah. He got drunk, and it happened." Jungkook twists the corner of their blanket between his fingers. "And sure, it could happen to anyone. But I’m telling you, Jimin, if you ever did that to me…” He blinks through his tears. “This would be over.”

“Then you wouldn’t forgive me.”

Jungkook scoffs. “No.” 

“Well then what else should I never do, since you’re so perfect?” Jimin shouts back.

Jungkook reaches for him. Jimin bats his hand away. “Let’s not fight about this,” Jungkook says. “I never said I was perfect.”

“No, but you expect me to be,” Jimin says.

“You didn’t do anything,” Jungkook bites out.

“But clearly you’ll turn your back on me if I ever do.”

Jungkook’s eyes flash. His breathing sounds unsteady. He says, “How does what Taehyung did somehow make me the bad guy? He’s the one who’s selfish and childish. He’s the one who did something wrong.” 

“All right, then,” Jimin says. “Let’s look at it another way. How about I finally decide to get that tattoo I’ve been wanting?” 

Jungkook watches him, warily, like he suspects the trap he’s about to walk into. “You decided you wouldn’t,” he says, slowly, carefully.

“Because you said it wouldn’t look good on me,” Jimin tells him. “You said you like my skin how it is, so I decided I’d think about it. But say I got it anyway? Say I did it in secret?”

“That’d be really dumb, Jimin,” Jungkook says. “We spend a lot of our time together naked.”

“So you’d be mad?” 

“Yeah, because you didn’t tell me,” Jungkook says. 

“But you’d forgive me?” Jimin asks.

Jungkook considers before answering. “Eventually. Yes.”

Jimin licks his teeth behind his lips. “Good to know.”

“Anyway, it’s not the same thing,” Jungkook says. 

“But it would be planned and deliberate,” Jimin says.

“Okay. Yes,” Jungkook allows. “But I don’t own your skin, so it’s not the same.”

“Fine then,” Jimin says. He abandons that bit, choosing to take up another angle. “How about this? Say I go out with some of our friends, like Bam Bam, and Taemin, and Ansel could be there, too, and there’s a whole bunch of us idol types, dancing and drinking and singing—”

“—Am I there?—”

“—No, you’re not there,” Jimin says.

“Then there’s our first problem,” Jungkook mutters.

“We don’t do everything together,” Jimin moans. “And we shouldn’t have to, either—”

“—I’m not saying that—”

“—Okay, then listen,” Jimin goes on. He feels an almost electric charge at reading the reactions on Jungkook’s face. As a rule, they don’t do this. It’s one of the cornerstones of their relationship, the fact that they do not fight, so watching Jungkook’s expressions produces a peculiar unsettling but not wholly unpleasant effect on him. “So, we’re at a party, and we’re dancing, right? Everyone‘s happy and loose ‘cause it’s America and we’ve just won our first Grammy.”

“—Wait, if we’ve won a Grammy, then why am I not there?—”

“—Jungkookie, please be quiet. This is my story,” Jimin says. “So anyway, Rihanna shows up, and she’s like, super hot. Like everyone-wants-to-get-close-to-her hot, but she comes up to me. She picks me, and we start dancing.” Jimin leans close to Jungkook, pressing their foreheads together. “Like, the heat simmers between us. Unexpected chemistry, and I’m like, wow,” Jimin goes on in a whisper, “Rihanna is dancing with me.” 

Jungkook’s neck stiffens as he stares at Jimin’s lips.

“And then, she kisses me.”

Jungkook veers away, but not before Jimin catches the corner of his mouth with his kiss. 

“Rihanna’s a girl,” Jungkook blurts.

“A super attractive girl,” Jimin says. “A girl we’ve both talked about, one we’ve both said that if we ever got the chance—”

“—So you shouldn’t have been that close to her.” Jungkook slides from the bed, standing out of arm's reach. “You shouldn’t have let her.”

Jimin keeps his eyes level with his. “It didn’t really happen, you know,” he reminds him.

“I know that.” Jungkook kneads the tendon in his neck. “But it could have.”

“Yeah. It could.” Jimin splays his hands. “For Taehyung, it did. You and me, we don’t play so close to the fire, but Taehyung does—”

“—And he shouldn’t,” Jungkook presses.

“But he’s Taehyung,” Jimin counters. “And we love him how he is. Plus, he really got burned and he learned from it, so…”

Jungkook presses the back of his hand to his nose. Jimin sees then that he’s trembling, and he understands that maybe he's pushed this a little too far. He gets up to wrap Jungkook in an all-body hug, which he resists as if he's carved from marble. For a long, still moment, he doesn’t move. Then, like a fist unclenching, he quietly comes undone. 

Into Jimin’s skin, Jungkook murmurs, “You're a kinder person than me.”

“Namjoonie-hyung calls me wise.”

“I guess…” Jungkook whispers, “He could be kinda right.” 

“Whaaaat?” Jimin teases. 

“Yeah, shut up, okay,” Jungkook says. “You are wise, and you’re kind, and I... worry. It’s not that I wouldn’t trust you. It's that I don’t trust them.”

"Wait, you don't trust Rihanna?" 

Jungkook swallows a sob. "No."

“So blame Rihanna,” Jimin says. "And, y'know, Minho."

After a long pause, Jungkook says, "I get what you're saying. I really do. But at the same time, I still blame Taehyung. So... I’m gonna steal all his chocolates.”

“Fine, then," Jimin says, airily. "Then I’ll steal Jin-hyung's.” 

Jungkook hooks their pinkies together. “Deal,” he says. Then he lets his knees buckle, tumbling them both into bed.

Laying face to face, Jimin says, “Jungkookie, do you love me?”

Jungkook breathes out a shaky sigh. His expression remains cloudy even though he answers without hesitation. “I really do,” he says. Then before Jimin can say anything else, Jungkook reaches back to switch off the light.

Chapter Text

“I feel like I’m falling, but I’m trying to fly.
Where does all the good go?”
Miracles, CHVRCHES

25 June 2018 – Ladder Beach – Saipan

Hoseok loves Taehyung, like really really loves him. But he’s begun to wonder whether something might be wrong because he has been especially clingy throughout this whole trip. First, he volunteered to go shopping with him. Not that this is out of the ordinary; Taehyung likes fashion and shops as if he’s made of money. But Hoseok knows Taehyung could have stayed behind with Seokjin. 

Of course, Seokjin went out wakeboarding first thing yesterday morning, so he was exhausted by the time Hoseok went looking for shopping partners. Still, Hoseok knows Taehyung could have – and in years past, definitely would have – opted for alone time with Seokjin.  

Then on the return trip from the shopping mall, Taehyung arranged a private Vante shoot at a roadside park, in this lush, tropical garden where couples stage their wedding photos. Hoseok felt struck by the serene aura of the place, its pristine greenness and the scent of its sun-warmed leaves. 

And he might have remarked once or twice that he could understand how people might come here for weddings, because Taehyung had said, “Someday, Jinnie and me will have a wedding. Maybe even in a place like this.”  

At which point, Hoseok had done the usual scan for any staff who might be listening, but they had all moved off to another grassy hillock to hunt for butterflies. 

So Taehyung had asked, “What about you, Hobi-hyung?”

Caught off guard, Hoseok had stammered, “W-what about me what?”

Taehyung had lowered his camera a fraction. “You have your new place. Maybe you could invite someone over?”

Only Yoongi, Hoseok had thought. But he’d answered, “No no no. No time for that. You know, we’re so very, very busy.”

“Mm-hm,” Taehyung had answered. 

“I know you and Jin-hyung are busy, too. And Jiminie and Jungkookie,” Hoseok went on to explain. “But for me, I can’t think of anything else but… this.”

“Good,” Taehyung had said. “Tilt your head this way. Aaand, smile.” Then he’d continued the shoot with the cool, unbothered exterior of a professional photographer.

Hoseok, on the other hand, felt bothered, though he couldn’t exactly say why. And the one person in whom he might confide had sequestered himself in his hotel room since the moment they landed in Saipan, so Hoseok spent the evening trying not to fret.

 

Hoseok does fret, though, until this morning, when he finally gets to talk with Yoongi over breakfast. But Yoongi, disinterested, glowers into his coffee as Hoseok, overly-anxious, delivers a play-by-play of the previous day’s activities. They’re snugged into a corner sofa in the breakfast room of the resort, watching the frenzy of their film crew as it unfolds beyond the picture window. Sunlight oozes through double-paned glass, thick and honey-gold, and Yoongi smells like coconut and bananas, having already slathered himself with suncream. Hoseok wouldn’t have thought him awake enough for the task, and considers the possibility that he applied it last night before sleep. But Hoseok's been working hard not to think about Yoongi in bed. 

So he whispers, “Seokjin and Taehyung had the chance to spend the day together. But Taehyung chose my team.” 

Yoongi peers up with only his eyes. “Not exactly groundbreaking,” he says. “Taehyung’s been yammering about that damned grotto for weeks.”

“I know,” Hoseok says. “But then Seokjin chose Namjoon. And that is weird, because when I looked over at Joon, he looked as surprised as me."

Yoongi lifts an eyebrow. “Hf. Yeah. That is weird.”

“Right?” Hoseok perks at the fact that this detail has finally snagged Yoongi’s attention. 

“Well, ‘cause Taehyung’s oddly jealous of the times when Jin-hyung teams with Joon,” Yoongi says. 

“Exactly,” Hoseok says. “Ever since that one comeback where Jin-hyung wrote the penalty to kiss Namjoon—”

“—Hope, that was so dumb,” Yoongi cuts in. “Why he ever thought that’d be okay...” Yoongi rolls his eyes and sips.

“Totally, completely agree,” Hoseok asks. “But, you see my point, right?”

Yoongi gives the breakfast room a crusty-eyed sweep, making sure no one’s within listening range. “Okay, Hope, since we're talking about this. It is strange that Seokjin chose the stingrays. If there’s one person more freaked out than you by those flappy, alien sea things, it’s him.”

“So weird,” Hoseok agrees. 

“And then Taehyung grabbed Jungkook for his group,” Yoongi ponders, tapping his fingers to his lips. “What is up with that?”

“I know. Jiminie and Jungkookie have been joined at the hip since we landed,” Hoseok hisses. “So I gotta wonder, Yoongs. Is there something going on with Jin-hyung and Tae? Should we be concerned?”

Yoongi forces a breath through his teeth. The staff ramble through the room, calling out a fifteen-minute warning, which he and Yoongi ignore. Then Yoongi sits forward, meeting Hoseok’s eyes. He says, “Hope, I know you care, like, to a fault. It’s one of the million things I love about you. But,” he shrugs. “Can we have one trip where we’re not worried about them? Because I highly, highly doubt they are this concerned for us.” 

Taken somewhat by surprise, Hoseok mutters a soft, "Oh," as he glances back at the buffet bar. Jimin, Jungkook, and Taehyung hover around it, preparing breakfast. Taehyung’s going for toast – an improvement over his diet of soup and ice cream. Jimin and Jungkook seem wrapped up in their own little world, and Taehyung’s busy reading and listening to music, so they don’t even interact with each other, much less him and Yoongi. 

“Huh,” Hoseok concedes. “You might be right.”

“I am right,” Yoongi grumbles. “For once, let’s look out for ourselves.”

Unsettled, Hoseok sinks into the cushion. Seeing this, Yoongi turns on his brightest, gummiest smile. 

“Hey SeokSeok,” he says, all falsely bright and chipper. “How the hell are you doing?”

“Hey Yoongs,” Hoseok parrots back, hooking the hang ten sign they learned in Hawaii. “I’m doing super fine, bro. Like one hundred percent good.”

Yoongi continues to grin. “That’s more like it,” he says. “You ready for our high seas adventure? What is it we’re doing again?”

“A jet-o-vester?” Hoseok says. “Or veloci-coaster? Something high speed and dangerous?” 

“Sounds horrible,” Yoongi groans. “We keep doing these ocean excursions, and no one even cares that I hate water. And by the way, I am miserable. I’ve got zero energy, Hope. Like, none at all. I’m still working on Answer and the soundtrack to that game thing. But do you think that matters to our showrunners? Absolutely not. So the only thing I can do at full force is complain. And eat lobsters.”

“Aw,” Hoseok pouts. He pets Yoongi, who leans into it like a cat. “Sweet Lil Meow Meow doesn’t like getting wet.”

“That is not what I said,” Yoongi points out. And behind them, Taehyung coughs.

Hoseok and Yoongi startle, but Yoongi quickly recovers.

“Can we help you with something?” Yoongi glares.

“Sorry,” Taehyung says. “I was laughing because, um… Jimin lost his Chimmy socks.” He stares at them long enough to make Hoseok squirm, which Taehyung seems to notice. “Have you seen th—?”

“—We have not,” Yoongi says, cutting him off.

Disregarding the warning in Yoongi’s tone, Taehyung goes, “I’ll ask Benji-nim. He’s good at finding stuff.” He begins tapping out a message on his phone. “So,” he continues, “You ready for our jetovator adventure today? Our jeto-venture?

“Uh, no,” Yoongi says. 

“I’m kinda scared,” Hoseok admits. 

“You’ll be great at it, Hobi-hyung.” Taehyung squeezes Hoseok’s shoulder. “He’s good at everything, right, hyung?”

“Why’re you asking me?” Yoongi sneers. 

“Because of all of us, you appreciate Hobi-hyung the most,” Taehyung says. He stuffs down his last crust of toast, making a loud, messy business of licking jam from his fingers. Then he scrapes up his tablet and ambles from the room, appearing moments later with Seokjin, Namjoon, and the rest of the film crew on the other side of the window.

Yoongi rubs his neck. “‘Kay, that was weird.” 

“I’m telling you,” Hoseok says. “Something is going on with Taehyung.”

Yoongi squints. “Yeah, but the guy’s got the subtlety of a toothbrush...” Then he gives Hoseok a weak yet certain smile. “Hope. He knows about us.”

“Noooo...” Hoseok’s brain reels and reels with ideas and possible outcomes, while Yoongi sits there, grinning like a fool who knows he’s played a losing hand at cards.

“Nah,” Yoongi allows. “Probably not. But he suspects, and he’s come fishing around for clues. And that would be pretty ironic, right, considering I’m the one who first busted him and Jin-hyung?”

Hoseok shakes his head. “How are you so calm about this?” he asks.

Yoongi finishes his coffee, wincing his way through the last bitter sip. He says, “We planned for it, remember? Pretend like we’ve been together all along, and they’ve been too wrapped up in themselves to notice.” 

“But we haven’t been together,” Hoseok reminds him. “And yet, somehow, they noticed.”

Yoongi says, “Taehyung noticed... something. Or nothing. He’s always been a wild card. There’s nothing to worry about.” He puts his hand on Hoseok’s shoulder. “Hope. There is nothing to worry about.” 

“Except the Jetovator. And the grotto,” Hoseok says. And you, he thinks but doesn’t say.

“Let’s focus on those,” Yoongi says. “And tonight, we’ll eat our body weight in lobsters.”  

“I could be down for that,” Hoseok says. 

“Good,” Yoongi says. “Anyway. I'm glad that I’m paired with you.”

“Beyond glad,” Hoseok agrees. He squeezes Yoongi's hand - the closest thing to physical affection he'll dare - and they go out to brave the day.

Chapter Text

“In this odyssey,
It's hard to leave.
I hold at the breach
I've got my reasons.”
Odyssey, Talos

26 June 2018 – The Lighthouse – Saipan

Yoongi has been six days without a drink. It’s been more of an ordeal than he imagined, and right now, the inside of his head feels like a place where mice might build a nest. He’s following the studio doctor’s orders: Drinking water, eating well, sleeping often, but still, he feels an almost desperate need to claw his eyes out from the inside. Add in a day of sunlight and saltwater sports, and welcome to the land of dehydration.

But now the sun is setting. A light, greeny breeze combs through the jungle below, and Yoongi edges to the metal railing of the lighthouse, taking in a lungful of humid air. 

Really, it ain’t bad. Part of him knows he should enjoy it. Another, grouchier part of him is annoyed that he can’t. On his tablet in the hotel room, he’s abandoned a song he’s been working on, and a nettle of guilt itches at him that he’s left it unfinished. Then there’s Taehyung being sneaky, and Jimin and Jungkook being all lovebird-y, and Yoongi just can’t with them today. 

So he leans on the damp, gritty stone of the lighthouse, watching the wind sweep through the palms, while wishing for some kind of release.

Yoongi takes in the derelict structure of the lighthouse. There’s a whiff of fresh paint, and he wonders if the place came pre-graffitied by local teenagers. He doesn’t have to wonder for long, because as Namjoon and Seokjin climb the steps, Seokjin yells down to the crew, “Did you paint it?”

“Did I ?” Sejin calls back up.

“Not you, no,” Seokjin chuckles. He leans on the barrier wall, gesturing down like a king. “Did you hire someone?”

Sejin beams back up at them. “Not this time, we got lucky. It was already here.” 

Satisfied, Seokjin whirls back to face Yoongi and Namjoon. It’s clear that he loves the flowy satin of his tie, and the way his silky dressing gown billows behind him as he walks. He wears a carefree smile, and his skin glows like the inside of a seashell. He’s in his finest, most regal mode, tilting his head back and forth like some noble bird showing his plumage. As Seokjin’s former roommate, Yoongi knows this behavior can only mean one thing.

He recently had sex, and he cannot wait to spill the news to someone.

That someone most often being Yoongi.

Even if they’re no longer roommates. Or even technically housemates. And Yoongi’s glad, because five years of listening to Seokjin alternately praise and lament his relationship with Taehyung has long lost its shine.

“Ah, it’s amazing up here,” Seokjin sighs. “So fresh and clear.”

Yoongi loads up a snarky reply, but Hoseok bounds up the steps to join them, causing the words to wither on Yoongi's tongue. 

“Hyung, you should’ve seen the grotto,” Hoseok says. “In all my life, I’ve never seen that shade of blue. It was like CGI blue.”

“I can’t believe you liked it,” Seokjin says. “VV said you were scared.”

“I was,” Hoseok allows. “It was really deep. But so beautiful, too. Unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Right, Yoongs?”

Yoongi opens his mouth, but this time Namjoon interrupts. “We should ask the staff if we can go,” he says. “Taehyung-ah said we all should see it.”

Hoseok brightens. “You think they’ll let us?”

“Can’t hurt to ask,” Namjoon says. “They’ve been really generous this trip. They let our team do the jetovater thing in addition to the stingrays. By the way, those stingrays—”

“—Creepy,” Seokjin says, waving his arms like tentacles. 

“Don’t listen to him,” Namjoon says. “They were ancient, intelligent creatures. Like alien puppy dogs. Super sweet.”

“Sweet and creepy,” Seokjin says. He turns a slow circle, letting the wind tease through his sleeves. 

“Our eldest hyung,” Yoongi muses. “You’re like a kid with a kite.”

Seokjin throws his head back and continues his childlike pirouette. Yoongi thinks the sex must’ve been phenomenal. He hasn’t seen Seokjin this exuberant since MAMA 2016. He’s wondering how Seokjin and Taehyung might have managed to squeeze in secret sexy time when their shooting schedule accounts for every single second of their day, when Sejin calls Hoseok to join Jungkook for their set.

With Hoseok gone, the three of them settle in a row against the cool concrete, waiting for their turns behind the lens. 

“So,” Namjoon says. “How’re you doing?”

Yoongi holds his breath. The question isn’t directed at either of them specifically, so he figures if he waits a few seconds, Seokjin will take the bait. Then when Seokjin doesn’t, Yoongi understands that they’re both waiting on him. So it’s a set up. Fantastic.

Yoongi says, “You know, you don’t gotta keep checking on me. I’m fine.” 

“We wanted to make sure,” Namjoon says. 

“Both of you?” Yoongi deadpans. 

“You didn’t come out of your room on Saturday,” Seokjin says. “I was concerned.”

“That’s real sweet, Eternal Roommate, but I was only tired,” Yoongi says. 

Yoongi’s certain Seokjin felt the intended sting of his words, but Seokjin waves it away like he’s literally brushing off some lint.

Namjoon turns his attention then to Seokjin. “And you, hyung? How you holding up?”

Here we go, Yoongi thinks. Namjoon basically opened the door for a story about Seokjin’s love life. Seokjin will make a pun or an overblown Dad joke, and Yoongi realizes in this moment that he’s picked the wrong week to quit drinking. 

“Surprisingly well, honestly,” Seokjin says. “I never knew my family had so much strength and understanding. And I think after all this, Seokjung and Taehyung might actually call each other friends. And my Eomma, she…” Seokjin squints against his sudden tears. “She reminds me that it’s important to tell people that you love them, because you never know when they’ll be gone.”

Fucking Seokjin, doing the exact opposite of what Yoongi thought he would. And Yoongi feels like a dick, because his hyung’s going through some really heavy life stuff, and the cynic that Yoongi has become only expected Seokjin to be glib and braggy about all his recent, excellent sex.

“Yep,” Yoongi agrees, his voice weak and reedy. “That is a super important life lesson.”

Namjoon picks up a rock and scrapes it against the coarse surface of the concrete, scoring a thin trail of white chalk across the stone. Seokjin, marveling, follows his lead, and within a few seconds, they’ve both inscribed their names onto the balustrade. 

As he’s writing, Namjoon says, “And the other thing you’re working on? How’s that going?”

“Please,” Seokjin says. He passes a hunk of rock to Yoongi. “I’ve got everything planned out. I’ll need your help with the email, though. The website only uses English and French. Also, I found this place that makes customized music boxes, so I went ahead and ordered that, too.”

Yoongi tests the weight of the stone between his fingers. He fights down his first instinct, which is to lob it as far as he can. But he could hit someone below, someone like Hoseok, and he can’t risk that, no matter how unlikely it might be. So he scribbles a loose circle instead, giving the face Xs in the place of its eyes.

“So you’ve got pieces of the plan in place,” Namjoon continues.

“Of course,” Seokjin says. “All I need now is a ring. I have friends who are working on that for me, in case I never find the time to actually buy it.”

Namjoon says, “We will find the time, hyung—”

“—Hold up,” Yoongi says. His brain has collected the pieces, but he’s reluctant to put them together. “The hell are you talking about?”

“I’m proposing to Taehyung,” Seokjin says. Simple, straightforward, without a trace of humor.

Yoongi gapes at them a long while, long enough for Namjoon to lean over and scrape a smile onto Yoongi’s drawing. A chill drenches Yoongi from his head to his toes. “Look at you,” he murmurs, dumbstruck. “Moving right along.”

At that moment, Jungkook rushes up the steps, calling for Namjoon to take his turn with Jimin downstairs. Jungkook comes over to show them his henna tattoos, and within seconds, he and Seokjin devolve into a pair of shadowboxing children.

Which is great, because it gives Yoongi a chance to escape. He hates to describe himself as skulking, but this is exactly what he does. He skulks down the steps to the base of the tower, where he snags a bottle of water from a staff member. Then he hides out beneath a tumble of crumbling blocks, watching the others from a crawlspace that smells more like pee than spraypaint. From here, he sees Namjoon and Jimin taking position within the lighthouse windows. There’s a calm, fluid banter between them, and they all seem so damned happy.

Yoongi knows they struggle, too: Jimin, with his gnawing need for acceptance; Namjoon, with his bouts of depression and crippling self-doubt; Seokjin, the consummate workaholic; Taehyung, with his various health issues; and Hope and Jungkook with their social anxiety. But from this distance, it doesn't seem to weigh on them.

“Fuck,” Yoongi mutters. “The hell is wrong with me?”

He doesn’t want to cry, and besides, that never helps. He shouldn’t drink, and he won’t go to Hoseok. Because, seriously, how pathetic is that, running to Hope when he told him he needed his space? 

And Yoongi used to go to Seokjin. They would shop online and quietly drink, not really talking, but sort of existing within each other’s reach. It might not have been the healthiest outlet for either of them, but Seokjin was there. Now Yoongi guesses that’s all over, too.

Meanwhile, the cage around him cranks steadily tighter, clamping down to squeeze out what little life he has left inside, and ugh, god, he thinks, can I be any more melodramatic?

It’s the insistence of his bladder that finally drags him from the undergrowth. Dumb, blind biology saves the day, like it did once back in Japan when a mysterious shellfish reaction landed him in a hospital bed for three glorious, mandatory sick days. Hell, he’s been stuffing his face with lobsters here in the hopes of a repeat, but so far, no such luck.

 Yoongi locates a toilet, and afterward Benji locates him.

“Hey,” Benji pants, blotting sweat from his upper lip. “Been looking for you.” He pulls something from his pocket and passes it to Yoongi. “You left this upstairs.”

Confused, Yoongi takes his phone from Benji’s hands. “Really?” he murmurs. “Must’ve slipped out of my pocket.” 

Benji glances distractedly over his shoulder. “Must have,” he says, swabbing his forehead. “Anyway, it’s your turn. They’re waiting for you.” 

“You alright there, hyungnim?” Yoongi teases. “You look… damp.”

A bolt of alarm crosses Benji’s features, replaced almost immediately by a look of concern. “It’s this humidity,” he confides. “Texas is more of a dry heat. Guess I’m not holding up like I hoped.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi gruffs. “You and me both.”

Benji taps an anxious beat on his thigh before he remembers what they’re supposed to be doing. “Head that way,” he says, gesturing up the steps to where the others are waiting.

“Yep, good,” Yoongi says. He hauls himself up the lighthouse stairs, and by the time he reaches the landing, he’s drenched with sweat. It’s sweltering, and his skin feels like a suit of warm, dead fish. No dry heat in Saipan, he thinks. Here, it’s all moisture and misery.

But when the cameras point at him, Yoongi forces out a smile, because right now, that is all that he can give.

Chapter Text

“In a common place around me
I'll discover you, then I'll greet you
In a place I didn't expect
You will come to me, yeah.”
Idea, AKMU

1 July 2018 BigHit Studios  

Namjoon carefully and very quietly enters the sound booth, drawing the door shut behind him. Making too much noise or movement will disturb the person on the other side of the glass, and Namjoon never wants to do that. Today in particular, he doesn’t want to disrupt Seokjin, who has, in the past, been more than a little gun shy while recording.

Only, Namjoon makes an unintended squawk of surprise when he finds Adora at the soundboard instead of Dohyeong. Thankfully, it’s not enough to derail Seokjin, who continues to sing through the guide version of his new song. Namjoon heels up a chair beside Adora, wordlessly offering her one of his donuts. She pinches one from the bag but trains her attention on Seokjin, mouthing along with the words as he sings. 

“That’s right, you’re wrote for this one,” Namjoon muses.

“Some of it,” she whispers back. 

“A lot, from what I heard.”

“What can I say? This one speaks to me.” Adora twitches her shoulders up and takes a bite. Chewing, she goes, “What brings you by?”

“This, mostly,” Namjoon says, gesturing toward Seokjin. “Plus, I thought I’d check on Yoongi.”

“Oh yeah,” Adora says. “He’s here, pounding away.” 

“Piano?”

“Pump organ.” 

“Oh.” Namjoon shakes his head. “That’s... unexpected.”

“Meh, he’s working through it,” Adora says. “Nothing like a boatload of noise to drown out your anxieties, amiright?”

“So true,” Namjoon agrees.  

On the other side of the recording booth glass, Seokjin’s song ends. Adora opens the intercom to catch him mid-sentence, telling them he’d like to try it again. 

“Sure thing, Jin-ssi,” Adora says. “Take all the time you need.”  

Though she’s careful to maintain the professional demeanor of her address, Namjoon can’t help but notice the affection in her tone. He wonders, not for the first time, how many people Seokjin has managed to charm by simply being Seokjin. With his natural charisma and god-tier good looks: probably millions. So it’s not off base to conclude that Adora would likewise be captivated.

Not that Namjoon’s jealous or anything.

He continues to watch her as she queues up the backing track. Right now, it’s only the basic melody: Bang Sihyuk’s tune instead of the one Seokjin submitted. PD-nim said Seokjin’s composition felt too melancholy for the song’s ultimate message, and now that they’re hearing it, Namjoon’s inclined to agree.  

Still, he’s proud of Seokjin. In typical Jin-hyung fashion, he embraced the new melody without a blink and immediately got to work on making the song his own.

“Wow, his voice has really improved,” Adora breathes. “Are you hearing this?”

Namjoon’s pride cranks up another few notches. “Yeah,” he manages to choke out. “Yeah, I hear it.”

“He’s really pouring in his emotion.” She pulls off her ballcap to tighten her ponytail. “It’s the perfect song for him.” She pauses, then, leveling him with an incisive stare. “You know?”

Namjoon absolutely knows. It’s the perfect song for Seokjin because it epitomizes his struggles of coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s about accepting himself after his parents rejected him, about loving himself as he is, not as others say he should be. Namjoon knows this, Seokjin knows this, and Jun, the songwriter who spent weeks corresponding with Seokjin, also knows this, but in a kind of vague sense, because his job was to write a song that could be generalized to a broader audience.

And maybe Namjoon’s being paranoid, but his intuition tells him that Adora’s speaking in a more literal, more specific sense. “Yeah,” he says. “I know that. But how do you?”

Adora swivels toward him. She leans in, like she’s about to impart an important secret, only to then rock back and tinker with the soundboard controls. Breezily, over her shoulder, she answers, “A feeling, mostly. You know, he’s so broody and mysterious.” 

Broody, sure. But that’s not the word that disturbs him. “Mysterious?” Namjoon balks, trying to sound dismissive. “Him?

Glancing back, Adora says, “Totally.”

“Nah,” Namjoon says. “This is a guy who wanders around our dorm in PJs, playing Pokemon Go and feeding mealworms to his sugar glider.”

“Wow,” she drones, “Way to wreck my Mr. Darcy fantasy.” 

“Uhm, who?” Namjoon asks. 

Adora clutches her heart. “Mr. Darcy. The broody bachelor of Pride & Prejudice? The somber darling of British Lit?”

As Namjoon nods along, the tightness in his chest subsides. They’re steering toward safer ground now, away from the minefield of Seokjin’s potential mysteries and into books, a topic that Namjoon can belabor for days. “Sorry,” he says. “Got zero clue.”

“Yeah, guess not,” Adora sighs. “But Darcy is THE classic archetype of the emotionally-unavailable man that most women are programmed to first desire, and then to save.” 

“Huh,” Namjoon says “Sounds problematic.”

Adora sucks her teeth. With a shrug, she says, “Boy In Luv,” before she returns to the soundboard controls. 

Watching the back of her ball-capped head, Namjoon feels a ping of curiosity, at how astute she is, and how potentially dangerous that might be. 

“Anyway,” she goes on. “No one sings like that unless they’ve survived something.” 

The song loops. She opens the mic into the sound booth, double checking that Seokjin wants to continue. He confirms that he does, thanks her, and she queues up for another run. 

Meanwhile, Namjoon scrambles to think of anything on the planet they might talk about to redirect her from her musings on Seokjin, when she suddenly wheels back on him.

“So you been following all this business about Pentagon?” she asks. 

Namjoon scratches his cheek. “Nah, we’ve been out of the loop a while. What happened?”

“Bunch of ridiculousness,” she says. “Could be a scandal. Apparently Hyuna and Hyojong have been secretly dating.”

“What are we, Dispatch?” Namjoon chuckles, but he sobers at the severe look this draws from her.

She goes, “Can I ask you something? Off the record?”

“Uh...” Probably shouldn’t, Namjoon thinks. But he answers, “Sure.” 

“You ever see the movie Gosford Park?” 

This throws him for another loop. His earlier tingle of curiosity crackles into full-blown intrigue. “Random,” he says. “But no.”

Adora rubs her eyebrow. “You’d like it, I think. Very British.”

“Like your Darcy guy,” Namjoon says.

“So very,” Adora says, clearly pleased at his reference. “Anyway. Really smart film. It’s about divided lives, about, like, how the way we portray ourselves is different from who we really are. The gist of it is, there are these two groups who live and work side by side: the wealthy, famous people and those who serve them.” She pauses, letting that sink in, before adding, “Y’know, like me.”

“Wait. Are you the servants?” Namjoon asks. “Are we the famous people?”

“Yes.” She smiles. “And the servants know more about the rich people than the rich people know about themselves.”

“Is this related to what you wanted to ask?” Namjoon says.

She says, “I’m getting to it, hang on.”

Adora turns back to the soundboard, leaving Namjoon to carefully consider every possible meaning of her words. In the meantime, Seokjin arrives at the final verse of his song. This time he really belts it, digging hard into the ad lib with every ounce of his heart. When he’s finished, a moment of stunned silence spins out between Namjoon and Adora as they reel from the raw emotion of his voice.

Adora clicks open the intercom. 

Seokjin asks, “How was that?”

“Jin-ssi, your voice is huge,” Adora answers. “Where have you been hiding that all these years?”

 “In my heart,” Seokjin says, and then, ever the charmer, he sends her a fingerheart. “I’d like to try it again.”

“Of course he would,” Namjoon grins.

“You know, we won’t record ’til Rabbit gets in,” she reminds him. “He’s meeting with PD-nim about the rookie group today, so it could be a couple hours.”

“I’ll practice until Taehyung-ah arrives,” Seokjin says. “You don’t have to stay.”

“You sure you won’t tire your voice?” she asks. Again, Namjoon hears the warmth beneath her words. She seems genuinely concerned for his well-being, which would suggest that her probing observations are not selfishly motivated.

At least, he hopes not. But now he has to find out.

In the sound booth, Seokjin reassures her. “Nope, I’m fine,” he says. “Just warming up.”

“Okay, Oppa,” she nods. “Get ready in three, two...” She sets the song to run and watches him, her fingers steepled beneath her chin.

After a moment, Namjoon leads in with, “So when you say you know us better than we know ourselves—”

“—Perhaps I should give some context,” Adora cuts in. “When I first started here, PD-nim warned me that this is a big-time boys’ club. Back then, though, I didn’t know what he meant. Not really. Not ’til yesterday.”

Namjoon’s heartbeat quickens. He sits very still, staring at the back of her ponytailed head. A tight hesitance in his voice, he asks, “What happened yesterday?”

“V-ssi came in to record.” Adora casts a backward glance at Namjoon. “Apparently he’s working on a Christmas song.”

“The one he’s recording with Jimin,” Namjoon says.

“So you know about it.”

“I do.”

“And you know it’s a romantic Christmas song?”

“Seems fairly gender neutral to me,” Namjoon says, though this part’s a shade south of the truth. Namjoon knows Taehyung wrote the song for Seokjin. He knows Taehyung and Jimin want to record it as a gift for their boyfriends. But Adora doesn’t know that. No one knows that except for them.

Adora drums a thumb on one of the soundboard dials. She says, “Some people might say it’s an inappropriate song for two men to sing.”

Namjoon draws a breath. “Some people and I might disagree.”

Adora takes off her hat again. She loosens the ponytail and scrubs her hands through her hair. She says, “Two years, RM-ssi.” She rakes her hair back into its knot, twisting and twisting the band until it’s tight. “Two years, I’ve worked with this studio, watching you as you’ve climbed. I hear the staff whispering. They know you guys so well, and I know they will do anything to protect you. And they should, right? They have reasons to protect you.”

Sweat itches along Namjoon’s neck. Seokjin finishes another run through. Adora cues up the music without a second's delay. 

“Listen, Adora,” he says, calmly, slowly. “These guys, they’re my family—”

“—Are they gay?” Adora asks. When Namjoon doesn’t answer, she presses for clarification, “Are Jimin and Taehyung gay?” 

“They are best friends,” Namjoon answers truthfully. “And if they are gay, it wouldn’t be anybody’s business but theirs.”

“See that’s where you’re wrong, RM-ssi,” Adora says. “Because if they want to record a gay love song for Christmas, you must know how that could damage us. As a studio, we’re bound by the standards of the industry and by our society. I know you’re a reasonable person. You must understand this business as well as I do—”

“—Yeah. You’re right. I do.” Namjoon breathes through his tension. “Okay, here’s the thing, Taehyung-ah doesn’t see the world the way the rest of us do. All he did was write a Christmas song. He doesn’t get why he shouldn’t record it with Jimin.”

“But Jimin does,” Adora counters. “He released that Charlie Puth song with Jungkook for last year’s Festa, and a Christmas song with him the year before that.” 

“Actually that was like, four years ago,” Namjoon corrects.

“It looks strange,” Adora insists. There’s an imploring glint in her eyes now, something like reigned-in desperation. 

“The fans loved it,” Namjoon says.

Adora glances back at Seokjin and exhales. “RM-ssi,” she says, “If those scandals break at Cube... Watch how quickly Pentagon fans turn into zombies and eat them alive.”

Namjoon sits with this image a moment. It’s so consuming that he startles at the clatter on Seokjin’s side of the booth. Taehyung enters, leading Yeontan by his leash. Seokjin abruptly cuts off his singing, lifting the dog to bury his nose into his fur. 

Namjoon watches their interaction beyond the mixing room window, silently willing them not to do anything that might further incite suspicion. He needn’t have worried, though. Seokjin’s at work, which means that he at least maintains a veneer of rigid professionalism (broom closets and concerts in Mexico aside). 

Seokjin cuts the mic back on. “We’re gonna grab lunch with my brother. Want anything?”

Namjoon flicks on the intercom. “At your restaurant?”

“Yep,” Seokjin says, but he’s preoccupied by Yeontan’s fervent attempts to lick his chin.

“Can you bring us back some mandu?” Namjoon asks. To Adora, he adds, “They’re like fluffy little pillows of heaven.”

“Sure,” Seokjin answers, and then he continues to explain that they’ll be back to record this afternoon. Meanwhile Taehyung squints through the glass, fixing a wounded glare on Adora. Then he hefts Yeontan from Seokjin’s arms, ushering them both into the hallway.

Adora tabs off the guide track. Her voice pinched, she asks, “Does he hold a grudge?”

“Taehyung-ah?” Namjoon says. “Not even a little bit.” 

She rubs her forehead. “Good. ’Cause yesterday, I might’ve injured his heart.”

“You told him he couldn’t sing his song with Jimin?” Namjoon guesses.

“Yeah, I suggested he should sing it with me.” 

Namjoon chuckles, “Clearly, he did not like that idea.” 

“No. He did not.” Adora gives a feeble grin. “But I mean, I’m not his best friend, so...”  She stretches her arms, bending the stiffness from her spine. “I am sorry. Really. I know I’m, like, the ultimate outsider: a newbie, and a girl. Plus you guys’ve all been together since the beginning, so yeah, it does feel like—”  

“—A total boys’ club,” Namjoon finishes.

Adora mashes her cheeks between her hands, contorting her face into a mask. “Ugh,” she moans. “You have no idea.” 

“Not so much the boys’ club thing,” Namjoon allows. “But as an outsider, I can definitely relate.” 

“Yeah.” She eyes him. “I bet so.”

Namjoon gets up. Changing the subject, he says,  “So you’re into British stuff?”

“My roomie at uni was a major anglophile,” Adora explains. “Don’t get me started on Downton Abbey unless you’ve got a whole day to waste and a pot of Earl Grey.”

Namjoon smiles. “I’ll definitely check it out,” he says. “But right now, I’m gonna check on Yoongi.” He gestures toward the door with his thumb. “Wanna come with? See what he’s up to?”

He witnesses a subtle smoothing of the creases around her eyes. Not quite a smile, but a relief at being included. As they leave the recording booth, Namjoon hopes she won’t click to the fact that he never answered her question about Jimin’s and Tae’s sexuality. It hangs open between them, though, and he doubts she’s the type to let things slide.

Namjoon decides he doesn’t know her well enough yet to trust her, but he sees the wisdom of her words. The industry and society will seek to tear them apart, especially given how high they’ve managed to climb. So it’s in their best interest to have her on board, because the surest way to change something is to work at it from within.

Chapter Text

5 July 2018 Seokjin’s Villa

KAKAOTALK
Tteokguk Group Chat

King Jinheung: Commander Park Hyungsik, checking in, sir.

Kim SeokJin: Such formality. You are my elder, and also, King of the Hwarangs.

King Jinheung: Here, I am but your humble servant 

Kim SeokJin: (*ェ*)

King Jinheung: So, have you found it yet? The perfect tteokguk?

Kim SeokJin: Still on the hunt. Any luck on your end?

King Jinheung: Working on it. Seojoon, too. We will keep you posted.

Kim SeokJin: Dearest Hyungsik-ie.
Kim SeokJin:  I am forever in your debt. 

King Jinheung: Hey, anything for you and Taehyung.
King Jinheung: After all, I wouldn’t want you to destroy me ㅎㅎㅎ
King Jinheung: That might ruin our friendship ㅎㅎㅎ

Kim Seokjin: Nothing ever could. Team La Vie en Rose, right?

King Jinheung: Exactly. We'll see you soon. ( ˘ ³˘)♥

Seokjin slides his phone to the nightstand and calls for Taehyung. He answers from somewhere in the back of the villa, yelling something unintelligible over the nasal strains of a 1940s clarinet solo from his playlist. Seokjin strips out of his jacket, tossing it over the back of the chair, taking a moment to reflect on the many things he loves about his new place. 

Apart from its faint smells of newness – fresh plaster and clean paint – the villa possesses the brushed-chrome-and-marble assurance of enduring prosperity. Then there are the other things, which have less to do with the property and more to do with living on his own. 

For starters, if he wants, Seokjin can walk around naked. He never thought he’d find this appealing, but it happens sometimes, especially now that it’s summer, when he wants to around his apartment sans clothing. If he and Taehyung want ice cream in the middle of the night, why bother with robes or pajamas? They simply pad into the kitchen in whatever they wore to bed, which is, more often than not, nothing. 

Which leads him to appreciate something else. They can go to bed naked. Seokjin’s sheets are 1000-thread-count Egyptian cotton, buttery smooth and dogwood pink. They smell like a spring meadow, and after a grueling day of choreo, nothing feels better than a rigorous shower followed by the cool, smooth splendor of high-quality sheets. 

Don’t get him started on his shower. If Seokjin didn’t require food and companionship, he would simply live there. 

Also of note, Seokjin has not shared his door code with the others. Furthermore, he strictly instructed Taehyung to do the same. Not once has Jungkook sneaked into Seokjin’s new bedroom to smear his sweaty, gross workout hair across Seokjin’s pillows. When Seokjin stocks the fruit bowl, Jimin doesn’t swan in twenty times a day, nabbing a piece at a time until every last bite is gone. Also, a week ago, Seokjin bought four bottles of Soju, and they remain unconsumed in the refrigerator door, which has to be some kind of BTS record.

Seokjin enters his kitchen to take down one of the eight cut-crystal tumblers from his mother. He fills it from the tap and rattles out Taehyung’s prescriptions from their paper wrappings. He skims the warnings on the labels as a refresher for what Dr. Lee told them in the consultation. Two pills, three times a day: an anti-inflammatory for swelling, and a mega-antibiotic to knock out the infection.

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin calls. “Did you eat?”

He doesn’t respond, probably because he can’t hear over the sweeping refrains of Ennio Morricone from his phone. Seokjin snags a packet of red bean buns, carrying them to the bedroom along with the water and Taehyung’s pills.

Seokjin has plans for the bedroom’s decor, which can only now be described as sparse. On some days, he feels the villa might be too big for him and Taehyung alone, but that's because they've been so busy, he's scarcely begun to unpack. Most of his clothes remain in plastic bins lining the far wall. Above them span two clothing rails, each awaiting the day when he’ll have time to fill them. 

On the bedside table, Seokjin has a simple lamp, a framed photo of Yeontan – a gift from Taehyung, and a cactus – also a gift from Taehyung. He sets everything on the table, and as he’s unbuttoning his shirt, Taehyung comes in from the bathroom on a waft of rosewater steam. His soaking blond hair mats to his forehead, dripping rivulets down his bare shoulders. He’s wearing the pink floral pants he picked up in Saipan and a sleep mask above his eyebrows.

“Did you eat?” Seokjin asks again.

Taehyung thinks a moment. Then he says, “You were with me.”

“That was five hours ago.” Seokjin peels off his shirt. He picks up the packet of buns. “Eat these. You have to take the antibiotic with food.”

Taehyung starts toward him, his damp feet smacking the marble tile, but he pauses in the doorway to perform a series of squats.

Seokjin steps out of his pants. Chuckling, he goes, “What’re you doing?”

“Preemptive calorie burning,” Taehyung says. “If I’m gonna eat again, I have to lose some weight.”

“That doesn’t work.”

“It could work.” He drops low, his arms outstretched, and pops back up, repeating the motions another three times before Seokjin interrupts him.

“You’ll make yourself sweaty,” he says. “Also, why didn’t you dry your hair?”

Taehyung comes to the end of the bed. He takes the bun, cramming half of it into his mouth. “They’ll straighten it in the morning,” he says, chewing.

“No, they won’t. We’re only going to the airport.”

“They might,” Taehyung says. He knees onto the bed. “If I ask them, they might.”

“We’d have to get up earlier, and we only have–” Seokjin picks up his phone, “–four hours until we leave.”

Taehyung shoves down the second bun. Licking sugar from this thumb, he says, “I don’t wanna dry my hair.”

“Fine,” Seokjin sighs. He passes Taehyung the water and his medicine. “Will you color it?”

Taehyung swallows the pill and drains most of the glass, saving his final sip for the cactus. “Dunno yet,” he says. “For now, I like matching you.”

“Blond boyfriends,” Seokjin says, knowing this will make Taehyung smile.

They slide into bed, Seokjin beneath the blanket, Taehyung on top. Seokjin smooths a hand over Taehyung’s body, planing down his chest to his soft, round belly, which feels as warm and supple as freshly-baked bread.

“I’m all swollen and bloaty,” Taehyung frowns.

“Shh, it’s temporary.” Seokjin continues to glide his palm over Taehyung’s chest. “Plus, the Idol choreo, all those kicks and jumps… We probably burn a million calories every time we practice. You can actually watch yourself losing weight during playback.”

Still dubious, Taehyung frowns. Seokjin brushes his thumb along the curve of Taehyung's breastbone to further soothe him.

This new, plump fullness of Taehyung's body is a guilty pleasure of Seokjin’s. He loves to press his face against Taehyung’s belly, gently nipping chills into his flesh. Even though Seokjin has almost nothing to do with the weight Taehyung has gained, it makes Seokjin feel as though he’s spoiling him. Taehyung feels self conscious about it. Jungkook has teased him about it. But, secretly, Seokjin adores it.

Taehyung catches his hand and laces their fingers.

“It’s cute,” Seokjin whispers. “A little chubbiness softens your shoulders and rounds out your chin.” Seokjin touches a fingertip to each place like he’s anointing them. “It makes you look like a pouty, sunkissed angel.”

Taehyung moans. “Like one of those fat little baby ones?” 

“No, a sexy, man-angel, like the ones in paintings by that artist you like. Botulism or something.”

“Jin-hyung, it’s Botticelli,” Taehyung says, though he sounds comforted by his words. 

“Yep. That one.”

He curves toward Seokjin, settling his cheek against his hand. 

“And Dr. Lee said the ulcer came from swelling around your wisdom tooth,” Seokjin reminds him. “It made your bite uneven, which made you chew the inside of your cheek. And that’s what caused the infection.”

“Not my nightmare ghost,” Taehyung pouts.

“She had nothing to do with it,” Seokjin assures him. “What did you call her? A physical manifestation of your guilt?”

“It could be,” Taehyung says.

“That’s nonsense,” Seokjin insists. “It’s swelling around your tooth and nothing else.”

“Hyung, it could be both,” Taehyung tells him. “Even in my dreams, the truth was trying to reach me. The ghost was trying to tell me how selfish I’d become, and that came out through the infection in my tooth.”

“Maybe.” Seokjin doesn’t believe it for a second, but he kisses Taehyung’s nose. “And if so,” he says, “then it’s a wisdom truth.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “Uhhhh, no,” he groans. But then he says, “Thank you for taking care of me.”

“And you’re okay with this?” Seokjin asks. “Because on a list of old, boring couple things, a dental appointment ranks pretty high.”

“I’m okay with it,” Taehyung says. 

“Then we should sleep now. Is your alarm set?”

Taehyung nods.

Seokjin checks his own, hissing through his teeth at how soon they’ll have to be awake.

“Will you tell me the plan for Taipei again?” Taehyung asks. 

Seokjin tucks Taehyung’s body against his. He feels his breath on his collarbone. The dewy sweep of his hair clings to Seokjin’s neck. “It’s just like in Saipan. You stick with Hobi, okay? Yoongi’s suspicious by nature, but he’ll be less likely to think something’s up if I hang out with him.”

“True,” Taehyung says. 

“You and Hope always have good conversations,” Seokjin says. “It should be easy to get him talking. Then, casually mention that you’re worried for Yoongi and see where that leads.”

“I am worried for Yoongi-hyung,” Taehyung says. “That look on his face when we were dancing… he looked so devastated.”

Seokjin remembers that feeling, of being so close to the one you love but being unable to reach them. Though it’s easier now, memories from that desperate time, a year and forever ago, still make his heart lurch. 

He presses Taehyung back into the pillows to get a good look at his face. In English, he says. “My VV. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Taehyung echoes, also in English, this separate language that’s become to them a kind of secret code. “Forever and for everything.”

“Night, love,” Seokjin says. Then they curl together and fall sleep, each weightless within the other’s arms.

Chapter Text

“I love the airplane mode:
Turn off all concerns.”
Airplane, J-Hope

7 July 2018Taipei

There’s a certain appeal to pandemonium. In the heart of chaos, it’s impossible to think beyond anything but the next move. This is how Hoseok has survived the last ten years of his life, and it’s how he’ll make it through the next three days as well. 

One motion at a time.

Hoseok’s legs, his muscles, all those connective tissues in between – everything feels pliant and elastic beneath his skin. He presses his weight down through the balls of his feet, feeling the pull of gravity as he pendulums through each step. It’s the deepest, most centering meditation – this connection with the earth, to know that he is the calm, clear force at the center of the storm.

Today’s storm involves five other groups performing in this cavernous arena, which is currently swarming with sound techs, the lighting crew, and company staff. The massive performance space dwarfs Hoseok, making him feel compact and self-contained, like a star at the brink of supernova. He inhales deeply, drawing the scents of gunpowder and dust into his lungs. 

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s run through it again.”

Hoseok steps through the choreo at one-half speed, accentuating every movement for Taehyung, who follows him beat for beat. They wind down to the end of the section when Taehyung pauses the music on his phone. 

“How was that?” Hoseok asks. “You feel better about it?”

A thin sheen of sweat gleams on Taehyung’s face. Beneath it and the thin, gritty light of the arena, his pallor seems sallow. Likely a result of four hours of sleep spanning the last two days, plus a mouth infection that won’t heal, and two nausea-inducing medications. Yet Taehyung continues to push himself. Through injury and sickness and heartbreak and loss, they all push themselves, so why would today be any different?

“Can we go through it one more time?” Taehyung pants. “Please?”

“You sure?” Hoseok asks. “‘Cause I think you got it.”

Some of the guys from iKon gather at the stage’s edge, preparing for their sound check. Taehyung waves to acknowledge them, but then he resets to his starting mark.

“Only once more,” Taehyung nods. “Please, hyung.” He scrubs the music back to the part he’s struggling with, and they run through it all once again. 

At the end of it, Taehyung’s sweating more, but he’s also smiling. The members of iKon greet them warmly as they exchange places, and the sound techs begin to run them through their cues. 

Taehyung snags their sports drinks on their way below stage. Passing one to Hoseok, he says, “Hyung, let me take care of you.”

“Our sweet Taehyungie,” Hoseok says. He fans his hands at Taehyung’s bangs to dry them. “But really, you don’t need to worry about me. I’m doing all right.”

They jostle among several members of Seventeen, Hoshi and Mingyu and Hui, and for a moment they're drawn off course by a clamor of excited greetings as Taehyung hugs every last one of them. Then they part, veering off in separate directions, and as the noises fade, Taehyung continues to question Hoseok. 

“Your family, too?” Taehyung asks. “Your sister? They’re all doing well?”

“They are, I think,” Hoseok says. He cracks open the sports drink and sips. “We check in, you know. We’ll be in Canada for Chuseok, but maybe we’ll have some time together in November before the awards shows begin.”

This momentarily distracts Taehyung. He says, “We’ll be in Canada for Chuseok?”

“Yeah, we’re on tour,” Hoseok says. 

“Oh.” Taehyung chews his lip. “Right.” They pause in a waiting room where several official-looking, manager types crane their heads together in terse conversation.

“You okay?” Hoseok asks. 

“Sort of,” Taehyung says. “I have some plans, but they’re taking longer than I thought,” Then he goes, “Hyung, planning is hard.”

“Anything I can help with?” Hoseok asks. They meander away from the waiting room, deeper into the labyrinth of dressing suites and corridors. The noise of backstage blurs over Taehyung’s words, but he continues to speak, so Hoseok misses most of what he says. Before Hoseok can respond, though, Yoongi rushes up, rumpled and bare-faced, his hair a bed-headed mess. 

“There you are,” he pants to Taehyung. “Seokjin-hyung is looking for you.”

Taehyung’s already wide eyes go wider. “Oh? Really?”

“Yeah.” Yoongi gestures vaguely. “Over that way.”

Taehyung bows and scampers off without question. Had he looked back, he would have caught the smirk on Yoongi’s face.

Hoseok purses his lips. “That's not nice, Yoongs,” he says, and yet he grins.

“What?" Yoongi says. "He’s the one who fell for it. Anyway, you’re welcome.”

Hoseok plumps the fringe of Yoongi’s sleep-lorn hair. “You missed your makeup call.” 

“There’s this new thing called sleep,” Yoongi tells him. “You should try it.”

“It’s okay, I’ll—”

“—Sleep on the plane?” Yoongi finishes. “Fuck that, Hope. I mean real sleep. A whole night, in a bed, like a human.”

“Yeah but we have a concert in—” he checks his watch “—two hours.” 

Namjoon’s voice echoes down the corridor, talking animatedly one of the Taiwanese stage managers. Hoseok catches the words ‘cell phones’ and ‘missing hoodie,’ which, given that it’s Namjoon, probably should be expected, but Yoongi snags Hoseok’s shoulder, ducking them down an adjacent hallway.

Flustered, Hoseok asks, “And why are we avoiding Namjoon?”

“Reasons,” Yoongi deflects. “Anyway, what did Taehyung want?”

Hoseok drags Yoongi to a stop. He studies him more closely this time, taking in his unshaven cheeks and tear-shot eyes. “I’ll answer when you tell me what you and Joon are fighting about.”

“Same thing we always fight about,” Yoongi hedges. 

“Which could be any one of a hundred things,” Hoseok points out.

Yoongi shrugs like, Pick one.

Hoseok draws a breath. Yoongi gets this way when he’s tired, and right now, they are beyond exhausted. During promotions, their sleep gets fragmented between sound checks, choreo, makeup, interviews, and food, hence their joke about sleeping on planes. A domestic flight feels like a glorious nap dropped literally out of the sky. An international flight might as well be first-class hibernation with catering. 

Hoseok exhales and starts walking toward their dressing suites. Yoongi ambles along with him like he’s not fully devoted to this decision. “To answer your question about Taehyung,” Hoseok says. “He wanted to go over his part in the Airplane choreo, and then we talked about Chuseok. Then he told me he’s planning something, and that planning is hard.”

Yoongi grunts, probably at the idea of Taehyung planning. 

Then Hoseok says, “Now what did you and Joon fight about?”

Four identically-dressed interns squeeze by, chattering like seagulls.

“We really wanna get into this?” Yoongi asks. “Now?”

“Tonight then,” Hoseok offers. “After the concert?”

Yoongi scratches his chin.

“Only as Hwagae Market Us,” Hoseok says. “Friends Us.”

“After the concert.” Yoongi nods. “Okay, I’ll be there.”

They round the corner, nearly colliding with Taehyung and Seokjin, who are deep into a lively conversation with Juhyun from Red Velvet and Seokjin’s friend from VIXX. They part from them to come join Yoongi and Hoseok.

“Namjoon-hyung’s looking for you,” Taehyung says to Yoongi. Beside him, Seokjin covers his mouth to hide a smile.

“Yeah, yeah,” Yoongi groans. He casts a long-suffering look over his shoulder at Hoseok before stalking off toward their dressing room.

As soon as he’s beyond hearing range, Taehyung turns to Hoseok. “Something’s wrong with Yoongi,” he says. Behind him, Seokjin rubs his forehead.

“Why? Because he overslept and missed makeup?” Hoseok smiles. “You and Kookie do that all the time.”

Taehyung goes, “I mean—”

“—Don’t worry,” Hoseok soothes. “He’ll be fine.” He gathers Taehyung under his shoulder, turning him back toward the stage. “Let’s go see if we can find Jimin and Jungkook to practice once more before sound check. Jin-hyung, you wanna come along?”

Taehyung sends a questioning look to Seokjin, who says, “Yeah, I think I left something in our dressing room. I’ll catch up.” He squeezes Taehyung’s hand and leaves.

 

The concert goes like clockwork. Hoseok breathes through the motions, letting his heart and muscle memory guide them through their stage. At the end of their performance, he feels as though they are seven bright sparks floating among 16,000 stars. The noise of the crowd is deafening, a wall of living sound, and he lets it buffet him high into the stratosphere where all he can see is the other six soaring alongside him.

For Hoseok, this is the brightest moment: the culmination of all their work. The birthday cake, the candles, the rain at the end of the drought, the green of spring after a bleak and frozen winter. This is what Hoseok works for: This moment. This, he knows, will carry them through all their difficult days. This is what he thinks about when he returns to his room to get ready for Yoongi.

 

Back in his suite, Hoseok showers. He stretches and applies his muscle cream. He checks his feet for blisters, bandaging the few beneath his toes. He orders food, and then he dries his hair.

Every breath glows within him, like he carries embers in his lungs. Hoseok loads his Hwagae Market playlist and sets it on random. He’s halfway through the second song when a knock sounds at the door. He opens it, ready to bear Yoongi in on a wave of shared exhilaration. But Yoongi collapses like a heap into Hoseok’s arms and immediately begins to cry.

This is not the first time either of them have stumbled into the other’s room on a gust of anxious tears. Hoseok heels the door closed, guides Yoongi to the bed, and makes him sit down. 

“Hey,” Hoseok says, touching Yoongi’s chin. “Breathe. I got you. You’re okay.” 

“I can’t,” Yoongi says, but that’s all he manages before he tightly inhales, and then quakes with the effort to hold everything in. 

Hoseok draws a breath, nodding for Yoongi to follow. Still, Yoongi resists, holding his breath like a child who refuses a dose of medicine. Hoseok says, “You’re really goin’ through it, huh?”

Yoongi exhales and shakes his head. 

“You don’t have to say anything,” Hoseok says. “But I’m here, if you want to.”

“I hate that I keep doing this to you,” Yoongi says, biting out each word. 

“Really, I’m okay,” Hoseok says.

“You should have better.”

“Let me decide what I should have,” Hoseok says. 

Yoongi’s face pinches with disgust. He looks as though he wants to jerk away, yet he clings to Hoseok with the desperation of a rain-drenched cat in a storm drain. 

Hoseok palms tears from Yoongi cheeks. It’s not unlike what Hoseok’s own father did for him a dozen times in childhood, when he’d fallen from his bike, or scraped his knees, or scored poorly on a math exam. It’s a natural gesture of comfort, because Yoongi’s in pain, and in need of rest. 

Then Hoseok thinks back to earlier, to Yoongi’s missed makeup call, him avoiding Namjoon, and the indication of a fight about which he refused to speak. 

“Did you and Joon fight about you sleeping through makeup?” Hoseok guesses. It’s kind of a long shot, but he’s hoping to land near enough to the actual reason to get Yoongi talking. 

But Yoongi shakes his head.

“Was it our song selection?” Even further afield than the first question, since they decided their setlits weeks ago, but—

“Joon thinks I should,” Yoongi rolls his eyes, “Talk to someone.” 

Hoseok stifles a smile. “Well, you’ve got us, right?” 

“A professional.” Yoongi moans. “A shrink.” 

“Oooh.” 

“So, I tried,” Yoongi says. “ I really tried, but I can’t—”

Again, he stops himself at can’t. Hoseok squints at him. “Can’t what?”

“It’s too pathetic, Hope,” Yoongi says. Tears come fresh to his eyes. He presses his hand to his nose. “I can’t keep doing it. You know everything, all that I’ve been through. You know how hard I’ve fought to never go through this again, and now…” Yoongi straightens. He gives his eyes a violent scrub, as if with that one gesture he can wipe all his anger away. “Anyway, I told Joon to back the hell off.” 

“Oh,” Hoseok murmurs again. 

This provokes the thinnest smile. “Yep,” he says. “Another horrible thing I’ve said to someone I love. How do you guys even put up with me?”

Hoseok tousles a hand through Yoongi’s hair. “You’re our Yoongs,”  he says. “We love you.” 

Yoongi groans. “What a bunch of suckers,” he says.

Hoseok gives him a smile. “That’s why,” he says.

Yoongi presses the heels of his hands to his forehead. “I wasn’t gonna do this today,” he says. “I’m sorry.” Before Hoseok can reply, Yoongi goes, “I just need sleep, right?”

“Right,” Hoseok agrees. “In a bed, like a human.”

“Can I sleep here, Hope?” he asks. “Can’t I just go to sleep?”

“Of course.” Hoseok folds him into his arms. There's a dull ache inside him, a distant, buried bruise. “Rest now,” Hoseok mutters into the crown of his head. He misses the smell of Yoongi's hair and the way he balls his fists up when he sleeps. Hoseok pushes those memories away, focusing instead on what Yoongi needs. “When you wake up," he whispers, "Everything will be okay.” 

It’s a lie, and they both know it. But without another word, Hoseok watches as Yoongi drifts into sleep. 

Chapter Text

“I never made promises lightly, and there have been some that I've broken
But I swear in the days still left we'll walk in fields of gold.”
Fields of Gold, Eva Cassidy (from Taehyung’s 2016 Spotify)

31 July 2018 – North of Daegu

Late summer sun bands lemon yellow across the tufty grass of the open field. The seven of them walk slowly, taking in with each breath the mossy scent of the soil and the leafy green of the breeze. Jimin lingers, the last in the line, so that he can watch them climb. Seokjin’s the first to crest the low hill, and he stands there, his hands high on his waist, while he waits for the others to catch up.

Jungkook’s arm rests on Taehyung’s shoulder. They walk together, talking in hushed tones, and Jimin feels warmed at seeing Jungkook being so huggy and supportive. It’s been a long time since they’ve been so close, but now it’s like they never argued at all. Namjoon follows them, with Hoseok and Yoongi lagging several paces behind. 

Yoongi troubles Jimin the most.  He’s quiet to the point of almost catatonic, and he’s been that way since they left Taehyung’s uncle's apartment in Daegu. It makes Jimin nervous, seeing Yoongi so upset. So when they get to the top of the small hill, even though the view is impressive, Jimin turns to Seokjin and decides he needs to tease him. “You paid how much money for this?” he laughs.

Seokjin grips Jimin in a shoulder-lock. “Yah,” he growls. “Don’t badmouth this place. It’s where we’ll raise our children.” 

“Oh.” Jungkook brightens, “Can we ride ATVs?” 

“No,” Taehyung and Seokjin say, simultaneously. 

Jungkook whines, softly, “But Daaad,” which provokes a shy grin from Taehyung. 

It’s good to see him smile. It’s been a rough few days for his best friend, and it won’t get better soon. Within the next few hours, they will depart for Malta, leaving Taehyung to continue the important work of an eldest son.

Namjoon, Yoongi, and Hoseok file into a line with them. Together, they take in the sunset and farmland spread below. Near the center, slightly right of Jimin’s point of view, an old-style farmhouse stands, sheltered beneath a roof of curved, blue tile. A porch hugs the front of the house, the kind that promises cool shade at the end of long summer days. In the front yard, there’s a gnarled yew tree from which a dusty tire swing hangs. 

On their left, there’s a metal barn and three abandoned greenhouses slung with tarps. Jimin catches the faint, chemical whiff of plastic sheeting and the rich earthy, odor of composting potato skins.

“How long have the fields been fallow?” Namjoon asks.

Jimin stifles a laugh, because Namjoon knows as much about farming as Jimin does car engine repair. Yet, somehow, Seokjin takes his question seriously. 

“Around three years now,” he answers. 

“So they’re ready for planting,” Namjoon says. 

Taehyung nods. "Soon," he says.

And now Jimin does laugh. “Slow down there, Farmer-nim,” he chuckles. “You’re not really gonna start a strawberry farm.”

“Well why not?” Seokjin asks. 

“Uh. Because you’re an idol, and you have us,” Jimin says. He glances to Taehyung and Jungkook for support, but they’re looking at Seokjin like they’re considering his response instead. 

“I suppose, for now, it’d be like the restaurants, right?” Hoseok asks. “You don’t have to be present to run it.”

“True,” Seokjin says. "For now." He pulls Taehyung close, then, looping an arm around his waist. “Taehyungie has some interesting ideas we want to discuss with my Abeoji first. Right, VV?”

Taehyung nods, but he looks again like he’s on the verge of crying. Jimin squeezes in on the other side of him, rubbing his back to show support. Seokjin bends to kiss Taehyung on his nose. Then, for a moment, they all stand there, each caught up in their own thoughts as they watch the trees pour deep shadows across the grass.

Jimin wrestles down his impatience. He’s hungry, and he has to go to the bathroom. Then he feels guilty and somewhat childish for thinking these things, when the others are probably neck-deep into something philosophical and profound. Then he looks over at Taehyung, who’s gnawing a hangnail on his thumb.

“I missed my dental surgery,” he murmurs. “Guess I have to reschedule.”

So maybe not that profound, Jimin thinks.

“You want me to do it?” Seokjin asks.

“No, I will,” Taehyung says. “Not much you can do from the airport.”

“Ha,” Seokjin waves. “You’d be surprised.”

“Speaking of the airport,” Namjoon reminds them, but Yoongi cuts him off.

“I was wrong,” he groans, his voice all cracked and nasal. A tense, still moment elongates around them while they wait for him to explain, but he doesn’t. It’s as though he fought everything inside him to manage that one sentence, and now that it’s out, he incapable of a follow-up.

“Someone note the time,” Namjoon teases. “Yoongi admits that he was wrong.”

“About what, though?” Jungkook adds, keeping the playful tone. “Like when he said he couldn’t speak English?”

“Or that time he tried to convince us that pickles are fruit?” Jimin throws in.

Technically, cucumbers are fruit,” Namjoon tells them.

“There was that one time he told us he couldn’t sing,” Hoseok says. “Definitely wrong about that.”

“He said he couldn’t dance, too,” Seokjin adds. “And yet...”

Yoongi shrugs away from them. He throws up his hands to hush them. He goes, “When I said you and Taehyung shouldn’t be together. That was wrong. I shouldn’t have said that.” He gestures at Seokjin and Taehyung, and to the farmland behind them. He looks angry as he says it, his brows drawn down like dagger strikes. “I shouldn’t have said it.” Then he scrubs his hands over his face. “You know what? Nevermind. I’m gonna wait in the car.”

“Yoongi-hyung!” Jimin calls, but Yoongi strikes off toward the cars idling at the base of the hill.

“I got him,” Hoseok says. He rushes forward, pulling Taehyung into a hug. “Love you, Taehyungie.” He kisses his cheek. “See you soon.”

“Four days, hyung,” Taehyung says.

They’re quiet again as they watch Hoseok jog down to catch up with Yoongi. 

“Is he okay?” Seokjin asks. They all know who he means.

“He will be,” Namjoon tells them, and Jimin catches the flicker of something that passes between Taehyung and Seokjin. It reminds him of their secret plans for Hoseok and Yoongi, and how they're plotting to get them together. But with Yoongi in such a fragile state, Jimin wonders if it’s the right thing to do.

This line of thought gets snapped when Namjoon hooks an arm through his. “In the meantime, though,” he says. “We really should head out. Some of us still haven’t packed.”

“Meaning you haven’t packed,” Seokjin says.

Continuing to herd Jimin, Namjoon says, “Yes, baby, if you gotta out me like that—”

“—Oh, but wait,” Jimin says, slipping free from Namjoon. “Taehyungie. You said you could see your Grandparents’ house from here?”

“Oh yeah,” Taehyung says. His voice sounds hollow, but he seems happy that Jimin remembered. He takes three steps down the hill, angling toward the twilit blur of the Daegu skyline. He tugs Jimin closer and points: “There.” Beyond the upflung branches of the yew tree, Jimin spies the tin rooftop of a house peeking over the shrub line. 

“That’s it?” Jimin says. “That’s only, like, a bike ride away.”

“It was,” Taehyung agrees. “I mean, it is. I guess it’s my parents’ place now. With Seokjinnie and me next door.” 

Seokjin puts his arms around Taehyung’s waist. Jungkook does the same with Jimin. The air around them feels tender as a new bruise, one that will surely heal, though it’s going to take some time. 

“Four days,” Namjoon reminds them. Then he nudges Jimin and Jungkook to follow, giving Seokjin and Taehyung a moment to say goodbye.

 

When they reach the gate, Jimin jogs toward the compact silver Hyundai Taehyung bought last year for his father. As he reaches the driver’s side, Mr. Kim rolls the window down.

“What do you think, Jiminie?” Mr. Kim asks. “Pretty amazing, right?”

“Really wonderful, sir,” Jimin says. "So much open space."

From beside him, Jungkook adds, “It’s so grown up, them buying this place.”

“My son has become a man,” Mr. Kim agrees. His eyes take on a glint of pride as he peers over Jimin’s shoulder, into the empty field beyond. They lapse into awkward politeness as Jimin makes small talk with Mr. Kim. Jungkook nods along, listening but not adding to the conversation. 

Soon after, Seokjin and Taehyung come down the hill. Taehyung pulls the chain from the undergrowth to snick the gate lock into place. Mr. Kim gets out of the car to hug Seokjin, which Jimin can tell this touches his hyung more than he can say. Then Mr. Kim shakes everyone’s hands, and Taehyung hugs them all, saying his goodbyes. 

He saves Jimin for last, going with him to the back door.

“Message us, Taehyungie,” Jimin says. “No matter the time zone, we’ll be there.”

“I know,” Taehyung says. His brows cloud. He nods toward the passenger seat, where Yoongi slouches against the glass. “Look out for him, okay?” he says.

“For Yoongi?” Jimin asks, careful to keep his voice low. 

“I think he’s not okay,” Taehyung says.

Jimin wants to laugh this off, because to him, Yoongi’s always been a bit of an enigma. He goes from laidback to surly at the twitch of an eyelash. He professes to be a rebel, yet he’ll be the first to scold them for forgetting their manners. To Jimin, the outburst on the hilltop is simply the latest in a long list of paradoxical Yoongi-isms, but it’s far from extraordinary.

Then he recalls the look that passed between Taehyung and Seokjin. Years of keeping company with Taehyung remind Jimin that his best friend sometimes sees things that other people miss. 

Especially when someone is suffering. That’s how Jimin first came to know Taehyung, after all. When they were in school together, Taehyung had been the one to look out for him.

“I’ll keep watch,” Jimin assures him. “Don’t you worry.”

“Thank you, hyung,” Taehyung says, pulling Jimin into a final embrace. Then he opens the car door and puts him inside. 

Chapter Text

“Whatever you’re seeking, it won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”
Haruki Murakami

1 August – Incheon International Airport – Bon Voyage 3, Day One

Namjoon gestures Jimin, Jungkook, and Yoongi into the remaining three cushions. While waiting for them to get settled, he takes a moment to be grateful for the small, significant things around him that make him happy. Like the faintly spearmint scent of the airport’s AC, and the warmth of the paper cup between his hands. He’s grateful for the way the light dances in geometric jags across the floor as clouds slice up the sunlight from above.

He’s grateful that Jimin and Jungkook found Yoongi, who had slipped off without a word after checking in. He’s grateful that Seokjin tried to sneak Taehyung’s electric skateboard to Malta, even if the gesture failed to pass security, forcing Seokjin to send it home with Hobeom.

And now that they’re all present and fidgety for their adventure to begin, he’s grateful for Hoseok, who settles them down in his gentle, jovial way, without Namjoon even having to ask. 

Once he’s certain the staff are elsewhere and all their handcams are stowed, Namjoon leans forward to speak. “All right, guys,” he says, meeting each of their eyes. “Just wanted to establish some rules for this trip before we get off the ground.” 

“Wait, wait, hyung, I got one,” Jungkook says. “No wandering off alone.”

“—Should go without saying,” Namjoon agrees.

“No switching rooms,” Seokjin says.

“Also should go without saying,” Namjoon deadpans.

“No sneaking into each others rooms,” Jimin puts in.

“No swearing on camera,” Hoseok adds.

“That was one time,” Seokjin moans, placing his phone aside. 

“Please, for the love of God," Yoongi monotones, "wear your clothes to bed.”

“Hyung,” Jimin chuckles. “Tae-Tae’s not even here.”

“Got it. So they’re the same rules as always,” Yoongi says. “Wake me up in Turkey.”  He hunkers down and pretends to fall asleep.

“Yeah, yeah, guys,” Namjoon says. “I get that this isn’t our first trip, so we’re familiar with how it works. But there is something else. I’ve been meaning to talk with you about it for a while, but we haven’t had the chance. And like you said, Taehyung’s not even here, so I’m counting on us to relay the importance of this to him. I feel like I need to say it before we begin.”

The gravity in his tone does what he hopes for it to do. The other four lean in, attentive. Even Yoongi lifts the brim of his hat to show he is listening. 

Now comes the moment Namjoon’s been dreading for weeks. He’s thought long and hard about how he would word this, knowing that if he phrases it wrong, it could ignite conflict between them and the staff. Even still, the members need to know, and they should hear it from him. He is their leader, after all.

“Recently,” Namjoon says. “A member of our team approached me with questions about your private lives. About your relationships, specifically—” Looks of alarm and indignation flash around the circle “—And it serves as a reminder that people are watching us. Constantly.”

“Which staff?” Jungkook asks.

“That’s beside the point,” Namjoon says.

“Has to be someone new,” Seokjin reasons. “Senior staff already know about us.”

“Like I said, it doesn’t matter,” Namjoon goes on, this time making eye contact with Seokjin in hopes of conveying the message that he should drop it.

Fortunately, Seokjin does. 

So Namjoon continues. “What matters is that we remember: this is our job. When I say no switching rooms, no sneaking off, I mean it. Let’s be bro-friends in Malta, not boyfriends. This trip isn’t a vacation, not really. Always assume we’re on camera, even when we’re not. Okay?”

A long, tense moment reels between them as they take in his words.

Then Jimin leans in. “But, hyung,” he says. “They can edit around stuff. Remember in Hawaii when we missed our flight—” 

“—No, Jiminie, he’s right,” Hoseok cuts in. Again, Namjoon feels grateful for Hoseok, who’s got his back, no matter what. “They’re sending us to Malta. Let’s be grateful for that and not give them more work than they already have. Their jobs are really difficult, too.”

“It’s true,” Seokjin puts in. “They wake earlier than us. They go to bed later. They always have to wait on us before they can eat or take a rest. They plan everything, and planning is really stressful.”

“Yeah, but nobody’s watching their every move,” Yoongi mumbles. “I say, fair trade.”  

“Maybe,” Seokjin allows, “but we make so much more money.”

Yoongi purses his lips like he’s going to say something, but with a shrug, he lets it go.

Namjoon presses his palms flat. He remembers what Adora told him about Gosford Park, about how their lives and those of the staff have become tightly entwined. The staff makes sacrifices, too, giving up normal lives to travel alongside them. 

Only, Sanghyun recently left to complete his military service, and Hobeom remained behind in Seoul to set up his newly-wed home. So the sacrifice isn't exactly equal. The staffs’ lives aren't on hold, and like Yoongi said, no one's constantly watching them. 

Namjoon wonders, as he’s often wondered, if money and fame are compensation enough for putting their own lives on pause. He understands how the other six can ask these questions. He gets how they can wonder whether staying together was the right decision. He hopes he can continue to convince them that it was.

He says, “You know, if you followed blindly, I wouldn’t trust it. I’m grateful that you question this. I’d rather you push back than fall complacent, because it means you still believe in this crazy dream. It means we’ll keep growing, even as we build our lives apart.” He meets their eyes around the circle again. “But can we agree to this? Can we abide by these rules? It’s only for a week, and then we’ll return home—”

“—But which staff?” Jungkook says, circling back to his original question. “I mean, yes, hyung, I’ll play by the rules like always, but our staff is still with us when we go home. I’d really like to know who asked the questions..”

Namjoon looks to Hoseok, who gives him a pinched half-smile. 

“Not gonna tell you who it was,” Namjoon says. “But I will say they asked specifically if Jimin and Taehyung are gay.”

“Like gay together?” Jimin giggles, and then he straightens, his eyes wide as moons. “Oh. I know who it was.”

“Shit,” Namjoon mutters.

“Ha, no swearing,” Yoongi scoffs.

“Who was it, who was it?” Jungkook prods. 

But Jimin doesn’t elaborate. The disagreement between him and Adora involves the secret Christmas song he and Taehyung have been working on for Seokjin and Jungkook. There’s little chance Jimin would risk spoiling that surprise. 

“Jimin, just… handle it in private, all right?” Namjoon says. “That goes for all of us. I know it’s difficult, living behind this mask. We talk a lot about being our true, authentic selves on camera, and I think we can still do that. We just have to compartmentalize—”

“—Yeah, ’cause that’s healthy,” Yoongi snarks. 

“Because it’s necessary,” Hoseok tells him.

With that, Yoongi recedes even further beneath his hat. Jimin reaches over to jiggle Yoongi’s knee, but that only makes him withdraw further, sending Jimin into a tailspin of apologies. 

Yoongi gets up, takes out his phone, and leaves. 

Namjoon fully expects Hoseok to go after him. Instead, Hoseok says, “Sejin-nim and Benji-nim are coming to collect us—”

“—And the camera crew, too,” Jungkook adds. “The prison guards have found us,” he jokes, jutting his chin toward the group of staff. They round the partition, absorbed in discussions about boarding times and layovers and how much equipment they’ll need to check all the way to Valletta. 

“Then let me just say this before we return to work,” Namjoon says. He wishes Yoongi had stuck around for this part, as much as he wishes Taehyung could be here for it, too. Instead, he focuses on being grateful that the other four are present, and that maybe these words can help them, too.

“In this life, we must focus on the ways in which we are fortunate,” Namjoon says. “Sometimes it’s hard to do because we get overwhelmed by everything that seems so much bigger than us. But I’ve been thinking about something I read in an essay by Murakami, where he mentions the ‘small yet certain happiness’ of life, the little things that make it all worth living. For me, it’s this,” he says, gesturing toward them with his cup of coffee. “It’s us. That’s what I’m going to focus on during this trip. I wanna enjoy Us. I really hope you all can do the same.”

“Aw, Joonie-hyung,” Jimin sings. 

At that moment, Sejin signals to Namjoon. The writers and directors drag him into a huddle as they discuss their next round of filming. Namjoon glances over at Hoseok, who nods his understanding.

“Yep,” he says. “I’ll get him.”

“Thanks, man,” Namjoon says. Again, he feels gratitude toward Hoseok, but he can’t escape the growing concern he’s been feeling for Yoongi. They argued in Taipei after Yoongi dropped a seemingly offhand remark that he would no longer be corresponding with Mr. Choi. Namjoon pushed for a reason; Yoongi retreated. That’s the full extent of Namjoon’s knowledge on the subject. 

So in spite of everything he said to the others about compartmentalizing their lives, Namjoon decides that once he can break away, he’ll meet with Yoongi in private. Because they were friends before they became BTS, and Yoongi’s health is more important than keeping up appearances.

Chapter Text

KAKAOTALK
2 August 2018 
8:43 a.m. CEST 

PrinceV: How many hours between Seoul and Malta?

BabyAngelJin: 8 I think
BabyAngelJin: Yes, 8

PrinceV: You’re one-third of the world away

BabyAngelJin: Never thought of it like that. 

PrinceV: Makes the distance seem smaller, right?

BabyAngelJin: It does. 
BabyAngelJin: We miss you. We keep forgetting you’re not here. When we load up the cars, when we go to restaurants, we look around for you. Like you’ve only wandered off. Not like you’re one-third of the world away.  

PrinceV: I’m on my way to annoy you

BabyAngelJin: You don’t annoy me.

PrinceV: I annoy you endlessly

BabyAngelJin: I enjoy it endlessly

PrinceV: 💜
PrinceV: Then I will continue
PrinceV: So Jimin says Yoongi-hyung’s not feeling well?

BabyAngelJin: VV, you have enough to worry about at home. Yoongi’s okay. I’m looking out for him.
BabyAngelJin: But I gotta go, cause he’s wandering around like some lost baby duck. 

PrinceV: Aw, baby Yoongi-hyung - 🐣

BabyAngelJin: Too accurate VV. See you soon. I purple you.

PrinceV: I purple you too.

 

Seokjin basks in the courtyard’s full, white sunlight. The breeze that cools the sweat on his skin smells of rosemary and the sea. Everything in Malta is gold and blue, and so Seokjin dressed to match: a blue-and-white striped boat shirt, a straw hat, and the jeans he brutalized for the occasion.

And then there’s Yoongi, all in black, a dark scowl to match his fashion.

“If you’d had the choice,” Seokjin asks, “you’d stay in bed today, right?” 

“I still might,” Yoongi grumbles. “There’s still time.” 

“Nope.” Seokjin guides Yoongi along with an arm around his waist. “We’re getting ice cream, and later, fishing.”

Yoongi squints from beneath the brim of his bucket hat. “Really?” He glances to Woojin, their assigned cameraman for the day. “Really, we can go fishing?”

Woojin nods. The whole camera nods with him. 

“Didn’t you once say you wanted that?” Seokjin asks him.

“Like, years ago,” Yoongi answers.

“Well they said we can fish here, so we will,” Seokjin says. 

They strike off in the direction of the main road, Seokjin leading the way, Yoongi and Woojin trailing after. 

Seokjin says, “Did you sleep well?”

Yoongi shrugs. 

“I notice Jimin never came up to our room,” Seokjin says. “So much for bro-friends, right?”

Yoongi glances back at Woojin, who meets his eyes over the camera and shrugs. “I guess I uh… didn’t notice,” Yoongi says.

They crest the hill, leaving the shade as they breach the high, bright embankment. “I noticed you drank a lot on the boat last night,” Seokjin says.

Yoongi grunts, “Who are you, my Dad?” 

Seokjin points, and they cross the road to enter a sheltered side street. Seokjin says, “You haven’t been drinking, though. I noticed that, too. You cut back to almost nothing, and last night, you drank. Like a lot.”

Color splotches Yoongi’s cheeks, though Seokjin can’t tell if it’s from exertion, the heat, or embarrassment. “So much for keeping our private lives private?” he asks. 

“He’s not filming,” Seokjin says, gesturing to Woojin.

Woojin confirms, “I’m not filming.”

“So you're the boss of the film crew now?” Yoongi balks.

“C’mon,” Seokjin says. “You know he won’t record us if we’re out of breath. Wheezing idols make terrible entertainment.” 

“It’s true,” Woojin says. “I’ll wait until we reach the plaza. We’ll continue once you catch your breath. You’re fine now.” He checks his watch. “You need anything?”

“That is a loaded question,” Yoongi remarks. 

“Are we good?” Seokjin asks.

Yoongi rolls his eyes. They continue up the sloping grade of the cobblestone street, breathing in ancient brick dust with every breath of humid air. 

“Yes,” Yoongi pants. “I did quit drinking. Or I tried, anyway.” 

They’re side by side now, keeping pace with each other as they walk. Yoongi’s eyes look glassy as he speaks. His whole body seems limp as week-old celery, like he has to push himself through every step.

“Why?” Seokjin asks.

Yoongi’s shoulders roll. Seokjin knows he won’t answer, not with Woojin right behind them. 

Which gives Seokjin an idea. “Woojin-ssi,” he says. “Yoongi needs some food, he’s not feeling well. Could you go see if there’s a shop with something light for him to eat?”

Grimacing, Woojin says, “I’m really not supposed to leave you alone.” But he studies Yoongi. The waxy sheen of his face is very convincing. “I’ll be right back,” he tells them. “Stay right here?”

“I will do my best not to move,” Yoongi tells him.

Woojin scurries back down the hill, his camera tucked beneath his arm. 

“Does everyone just eat from your hands?” Yoongi quips.

“Something I’ve learned,” Seokjin says, “If you supply food, everyone’s happy. That goes for the staff, too.”

Yoongi drags forward a step and then another. He says, “Good thing you’re in the restaurant business.”

“Yoongi, stop,” Seokjin says. “We have a chance to talk now. Please tell me what’s going on.”

Yoongi purses his lips. He doesn’t speak for several seconds, and Seokjin begins to wonder if he’ll simply wait him out until Woojin returns. But then Yoongi asks, “You know how I was on medication?”

“I remember.”

“Well I’m not anymore.” Yoongi folds his arms. 

Seokjin considers this for a moment. He has a lot of questions and not a lot of time to ask them. So he says, “I thought you needed it?”

“It stopped working,” Yoongi snaps. “So I stopped taking it.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Look, you don’t gotta worry, all right?” Yoongi says. “I’ll play pretend while the camera’s rolling, but I won’t pretend with you. I am not okay. I am fucking miserable. My skin feels too tight. My head feels like it’s inside a pressure cooker. And yeah, if I had my choice, I’d be in bed right now. But, hey, we’re not working on that goddamned Idol choreo, so yay for that, let's celebrate!”  

“Yay,” Seokjin echoes. “My ankle’s still messed up from those stupid flying kicks. Like, what are we, Hwarang knights?”

“I swear to god, Jin-hyung,” Yoongi says. “It’s gonna end me. My body’s not built for this kind of strain.”

“How did we even get here?” Seokjin laughs. He smacks Yoongi’s shoulder. “Neither of us were dancers and yet, somehow, now, we are?”

“Man,” Yoongi blurts. "I have missed you." He covers his face and wipes it, like he’s forcing himself to start fresh. “You have no idea. Fuck.”

“I’ve missed you, too.”

“Have you?” Yoongi asks. He leans against the wall.

“Of course I have,” Seokjin says.

Yoongi shakes his head. “You have been so busy.”

“We all have.”

Yoongi scuffs at a crack in the pavement. He swallows. He says, “You know, my grandmother died, too.”

Seokjin straightens. “No,” he says. “When?” 

Yoongi rubs his nose. “Few days after yours.”

Seokjin gapes at him. He takes a moment to reappraise his friend's jagged bangs and baggy clothes. He considers his own recent loss, and Taehyung’s as well, and the impact it had on families. They were tear-soaked emotional wrecks for weeks, yet somehow, despite all their past issues with Seokjin's family, their shared grief drew them closer. Meanwhile, Yoongi was silently weathering similar heartbreak, but Seokjin knows his family is not like theirs. For years, Yoongi has struggled for acceptance within his family, due to his lifestyle and his decision to pursue music. Though, honestly, Seokjin knows firsthand that neither of those things has ever been about choice. 

Still, though. Yoongi does have a family in the seven of them. It doesn't make sense that Yoongi would choose to keep silent.

Stifling a flare of anger, Seokjin asks, “Why didn’t you tell us?” 

Yoongi shrugs like it pains him. “C’mon, no,” he murmurs. “How pathetic is that? I’d basically be stepping on your time of mourning. And anyway, it’s not the same for me. My family is... I believe the clinical term is hard-ass. So, no," A bitter shake of his head. "I didn't tell anyone, and neither will you, okay."

“—Not even Hope?”

“Shhh no,” Yoongi rasps. "I put too much on him as it is, and anyway, that’s not the reason I quit drinking, or started back up, or quit my meds in the first place. It’s related, sort of, but…” He presses his thumbs to his eyes. "Shit, I hate every part of this. Let’s drop it and enjoy our day.”

“You mean go back to pretending that everything’s fine?” 

“Hey, it’s something we’re both good at,” Yoongi snipes. 

Seokjin bristles, but the words don’t sting him in the way he thinks Yoongi intends. 

Even so, Yoongi pales, turning instantly contrite. “Hyung, I didn’t mean that,” he says. “Dammit, this isn’t even what I wanted to tell you—”

But at that moment, Woojin appears at the mouth of the alley, brandishing a packet of ginger crackers like it’s a winning lottery ticket. 

“Oh,” Seokjin calls, slow clapping as Woojin approaches. “We work with the best people. Thank you, Woojin-ssi, you are wonderful.” He takes the crackers and presses them into Yoongi’s hands. “Eat these.” Then he whispers, “You can tell me later. Okay?”

“Okay,” Yoongi agrees. 

Seokjin takes a breath to center himself, to get back into character, because, at the end of the day, Yoongi’s right. They do excel at playing pretend. He says, “I read in our packet they serve rabbit meat here. We should eat that. We can have that for lunch, right?”

“That’s right,” Woojin tells them. “There’s a restaurant not far from here.”

“We’ll go there,” Seokjin says. “We’ll eat, we’ll visit the Cathedral, we’ll see the cannons fire, and then, fishing. That sounds good, right? That’s a good plan.”

Yoongi murmurs through the cracker he stuffs into his mouth, “You and your plans.” 

“It’s good, right?” Seokjin says again. Though his heart feels troubled, Seokjin puts on a good show. Yet at the same time he wonders when they will get another chance to talk. The camera will film them nonstop, but even when they’re not recording, Woojin or another staff will be there. Then tonight, Yoongi will share a bed with Jimin. There is no way Yoongi will talk about anything that will worry Jimin, and everything they talked about today, from the death of Yoongi's grandmother to quitting his antidepressants – none of which Jimin knows – definitely falls into that category.

Once they reach the plaza, Woojin gets ahead of them, strolling backward as he films. 

Seokjin focuses on food. “Should we eat rabbit meat first?” he asks.

“I think it opens at noon,” Yoongi says, finally dropping into recordable dialogue. “Let’s see the cannons, since it’s eleven now. Then we’ll eat, go shopping, and come back. Since today’s concept is backpacking, we’ll travel around like backpackers.”

Which makes Seokjin laugh, since Yoongi doesn’t have a backpack. He’s left everything in Seokjin’s care, and until just now, Seokjin hadn’t even realized.

Grinning to himself, Seokjin says, “I actually never plan ahead when I travel.” An outright lie. Seokjin plans everything before and after and in between. That way, once the trip begins, he doesn’t have to worry about anything except for the people with whom he’s traveling. 

He wonders if Yoongi will catch the lie and refute it, but he merely smirks and goes, “Hf. Right.”

“I’m kind of spontaneous,” Seokjin tries again. As spontaneous as a turtle, he thinks, but still, Yoongi ignores the bait. Pressing further, Seokjin adds, “Are you, too?”

Yoongi squints. “Yeah, I am,” he answers.

And Seokjin breathes out his relief. Now, at least, they’re complicit in this charade, and it’s far easier to improv when you know the role you’re supposed to play. He still wonders, though, what Yoongi intends to tell him. Since Yoongi's not disclosing intimate family details with Hoseok, Seokjin worries it might have something to do with them. And at the same time, Seokjin suppresses his annoyance at having to shelve these discussions for later. 

Since he can’t control any of these things, he opts to give Yoongi some reassurance instead, to remind him that he’s not alone.

Seokjin grins back at Yoongi. He says, “We’re a good match.” 

Yoongi squinches his face in a pained smile. Then they shake hands, like they're sealing a pact them. Today, they’ll put on a show. They’ll wear different versions of themselves. No matter how many secrets they hold, or how wretched they feel, at the end of the day, at least they’re not alone.

Chapter Text

“If I let go of your hand, you’ll fly away and break.
I’m scared, scared, scared of that.”
Butterfly, BTS

2 August 2018 – Valletta – Night 

It’s dark when Yoongi dials the number. He presses the phone to his ear, his hands shaking and sheened with sweat, but he manages to hold onto it long enough for the man on the other end to pick up.

“Hello?” Mr. Choi answers. “Is this Yoongi?”

Yoongi drags a ragged breath. “I’m glad you answered,” he tells him.

“I’m glad you called.” He pauses. “Are you all right?”

Yoongi glances down. Far below him, sharp rocks cut white ribbons from blue-black water. “Yeah, I don’t think I am.” He clears his throat. “Not sure how I… got up here, but I’m, uh… It’s really high and scary, so...” He covers his face with one hand. With the other, he grips the phone like it’s the only real thing in the world. “I, um…”

Mr. Choi waits for Yoongi to finish. When he doesn’t, Mr. Choi speaks, his voice distant, yet soothing, like someone trying to soothe a wounded bird. “Can you tell me where you are?” he asks.

“I’m in Malta,” Yoongi blurts, and it sounds sarcastic. He’s not trying to be an ass, but it sounds like he is, like maybe sarcasm is his default setting

Anyway, Mr. Choi responds with his usual calm demeanor.  “Oh yes,” he says. “I remember. You told me in our last session that you’d be going. A vacation, you said.” 

“Yeah,” Yoongi scoffs. “Right.” 

“But you say you’re in some place high, and it’s scary?” Mr. Choi asks.

“I went fishing,” Yoongi says. Then he feels stupid, because that answer does not connect with Mr. Choi’s question. But his thoughts are all murky, as muddled as his memories of how he wound up here, and—  

“You once mentioned you wanted to go fishing,” Mr. Choi says. 

“With my Dad,” Yoongi remembers. “I thought it'd be nice. Bonding time, you know? After my grandma's death, he’s been… not well. I thought if we went fishing, I’d get to be his good son again, maybe we’d have the chance to talk, but…I went with Seokjin.”

Yoongi exhales a fumey breath laced with Guinness and whiskey. Irish bombs; the friendship drink he shared with Jungkook. He was teaching the maknae how drinking can smother his problems. Not that Jungkook can relate; he’s always had the adoring support of his parents. Also, he’s been blissfully content with Jimin for years. So in truth, the only problems getting drowned tonight were Yoongi’s and behold how well that’s worked.

After the drinking lesson, Yoongi was supposed to go home. Instead, he said goodnight to the crew and slipped back out. He skirted the few staff who were chatting over cigarettes, discussing the next day’s excursions. Avoiding them had been too easy. So he left, wondering how far he could get. He went off on his own and now—

“Then what happened?” Mr. Choi prompts. 

Yoongi doesn’t know. It’s blank. He feels around the part that’s missing, wincing away from it like a deep, open wound. “I keep thinking,” Yoongi says. “I have all these people around me. Namjoon and Hope, always. Seokjin, today. Sometimes Taehyung. Jungkook was here tonight, and Jimin’s always hovering, like a tiny, annoying gnat. Then all these cameras, watching us, recording every gesture and every word, but I wonder… can they see me? Mr. Choi, do they even see me?”

There’s a pause as Mr. Choi considers. Then he asks, “What are you trying to show them?”

Yoongi peers down the cliff face. The toes of his shoes edge of the lip of the stone. He’s not in any danger, not really. He’s on the protected side of the guardrail. But he wonders, as he stares into the crinkling surface of the sea, what would it feel like to fall? 

“That I don’t wanna die,” Yoongi says. 

“Well that’s good news,” Mr. Choi says, and something about his tone makes Yoongi laugh. But it feels hollow inside him, a dim echo, like a door shutting in an upstairs room far away. 

“Sure. I guess,” Yoongi says. “But I’m standing at a literal cliff’s edge with no recollection of how I got here, but I...” His throat tightens. He has to cough to continue. “Part of me does want to die. Part of me believes it’s all pointless. We end up alone anyway, so why try so hard to hang on?”

Mr. Choi speaks with careful deliberation as he says, “I think, perhaps, it’s your depression talking right now, Yoongi. When you’re feeling less triggered, your thoughts are quite different.” 

“But, Doc, these thoughts are always here,” Yoongi says. “Even when I’m happy, they’re always right here, under the surface, waiting for when I’m weak, and I am so weak right now. I didn’t tell you… I was going to, and I should’ve, but I didn’t because I’m… embarrassed or, whatever. But I’ve quit my meds. I stopped taking them because they weren’t working, and I read on the internet that you can wean yourself off, but now... I think I’m worse. And I am so tired. If I could, I’d give up. But I can’t. I can’t let them win and be right about me.”

These are the words that finally break him. He sits down hard on the dusty rock, his feet dangling over the cliffside. He presses his cheek against the sharp, cold metal of the guardrail. The lights in the bay blur his tears to streaks, and he feels utterly pathetic to be surrounded by so much beauty that he can scarcely see.

“Yoongi-yah?” Mr. Choi says. 

Yoongi seethes a swear as he adjusts the phone at his ear. “Yeah I’m here.”

“I know of a place I’d like you to consider going,” Mr. Choi says. “It sounds like you’re experiencing discontinuation symptoms from your medication. The staff there can help determine a course of treatment. It’s outpatient, completely voluntary—”

“—Are you talking about an institution?” Yoongi balks. 

“If you prefer, it’s a kind of retreat,” Mr. Choi says.

“But a hospital? With doctors? Is that what you’re suggesting?”

“It’s a facility,” Mr. Choi begins.

“You’re my doctor!” Yoongi shouts. “ You treat me.”

“I’m your therapist,” Mr. Choi corrects. His tone remains gentle as he asks, “Yoongi, if you had pneumonia, what would you do?”

Yoongi fidgets with a scrag of grass. “The staff would make me see a doctor.” 

“And you would do what they told you?” Mr. Choi asks. “If you had pneumonia?”

Yoongi rolls his eyes, though it’s lost on Mr. Choi a whole continent away. “If they forced me to, sure.”

“So,” Mr. Choi says, “When you’re sick, how do you feel?”

“Uh, sick,” Yoongi snarks.

“Okay, what else?”

“I dunno.” Yoongi sniffs. “Feverish. Hungry. Useless. Weak.”

“Hm,” Mr. Choi says. “So you have emotional responses to physical illness?”

Yoongi plucks a tender bloom from the grass. Its petals are white and filament fine, but the center is the dense yellow of the yolk of an egg. He twirls it between his fingers. “Sure. I guess.”

“Then wouldn’t it stand to reason that you’d have physical responses to mental illness as well?” Mr. Choi asks. “If your physical health is important, then your mental well-being must also be. Correct?” 

Yoongi blows on the flower, riffling its petals with his breath. He says, “You sound just like Joon.” Then he smiles with quiet realization. “Only I guess he sounds like you, doesn’t he?”

“Perhaps,” Mr. Choi allows. 

“Well. Doc. Nice as this outpatient thing sounds, I can’t quite squeeze it into my schedule,” Yoongi says. “See, apart from being a stupidly public figure these days, we have zero time. After we go home from Malta, we’ve got an ass-ton of work—” A sudden thought seeps into the cracks of his resolve. He says, slowly, “—But Malta’s supposed to be a vacation.” 

“Hm?” Mr. Choi says.

“We don’t have any time when we get home, but what if I came home early?” Yoongi taps the flower to his lips. 

“That would be a choice in favor of your mental health,” Mr. Choi says. 

“I’d have to talk with Joon. And Sejin-nim. And Hope.” Yoongi wedges the phone between his shoulder and his ear. “Ah, Hope.” He cups the flower between his palms. “If I left, would I be able to sign up or enlist or… whatever you do for this thing?”

“As your therapist, I could arrange it,” Mr. Choi says.

“But the whole public figure business,” Yoongi asks. “How would that work? ‘Cause I’d rather die than have my parents see a mental health scandal splattered across KBS News.”

“I’ll see that you’re the only patient,” Mr. Choi tells him. 

“You can do that?” Yoongi asks, conscious of the doubt in his tone. 

“I can,” Mr. Choi states, simply. 

Yoongi bounces the flower in his hand. His head pounds. He feels scoured out from within. His eyes ache from alcohol and tears. But for the first time in a while, he finally feels a foothold beneath him.

“Could you… would it be too much to ask you to message me tomorrow? In case I sleep this off and forget everything we talked about? That happens, you know? One time I blacked out and smacked my ear on a door. So if I pass out, I might forget and…this is important, so...”

There’s a rustling on the other end of the line. Then Mr. Choi says, “Twelve hours from now, I’ll message you. I trust you’ll be okay until then?”

“I think I’ll survive,” Yoongi says. 

“Okay. Until then.”

“Mr. Choi,” Yoongi says. Then, “G’night.” He hangs up and carefully places his phone into his pocket. He tucks the flower beside it before clambering to his feet. He stumbles back to their hotel, only to find it empty. 

So he showers. He brushes his teeth. He collapses into bed, and he sleeps. He doesn’t even hear the others when they return.

Throughout the next day, he catches fragments of the night before, like pieces of a fever dream falling into place. Which is why it’s somewhat surprising when he receives Mr. Choi’s message, because that’s when it all comes flooding back. Within the deluge, Yoongi recalls the cliffside, the water below, the frail and unassuming flower, and he knows he has to go. 

Chapter Text

“Reign of love by the church we're waiting
Reign of love on my knees go praying
How I wish I'd spoken up
Away get carried on a reign of love.”
Lovers In Japan, Coldplay

3 August 2018 – En route to Golden Bay 

Driving in Malta consumes most of Hoseok’s attention. This is good, because their car smells like last night’s beer (Yoongi’s got a sour stomach), and their dashboard cam records every single thing they do. 

They can’t switch them off; they’ve tried. The camera comes on when the ignition cranks. It rolls continuously until Hoseok kills the engine. In the meantime, it captures Hoseok’s uplit face as he navigates the arid Malta countryside, and none of them are overly thrilled by this idea. 

In this car, they also have a seat-mounted camera pointed at Yoongi, which, thankfully, he can control. Today, though, he’s resigned to let it go. He seems distant today, detached and floating, a benign little ghost. He slouches in the back seat, his face puffy but placid as he watches the landscape scroll by. 

Hoseok diverts his attention from Yoongi to driving, and to dealing with Seokjin, who has decided that it’s okay to babble indiscriminately for the duration of their trip because he has worked out a plan. He’s figured a way around Namjoon’s admonition to treat this like a job and not a personal vacation.

“Here is how I see it,” Seokjin reasons, on camera, as they drove toward the oceanside. “The film editors will only get short clips of our driving for the final cut. They won’t include anything personal or private, so when we’re talking about things we don’t want included, we’ll just say—” Here Seokjin leans forward, directly addressing the camera,
“—This is off record. Please cut this part out.” 

“That’s ballsy, hyung,” Hoseok says. 

“Ballsy,” Seokjin mutters. He squints, like it’s clear he likes the word, especially as it’s applied to him. Then to the camera, he goes, “That’s private. Please cut it out.” 

In the back seat, Yoongi sniffs, maybe a laugh, maybe a leaky nose. 

Seokjin says, “By the way, Jungie sent photos of Tan-ah. I get to show them to Taehyung when he arrives.” 

It feels daring, broaching this subject with the cameras rolling, but Hoseok decides it’s safe enough to play along. “Your brother’s keeping Yeontan?” Hoseok asks. 

Seokjin addresses the camera again, reminding the film editors that this is off the record. Hoseok chuckles as he imagines their editors skimming through hours of footage only to find dozens of zoomed-in frames of Seokjin’s nostrils. 

They spend the next half hour chatting about Hoseok’s sister and Seokjin’s brother. They veer off onto the subjects of their pets and future plans, and it’s nice, pretending that the camera’s aren’t there. Hoseok relaxes into the drive as the city of Valletta falls away to stony hills and stubbly cliffs. The ocean glints beneath sharp sunlight, and the road unspools before them like the future, beautifully and wholly unknown.

In time, Hoseok allows himself to breathe. Meanwhile, Seokjin continues to text, with his brother and with Taehyung, even though their briefing packet cautioned them about spending too much time on their phones. When Hoseok reminds him of this, Seokjin doesn’t even glance up. He says, “Jiminie and Jungkookie are in the other car. We know they’ll get all the footage from them.” He glances in the rearview mirror at Yoongi. “Don’t you agree?”

“What?” Yoongi blinks mole-like from the back seat. Then he bobs his head. “Yeah.” 

Seokjin angles over the dashboard cam. “Jiwon-ssi, please cut that out.”

“They’ll have their revenge for this,” Hoseok says.

“Maybe,” Seokjin says. Then he winks to the camera.

“You’re a real pain in the ass,” Hoseok says.

“I’ve been told this before,” Seokjin breezes. “By my boyfriend!” Then he bursts out with laughter, waggling his arms like some kind of dancing squid.

Hoseok and Yoongi meet eyes in the mirror. 

“What? I’m gay,” Seokjin grins, throwing finger hearts at the camera, and Hoseok can’t help but chuckle.

He enjoys this Seokjin. This Seokjin does things Hoseok would never dare. Like, sure, they both purchased apartments, but Seokjin actually moved into his. And while Hoseok would place himself on the questioning part of the sexuality spectrum, he’s still light years away from talking about it out loud.  

But this is the Seokjin who, after bickering with their stylists about the length of his hair, posted a video of him cutting his bangs. This same Seokjin negotiated a contract between BigHit and his new restaurant to supply catering for their all fan events in Seoul. 

This Seokjin speaks openly about his family, and about his life with Taehyung, like he no longer cares who’s listening. 

Because he’s ballsy. And while Hoseok wishes he could be like him, at the same time, it makes him nervous. Just this morning, they read what happened at Cube Entertainment. Those dating rumors proved to be true, and both fans and management descended on the artists like vultures. Hoseok wants to think their fans would never, but the fear lingers in him long enough to curdle his blood. 

In the passenger seat, Seokjin exhales an excited breath. “Taehyung’s landed,” he says. “Not long now, we’ll see him again.”

Forcing a smile, Hoseok murmurs, “Good, good, but let’s get us to the ferry, please.” 

The traffic thickens around them as they enter the area surrounding the port. Seokjin must divide his attention between Taehyung and their GPS, but it’s clear he’s not so dedicated to navigation. “Follow the staff car,” he suggests. Then he points to a random white sedan which may or may not contain Sejin and Benji.

“You’re not good at this,” Hoseok teases.

Seokjin smirks. “I’m not trying to be.” 

Hoseok weaves them through dense lines of idling cars toward the ferry waiting at the dock. Getting into the proper lane feels immensely satisfying to Hoseok. His anxiety about driving boils over into excitement, and he realizes Taehyung’s arrival plays no small part in that anticipation. He’ll be relieved once they’re all together again. Then, in his mind, this trip will truly begin.

“Will you tell him what room you’re in?” Hoseok asks.

“No,” Seokjin says. “I’ll trust him to figure it out.” A light shrug, then, “And if he doesn’t, it’s fine. We share a bed at home. We don’t have to spend every night—”

“—Hey, guys,” Yoongi cuts in.

“I know, sorry.” Seokjin waves. “Please edit.”

“No.” Yoongi says. “Something’s happened. I um.” They meet eyes in the mirror again. His expression looks off, like maybe he’s carsick. His lips have drained of color, and his  cheeks are slick with sweat. “There’s a personal matter. I can’t talk about it here.”

“On the boat?” Hoseok asks. 

Yoongi nods. 

“That’s off the record, please,” Seokjin tells the dashboard cam.

“Thanks, hyung,” Yoongi says. 

They settle into uneasy silence while Hoseok maneuvers their car into place.


Seokjin coordinates their meeting in the ship’s cantina. He and Jimin buy food. He and Namjoon ask the staff to give them time, the six of them alone. They gather around tables, their heads bent together, as Yoongi details the situation.

He doesn’t fully explain; that’s not Yoongi’s way. But he tells them that something has happened that makes him believe he needs to go home.

“Is it your family?” Jimin asks. “Is everyone okay?”

“Not gonna tell you that,” Yoongi says. “It’s a personal issue, and I’m not gonna talk about it.”

“Which is your right, of course,” Namjoon tells them. “If it’s something important to you, we’ll respect your decision, whether you choose to stay or go.”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Yoongi says. 

“But you know you’ll need to soon,” Namjoon says. “Not to put more pressure on you, but Sejin-nim says there aren’t many flights between here and Seoul each week.”

“And if we’re diving, you wouldn't be able to fly,” Seokjin says. “Because of the pressure in your blood.”

“What was your science score again?” Yoongi jokes.

There’s a thin smile between them, the lifeline of an inside joke. 

“Who needs science?” Seokjin says. “I’m a certified diver.”

“True.” Yoongi pats Seokjin’s knee. “So no diving if I go.” 

Hoseok feels Yoongi cringing beneath the scrutiny of the other five. So he says, “Guys, mind if we talk a minute?”

The glassy look of relief in Yoongi’s eyes is enough to break Hoseok’s heart.

“Sure,” Namjoon says. He gets up and the others follow, each of them brushing Yoongi’s shoulders as they pass. 

After a moment’s silence, Hoseok says, “It’s not your family, is it?”

Yoongi takes his hands. “It’s not.” 

Questions well up in him. Yoongi’s fingers go cold in spite of the heat. The only thing Hoseok can manage to say is, “What happened?”

Yoongi shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says. “I don’t wanna cry.”

“But it’s bad?” Hoseok says. “Bad as it was when we were young, when we first met?”

Again, Yoongi looks relieved, because the shared history that spans between them is enough that he doesn’t need to explain. “Worse.” He wipes his nose. “I think maybe it’s worse? It shouldn’t be, though. I should be able to handle this, now.”

“Shh, no,” Hoseok says. “Don’t compare things. That never goes well.”

“But you know I have to go, right?” Yoongi says. “And that it has nothing to do with us.”

“Do you mean us us, or Us?” Hoseok asks, gesturing between them.

Yoongi nods. “Both,” he answers. Then, “Neither?” Then, “It’s me. The problem is me. But I feel like if I go, I’m abandoning you, and—”

“—Shh,” Hoseok says again. “You take care of you. I’ll take care of me. Together,” he strokes the inside of Yoongi’s wrist. “We’ll be okay. Okay?”

Yoongi shivers. “I’m not as strong as you,” he whispers.

“That’s not true,” Hoseok says. 

Yoongi reaches into his pocket and pulls out the limp, mashed corpse of a wildflower. “Will you hold onto this for me?” he asks.  

Hoseok cups it in his palm. “It’s—”

“—Pathetic, right?” 

“No, It’s beautiful,” Hoseok says. He tucks it into his pouch. “I’ll keep it safe.”

Yoongi sniffles. He says, “You are my Hope.”

“And you’re my Yoongs,” Hoseok says. 

He gives Hoseok a wan smile. Then he nods, like his mind is made up. He says, “I’m still thinking about it.” 

“Well, I believe in you,” Hoseok says. “Whatever you decide.” 

Jimin drifts back to the fringe of hearing range. When Yoongi gives him a nod, he’s the first to come in for a hug. Then the others do, too, followed by the staff. But Seokjin comes to Hoseok. He hugs him, off camera, and whispers into his ear, “If you need me, I’m here.” 

Though it’s bittersweet, Hoseok’s grateful, because Seokjin gets it, maybe more than anyone, that with everything that’s happening, sometimes they have to put their own lives first. 

Chapter Text

“Someone help me
I'm crawling in my skin.
Sometimes I feel like giving up
But I just can't.”
In My Blood, Shawn Mendes

3 August 2018 – Malta

Jungkook hunkers at the washing machine, tapping out a rhythm on the round, glass porthole. This, he thinks, is best. If he stays up doing laundry, he can avoid falsely-polite bedtime conversations with Taehyung, while also providing a likely alibi for that avoidance. Jungkook’s the laundry guy - quiet and dependable. The others don’t even need to ask. He takes it upon himself as part of their routine.

Plus, it’s nice to have this mundane task to round out their otherwise strenuous day. He’s still reeling from the shock of Yoongi’s sudden departure, and because the staff insisted they keep to their schedule, he hasn’t had the chance yet to process what it means for his hyung. 

So, as he figures out the washing machine, tinkering with its settings, his mind combs through various scenarios and details. 

Once Jungkook sets the washer through its startup, he goes to the kitchen for a drink. But as he enters, he realizes the flaw in his earlier assumption about Taehyung. He’s in the kitchen, too, jetlagged and hyper-awake, bumbling around, opening cabinets and the refrigerator door at random, searching for a late-night snack. 

Jungkook debates just yeeting the hell out of there. Vacate the kitchen. Hide out in the laundry. Sneak to bed. Pretend to be asleep… Anything, anything but talking to Taehyung. Yeah, he was civil to Taehyung during the funeral, because he hates seeing any of his hyungs in pain. But that does not mean he wants bonding time with Taehyung right now.

Of course, Taehyung, half-clueless on a good day, manages to detect the scuff of Jungkook’s bare feet on the flagstone. He turns, illuminated by the refrigerator glow, to give Jungkook a look of unencumbered joy. 

“Can’t sleep?” he asks. Then, not waiting for Jungkook’s reply, he adds, “Me too.” 

Jungkook sighs. Already caught, he figures he might as well get what he came for.

“Thirsty,” he grunts, heading for the fridge. Taehyung holds the door open for him as he continues to scan the contents, incapable as usual of making even a basic decision. Jungkook takes out a liter of water.

“It’s irresistible to drink sodas,” Taehyung confides, “even after brushing my teeth.”

And foolish, Jungkook thinks, because you’ve got a tooth infection, and that's probably why. But he says, “Water. You have to have water then.”

Taehyung takes the bottle from him. He drinks, wincing sharply at the effect the cold has on his teeth. He lets Jungkook re-cap and replace the bottle. Taehyung tries then to prolong the interaction by brandishing one of their printed Polaroids from earlier.

“We took this picture after having ramen,” Jungkook says. He keeps his tone curt, hoping to discourage conversation, but since when does that ever work with Taehyung? “No Suga here,” Jungkook adds. There’s a bitter tinge to his words as he realizes he would gladly exchange Yoongi for Taehyung. 

Jungkook also realizes, in that moment, that he has been lying to Jimin. All those times he said he wasn’t angry with Taehyung: Lies. He is mad at him. He’s angry, and disappointed, and annoyed.

Taehyung reaches around Jungkook to replace the photo on the table. Jungkook spots the static cam, then, perched and pointed at them, steadily filming away.

The refrigerator door shuts. In the sudden dark, Jungkook smells the persistent wind scent of Taehyung’s hair, and the sandalwood of Seokjin’s hand cream, which Taehyung must have borrowed. Taehyung may have called him Boring Jin, but that doesn’t keep him from helping himself to all of Seokjin’s expensive things.

Jungkook’s fingers twitch with an acidic, festering urge to shove him, to send him sprawling back, but the camera’s audio would catch it. Their film crew would ask questions, and the others wouldn’t understand. Especially Jimin, who has pressed Jungkook for months to put his conflict with Taehyung aside.

For that, Taehyung is lucky. Because right now, Jungkook has never wanted so badly to push someone. He thinks Taehyung has to feel the waves of tension radiating off him, he must know how desperately, frustratingly furious Jungkook is at this turn of events. That he has to share a bed with him . That in all of Taehyung’s clownery, he picked Jungkook’s room instead of Seokjin’s. Fate, it seems, has conspired to keep them all apart.

Meanwhile, Taehyung gabbles excitedly, “You wanna go check on Jiminie and Seokjinnie?” 

“They’re probably asleep,” Jungkook bites out.

“We can still check on them.”

“There are cameras everywhere,” Jungkook says. He gestures to the one on the table, but in the semi-dark, Taehyung either doesn’t see it, or doesn’t care. “Look, Tae,” he continues. “It’s been a long day, so… After the laundry, I’m going to bed.” 

Taehyung says, “Okay. I’ll catch you in the room.” Then he leaves, like there’s never been anything wrong. 

Which is exactly the problem with Taehyung.

 

Back in Jungkook’s room, Taehyung makes himself at home. Jungkook watches in mute disgust as Taehyung rifles through the wardrobe, drags out all the drawers, rearranges their slippers, and helps himself to all the extra linens.

Hands on his hips, Jungkook says, “You’re sleeping down there.”

“Oh?” Taehyung says. “Okay.”

“Otherwise you’ll hug up on me,” Jungkook explains, casting a brief glance at the camera above the closet. He adds, “Too warm for that. So, foot of the bed. Got it?”

“Sure,” Taehyung says. They fuss a moment over bedclothes, Jungkook rejecting the spare set because they smell like mildew, and this is his room, so if anyone’s going to sleep beneath a stuffy, gross blanket, it’s Taehyung, who shouldn’t even be here. Taehyung should be with Seokjin. Jungkook should be with Jimin. But they made a promise to Namjoon not to switch rooms, and damned if they’re all determined now to keep it. 

Taehyung nestles in against the headboard. He slides his phone from the nightstand and starts texting. 

“I said foot of the bed,” Jungkook tells him.

Taehyung gestures with his phone, which is tethered to the charger. 

“Fine,” Jungkook growls. “I’m gonna check the laundry.”

“I’ll come with you,” Taehyung says.

“No,” Jungkook snaps. Then, tersely, he explains, “Jimin’s supposed to come, so—”

“—Oooh.” Taehyung gives him a knowing nod. “Good. Then I’ll go see Jinnie.”

“The cameras,” Jungkook warns, but Taehyung waves it away. 

“Please,” Taehyung drawls. “We know how this works.”

“Whatever.” Jungkook hovers at the door. “Just. Don’t move the pillows.” 

 

At the washer, Jungkook fumes. He must’ve misread something because the machine’s begun its spin cycle, and yet a sticky froth still clings to their clothes. He crouches, pinching his lips, as he contemplates his error. After a moment, against his own judgment, he messages Jimin. 

I screwed up the laundry, he admits.

Baby, no. We’ll figure it out, Jimin writes back. Then he sends a photo of Seokjin curled around his phone with the caption: Jin-hyung’s so sweet, texting his Tae-Bae

Jungkook groans. He types, Yeah, be on the lookout, Tae is awake and prowling.

Oooh, sounds ominous, Jimin teases. Vampire V, in search of blood.

Like a parasite  Jungkook types. Then he backspaces, because in Jimin’s eyes, that would be a step too far, and Jungkook really is trying to appear civil. For Jimin’s sake, sure, but for Seokjin’s, too. Jungkook has talked a lot with his hyung about this, so he gets that he and Taehyung are repairing things. He does not understand why, but he really is trying. 

Quick on the heels of that thought, he wonders, Am I, though? Am I really trying?

In answer, his heart suggests that maybe he should just talk to Taehyung. It’s been almost a year since the fiasco with Minho, and so much has changed since then. 

But Jungkook doesn’t want to talk to Taehyung. The inflexible shell of his stubbornness - the thing that got him through grueling years of idol training, that helped him trek to the US as a teenager for dance camp, that saw him through physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Minyeong - resists. 

The washer squeals out a plaintive whine, escalating the spin cycle. He keeps the handcam trained on himself, a safeguard against his own temper. But inside, he’s boiling over with frustration and embarrassment. He’s supposed to be good at this and yet, somehow, he has failed. 

He returns to the room to find Taehyung at the head of the bed, an aloe mask plastered to his face. Jungkook stands there, stammering, enraged, because Taehyung hasn’t moved. He’s reclining in bed, texting, and completing his skin care routine.

The only safe thing Jungkook can think to say is, “Too much fabric softener.”

“Why?” Taehyung says.

Jungkook offers an explanation, but it’s not like Taehyung listens. Jungkook flops down, elbowing him, hoping he’ll take the hint and move to his end of the bed.

Instead, Taehyung peels off his face mask and lobs it at the wall, where it sticks, wetly, to the baseboard. He starts to laugh, then, and Jungkook laughs, too, because only Taehyung would do something so thoughtless. There’s not even a trash can on that side of the room. 

“Just clear it away in the morning,” Jungkook groans. 

“Might as well,” Taehyung sighs. He points to his phone. “Jin-hyung stopped responding. They must be asleep.”

“You should be asleep,” Jungkook says.

“Too wired,” Taehyung says. “Too...thinkative.” 

“That’s not a word.”

“So?” Taehyung shoves into the pillows, hands cradled behind his head. “How’s the laundry?”

“Botched,” Jungkook says. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes. 

“I’ll help you,” Taehyung offers again.

Jungkook lowers a hand from one eye to stare at him. There’s a deep, hooking twist in his gut as he remembers back to their trainee days, when they all shared the same room. How many nights did he and Taehyung stay up beyond the limits of sanity, rebelling against the idea of sleep just to spend one more hour together?

God, he misses that. 

He misses him

Even if it’s not the same Taehyung. He’s not the same Jungkook, either. Right? 

Jungkook exhales, a long gusty breath. “Let’s check on ’em,” he says. “And… if they are asleep… maybe… you can help me.”

 

Outside, on a patio drenched with starlight, he and Taehyung wait for the spin cycle to end. Taehyung muses, “I’m glad they were asleep.” Then, solemnly, he adds. “Jin-hyung needs it. I think he has water in his ears.”

“He should get it checked out then,” Jungkook says.

“Tomorrow,” Taehyung agrees. “I’ll make sure he does.”

“He can take care of himself,” Jungkook says. It’s an intended jab, and Taehyung nods like he agrees, both with the statement and the sentiment behind it. 

“He doesn’t need me,” Taehyung agrees, softly. “But he wants me.” 

Jungkook stands. He paces. He checks the washer. 

Taehyung gazes up. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Jungkook doesn’t want his secrets. He wants nothing from Taehyung.

But he waits too long to respond, which Taehyung takes as consent. “When I was in Daegu, my Mom and I went to the bakery in my old neighborhood. While we were talking with the owner, I learned that it’s for sale.”

“’Kay,” Jungkook murmurs. He checks his handcam. He scans the patio.

Taehyung says. “I’m gonna buy it.” 

“A bakery,” Jungkook snorts. “Why?”

“For Jin-hyung,” Taehyung says, like it’s obvious.

“Does hyung even bake?” 

“He did when he was younger,” Taehyung says. “With his grandmother.” 

“The one who recently—”

“—Yeah.” Taehyung nods. “That one.” 

The washer wobbles to a stop. Jungkook, grateful for the distraction, bends to drag out the matted clothing. Immediately, Taehyung joins him, reaching to take the load from his hands. Wordlessly, they go to the drying rack and begin distributing the clothes between the lines. 

Jungkook works on the words he wants to say. Then he mutters, “Buying him things doesn’t change what you did.”

“No.” Taehyung shrugs. “I know that. But it shows him the life I want for us. The bakery’s in Daegu, close to our farm. When we open our hotel, we can have pastries delivered fresh each morning for people who come stay with us. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

Jungkook stands there, his hands wringing the corners of a damp pillow case. 

“That’s like, really smart,” he murmurs. “Really grown up, too.” 

“Yeah.” Taehyung smiles. “Don’t tell him.”

“I won’t.” 

Taehyung clicks the handcam back on. They fall into quiet contemplation as they work to hang the clothes. A breeze stirs around them, whisking the pulpy scent of the fabric softener into the air. It transports Jungkook back to those early days when they all still lived together in the dorm. It's the smell of comfort after bruises, of food after too much exertion, of friendship after a time of uncertainty.

Across the drying rack, Taehyung flashes an enigmatic smile. He says, “Everything has a reason. Don’t you believe that?”  

“I used to think that,” Jungkook admits. “Now I’m not so sure.” 

Taehyung gives a knowing nod. “We all go through it,” he says. 

And Jungkook doesn’t answer, because that’s exactly what he fears.

Chapter Text

“Bask in the glory
Of all our problems
'Cause we got the kind of love
It takes to solve 'em.”
Issues, Julia Michaels 

4 August 2018 – Camping on Gozo

Some days, Taehyung feels like he’s failing at everything. 

Like he failed to finish all the details back in Daegu with his family before coming to Malta. He failed at being a supportive friend to Yoongi. He failed at finding Seokjin’s room when he arrived in Valletta. Then, tonight, he had the simple task of finding tinfoil for their sweet potatoes, and even at that small thing, he failed. 

He is supposed to be an adult now. He’s supposed to be able to handle things, like tinfoil and friendship. Instead, he keeps weeping like a child when they tease him, and it’s embarrassing, because all he wants to do is curl up in Seokjin’s arms and cry himself to sleep.

Also, here they are, in this wildly romantic place, with the moon flecking gold into the ocean, and a breeze that smells like clean, white stone, but the cameras catch their every move, so there’s no hand-holding strolls along the beach, no tender words or whispered kisses, because those things aren’t allowed between men. 

Then, Taehyung feels selfish, because here they are in a foreign place they never would have gone to on their own. Today, they went jet-skiing and fishing. Yesterday, they rode horses, and now they’re camping. Namjoon reminds them they’re lucky to be here, to have this life, and now Taehyung feels like he’s failing at being grateful, too.  

So he goes off on his own, to be alone and cry it out, but Jaehyang follows him. Benji, his English name, is more than simply their security guard, so Taehyung supposes it’s only fair that he comes to check on him. 

As they stand together, watching the waves, Taehyung blots his tears on his sleeve. “I’m okay,” he tells Benji. 

“Feeling homesick?” Benji asks.

Salt stings Taehyung’s eyes. “Homesick, yeah,” he admits.

Benji lights a cigarette. “Me too.”

The flame of the lighter casts Benji’s face into a mask of jack-o-lantern black. He’s young, Taehyung realizes. Probably Yoongi’s age, and like them, he is far away from home.

“Really, you too?” Taehyung asks. 

“It’s my Grandma, for me. My family moved her from the States to Busan because her doctor's bills are so high. She’s not doing too great right now, and…I’m like you. I will do anything for my family, even if it means I’m here instead of there.” Benji exhales a sharp stream of smoke. “Anyway, with this job, we travel a lot.”

“Yeah.” Taehyung can’t stop his tears. “We do.”

“Hey.” Benji reaches to squeeze his shoulder. “I’m sorry, for your loss.”

Taehyung keeps quietly weeping. 

Benji asks, “You want me to get Jimin-ssi?”

Taehyung blinks up. “Where is Jin-hyung?”

“Cleaning,” Benji says.

Of course Seokjin is cleaning. He’s good at grown-up things like hygiene and planning, whereas Taehyung can’t even succeed at being alone.

“I’ll go get Jimin,” Benji says. 

Then he does even better. He sends over Hoseok and Jimin, who cuddle and pet on Taehyung, singing songs to soothe his mood. Jimin koala-hugs him, resting his chin on his shoulder. He says, “Why is our sweet Taehyungie feeling sad?” 

Taehyung thumbs a tear from his cheek. “I shouldn’t, right? We’re here, and we’re together. I should be happy.”

“Let’s not think of that,’” Hoseok says. He laces his fingers with Taehyung’s. “Sometimes happy times remind us of the things we’ve lost. It’s okay to feel sad about that.”

“Whoa, hyung,” Jimin coos. “So wise.”

“You are very wise,” Taehyung agrees. Then another pang of sadness wells up through him, as he remembers that Yoongi’s gone home, and that must be so difficult for Hoseok. Yet instead of wallowing in his own misery, he’s here, comforting Taehyung. 

He thinks of Benji, who’s still at the fence, watching out over the water and feeling nostalgic, like Taehyung.

“Are we all homesick for something?” Taehyung wonders aloud.

“Yoongi-hyung,” Jimin says.

“Rice,” Hoseok jokes, wistfully. “And Mickey.” 

Taehyung swallows a sob. “And Yeontan,” he says.

“I know something that will help,” Jimin says. He calls to Benji, “Jaehyang-ssi. Will they turn off the lights tonight when we sleep?”

“We can,” Benji answers.

“I’m telling you, Taehyungie, look at the stars when the lights are out,” Jimin says. “Jungkookie saw a shooting star, so you can make a wish.” 

Taehyung’s thoughts whisk to the pale blue-and-silver box he left on his desk back in their dorm, the platinum ring within it, and all the plans he’s piecing together: the proposal, the bakery, their future. Though the process has been painfully slow and interrupted by family issues, health issues, and their insanely hectic schedule, he managed to find the perfect place for the proposal. With Namjoon’s help, he’ll soon secure the reservation, and thinking about that finally soothes his melancholy mood.

“I do have a wish,” Taehyung muses.

Jimin assumes Taehyung’s thinking of something tawdry, because he claps him on the shoulder, howling something suggestive.

“Not that, Jimin,” Taehyung protests with a shove. “Rude.” 

Yet as they cross the sandy campsite, he glimpses Seokjin and Jungkook returning from the beach house. Seokjin’s in a striped shirt that highlights the breadth of his shoulders, and Taehyung feels the almost tidal pull in his gut as he realizes he wants him. Then there’s the counterweight of denial as Taehyung understands the impossibility of his desire. They are sharing a tent with Namjoon. They’re in a campsite thronged with cameras. The staff and their members will sleep within meters of each other tonight, so being with Seokjin is as likely as catching a falling star. 

But Taehyung wants him.

And it’s almost more than he can take.

 

As the campfire dwindles and the staff recedes to have dinner, Seokjin catches Taehyung watching him. He has that sullen puppy-dog look he used to get when they were younger, back when they counted down breaths and heartbeats until the next moment they could meet. 

While the static cams roll, Seokjin keeps a careful distance, holding his breath as they crisscross paths, like stars dragged off course by each other’s gravity. 

While, inwardly, Seokjin begins to consider their options. The shower? he thinks. The backseat of a car? Somewhere down the beach where no one can see them? He recalls a dozen other desperate times, in supply closets and bathroom stalls, and a thrill courses through him as he remembers the risks they have taken to be together. How reckless and selfish, and yet here he is, five years later, weighing out the exact same possibilities. 

Seokjin knows they shouldn’t. They should be adults. They should practice restraint. Besides, Seokjin doesn’t have lube, but even as he thinks this, he knows Taehyung probably does. Funny how he can count on opportunistic Taehyung to be always prepared in that regard. 

But no. They should be good. They promised Namjoon.

Anyway, it’s late when Hoseok, Jimin, and Jungkook retire to their tent. Later still when Seokjin and Taehyung meet at the zippered enclosure of their own. They crawl inside, expecting to find Namjoon on his sleeping bag, his earbuds in, his tablet in his lap.

The tent is empty.

Seokjin’s not sure which of them moves first. They tear at their clothing. Taehyung’s teeth meets his skin. Seokjin drops to his knees in the cramped space, pulling Taehyung astride him. There’s the scent of lube and woodsmoke and the smell of their own warm bodies, and— 

The connection is deep and quick and breathless. They move with swift and certain deftness, the benefit of knowing each other so well, and when Seokjin comes, he makes one sharp, baffled cry.

Taehyung mashes their mouths together to stifle the sound, bumping their noses and teeth. Then suddenly, they’re laughing, and Seokjin feels Taehyung’s breath on his lips. Maybe there are tears, too, as all the tension bleeds away, and they slowly come to terms with what has just happened. 

“That was fast,” Taehyung exhales. 

“VV, I was so ready for you,” Seokjin says. 

Taehyung glances down, to the place where their bodies join. Their clothes are wrecked – one arm of his shirt thrown off, the sleeve dangling down his back. Seokjin’s jeans are bunched beneath his knees. He’s still wearing one shoe and has no clue where the other might have gone.

“Well.” Taehyung pants. “We’ve never done that before.”

Seokjin brushes their foreheads together. “I really hope no one heard us.”

Then Namjoon’s voice speaks, clear and loud, beyond the flimsy window of their tent: “Yeah, I definitely heard you.” 

“Shit,” Seokjin breathes.

Taehyung’s eyes widen. He goes, “Oh. Hyung—”

“—We thought you were showering,” Seokjin finishes.

“Oh I was.” Namjoon says. “And now I’m done.” There’s a bemused lilt to his tone, and neither of them can dismiss the double meaning in his words. He has every right to be so done with them. He reminded them at the start of the trip that this was not free time, a message which Seokjin dutifully relayed to Taehyung. They both agreed to play along, yet here they are, half-naked and fully ensconced on the dusty floor of their pup tent like a pair of lunatic teenagers.

“One day we’ll look back on this and laugh?” Seokjin asks.

“We will never speak of this,” Namjoon warns. “Never. ” 

Seokjin feels Taehyung’s laughter as he attempts to restrain it. His body rests, sleek and warm against his, and though he’s reluctant to part them, Seokjin’s knees have already begun to cramp. 

“Shower?” Seokjin asks.

“Okay,” Taehyung agrees.

“Separately,” Namjoon drones. “I beg you.”

“You first,” Seokjin says. Taehyung’s face betrays a trace of worry, because him going first leaves Seokjin to fend against Namjoon, who will rightly scold him for their behavior. “I’ll explain it to him,” Seokjin whispers. “VV.” He presses his palm to Taehyung’s breastbone. “We needed this.”

“I really did,” Taehyung says. “Jinnie, you have no idea.”

After one last kiss, Taehyung slips outside, and Seokjin steels himself to face Namjoon. But even as Namjoon ducks into the tent, his eyes grim and flinty, Seokjin realizes he can’t bring himself to regret this. He'll endure whatever scolding. He'll listen and be contrite. If he can - and he probably can - he will put Namjoon at ease.

Because his life with Taehyung may well be made up of moonlit lips and stolen kisses, but from now on Seokjin knows he gets to be the one who does the thieving.

Chapter Text

“Fingers trace your every outline,
Paint a picture with my hands.
Back and forth, we sway like branches in a storm
Change the weather, still together when it ends.”
Sunday Morning, Maroon 5

5 August 2018 – Marsaxlokk, Mdina, Valletta (BV3 recap: Season 3, Episode 6 )

“Why do you need a peace offering,” Jimin asks for about the thousandth time since dawn. He trails after Taehyung and his platter of citron sandwiches, certain that if he pesters him enough, he’ll get an answer. 

Yet Taehyung persists with uncommon resolve. “Not gonna tell you,” he says, going to the car window with his tray. 

Jimin’s unclear why Taehyung felt he needed to make them breakfast. He found him in the kitchen, hastily heaping thick slabs of citron jam on toast. It’s super-sweet and lemon-tangy, a perfect on-the-go meal for groggy campers who have to get moving without their coffee, but it’s Taehyung’s sheepish demeanor that ruffles Jimin’s curiosity.

“If this is about the tinfoil incident,” Jimin guesses. “I think we’re all okay.”

“It’s not,” Taehyung grumbles. He passes the sandwiches through the window to Namjoon, who takes them with a grunt of gratitude.

Jimin’s temporarily distracted when he notices that Seokjin’s wearing the same clothes he wore the previous night, but when he goes to tease him about it, the staff badgers them all into their cars. He piles into the backseat as Jungkook shifts their car into drive. They’re only a couple of minutes on the road when Namjoon twists around to talk to him.

“Jimin, can I ask you a favor for today?” he says, keeping his voice too low for the cameras to hear.

“Sure, hyung, of course.” Jimin meets Jungkook’s eyes in the rearview, but he’s too busy paying attention to the road to respond. 

“When we split up tonight, you hang out with Taehyung,” Namjoon says. 

Worry trickles into Jimin’s stomach. “Are they...?”

Namjoon gives Jimin a subtle shake of his head, a warning not to speak his question aloud. Jimin flounders, trying to think of a way to phrase it that won’t wind up misconstrued on film. He knows Namjoon’s concerned about that since Adora started asking questions about them, but still, Jimin has to know what’s going on. Namjoon can't expect him to just leave it at that.

Then Jimin gets an idea. He types out the question in KKT, then turns the phone to Namjoon.

Are they fighting?

Namjoon licks his teeth behind his lips. “No,” he answers, flatly.

Jimin backspaces over fighting and types, in trouble?

“Slightly,” Namjoon says. Then he returns to fiddling with his phone’s navigation, directing Jungkook toward the Sunday Market in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk.

Jimin’s heart skitters. He’s half afraid for Taehyung, who hates to be on the wrong side of Namjoon almost more than anything. But his interest is piqued, too, because what could they have possibly done to earn Namjoon’s disdain – And then, in a flash, Jimin knows. 

Smirking to himself, Jimin mutters, “ Jin-jja-yo... ” Then he messages Taehyung in their private chat: You got caught???

Taehyung sends back, Kinda.

“Pabo,” Jimin giggles. He writes, Taehyungie! You had one job!!

Taehyung types, I regret nothing.

Jimin sends back, haha  ofcourse not. But tonight, you’re coming with me. Don’t worry, though. I know exactly what we should do.

 

Jimin spends all afternoon on high alert, watching Taehyung and Seokjin avoid Namjoon, but also looking after Hoseok, who has gone a little quiet now that Yoongi is gone. Overall it's okay. They shop a while, they get coffee, and then head off to Mdina. Though he doesn’t want to miss anything, Jimin still falls asleep in the backseat, listening to Namjoon and Jungkook sing and make random noises for the duration of the trip. 

Jimin wakes, all stiff and achy, to join the others in the parking lot. Seokjin and Taehyung drift together as the staff checks their mikes and gives them the rundown for the afternoon. Every time he thinks about Namjoon catching them, Jimin can’t help but smile. It’s not funny, Jimin knows, and yet he can’t stop privately giggling over how it must have played out. 

Then, as the staff checks with Hoseok over their budget, Seokjin slips his hand up the back of Taehyung’s shirt. Taehyung keeps his eyes trained forward, pretending like there’s nothing going on.

“Hyung,” Jimin groans. “Didn’t you get enough last night?”

Seokjin stares intently at Taehyung’s profile. He smooths his hand up Taehyung’s spine. “Since we were camping,” Seokjin says, “I suppose we could say last night was... intense.”

Jimin blinks. It takes him a second to get the joke, and by then Taehyung has lost the battle for keeping his cool. He crumbles into laughter, and Seokjin joins him, slapping Taehyung’s shoulder as he repeats, “In tents,” between breathy gasps of his windshield-wiper laugh.

This attracts Namjoon, who comes over wearing his stern, put-upon expression, the one he uses in Kim Daily poses when he wants to show he’s serious. The three of them attempt to compose themselves, but Seokjin’s ears have gone vivid, streetlight red. His throat contracts as he swallows his amusement, but every time Jimin looks in his direction, he goes to pieces.

“We are bro-friends today,” Namjoon states. His tone is flinty with a hint of iron beneath. “Jimin, you and Seokjin together. Taehyung, you’re with Jungkook.”

“I’m with TaeTae tonight, though, right?” Jimin clarifies. “Because I’ve already got a plan. You’re gonna love it. We’re going to—”

Namjoon places a hand on Jimin’s arm. “Thank you, Jimin.” He cuts his eyes to Seokjin, who goes quiet as he draws his shoulders straight. “You know, we got enough on our minds with Yoongi leaving, so I’m just gonna be straight with you. The staff are not happy. They’re worried we won’t have enough footage because we’ve been playing around instead of doing our jobs.” He taps the fuzzy pouf of his microphone for emphasis. “So if you can’t think of anything to say about this place, it’s best to say nothing. Remember, the nickname of Mdina is the Silent City. It’s a place of secrets. How ’bout we keep it that way?”

“Yes, Joon,” Seokjin says. “I promise.”

Namjoon leaves them. Jimin thinks he can actually feel the chill as he passes by.

“But I’m not sorry,” Seokjin adds, lifting his eyes to Taehyung’s. 

“Me neither,” Taehyung agrees. 

“Jin-hyung,” Jimin cries. “He is so mad at you.”

Seokjin taps the mic, then shoots finger guns at Jimin. To Taehyung, he sings, “Bro-friends!”

And Taehyung rolls his eyes. 

 

Much later, after dinner, Taehyung and Jimin stroll along the now-familiar streets of Valletta. It feels like a kind of homecoming for Jimin. There’s the scent of garlic and sandalwood, which reminds him of Yoongi, and the easy, sensible layout of the town, which feels somehow right to him. He’s pleased beyond reason that he gets to share these things with Taehyung, who missed out on their first evenings here while he was back in Daegu.

Only, Taehyung seems distracted. “Did I show you these?” he asks. He’s skimming through the photos he took during sunset, deleting the ones that are too blurry to keep.

“Why are you doing that right now?” Jimin needles. “We should be looking at the amazing scenery around us, Taehyungie, not what’s on our phones.”

Taehyung turns the image on his screen. It’s not a smeary snapshot of Jimin, but a photo of Seokjin’s brother on a park bench with Yeontan. 

“Aw, it’s so sweet,” Jimin says. “Him keeping Tannie for you.”

Taehyung nods, thoughtfully. He switches off his handcam. Jimin casts a look at the camera crew across the street. Then, deciding they can spare a minute, he shuts his off as well.

“The thing is,” Taehyung tells him. “We know Jinnie as our hyung, but when you see him with his brother, you understand that until he met us, he was the dongsaeng. You and me, we’re the hyungs in our families. It’s different for us. Until I met Jungie-hyung, until I saw how Jin acts with him, I didn’t understand. There’s a lot of pressure on Jin, to always behave like our hyung, but it’s not natural for him. He likes to play and joke around but—”

“—Yeah,” Jimin muses. “That makes sense. And Namjoon, he’s the hyung in his family, too.” 

Taehyung pockets his phone. “I know he’s upset with us. But he didn’t have to send Seokjin off on his own when Jungkook said he didn’t feel like drinking tonight. Namjoon could’ve let him come with us.”

“Taehyungie!” Jimin exclaims. “Am I not enough for you? This is our bro-friend date. I made a whole itinerary for us.”

“I know,” Taehyung sulks. “I’m sorry.”

“Look,” Jimin says. “You guys broke the rules. And Joonie-hyung’s job is really hard, you know? He doesn’t want to be strict with you, but it’s like with Adora and our Christmas song, we have to play by the rules, because the rules are what keep us safe.”

“I hate the rules,” Taehyung groans. 

“Namjoon does, too,” Jimin says. “We all do. But we have to fight them in smart ways, and that takes time. That’s why we’re lucky to have Joonie-hyung. He’s not only smart, but he’s patient. We have to remember, he answers for all of us. When it’s difficult for us, it’s even worse for him.”

Taehyung scratches his cheek. “Yeah,” he agrees. 

“Yeah.” Jimin bumps his hip. “So switch your camera back on.”

He reaches to help Taehyung with the power button. 

“Do you like fountains?” Jimin asks, instantly chipper. “This fountain’s pretty big. I think you’ll like it.” 

“Really?” Taehyung says. He fusses with his hair. “I have to see it.”

Jimin plays the part of tour guide, then, pointing out the beauty of the golden streets, the cobalt sky above. He tries to remember the details Namjoon shared with them about the architecture, but he doesn’t have the head for those kinds of things.

But Jimin does understand why Taehyung’s so abstracted. He’s dealing with real-life stuff beyond the scope of their group. Family stuff, yes, and they’re all concerned for Yoongi. But other things, too. Like the fact that, over the course of the last year, Seokjin has changed. Jimin can no longer deny that Seokjin’s begun to pull away from them. When he bought that farm in Daegu, he put other plans into motion, plans that affect him and Taehyung, and indirectly, the other five as well. 

Which was why, earlier, Jimin bought them each a matching snowglobe, to remind them of their sameness. Though now that they’re approaching the fountain, a knot of certainty hardens in Jimin's stomach as he realizes a silly tourist trinket won't be enough. When Taehyung or Seokjin set their minds to something, no amount of rules or luck or wishing will change their course. Put the two of them together, and they're as unstoppable as the tides. They are stubborn enough to move the moon, and though Jimin loves them for that, it scares him, too. 

The fountain gleams in the heart of the plaza, glimmering like a castle from a mermaid’s dream. As they stand on its smooth, broad shoulder, Jimin gazes into the glowing water, wondering how he can somehow stop everything from changing.

“Isn’t there something like you get lucky by throwing a coin into the fountain?” Jimin asks. He can’t explain the lump in his throat as he speaks it, wishing unexpectedly that he could take the notion back. “They must not have that here,” he says. “There are no coins in there.”

“There are lots of coins,” Taehyung says.

“Are all these coins?” Jimin asks. 

“They are,” Taehyung says. He laughs as the spark of an idea lights inside him. 

“Do you have one?” Jimin asks. Probably no; Taehyung never has money, especially not change.

Yet somehow, today, he does. Taehyung gives them each a silver coin, realizing a second later that that he needs to save back fifty cents. Impulsively, Jimin bolts away with his, praying that Taehyung will chase him. For a moment, they can pretend that they’re still school boys pooling their money for after-school snacks. Who says they can't just keep running without ever looking back?

Taehyung trails after, dazed and a bit disconnected. “Here,” he says, trading their won for euros. “We can make wishes with these.” 

Jimin peers into the face of his friend. The fountain spangles ribbons of light across his cheeks, softening the angles around his eyes. It casts him in a wistful, dreamy glow, but beneath it, unabated, Jimin recognizes a steely determination, the bedrock of Taehyung that doesn’t surrender once he’s glimpsed something he desires.

“What will you wish for?” Jimin asks.

“I always wish for the same things,” Taehyung answers. 

There’s enough boyishness left in them to know they can’t tell each other their wishes; otherwise, they won’t come true. But maturity sends another question whispering into Jimin’s ear. What if it’s our wishes that eventually drive us apart?

This part is too big and too frightening for Jimin to speak aloud. Instead, he says, “We should do it together.” 

Taehyung gives him a knowing grin. “On three,” he says. “ Hana, dul —” and then they throw. Like twin comets, their coins splash down and then flutter like leaves to the fountain floor. 

Taehyung clasps his hands together, his eyes clenched tight like a child in prayer. 

It's too much, so Jimin breaks the moment by accidentally bumping the camera. “Let’s go,” he says, leading him away. “You wanted to walk the streets, so here we are.”

“Isn’t it great that we can walk like this?” Taehyung says. 

“This is a rare opportunity,” Jimin tells him. “You know this, right?”  

“It won’t always be this way,” Taehyung says, sounding in that moment so much like Seokjin.

Panic threads into Jimin's throat, but he manages to choke it down. “But it is now,” Jimin reminds him. “And we should enjoy it.”

“Aww, Jimin-hyung,” Taehyung says, hooking an arm around his shoulder. “I always enjoy you.” 

“Will you always?” Jimin pouts. “No matter what happens to us? No matter how things change. Good or bad, will you always enjoy us?”

“Yes,” Taehyung answers.

“Promise me, Taehyung.” 

Taehyung takes his hand, and with the same earnest, hopeful expression he wore while he was wishing, he says, “Yes, Jiminie. I promise.”

Chapter Text

“If I cannot move heaven, then I will raise hell.”
The Aeneid, Virgil
but also, probably, Kim Seokjin

6 August 2018 – Valletta  

Namjoon takes a seat at the bistro table. He fans himself briefly with the menu. The streets swelter today, the city pinned down beneath a blanket of dense white clouds. Over the street dust, he smells the faintly-salty whiff of Seokjin’s sweat.

“You hungover today?” Namjoon asks. 

“I don’t get hungover,” Seokjin tells him. 

Namjoon sips his water. 

“Are we going to have a conversation?” Seokjin asks. He’s puzzling over the menu, attempting to figure out what he can read from the English. He murmurs, “Risotto,” then “Antipasto,” feeling the words with his tongue in an effort to keep himself busy. 

Namjoon glances around. Benji and Woojin are with the restaurant manager, securing their filming waivers. They have a few minutes before recording resumes, so he has to make this count. 

“Man, I don’t get you right now,” Namjoon says. “Of all of us, you’re the one I thought I could count on.” 

Seokjin lowers the menu. After a careful moment, he whispers, “Please don’t expect me to apologize for something I can’t regret.”

“I don’t expect an apology,” Namjoon says. His heartbeat hammers at the back of his throat. “I expect better behavior.” 

“The staff heard nothing,” Seokjin says.

“But they could have.”

“But they already know about us,” Seokjin tells him. “It’s an open secret, like how my family pretends they don’t know about my aunt’s smoking. We all know it, but we never say anything, so she’s safe. Besides, I don’t want to talk about me and Taehyung. Joon, what do you know about Yoongi?”

They go silent as Woojin returns to the table. “Don’t mind me," he says. "I’m setting up the shots.” He instructs Seokjin to position his handcam on the table. Then Woojin readies the dynamic camera to film alongside Namjoon. “The waiter will be over in a moment.”

Namjoon exhales. He says, “We want some salad.”

“Salad is good,” Seokjin agrees. “How much money do you have?” 

Namjoon riffles through his pockets as Seokjin reaches for his bag. After minutes of searching, slow certainty sinks into Namjoon’s gut as he realizes that his 50 euros, which he had not a half hour ago, has vanished.

“Please don’t say it’s one euro,” Seokjin tells him as he finds the leftover money from last night’s solo drinking trip. 

“I must’ve dropped it,” Namjoon states. There’s no use being frantic; he knows he had it in his pocket with his phone, and now it’s gone. As are his hopes of treating Seokjin to lunch today in an effort to numb the sting of the reprimand he knows he has to give.

“You’re not serious?” Seokjin asks, though he’s too distracted by counting up his own money to pay much mind to Namjoon.

“I am serious,” Namjoon tells him. 

“I have 65 euros, bro,” Seokjin says. 

“I was about to treat you,” Namjoon says. He searches through his bag one last time before giving up.

Woojin says, “We can skim the footage, see if you dropped it along the way.”

“Really?” Namjoon asks.

“Yeah, too easy,” Woojin says. Then he leans the camera between them as he rewinds through the last half-hour’s filming, letting them witness the precise moment when Namjoon spilled his cash onto the street. 

“Fifty euros gone,” Seokjin tsks. “No worries, bro. I will treat you.” 

“What a good hyung,” Woojin says, clapping Namjoon’s shoulder. 

Seokjin smiles as he returns to the menu.  

“Okay,” Namjoon says. “Let’s do it this way.”

But Seokjin interrupts to address the waiter. “Excuse me,” he calls, in perfect English.

Dumbstruck, Namjoon says, “Did you pick?”

“This one first,” Seokjin says. “This salad. One, please,” he tells the waiter. He looks to Namjoon, who adds, also in English, “We will order a main menu later.”

They spend a few minutes discussing which entree they’ll choose. The waiter brings out their salad, and Woojin moves around them, filming as they eat.

“In predebut times, we would have agonized to lose so much money,” Seokjin muses. “But look at us now. It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Namjoon says. He flicks his eyes to Woojin, who shrugs. 

“Will we send a staff to retrieve it?” Seokjin wonders. 

“It’s probably gone by now,” Namjoon says. “Fifty euros cash. That’s somebody’s lucky day.”

“Yes,” Seokjin agrees. “Someone’s.” He’s smirking, like he knows what Namjoon intended by paying, but random chance has foiled his plan. “Guess I’ll have to treat you now,” Seokjin says, sounding appropriately, annoyingly smug.

After a moment of quiet uncertainty, Namjoon says. “You’re good with things like that. Keeping track of money. Making plans.”

Seokjin sips his juice. 

“You’re good with maps.”

“Five times, I’ve walked here,” Seokjin says. “When I travel, I don’t go far from the hotel.”

Namjoon says, “So—”

“—Suga, too,” Seokjin says, cutting him off. “So we clicked when we traveled the first time.”  

“You’ve traveled a lot,” Namjoon says. He moves his hand up to block what he hopes is a meaningful sweep of his eyebrows. It’s sly and somewhat masterful, how Seokjin has managed to redirect this conversation back to Yoongi. With a mixture of dread and admiration, Namjoon ponders how adept Seokjin’s become at pulling strings to get what he wants. 

Then, out of nowhere, Woojin says, “Jimin and Taehyungie are at a McDonald’s.”

“Oh yeah, Taehyung is,” Seokjin answers. 

Namjoon scrambles to save the take/ “They are in Sliema," he says. "But…Wow, they are really…?” Then he runs aground as he realizes Seokjin already knew what Woojin had to say, which gives Namjoon a moment of mental freefall as he realizes that he’s the one who’s out of the loop. Seokjin and Woojin are friends, and he and the rest of the staff are, at present, conspiring to provide Seokjin with on-camera updates about Taehyung. 

So, no, Seokjin’s not worried about them catching him and Taehyung. It's plausible, even, to assume they might cover for them or assist in non-BTS plans. Namjoon swabs his brow as this truth clicks into place. The staff are actively protecting Seokjin and Taehyung – their open secret – and that’s what Seokjin’s been trying to tell him all day long.

Namjoon folds Seokjin’s handcam closed, snapping off its feed. “Woojin-ssi, may we have a moment?” he asks. 

“Of course,” he says. He moves off, shutting the viewscreen of his own camera to allow them space. 

“I see what you’re doing,” Namjoon says. 

“Good.”

“Jin-hyung, not everyone knows about you two,”  he says. “We have a lot of newcomers on our staff.”

Seokjin nibbles a leaf of arugula. “I know that.”

“Then you understand that since they weren’t here from the beginning, they might not be as invested in us,” Namjoon says. “They may have joined us for different reasons. Espionage is a common thing among idol groups—” Seokjin reaches for his water; Namjoon grips his hand. “—I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth. We all knew about the people dating at Cube Entertainment. No one in our circle ever said anything, because who cares what happens backstage, right? But now that those stories have leaked, the scandal could break Pentagon. And hyung, those guys are straight. Hyung, we have worked too hard, for too long, for something so careless to take us down.” 

Seokjin very deliberately places his fork on the lip of their plate. His voice quiet, his syllables precise, he says, “I will not feel guilty for comforting my boyfriend in his time of need.” 

“It’s not about that,” Namjoon assures him. “I’m not trying to guilt or shame you—”

“—If we weren’t idols, if we didn’t live every moment in front of a camera, would anyone care?” Seokjin asks. 

“They would. Yes,” Namjoon says, careful to keep his emotion in check. 

“Because we’re gay.”

“Yes,” Namjoon says again. 

“It shouldn’t be this way,” Seokjin whispers. “Joon, did we make the right choice?”

“You mean to stay together?” The pain of it pierces him, to confront this question again. “How can you even ask me that?” 

“I have to ask it,” Seokjin goes on. “Because at what point do we lose who we are behind this mask? This,” he gestures at his chest, “What I have with Taehyung, it grows and it grows. It has become such a large part of me that it is impossible to hide it. I know, we talk about loving ourselves first, and I do. Believe me, I live and breathe that message, but I understand now. It means I can love him without losing myself. And other people should know this, too. Other people should have this kind of love.”

Namjoon mashes his lips together. “Dammit, hyung,” he chokes out. “Is it impossible to be stern with you?”

“I hope so,” Seokjin says. He tears off a crust of bread. “All of that is important, and I know we’ll talk more about it later, but right now, Joon, I really want to know what’s going on with Yoongi. I'm worried because I think his heart’s in need of healing. Please tell me.”

Namjoon presses the heel of his thumb to his eye. “It’s true, hyung. Yoongi’s heart is sick.”

“Where is he?” Seokjin presses. “I know he’s not with his family; he would’ve told us.”

“I promised I’d let him tell when he’s ready,” Namjoon says. “But he’s safe. He’s with a friend.”

“With your friend?” Seokjin says.

The set of his eyes tells him that Seokjin knows Mr. Choi is not merely Namjoon’s friend. He itches to talk more about this, but already, Woojin is returning. They have to film something today; preferably something that is not random noises or pieces of songs. But every conversation seems to lead them around to yet another roadblock. 

“What will we talk about?” Namjoon stalls.

Seokjin sniffs a laugh, which is how Namjoon knows he was on the edge of tears. “Fashion?” he offers.

Namjoon nods. “What we’ll wear tonight, at our surprise dinner.”

“That seems safe,” Seokjin says. “Taehyung and I were planning a couple’s outfit, but now I feel we shouldn’t.” Namjoon heaves an inward sigh of relief, because it means that, for now, Seokjin’s ready to play along.

Woojin hovers nearby. “You set?”  

Seokjin opens his handcam. Woojin checks that it’s filming, then gives them a thumbs up. 

Taking the cue, Seokjin says, “What do I have to wear for tonight’s special dinner?” 

“Hey, the blue one,” Namjoon says. He’s going for casual, breezy conversation, even if it doesn’t feel so light right now. “Did you already wear that?” 

“I brought one more thing,” Seokjin says. 

“You said you have another necktie,” Namjoon says.

They’re bantering now. It flows easier between them, like it has and always should. 

“I have one more shirt,” Seokjin tells him.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Namjoon jokes. 

“My RJ pants and shirt, that was my plan,” Seokjin says. “But I didn’t, because I was scared of you.”

Namjoon squints across the table. Seokjin gives him the thinnest grin. 

“Why? Why would I hate that?” Namjoon asks. “I would just say some mean comments.”

Seokjin’s smile broadens. He says, “That is a sort of scolding.” 

The laugh that bubbles out of Namjoon feels genuine. At the end of the day, it’s Seokjin across the table from him – the same Seokjin who once sat with him in Myeongdong and made a promise to see this through. Seokjin is a man who honors promises, and that's how Namjoon knows he can trust him.  

Chapter Text

“He wakes up early today
Throws on a mask that will alter his face
Nobody knows his real name.”
Trapdoor, Twenty-One Pilots

A day in early August, 2018 – Ilsan

Yoongi slouches in a deep-armed leather chair that smells of lemon oil and newsprint. Morning sifts through the windows, dusting light across a small table, a clutter of books, a clutch of drawing pencils, and three rubber animals – a lion, a llama, and a duck. 

Across from him, Mr. Choi absentmindedly munches a sesame stick while scanning a report in his email. Watching him, Yoongi tries to relax. He tries to feel the smooth, cool texture of the armchair beneath his shoulders, while at the same time, he is straining to read the message as it’s reflected into Mr. Choi’s glasses.   

Which is ludicrous and Yoongi knows it, yet still he tries. It contains information that will affect his future, so perhaps Mr. Choi will humor the furtive side-eye. 

Finally, when he can’t stand it any longer, he says, “So. Doc. How bad is it?”

“Not bad,” Mr. Choi says. Not looking up from the text, he strays a hand to the tray of sesame sticks. “Want some?”

“No.”

Yoongi stretches. He contorts. He brings his knees to his chest. His clothing feels baggy on his bony frame. The admitting nurse – a taciturn old ajumma who had zero time for Yoongi’s snark – gave him plastic slippers and elastic-band pants. No shoelaces or drawstrings, not while on suicide watch.

Not like he’d hang himself with a shoelace. He touches numb fingers to his throat, wondering how someone might accomplish such a thing. 

Focus on something else, Yoongi thinks. So he shifts his attention to the windows, ashimmer with the leafy gleam of summer. For less than a day, he’s had the run of this little pension, though mostly, he’s kept to the bedroom. It’s north of Ilsan, somewhere, nestled in the foothills, as the travel brochures might say. It’s a simple two-bed/one-bath setup with a kitchen that would make Seokjin salivate. The cozy living room, with its piles of books and throw pillows, looks far too lived-in for a holiday rental. Still, Yoongi doesn’t know who owns the place, or if it’s some kind of halfway house for a rotating roster of lunatics like him.

Yoongi arrived late yesterday evening, after a brief overnight jaunt in a private clinic, where they drew his blood and grated him through a whole inventory of deeply-personal questions related to his mental history - the summary of which Mr. Choi is currently reading like it’s the latest Murakami novel, and it has him completely absorbed. 

There’s a tinkling of activity in the kitchen. Yoongi rocks forward.

“It’s okay,” Mr. Choi says. “It’s only Yiji. She thinks we could use some tea.”

Yoongi feels adrift. He casts around the room and sees, scattered among trinkets and books, a few framed photographs. Most of them contain a young man and a young woman, but one shows a younger Mr. Choi and a woman, grinning gleefully up from the teacup ride at Disneyland. 

“She your wife?” Yoongi grunts.

Mr. Choi nods. 

“You got kids?”

Mr. Choi nods again.

“Lemme guess, two?” Yoongi says. “Such is the Korean way?”

Now Mr. Choi chuckles. “Indeed it seems,” he says. “I have a son, Byunghoon, who’s a tad older than you, and a daughter, Chunhei, who’s a hair younger.” 

“Hm. So.” Yoongi sinks back into the chair. “This is your house. Bit risky, right? Aren’t you afraid the crazies are gonna getcha?”

“Do you see yourself as ‘crazy’?”

“Clearly I’m not sane if I called you from a cliffside during my five-star Malta vacation,” Yoongi says. “I mean, that’s what my bloodwork’s saying, right?” He nods toward Mr. Choi’s tablet. “That I’m… unwell?”

Mr. Choi places the tablet aside. “To the contrary, it’s good news,” he says. “There are only traces of the antidepressant remaining in your system, and no evidence of any illicit substances.”

“Well I don’t do drugs,” Yoongi rolls his eyes. “I’m not stupid.” 

“Many people who struggle with anxiety and depression attempt to self-medicate,” Mr. Choi says. “And, in a country such as ours, where legally-administered prescription medications are frowned upon—”

“—Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Yoongi says. “People do what they gotta do.” 

Yiji – Mrs. Choi – comes in with a tray, and Mr. Choi introduces her. There’s the barest lilt of inflection in her voice, the trace of an accent in her words, when she asks, “Do you take sugar?”

“As often as I can,” Yoongi says. He reaches for his cup and fills it. Mrs. Choi kisses her husband and leaves them to their work. Yoongi can plainly see the fondness between them, the easy flow of familiarity, and he hates the stab of longing he feels as it reminds him of Hoseok.

“She Australian?” Yoongi guesses.

“Canadian, actually,”  Mr. Choi says. “You’ve got a good ear.”

“So I’ve been told,” Yoongi says. He heaps spoonfuls of sugar into his tea. He sips and lets the warmth of it seep through him, all the way to the balls of his feet. The darkness of the cliffside seems so distant and dreamlike now, he wonders for a moment if it really happened. How could he feel so desperately unhinged only days ago, when now he feels all floaty and content and borderline human? 

“So I’m not crazy,” Yoongi ponders aloud. 

“No,” Mr. Choi says.

“But I’m not well,” Yoongi says. “I can’t be well, right, not if I’m ready to fling myself from a hilltop one day, then sip tea in a hillside retreat the next. People would definitely say that’s just south of sanity.”  

“An important thing to understand as we begin this treatment, is that when we let others define who we are, when we start listening to what others say about us, we lose our own voices,” Mr. Choi says. “It’s also crucial to note that progress is not a straight line—”

Good thing, ’cause I’m gay, Yoongi thinks. But he doesn’t speak it aloud because Mr. Choi’s a nice man, and Namjoon’s friend, and Yoongi’s only just met him. Plus, he can’t remember if he told Mr. Choi about his gayness in his introductory email, or if he thought about telling him and then chickened out. For the love of god, Yoongi chides himself. Stop fucking around.

“—which is also important,” Mr. Choi continues. “When we let go of the words ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’ we allow ourselves to take our time in the healing process. This is about you, and your journey, and no one else.”

Yoongi feels a sudden, ridiculous bristle of tears. “But I’m part of a group, you know? It’s kind of our thing, to be in this together. You never walk alone, and all that.”

“Yes,” Mr. Choi says. “It helps to have a positive support system. This process—”

 “—The cognitive brain thing?—”

“Yes,” Mr. Choi says. “CBT is designed to help you understand the relationship between your thoughts and your feelings. What you think directly influences your emotions, which in turn influences your actions. Are you familiar with the term self talk?”

Yoongi snorts. “Like, talking to myself?”

“Essentially, yes,” Mr. Choi says. “Your brain constantly observes the external world, but it listens internally as well. What you say to yourself matters more than what others may tell us.”

“That’s… fantastic,” Yoongi mutters.   

“So.” Mr. Choi nudges a notebook forward across the table. “I would like to begin today with an exercise.”

Yoongi casts a wary glance toward the pad and colored pencils.

“We’ll start by making a list of negative things your tell yourself that you believe are true,” Mr. Choi says. 

Again, Yoongi barks a gruff, involuntary chuckle. “Like, write them down?”

Mr. Choi nods.

“No,” Yoongi objects. “I can’t—”

“—You write songs, right?” Mr. Choi offers. “Think of it like that.”

Yoongi sags into the chair. “I don’t write them. Suga does. Agust D does. Min Yoongi does not.”

A pattern of light falls across Mr. Choi’s glasses. “Why do you think that’s so?” he asks.

Yoongi plucks the rubber llama from the table. He realizes, as he plumps it between his thumb and finger, that it’s an eraser. “Yoongi doesn’t want anyone to read his thoughts,” he explains. He understands, in this weird, kind of out-of-body way, that he referred to himself in third person. “I don’t want anyone to read them,” he corrects.  

“While Suga and Agust D can say whatever they please?” Mr. Choi asks.

Well fuuuuck,” Yoongi drones. Then, “Sorry.”

Mr. Choi waves a hand. 

Yoongi heaves a sigh as he drags the pad into his lap. He likes the weight of it, the floppiness of its bulk against his thighs. The pencils are grade-school sharp. They scar the paper with thick, dark lines. He scribbles Shooky in the top corner, his brows decisive, his fists raised. “What am I supposed to write?” Yoongi asks.

“First, fold the page in half,” Mr. Choi instructs. “You’ll write on the left-hand side to begin with.”

“Got it.” 

“Now,” Mr. Choi says. “Write down negative things you say to yourself that you believe are true.” 

Yoongi taps the page with the pencil. All his thoughts thrum up to the chokepoint of his brain, so of course, in this instant, he can think of nothing.

“There are no wrong answers,” Mr. Choi adds.

“That’s the most American thing you’ve said all day,” Yoongi sneers. But it does the trick, because he begins to write. In the beginning, the statements come out terse and tight, things like, You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re ungrateful. You’re fake. Then, more complex and painful: You’re only as good as your pain. And after that, it’s like his hand takes over, flying so fast he can barely keep up. He fills one whole page, flips to the back, and keeps going. The letters grow large and sloppy, the sentences bump against the margin, daring to spill across the fold.

Finally, Mr. Choi says, “Okay. Pause.” And, “Breathe.”

Yoongi breathes. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. 

“Wouldn’t you agree, that’s quite a lot?” Mr. Choi asks. 

Yoongi runs his fingers over the deep scores of his writing. His heart beats fast, and he has to fight the urge to hide what he’s written. “Yeah, it’s a lot.”

“It seems you haven’t been kind to yourself,” Mr. Choi says. 

Yoongi re-reads the final sentence and nods.

He wrote, Everything you’ll ever do is pointless, because eventually you will die alone. 

Then, beneath it, the letters small, It’s what you deserve.

He opens his left hand to find the llama resting there. During the exercise, he’d squeezed so hard, his fingernails scored it with crescent-moon scars. 

“Well, Doc,” Yoongi says. “This sucks.” 

“This is only the first half,” Mr. Choi says. 

Yoongi whimpers and rolls his eyes.

“Turn back to the start of your list,” Mr. Choi instructs, and Yoongi does, though he still feels raw and absurdly protective. “Don’t worry, Yoongi. No one will ever see this but you, unless you choose to share it.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi chokes. “Right.”

Mr. Choi gives him a wan smile. “Now,” he says. “For each negative statement, we are going to come up with another, more positive truth to take its place.”

Yoongi scowls. “Does this crap actually work?”  

“Allow me to ask this,” Mr. Choi counters, “What can it hurt?”

Yoongi can’t fight the logic in that.

He has no idea what time it is, but already, he’s exhausted. His armpits sting with sweat, and there’s a troubling scruff of stubble on his chin. Plus, he’s hungry, and shaky, and in need of a bath and, perhaps in tandem, a good, stiff drink.

Which, he realizes, is probably not the healthiest response. But hell, Seoul wasn’t built in a day.

He returns to the start of the list. 

Across from You’re fat, he writes, You’re healthy.  

Across from You’re ugly, he writes, You look well.

Yoongi sniffs. “It’s too easy.”

“Is it?” Mr. Choi asks. 

In response to You’re ungrateful, Yoongi writes, You show gratitude when you can.

Across from You’re fake, he responds with, I am as real as I can be, considering my line of work.

He notes the shift from You to I, but he’s too tired right now to examine it. He continues, taking his time with every answer. Mr. Choi excuses himself to the restroom, and while Yoongi works, the light grows long and solid behind the clouds. 

Yoongi had written, You’re only as good as your pain. He writes, What the fuck does that even mean? Then he grates out a sigh. He lines through his sarcasm and scribbles beside it, I can learn from my pain.

Some time later, Yoongi arrives at the final scrawled sentence, the worst one, and he pauses. He wonders how Mr. Choi knew to stop him there. How had he somehow known when it was time to intervene?

Everything you’ll ever do is pointless, because eventually, you will die alone. 

Yoongi writes, Until then, I will have myself.

Then he adds, I will try to be the person I deserve

He chews his thumbnail. Cheesy, he thinks, but it fits. Because they’ve been talking and writing songs about loving yourself for years, but until this moment, he hasn’t quite clicked on how to make that work. 

Maybe now he’s starting to get it. Talking about it is one thing. Action is another. 

He taps his teeth with the end of his pencil. He exhales and sinks into the chair.

“I can do this,” he whispers. “I fucking hope I can.”

Chapter Text

“I think I'm ready for
Only you and me.
We made it out, it seems.”
Grow, Conan Gray

7 August 2018 - BV3 - In the sky

Seokjin’s hand slides from Taehyung’s shoulder, falling to rest at the bend of his arm. Within the egg-like confines of the airplane cabin, they cuddle close, lacing their fingers beneath the thin blanket, their shared headphones looped like a lifeline around their necks. 

The interior lights have dimmed. The windows to the outside world have been shuttered against the powder-blue moon. Everyone else has drifted into slumber, but Seokjin still feels too traumatized to sleep. Even after splitting a mini-bottle of Limoncello with Jimin, Seokjin can’t quite shake the tension from their surprise dinner, which turned out to be, to Seokjin’s enduring horror, a literal dinner in the sky.  

He had hated it. From the moment he spied the enormous crane cut out against the lowering sun, to the endless hours they spent strapped into their chairs for the meal, Seokjin had despised every second. He clenches his teeth against the memory. He must also clench his fist, because Taehyung realigns their fingers, smoothing his thumb over Seokjin’s knuckle to soothe him. 

“You’re still thinking about it,” Taehyung murmurs. 

“It may haunt me for the rest of my life,” Seokjin says. He rubs the sleep from the corner of his eye, grateful again for the forgiving light of the dusky cabin. 

“Funny, we’re higher here, yet you’re not afraid of flying,” Taehyung says. 

Seokjin huffs. “Don’t point out my hypocrisy,” he says. “I’m trying to be indignant.” 

Taehyung grips Seokjin’s sock-foot with the bare toes of his own. “I am sorry you hated it,” Taehyung says.

“I did,” Seokjin agrees. “I hated it. But, it wasn’t only that.”

“Oh?” Taehyung shifts to gaze up into Seokjin’s face. The wan light and his shaggy hair makes him appear younger, like the eighteen-year-old Taehyung who would lay his head in his lap in the supply closet all those years ago. It takes Seokjin a heartbeat to catch his breath, and then another handful of seconds to remember what he was saying.

Finally, he manages. “It was about choice,” he says. “About not having one. It was a surprise, and it was on camera, so we couldn’t say no, and I hated it. I hate not having a choice.” 

“It wasn’t fair,” Taehyung says. “They should’ve told us.”

“But they didn’t know how frightened I would be,” Seokjin reasons.

“They didn’t know how scared I’d be when we did the bungee jump either, but they still made us do it,” Taehyung reminds him.

“And do you regret it?” Seokjin asks. “Do you hate that they made you do it?”

Shrugging, Taehyung shelves their shared copy of Life Balancer on his tray-table, partially eclipsing the Jean-Michel Basquiat biography he’d been reading before the cabin lights went dim. “I feel like it’s part of who I am now,” he says. “I had a fear and I faced it. Now I’m better.”

“When you…” Seokjin begins. Then he mentally backpedals, because speaking these words aloud feel dangerous, like wading hip-deep into a marsh full of snakes. But in the interest of facing his fears, he pushes on, though he must finish his sentence in a whisper, “When you felt… whatever you felt… for Minho, you faced that, too.” 

“Hyung—”

“—Shh, no. it’s okay,” Seokjin tells him. “I would like to know. Are you better now?”

“Well,” Taehyung blinks, once. “Am I?” 

“I think so,” Seokjin says. "Stronger, now."

Taehyung’s forehead wimples. It might be a smile, though it might be something else. “I think so, too,” he whispers. 

Seokjin traces the arch of his brow with his thumb. Quietly, he says, “We can talk about it if you want to. I’m not afraid anymore.”

A flush lights Taehyung’s cheeks. “Thank you,” he says. “But I don’t need to.”

Even though Namjoon sits one row ahead of them, Seokjin feels the impossible pull to kiss Taehyung. So he reaches over, climbing partway across the seat, to snatch the biography from Taehyung’s tray. It’s a weighty book, bristling with sketches and postcards Taehyung has been collecting over the last few months, so when Seokjin opens it, they flutter down like eaves into their laps. 

Seokjin lifts the book between them like a screen. In English, he says, "Oh, this is an interesting book, Taehyung. It's very... inspiring."

“Jinnie,” Taehyung chuckles. “Would you like me to kiss you?”

“Yes, please.”

Taehyung grins, already leaning in. “Aren’t you afraid we’ll get caught?”

“We already did, and we’re fine.” 

Behind the pages, their lips brush, bright and precarious as the instant before a flicker bursts into flame. They both feel the push to keep the kiss alight. But they both know that on the other side of this plane ride, they have a place to go, one with well-worn pillows and a cactus at their bedside. So it’s okay. They can wait, knowing they won’t have to wait too much longer.

Once they sit back, once they fold all of Taehyung’s practice scraps back into the pages, Seokjin feels re-centered, like something unsettled inside him is shifting back into place. He has been thinking a lot about choices – since February, when they talked about disbanding, and since this afternoon, when he and Namjoon had their discussion over lunch.  

Leaving Malta means a return to album work, but also a return to the life they get to choose. But before Seokjin can attend to anything, he needs to know about Yoongi, whose absence feels like a newly-amputated limb. 

Thinking of Yoongi spurs a compulsive urge to count each member, to make sure the rest are all there. It's senseless because he already knows: Jimin and Jungkook are behind them, watching a movie; Namjoon and Hoseok are ahead, sound asleep. And even though Yoongi's not there, Seokjin keeps searching for him. 

Lately, he sees Yoongi everywhere. He glimpses the ghost of him in a window, or in the slouching posture of a fellow passenger. And right now, he sees him in the shape of Benji, who’s in the aisle row, sprawled sideways in his seat like he wants to take up every millimeter of the space for which they've paid. Even as Benji scrolls through the images on his phone, Seokjin thinks of Yoongi and the difficult choices he's recently had to make. 

Benji’s head jerks up when he catches Seokjin staring. “Aish,” he hisses. “You scared me, Jin-ssi. I’m just clearing my photos. I didn’t know anyone was awake.”

Through a tight smile, Seokjin says, “Every time I drift off, I imagine plummeting to my death.” 

“Ai, yeah,” Benji says. “Sorry about that.”

“I'm not okay. I’m scarred for life.” Seokjin inclines his head toward Taehyung. “But he made it better.” 

Under the blanket, Taehyung squeezes his hand. 

Benji definitely notices; he makes no mention of it. Instead he says, “Yeah, he does that.” He gives a solemn nod. “But you should get some sleep. You have a doctor's appointment for your ear, and the rest of you are meeting with Halsey later today.”

Taehyung and Seokjin exchange a glance that at once conveys their surprise, disappointment, and intrigue. 

“Oof, my VV. We forgot about that.” With a sigh, Seokjin continues. “Where would we be without our wonderful staff looking out for us?”

Benji peeks once more at his phone before tucking it neatly away. “You know,” he answers. “I can’t even begin to guess.” 

END of PART THREE

Chapter Text

PART Four: Fall

“The days of my youth seem so far away.”
Seoul, RM

20 August 2018 – BigHit Studios

Namjoon bounces on his heels in the elevator, willing it to go faster. He hopes he can squeeze in a bike ride before returning to the dorm tonight. Additionally, he hopes that he can return to the dorm tonight, rather than sleeping in one of the studio bunks.

Since returning from Malta, they have steamrolled from one engagement to another. With their comeback looming, they’re operating on a rotating schedule of two-hour naps, mandatory physical therapy appointments, choreo from hell, recording sessions, press conferences, photo shoots, filming new episodes of Run! … and, he’s forgetting something… Oh yeah, food. Sometimes, they have food. 

Between those engagements, the others have wedged other important, “secret” engagements. For instance, Yoongi has attended secret therapy. Jimin has been working on a secret song. Jungkook is working on secret videos. Taehyung has planned a secret surgery, and in addition to Seokjin’s secret proposal plans, he’s working on something else, but Namjoon’s decided to leave that one to his hyung. 

You would think, with all these secrets, that Namjoon would feel exhausted, but… maybe it’s the buzz of constant excitement mixed with caffeine mixed with the knowledge that all his dreams are coming true that has kept him from losing his mind.

That, and the promise of a quiet bike ride through Hangang Park.

The elevator opens. At the front desk, Yeonbi sits between Adora and a young woman in a yellow mini-shirt and pigtail braids. 

“Girls?” Namjoon blurts as he crosses the lobby. “Plural?”

“I know, right?” Adora says, matching his grin. She takes his hand and gives it a squeeze. “Take down the patriarchy from within.” 

Yeonbi slides a thick stack of envelopes to Namjoon. These are not fanmail, he knows, but important contracts (from PD-nim), clothing catalogs (what? he likes them?), and artist profiles (sometimes with mixtapes, which have been carefully culled from the pile in the mailroom).

Namjoon barely glances at them as he turns to the new young woman at the counter. 

“Who’s your friend?” he asks Adora.

“I’m Hahn Minha,” the woman answers instead. “Minnie. Nice to meet you.” She offers a hand like an American businessman. He takes it, noting her firm grip. He decides he likes it.

“Minnie’s here for Jin-ssi,” Adora explains.

“Oh, you know Jin?” Namjoon asks.

“We grew up together,” Minnie says. 

“However, she and I just bonded over Doctor Who,” Adora says. “So here’s to the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Allons-y!” Minnie shouts, and all three women high five.

“Hold up,” Namjoon says. “Doctor what? Is this, like, a secret code?”

Adora plucks up the lapel of her denim jacket. “See this, Namjoon-ssi?” She points to a button that declares in all caps, DON’T BLINK! “Two years, I’ve worn this button. Not one of you ever got the reference. But Minnie walks in, and it’s the first thing she sees.”

“I’m a huge Anglophile,” Minnie admits. “I once spent a week trapped in London with the flu. A whole week of British telly and digestive biscuits. By the time I came home, I was completely addicted to both.”

“So you speak English?” Namjoon asks.

Minnie scrunches her nose. “Eh,” she says. “I flirt in English. Actually, flirting is my native tongue. I am fluent in flirt.”

For a moment, Namjoon can’t feel his extremities. He prays his ears haven’t gone and betrayed him by turning pink.

Yeonbi giggles, “Apparently, you and Joon-ssi have that in common.”  

No hiding his ears, now; he’s certain they’re on fire. “This?” he stammers to Yeonbi. “From you?”

With a sigh, Yeonbi says, “Perhaps we could form a club. Flirters Anonymous.”

“Oop, count me out,” Adora says. “Got no time for that nonsense.” She glances across the lobby. “But speaking of fellow flirters…”

And there – thank all that is holy – is Seokjin, striding down the hall toward them. 

He comes alongside Minnie, tugging her into a brotherly hug. “Careful with this one,” he tells them. “First she’ll tell you how she just loves the earrings you bought her in Malta, then the very next week, your own mother's wearing them on her Instagram.”

While Minnie fumbles for an explanation, Adora goes, “Aw, your Mom has an Instagram?”

“Mostly for her dog,” Seokjin explains. “And for when she receives extravagant gifts from long-time family friends.”

Minnie raises a finger. “She liked them so much, I bought her an identical pair,” she says.

Ddaeng,” Seokjin tells her.

“Uh... she stole them from me?” Minnie tries.

Seokjin gasps, “That is my mother.” 

“Fine,” Minnie surrenders. “She took me to lunch, and I forgot to bring a present. Your earrings were still in my bag, still in the box… I mean, they were already gift-wrapped, Oppa. What else could I do?”

“Hmn,” Seokjin sniffs. “So generous.”

Minnie beams. “You can buy me another pair when you return to Malta.”

“We always say we’ll go back,” Seokjin says. “And yet we never do.” There’s the barest, briefest knot of tension before he goes, “So, I got a car, and I own the restaurant. How about some dinner?”

“Will Taehyungie be joining us?” Minnie asks.

Namjoon darts a worried glance at Seokjin, but if he notices or cares, he doesn’t show it.

“No,” Seokjin tells her. “He’s having surgery on his tooth tomorrow, so tonight, he’s fasting. But he asked us to send him pictures of our food.”

“That is so sad,” Yeonbi says. 

“Must be done,” Seokjin agrees. “He’s been battling that tooth for a year.” He turns to Namjoon. “Yoongi says he’ll be back for practice at 19:00. Hope wants to work on you two, specifically.”

“Yay?” Namjoon moans. He checks his watch. It’s 17:13 now. There’s no need to shower, and a thirty-minute bike ride would loosen him up for choreo. He could score some jajangmyeon from a place along the river while listening to one of the submitted mixtapes. Or he could read. Or he could bask in the street sounds of Seoul. He could breathe in the warm, loamy, late-summer air, and simply be. He’s almost giddy at the prospect of so much free time, even if, by normal standards, it’s really not a lot.

They watch as Seokjin and Minnie depart, the pair of them instantly easing into bright, teasing banter. He tugs a pigtail, she bumps his hip, and Namjoon wonders if Yeonbi and Adora might assume that they are dating. 

Then he wonders if the outside world would make that assumption, too. But Seokjin’s planned for that, hasn’t he? He checked out a studio car with which he’ll take her to his family's restaurant. They’ll probably eat in the kitchen, away from prying eyes. They will travel from one parking garage to another, guaranteeing that no one will ever see them.

“Aish, guys, it’s past closing time,” Yeonbi realizes. As she busies herself with logging out and collecting her things, Adora turns to Namjoon. There’s a trace of tension wrinkling her brows, probably leftover from her extended work day.

But she says, “Minnie seems sweet.”

“Yeah, I don’t think she is,” Namjoon says. 

“Reeeeally?” Adora says, all playfully suggestive. 

“Stop,” he says. You’d think that a man with all his worldly experience would be above blushing like a schoolboy. Yeah, you'd be surprised.

Yeonbi locks up and leaves them. His bike-riding window steadily narrowing, Namjoon decides to exit through the parking garage, which will put him facing the river and possibly a bowl of black noodles. 

Adora asks, “So, where ya headed?” Then, before he can answer, she waves. “I’ll walk with you.”

“All right,” he says, heading for the elevator.

Adora fidgets while they walk. At the doors, she asks, “So, um. You been reading all this stuff about Pentagon?”

The doors part; they step inside. “Been following it, yeah,” he says. He thumbs the button for the basement. 

“A pity, right?” She chews her lip. “Dating scandals. Like, where were their managers?”

“Yeah," Namjoon snorts. "Really.” 

“Of course, with Hyojong and Hyuna, it was within the company, so the managers might have been covering for them.” She breathes out, then adds, “You know. Until they weren’t.” 

The doors open, but Namjoon just stands there, watching her. She lifts her eyes to the camera box in the corner. Then, with two fingers, she makes a subtle sweeping gesture toward the door.

They step into the dimly-lit basement corridor. 

Adora worries the hem of her skirt. Namjoon has to force himself not to squirm. Then, at last, she whispers, “I truly hate to put this on you right now, when I know how busy we are, but something’s happened, and you're the person who most needs to know.”

“God. Just.” Namjoon swallows. “What is it?”

“Namjoon-ssi, someone contacted me, recently. He claims he’s a former employee.”

Namjoon hears his blood rushing inside his ears. “What did he say?”

“You know who it is?” Adora asks.

“Oh, I got an idea,” Namjoon bites out.

“So, this guy. This… Park Minyeong,” she hisses the name like it’s acid on her tongue. “He said he knows about a relationship, here, at BigHit.” Her voice trembles as she continues, “And that's why I asked before, about Jimin and Taehyung. But it isn't them.” She’s shaking her head, side-to-side. “He told me. The guy did. He said it’s Seokjin and Taehyung.”

Namjoon wipes his mouth. He says, “I don’t—”

“—I would never expose them,” Adora hurries to say. “But he claims that he will.”

Namjoon stands there, blinking and blinking, wondering what he was dreaming about only minutes before. A bike ride? The river? A cute girl in a yellow skirt? He asks, “Why you? Why did he contact you?”

Adora answers like she’s prepared for this question. “Apparently, he works for Media Line now. I did my internship there, before coming here. He must’ve found my email in the company registry. I’ve already asked IT to trace his address, but they didn’t find anything.”

“Right, right,” Namjoon says. “Did you tell Bang-PD?”

“I wanted to approach you first, in case…in case...”

In case it’s true and PD-nim doesn’t know, Namjoon thinks but doesn’t say. He wipes his mouth. “Look, you made the right call,” he soothes. “Thank you.” Then he asks, “What’d he offer?”

She sniffs. “Money,” she says. “Money for definitive proof.” 

“Which means he doesn’t have it,” Namjoon says. 

“But he’s looking,” Adora says. “And… he knows where to look.” 

Namjoon places a hand on her shoulder. He hopes she can’t feel him shaking. He whispers, “He knows nothing.” 

“They have a rookie group, Namjoon-ssi,” she says.

“So do we.” He shrugs. “Soon.” 

“Media Line is not like BigHit. It’s different, believe me. They will do whatever’s in their power to put their boys on top. Even if it means lowering the ceiling.” Adora gives him a flat smile before adding, “There’s no higher ceiling than you.” 

Namjoon taps his lips. “So he wants a dating scandal?”

“A gay dating scandal,” Adora clarifies. 

After a moment, Namjoon shakes his head. “It would work, wouldn’t it?” he says. “It would ruin us.” 

Through her teeth, Adora says, “We can’t let it.” 

“Okay,” Namjoon says. “All right.” He checks his watch. He can still take his bike to the river, but not all the way to Hangang. And he doesn’t need food now because he’s lost every trace of appetite. “I need to think a bit. Let’s meet… soon. Before we leave for America, okay? I know we’re busy, but... let’s take time and make a plan.”

“Okay,” Adora agrees. She taps the button for the elevator, and it opens. She steps inside, and as the doors shut, she says, “Take care of yourself, Namjoon.” 

Sweet, he thinks. Except he’s not worried about himself.

Namjoon feels distant, almost robotic, as he goes down into the parking garage. He unlocks his bike and wheels it up the ramp. The city swells around him, a heavy, damp-cotton heat. And though he tries and tries to think, his mind, for once, is a static-white blank.

Chapter Text

“Who says a dream must be something grand?”
Paradise, BTS

21 August 2018 – Seokjin’s Villa

Seokjin has a crick in his neck. Beneath Taehyung’s heavy head, Seokjin’s arm has gone numb. But he doesn’t dare move, because he wants his Taehyung to sleep. He needs to sleep. And, so, Seokjin sings to him. With his free hand, he combs Taehyung’s feather blond hair from his forehead. He tucks a blanket tight around his shoulders, and he sings.

Taehyung smells like iodine and some bubble-gum flavored mouth paste they used to dull the pain. With the gauze packed into his jaws, and the subtle yellow bruising around his mouth, he looks like a cartoon boxer from a comic they read as kids. 

He’s not in any pain; the oral surgeon assured him of that. The medicine will knock him into the clouds for a couple of days, where he can peacefully dream while his body heals. 

“You’re singing our song,” Taehyung murmurs. Their song being Lay Me Down by Sam Smith and John Legend – a love song recorded by two men, a subject about which Taehyung has loud, passionate feelings.

“You sang it for me,” Seokjin says. “So I’ll sing it for you.”

“I sang it for you,” Taehyung echoes. The cotton packing slurs his speech, turning his words to slush.

“Shh,” Seokjin says. He presses his palm to Taehyung’s sweaty forehead. “You sang it for me at that torturous dinner-in-the-sky place. I was so afraid, and you helped me.”

“You’re helping me, too,” Taehyung says.

“I don’t think so.” Seokjin smiles. “You’re still awake.”

“’Cause your phone’s ringing,” Taehyung tells him.

“No, I set it to Do Not Disturb,” Seokjin says. “Anyone who knows us, knows about your surgery. I instructed them specifically not to call—”

“—It’s on vibrate,” Taehyung says, dreamily. “You know how I like that feeling.”

“Naughty, Taehyung,” Seokjin says, bending to kiss his temple. “You’re on pain meds.”

Taehyung’s mouth morphs into a puffy oval as he attempts to smile.

“No smiling,” Seokjin orders as he begins to delicately extricate his dead arm from beneath Taehyung’s head. 

“But hyung,” Taehyung mumbles. His eyelashes flutter. 

“VV. Sleep,” Seokjin says. He stands up. He tumbles the phone from his pocket. Not a call, but a missed invitation to a video chat with Namjoon, who wouldn’t have called unless it was important. 

Seokjin stares down at Taehyung’s swollen face, resting now against the pillow, his brows stark against his candleflame bangs. “Don’t move, love,” he whispers. “I’ll be right back.”


Seokjin positions himself in the corner of his sofa where the lighting is best. He loads the app, then stares at himself in the Picture-In-Picture screen. He fusses with his hair, parting it to show the persistent march of his roots. The stylists will have to retouch them before leaving for America, and his scalp is already a wasteland of blistered skin. 

Maybe I’ll ask them to dye it black, he thinks. But then he sighs, because the whole point of bleaching it had been to match Taehyung. And Taehyung, for all his pouty sensitivity, has a much higher threshold for that kind of pain.

Seokjin takes a breath. Once he’s settled, he presses the button for callback.

Namjoon answers. He’s alone at a harshly-lit boardroom table, his blond hair unwashed beneath a backward baseball cap. “Seokjin-hyung,” he says. “Are you in a place where we can talk? In private?”

A pinprick of disquiet pierces Seokjin’s gut. 

“I’m in my apartment,” Seokjin tells him. “So unless someone planted cameras here—”

“—It should be safe,” Namjoon says. And then he tells him, about the attempted contact from Minyeong, the offer he made to one of their producers, and their old manager’s continued avowal to expose them.

Him and Taehyung. His Taehyung.

Seokjin watches himself in the PinP as Namjoon speaks. Even as he stares, his eyes twitch, and how long has it been since that’s happened? Seokjin believed he had that particular quirk under control. 

Apparently, he believed a lot of things. Like he believed they were untouchable, that they could live their lives unscathed. His mother and father accept them now. His brother and Taehyung are friends. They have weathered so much, have grown so much, and now this man returns with threats to take it all away.

“Jin-hyung, I understand how frightened you must be,” Namjoon is saying.

“No.” Seokjin utters a short, sharp laugh. “I am not afraid.” 

Namjoon adjusts his cap. “Hyung?”

“And I’m not angry,” Seokjin says, though neither statement is absolutely true; he does feel afraid, for what they could lose, and he does feel anger, that Minyeong would even dare. But the Picture-in-Picture shows Seokjin how he hopes to be seen: Calm and composed, with a twinge of humor on his lips. A Mona Lisa smile. Taehyung would appreciate the comparison. 

Taehyung. Doesn’t it always come back to him.

In the main screen, Namjoon looks troubled enough for everyone. “Maybe you’re in shock,” he offers. “I can totally understand that—”

“—No, Joon,” Seokjin tells him. “I’m not in shock.” He shifts, tucking his knees beneath him, hoping to appear more relaxed. 

“How are you taking this so well?” Namjoon asks. He seems to have forgotten how to blink. “The man who tortured, who threatened, who abused you all for years has returned with plans to expose your relationship—”

“—Joon, what is he hoping to find?” Seokjin laughs. “Explicit texts? Photos on our phones? Secret meetings in love hotels? We are long past that.”

Namjoon scratches under his hat. “I mean—”

“—I took Taehyung for oral surgery today.” Seokjin laughs. “Minyeong’s looking for a dating scandal? None of us are dating.”

“You think you’ll throw him off on a technicality?” Namjoon says. “The one thing we know about Minyeong is his bluntness. This is a man who denied us food on weigh-in days. He doesn’t care that you and Taehyung have moved past hand-holding and couples’ outfits. Which you still do, by the way.”

Seokjin purses his lips. He says, “I know you’re concerned because Taehyung and I slipped up in Malta. But really, Joon. We have nothing to hide.”

Namjoon shakes his head, unconvinced. “Except you guys practically live together. And Minyeong, he’ll take that, and anything else that he finds, and he will twist it against us.”

Seokjin watches his own nostrils flare in the PinP. To an outside observer, he might look like he’s on the verge of laughter. And he would laugh, if not for the desire to tear something apart. 

His voice a dull razor’s edge, Seokjin says, “Minyeong has no idea who he’s dealing with.” 

“Uh, hyung?” Namjoon visibly swallows. “You ever hear what happens to the people who fight fire with fire?”

Absently, Seokjin answers, “They get burned.”

Everyone gets burned,” Namjoon corrects. “There are seven of us.”

Seokjin checks over his shoulder to make sure Taehyung’s still in their room. Then, just to make sure, he brings the phone closer to his face so he won’t be overheard. “You already know my plans, Joon. Hyungsik found the ring. Seojoon’s had it resized. I’ve made deposits. We booked reservations. I could cancel them, but... I won’t.” Namjoon opens his mouth to object, but Seokjin repeats, “I won’t.”

“You know I’ve only ever supported you,” Namjoon reminds him. “And you know that’s not about to change. I have to admit that I am afraid, and a little bit in shock. So I want you to think about where we are now. All we’ve worked for, hyung,” Namjoon nods, “All we’ve achieved til now, it’s all at risk because of this.”

“It was always at risk,” Seokjin says. “It will always be at risk. But you’re the one who taught us we shouldn’t fall victim to our fears.”

Namjoon scoffs. “I taught you that?”

“You taught me that,” Seokjin restates. “And didn’t you write in one of our songs that we deserve a life?”

A reluctant grin creases Namjoon’s lips. “Using my own words against me.”

“They are excellent words.” Seokjin shrugs. 

Namjoon rolls his eyes. “Hyung, I’m glad you’re my friend,” he says. “’Cause you'd make one hell of an enemy.”

“Yeah, well…” Seokjin glances at his face in the PinP. He recalls those old fears, the ones that disturbed his childhood heart before he and Namjoon ever met. The ones that made him afraid of his father, though he’d later learn there was nothing there to fear but a mask. 

At work, in his company, his father is an indomitable force. But Seokjin also knows his father is a man who will openly weep at the sight of his wife’s tears, and who will privately cry over the death of a pet. He is both a kind father, and a rigid one. A handsome monster. A beautiful man. But underneath, it’s all him.

These gifts he passed to Seokjin. For all his fear that he might one day become his father, Seokjin knows now, he can choose how he uses them.

Especially since they know now who the real monster is.

“...Minyeong should fear us,” Seokjin realizes. “And the producer he approached, they should know this, too. The seven of us, we did not get here by accident. Remember what Yoongi said, back when Jimin received the death threat? We don’t answer hate with fear. We will not be bullied by this disgusting, crusty pervert. He is the one who should be afraid.”

“Aish,” Namjoon says. He takes off his hat and scrubs a fist through his hair. “So forceful, Seokjin. I think I got the chills.”

“Yaaaahh,” Seokjin groans. “You’re the one who called me. What did you expect?”

Namjoon replaces his hat. “Look.” He exhales. “Maybe I think too much about Icarus these days, because we know what happened when he forgot to be careful. And maybe it makes me a little… apprehensive, okay? Maybe Minyeong is skeezy and connected enough to be a real threat.”

Seokjin rolls a shoulder. In the PinP, he looks casually amused. He enjoys that, even though it’s not the whole truth. He says, “However well connected he may be, he was horrible to us. He’s probably horrible wherever he is now, too—”

Namjoon’s face brightens. “Huh,” he grunts. “You’re right.” Then, “I got an idea. I gotta go. Please tell Taehyung we’re thinking of him.”

 “I will,” Seokjin says, but the screen freezes to Namjoon’s face as he breaks the connection.

 

Seokjin returns to the bedroom. Taehyung remains as he was, sleeping the sleep of the heavily drugged. Seokjin opens the drawer of his bedside table, where he keeps important things like family letters, photographs, and face cream.  On top of these rests an envelope, thin and unassuming, tied with a length of red string. 

Seokjin smooths the loose knot with his thumb. He finds comfort in his plans, the order of them, the neatness. The rest of their world may be in chaos, but they always have this thread between them: A lifeline, a reminder. This represents their connection. It’s their destiny, and their defiance. So long as they have each other, Seokjin believes all seven of them will be okay. 

He shuts the drawer. He climbs into bed beside Taehyung. He spoons him into the curve of his body, inhaling the sugar-candy smell of his medicine and the cornsilk musk of his hair.

After a moment, Taehyung murmurs, “Everything okay?”

“Of course it is,” Seokjin tells him. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I thought…” Taehyung snuffles. “Were you yelling?”

“No, love. I didn’t yell.” Not technically, though he might have raised his voice. 

“I’ll protect you,” Taehyung says, tugging Seokjin’s arm around his waist. But his eyes are like a cat’s eye clock, slipping closed at irregular intervals, and Seokjin can’t help but chuckle.

“Go to sleep, jagiya,” he tells him. “This time, I’ll watch over you.”

Chapter Text

“You could still be what you want to
What you said you were when I met you
When you met me, when I met you.”
Medicine, Daughter

24 August 2018 – Olympic Stadium

Yoongi enjoys the smell of dust and gunpowder. He likes the grit and salt of it, how it hangs like drifting curtains above him, blurring the lights to a haze. While the crew repacks their pyrotechnics for tonight’s run-through, Yoongi sprawls on his back at mid-stage. Using his phone to block the light, he rereads his latest message from Mr. Choi. 

The others assume he’s texting with someone, possibly regarding a secret collab deal. He does nothing to dissuade them from this idea. He’s not gonna lie, he’s got a few projects in the works, but today, it’s not about that.

Today, it’s a passage from their recent session. Three paragraphs out of hundreds spilled back and forth via text. But it’s made so much sense, it might have shifted Yoongi’s entire outlook on life. 

Doc, look at me. Yoongi had written, I have a great life. I have no reason to be this sad all the time. 

Mr. Choi responded with, If you have a reason to be sad, we wouldn’t call it depression. The whole point of depression is that it doesn’t make sense. That’s what makes it an illness. That’s why it requires treatment. 

He went on to explain the difference between situational depression, like grief caused by the ending of a relationship or losing a job, and chronic depression, like what Yoongi experiences, which has no single, definable cause, and is therefore a ‘dragon of different scales.’ Mr. Choi’s words, not his. Not that Yoongi minds them.

As Yoongi lays there, reading, four identical shoes appear along his line of sight.

A floating voice says, “Ask him.” 

Another floating voice replies, “You ask him.” Then they both giggle, like a pair of plotting teenage girls. Yoongi knows it’s Taehyung and Jungkook before he even lowers his phone.

“No, I’m not chatting with Ed Sheeran,” Yoongi deadpans. “Jimin already asked.”

“We know,” Jungkook says.

“He told us,” Taehyung adds. 

Yoongi squints at them. “What d’you want?” 

Taehyung sits down, cross-legged. Jungkook follows, mimicking his pose. “We have a question,” Taehyung says.

“Yeah, I got that when you said ‘ask him,’” Yoongi snips. “Get on with it.”

“We wanted to know,” Taehyung begins. “That is, we would like to know, how would you feel about Hoseok moving into Seokjinnie’s old room?”

Yoongi prickles. He tries to disguise it. “Why ask me? Why not ask Seokjin?”

Jungkook’s shoulders lift. “He doesn’t live there anymore.”

Yoongi rolls up to a sitting position. “Sometimes he lives there. His stuff is still there.”

“Most of it’s not,” Taehyung points out. “But think of it, hyung, Hoseok, right next door. Hwagae Market, 24-7.”

Yoongi hisses, “You don’t even know what that means.”

“We know enough,” Taehyung says. 

Yoongi levels a glare at both of them. Jungkook, nervous, shifts. Taehyung, absurdly confident, shoots him a pair of finger guns. It’s possible that Taehyung’s still loopy from his pain meds. It’s equally possible he’s been talking to Seokjin. While Yoongi doubts Seokjin would have outed him about his long-term, excruciating crush on Hoseok, he understands that sometimes Taehyung just gets things. Like the Rubik’s cube he once solved during a fanmeeting, or that time he understood where the camera crew would film based on how the lights were positioned in the escape rooms. 

Sometimes, Taehyung figures stuff out. It’s irritating as fuck.

“You don’t know,” Yoongi grumbles. 

Taehyung lifts his brows. “I know enough.”

Mercifully, then, the stage manager comes over. “Hey guys,” he tells them. “The pyro crew wants to run a test, so it’s best to be backstage. We’ll call you all back together when it’s done.”

“Yes, hyungnim,” Jungkook says and gets up. Taehyung gets up too. They offer their hands to help Yoongi. Aggravated, he smacks them away. 

“I’m not that old,” he tells them. 

At the edge of the stage, Taehyung asks, “So, what do you think?” reminding Yoongi that in addition to being clever, he’s also annoyingly persistent.

Yoongi twitches a shoulder. “I’ve already forgotten what we were talking about.”

“Hyung’s room,” Jungkook says. 

“It’s a room,” Yoongi snaps. “Why should I care who sleeps there?” Then he leaves them before either can respond. 

 

Quietly imploding is not uncommon for Yoongi. Nor is his tendency to conceal all evidence of said implosion. Even with Namjoon watching him with an almost suffocating sense of attention, Yoongi manages, once more, to pull off a practice without visibly going to pieces. 

This time, though, Yoongi plays through his CBT skills for remaining calm during crisis. He practices observing his thoughts rather than reacting to them. He labels his thoughts rather than judging them. In this way, he shelves all his conflicted emotions for the duration of the rehearsal until he can examine them at a less-stressful time.

And it helps. Like, unbelievably so, because he gets through the whole run-through without once wishing that the pyros would blow him to oblivion. Yoongi counts that as a small yet certain victory. 

Afterward, he excuses himself to the restroom, where he splashes cold water on his face. He slips out to find a cool, dark corner behind the stadium, along the back loading ramp, beneath a screen of trees. There, he sits and allows himself to consider his feelings.

Starting with, Why do I feel so angry about Hoseok taking Seokjin’s room?

Immediately, Yoongi’s heart begins to pound. 

He fishes a peppermint from his pocket. With trembling fingers, he peels off the plastic and pops it into his mouth. It’s the kind he likes best; the ones from the candy kiosk in Euljiro-Sam-Ga. They dissolve like sandcastles on his tongue, and he lets himself savor the sugary grains. Before long, his breathing evens out. His heart still palpitates, but it’s bearable now: a gentle rain instead of a hurricane. 

He poses the question again: Why am I so upset about Hoseok taking Seokjin’s room?

Taehyung and Jungkook were right; having Hoseok next door would be a pleasant alternative to the yawning nothing that it is right now. Also, it makes sense. Hoseok currently shares his room with Jimin (when Hoseok’s not in his uptown flat), so him moving into Seokjin’s larger dorm room would be a logical alternative.

Anyway, anyone with a shot glass of sense would know Yoongi wouldn’t object to having Hoseok so close. So the issue isn’t with Hoseok.

It’s about Seokjin.

Yoongi fumbles his phone into his palm. He pulls his up his KKT.

He writes, You know those damned maknaes are trying to give away your room?

A few seconds later, Seokjin writes, What? The villa?

No, Yoongi fires back, YOUR room. You know, the one right next to mine?

Seconds lapse. Yoongi’s throat goes dry. He writes, Do you even care? But then he backspaces it, because, really, what answer does he hope to receive? 

Yoongi tucks another peppermint onto his tongue. As it crumbles, he wonders if it’s possible to have chronic depression and situational depression, nested within each other like those Russian matryoshka dolls. Because the reason for one rests hidden within the hollow of the first, and until now, Yoongi hasn’t opened either one. 

Seokjin writes, They can’t give away what isn’t theirs. Then seconds later, Where are you? We’re about to get food.

Yoongi pans his gaze around the leaf-choked loading bay. Beyond the dense hedge, the lights of the city blur the horizon to a dull, brick-dust orange. Airplanes streak overhead, their contrails like hatch-marks across the translucent skin of clouds. He wonders how many nights he’s felt this way? Like he’s trapped inside this body, a tiny, burning ember inside an endless ocean of stars.

Not every night of his life, but most. 

Seokjin writes, Yoongichi! Come here or I will send Jiminie to find you.

Yoongi shakes his head as he types, I guess

Then he pauses.

Because he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to eat. What he wants is to sleep and hide, possibly forever. But, hiding forever might suck as much as going out, and going back to the dorm alone means he doesn’t get to hang out with them. The prospect of alone time used to seem more appealing. Now, though, he feels like he’s simply counting down the days...

One day, things will change. One day, they will lead separate lives. One day, they’ll work different jobs, as producers or actors or corporate CEOs. Because they won’t be able to perform forever; it's physically impossible. So eventually, they will only see each other at Seollal, a convenience visit wedged between seeing their parents and catching a plane to wherever the hell they’re living, and it’s already happening.

Starting with Seokjin. 

What's worse is that Seokjin’s so goddamn happy. After all his worry about getting left behind, now he’s the one forging ahead. 

“Well, fuck, Yoongi,” he mutters to himself. “He hasn’t left yet.”

He stands up, grunting against the stiffness in his knees. With an inward smirk, he thinks that maybe he is that old after all. 

I guess I’ll meet you, Yoongi writes. He rubs his eyes and stretches. He types, I’m on my way,  and then he heads back inside to find his friends. 

Chapter Text

“My days, they begin with your name
And nights end with your breath.”
cold/mess, Prateek Kuhad

1 September 2018 MBC Comeback Show Pre-recording 

Jungkook licks sticky peach juice from his fingers. At his feet, Jimin unpacks his old camera bag, moving everything into the larger one he bought for him for his birthday.

“I can’t just throw the old one away,” Jungkook says.

“Both bags will be gone by tomorrow,” Jimin says, casting a sly look at Seokjin, who is too busy with Yeontan and Taehyung to notice. 

What Jungkook thinks but would never speak aloud is that he prefers the urban-durable military-style backpack that Seokjin gave him to the sleek, shiny camera bag Jimin bought. Indicating any preference would serve the dual purpose of hurting Jimin’s feelings and giving Seokjin a reason to gloat. Jungkook believes both should be avoided at all costs, so he holds his tongue.

Jimin takes care of everything, moving Jungkook’s filming equipment, medicines, snacks, headphones, and battery packs into the new bag. He passes the old bag to Hoseok, who gives Jungkook a pointed look. 

Jungkook nods in response. Hoseok nods back. Hoseok, being Hoseok, takes the bag to the staff table, and while everyone's distracted by Yeontan’s latest round of tricks, he tucks it safely away, out of sight but where Jungkook can plainly see it. After their pre-recording, Jungkook will return to ferret it out. He’ll take the old bag home and stuff it into a closet where it will gather dust until they move again.

You know, in a month or so.

He doesn’t have long to brood on that idea before Woojin, their camera director, shifts his focus to filming Yeontan and Taehyung. Once Yoongi realizes he's no longer in danger of being filmed, he slides in to pluck a sugared grape from Jungkook’s cake.

“That’s got wax on it,” Hoseok observes.

“Kinky,” Yoongi quips, cramming it into his mouth.

Hoseok curls his tongue behind his teeth before shoving off in the other direction.

Jimin, having zero cool, grins adoringly at Yoongi. Jungkook nudges Jimin with the toe of his boot, attempting a casual reminder that they are part of a secret plan to bring Yoongi and Hoseok together.  

But Jimin sucks at secrets. His involvement has been limited, and this is the reason why. Every time Yoongi and Hoseok interact, Jimin becomes like Patrick Star when he sees Mindy the Mermaid in the Spongebob movie. Super cute, but a dead giveaway for somebody who’s in on something. 

Yoongi grunts, “The frick are you grinning about?”

“Oh nothing,” Jimin singsongs. 

Jungkook toes into the side of Jimin’s thigh. Jimin’s smile broadens.

Yoongi throws a sharp look at Jungkook. “You’re like the cat who swallowed the golden carp,” he says. “What're you up to?”

Jungkook’s brain spins and spins, all gears and no clicks.

But to Yoongi, Jimin sighs, “I guess I forgive you, hyung.” 

Yoongi squints. “The fuck—?” 

“For trying to steal my roommate,” Jimin says. “Taehyungie told me about your plan to move Hoseokie-hyung into Jin-hyung’s old room. But I guess if you don’t remember, then whatever.”

“Hff, okay,” Yoongi chuckles. Then, rather than taking the debate, he returns to the sofa to shrug into the space between Seokjin and Namjoon. 

Jimin zips up the new camera bag, plumping it appreciatively. Rolling his eyes, he says to Jungkook, “I guess I forgive you, too.”

As Jungkook studies his boyfriend, a peculiar sensation of restless disconnection stirs inside him, like leaves tossed on an updraft breeze. 

He wants to pull this feeling close, to examine and inhale it, to taste it on his tongue, but Taehyung and Seokjin are making too much noise, low-key bickering over the box that Jimin used to wrap Jungkook’s gift. Taehyung wants to bring it home for Yeontan. Seokjin believes Yeontan has enough toys and beds and treats as it is. At this point, Woojin shuts the camera down. Their conversation reveals too much about their living situation, details they agreed to keep to themselves.

But lately, though, they’ve grown too brazen. To Jungkook, they’re like middle-school kids leaning too far over the guardrail at a cliffside park. In their joyous exploring, they keep forgetting about things like gravity and falling. They forget that people are watching, waiting to catch them and reel them back in. They forget to be discreet.

Jimin passes Jungkook a carton of milk. “You ready?”

Offhanded, Jungkook asks, “For what?”

“Our show, silly,” Jimin chuckles, adjusting Jungkook’s collar. “Where are you today?”

Woojin comes back over. “One last shot for the Bomb?” he asks. 

Jungkook blinks. Offscreen, Seokjin and Taehyung are cradling Yeontan between them, letting the dog lick their noses. At this, the stylists rally up howls of protest because they’ll have to retouch their makeup again, yet Taehyung and Seokjin don’t seem to care.

“Jungkook-ssi?” Woojin prompts.

“Right.” Jungkook sips his milk. “I’m ready.” 

In that moment, Jungkook understands that something needs to change.

 

The dorm feels unnervingly quiet as Jungkook tosses his belongings onto his bed. Jimin and Namjoon are home, too – the former in the shower, the latter in his room, either sleeping (doubtful) or revising lyrics for his mixtape.  

Jungkook has a few minutes before joining Jimin. It’s part of their tradition to have some showerplay on their birthdays, and usually, Jungkook anticipates the experience for weeks because Jimin lets them do things they wouldn’t normally do. But tonight Jungkook feels pinned in by stray thoughts and exhaustion. He’s preoccupied, thinking of escaping into the streets to idly wander. But Jimin’s waiting for him, and he will know that something’s off. He always, always knows. 

So, Jungkook shoves his old camera bag into the space behind his shoes and retreats to the kitchen for the strongest liquor he can find.

Hoseok’s there, at the bar, already with a bottle and a shotglass.

Surprised and a bit alarmed, Jungkook asks, “You drinking, hyung?”

“A little,” Hoseok says. He slides the bottle across the bar. Whiskey, like the kind Jungkook drank with Yoongi back in Malta. “Pour us a couple, birthday boy.”

Jungkook bows his head, intentionally overplaying the formality. He takes down a second shotglass, filling each to the brim.

“Happy birthday, Jungkookie,” Hoseok says, slamming his shot like a professional. He winces, painfully, then laughs as Jungkook easily downs his behind the cover of his hand. 

“Another,” Hoseok says, tapping the glass on the bar tile. 

“You sure?” Jungkook asks, already pouring.

“Hit me,” Hoseok tells him.

They drink, quick, and Hoseok refuses a third, fanning his mouth as if he’s swallowed fire. 

“You okay?” Jungkook asks.

“Hnm, yeah,” Hoseok decides. “I’m good.”

“You gonna hang with Yoongi-hyung tonight?”

Hoseok peaks one brow. “Contrary to what you all may believe,” he says. “I do not spend every waking moment with Yoongi.”

“I just thought—”

“—No, it’s fine.” Hoseok waves. “My sister’s in town.” He burps, softly, into his palm. “Speaking of, you hear from your family today?”

This throws Jungkook off more than it should. He staggers, mentally, already hazy from the whiskey, as he tries to remember why he should have heard from them.

“For your birthday,” Hoseok adds.

Heat floods Jungkook’s face. Because, though he wouldn’t say it aloud, he doesn’t think of his family until they reach out to him. In his mind, he spent the day with his family, and in the whirlwind of today, he hasn’t even thought to check his messages. 

“Maybe,” he says, trailing off, wondering, abstractedly, where he’s left his phone. 

Hoseok caps the whiskey bottle. “All better,” he announces. 

Against the background drone of the shower, Jimin begins to sing, something ballady and operatic, like an aria from a children’s anime.

“Ah,” Hoseok gives a fragile smile. “Someone’s happy.” 

“Thanks for… hiding my bag,” Jungkook tells him. The whiskey swirls inside his skin, smelling of blood and sweetness. 

“Believe me, I get it,” Hoseok says. He lingers like he’s ready to leave but unsure if he should go. 

And Jungkook doesn’t know that he’s going to ask the question until it’s already spoken aloud. He blurts, “Hyung, how’d you buy your apartment?”

Hoseok nods. He doesn't seem surprised by Jungkook's question. “I asked PD-nim's permission to make an investment,” he explains. “When he said yes, I found a place and paid in cash. It was every bit that easy, and every bit that hard.” 

Jungkook says, “We always said we’d live together forever.” 

“Yeah. Kids believe in always, don’t they?” Hoseok says. “What the heck did we know?”

Tears storm up inside him; Jungkook strangles them down. “We were kids, then,” he whispers. 

“You thinking of getting your own place?” Hoseok asks. He shelves the whiskey and pats his pockets for his earbuds and phone. 

Until this moment, the idea hadn’t fully formed in Jungkook’s mind. “An investment,” he says. “I think so.”

Hoseok raps his knuckles on the bar. “Trimage is building a second phase,” he tells him. “When we get another break, we could go together and have a look.”

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah,” Hoseok grins. “We’d be neighbors.”  He squeezes Jungkook’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go.” His movements as he points to the door betray how tipsy he already is. 

In the bathroom, Jimin belts a bawdy vibrato, urging Hoseok to move faster. “I’ll send you the building information. Meantime, enjoy your birthday,” he says. He fumbles into his shoes and leaves.

Jungkook leans on the bathroom door. On the other side is warmth and steam and a man who adores him with relentless hope and devotion. He cubbyholes the idea of the apartment, putting it aside as he taps on the bathroom door. Jimin opens it with a flourish, steering him into the steamy enclosure, enveloping him with his warm, naked pinkness. Jungkook traces his thumb over the lines of Jimin’s henna tattoo, the single English word marching across his rib-line like a blight.

“You like it, don’t you?” Jimin coos, covering Jungkook’s hand with own.

"I don't get it," Jungkook admits. "I mean, Nevermind is Yoongi's word—

"Jungkookie! He doesn't own it," Jimin chuckles. 

"I know, but... it doesn't fit," Jungkook says. 

"I like it," Jimin says. "I used to care what people think, but now... Nevermind."

Jungkook gets under the shower spray to have a closer look. At least it’s not permanent, he thinks. It’s a trial run for the real thing; a preview. He still has time to figure out how he feels. 

Beneath the steam, Jimin presses his lips to Jungkook’s. Then he cranes back, playfully disapproving. “Have you already been drinking?”

“Uh,” Jungkook stalls. “Birthday shot with Hobi-hyung,” he says. “Shots, I guess.”

Jimin slides his hand down Jungkook’s belly to find him hard and ready. “Ooh, I see,” he moans. “Starting without me.”

“No, baby,” Jungkook says. “I’m right here.” He drags his focus to the moment between them, the heat, the spray, and the sweet, sweat scent of Jimin pressed against him. As birthday traditions go, this one is definitely a favorite. So it’s easy to shift his focus to far more pleasurable tasks at hand. 

Chapter Text

“Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves.”
Haruki Murakami

3 September 2018 – Gwangjang Market

The alley snakes beneath a fall of hot, dense sunlight, making its moss-flecked walls feel darker and more treacherous than the lively street it parallels. Seokjin, in his Puma slides, picks his way over the scummy runoff of last night’s rains, searching for the address with his phone. The humidity slicks his t-shirt to his skin, and he’s certain the scent of market fish has permeated his clothing. It’s likely he won’t have time to shower once he returns to Hannam, but it should all be worth it, if he can only navigate through the gutter to find the designated location.

Holding his phone aloft, both for GPS and for additional light, he ducks beneath the tattered banner of a long-defunct bingsu shop. He rounds a haphazard stack of boxes to step into a tight crossroads. 

On one corner, he sees a light-fixture repair shop butted up against a greasy storefront with a thin, raised patio out front. There, at a plastic table with fish buckets for seats, sit two men, both in hats and sunglasses to disguise their faces. On the table between them rests an ice bucket with three bottles of beer. 

It’s 8 a.m., but they’re celebrating, and they mean for him to join them.

Seokjin steps up to the patio. He clamps a hand to the back of the closest man’s neck – Seojoon’s, it turns out – and both men react by noisily hauling Seokjin onto the bucket between them. 

“So this is now the place with the best tteokguk?” Seokjin shouts at them.  

“This is a place owned by Hyungsik’s second cousin,” Seojoon chuckles. “It has the best of nothing, except decent privacy. I’m truly relieved you could find it.”

“I felt like Lara Croft, sneaking through these back alleys,” Seokjin says. 

Hyungsik passes him a beer. Seokjin cracks the lid, repeating the process with the other two bottles, passing one to Seokjin, and keeping the third for himself.

“At long last,” Hyungsik says, “our mission is complete.” He lifts the bottle. “Canbae.

Canbae! ” they repeat, clinking the necks together in a toast. Seokjin bubbles with excitement as the icy beer glides down his throat. Coordinating with them was the trickiest part of his plan, and with it complete, he can move on to setting other pieces into motion.

In his eagerness, Seokjin blurts, “So did you bring it?” 

The other two exchange a smirk. “We have it,” Hyungsik says. 

“May I see it?” 

And Seojoon answers, “That depends.” 

Seokjin reaches for the zipper pouch in his messenger bag. “Of course,” he says. “I brought money, but you didn’t say how much it was after the sizing and—”

“—We’ll worry about that later,” Hyungsik says, dismissing it with a wave. 

“Oh?” Seokjin straightens. “Will we?” 

“We’ve decided,” Seojoon says. 

Seokjin’s not certain, but he believes he catches a wink behind the polarized lenses of Hyungsik’s shades. 

“And what have we decided, now?” Seokjin asks.

Seojoon steeples his fingers. “Taehyungie is our little brother, our—”

“—Baby Hwarang,” Hyungsik supplies.

Seojoon does his best not to lose it. “Our Baby Hwarang,” he agrees. “And as such, we are his—”

“—Protectors,” finishes Hyungsik. “So we want to make sure, as our Baby Hwarang’s suitor, that your intentions for him are pure.”

After a moment of bemused incredulity, Seokjin gives them a sober nod. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.

“Good,” Seojoon says. He sips his beer. “Then you won’t mind us asking a few questions.”

“Sure. Of course,” Seokjin says. He folds his hands in a show of decorum. “Ask away.”

“First,” Hyungsik says. “When do you plan to have the wedding?”

Seokjin stifles his sudden burst of laughter. “I’m sorry,” he tells them. “I haven’t been able to talk about this out loud, it’s um...” He exhales the last of his anxiety. “It’s really nice, because… you’re our friends. You treat us like we’re normal, and the rest of the country… would not.”

Seojoon and Hyungsik share a knowing nod, before Seojoon says, “And yet you didn’t answer our question.”

“Right.” Seokjin recenters. “Um. I haven’t set a date. Partly because I haven’t proposed yet, but also because, right now, it’s too tenuous. With military service and our careers and most of my family. We have to wait, so it could be a while. Years, even.”

Hyungsik purses his lips. He says, “Does this suffice?”

Seojoon says, “It will suffice.” Then, “Next question. You had us running all over Seoul for this proposal of yours, yet still we know none of the details.”

“That’s right,” Hyungsik says, “So tell us, please, about La Vie En Rose. What is your final plan here, your ultimate goal?”

Seokjin’s ears redden. He clears his throat. “Did you know,” he asks, “that La Vie in French means Life?” 

The two men shake their heads. 

Seokjin goes on, “Neither did I, but… when I started planning this nearly a year ago, I found a song in one of Taehyung’s playlists called La Vie En Rose. So I thought, my V is my life.” He drops his eyes, feeling suddenly that this is far too close and too personal to be sharing out loud in the blazing light of day. 

But Seojoon mutters, softly, “That’s lovely.”

“Clever, too,” Hyungsik adds. “Please. Continue.” 

Seokjin senses their sincerity in the eagerness with which they watch him. They’re genuinely interested, even if they can’t resist the occasional tease. So he feels it’s probably safe enough to go on. “For years,” he says. “we’ve dreamed of going to Paris. Then this year, in October, we’ll be there on tour. We have a window of a few hours on one night, so my plan is to go with him to the top of the Eiffel Tower—”

“—And that’s where you plan to ask him?” Hyungsik guesses.

Seokjin nods. “That is my plan, yes.”

Seojoon and Hyungsik both groan. “Hyung, we have to take notes from this guy,” Hyungsik tells Seojoon.

“The Prince of Romance,” Seojoon declares. “We’ll be coming to you someday, if we can ever find women who’ll agree to be our wives”

“I’ll count on it,” Seokjin grins.

“Good, then,” Seojoon says, serious once more. “Next question.” He straightens. “Our Baby Hwarang needs a fine house if he’s to grow happy and be well. Where do you intend to live?” 

“Oh. Well,” Seokjin answers, “I bought us a farm near Daegu.”

“A farm?” Hyungsik says. “Really?” 

“That’s so nice,” Seojoon says. “In Daegu?”

“It’s a good place. During the summer, we took Taehyung’s family to see it...” Seokjin opens his phone to the gallery of their visit to Daegu back in July. He scrolls through them with Seojoon and Hyungsik crowding over his shoulders to watch. He ends with the first one he took, of Taehyung, his brother, and his sister, waving from the front step of the farmhouse. 

“Aish…” Hyungsik fiddles a halved note from his pocket. He unfolds it, crumples it into a ball, and chucks it into a nearby bin.  “I had about a hundred questions, but you just answered most of them so—”

“—A hundred?” Seokjin gulps. 

“We were prepared to grill you,” Seojoon explains, “you know, the way a father would grill a prospective groom.”

“Aw,” Seokjin says. He presses a hand to his heart.

“We love our Taehyungie,” Hyungsik says. 

“And it’s clear you love him, too,” Seojoon adds. 

“So we want to do what we can, to support you both, since we know this path will not always be easy, or understanding, or forgiving,” Hyungsik finishes. 

“Stop it, this isn’t fair,” Seokjin says. “I might cry.” 

“Yeah, but there’s no one here but us, man,” Hyungsik says. “And we’re with you.”

Seokjin touches a shaking hand to his nose. He manages a choked, "Thank you," when Seojoon reaches to squeeze his hand. 

“Yeah, we wanna thank you, too,”  Hyungsik says. “For including us in this adventure. Dodging around town, searching for the ring, getting it sized, having it engraved. It was fun to be included.”

“And Taehyungie loves you,” Seojoon says. “He went through some rough times, and you didn’t give up on him. It means the world to him.”

 Seokjin says, quietly, “He means the world to me.” 

Hyungsik gives Seojoon a meaningful nod. From Seojoon’s pocket, he produces a striped drawstring pouch, which he passes to Seokjin. 

Seokjin opens the pouch. He turns the ring out into his palm. The simple band gleams liquid bright beneath the summer sun. He lifts it to eye-level to read the inscription.

From now on. 

The recurring promise of the words rings true in both immediacy and simplicity. Every time Taehyung reads them, the promise is renewed. Regardless of how they may change, however their lives may go: From now on, Seokjin will love him. 

Seokjin breathes out a sigh. “It’s beautiful,” he whispers. 

“It truly is,” Seojoon agrees.

With reverent reluctance, Seokjin replaces the ring into its pouch. Though he knows they’re short on time, they enjoy the rest of their beer, soaking in the scents and sounds of the market. It will be months before Seokjin returns to Seoul, and longer still before they all will resume their real search for the perfect New Year’s soup. 

For the time being, he’ll enjoy this moment with his friends, knowing how blessed they are to have them.

Chapter Text

“Life goes on, it gets so heavy
The wheel breaks the butterfly,
Every tear a waterfall,
But at night, she’ll close her eyes.”
Paradise, Coldplay

3 September – Hannam the Hill

The doorbell chimes. Above the rocket-launch level of noise in their common room, no one seems to hear it, except, somehow, for Namjoon, who is hip-deep in cords and cables. He’s frantically searching for his tablet charger, which he needs for their trip, and he’s almost got everything untangled. If he gets up now, he’ll lose his progress, and as usual, he’s running behind. 

“Jimin-ah!” he yells. “Can you get the door?”

The raucous chaos in the common room continues unabated. From what Namjoon can tell, Jimin is providing the OST for a fight scene featuring Taehyung and Jungkook, who are, from the sound of it, kick-fighting on their couches. Again. 

Namjoon wonders longingly where Hoseok and Yoongi might be. Then he remembers, they went for breakfast. And Seokjin's off on some private business, but Namjoon had been distracted by texting with Adora, hoping to wedge in a meeting between packing and arriving at the airport with adequate time for security. 

They require extra now, since someone at the airport has been selling their itineraries. Apparently, they have fans who purchase flights just to board the plane with them. 

Namjoon pauses to ponder this. What a strange idea that is, that someone would spend good money simply to ride the same plane. He wonders if there’s a play on words there, turning on the word plane, how like ‘on the same plane’ doesn’t mean they’re on the same plane of existence—

When the doorbell rings again.

Namjoon sighs. He glances at the hopelessly-entwined cords and drops them. He pads down the hall, past their kitchen, which smells of burnt microwave popcorn, past their common room, which smells of sweaty, kickboxing boys, and into their foyer, which reeks of shoes.  

So much for the luxury life, he thinks. If people only knew…

Yet he’s smiling to himself as he thumbs the intercom button, because there, in the video monitor, stands Adora.  

Namjoon opens the door. She steps in. 

“Hey,” he grins.

All in one breath, she says, “I didn’t think we’d get to meet, so I decided to come here, I hope that’s okay.” Then, as she’s toeing out of her shoes, she shoves a paper bag at him. “Here.”

“Oh?” Namjoon steps back to allow her space. “Thanks.”

Five seconds into her shoe-removing, she draws up and sniffs. “What’s that smell?” 

“Impossible to identify,” Namjoon drones.

“And that noise?” she asks.

Namjoon gives her a pained smile. “Pre-flight jitters?” 

Adora sucks her teeth. “You poor, poor man.” 

“Eh, I’m used to it.” An awkward moment spools between them, during which something crashes in the common room. Then there’s a nervous peal of laughter (Jimin’s), and a hurried scuffle as the other two attempt to sweep up the wreckage.

Cringing, Namjoon says, “Would you like a drink?”

“I would,” she says. “But I left my tranquilizer darts in the car.”

“Ah, fortunately, I’m a native,” Namjoon says. He turns then, leading her through their white marble entryway. They pass the common room, where Jungkook has Taehyung in a headlock. Jimin busily but ineffectively tickles Jungkook’s ribs in an effort to free Taehyung, who has gone purple with either asphyxiation or laughter. However, the three perk up like meerkats to wordlessly watch as Namjoon and Adora pass. 

Then, once they’re in the kitchen, they hear Jimin stage-whisper, “What is SHE doing here?” 

Namjoon says, “I’m sorry.”

“Nope, I get it,” Adora says. “I vetoed their song, ergo I’m the enemy. It’s all part of the job. And believe me, the new boys’re gonna test us, RM-ssi. Just, be ready.”

“The new boys.” Namjoon whistles. In all their current activity, he hasn’t spared BigHit’s new trainees a passing thought. “Man,” he says, “I remember the purgatory of pre-debut with such clarity. And now...”

With an exhale, he pulls open their refrigerator. Inside he finds one half an onion, a greasy takeout box, four cartons of melon milk, each labeled SUGA in bold block letters, and a lone bottle of Perrier.

It strikes him that the fridge’s contents painfully resemble that of their pre-debut days. 

Shaking his head, he passes the Perrier to Adora. “My apologies,” he explains. “We’ve cleaned out everything remotely edible since we’ll be gone a couple months.”

She sips, wincing against the bubbles. “This is fine,” she says. “Thanks.”

They go to the breakfast bar. She hops onto a stool. Another moment of tension ribbons between them. It’s silent in the common room now, which always makes Namjoon more anxious than their noise. 

He says, “I talked to Seokjin—”

At the same time she goes, “I’ve been thinking—”

“Oh.” Heat bakes his neck. “Sorry. You go.”

“No, you.” She sips again. “Please.”

So Namjoon gives her a quick rundown of his conversation with Seokjin, which segues neatly into Namjoon’s idea about Minyeong. “It took a while for us to gain evidence of his abuses here,” he explains, “but eventually, we got it.”

Adora’s nodding, her eyes hard. “That’s kinda what I was thinking, too. People like him never change, right? So if he was abusive here, he’s gotta be abusive there as well.”

“And if so, we can catch him,” Namjoon says. 

“Those poor Media Line boys,” Adora says, blowing a sigh between her lips. “As if being a trainee wasn’t hard enough—”

“—But this is the industry standard,” Namjoon cuts in. “Abuse like this is rampant in almost every company, which is why Bang PD wanted something different—”

“—And yet Minyeong still got through,” Adora counters. “He was with BigHit for years.”

“From the beginning,” Namjoon agrees. “He came over with Bang Sihyuk from JYP. But I’ve been thinking lately, about that movie you like so much.”

Gosford Park ?” Her eyes brighten. “Did you watch it?”

“Ha, no,” Namjoon admits. “Like, I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie all the way through.” He pauses, trying to recall, but there’s too much in his brain to sift through. So he says, “But I remember the premise, where the staff knows more than the wealthy people they work for.”

Adora clicks her tongue. “You get the gist.”

“So you know our manager Hobeom, right?” Namjoon asks.

“Older guy, sweet-faced, not around much these days?” Adora says. 

“Right, right,” Namjoon confirms. “He got married back in July, so he asked to scale back his travel overseas. Which means he’s staying in Seoul while we’re on tour. He knows a lot of people in our industry, a lot of managers in other companies, and he’s a good guy. We can trust him.” 

Adora squinches her eyes shut. “Aagh, so we’re doing Seokjin’s plan?” she grates out. “We’re going toe to toe with the sleazebag?”

“Actually, it’s my plan.” Namjoon says, feeling a smile in spite of his trepidation. “Though Jin-hyung’s recent rebellious streak is what sparked the inspiration.”  

“Ai-yah,” she moans. “Another handful, that one.” 

You don’t know the half of it, Namjoon thinks. But he notes the way her eyes glisten, out of admiration and not annoyance. He has to admit he feels a similar prickle of pride at how Seokjin’s begun to flex for the things in which he believes. 

Adora scoots from the bar stool. “Oof, Joon-ssi, I better go,” she says. “You got a flight to catch. I’ve got corporate espionage...”

Namjoon, who had lost all track of time, feels slightly adrift as he realizes that she’s right, and he’s still nowhere near being ready. 

“So. You gonna open it?” she asks. She inclines her head toward the paper bag on the bar, still clutched in his hand, which he had forgotten existed until right now. Again, he feels a tinge of heat on his neck, because here he is, this successful, supposed genius who would legit forget his mother’s birthday if it wasn’t the passcode to his studio door. 

“It’s for your birthday since you’ll be abroad and we won’t see you around for awhile,” Adora rambles. “Anyway, I know we don’t do gifts and I hope it’s not too weird, but I found it in a comics shop in Hongdae and I thought…”

He opens the paper bag. Inside he finds a long, cylindrical object that looks like a kind of sci-fi flute with a silver button on its side. When he presses it, the thing emits a warbly trill while its tip pulses a soft, pale blue.

“...It’s a sonic screwdriver,” Adora explains. “This one’s from the Tenth Doctor. He doesn’t use weapons, but instead solves his problems with… sound. You know, it seemed more profound in my head.” She snatches it from him, turning it to click another button on the opposite end. “It’s also a pen.” 

 “I like it,” he says, pondering as he turns it between his fingers. “‘Cause solving problems with sound is what us musicians do.”

Adora breaks into a relieved smile. “You get it,” she says. “I really hoped you would.”

“Thanks,” Namjoon says. “For, like, everything.” At the door, while she wriggles back into her shoes, he says, “Because, if you think about it, this is a chance for us to make a change in our field. We might shine a light on some of the abuse that happens in neighboring companies—”

“—Or, you know,” she adds, breezily, “We can increase the size of the target on our backs.”

“Well,” Namjoon smiles. “The higher we climb, the harder we are to hit.” 

“You know, Joon-ssi,” Adora reaches a hand to Namjoon’s shoulder to steady herself as she stamps into her boots. “I cannot argue with that.” 

“Let’s go fight bad guys,” he says. 

She bows. “To fighting bad guys.” He opens the door; she steps out. “Have a nice flight.”

“You too,” he says. He shuts his eyes, “I mean, drive. Um. Whatever. Bye!”

Namjoon shuts the door and counts a full five seconds before he remembers that breathing is a thing. Feeling foolish, he murmurs, “Have a nice flight. You too, hur hur.”

Then he turns to find Taehyung standing there. His voice dark and playfully knowing, he goes, “Namjoon-ssi.”

“Uhh, V-ssi,” he parrots back, aiming for nonchalance and failing, miserably. “Adora was here.”

“And?”

“And now she’s... gone?” Recovering a sliver of dignity, he adds, “Actually, we have a plan to stop Minyeong.”

Taehyung’s eyes flash. “Minyeong,” he mutters. “When Jin-hyung told me, I sorta hoped it was a bad pain meds dream.”

“No,” Namjoon says. “Unfortunately, he’s a very real, very nasty nightmare.”

Taehyung says, “He’s one of those stringy puppet guys, you know?” He pantomimes a puppeteer, and Namjoon understands. 

“Like a marionette?” Namjoon grunts. “That’s... sufficiently creepy. But nothing we can’t handle.” He reaches to assure him. “Though we should all have a conversation, soon, about everything that’s going on. But first, we gotta get to America. You packed?”

Taehyung glazes over, his eyes unfocused. “Okay,” he murmurs.

“Tae, are you packed?” Namjoon asks again, hooking an arm around the younger’s shoulder. “Not sure when the vans are coming, but do you have everything?” 

“Yeah, I’m ready,” Taehyung answers. “I came to check on you.”

“I’m not finished packing,” Namjoon admits. He guides Taehyung back to his bedroom, where his suitcase remains in disarray beneath a nest of tangled cords. “Maybe you can help?”

Taehyung nods, numbly, and for a minute, Namjoon wonders if Taehyung’s hit a point of mental overload. Then, a second later, Taehyung reaches for one of the cords and begins to methodically unwind it. Halfway through the length, his eyes go wide.

“Hyung, There's something I need,” he blurts. He drops the cord and hurries down the hall. Not surprisingly, he doesn't return. Such is Taehyung’s way.

Namjoon inhales. He picks up the knotted cords and begins to unravel them, the image of a puppeteer still vivid in his brain. After a moment, he wonders if it might be smarter to buy another charger at the airport. Which is when he remembers that it would be, because they use another voltage in the US, so they'll have different plugs. It’s a rookie mistake, but before he can judge himself too harshly, he reminds himself that they’re busy. It’s easy to become scattered, especially when real-life dragons rear their heads. 

He abandons his charger and finishes his suitcase. Even so, he’s the last one ready when the vans arrive, but, thankfully, no one teases him. In fact, Seokjin helps him load up. At the back of the van, Seokjin gives him a look, like he knows something. This lets Namjoon know that Taehyung's already relayed the information about Adora’s visit. They have a plan, and allies at home, and once they land in LA, their focus will shift to their tour.

Namjoon climbs into the front seat. He pats the object in the pocket of his coat. Music is spiraling into his head, new songs with new lyrics to scribble down. So although he may not need a sonic screwdriver, Namjoon can always use a pen.

Chapter Text

“Dreaming, after all, is a kind of planning.”
Gloria Steinem

6 September 2018 Los Angeles

Seokjin awakens to the whalesong of his alarm, well before dawn, to find Taehyung beside him, naked beneath the topsheet, his arms starfished above his head. He takes a quiet moment to watch him, to appreciate him, before he knows he’ll have to bother him awake.

The sparse hair on his Taehyung’s belly and thighs is a soft, tawny brown. Seokjin combs his fingers along the crease of his leg, the treasured, private place where his groin begins, a place that only Seokjin gets to see. And only when Taehyung’s asleep, because when he’s awake, this kind of touching stirs to other, not-so-tender endeavors. Things for which they have no time today.  

But they do have this. Despite chaotic schedules and constant hunger, they have managed to steal another morning. They have entangled another night between them, another handful of hours that no one can take away.

It’s raining outside, a soft whispering mist. The thunder mutters to it, a distant reassurance: I’m still with you, I’m always here.

Beneath Seokjin’s palm, Taehyung’s stomach feels taut. The weight he gained, all that summer plumpness, has melted beneath the demands of their new choreography. For the next three months, this will be their life. A half-life, as Seokjin once thought. While on tour, he used to become a separate version of himself, and it’s strange now, thinking of that other half, that uncertain person who would run away and hide. 

The person he used to become is gone now. Seokjin no longer lives his life by halves. The persona he projects on stage and the man he is now, lying beside the man he loves, they are, at last, the same. And he is no longer afraid.

Seokjin slides from the bed. Taehyung shifts, curling into the place where Seokjin had been. From the front pocket of his bag, Seokjin pulls the envelope tied with its long, red string. He returns to Taehyung, watching him a moment longer, marking this time in his memory: the hush and gurgle of the AC, the scent of face cream and sleep, the delicate flutter of Taehyung’s eyelashes as he dreams. 

“VV,” Seokjin whispers. He touches Taehyung’s cheek. He comes awake in a heartbeat, reaching instantly for Seokjin to draw him back into bed. 

Seokjin braces the envelope between them, it’s stiff edges poking at their skin. After a moment, Taehyung cranes back. Still muzzy from sleep, he glances from the envelope to Seokjin, and his understanding begins to dawn. 

“Is it a gift?” Taehyung asks.

“It is,” Seokjin says. 

Taehyung drags himself upright. He shakes his head to clear it. Seokjin places the envelope in Taehyung’s lap, into the space between his naked thighs. Taehyung lifts and turns it between his hands. He traces the red thread with his fingertip. “I didn’t get you anything,” he murmurs.

“I already have my present,” Seokjin says. “And my future.”

Taehyung’s eyes narrow. He manages a strangled, “Wha, Jin-hyung—?” before pressing a kiss to his lips. “It’s too early,” he says. “I’m not even awake.”

“Open it,” Seokjin insists. He’s jittery now from Taehyung’s excitement, and from his own nerves at finally seeing this part of his plan unfold.

Taehyung unthreads the length of cord. He lets it fall aside as he lifts the flap of the envelope. He finds a card inside, patterned with Monet’s Waterlilies. In purple lettering in the center of the page, there is a phrase in French: Je t’aime davantage aujourd’hui, plus qu’hier, moins que demain.

Taehyung ponders over it a moment before flipping the card to the back, where he finds a series of numbers: 

11.22:11.45:10.21

984:1887

33.892.70.12.39

“Is it a puzzle?” Taehyung asks. 

“It’s a piece of one,” Seokjin answers. He smiles as Taehyung continues to switch back and forth between the phrase on the front and the numbers on the back. “I know we’re working on our plans for Yoongi and Hope. But, this is for you.”

Taehyung’s lips move in silence as he attempts to riddle out the meaning of the phrase. “It’s not English,” he says.

“Nope,” Seokjin says, resisting the delicious temptation to give him more. Because once Taehyung figures that part out, he’ll have an idea of what to expect, and that’s what Seokjin hopes to give him. Each piece, a discovery, something only meant for Taehyung.

Seokjin lifts the red thread and winds it around Taehyung’s wrist. Taehyung watches, rapt, almost reverent, as Seokjin ties it into place. 

“Like Elio,” Taehyung says, breathless. “Like the one he wears.”

“Taehyungie, I know how you love that movie,” Seokjin whispers. “But you know, we’re not like them.” 

“I'm like Elio,” Taehyung tells him. 

“Okay, yes.” Seokjin brushes their noses together. “But I am not like Oliver.”

“Okay.” Taehyung gives him his frowny grin. “So is this a piece of the puzzle?” he asks.

“No,” Seokjin says. “The thread is for us. The last one I gave you grew frayed because you carried it around in your pocket. But this one’s strong.” He draws the knot tight and slips the thread against the bracelet he gave Taehyung for his birthday. The interlocking loops slide over the cord, immediately entangling them. “This is our connection. And it’s bright red, so everyone can see it.”

Taehyung bends to kiss him. Seokjin catches his chest on the palm of his hand, giving him a little push back.

“You know how much I love you, right?” Seokjin asks.

“Yes,” Taehyung says.

“And you know,” Seokjin tells him, “I will never kiss you on stage again. You know that, right?”

Taehyung’s thin brows lift. They’ve come so close already, risking everything during their adlib for So What? The tension between them, paired with the lyrics, it’s been almost too much for them to bear. Every night, Seokjin wants to follow through. But he holds them back, and Taehyung needs to know why.

“I will only kiss you in public if I know it’s safe,” he says. “Because there will always be a Minyeong.” Taehyung flinches at the name; Seokjin takes his hands. “There will always be someone who will try to use us for their gain. And we won’t let them.”

After a pause, Taehyung asks, “What about Jiminie and Jungkookie?”

Seokjin lifts a shoulder. “I mean, I’m concerned for them, too, but…they're not children anymore. They have to choose how they’ll handle themselves. And Joon told me the staff's investigating Minyeong's employment back home, looking for misconduct in his present company, so we won't have to worry about him. As for us... We’ll be us. Not Elio and Oliver, not Do Bong Soon and Minhyuk, not Jimin or Jungkook. Just us.”

This time when Taehyung leans to kiss him, Seokjin permits a brief indulgence, to melt to the touch of their lips and the taste of Taehyung’s tongue. But then he pulls back. “I can’t let everything we’ve been through get reduced to some ridiculous dating scandal. After all we’ve been through, how dare someone try and twist this against us?”  

Taehyung tugs on the trailing edge of the thread, making sure the knot is secure. “I wish it wasn’t this way,” he sighs. “But,” He moves to slide his legs around Seokjin’s thighs. Seokjin shifts, drawing Taehyung forward, pressing their bodies close. “I understand.” 

This is how they’d been in Malta, on the night that Namjoon caught them: Taehyung in Seokjin’s lap, his arms around Seokjin’s neck, his legs a loose tangle around his waist. 

Seokjin feels his blood stir. He feels Taehyung’s pulse at the place where his wrists brush Seokjin’s neck. “We don’t have time,” he whispers.

“We’ll make time,” Taehyung growls.

Outside, the rain blurs the world away, as if nothing beyond their room exists. It’s only them, and only now, only heartbeat and warmth together, and this will always be enough. 

 

Chapter Text

“Make dreams brighter, get rid of the nightmares
Peace will be right there.”
Piece of Peace, J-Hope

9 September 2018 – LA to Oakland

Hoseok places his hands on either side of the exterior door and gasps. “This is our plane?” he asks. 

Sejin, towering steward-like against the inner wall, gestures toward the jet’s plush, leather-appointed interior, and says, “While in America and Europe, yes.” 

Hoseok takes the final step inside, drinking down the crisp, filtered air. Behind him, Jimin also gasps, exclaiming excitedly to Taehyung and Jungkook, who are still outside on the boarding steps. “It’s so much bigger than I imagined,” Jimin says.

Jungkook whispers back to Taehyung, “Something I hear all the time,” and Hoseok reaches to smack him.

Yoongi, though, the first to board, and Seokjin, the second, have already claimed the best seats and recline now like wealthy sultans awaiting their take-off cocktails.

“And look,” Yoongi points out, “There’s a laptop, so we can keep working.”

“Or play games,” Seokjin adds.

“Or Namjoon-ssi can work on his UN address,” Sejin reminds them, to which the others nod and thoughtfully concede. 

Yoongi rolls his eyes to Seokjin and sighs. “Namjoon is a better man than the rest of us.” 

“Speaking of,” Seokjin says, half-rising, “Where is he?” 

Before he can leave his seat, Sejin proceeds to explain that Namjoon’s briefing with other staff members who will remain behind in LA, handling last-minute tour details and finalizing press. Always interested in these particulars, Seokjin nods along, soaking it in. All the while, Hoseok remains trapped between Sejin, who waits politely for him to get seated, and Jimin, who fidgets behind Hoseok with the impatience of a teenager in a theme park line.

At Hoseok’s elbow, Yoongi lifts the brim of his hat. “Wanna sit with me?” he asks. 

It’s odd, since Hoseok hadn’t considered sitting anywhere else. In the moment it takes to think this, Hoseok reads a twinge of uncertainty in Yoongi’s eyes, like maybe he’s afraid Hoseok might refuse.

At that second, Sejin adjusts to allow Hoseok to pass. He slides around Yoongi, to the window seat (who can deny a guy who saves you the window?) and stuffs his duffel under the table. 

“Hey Hope.” Yoongi grins, all gums.

“Hey Yoongs,” Hoseok replies. 

The moment hangs between them, tight and airless, like they both forget to breathe. Hoseok stares at Yoongi’s bare face, his skin like polished moonstones, his lips a deep rose-blossom red. Hoseok’s mind runs to fairy tales – Snow White, or a Sleeping Prince – and on the heels of that, he wonders, How long has it been since we kissed? Then, How long will it be before we kiss again? 

And then, with a stake in his heart, he thinks, What if it’s never?  

The moment’s shattered when Taehyung shouts, "Wha—? Hyung! There’s a bed in here.”

Namjoon’s voice calls up from boarding ramp, “Nope. No bed. Ignore the bed.” He gestures from Seokjin to Taehyung. “Especially you two.”

Seokjin gawks in mock offense. Taehyung slings himself into the seat beside him.

“Yah. Long Legs,” Yoongi gruffs, “Your feet, your side of the table.”

In response, Taehyung begins to loudly applaud, which draws Jimin’s and Jungkook’s attention. They peek around the partition where, incidentally, they had been fooling around on the bed unnoticed and unremarked upon by Namjoon. 

“Why are we clapping?” Jimin asks.

Taehyung sweeps a gesture toward Yoongi, who shoots him a glower of warning. 

“Make some noise for the Fifth Member of Dance Line,” Taehyung yells. 

“Is this necessary?” Yoongi grumbles. “Why are you so loud?”

Seokjin squints up at Namjoon. “Are you hearing this?”

“That we’re now the only non-Dance Line Members?” Namjoon smirks. “Yeah. I hear it.”

“No one expected Agust D to sing and dance so well,” Jungkook observes. He leans way over to give Yoongi a fist bump. 

“You killed it, hyung,” Namjoon agrees. “ARMY went nuts. And Hope, our Idol Challenge went viral—”

“—And we’re in a private jet, yo,” Hoseok adds. “Maybe we can finally get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi snorts. “Our flight time’s an hour.”

“What?” Hoseok glances to Seokjin, who shrugs in confirmation. 

“Private jet, yo,” Namjoon echoes. “But this is for the best. For security purposes and for time constraints, too. Now only we can board the plane, which will simplify security and keep our members safe. Speaking of... JK, please keep up with this.” Namjoon passes Jungkook’s phone to him.

For a moment, Jungkook puzzles over the phone in his hand, a look of confusion peaked between his brows. He pats absently at his pockets to be sure this isn’t some other phone by mistake. “Where was it?” he asks.

“Benji-nim found it under the seat in the van,” Namjoon says. “No big deal, but y’know, we can’t be too careful.” He pats down Jimin’s tousled hair. “And I’m serious about the bed, man. No Mile High Club on this tour. Please.” 

Jimin gives a bashful bow, dragging Jungkook to their seats. Jungkook continues to examine his phone, rubbing the back of his head as he stares into the screen. “I don’t remember taking it out in the van,” he mutters. “We listened to music on Jimin's phone. I swear mine was in my bag the whole time.”

“Like I said, it’s no big deal,” Namjoon says. “Benji found it. He’s always finding stuff for me, too. So, you know, just be careful…”

Yoongi’s eyes meet Hoseok’s. They share a private smile of sympathy for Namjoon, who must keep track of so many things. Across from them, Seokjin whispers behind his hand into Taehyung’s ear. Consumed by an almost grade-school reflex to keep things balanced, Hoseok leans to whisper into Yoongi’s. As he does, though, he realizes he doesn’t have a clue of what to say. 

So he’s surprised by the first whisper that tumbles out, which is, “I still have the flower you gave me.”

Chills prickle up Yoongi’s arm. He trains his focus on his playlist, but the wisp of a smile crimps one corner of his mouth. 

“How?” Yoongi murmurs. “It was mostly powder when I picked it. I would’ve thought it crumbled to dust by now.”

“I pressed it,” Hoseok admits. “Inside a piece of paper, then inside a book.”

“You did all that?” Yoongi asks. 

“It wasn’t a lot,” Hope shrugs.

“It was a useless weed yanked from a roadside,” Yoongi counters. “It was trash, and you coulda thrown it away.”

“You gave it to me,” Hoseok says. “Your specific instructions were to hang onto it. What kind of friend would I be if I threw it away?”

The plane judders. Hoseok clamps tightly to Yoongi’s forearm. Outside the window, the tarmac scrolls back as the jet begins to taxi for takeoff. 

Across the table, Taehyung says, “Guess we don’t need the safety intro for a one-hour private flight?”

“Much as we fly, we could recite the whole thing from memory,” Seokjin says. “In English.”

“Hyung,” Jungkook teases. “Do it, do it.” 

“How much will you give me?”

Finally putting his phone away, Jungkook turns the contents of his pockets into his lap: a thousand won note, a wrapperless cough drop, and a crinkled receipt. “I will give you,” he holds up the cash, “One thousand won.”

Seokjin stands, straightens his sleeves, and clears his throat. “Attention passengers of Bangtan Air, Flight 0613—”

“—Oooh,” Taehyung and Jungkook marvel together.

Pleased with himself, Seokjin beams. “Flight 0613 with service to… where are we going?”

“Oakland,” Namjoon intones. Jimin dissolves into giggles.

“Yeah. Okay,” Seokjin says. “Oakland.” He begins an over-exaggerated pantomime of a flight attendant’s motions as he continues his speech. “So first, you know, please put on your safety belts and turn off your cell phones.” Hoseok and Taehyung make a show of clicking their belts into place, and everyone (except Yoongi) switches off their phones. 

“If passengers must leave this plane mid-flight,” Seokjin goes on, “which I hope not, it is a very long, long fall; there are emergency exits in the front and back of this plane.” He sweeps vaguely at a panel behind Sejin. “If the cabin loses pressure,” he continues, “Oxygen masks will drop from above.” 

They all look up to see that, though this is a private jet, the compartments are, in fact, present. Seokjin imitates slipping the mask over his face. Then he reminds them, “Please secure your own mask before giving a mask to another person.” Taehyung lolls over his chair’s armrest in an exaggerated faint. Seokjin mimics the motion of placing a mask over Taehyung’s nose. Jungkook grapples Taehyung, scrambling to snatch the imaginary mask from his face. He then pretends to give it to Jimin. 

“Wow,” Taehyung grumbles. “I see how it is.” Meanwhile, Jimin basks in the glow Jungkook’s attention.

“Finally,” Seokjin nudges in, smirking at the joke he knows he’s about to make, “Remember that in the unlikely event of a water landing, Min Yoongi’s ass may be used as a flotational device.” 

They were already on the verge of losing it. At this point, they devolve into howls. This is when their actual flight attendant steps around the corner. She stands beside Seokjin, who bows to her, his ears burning furiously red. She says, “You were doing such a good job, I didn’t want to interrupt.” 

Then she leads them through the official safety demonstration, which, according to Namjoon, is required by federal law. 

 

The hours after the flight blur together: ground transportation, hotel, venue, hotel, shower, and then a quiet room-service meal. Afterward, here's a moment of blankness as Hoseok sits on the edge of a bed identical to every other hotel bed he’ll sleep in on this tour. 

He takes a moment to skim through his inventory of concerns, starting with himself. 

On the surface, he’s healthy, reasonably rested, well-fed, and not nearly as sore as he might have been if they’d had to struggle through the stress of security at LAX. So all in all, he feels… physically, pretty damn good. 

Then, as Hoseok completes the checklist for each of his members, a realization dawns on him like a tingle in his belly. Every one of them seems to be doing well. They’re well and uninjured. None of them are on the edge of catastrophe or collapse. There’s a lingering fear over Jimin’s death threat in Texas, but they’ve addressed it, so there’s nothing more they can do about it now. 

“We should be safe,” he murmurs, and then he smiles. Things are better than they have been for a while, so he allows himself a moment to relax. 

Of course, he could let himself think now about Yoongi, about the tangled snarls of his feelings, which he wrapped up and tucked away beneath layers of distraction, video games, and bone-numbing choreo. He casts back to the moment in the plane where he daydreamed of kissing him, and that longing twists in him like a crochet hook to the gut.

It’s been long enough, he decides, meeting his own eyes in the mirror. He gets up, yanks on a shirt, and paces the short distance between his bed and the door. Before he can open it, though, he hears a soft tapping on the frame.

Hoseok knows who it is before he answers, but still, he lets the butterflies inside him swirl. Because it's Yoongi standing there, his hair damp, his face slightly contrite. 

He says, “Hey Hope.” 

“Hey Yoongs.” Hoseok steps aside to let him enter.

Yoongi sits on the bed. Hoseok sits beside him.

Yoongi goes, “So I’ve been thinking, about Seokjin’s safety demo.”

This is not what Hoseok expected to hear, but he doesn’t interrupt.

“It’s funny,” he says. Yoongi kneads his fingers as he speaks. “We talk about masks to hide behind.” A smile flickers across his lips. “I never thought about a mask as something that would… help.” Yoongi swallows. “The oxygen mask, you know? I have to put mine on before trying to help someone else.” He whispers, “I get that now.”

A coil of tension inside Hoseok begins to slowly unravel. He says, “Because how can you help someone if you can’t breathe on your own?”

“Exactly.” Yoongi’s face creases with uncertainty. “Right now, that’s what I’m doing. I’m securing my oxygen mask. Because I want to be better for me, but for other people, too. You. My family. Us. That’s what I’m doing.”

“Yoongi, you don’t need to explain—”

“—No, but I do,” Yoongi says. “I want to. Because I think… it’s working. When I left Malta, I couldn’t breathe. Literally. Also, metaphorically. So I went into this kind of clinic. I didn’t want to talk about it because I was ashamed, because I thought it meant I was broken again, like when I was a kid. Like all the progress I’d made meant nothing because there I was again, in the bottom of the well. But I started talking to someone, and I’m starting to see. Hope. It’s working. I’m starting to breathe.”

Hoseok wipes his eyes. He finds himself fixating on Yoongi’s lips and has to drag himself away. “I don’t really understand,” he admits. “You and me, we have such different struggles. But I'm so happy it’s working.”

Yoongi says, “I got a long way to go, I know that. And there’s a lot of anger, and fear. Not at you. Never at you.” He rubs his nose. “I’m understanding now that this… depression… is a part of me. It’s the shadow cast by every bright thing in my life. But I know I can live with it. Because, Hope, it’s only a shadow.” 

Hoseok stares into his face. He exhales and allows a few of his stifled feelings revive. They stir, like the embers in a quiet fire, and he savors the warmth of the feeling. “Yoongs,” he says. “I'm really proud of you.” 

“I’m proud of you, too,” Yoongi says. “I’m proud of us.” 

“Do you mean Us us, or y’know, Us?” Hoseok smiles. 

“Gonna go with both.” Then, taking Hoseok’s warm hand in his own, Yoongi says, “Much as I wanna be, Hope, I know I’m not fully ready.”

“I’m not in any hurry,” Hoseok says, reassuring Yoongi as much as he is himself. 

Grinning, Yoongi adds, “But, just so you know, you can always use my ass as a flotational device.” 

Fizzling into laughter, Hoseok says, “Fucking Seokjin.” 

“Goddammit, I know,” Yoongi agrees. 

They slide back onto the petal-soft duvet, curling up face to face to watch each other. 

“You wanna sleep here?” Hoseok asks. He doesn’t need to say ‘just sleep.’ They already know.

“Yeah.” 

They slide beneath the bedclothes, switch off the light, and it isn’t long at all before they both drift to sleep.

Chapter Text

“No matter what, darkness erases.
I’ll definitely save you,
You are not alone.”
Don’t Leave Me, BTS

15 September 2018 Fort Worth, Texas

Jimin sits in a chair, facing a window, watching the flat, green-gold landscape of a foreign city unfurl beneath a gray, imposing sky. Rain clouds roll in, smelling of dust and heat, and it seems as though, in spite of the clouds, a person can see a long, long way in Texas. 

A long, long way, with nowhere to hide. 

He hasn’t been thinking about it. But now that they’re here, he can’t stop thinking about it. They even went out last night, into the rain, to explore the neighboring larger city of Dallas. They had dinner, they went to a nightclub, they listened to a live band play, and afterward, they visited an art gallery where almost no one knew who they were, and the people who did know them didn’t seem to care.

Still, the whole time, Jimin’s heart lived in his throat. He jumped at every sound. He feared every lone person on the street. Every story he ever read about Texas had someone with a gun, and then, back in May, someone with a gun had wanted him dead.

Now they’re here, in this wide open space, and Jimin’s too afraid to even close his eyes.

The door behind him opens with a click. Jimin startles up, half-turning, to realize he has nowhere to hide. Then Namjoon steps into the room.

“Hey, man.” He taps his keycard against his palm. “You doin’ okay?”

“Yeah,” Jimin lies. “I’m watching the rain.”

“It should clear up before tonight,” Namjoon says. “Benji told us it rains like this in Texas. Afternoon storms blow in, make a lot of noise, then blow back out.”

“Oh,” Jimin mutters. 

“We’re getting lunch. You should come with.” 

“All of us?” Jimin asks.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. “There’s a restaurant off the lobby. They’ve closed it to the public for a few hours, so y’know, it’ll only be us.” 

Jimin would prefer to stay in the room. He wants to feel weightless and translucent. For maybe the first time in his life, he craves invisibility. 

“No one’s gonna hurt you, I promise,” Namjoon says. 

Jimin knits his fingers together. He says, “No offense, hyung, but that’s not really a promise you can make.”

Namjoon comes to the edge of the bed. He pushes Jungkook’s travel kit back and sits down. “I know you’re right in the most technical sense. There could be an earthquake, or one of those tornado things, or, like, a huge meteor could fall from the sky. Those things are unavoidable, but they’re as likely here as anywhere else. So, for the foreseeable lunchtime future, barring global catastrophe, we should be okay.” 

When Jimin still doesn’t move, Namjoon hauls him forward. Jimin slogs along beside him, permitting a moment of enjoyment at being physically moved by his hyung, until they reach the door and Jimin has to step through it. “Can’t I just order room service?” Jimin moans.

“Nope, you’re coming with me,” Namjoon says. 

Namjoon trundles Jimin down the hall to where Yoongi and Hoseok wait at the elevator. Yoongi’s messing with Hoseok’s hair. Hobi’s making cute trumpet noises with his lips. They’re playing around like there’s nothing huge or scary going on, which kinda helps Jimin feel more at ease.

“Yay!” Hoseok cheers when he sees them. He pulls Jimin into a bony hug, crushing any remaining fear right out of him.

“Any idea what kind of food they got in this restaurant of theirs?” Yoongi asks.

“It’s a buffet, I think,” Namjoon says.

“I hope it’s Mexican,” Hoseok says, keeping Jimin firmly tucked beneath his arm. “Kook and I had Mexican in Malta, tacos and nachos and quesadillas, they were outstanding.”

Yoongi glances up from his phone. “How outstanding could it be? In Malta?”

The elevator opens. They step inside. This is fine, Jimin thinks. Normal, everyday, fine

The doors close. His heart begins to pound.

“What? Malta can’t have good Mexican food?” Namjoon wonders.

“All I’m sayin’ is Texas is closer to Mexico,” Yoongi explains. “Ergo, Mexican food here – probably better.” 

As the other three continue to chatter, they guide Jimin from the elevator to the buffet hall, where the restaurant has indeed been closed to accommodate them. The place is empty, save for their security team and a handful of stylists who’ll go early to set up for tonight’s show.

Namjoon goes over to greet them. Yoongi goes to examine the buffet. Hoseok hovers beside Jimin, waiting for the others to arrive.

“You don’t have to babysit me,” Jimin sulks. 

“Aw, Jiminie,” Hoseok says, brushing a hand through Jimin’s hair. But he doesn’t say anything else, which means that’s exactly what he’s doing. 

Jimin exhales. He flounces down in a chair and scrubs his forehead. 

This is when Taehyung and Seokjin enter the restaurant, both in sunglasses, both dripping with shopping bags. Taehyung spots Jimin and points them toward his table, but they continue their conversation without stopping to acknowledge Jimin or, for that matter, anyone else.

“That’s not it, Taehyungie. I don’t think it’s ugly,” Seokjin is saying. He sets his bags down. “It’s a very bold piece of work. It’s just… it matches nothing in our apartment.”

“But, Jin-hyung. Isn’t that the point?” Taehyung asks. He clatters his sunglasses into an empty plate. 

“Uh. No,” Seokjin says. Firmly.

Hoseok shoots a concerned look at Jimin, who straightens to full alert, ready to intervene if needed, but also grateful for the distraction of their banter.

“It should match something,” Seokjin says. He’s got his hands high on his waist, the way he does when he’s indignant. “The whole point of design is to coordinate pieces that match within the existing color scheme.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “Aw. Jinnie,” he pouts. “You sound like Jungie-hyung.”

Seokjin squawks out a flustered sound. Then, refusing to let Taehyung bait him, he says, “My brother is a highly skilled designer, so I guess he would know.”

Taehyung’s eyes tighten. “I know he would know,” he says. “But it’s not always about skill. The point about art is that it’s unique. The pieces I bought, they’re one-of-a-kind. There’s nothing in the whole galaxy that they match. They’re original.”

Seokjin considers for a moment, running his tongue behind his lips. Then he creeps his fingers along the table’s edge to link his pinky with Taehyung’s. Very softly, he goes, “You’re an original.” 

Stepping closer, Taehyung growls, “I’m gonna hang them in our bedroom.”

To which Seokjin whispers, “We’re gonna need a bigger bedroom.” 

“Hey,” Namjoon cuts in. With a reluctant sigh, Seokjin and Taehyung step apart. Namjoon elbows between them, setting down his plate of food. “Go. Eat,” he commands. “Our time is ticking down.” He glances to Hoseok, who squeezes Jimin’s shoulder before hurrying off to the buffet.

Namjoon saws into piece of meat that looks like a flattened fried chicken. “You should eat, too, Jimin. You should have something in your stomach before we perform.”

Jimin sneers. The food smells good in the way that fried things do, but it looks greasy and heavy, and Jimin’s stomach churns. He fusses his phone from his pocket, thinking that he should’ve just gone to work out Jungkook. When Jungkook left this morning, Jimin begged off, claiming he’d rather watch the rain than go with him to exercise. Jungkook being Jungkook, he had let him without question.

Jungkook pretty much lets Jimin do as he pleases; Namjoon, however, does not.  

Jimin peers around the mostly empty restaurant in search of Jungkook, who should’ve returned from his workout by now.

As if reading Jimin’s mind, Namjoon says, “He went shopping with Taehyung and Jin.” 

Jimin perks up. “Oh?”

“Yeah, I sent him,” Namjoon explains. He stuffs a bite of fried meat into his mouth. “It was a two-birds-one-stone kind of thing. I didn’t want Tae and Jin to go alone, and Jungkook was worried about you. So I figured he could use a break.”

Jimin deflates against his chair. “A break from me?” he whimpers.

Aiming for patience, Namjoon says, “No. Jimin. That is not what I—” 

But at that moment, Yoongi and Hoseok crowd to the table, noisily plunking down their plates of food. Yoongi has crafted a tower of nachos in which every individual chip is dripping with cheese. Hoseok’s plate contains a sensible stack of soft tacos – meat, veggies, rice, and a noticeable lack of dairy.

Namjoon grins. “Tonight we’ll all be glad we no longer share hotel rooms.”  

Yoongi crunches into a cheese-slathered chip. “When in Texas,” he says. “Do as the Texans do.” He turns to Jimin. “Which means we gorge ourselves on local cuisine.” He pushes the plate of nachos toward him. “Take one, it won’t kill ya.”

Namjoon and Hoseok both shout at him.

“Whaaaat?” Yoongi yells. “It won’t, and nothing else will either. Jimin, I’m gonna level with you. You’re gonna live a long and healthy life. So go now and shorten it with nachos. Believe me, they’re worth it.”

“Are they… Fort Worth it?” Namjoon jokes, and Yoongi grates out a long, pained, withering sigh. Enjoying this, Namjoon adds, “You wait, I'ma say that in our ending 'ments tonight.”

Yoongi and Hoseok are laughing and shaking their heads as they eat. 

And sure, it’s fine. Everyone’s fine, but Jimin feels his gorge rising. 

“I can’t.” He covers his face with his hands. His chest constricts. “I can’t ...”

Someone threads their arms around his neck, crouching beside him in the chair. He knows by the strawberry-ginseng scent of his hair that it’s Taehyung. Then another arm wraps around his waist. That arm belongs to Jungkook. 

Finally, Jungkook. 

“Hey baby,” he whispers. “We got you, okay?”

The others pile around him like a human shield. Everyone, except for Yoongi, who smirks at him from across the table. When Jimin meets his eye, he raises a nacho in mock salute. Then he stuffs the whole thing into his mouth. 

“Not gonna die, Jimin,” he says, grinning as he chews. “Not today.”


The show blurs by until his solo performance. The security’s tight to every possible threat, and two minutes before Serendipity, they give him the all clear. He doesn’t know what he wanted more, the signal for safety or the one for pulling the plug, but he goes through with it. Even on his teetering knees, he dances. Even with butterflies inside him, he sings. And Yoongi was right, he didn't die. So that's pretty good. 

Afterward, they celebrate in the only way possible after the first show in a two-day engagement. They gather in Seokjin’s room to drink. 

Jimin sits on the floor, a wineglass on his knee. Jungkook steadily kneads his shoulders, while beside them, Namjoon skims through a gallery of quotes on his phone. Every few minutes, he reads one aloud, and the group either yeas it or nays it, depending on how it sounds in English. 

Hoseok and Taehyung lounge on one bed; Yoongi and Seokjin on the other. After talking about random specifics, like Namjoon’s UN speech and their picture on the cover of Time, they break into smaller conversations, unified by the occasional quote thrown in by Namjoon. 

Then Jimin overhears Yoongi say to Seokjin, “So you’re calling it ‘our apartment’ now?”  There’s a pang of something in Yoongi’s tone, something thorny and sharp that snags at Jimin’s attention. 

Seokjin either doesn’t catch the tone, or he dismisses it. “Apparently,” he answers, “It’s a gallery for Taehyung’s art.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi murmurs. Namjoon tries another quote; they all loudly weigh in. 

But Yoongi stares at his beer bottle, as if the condensation on the label is imparting the deepest secrets of the universe. After a moment, he stands up. “So I’m gonna hit it,” he says, pointing to the door.

“Have fun digesting all that dairy,” Namjoon snarks. They fist bump, and Yoongi leaves, waving them all good night.

Once the door snicks closed, Jimin asks, “Is he okay?”

They all glance at each other. “Yes. Sure,” Hoseok answers. “He’s fine.” 

Jimin finds Taehyung’s eyes. He and Tae and Jin have a plan in the works - this huge, awesome, life-changing surprise for Yoongi and Hobi - but it’s a month at least until those plans play out. Now that Jimin’s survived the terror of this first night in Texas, he feels more free, like he’s finally able to think of someone else.

And right now, he thinks that person should be Yoongi.

Chapter Text

KAKAOTALK
19 September 2018
6:38 a.m. in Hamilton
8:38 p.m. in Seoul

Adorable_Trap: RM-ssi, please delete this as soon as you’ve read it.
Adorable_Trap: <external.pdf@naverlink.net> removed.
Adorable_Trap: It’s all hearsay and allegations rn anyway, but you were right. Our company friend found members at Media Line more than willing to talk. Not only trainees, but their main group as well.

RM: And you believe this is all true, right?

Adorable_Trap: I do believe them. And if it is true, it’s way worse than we thought. Worse than what I saw when I was there. And it’s not only their managers involved. Apparently, producers and their CEO as well… it is all not good.

RM: Yeah, I read in the file... I wish I could say it’s surprising, but this kind of thing happens too often in our line of work. 
RM: So I gotta ask. You know their CEO. From your experience, is he capable of that kind of abuse?

Adorable_Trap: Srsly, I wouldn’t want to think anyone capable of that kind of abuse.
Adorable_Trap: But… that company. It’s different from BH. And that man, he’s not like Bang PD. Do I believe him capable? Not 100%. But I can say that he is ruthless. 
Adorable_Trap: And more than willing to hire people who ARE capable of such abuse, so...

RM: Okay. I’m trusting your assessment in this. 
RM: If we’re to keep that former manager from damaging us, we need to know what we’re up against before taking it to Bang PD.

Adorable_Trap: So I’ve been thinking about that.
Adorable_Trap: I know our goal is to discredit the guy before he can bring action against us.
Adorable_Trap: But what if we can do more? What if we can actually impact the lives of these boys, in a positive way? And then, when they open up about what’s happened to them, what if it could help others in similar situations?  
Adorable_Trap: If we can expose abuse in the idol industry, wouldn’t that be worth the risk?

RM: I mean, ultimately, yes. We have to tread carefully, I think. It’s dangerous business, you know? People’s careers are at risk. Their whole lives. 
RM: If we’re not careful, we’ll have a fight on our hands. They will retaliate. 

Adorable_Trap: Which could get messy. LOL as if our lives aren’t messy enough, right?

RM: Welp, it’s like Suga-ssi says, We don’t answer hate with fear, so… 
RM: I guess our next step is to have our company friend press those Media Line boys for proof. We need something tangible. Names, dates, specific places. Photos, testimony, video evidence, anything he can get within legal means

Adorable_Trap: Got it, RM-ssi. Lawful good, all the way.
Adorable_Trap: Btw, How are you doing? How’s the tour going?

RM: Amazing, actually. People in Canada have been so kind and inviting.
RM: We all have the regular tour bruises. Seokjin-ssi has a cold, which means of course that Taehyung-ssi does, too. But they keep pushing, cause… that’s them. 

Adorable_Trap: How interesting…

RM: No. No, I mean, it’s a contagion thing. 
RM: They all have colds
RM: is what I mean to say. 
RM: But we’ll have sightseeing this afternoon. And some rest.
RM: Hopefully that’ll help, so...

Adorable_Trap: Oh my. Namjoon-ssi, you are so bad at lying. 

RM: uuhhhhhmmm
RM: currently Googling ‘how not to be awkward’

Adorable_Trap: Look, it’s all good, okay? Some rest will help them. And you as well. Do not skip any meals, got it? That’s an order from corporate.

RM: One I will happily follow.

Adorable_Trap: Hey, and good luck on your UN thingie. Everyone here is talking about it. That’s a huge HUGE deal. 

RM: As evidenced by the word ‘thingie.’

Adorable_Trap: Whatever. It’s big news. And you’ll be brilliant, I know it.

RM: god I hope so. Or I could tell everyone my star sign is Virgin. Cause that was fun.

Adorable_Trap: ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

Adorable_Trap: That was a rare English fail. I’m sure almost no one noticed.

RM: Yeah, they definitely noticed.

Adorable_Trap: Anyway... You’ll be brilliant.
Adorable_Trap: You already are.
Adorable_Trap: Now take care of yourself. We will talk more soon.

Chapter Text

“I’m gonna embrace myself as hard as I can.”
Kim Namjoon, UN Speech to the General Assembly

19 September 2018 – Hamilton, ON

Namjoon clicks his pen. He clicks it and clicks it and clicks it. He scans what he’s written so far, which amounts to a page and a half of henscratch. He’s scribbled out more than he’s kept at this point, and he’s beginning to wonder if he should scrap the draft in favor of what he had before. 

There’s nothing wrong with the old draft. He just knows better now what he wants to say. 

He checks the time. He clicks his pen. Then he flips it over, pressing the silver bubble button that makes the pen warble like an electronic toothbrush. 

A sonic screwdriver, Adora called it. A device that fixes things with sound. 

He thinks about Khafka on the Shore, about how the characters in that book had been connected across time and space by a song. That seems to be the power of music - its ability to transcend beyond language and logic to something purer and more universal than anything else humankind has ever known.

He clicks his pen. He writes that down. Then he decides it’s too broad for what he’s supposed to say in his address to the UN. Sure, their music led them to this platform, but that’s not what the End Violence campaign is about. 

It’s about ending violence, obviously. 

But the trick is… how? 

He taps the pen against the page. He knows himself well enough to understand that he is stuck. Unless he gets up and moves around, his brain will keep looping back on itself, like that giant snake in Norse mythology that continually eats its own tail. He drags on his jacket and stamps into his shoes. He goes downstairs to the living area with only his airpods and his phone.

Namjoon expects to find Hoseok or Seokjin at breakfast. Or maybe Jungkook, but honestly, if he’s awake, then he’s probably already on the rental house’s treadmill. What he does not expect is Yoongi in a tracksuit, also in sneakers and headphones, as if he, too, has prepared for a morning hike.

“Hey man,” Namjoon says. “What side of sleep are you on?”

Yoongi rubs his eyes. “The right side, for a change.” He already has a coffee in a portable cup. It smells strong and vaguely cinnamony. Namjoon decides he could go for a cup as well, so he sets about pouring it up while Yoongi lingers at the counter. 

As Namjoon stirs in some sugar, he asks, “You waiting for someone?”

“Nope,” Yoongi says. 

“But you’re gonna hike?” Namjoon asks. He takes his coffee and tests it.

“Dunno about this hiking business,” Yoongi says. “But I am gonna walk.” 

Namjoon must gape at him a little too long, because Yoongi says, “You gonna stand there like a beached fish, or you coming with?”

“Uh… you don’t mind?”

Yoongi gives him a look.

“Right, right,” Namjoon says. “You wouldn’t have asked…”

Yoongi turns for the door. “Jimin said there are trails around the house.” He leads them outside. “I think he meant for me to join him, but, um… I’m not ready to talk with Jimin about anything deeper than what I’m having for dinner.”

They step out into a crisp and glinting autumn dawn. The air smells clean and bright, with a tinge of woodsmoke that sends a pang of nostalgia straight into Namjoon’s heart. For a moment, he’s too dazed by childhood memories to consider Yoongi’s words. 

Then, as the path wends along a well-tended poplar grove, he returns to what Yoongi told him.

“So why don’t you wanna talk with Jimin?” Namjoon asks. 

“Not that I don’t wanna talk to him,” Yoongi clarifies. “It’s that I don’t want him to see me cry. And these days? Yeah. That’s… way too likely. So let’s not.” 

Namjoon glances sideways at Yoongi. “You’ve been goin’ through it, huh?”

Yoongi licks his teeth behind his lips. “Man, I had no idea.” He gives a dry chuckle. “But it’s like, you open a gate, right? Like this flood pours out, and it’s impossible to shut it. So. No, I’m not gonna talk to Jimin. I might drown the poor kid, and I guess we kinda need him.”

“Dance Line, Vocal Line, most-beloved darling of social media.” They share a sheltered laugh. “Yeah we kinda need him.” 

They tread a while in silence, listening to traffic sounds on the bridge and birdsongs in the branches. Their shoes crunch the gravel, and Yoongi delights in grinding the occasional acorn beneath his heel. Namjoon feels the coffee and the morning coursing through him. The trail guides them to the edge of a shining lake pricked by the white of tiny sailboats, and for a moment, they stand and watch as the world ticks quietly by.

“You know, if I squint a little,” Namjoon says, “this place could be Ilsan.”

Yoongi grunts a noise of assent.

“Maybe that’s the point I should make in this UN thingie,” Namjoon goes on. “That any place can be like any other, if we look at ’em just right. People, places, feelings... Aren’t we all the same in the end?”

Yoongi crouches. He picks up a rock and chunks it. There’s a pleasing clunk as the water gulps it down. The ripples in its wake circle out, wimpling the surface in neat, even waves. 

“Same needs, same fears,” Yoongi says. “And in the end, we all die.”

“Bleak,” Namjoon says, and Yoongi smirks.

“But, like, you’re right,” Namjoon muses. “‘Cause how is it that we are such tiny, insignificant sparks in this universe, and yet we contain so much inside of us? And then how can we accomplish anything that truly matters, when, like you said, eventually everyone dies?” 

“Man,” Yoongi whistles softly. “Mornings with you...” 

Namjoon crouches beside him. “It’s not just that," he says. "I am working on the UN address, and I’m supposed to be focused on what it means to be a youth in this day and age, but, like… our stories are different, right? I mean, we’re going to Niagara Falls today. Next week, we’re addressing the UN. In a month we’ll be in Paris, and like… some of our friends back home, they've never even left the country. They’re struggling to survive each day, in situations they can’t even talk about and yet, here we are, livin’ like it’s paradise.”

“Yeah, but Joon,” Yoongi cuts in, “You just said, this place is like Ilsan. People are the same. You and me, we’re ordinary guys, going through our lives like anyone else. We’ve been in dark places before. We’ve known suffering. The same fears, the same needs—”

“—And then we die.”

Yoongi raises his hands like What can you do?

Namjoon rocks back to sit down. The gravel feels nubbly and cold through his jeans. He picks up a stick and writes RM in the sand. “You know what’s going on in the company, right?” 

“Other than the staff fighting with Jin-hyung about his hair?” Yoongi says.

They share an eye-roll and another private laugh. And then Namjoon spills the whole story: about Adora and Minyeong, and her concerns that their former manager is once again targeting them for a scandal. He goes on to give the sketchy details of the alleged abuse at Media Line, and how Minyeong might have, after leaving BigHit, taken his hardline strategies into that company as well.

Yoongi taps his lips as he considers. “It’s possible they hired him specifically for that,” he points out. “In industry circles, they call it discipline.”

“Not just the industry,” Namjoon realizes. “In schools, too. How many times did you kneel on dry rice or put your nose in a chalk circle for insubordination?” 

“Or lack of effort,” Yoongi snorts. “More times than I can count.” 

“Yeah, same,” Namjoon says. “You know, in school, they strip us of our names. They take away our voices. And it’s a shame, ’cause it’s the one thing in this world we truly possess.”

“That’s why they do it,” Yoongi says. He sets his coffee aside. He motions for Namjoon’s stick, and he passes it over. After a moment, Yoongi writes his name, too. Min Yoongi.  

“Sometimes people want to let it go. Their name. Their identity.” Yoongi stretches his legs out on either side of his writing. “Sometimes they’re ashamed of who they are, so they let it go and try to fill that absence with everything else they can find. Drugs. Drinking. Video games. Sex.” 

“They make us feel ashamed—”

“—And we let them,” Yoongi snaps. There’s a rough edge to his voice. Namjoon can see only the curve of his jaw, and he thinks that’s probably for the best.

“Yeah,” Namjoon admits. “I did that.”

“Well, RM, you’re not alone,” Yoongi says. He bends the stick until it snaps, then tosses both ends into the water. 

“No, Suga, I am not,” Namjoon says. “We’re not.” He smears a crust of mud from his knee. He smooths it between his finger and thumb, fascinated by the way his fingerprint becomes darker and more pronounced. “And perhaps that’s the key, right? Our connectedness? Like, we all have to stand up and say we won’t let them anymore.” 

Yoongi scratches his eyelid. He says, “You know, Mr. Choi says that we lose our own voice when we start listening to what others say about us.” 

Namjoon beams. “He does say that, doesn’t he?”

“So we have to choose to speak for ourselves,” Yoongi says. 

“Dude, that is so true,” Namjoon says. 

Yoongi gets up, stretching and creaking like a much older man. “Yeah, well, this self is telling me to eat. Think we still got time to meet the rest for breakfast?”

Namjoon checks his phone. “Hm, barely. We might have to jog.”

“Ha, no.” Yoongi says. “We’ll eat in the van.” 

He reaches to haul Namjoon to his feet. 

Neither of them go for small talk, so it’s comfortably quiet on the way back to the house. As they’re walking, though, Namjoon recalls their rooftop conversation back in May. He can’t help but compare that man with the one who’s walking with him now. It’s the same Yoongi: the nihilistic sarcasm, the biting wit. But there’s something different, too. There’s a calmness in his gait, and when he smiles, it no longer looks like he’s bracing for the world to end. 

What a difference four months and an understanding ear can make.

When Namjoon goes to open the door, he pauses, catching Yoongi before they enter. 

“You know,” he says. “I was worried about you—”

“—Yeah, keep doing that,” Yoongi smiles. “‘Cause, this whole process with Mr. Choi, it ain't over.” A pause. Then, “Not for either of us, right?”

“True,” Namjoon allows. 

“So…thanks,” Yoongi says. “But now get out of the way, ’cause I’m starving and Jungkook’s in there, grabbing up the last of the pancakes.” 

Namjoon opens the door, letting Yoongi inside. He toys briefly with the idea of going upstairs to tackle his UN address. But he decides that it can wait. His friends are ravaging the scraps of a catered breakfast, and for today, he'd rather just spend this time with them.

Chapter Text

“We'll have a blue room
A new room for two room
Where every day's a holiday
Because you're married to me.”
Blue Room, Chet Baker

25 September 2018 – New York City

Taehyung approaches Namjoon sidewise, sliding into the stiff plastic bench beside him. Namjoon’s paper cup sits empty, as does the lined, white page of the notebook before him. The table, a hard orange laminate slab, wings out from one wall, roomy enough to accommodate, at best, a gangling teenager, so to call it cramped with the both of them sitting there might be leaning toward generous. 

This, in its way, feels like home. New York, like Seoul, is a city that has grown up within its cracks. Their hotel, like most hotels here, feels like a tower of Jenga blocks wedged between similarly precarious towers. Taehyung can feel the wind whistling through the gaps. He smells damp leaves and curry, sewer and garbage, all overlaying a deeper, more pervasive scent: the mildew and fresh plaster of a city galloping on old legs to keep pace with its younger self.

If Taehyung had a choice, he’d someday live in New York. If he had infinite choices, he’d have an apartment in every big city, and a house in every country. And he would live forever to explore them in every kind of weather, through every season, and every transformation.

Namjoon says, “You seem… distracted?” He tucks all of his belongings beneath the booth, making more pace for Taehyung. “You okay?”

“Hyung,” he answers. “Can you help me?”

Namjoon thumbs a crust from his lashes. They’ve all been suffering some kind of allergic attack from the northeastern weather, and this morning, it has settled as goop in their eyes.  

“Sure,” Namjoon grunts, reaching for the tablet Taehyung pushes between them. “What d’you need?”

The tablet screen brightens, revealing a website that offers exclusive tours of Paris. 

“Oh yeah,” Namjoon nods and smiles. Then he fixes Taehyung with an examining stare. “Wait. Have you been, um—?”

“—Planning, yeah,” Taehyung cuts in. “Except, I’m having trouble with the reservation because—”

The website only communicates in English and French,” Namjoon guesses. 

“Yeah,” Taehyung sighs. “I’ve tried a few drafts, but it has to be perfect or the tour host will misunderstand, and I waited for you to finish your UN speech because I know how important that is, but now that it’s done... can you help me with the translation?”

A sleepy smile bends across Namjoon’s face. “So basically what you’re saying, Taehyung, is you would like my help translating a reservation email for a midnight tour of the Eiffel Tower?”

Taehyung lights up. “Yes.”

“With a picnic of some sort, amIright?” Namjoon asks.

“Woah, hyung, you are really smart,” Taehyung says.

Namjoon levels him with a small smile. “Something like that,” he says. He hovers his finger over the single text document saved on the tablet’s desktop. “This your reservation?”

Again, Taehyung nods. Namjoon taps it open, skims it, then pages over to the website. He clicks the pop-up reservation window and begins to type.

“I’m putting October 21st,” he murmurs. “You’ll have to arrive a quarter to the hour since the tour begins at midnight on the 22nd.” Namjoon continues to bob his head as he writes out the message. “I’m adding in some extra instructions for you, okay?”

“Oh?” 

“Trust me,” Namjoon says. “This will help the touring company understand how important this night is gonna be.”

Taehyung leans in, attempting to translate over Namjoon’s shoulder, but he’s typing so fast he can’t keep up. 

“Okay,” Namjoon says, tabbing down to the next dialogue box. “This section asks for any special requests, like… romantic things. Like flowers, balloons... foods?” 

Taehyung chews his thumbnail. “Like, anything?” 

“I mean, within reason,” Namjoon tells him. “Chocolates, you know? Strawberries, champagne.”

“Waffles,” Taehyung says. 

“Uhm…?“ Namjoon makes a face. 

“Our first date, Jin-hyung and I had waffles with cream,” Taehyung says. He leans over Namjoon to hunt-and-peck the word waffles into the window. 

Namjoon copy-pastes into the proper place. “Hey, it can’t hurt to ask, right?”

“That’s what I always say,” Taehyung tells him. 

“That’s true, you do,” Namjoon chuckles. He navigates to the payment page, where they spend a few minutes inputting Taehyung’s credit card information. Then there’s a breathless moment of apprehension as the cursor circle spins and spins. Then the page pops up a confirmation.

They’re quiet as they absorb the moment. Behind them, the sky between the buildings tinges the color of a frosted tangerine. People crisscross on the sidewalks, eating, sipping, staring at their phones. Strung between the traffic lights, cars and buses bumble in an endless, vibrant, squeaking stream. 

“Congratulations, man,” Namjoon says. “It’s done.”

“It’s the start,” Taehyung corrects. Then, borne on a wave of restless relief, he leaps up and stretches taut. “Thank you, hyung.”

“I barely did anything,” Namjoon says. “But…” He hesitates, gnaws his lip, then shakes his head. “Have you mentioned any of this to Seokjin?”

Taehyung shakes his head. “Not hardly anything. Kinda the point, it’s a secret.”

Namjoon’s shoulders rise as he laughs. “Yeah, it sure is,” he says. Then he wipes at his face and muses aloud, “Man, I need more coffee.”

Taehyung brightens at the chance to repay him for his help. “I’ll get it,” he says. 

“No, it’s—”

But Taehyung scurries off to the coffee counter, where he orders an espresso and a matcha mango tea, plus two maple donuts and a pierogi. He returns to squeeze next to Namjoon again, and while Namjoon sips and nibbles in dazed silence, Taehyung babbles about the ring he bought for Seokjin, and the card Seokjin gave him with the seemingly indecipherable clue which Taehyung has yet to begin to crack. 

He hopes that Namjoon will offer his help, but feels no disappointment when he doesn’t volunteer. Namjoon has done enough. He’s been wildly busy, tapping out his brain in so many significant ways. Plus, Taehyung has other people he can turn to for help. 

“Hyung, we’d be lost without you,” Taehyung says as he saws at the pierogi with a plastic spoon. 

Namjoon pinches the corner of the pastry to hold it steady. “Nah,” he says. “You guys inspire me, you keep me sane. I'm the one who'd be lost.”

“Good thing we have each other then,” Taehyung says. He finally severs the pierogi into halves, nudging the larger piece at Namjoon. Even though the potato filling still steams, they bite at it, burning their tongues as they blow on it through their teeth.  

“Ah, so good,” Taehyung murmurs through a mouthful. “I love American food.”

“I think it’s Polish,” Namjoon observes.

“Oh really?” Taehyung asks. 

“But I guess it’s all American, right?” Namjoon says, going for another bite. “That’s the thing about New York. It’s got everything. Seoul does too, but…” He scratches the back of his head. “Not as much.”

“Maybe someday it will,” Taehyung says. “We’ve been bringing Korea to the world, but maybe in our lifetime, we’ll bring more of the world to Seoul.”

“Man,” Namjoon says, clapping Taehyung’s thigh. “I like that idea. And I love the way you think. It makes me remember to hope. It reminds me that not everyone out there is all self-serving and evil.” 

“Hyung,” he sips to hide his shyness. “I’m glad.” Then, patting his jacket pocket, he goes, “Oh! I almost forgot—” He places the careworn copy of Life Balancer on the table between them. “—I can give this back now.” He scrubs something linty from the cover, and as Namjoon reaches for the book, Taehyung goes, “Oh. Wait.” He tugs it back to riffle through the pages. Dozens of business cards and receipts flutter between them, but Taehyung finds a single flimsy folded sheet and plucks it out. “Still need this,” he says.

Namjoon’s brows lift.

“A song,” Taehyung explains. “For Jin-hyung’s birthday. Or maybe our anniversary, if I finish it by then.” 

“Oh?” Namjoon asks.

“Gender neutral this time,” Taehyung nods. “So only he will know the truth. And you. And Jimin.”

“Yeah, we’ll know the truth,” Namjoon says, softly. He picks up the book, patting the cover before pocketing it. “Taehyung, always be who you are, okay?” he says. “We need more people in the world like you.“ He touches Taehyung’s shoulder. Then, sliding to his feet, he says, “I’ma get us another one of those pierogis. You want anything?” 

“Just your company,” Taehyung says. “If you don’t mind.”

“Actually, it’s my pleasure,” Namjoon says. And after all the amazing things that have happened this morning, Taehyung thinks he might just float away. 

Chapter Text

“Even if the morning brightens me, the reality doesn’t change.”
You In Me, KARD

27 September 2018 – Newark, New Jersey – morning

Jungkook’s having one of those mornings where he’s lost all track of time. He’s awake, but his alarm didn’t go off. The sun isn’t out, but beyond the hotel window, there’s a dim and grainy twilight. Jimin was here, but now his spot in the bed has grown cold. 

He listens a while before moving. The shower’s not running, so he rolls onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Seconds slide by while he ponders the state that he’s in.

It’s one of the New ones. New York, or New Jersey. He doesn’t know which.

Giving up, he checks his phone. It’s 3:41 a.m. 

He skims his messages. One from Jimin, right on top: Baby, keep sleeping. Meeting Jin-hyung to work out. C U soon kisses, kisses, kisses

A dozen more, game notifications, mostly, and a few emails from a leasing agent. Nothing that requires his immediate attention.

Jungkook shifts from the bed. He shuffles toward the bathroom, does what he needs to do, then checks his face in the mirror. He’s got a breakout under his chin, but he doesn’t touch it. Taehyung’s been breaking out, too. There’s something about the weather here and their endless diet of sugar that completely wrecks their complexion.

He palms off the light and drags himself to the door. He pockets his phone, his card key, a water bottle. He’s out in the hallway before he fully knows where he’s going. 

He hears singing in the corridor. He checks his phone again. 3:52, and someone’s singing. He knows the voice, even if he doesn’t recall the room number. Drawn by the sound, he hones toward it, then knocks three sharp raps on the door.

Taehyung answers with his phone in one hand, a dripping paintbrush in the other. Headphone wires snake over his shoulder, blaring music he forgot to pause. He keeps singing as he greets Jungkook, returning to the bed, where he has spread an oversized jacket across the sheets. 

“Hyung,” Jungkook says. “What’re you doing?”

“I decided to paint another one,” Taehyung yells. 

Jungkook tugs Taehyung’s earbuds out. The music streams out the tinny intricacy of a haunting piano melody. 

“How long you been awake?” 

Taehyung shrugs. He knees back onto the bed, poising the brush over the jacket. “Couple hours,” he answers. He sketches shapes onto the jacket’s back. The paint smells gluey and sweet, vaguely like grade school, which makes Jungkook feel hungry. He goes to Taehyung’s bedside table to poke around for something to eat. 

“Do you ever think about,” Taehyung says, “how our bodies are filled with blood?”

Jungkook darts him a look. Taehyung continues to paint, his tongue a pink curl over his lip. Taehyung’s jeans drape from a chair. In the pocket, Jungkook spots a granola bar. It’s open, one bite taken out. He grabs it up and scarfs it.

“We walk around all day, full of blood,” Taehyung continues. “And your blood is your blood, and mine is mine, but completely unlike yours, but it’s still blood. Isn’t that weird?”

“I guess.” Jungkook chuckles. He uncaps his water, sips. “I never really thought about it.”

Taehyung finishes the rough outline of a face in white paint. It scowls up at them, all eyes and teeth. “Cool,” Taehyung pronounces. He steps back to the desk, where he has a row of paint tubes: red, yellow, white, and blue. He reaches for the red and squirts a dollop directly onto the brush. 

“Blood,” Jungkook muses. 

Taehyung smiles, like Jungkook gets it. Jungkook does not get it. But he smiles, too, as Taehyung paints around the mouth with bold, deliberate strokes. He makes a bloody mess of the nose, grinning through the whole ordeal. Then, his frenzy spent, he hunkers back. His fingers are tipped with paint. A dash of red streaks his cheek. “Let that dry,” he states. “Otherwise, when I paint, the red and white becomes pink.”

“Pink blood,” Jungkook says, and they snicker, but he doesn’t know why.

Taehyung drops the paintbrush into one of the hotel’s disposable cups. He wipes his hands on the hem of what appears to be one of Seokjin’s t-shirts. He sips some water. He skips to the next song on his playlist. Then he says, “Since you’re here, can I show you something?”

“Uh. Sure,” Jungkook says. 

Taehyung goes to his closet. He fumbles around, still singing, and after a moment, he returns with something cupped between his hands. He opens his palms like he’s freeing a baby bird to reveal a small, blue-and-white box. 

“I got this in Osaka,” Taehyung breathes. He flips back the lid to reveal, on a bed of white velvet, a simple shining diamond band.

Jungkook’s still processing what he’s seeing when Taehyung says, “Remember the last time we were here?” 

Here ?” Jungkook wonders. He traces a tentative finger to the row of diamonds to make certain that they’re real. It’s too early for this, and Taehyung is way too awake.

“In Newark, yeah,” Taehyung says. “Jin-hyung and I, we had a terrible fight, remember? It led to so many bad things between us. Well, I thought they were bad, but it turns out, they were…necessary.”

Jungkook does remember, then. The fight in Newark, the one they caught on camera. Then the domino effect of events that followed, leading Taehyung to kiss another man and shatter Seokjin’s heart.

Then Seokjin found out, then he moved out, and their lives have been in a freefall ever since.

“Hey, uh,” Jungkook murmurs. “I don’t wanna talk about this.” 

Taehyung swallows. He shuts the ring into its box. “I understand,” he says as he begins to turn away. 

No matter how he might want to, Jungkook can’t dismiss the bruised look in Taehyung’s eyes. In his mind, he hears Jimin reminding him that they should love each other as they are, not for who Jungkook thinks they should be.

“But…” Jungkook puts his hand on Taehyung’s. “I will. I guess. If you wanna tell me.”

Taehyung shudders with relief. Then he says, “Je t’aime davantage aujourd’hui, plus qu’hier, moins que demain.”

“The hell, Taehyung?” Jungkook rubs his chin. “What even is that?”

Taehyung puts the ring in his bag and returns with a card. “This,” he says. “Jin-hyung gave it to me. I figured this part out, easily.” He skims a finger along the phrase. “It means, Today I love you more than yesterday, but it’s less than I will love you tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Jungkook grunts. “Is it French?” 

Taehyung flips the card to the reverse. “And then this.” His eyes gleam. “But I don’t know what this is.”

Jungkook puzzles over the series of numbers. “Are they map coordinates?” he guesses.

“Tried that.” Taehyung grins. “I thought, Jin-hyung is taking me to a place in France, because the words are in French, but when I typed the numbers into Naver, the location came up in Africa.”

Jungkook squares the card on the table. “May I?” he asks, framing it under his phone’s camera lens.

“Sure,” Taehyung says. 

Jungkook snaps the photo. “I’ll keep thinking about it,” he tells him. “We’ll work on it.”

Taehyung flops into a chair, shoving Seokjin’s Nintendo and a pair of his own pants out of the way. “I hope it’s not in France,” Taehyung sighs. “Because I have plans for Jin-hyung in Paris.” 

“Do you?” Jungkook asks. “I thought you and Jimin have plans for Yoongi and Hope?”

A smile spreads across Taehyung’s lips. “He wasn’t supposed to tell you,” he says.

Jungkook snorts. “Jimin tells me everything.” 

“Yeah. We know,” Taehyung’s smirk lingers a moment before he continues. “But I’m glad you’re here, because I’ve been wanting to tell you. Right now, only Namjoon knows. I’m gonna propose to Seokjin.”

Jungkook feels for a moment like what he’s hearing is spoken in another room, far away. He presses his palm to the cool surface of the hotel mirror. From where he’s sitting, he can see the painted jacket in reverse. Taehyung made it not five minutes ago, a grade-school drawing on the back of a coat, and now, somehow, he’s talking about proposing to Seokjin.  

“In Paris?” Jungkook asks.

Taehyung nods. 

“That’s really soon,” Jungkook murmurs. His stomach loops and loops. His stolen granola bar weighs inside him like a brick, and it is too damned early for all this talking.

“I know.” Taehyung gets up. He walks around. He says, “I wanted to tell you, because… You were angry, and maybe you still are, because of how I treated Jin-hyung. I thought maybe you saw yourself as him, but I—”

“—No,” Jungkook snaps. He scratches at the rash on his chin.

Taehyung cocks his head. “No?” 

Pabo,” Jungkook scoffs. “I’m you. I learn from you.” He presses his hands to his eyes. His voice trembles, but he says, “Jimin. He’s devoted to me. Blindly. He loves me so much that sometimes it’s…” He shakes his head. He starts again. “I’m the maknae, the selfish one, the little child. Jimin is like Jin-hyung." He rubs his eye. "I’m like you.”

Taehyung nods as he puts the pieces of his understanding into place. He goes, “You’re afraid you’ll hurt him.” 

Jungkook flashes back to the cascades of secret texts between him and the leasing agent in Seoul. In the last month, he’s pored through the glossy specs for the second phase of Seoul Forest Trimage, selecting the model that will best suit him. He keeps telling himself it’s an investment, that he’ll never even move in, but he already secured permission from Bang PD, who seemed so proud of him at this monumental step toward adulthood. 

All that remains now is a virtual walk-through. If Jungkook’s happy with what he sees, he will sign and pay. Easy as that, he’ll have a just-in-case place, all of his own. 

He hasn’t told Jimin yet. He isn’t sure he can.

“I know I will,” Jungkook says, softly. Silence reels between them, airless and unsettled. “Just like you hurt Jin.” 

Taehyung says nothing. His stained fingers hang slack on the armrests. His shoulders slump as he sinks into his thoughts.

Jungkook clears his throat. “So um,” he says. “I’m gonna go, okay?”

Taehyung watches as he leaves the room. Outside the door, Jungkook leans against the wall to gain his bearings. He feels monstrous and exhausted. He fights the urge to punch something, though mostly, he thinks he’d like to punch himself. 

As he makes his way back to his room, he can’t help but notice that Taehyung doesn’t start to sing.

Chapter Text

“Turn me into someone like you.
Find a place that we can go to,
Run away and take me with you.”
Save Me, Muse

27 September 2018 – Newark, New Jersey – night

They don’t have a show tonight, only a closed rehearsal to get the feel of the stage. A heavy night for the sound and stage crews; a light night for the seven of them. They tend to play around during the long lapses of time while the sound engineers check mics and connections in preparation for tomorrow’s show.

Jungkook hangs to the side of the stage, placidly watching his hyungs. Right now, it’s the rapline, with Namjoon carrying on a conversation with one of their sound guys while behind him, Yoongi and Hoseok dance. 

It looks choreographed, but it could also be them ad libbing, something they often do when they think no one is watching. Yoongi’s grinning like a disheveled madman, and Jungkook must admit, his hyung’s got wicked moves.  

From below the stage, Jimin comes up with two bottles of blue Powerade. “You two should dance that together,” he calls up to Hoseok and Yoongi, who continue as though they haven’t heard him. Jimin hands over a drink. “Here you are, my Jungkookie,” he says. 

“Blue is my favorite,” he says. 

“I know,” Jimin tells him. “Speaking of, have you seen my blue stripe-y shirt, the one with the Gucci logo splashed, like, across the sleeve?”

“Did you ask Taehyung?” Jungkook asks.

“Yeah,” Jimin sighs. “He said you borrowed it?”

“Well I didn’t,” Jungkook grunts. “But he probably did and sprayed paint on it.”

Jimin giggles. “Oh my god, true,” he says. Then they return their attention to Hoseok and Yoongi. “He looks really happy, right?”

Jungkook doesn’t need to ask which one; the question applies to either. He says, “You really think Yoongi’s in love with him?”

“Pft, please,” Jimin laughs. “It’s obvious.”

Jungkook shrugs. “I dunno. I think they love each other like we all love each other.”

Namjoon returns to center stage, where he waits for Yoongi and Hoseok to finish. Then they huddle up to discuss whatever it was that Namjoon learned from the sound tech.

“I thought that at first, too,” Jimin says. “But when Jin-hyung pointed it out, I started looking, and now I agree, it is definitely something more.”

Jungkook stares at Jimin’s face in profile, how the glow of the stage paints it in shades of clementine and candlelight. He wants to point out that Jimin tends to see love whenever he looks for it. Jimin tends to find the good in people, however unrealistic or unlikely those things might be. Even under the sights of a gunman, he went out and shared his love with strangers, because that’s the kind of man Jimin is. 

Jungkook feels the familiar fishhook of guilt in his gut, the little tug of betrayal over the secrets he’s begun to hoard away. He should tell him. He wants to tell him. Yet as he peers at Jimin’s face in the stagelight, at the bask of his fragile, hopeful smile, Jungkook knows that he will ruin it. 

A second later, Taehyung appears at the stage edge, bellowing a trot song about love and happy endings, causing Jimin’s smile to burst into a supernova. He yells Taehyung over, and Jungkook quietly deflates. It’s not like Jungkook’s avoiding Taehyung, but after their surreal encounter this morning, he isn’t exactly thrilled to see him.

But Taehyung comes over anyway, wearing his painted jacket now, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets. With a jut of his chin, he goes, “Did you tell him?”

Jungkook’s brain grinds through the series of details he has not shared with Jimin: the morning itself, their odd blood conversation, Taehyung’s ring, Seokjin’s card. Then he moves on to other guarded secrets before remembering that he hasn’t shared those details, not with anyone. 

Blushing, Jimin answers, “Don’t be ridiculous, Taehyungie. Of course I told him.” He gestures to the stage, where Hoseok is running through the choreo for Tear with Namjoon and Yoongi. “Who could keep a secret this big?”

Jungkook meets Taehyung’s eyes. A sharp stab of understanding passes between them, reminding Jungkook that for all of Taehyung’s feathery playfulness, there is bedrock underneath. Taehyung doesn’t miss much, and he also doesn’t forget.

“He means me,” Jungkook scratches the nape of his neck. “And no, I haven’t told him.”

Gasping, Jimin presses a hand to his heart. “You kept a secret from me?”

“No,” Jungkook starts, “It wasn’t like that—”

But their noise has drawn the attention of their hyungs. From the stage, Hoseok calls over the mic, “Jeon Jungkoooook!” and Jungkook jumps. He turns, bug-eyed, to face the stage.

Hoseok says, “Let’s run through the solos first, starting with Euphoria, okay?”

Behind Hoseok, Namjoon sings, “You are the cause of my Lotteria,” which prompts stifled laughter from the others as Jungkook climbs on stage. Forcing a smile, he takes the mic from Namjoon, pursing his lips to hide his discomfort. 

He hates when Namjoon teases him about this song, because it had been so difficult for him to record it. Namjoon kept pushing him, kept urging Jungkook to connect emotionally with the lyrics, joking that in the beginning, his singing sounded more like a line from a hamburger ad. 

Six times, Jungkook re-recorded the song. Namjoon finally told him, “JK, you need to put your heart into this song. Maybe, like, think of Jimin while you’re singing.”

Jungkook couldn’t tell him that it was all he ever did. And what does it say about Jungkook that it still wasn’t enough? That even then, he was holding back? The only time he got it right was that first GCF with Jimin, and Bang Sihyuk had scolded him for showing too much. 

Over the mic, Jungkook mumbles, “Thanks, hyung.”

Namjoon calls back, “You know I love you, man.” 

Jungkook clears his throat. There are no lights, no backup dancers, no cheering fans. Only Jungkook and the spotlight. The music cues up. He closes his eyes and tries to let himself go.

 

After rehearsal, they meet up in the snack room. It smells like yesterday’s fast food – thirty In & Out Burgers, plus this morning’s Krispy Kremes, all of it donated by well-meaning fans. It’s an odd odor, not completely unpleasant, and, like most things, it spikes Jungkook’s appetite.

That’s the thing with being on tour. He exists in a feral state of fatigue and hunger, his blood running and running through his veins without ever delivering the rest or nutrients he needs. He winds up cranky, sore, and lethargic, but no worse than any of the others, so he tries not to complain. 

Behind them on the sofa, Namjoon sings into his phone, new lyrics for an ongoing project. Yoongi crowds him, reading over his shoulder, while Hoseok prepares a cup of green tea in the microwave. 

Jungkook and Taehyung forage for something remotely healthy to eat, something that won’t inflame the tender rash beneath Jungkook’s chin. He finds noodles, more noodles and, beneath a bag of chips, three spotty bananas.

“Score,” he mutters, tucking one under his shirt. Taehyung nods and follows suit. 

Jungkook opens one box to find fruit-filled pastries. Inside another, he finds three questionable slices of pizza. For a moment, he feels cornered like some caged and starving refugee. The brattiest part of his brain sends up a rant of protest, reminding him that they have way too much money now to have so little food.

“It’s like the kitchen in our dorm.” Jungkook grumbles. “Hyung, are we going out to eat?”

Namjoon touches his phone screen to pause his recording. “Jin-hyung went with the staff to get food, right?”

“He and Jimin, yep,” Hoseok answers. 

Jungkook scans the small room. He feels a strange, submerged disconnection, like he’s swimming and lost sight of shore. He knew Jimin went up to shower after rehearsal, but he hadn’t registered yet that Seokjin was gone, too.

Sourly, he thinks, Because Seokjin’s been gone for a while now. Even as this thought emerges, Jungkook knows he’s being unfair. Seokjin’s out in a foreign city getting them their dinner. He could’ve asked Sejin or Jigaemae to go, but that isn’t Seokjin’s way. 

Which brings Jungkook back to the most basic of truths: He misses him. Though they tried to rearrange things by putting Hoseok into Seokjin’s empty room, the fact remains that Seokjin left them with a room to fill. And that’s all on Taehyung. If he hadn’t kissed Minho, if he hadn’t strayed—

At that moment, Jimin and Seokjin bustle in, hefting greasy paper sacks between them. The scent of something peppery and sweet stings Jungkook’s nose, and he moves immediately to relieve Jimin of his burden.

“Sejin-nim found a Chinese place.” Seokjin’s face is alight as he jostles the bags to the table. He turns to each of them, pointing, “No filming? Right, no filming? Everyone, don’t film.”

Namjoon sets his phone aside.

“Okay, good,” Seokjin says. He tugs Taehyung close. “Kiss me.”

“Ugh,” Yoongi groans, “Get a room.” But he’s smiling as he pops the lid from a container of hot and sour soup.

Seokjin threads his arms around Taehyung’s waist, giving him a good, deep kiss, before abruptly shoving him away. Taehyung looks dazed as Seokjin spins him around to stare at the monster sketched on his boyfriend’s back.

“Hey hey, nice, right?” Taehyung sings, stretching his arms to give them the full effect of the design.

Seokjin’s hands rest high on his waist. He says, “What on earth have you done to this perfectly nice jacket?”

Taehyung twists back to him. “Aww, hyung, you sound like your Dad.”

Seokjin splutters, indignant. “I do not.”

Then Taehyung launches into a bit, his hands on his hips, his voice deepening to a fatherly tone. He says, “Young man, dental pain is nothing to be dismissed. If you don’t take care of this, you could be dead at 33.” 

Jimin and Namjoon collapse into laughter. 

“Do not encourage this,” Seokjin warns. 

“He does sound like your Dad, though,” Yoongi says.

“You have met him four times,” Seokjin says. “And you.” He swings back to Taehyung. “Abeoji was right about the tooth thing.”

Taehyung shrugs. “Yes. He was right,” he says. 

Seokjin steps closer. He slides an arm under Taehyung’s jacket. He says, “He might have saved your life.” 

“See, hyung,” Taehyung pouts, bumping their foreheads together. “You are like him.”

At this, Hoseok and Yoongi pelt them with packets of soy sauce. 

“Stop it,” Namjoon adds. “We’re tryna eat.” 

“Yah,” Seokjin yells, “who brought you the food?”

Within minutes, they settle together, gradually falling silent as they pass around the containers. The food’s oily and salty as it is with American Chinese, but it’s good and there’s a lot of it, so for a long while, no one speaks.

Then Namjoon says, “Maybe JK can do a day-in-the-life movie for us sometime. Like, without the writers and directors telling us what to say. All these fun little private moments we have, it’d be nice to preserve them.” 

“A day in my life?” Jungkook ponders aloud. He looks at Jimin. With a pang, he recalls Osaka, that first Golden Closet Film, when everything seemed so much simpler. Everything still felt whole and easy and bright. 

“Yeah, from your POV,” Namjoon explains. “The seven of us, how you see us.”

Hoseok squeezes his knee. “That would be a wonderful gift.”

Suddenly, Jungkook wants to cry. Because he loves them all so much, and the way they’re talking, it reminds him that they won’t be together always. Already, it’s starting to unravel. Already, they’re having conversations about their lives beyond this. Some of them are already making plans and moving on. Some of them, including him.

“Jungkookie’s working on another video,” Jimin says. “Isn’t that right, Jungkookie?”

“Yeah.” He forces a smile. “I found this cool filter to make it look retro, like a VCR tape.”

“From our parents’ time,” Yoongi muses. 

“Imagine it,”  Namjoon adds. “Someday, people will look back on YouTube and say, ‘that was from our parents’ time.’” 

“We’ll have holographic TV by then,” Taehyung says. 

“Virtual reality,” Hoseok says, waving his hand with a flourish. 

“Then it’s all over for me,” Namjoon says. “I’ll download my consciousness into the mainframe and never return. Immortality, man. For real.”

Yoongi sucks air over his teeth. “Would you really wanna live forever, though?” he asks. “Like, in a machine? Without, you know, blood and bones and feelings?”

“In a heartbeat,” Namjoon says.

“Except, y'know, without one,” Yoongi counters. “Technically.”

A comfortable silence lingers as they contemplate this idea. 

Then Taehyung says, “I don’t wanna live without my blood.”

Seokjin leans in to kiss his nose. “VV has special blood.”

“That’s right,” Jimin says, ruffling a hand through Taehyung’s hair. “He does.” 

“Nah,” Yoongi says. “That blood type stuff’s a lot of superstitious nonsense.” He shovels broccoli and carrots into Hoseok’s bowl, exchanging them for noodles and baby corn.

“Is it though?” Hoseok wonders. “He does have a rare blood type, which could mean he’s treated differently, which would lead him to act a certain way.” 

“I mean, it could…” Namjoon allows. “V, what d’you think?”

Taehyung frowns his boxy smile. “I think… maybe, yes.” 

“Naaah,” Yoongi says again. But they’re all smiling, like they’re all happy. And Jungkook wants to tell them how much he loves them. He wants to say he never wants this to end, but the words snag in his throat like thorns. So he watches them while he works around an idea of how to show them instead. 

 

It’s beyond late when Jungkook follows Jimin back to his room. Jimin opens the door. Jungkook steps in. He hovers in the small foyer as Jimin dives into his bed. 

“We did good, didn’t we, Jungkookie?” Jimin asks. “Jin-hyung and me.” 

Jungkook leans on the wall to watch him. Jimin perches on the corner of the bed. He says, “Do you have your personal trainer tomorrow?”

“Yeah.” Jungkook checks his phone. It’s 2:08 a.m. and he has four missed calls. He scrolls through the numbers, but doesn’t recognize any. “In, like, three hours.”

Jimin takes Jungkook’s hand. “The night got late so quickly,” he says. “You can stay here if you want, though. I’ll get up with you, I got some stuff I’m working on, too.”

“Oh really?” Jungkook asks.

Jimin simpers, like he’s pleased that Jungkook took the bait. “You’re not the only one with secrets, Jungkookie.” 

Jungkook caresses Jimin’s jaw. “It’s not my secret,” he explains. “It’s Taehyung’s. And the only reason he hasn’t told you yet is that he thinks you’ll let it slip to Jin-hyung.”

Jimin’s shoulders lift. “Taehyungie knows me well.”

Then Jungkook says, “Jimin. I don’t wanna get married.” 

It’s as much a surprise to him as it must be to Jimin, because he sniffs out a startled little laugh. “Oh-kay,” he says, but there’s the barest quaver in his voice as he adds, “But, like… ever?” 

Jungkook inhales very, very slowly. He answers, truthfully, “Maybe?” Then, “I don’t wanna get old or grow up. I don’t wanna think about the future. I only wanna think of now.”

“Well…” Jimin says. “I am okay with that.” 

“Are you?”

“Pft, yeah.” Jimin brushes back his hair. “Let’s save all that grown up stuff for later.”

“Okay,” Jungkook says. Relief seeps into his heart, because now he doesn’t have to tell him. Not about the things Bang PD told him, not about the apartment he’s days away from purchasing. Like Jimin said, It can wait for later.

As he lies awake with Jimin curled against him, he thinks about Taehyung. As furious as he was over Taehyung’s childishness, it’s nothing compared to the white, blank anger he feels toward Taehyung now. All year long, Jungkook  – the maknae – has been pushing Taehyung to grow up, to become a man, and then, suddenly, unexpectedly, he did. 

Now Seokjin has forgiven Taehyung. Jimin has as well. Maybe that makes them love-blind fools, but that is not who Jungkook wants to be.

Chapter Text

“For you, there'll be no more crying
For you, the sun will be shining.”
Songbird, Eva Cassidy

1 October 2018 – Chicago – Day

Taehyung and Seokjin stroll side by side along a quiet, flower-fringed path. Ahead of them, Benji – one part tour guide, one part security guard – leads them through the botanical gardens toward a secret side entrance of the zoo. 

Seokjin yawns over his pastry, some huge bready thing stuffed with pungent sausage and stringy cheese. His eyes look swollen and itchy, and his voice sounds more nasal than normal. It seems the chest cold he’s been fighting since LA has now migrated to his sinuses.

“Taehyungie,” Seokjin says, gesturing to his swollen cheeks. “Let’s have a No Photos rule today. No one needs to see this.”

With a sigh, Taehyung agrees. Anyway, he’s eating frozen yogurt, a two-handed endeavor, so getting to his camera has been a challenge. Seconds later, though, he breaks their rule, hastily tucking his froyo into the bend of his elbow to snap a photo of Seokjin nibbling his pastry like a llama.

“Taehyung-ah!” Seokjin moans.

“For me only,” he assures him. “From now on, I’ll only photograph animals.”

“From now on?” Seokjin chuckles. “As in forever?”

“For today,” Taehyung clarifies. “But you can take all the pictures of me, since I'm wearing art.”

“Bold words from a man with a hamburger on his back,” Seokjin teases. “Benji-nim,” he calls ahead, “Don’t you agree?”

Taehyung balks. “This is my happy jacket,” he objects. “Hyungnim, tell him.”

Benji pauses on the trail. Smirking, he says, “Hamburger? I thought it was a planet.”

Scandalized, Taehyung gapes as Seokjin shoves him forward to reappraise the sketchy circles spray-painted onto the back of the jacket. “Jupiter,” Seokjin concludes, giving Benji a thumbs up.

“That’s what I thought,” Benji agrees with a shrug. 

Taehyung folds his arms. “Neither of you have any appreciation for the arts.” 

“The only art I appreciate is you,” Seokjin sings, softly, and then he does his weird little neck dance as he continues to nibble his bread.

Taehyung wishes he could capture it on film, but they’ve arrived at the gate now and his yogurt continues to steadily melt. However, once they enter the zoo, Taehyung begins to understand that the No Photos Rule will be impossible to keep. Despite Seokjin’s snargly sinuses, he continues to be relentlessly cute. He sings at some wildebeest. He dances at the flamingos. He attempts repeatedly to entice the animals awake by flailing his arms at them, but they all respond with the same lackluster lethargy, as though they, too, believe it's too early for so much activity. 

“Most of the animals are nocturnal,” Benji explains. “Because it’s morning, they’re still at rest.”

“Oh, like Yoongi then,” Seokjin says, honking his goosey laugh, like they’re the funniest words he’s ever spoken. Taehyung clings to him, also laughing, while Benji, who seems slightly embarrassed by the noise, guides them deeper into the park.

After a few minutes, Seokjin slows his pace, allowing Benji a wider berth. He leans close to Taehyung and says, “Speaking of Yoongi, I haven’t talked to him or Hobi about our plans. Have you?”

Taehyung tightens his focus. He knows he has to be careful, because he’s got his own plans built into the plans they’ve made for Yoongi and Hoseok. If Taehyung doesn’t pay close attention, he will give something away, and this is far too important to mess up. Plus, he knows Seokjin’s got something going on, too. If the words on the card are any indication, his plans might also happen in Paris. Taehyung’s brain struggles with organizing so many details, so he decides it’s best to keep things simple and just listen to Seokjin. 

“No,” Taehyung admits. “I wanted to talk with you, to make sure I understand.” 

“Okay, here’s what I’m thinking.” Seokjin chews a bite of his pastry while he composes his thoughts. “From what I remember, Paris is a very busy place. There’s no way we can all go sightseeing together, not with so many ARMY in the city for the concert. So, naturally, Sejin-nim will suggest that we split up when we go out.” 

“Yes,” Taehyung nods. “Good.”

“So. You take Hoseok, and I’ll take Yoongi,” Seokjin says. “Namjoon says he’ll run interference, in case anything goes wrong.”

Taehyung’s mind floods with static at the thought of the millions of things that could go wrong. Not the least of which is Seokjin’s plan, which Taehyung still hasn’t deciphered. 

The French phrase, yes. Like he told Jungkook, that part had been easy. But the series of numbers on the back? Taehyung doesn’t have a clue, and what if Seokjin’s plans hinge on Taehyung figuring them out before the night of October 21st? If Taehyung fails to solve that puzzle, then Seokjin could be off in another part of the city, waiting for Taehyung and—

“VV, are you listening?” Seokjin asks.

“Hm, what?” Taehyung says, snapping back from his contemplation.

Seokjin pets his hair. “I was saying we don’t need to worry,” he tells him. “All we have to do is get them to the river barge by 11 p.m. Then we’ll turn things over to Jimin. He and Jungkook can handle it from there.” 

“Jungkook knows,” Taehyung exclaims. Then his eyes widen, because Jungkook doesn’t know everything about Yoongi and Hoseok. Jungkook knows they have a surprise in store for them, but he may not know why. However, he does know Taehyung’s proposal plans, which until recently, he had only shared with Namjoon.

“Well, yes,” Seokjin says. “We knew Jimin would tell him. At least now he’ll be less likely to accidentally let something slip to Yoongi or Hope.”

Taehyung glowers into his not-so-frozen yogurt. “Planning is hard,” he mutters.

“Believe me VV, you’re doing great,” Seokjin says. 

“You make it look easy,” Taehyung says. “It’s so complicated and confusing. How do you keep track of all the little pieces in your brain?”

Seokjin shrugs. “I like it,” he says. “It’s fun.” Then he adds, “A lot of times when I’m dancing, I like to run through my plans in my head. I found that if I’m focusing on something else, then I’m less concerned with failing.”

They catch up to Benji, who’s waiting for them at the gorilla habitat.

“Well, what happens if you do fail?” Taehyung asks. 

Seokjin lifts his shoulders. “It doesn’t bother me like it used to,” he says. “If we’re living our lives well, aren’t we supposed to fail? And if we wanna live a good life, maybe we should learn to love our mistakes as much as we love our success. Right, hyungnim?” 

“Not a bad plan.” Benji drums the paddock railing. “Difficult, though.” 

Taehyung thinks, then, about all the mistakes he’s made: All the embarrassing errors, the lapses in judgement, the times he reacted out of fear, or jealousy, or pain. He thinks of last year, of his behavior with Minho, and all those shameful things he did in the name of finding himself. How can he possibly love that? 

The answer seems too simple. He can learn, forgive, and move on. But like Benji said, it’s difficult. Especially the moving-on part. Because, what if he doesn’t remember? What if he slips up and fails all over again? Isn’t the point of regret to keep yourself from making the same mistakes?

He turns to Seokjin to make this point, but Seokjin has already moved on, trailing over to the placard that displays information about the gorillas. He’s standing there, lips moving softly as he ponders out the English words. Taehyung itches to take pictures. He wants to snap a thousand photographs, one for every single Seokjin smile. 

Seokjin mutters, “Buh-red-uh in cap-tive-it-ee.” His brows peak. Confused, he points to his pastry. To Benji, he says, “Bread?”

Benji grins. “Bred,” he corrects. “It means, like, born here, not in the wild.”

“Oooh,” Seokjin says. Then his eyes light up. He points again to his pastry as he begins to giggle. “Taehyungie, look:bread in captivity.” 

Warmth floods through Taehyung. Overwhelmed, he blurts, “Jin-hyung, marry me.” 

For a moment it feels as if the whole universe holds its breath. A grasshopper flutters through the grass. A warm breeze hushes through the flowers. Off, distant, a boat grumbles into the harbor, and high above, the clouds whisper rain. 

Seokjin’s mouth quirks into the smile he only wears when he knows a secret. He says, “Taehyung, you know I will.” 

Taehyung’s blood pounds like wingbeats in his ears. Sound rushes back in, along with a torrent of emotions, all bigger and louder than what Taehyung can fully process. “You know I will,” he repeats. 

He reaches for Seokjin’s hand and they stand there, fingers linked, for a long, immeasurable moment, before Benji, who’s been standing there the whole time, who has witnessed everything, says, “Wait, you guys are serious.” 

“I am,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung knows this may be one of those mistakes he’ll come to later regret. But he also knows this mistake will not be difficult to love. 

“Me too,” Taehyung tells him. They brace together against the railing, both too dazed and dizzy to speak. 

Benji, equally dumbstruck, gestures for the camera. Taehyung fumbles it to him, and after a moment of adjusting the lenses, Benji jostles them together.

“For you only,” Benji breathes. He watches them a second longer. Then he goes, “Hana, dul, set,” and clicks them into frame. 


KKT Hyungnim Chat
11:21 a.m.


Jaehyang(Benji):
Sejin-nim, if you have time this afternoon, can we meet?
Jaehyang(Benji): I could really use your help.

KimSejin: What’s this about? 
KimSejin: Everything okay?

Jaehyang(Benji): No sir. I’m in trouble.
Jaehyang(Benji): It’s about Taehyung and Seokjin.
Jaehyang(Benji): And I don’t think it’s going to be okay.

Chapter Text

“Look to the stars
Let hope burn in your eyes
And we’ll love and we’ll hate and we’ll die
All to no avail, all to no avail.”
Stockholm Syndrome, Muse

1 October 2018 – Chicago – Night

To Hoseok, the city of Chicago resembles the game of Pac-Man. All its streets gleam in golden gridlines, scattered with pink and blue gems that could be ghosts and pixelated fruit. It entertains him endlessly to think of a hefty, golden orb wheeling through them, chasing or eating everything in its path. 

Meanwhile, beside him, Jungkook gobbles down a succession of fat, pink shrimp each the size of a baby’s fist. Hoseok can’t fault him in his hunger. Since arriving in America, they’ve worked damn near nonstop, sparing little time for meals, sleep, or personal excursions. 

Until today, when the managers spontaneously scheduled them a much-needed break. 

“This was a good surprise,” Hoseok tells him. “Booking this restaurant for us. The meal, the view. It’s really wonderful.”

Jungkook forks a wedge of lobster toward Hoseok. While he chews, he says, “Hyung, you have to eat.” He proceeds then to count out equal shares of their entree, which is a three-tiered tower of seafood. It’s far more than either of them can eat, yet Jungkook neatly portions out each oyster, clam, and mussel between them.  

“Ah, Jungkookie,” Hoseok says, pressing a hand to his heart, “You have grown up so well.” 

“I dunno about that,” he says, shyly. He sips his beer, a thing he can now legally do in the US, and blots his mouth with his napkin. “But I thought we should celebrate.”

“Oh?” Hoseok says. “Really?” He has an idea of what might be the cause for celebration, but he holds back, wanting Jungkook to be the one to tell it.

Jungkook clears his throat. He hoists his glass. He says, “Hyung, let’s be neighbors.”

Hoseok squinches his eyes shut. “Such excellent news,” he shouts, bringing the brims of their cups together. Jungkook conceals his smile as he turns his head to sip. “So Bang PD agreed. You signed the paperwork? Everything is set?”

“Yes, yep, and yes,” Jungkook says, setting the beer aside. “I could move in next Spring. March, I think.”

“Fantastic,” Hoseok sighs. 

Yet Jungkook lingers, studying the bubbles in his glass, a precarious smile ghosting across his lips.

“So,” Hoseok hazards a guess. “What does Jiminie think?”

“Yeah. Um.” Jungkook cranes his neck. “I haven’t told him.” 

“Oooh,” Hoseok drones. 

Jungkook rubs a thumb over his lips. “I know I’ll have to, eventually. But right now…” He stuffs another shrimp into his mouth. Chipmunking it, he goes, “Hyung, you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?”

Hoseok decides he does not like the direction this conversation is taking. Keeping a cautious tone, he says, “I am familiar with the term.”

“Right,” Jungkook says. He continues to chew. “Like when someone develops feelings for their kidnapper.”

“Jungkookie, I gotta ask – because you can’t be suggesting what I think you’re suggesting – but...” Hoseok doesn’t want to continue, but he forges on. “Who is the kidnapper here, and who’s the kidnappee?”

Jungkook begins a slow, whole-body nod. “It’s not like that, not really,” he says. “Except. Kinda. We are. All of us: we’re the kidnappees. Not that we were held against our will, so, like, I know it’s not the same. But I’ve been thinking, about love, about being bound by love, and...” He hisses a sigh through his nose. “You know how things went down last year with Seokjin-hyung and Tae?”

Hoseok feels a sneer coming on. He works hard to suppress it. “Yes,” he says. “They almost didn’t make it. But they did.”

Jungkook scrubs absently at the stubble on his cheek. “But, like, why?” he asks.

“They love each other,” Hoseok says. He knows it’s not that simple. Yet, at the same time, it is. 

Jungkook’s face betrays a flicker of frustration. He says, “I think they believe it.”

This rankles Hoseok, spilling a trickle of annoyance into his stomach. He takes a moment, sipping his water, to bring the feeling under control. 

“I think it’s more a question of how they did it,” Hoseok says. “Not why. It took work. It took persistence. It took them both bending to meet each other instead of walking the other way. That’s what I think.”

Jungkook goes still, considering. Light skims the corner of his eye, illuminating the hint of a tear. 

Hoseok’s annoyance shifts to concern. “Jungkookie, do you really believe,” he asks, feeling forward through his words, “that Seokjinnie and Taehyungie have kidnapped each other?”

“Doesn’t that make sense?”

Hoseok reaches to squeeze Jungkook’s knee. “JK, baby, love ain’t about making sense.”

Jungkook’s words bleed exasperation. “Shouldn’t it, though?” he asks. 

“It’s not that simple,” Hoseok says. Instantly, he thinks of Yoongi, how at once intricate and elementary their feelings are for each other. This same connection extends to the rest of them as well, because they are linked way beyond friendship, beyond brotherhood, to something entirely unique to only the seven of them. 

And, within this particular beam of light, Hoseok can see how that might appear like Stockholm Syndrome. With a snort, he recalls American Hustle Life, way back and another lifetime ago, in the early days when those bonds were first forged. 

“What?” Jungkook asks. 

“I was remembering that time we were actually kidnapped. Remember, back in LA,” Hoseok says. “I mean, yeah, it was fake, but still we held onto each other, because we were all we had.” 

Jungkook levels him with a savage look, and Hoseok abruptly understands the point Jungkook is trying to make. He covers his mouth to catch his swear. 

Immediately, Jungkook rushes to reassure him. “I don’t think it’s all bad, hyung,” he explains. “But, maybe it makes us afraid to try things on our own. When I signed the contract for that apartment, hyung, my heart felt so full, like it was bursting.” Jungkook gazes past Hoseok, down into the broad sweep of lights that spangle across the skyline. “It felt like when we went bungee jumping that time, you know? The second right after you jump,  when there’s nothing around you but sky. That’s how it felt.”

“Yeah,” Hoseok mutters. He feels loose and disconnected. That was not something he enjoyed. “I understand.”

“I know it’s selfish,” Jungkook goes on. “He loves me completely, but he’s blind. Because I don’t even know who I am yet. I can’t even take care of myself. He does so much for me, and I let him. So is it wrong, hyung, for me to want to do something on my own? Is it bad to want something for myself?” 

“No,” Hoseok says. “Of course not. But still. Jungkook. You gotta tell him.”

“He won’t understand,” Jungkook says. 

Hoseok coughs a helpless laugh. “No, he won’t. But you can’t keep it a secret forever, and the longer you wait, the worse it’ll be.”

Jungkook wrestles a mussel from its shell. Popping it into his mouth, he says, “Yours was a secret.”

“Touché, Jeon Jungkook,” Hoseok says, indignant. “Touché.”

“You make big, important life decisions, and you never have to tell anyone.”

“But,” Hoseok counters. “Mine was a teeny bit less complicated since I wasn’t involved with someone who would be directly affected by it. You are.”

“Yeah.” Jungkook stretches his arms and legs, working out the tension. He stands up, calling attention to their server, who comes over to refill their drinks. When he sits back down, he looks determined and settled, like he’s reached a resolution. “Let’s not talk about this anymore, hyung,” he says. “This is our night. We’re supposed to be happy.”

Hoseok squints at him. He considers the myriad ways in which their maknae has changed. All this hiding and misdirection; it isn’t like him. Or maybe it’s like Jungkook said; maybe they don’t really know who he is because he doesn’t even know himself?

He asks, “Aren’t you happy, Jungkookie?”

Jungkook chugs down half his beer, shuddering hard against its bitterness. “Mostly,” he admits. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he turns the question on Hoseok, “What about you, hyung? Aren’t you happy?”

Hoseok does not chug, but draws five long, deep drafts of his hoppy American beer, downing it all like medicine. Cringing, he says, “I miss maekju.” So maybe Jungkook’s not the only one who’s skilled at redirection.

Forcing a smile, Jungkook says, “It’s a good dinner, though.”

“Yeah,” Hoseok agrees. “We should make a video, show our gratitude for this place.”

But as he reaches for their handcam, Jungkook lays a hand on his wrist. “You’re pretty clever, hyung,” he tells him. “But I noticed. You didn’t answer my question.” 

There’s no use feigning shock or copping ignorance; Jungkook is far too sharp for that. “You mean, am I happy?” Hoseok asks.

“Yes, hyung,” Jungkook says. He waits with the patience of a cat on the edge of a koi pond, as if all his future contentment rests upon Hoseok’s response. 

It’s a fair question. One he hasn’t asked himself in a while. If he weighs out everything across the board – their successes, their failures, their progresses and stumbles, the balance of it all must surely come out positive. He’s healthy, he’s fulfilled, he’s traveling the world with his favorite people. There is almost nothing on earth for which he could wish.

Except for one. 

So, yes. All things considered, Hoseok figures he can at least be honest. “Mostly,” he agrees. “I am also mostly happy.”

This seems to seal the matter for Jungkook. Satisfied, he scoots his chair over, bringing up the camera to put an end to further personal discussions. They film their greeting, and the server returns with their check. 

With a bold flourish, Jungkook picks up the bill. With a wink, he says, “To being neighbors.” 

There is hope and starlight in Jungkook’s eyes, and despite everything, Hoseok can’t help but feel a guarded sense of pride.

 

Chapter Text

“No matter what, I'm going my way
It's what I've dreamed every night,
Don't worry.”
My Way, ATEEZ

11 October 2018 – London – Part One

Seokjin stuffs his hands into his pockets, tracing the sharp edge of a lacquered box beneath his thumb. 

“So…” Namjoon strides a few more paces. “...were you just not gonna tell me?”

Between them, Yoongi hides a smile. 

“I planned to tell you,” Seokjin says. “Eventually. Privately.” He casts a look at Yoongi, who, in the wan light of the London street, looks the part of the Cheshire cat: all shiny eyes and toothy grin. “Until tonight, we haven’t had any time to talk. So, I’m telling you now.”

“Wait, so.” Yoongi covers his mouth. “Lemme get this straight. Taehyung said, ‘Marry me, Jin-hyung.’ Right there, in the park, in front of everyone.” 

Seokjin elbows Yoongi hard enough to bump him from the sidewalk. Namjoon, still a few steps ahead, drags him back onto the path, maneuvering him around a pack of flabby tourists who are still wearing flip flops despite the evening’s muggy chill. For a moment, Yoongi and Namjoon have to walk ahead as the crowd churns around them, bound for the subway entrance. Ahead, glaring with stark flashes of color, the animated billboards of Piccadilly Circus gleam into view, smudging the clouds with swaths of garish light. 

The crosswalk signal clicks from red to green. People swarm toward the black fountain at the heart of the plaza. Yoongi and Namjoon wait for Seokjin to catch up before the three of them cross together.

Yoongi wrinkles his nose. “Looks like Times Square,” he says, nodding to the vast, curving LEDs. Then, shrugging, he adds, “Smells like Times Square.” 

There is a distinct urban scent, sewer mixed with trash mixed with something fried and savory. Seokjin’s stomach gurgles at the thought of street food, but Namjoon’s on a mission, so the local cuisine will have to wait. 

Still, they pause at fountain, long enough for Seokjin to snap a few photos for Taehyung. He and Hoseok opted to visit the Tower Bridge and Big Ben, so Seokjin snags a few snapshots for them, in case they don’t make it this far into the city. As always, their time is limited, and with their recent appearances on American TV, it’s almost impossible to go anywhere without getting recognized. 

Namjoon consults his phone for directions. Yoongi wanders a short distance, examining the crowds. 

“Anyway,” Seokjin goes on, “It wasn’t everyone. It was Taehyung and me and Benji.”

Yoongi says, “Who? What? Hm?”

“When Taehyung proposed,” Seokjin says. He turns the lacquered box in his pocket, catching the lid latch with his fingernail. “No one was there except us and Benji. Anyway, it wasn’t a real proposal. He didn’t have a ring or get down on one knee—”

“—Hyung, that’s not the point,” Namjoon says, not glancing from his phone. “The point is, I asked you to be careful.”

“Friendly reminder that the point of tonight is Bro-friends in London,” Yoongi interjects. “I did not drag my tired ass from the comfort of our hotel to listen to you two bicker about who said blah blah blah about whatever the hell. Now. Joon. You said this is a circus. Where the fuck are the animals?” 

Namjoon meets Seokjin’s eyes a moment before breaking into a smile. “It’s a common misconception,” Namjoon explains, “but in England, circus refers to the shape of a circle. That’s actually where circus gets its name, though. A three-ring circus. Get it?”

Yoongi grates out a long groan like a balloon steadily deflating. “Yeah, I get that I came to see zebras and giraffes, but instead I have this,” he jabs a hand toward the statue in the fountain. “Which is, like, what, anyway? An angel? A demon?—” 

“—Actually, it’s the Greek god Eros,” Namjoon cuts in. “The God of Love.” 

“Figures,” Yoongi growls. He stumps around in a loose half-circle, scuffing his boots on the flagstones. “So then… should we… I dunno… make a wish?” 

Seokjin bites back a laugh. 

“Sure, Agust D, make a wish,” Namjoon teases. “You got any change?

Yoongi flips him off. 

“That’s no change at all,” Namjoon observes.

But Seokjin fusses out a handful of leftover American pennies. “Here,” he says. “I got these in New York.” Holding the lacquer box in one palm, he counts out a coin to each of them. “We can’t spend them here. Might as well use them for wishing.”

Yoongi folds the coin into his hand. He takes the steps with far more energy than they would have thought he could muster. At the fountain’s edge, Yoongi clasps the penny in his palm. He closes his eyes and, somewhat theatrically, begins to mutter his wish.

Namjoon murmurs to Seokjin, “I think he’s doing better.”

“Definitely,” Seokjin says, finding an unexpected lump in his throat. “I think so, too.”

After a moment’s awkwardness, Namjoon juts his chin toward the lacquer box in Seokjin’s hand. “What’s that?” he asks. 

Seokjin turns the box so that the gold embossed cover gleams beneath the blurry light. 

“Klimt, right?” Namjoon asks. “The Kiss ?” 

“One of Taehyungie’s favorites,” Seokjin says. “It’s like our special stage, you know? From MAMA, two years ago?” 

Namjoon clears his throat. “Yeah. I remember,” he says. Namjoon’s working hard to keep a neutral tone, despite being frustrated over Taehyung’s impromptu proposal and what it might mean that one of their newer staff witnessed it. 

At the fountain’s edge, Yoongi tosses his coin into the fountain. He turns around, hands on his hips. “C’mon, you cowards. What’re you waiting for?” 

Namjoon glances over Seokjin’s shoulder. His eyes narrow, like he’s considering something. Then he shakes his head. “You first,” he tells Seokjin. 

“Fine,” Seokjin tells him. He pockets the music box. “But I already got my wish.” 

Namjoon takes the coin to the fountain. He and Seokjin stand side by side, with Yoongi watching on. Namjoon scans the crowd again, his eyes going tight. Then he whispers to the penny before lobbing it into the pool. 

Seokjin wishes what he always wishes. Then he kisses the coin and throws it, not worrying where it may fall. 

“‘Kay,” Yoongi calls up. “Since, apparently, we’re not gonna see any animals, what’s next? Make it good, though, ’cause the train station’s right there and our hotel has a badass whirlpool tub.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Namjoon waves. “There’s, um, a bookshop.”

Yoongi pretends to fall asleep. Seokjin catches him, tucking him into a side-hug.

“You’re the only one who can really read English,” Seokjin points out.

“They have toys,” Namjoon counters, not hiding his excitement.

Yoongi smirks. “Oh, so it’s that kind of bookshop.”

“Wha—? No,” Namjoon shoves him. “It’s a regular kind of bookshop.”

“Bored,” Yoongi says. “We came all the way to London for no animals and books we can’t read.” He pats his pockets, finds his train card, and waves. “Night.”

Namjoon drags him to a stop. “Wait…” Again, he glances beyond them to the street and its throng of tourists. This time, Seokjin and Yoongi follow his gaze, their eyes lighting for a moment on a young woman sitting on a stone step, her legs crossed primly at the ankles. She’s dressed in a black mini with glossy knee-boots and a pink cardigan stitched with the letter V. She’s wearing a matching beret, and she’s casually skimming through her phone. 

Even in the ambiguous light, Seokjin can tell she’s Korean.

“I think she’s following us,” Namjoon says. He turns them both to face the scrawling billboards. “I also think I might’ve seen her in New York.”

“Whaaat?” Yoongi drones. He goes to glance back; Namjoon presses him forward.

“Don’t acknowledge her,” Namjoon says. “But, we should report it to Sejin-nim. She might be a stalker.”

“Or,” Yoongi counters. “She might be a young kid on vacation. Like us.”

Namjoon points them toward the side-street. They go slowly together, casting looks back over their shoulder as they join the crosswalk crowd. She remains, cool and calm on the steps, her backpack slung into her lap, her eyes affixed to her phone. 

The light turns green. They cross. Even as they disappear down the street, she stays.

Seokjin flexes his fingers, working tension from his knuckles as they navigate the street. 

“I don’t think she’s on vacation with her family,” Namjoon says. “First of all, where are they, if not with her?”

“Maybe getting food?” Seokjin suggests, leading as he often does with his own stomach. His desire to cut north to Chinatown is almost overwhelming. 

Namjoon says, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Maybe a student,” Yoongi guesses. “She looks the part.” 

“Maybe,” Namjoon allows. They come to the bookshop entrance. “Let’s go inside,” Namjoon says. “At least it’s warm and well-lit in there.”

(continued in London Part 2)

Chapter Text

“Love is nothing stronger
Than a boy with luv.”
BWL, BTS

11 October 2018 – London – Part Two 

The inside of Waterstones smells like tea and cake flour. They wander a while, distracted by the chatter of the bookshop patrons. 

Seokjin and Taehyung exchange messages, but Seokjin doesn’t tell him about the possible stalker. He doesn’t want to ruin their night, especially since Taehyung’s working on his own mission with Hoseok. Instead, Seokjin relays the story of Yoongi’s wish at the fountain.

At a quarter to ten, Seokjin recognizes the English announcement for closing time. He and Yoongi meet Namjoon at the checkout, where their leader buys a wind-up pencil sharpener in the shape of a domed garbage can.

“The fuck is that?” Yoongi asks as they shuffle back into the fusty night. 

Seokjin feels the warmth of Namjoon’s blush, despite the gritty chill of the street. 

“It’s called a Dalek,” Namjoon says. “From this British TV show.” He waves the package at Seokjin. “Your friend Minnie knows it.” Then, seeming to sense his misstep, Namjoon cringes as Seokjin instantly pounces.

“How do you know what Minnie knows?” Seokjin asks. Yoongi snorts, clearly enjoying this turn of events. 

Namjoon squirms. “We met, once, at the studio. Remember?”

“And you’re buying her gifts now?” Seokjin says.

“Oh, it’s not for her,” Namjoon hurries to explain.

“Why not?” Seokjin blurts. “Is she not good enough to warrant a gift?”

“She is,” Namjoon stammers. “I mean, maybe she is. I don’t really know her yet.” 

“Yet?” Seokjin shouts. “You don’t know her yet?” 

“She’s a perfectly nice girl,” Namjoon explains, grinning like he’s onto Seokjin’s teasing. “And I’m sure she’d be a delight to date if I were into dating or any kind of social anything right now, but, unlike you and Taehyung, I have no plans as such—”

“—And yet you’re buying a present for a girl from a London bookshop,” Seokjin says.

“First of all, I never said it was for a girl. Secondly—”

Then Yoongi halts them both by forcing them around a corner. “Keep going,” he whispers, cutting them around the slower pedestrians until they arrive at an alley leading back to Piccadilly Circus. 

Once they’ve returned to the busy plaza, Namjoon says, “You saw her, didn’t you?”

“She is following us,” Yoongi says. He wipes his mouth. “She had her phone out—”

“—Like she was filming?” Namjoon says. “Shit.” He cuts a quick half-circle of indecision. Then he says, “Let’s get back to the hotel. Message the others. We’ll call a meeting, let Sejin-nim know what’s up.”

“Or,” Seokjin lifts a finger. “We could get a picture of her.” He’s not at all surprised at the calmness of his own voice.

Namjoon and Yoongi gawk at him for several seconds before Yoongi rolls a shoulder. “Not a bad idea, Joon.”

Namjoon nips at a hangnail. He shakes his head. “No. That’s a job for Benji or Jigae-nim. Not us.”

“If she’s dedicated enough to track us from New York to London, she can probably identify our security team,” Seokjin reasons. “She’ll hide from them. She won’t hide from us.”

Namjoon considers. Then he says, “You know, sometimes I wonder if I sorted you into the wrong house.”

“Ha!” Yoongi barks. “Team Slytherin.” He goes for a high-five; Seokjin bats it away.

“Actually, I was thinking Ravenclaw,” Namjoon says. “Though maybe you could be like a hybrid. Griffynclaw—”

 “—Or Ravendor,” Yoongi offers.

“Yah, I’m serious,” Seokjin says. He takes the lacquer box from his pocket, holding it aloft between them. He flicks it open, revealing the clockworks of the music box inside. “In eleven days, I’m proposing to Taehyung.” He passes the music box to Namjoon, who cups it in his palm. 

Namjoon examines the box, turning it to the underside. He twists the key to reveal its song, listening as the notes ring out like silver stars against the grimy night.

“You chose that song?” Yoongi sniffs. “Hm. That's nice.”

Namjoon sighs in resigned agreement. “Yeah. Really nice.” 

“This plan is literally years in the making,” Seokjin whispers. “I promised Taehyung I would kiss him at the top of the Eiffel Tower someday. I have booked a private tour guide. I have made special reservations. I’ve given Taehyung his clues, and with your help – if you’re still willing to help – he will solve them. I have planned everything for us, down to the second, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone interfere. Any one.”   

After a moment’s crisp silence, Yoongi says, “Okay, Gryffindor.” 

Seokjin bumps his shoulder. 

“We will help you,” Namjoon says, “Of course, we will. But we’re not risking a close encounter with a sasaeng. That is not how we play.” 

Seokjin scans the dark street, almost willing the young woman to appear. If they got her photo, they could share it with their security team. They could report her, and BigHit could pursue legal action against her. It would send a clear message to every person who would dare invade their privacy.

The idea of it fills him with a cascade of tingling energy. 

“Look,” Namjoon reasons. “We don’t even know yet if this isn’t a coincidence. Like Yoongi said, she could be a student who just happened to cross our path.”

“Twice,” Seokjin puts in.

“And in New York,” Yoongi adds.

“Maybe,” Namjoon says. “But I’m not certain. Which is all the more reason to go back to our hotel and report it.”

Seokjin knows he should feel angry. This is their one night off in London, a city they have never seen, and who knows when they’ll ever get to return? And here’s some strange girl cutting it short. And for what? For clout? For her Instagram? For a chance perhaps to get close enough to touch them? 

But, no. Seokjin isn’t mad. In fact, he feels a snag of interest. It’s a feeling akin to what he felt when Namjoon told him about Minyeong trying once more to get at him and Taehyung. And with it, comes an icy clarity. He realizes, they don’t need to chase her through the streets to catch her at her game. All they need to do is wait. In time, like Minyeong, she will come to them. And Seokjin is no longer afraid. 

“Fine,” he says. 

Namjoon hesitates. “Really?” he asks.

“Yep.” Seokjin nods to Yoongi, who slouches with a shrug of agreement. 

Namjoon closes the music box with a snap. He goes to pass it to Seokjin.

“Keep it, please,” Seokjin says. “On the night, in Paris, you can give it to him.” 

Namjoon stares at it, dubious. “Hyung? Aren’t you afraid I’ll lose it?”

“You won’t,” Seokjin says.

Namjoon purses his lips. Then he slips the box into his pocket. “We’re doing the right thing,” he assures them, 

“I know we are,” Seokjin says, and after one last scan of the alley, he lets Namjoon lead the way back to their hotel.

Chapter Text

“My ideal and what is reality
They're so far, far away
But I still want to cross those two bridges
To reach myself.”
uhgood, RM

18 October 2018 – Berlin

Namjoon exits down the hotel steps while the sun is still dabbling crimson into the clouds. His list for the morning contains two items: coffee, and an important call to the studio. He checks his phone for navigation, treading along the flagstones, bound for the Brandenburg Gate. 

He’s been to Berlin before, though the memories fuzz at the edges like faded home movies. They had been young then, impressionable and overworked. In their eagerness to be seen, they overlooked important details. Without question, they let the stylists dress them in something objectionable. Then their photographers posed them against the stark backdrop of what he would later learn was a memorial to Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust. 

At the time, Namjoon thought that the utilitarian structure with its somber gray monoliths would help make a statement against conformity. In their ignorance, they had disrespected events that had devastated an entire culture. 

The idea of it curdles his stomach, that they could be so naive and careless.

Yet he acknowledges that, back then, he was speaking from a place of lesser enlightenment. He’s learned now to be more careful, to be less trusting, to be more present in their message. Going forward, he’ll be less likely to make such egregious mistakes. 

Namjoon buys a cafe americano from a cozy coffee shop in the artist’s borough. He hopes to catch the sunrise over the river. He needs to sit and rest and think. So much has happened in the last few weeks, and Namjoon wants to be alone to sort through it. He must decide what to hang on to, and what he needs to let go. 

 

No one’s at the riverbank. The quiet street smells of dampness and cigarettes, but somewhere nearby, a bakery scents the air with the promise of warmth. He finds a wrought-iron bench facing the River Spree. He watches a cluster of pigeons hobble and bop along the gutter, early-birding whatever they can find between the stones. 

He watches them, amused, as he sips his coffee.

For a moment, he feels the icy ache of his aloneness. It spills through him, radiating from his chest into his fingertips, a deep, consuming melancholy. 

He lets himself feel it. He takes several steady breaths, drawing in the mossy air, the ageless dust of the ancient street. He wonders about the blood spilled on these stones, about the traces of elements between the rocks that blend with the rain and run off into the Spree. 

In that way, he feels connected to the earth, and to history, and to the rest of the world. 

After a while, he regains his focus. His thoughts clear, he takes out his phone. In one pocket rests a Dalek pencil sharpener. In the opposite pocket, he has a music box embossed with Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Both represent important people and life events that, for now, have yet to clash. But with the way things are aligning, he’s not sure how much longer this can continue to be true. Their security guy - Benji - seems distant since he witnessed Taehyung’s accidental proposal back in Chicago, but he’s remained professional, keeping his focus on his job. Sejin assures Namjoon that everything’s okay, but something about it seems unsettled. At this moment, though, Namjoon decides he has other things to worry about.

The light above casts the clouds into bruises of yellow and purple. It’s early evening in Seoul; their workday is ending. Here in Berlin, Namjoon’s day has just begun.

He sips again, sets the cup aside, and thumbs the app for Skype. 

Adora answers immediately. “RM-ssi,” she gushes. “Have you seen it?”

Her image fragments, then locks into still-frame. It gives him a moment to compose himself. “Uh,” he stalls, tilting the phone to the light. “I was gonna ask you the same thing.” 

The connection lags. Just as he thinks he should hang up and try again, her voice says, “I sent you the link.” Her face pixelates into a smile. “We did it. Holy frick, Namjoon-ssi, we actually did it.”

Confused, Namjoon tabs to his email. He opens the link she sent, and as he reads the headline, his heart begins to pound. “East Light broke the story?” His throat clenches; he coughs to clear it. “They came forward about the abuse?”

He skims the article while Adora talks excitedly about the news, and how everyone at BigHit has been discussing it. 

“Hold up, though,” he interrupts. “They only name the CEO and a producer in this article. There’s no mention of Park Minyeong.”

“No, that’s true,” she allows. “But our mutual manager friend here assured me that Minyeong vacated his office at Media Line. They dismissed him, RM-ssi. He won’t be able to hurt those boys any more. And he won’t be coming for us, either.”

Unease bristles up Namjoon’s spine. “I really, really hope that’s true,” he mutters. 

Adora tucks her bangs behind her ears. “You’re afraid he’ll retaliate?”

“He’ll probably try,” Namjoon says. He clears his throat again. “There’s no way he can trace any of this back to you, right?”

“No,” she says. “No way. He was hoping to bring us down to help East Light climb. Now that he’s no longer employed by Media Line, he has no reason to target us.” 

Namjoon gnaws his thumbnail. “He’s a vengeful guy, though.” He sucks air over his teeth. “Just, y’know, watch your back in case he’s still gunning for Jin-hyung and Tae. And there’s still money in selling idols out to Dispatch, so… Yeah. Be careful.” 

“I will,” she says. “I promise.” The connection lags. The picture freezes, but her voice goes on. “Anyway, we have reason to celebrate. Your mixtape, RM-ssi. It’s, wow!… it’s really wonderful.”

“Yeah?” Namjoon sits forward. “You like it?”

“I mean, we all do. We’ve all got it on loop. Donghyuk-ssi’s been doing the post-mixing per your instructions, and it sounds fantastic. Like, really really great.” Her image reanimates, seeming to cut from her sitting at a computer to standing by a window. “I’m babbling, sorry. But I don’t know how you do it, RM-ssi. One day, you’re addressing the UN, the next you’re holding a friendship concert with President freakin’ Moon? And I know you worked on this mixtape for literal years, but like, seriously, do you ever sleep?”

Namjoon coughs a short laugh. “You know, they say Leonardo da Vinci slept fifteen minutes for every four hours he was awake?” he says. “I think we’ve accidentally managed to emulate him.” 

“Well, you are all Renaissance men,” Adora agrees. “And don’t the historians say he might have also been gay—”

“—Did they now?” Namjoon grins.

“Indeed they did,” Adora says. She peers down, out of the window, and Namjoon imagines the busy Seoul street from her point of view. She asks, “How’re the guys holding up?” 

“Yeah, not great,” Namjoon admits. “Jimin hurt his neck, and Jungkook hurt his foot, so they’ve both been restricted to light activity to speed up recovery. Seokjin and Taehyung are battling a sinus infection, but neither of them listen to the staff these days.” 

Which, Namjoon thinks, is putting it lightly, but he doesn’t want to get into that right now. “Actually, the only ones who seem to be doing okay are Hoseok and Yoongi,” he goes on. “In Hobi’s case, it’s not so surprising. He works hard, but he takes good care of himself, too. Maybe the rest of us need to work on mastering that balance.” 

Adora stretches her neck. “Maybe all of Korea should work on mastering that balance,” she says. “And how about you?” She shifts the camera, backlighting herself with the window’s glow. “How’re you holding up?” 

“You know,” he says. “I’m good.” 

“I know you’re good, Namjoon-ssi,” she teases. “I’m asking if you’re doing all right.”

Namjoon laughs out loud this time. Then he winces against a sudden upswell of emotion. It makes him grateful for the camera and the lag of the connection, because he’s able to recover his cool before speaking. 

“I guess no one’s really asked me that in a while,” he tells her. “So, thanks.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “You still didn’t answer.” 

“Fine,” he says. “Okay. Here goes.” He breathes. Then he says, “These days, I kinda exist in this state of constant worry. Like, I’m glad we were able to help those East Light boys, but at the same time, I know it’s not enough. We addressed the UN, which, maybe in some way encouraged them to speak out, and that’s awesome. But, like, I also know that this will probably ruin them, as sure as those dating scandals probably ruined Pentagon. East Light will be remembered now as the group that got abused, and not for their music, and that’s the biggest shame.”

“Yeah,” she says. “That’s true.”

“And it isn’t fair, not to Pentagon, not to East Light, and not to us either, to be so harshly judged and scrutinized. I mean, we got sasaengs boarding planes with us, tracking us through the streets. Yet, at the same time, this is our world, and we gotta live in it.” He takes a sip of his coffee only to find it cold. With a sigh, he says, “I want us all to have good lives. But I worry that the choices some of my members are making right now might have far-reaching consequences. And I don’t want to see them get hurt.”

Adora shifts her phone from one hand to another. She says, “Did you know you’re talking about them again?” 

Namjoon chokes. He goes to drink his coffee again but thinks better of it. “No,” he admits.  “I didn’t realize.” 

“You’re a good guy, RM-ssi, and a great leader,” she says. “One of the best in idol history, and I’ll fight anyone who says different. It’s crazy, though, ’cause no one can understand what you’re going through. No one’s ever done what you’re doing.” Adora’s face freezes again. Her voice frays out, picking up mid-phrase with, “...help but worry about you, too.” 

“You’re breakin’ up,” Namjoon says. He stands up, pacing to find a stronger signal. He’s hemmed in on all sides by ancient stone buildings; perhaps, in retrospect, not the best place for international calls. He heads for the bridge in hopes of better reception, while on Adora’s end, the screen goes black. 

He crosses to the center of the bridge. Light breaks in colored fractures across the river’s surface. He holds the phone up, and the screen grades from black to gray. Then Adora’s there again, fully restored to a grainy lo-q.

“Oh,” she breathes. “Lost you there a minute. Welcome back.” 

Namjoon steps from the curb to keep from fumbling his phone into the river. He’s learned from experience that’s all too likely a possibility. “I missed some of what you said, though,” he says. “Something about you worrying about me, too?”

Her nose wrinkles. If the picture quality was better, he might guess that she’s blushing. “Yeah. Sure. You know. A friendly reminder to take care of yourself.”

“That’s it?” Namjoon asks. It sounds almost peevish, like an ungrateful child expecting more gifts on Christmas Eve. “Uh. I mean. It seemed like more.”

“More than a sincere wish for your well being?” Adora quips. “Just, you know, take care of YOU.” she says. “And speaking of, I gotta take care of me. I have to find some food before our session with the TXT boys. I swear to you, Joon-ssi, if I’m the slightest bit hangry, they will make me to lose dignity and I just… I can’t with them tonight. I just can’t.” 

Smiling, he asks, “Are they that unruly?” 

“Doesn’t begin to cover it,” she hisses. “You think your members can’t keep their hands to themselves? These guys touch each other’s eyeballs. Urrgh.” She shudders, pressing both hands to her forehead. “But I’ll check in again soon, okay? I'm so proud of you.” 

“Thanks,” he says. “Proud of you, too.” 

She reaches to end the connection. The screen freezes on her face and goes blank.

Adora’s getting dinner, which reminds Namjoon that he should get breakfast. Afterward, it’s a morning of radio shows and post-production relays between him and Bang PD. His mixtape will drop within the next few days, a labor of love and self-exploration that he can finally set free. Then they’ll fly to Paris, where they’ll bounce from sound check, to physical therapy, to rehearsal, and then their concert. He puts his phone into his pocket, feeling Seokjin's music box bump against his thumb. 

There is that, too: the proposals, about which Namjoon knows, while the other two, the proposers themselves, do not. Singularly, these things don’t trouble Namjoon. They are the culmination of years of planning and a cause for celebration. However, what their sasaeng might make of them… that troubles Namjoon a great deal. So far as he knows, she hasn’t trailed them to Berlin, but it’s still too early to tell if she’ll pop up in France.

To his reflection in the river, he mutters, “This could be a disaster.” 

He hopes it won’t be. He knows that even if he urged caution to Seokjin or Taehyung, they would stubbornly forge on because they’ve worked too hard for too long to back down now. And anyway, hasn’t this always been their way? Wild dreams, after all, come from the wildest of dreamers. 

Namjoon is among them. The best thing about having big dreams is that, sometimes, even the most unlikely ones come true.  

Namjoon leans over the bridge railing, palms flat against the cool stone. The river smells fresh and reedy. The sun warms his shoulders and flecks bronze into the water below. For now, this is all the time he can take for himself. With a sigh of resignation, he pushes back to the sidewalk, knowing that this short span of time will have to sustain him, at least for a little while. 

 

Chapter Text

Je t’aime davantage aujourd’hui plus qu’hier moins que demain.

11.22:11.45:10.21

984:1887

33.892.70.12.39

The message from Seokjin’s card

21 October 2018 – Paris, France

Taehyung sniffles. He wipes his nose. He uncaps his soda and takes a long, fizzly drink. On top of the cold he’s been fighting and the nonstop crying, he looks like someone who fell asleep on a beach under full August sun. 

Across from him, slouching in a poofy couch, Yoongi nurses a coffee that smells like burnt tree bark. Namjoon and Hoseok flank him, looking like members of an elite security team with their straight posture and button-down shirts. Jimin is on the floor at Taehyung’s feet, one arm slung around his legs to hug him, koala-style. Jungkook and Seokjin are on the bed, lounging together and looking half-asleep, but Taehyung knows better. They’re both awake and listening intently to what their managers and security lead has to say.

“Here’s the situation as we know it,” Sejin explains. “There are several young women, some of them Korean, some who are Korean-born but live here in France. They’ve booked rooms in this hotel, and they’re intent on following you.”

Yoongi scratches at his cheek. “Can we, like, have them evicted from the hotel?”

“Legally, no,” Benji tells them. “Not unless they attempt physical harm or breaking-and-entering. If they keep a safe distance, we have no legal recourse.” 

“But,” Jigaemae goes on, “that doesn’t mean you should engage with them. Don’t interact with them or provoke them; they could see it as an invitation. Ignoring them is our best course of action.”

Namjoon catches Seokjin’s eye. They both nod.

“But they have cameras,” Hoseok says. “Isn’t that an invasion of our privacy?”

“Technically, yes,” Benji says. “And if they persist, we’ll deal with them. Not you.” 

“So you’ll be going with us, Gaemae-nim?” Jimin says. 

“There will be security assigned to each group,” Benji tells them. “We want you to be able to see Paris without inconvenience or fear. All that said, if they do persist, if they do continue following you or taking photos without permission, we know their identities, and we will press charges. So, guys. Let us worry with these sasaengs. You enjoy Paris.” 

After a shiver of tension, Jimin breaks the silence. To Benji, he says, “So Jaehyang-ssi, have you ever been to Paris before?” 

This shifts the tone from business to casual, signalling the meeting’s end. Within minutes, they all go down to breakfast, leaving only Jungkook and Taehyung behind. 

Jungkook’s injured foot remains propped on a pillow, but he hangs his head upside down from the end of the bed to gaze at him. 

“So…” Jungkook says. “You ready for all this?”

“No,” Taehyung admits. The duvet still bears the warmth imprint of Seokjin’s body. Taehyung presses into it, stretching out beside Jungkook. “I mean, my part, yes, ’cause my plan’s simple. But his part…” Taehyung shrugs. “I’ve been too distracted, filming stuff with Hobi-hyung. I haven’t figured it out.”

An awkward moment lapses between them as neither seem to know what to say. Jungkook smells like muscle cream, probably Seokjin’s, and there’s a squidge of chocolate on his chin. Since he hurt his foot, he’s been eating Nutella from a jar with a spoon. Not that Taehyung’s judging. Were their positions reversed, he would definitely do the same thing. Taehyung licks his thumb and Mom-scrubs it from Jungkook’s chin. 

“Is that why you’ve been crying?” Jungkook asks. “‘Cause you haven’t solved his riddle?”

“Hm, that,” Taehyung moans. “And… I’ve been sick, and Jinnie’s been sick, and Jimin got hurt, and you got hurt, and Namjoon-hyung’s mad at us, and now we have these stalkers who might ruin our plans, and I miss Tannie, and I just want everything to go well for us, and for Hobi and Yoongi-hyung, too, and it seems like—”

“—Hey,” Jungkook soothes. “Shhh. You know, one thing at a time.” He reaches for his phone and rolls to his elbows. “Here. Grab that pad. Look.”

Taehyung scrabbles for the notepad while Jungkook pulls up the snapshot he took of riddle on Seokjin’s card. 

“I didn’t work a lot on this,” Jungkook admits. “But since I was stuck in hotels the last week, I did a little. I started with a Naver search on these numbers.” He draws boxes around the first two sets: 11.22 and 10.21 “These are a time and a date.”

Taehyung gets that Jungkook is trying to distract him. He understands that they only have a little time alone before Jimin will return with Jungkook’s breakfast. He feels grateful, relieved, even, to be spending this time with him, so he quietly goes along.

“Okay,” Taehyung agrees. “Eleven twenty-two. That’s the date, though. It’s written in the western style. November 22, that’s our anniversary.”

“That would make sense, except…”  Jungkook writes out 11.45. “This is the time. It's gotta be, since no months have 45 days.”

Taehyung taps his chin. “‘Kay, but what about these? 984 and 1887?”

Jungkook shrugs. “That I haven’t figured out,” he says.

“And this.” Taehyung taps the screen to indicate the long thread of numbers punctuated by decimals.

“Yeah, that either,” Jungkook says. “Does he expect you to get all this?”

Taehyung rolls to sit up. “Usually I do.” He ponders a moment. “Did we search for just these numbers?”

“I did,” Jungkook tells him. “It came up as a calculation with the answer being negative 980, which is close to 984, but not a perfect match. Does hyung believe in numerology?”

“Not really. But...” Taehyung types the numbers into the search bar without the decimals. After the second set, a suggestion pops up. Taehyung clicks it to reveal the calculation Jungkook mentioned. Then Taehyung scrolls down to find a Twitter post in French. “Oh,” he mutters. “Look.”

Taehyung thumbs the link. A webpage fills the screen, and they both release a dumbstruck sigh. Jungkook murmurs, “An international phone number.”

“For the Eiffel Tower,” Taehyung says. He trembles out a laugh. “Look, look. The other numbers are here: 984, the height of the tower. 1887, the year it was built. 11:45, the time of the last tour. Ooh. Jungkookah, do you know what this means?”

“That Seokjin-hyung is a some kind of wizard-level genius?” Jungkook mumbles. 

“No. I mean, yes. But also... it’s the same plan.” Taehyung shakes him. “Jin-hyung and I made the same plan.” His eyes go wide as the realization settles in. “After we bring Yoongi and Hoseok together, he wants me to meet him at the Eiffel Tower, which is where Namjoon-hyung’s supposed to guide him, for me.”

“Dude,” Jungkook smiles. “That’s awesome.”

Solemn, Taehyung nods. “It's more than that,” he says. “It’s fate.” 

For a second, Jungkook’s expression must reflect the joy in Taehyung’s face. But then he sobers again. “Okay, but… We still have this number.”

“I already told you, it’s our anniversary,” Taehyung insists.

Jungkook picks absently at a spot on his cheek. “No, but it’s gotta be more than that.”

“More than the day we fell in love?” Taehyung asks. He’s bad at sarcasm, so it comes off sounding kinda mean. Fortunately, Jungkook’s too absorbed in his task to let it bother him.

Jungkook continues to scrub at his face. “It may mean that date, but I feel like… maybe it’s a time, too? Maybe that’s when he wants you to find him.”

“But the last tour is at 11:45,” Taehyung says. And then, in a flash, he gets it. “So we would need to arrive before then because—”

“—Because you have to be early to check in,” Jungkook finishes. “That’s gotta be it.” 

“Whaa,” Taehyung exhales. “Jin-hyung is good at details. I never would’ve thought of that.”

“Me either,” Jungkook marvels. “You really like this kind of thing, huh?”

Taehyung rips off the sheet of notepaper and stuffs it in his pocket. “I love it,” he says. 

A thrum of energy ignites in him. Their schedule has them crisscrossing the city, visiting each location in shifts. He and Namjoon will visit the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay. After lunch, he’ll meet up with Hoseok at Notre Dame, and by then, Seokjin will be with Yoongi. Then Namjoon will send Taehyung’s confirmation to Seokjin, and...

“You got the ring?” Jungkook asks.

Taehyung fidgets in his other pocket, retrieving the blue and white box. He opens it to double check, even though he knows the ring is still inside, still gleaming with its row of smiling diamonds.

“Got it,” he says. He shuts the box with a snap.

Jungkook gives him a lopsided smile. “Then let’s get it.” he says. 

Taehyung tugs at his hair. “Thank you,” he says. “For everything. With all this sasaeng insanity, I was afraid all this would fall apart. But you helped me, and I feel better.”

Jungkook gives him a look that seems more melancholy than it should. 

“You okay?” Taehyung asks. 

“Just,” Jungkook holds his breath, then, “Do me a favor?”

Taehyung’s concern deepens. “Anything.”

Jungkook hesitates, but then the shadow lifts in the light of his fragile smile. “Take pictures.” He waves at his foot. “I can’t go out, so… please take some photos for me.” 

Taehyung lingers a moment, certain there is something else that Jungkook wanted to say. But in that moment, Jimin swans in with a covered platter of food like something from a hospital ward. 

“Taehyungie,” Jimin sings offhandedly, “Jin-hyung’s waiting for you.” Then Jimin perches on the end of the bed, Jungkook’s breakfast across his lap like an offering. Within seconds, the two become fully absorbed in each other, leaving Taehyung to feel like a gawky peeping tom.

"Thanks again,” Taehyung says, squeezing Jungkook's shoulder. “I'll see you both tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“Open the eyes that you have closed.
Everything will become different.”
La Vie En Rose, IZ*ONE

21 October 2018 – Paris, France

“Why do you keep checking your phone?” Yoongi pouts, well aware of how whiny he sounds and milking it for all it’s worth.

“Whaat?” Seokjin intones, though he smiles as Yoongi bounces impatiently on the balls of his feet like an impatient toddler in line to see Santa Claus. 

Yoongi makes eye contact with Jaehyang – Benji, as Hoseok calls him – and says, “Jin-hyung, you’re supposed to be here with me. It’s our bro-date, remember?” 

Benji stiffens and rolls his eyes, drawing a sip of his vanilla frappe as he shifts his attention to the pedestrians on the street. 

Seokjin, however, does not look up from his phone. He says, “Of course I remember. I have plans.”

“They better be plans for me,” Yoongi tells him.

“Oh they are,” Seokjin says. “Believe me.”

I don’t know if I can believe you, Yoongi thinks, even though he’s not sure it’s all that fair, this low-key mistrust he’s been hoarding toward Seokjin. Mr. Choi taught Yoongi to observe his emotions without engaging, so this is what he decides to do. 

Besides, this evening’s too important and too beautiful to ruin it with his petty contempt. The sun splashes around them, swatches of lemon light that sharpens the cool gray of the shadows. It’s a perfect afternoon: a cloudless sky, a crowdless street, and Seokjin, looking happily up to mischief, like he did during their debut.

Yoongi pinches Seokjin’s sleeve. “I want ice cream,” he says. 

Seokjin lowers his phone, a playful twist on his lips. “If my baby wants ice cream,” he murmurs. “Then ice cream he will have.”

Color floods up from Yoongi’s collar, pooling in his neck and cheeks. Across from them, Benji shakes his head and does not meet Yoongi’s eye. Instead, he pops on a pair of shades in an attempt to maintain his serious, security-guard demeanor.

“If you’re gonna tease me, I’m going back to the hotel,” Yoongi groans.

“No, stop,” Seokjin says, snagging Yoongi’s arm. “We’ve already come all this way.” There’s a thread of desperation in his voice, as if Yoongi might actually leave. As if he wouldn’t follow Seokjin anywhere.

And Seokjin has to know that, right? How they all – even the staff  – seem to nibble from the palm of Seokjin’s hand? Everyone practically hops on hind legs just to be part of his plans, which leads Yoongi to wonder, “Kim Seokjin, what else are you up to?”

“I told you,” Seokjin answers, all lofty. “Plans.” 

All right, Keeping it cagey. That’s fine, Yoongi will simply be like everyone else and follow Seokjin like the pied piper he is. However, he does have his demands.

“Ice cream plans?” Yoongi presses.

“They factor in.” Seokjin nods. 

“Fine.” Yoongi fake-sighs. “I guess I’ll stay.” 

“Mm-hm,” Seokjin says, pocketing his phone. “Just as I thought.”

 

The thing with him and Seokjin is that they don’t have to talk. They have always carried silence between them like a comfortable bubble, so within seconds, they fall quietly into pace. At the next destination Seokjin planned for them – the apartment of Coco Chanel – they climb the mirrored staircase, marveling in reverent silence at the way it scatters their reflections like stop-motion movie frames.

As they enter the foyer, Seokjin passes the hostess a pair of tickets he must have purchased in advance. They follow her around as she speaks in French-inflected English, about the signature motifs of Coco Chanel’s designs. 

Most of it, Yoongi doesn’t understand. He and Seokjin nod, appreciatively, resisting the itch to touch the pressed-velvet wallpapers and the lush, leather furnishings. Every contrasting texture elicits a tactile response, from the thickly-carved chairs to the delicately-feathered curtain fringe, and Seokjin was right. Yoongi absolutely adores it. 

Behind a hand, Seokjin confesses, “This is not a Taehyungie place. He would struggle so hard to keep his hands to himself.”

Yoongi chuckles. “Taehyung handprints all over everything.”

“Face prints,” Seokjin adds. “Lip prints.”

“Such a kid,” Yoongi snorts.

“In some ways,” Seokjin allows, but they once again lapse into quiet as the hostess leads them to the next room.

Yoongi feels ridiculously (but silently) grateful that even here, in a foreign city, he and Seokjin can move within this placid calm. When they shared a dorm room, it meant hours upon hours of undisturbed serenity. After living fifteen years in the rowdiest house in Daegu, followed by the BigHit dorm, which was a never-ceasing vortex of noise, Yoongi needed that solemn refuge. Now that it’s empty, though, he understands that there is such a thing as too quiet. 

Which serves as a reminder that Yoongi is, as always, far too difficult to please.

He catches the thought and neatly discards it. These are his Dad’s words, not Yoongi’s. He reminds himself that there’s nothing wrong with being discerning, and that everyone needs a place of their own. Also, as a musician, his perfectionism has served him undeniably well. 

Yoongi stares at Seokjin’s face in profile, uplit with lamp glow as he attempts to decipher book spines inscribed in French. Yoongi wants to tell him about the place he’s bought for his parents. He wants to tell him about his plans for the new year, plans that he has, for now, kept to himself. He hasn’t told anyone yet, except for Mr. Choi, who helped him brainstorm through his options. Unlike Hoseok and Seokjin, Yoongi did not seek Bang PD’s permission. Yoongi is a grown-ass man and a millionaire. How he spends his money is his own goddamn business, and—

His heart is pounding. So maybe his feelings about his new apartment are still too tender to process. That’s okay. There’s time for that, later. Today is too precious for such heavy revelations. He shelves these thoughts for later, as without even speaking, he and Seokjin decide it’s time to move on.

 

They navigate to a nearby cafe, a place that Seokjin has already chosen for dinner. They order wine with their entrees and sit at a bistro table overlooking the Seine, sipping as the sun wades through a flawless violet sky. 

Benji perches at the end of the table. He doesn’t eat or drink, but scans the sidewalks, his eyes wide behind his James Bond shades. 

Yet again, Seokjin keeps checking his phone.

Yoongi nudges Seokjin with his toe. “We’re in fucking Paris, man,” he reminds him. “Get. Off. Your. Phone.” He reclines, then, feigning sophistication, lifting his wine glass to his lips. 

Quivering with laughter, Seokjin finishes his message and sets the phone aside.

“So,” Yoongi leans in. “Tonight’s the night, huh?” He figures this is vague enough to convey his meaning without giving too much away, because aside from Taehyung’s clumsy accidental proposal in Chicago, Benji doesn’t know the details. 

Seokjin takes a long, slow sip of his wine, swirling it in his mouth before he swallows. “Tonight’s the night,” he agrees.

“Everything’s in place?”

Seokjin pats his phone. “Almost,” he says. 

“You don’t seem nervous,” Yoongi begins, but then his eyes snag on a flash of movement up the street, a dash of cardinal red. He perks up, scanning the crowd: a kid on a bike, a stone gargoyle, a maroon pennant blown by the wind. 

And then he sees her.  

“Fuck,” he spits. But Benji’s already alert.

“Yep,” he stands up. “There she is.”

Reaching for his phone,  Seokjin says, “Please say you’re kidding me.”

Benji touches the bluetooth device in his ear. 

“Is it the same girl?” Seokjin asks.

As Benji goes to the patio arch, the woman shoulders her red backpack and slides into an adjacent street. Yoongi’s heart twists. His knees feel like pancake batter. “It’s the same one,” he groans. “But she’s leaving, so fuck her, we won’t let anyone mess up this night.”

The color has drained from Seokjin’s lips. Splotches of pink tinge his cheeks. “You’re right,” he breathes. “It’s okay. Everything will be just fine.” 

 

Darkness falls fast in the City of Light, leaching the sky from lavender to slate. Benji keeps a close watch on them as Yoongi and Seokjin take a wide, tree-lined lane along the river. 

Though they think nonstop of the girl with the red backpack, both do their best to pretend she doesn’t exist. Street painters and book vendors pack along the riverbank, their kiosks lighted with strings of bare bulbs. The scents of cigarette smoke and dog poop mingle beneath the trees. Yoongi would have thought this would be gross, but here, it doesn’t seem to bother him. 

He focuses on enjoying himself, on enjoying his hyung and the night as they talk about mindless things. They stroll aimlessly, eating gelato from paper cups, talking about everything from cooking gadgets to online games.

Which is why they’re all three shocked when the girl appears again, right in front of them, popping up from the Metro like a rare, invasive mushroom.

Benji shoves them beneath a shadowy awning. “Don’t acknowledge her,” he them him as he searches out an escape.

Yoongi, fighting the urge to spit, growls, “Yeah, wouldn’t dream of it.”

But Seokjin’s eyes narrow. He pulls out his phone and thumbs a quick message. 

Cautiously, Benji says, “Sejin-ssi says there’s a group of them. They’ve coordinated, apparently. Namjoon and Taehyung encountered a few outside the Louvre.”

Though there’s nothing funny about it, Yoongi bleeds out a breathy giggle. “They’ve coordinated, hyung, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park,” he tells Seokjin. “Clever girls.” Then, suddenly sober, he adds, “Hope loves that stupid movie. Maybe I’ve seen it way too many times—” 

“—Enough,” Seokjin seethes. He turns toward the girl, who abruptly feigns interest in a street artist’s watercolor of Barack Obama. 

“Seokjin-ssi,” Benji warns. But Seokjin ignores him. He marches toward the girl, snapping several photos of her as he approaches. 

Once he’s close, the girls braces her arms out, like she’s face-to-face with a wild animal. She’s older than Yoongi believed. Not a teenager at all. In fact, she’s probably his age, maybe older.

“I’m going to ask you nicely,” Seokjin says, his voice like ice. “Please stop following us.”

A manic light ignites in her eyes. Benji tenses. Yoongi’s spine goes rigid. 

“Oppa, please,” she pouts, her voice melting into syrupy aegyo. “I think I’m lost. Can’t I walk with you for a while?”

Yoongi catches the inflection of an accent in her Korean. She’s not a native-born speaker, he’d bet money on it. But she is fluent, which means she probably comes from money. 

Seokjin says, “Tell your friends to leave us alone, or we will call the police.”

There’s a blink of panic at the mention of her friends. She lingers a moment too long before saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Seokjin dares a step nearer. He towers over her. She gazes up at him through her lashes, her phone steepled between her hands. Though he whispers, they can hear every sharp syllable as if they’ve been sliced from the sky with a knife. “We’ve been fair until now,” he tells her. “Please. Leave us alone.”  

He doesn’t give her a chance to respond. He returns to Yoongi and Benji, and they hurry steadily away, eager to put distance between her and them. A couple of minutes pass before Benji casts a glance over his shoulder. 

“She hasn’t followed,” he murmurs.

At the next corner, Yoongi risks a look, too. He can still see the hunch of her red backpack and the glow of her phone. 

“Fuck,” he grinds out. “Fuck fuck fuck.”

“I know.” Seokjin shudders with laughter. He might be crying, but in the half-light of the river, it’s impossible to tell.

“You wanna continue?” Benji asks.

“Of course,” Seokjin answers, though he sounds blustery, like he’s reassuring himself as much as anything. “We’re so close now, and… I sent her photos to the manager’s chat, though I doubt she’ll still follow us after that.”

“That was too risky, Jin-ssi,” Benji scolds. “She might’ve recorded you.”

“I know.” Seokjin presses trembling fingers to his nose. “I know.”

“But,” Benji continues. “Jimin-ssi’s in place, and like you said, we aren’t far…”

Seokjin stares at Yoongi. In that moment, Yoongi wonders if Seokjin has always been so damn tall.

“You okay?” Seokjin asks. “You ready?” 

The first question makes sense. The second makes him wary. “Yes,” Yoongi drones. “But what would I be ready for?” He sniffs. “The question is, are you?”

Seokjin loops their arms, hauling Yoongi along. They cross a bridge and take a moss-crusted staircase down to river level. It’s cool and musty, which sends fresh chills through Yoongi as he ponders what’s going on.

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to wait long, because within minutes, they draw alongside a flat-bottomed houseboat moored to the bank by a narrow wooden gangway. 

There at the bow stands Jimin, all casual and sly with a Cheshire cat’s gleam.

“What the—?” Yoongi growls, feeling a sneer twitch at his nose.

Jimin waves down. “Hyung! Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Yoongi turns to Seokjin. “Seriously. What is this?”

Seokjin places his hands on Yoongi’s shoulders. “A gift,” he says. Jimin comes down to the gangplank to meet him halfway. “Go on,” Seokjin nudges. 

“With him?” Yoongi grates out. 

“Trust me,” Seokjin says. 

Yoongi lets out a whimper. He steps onto the plank, feeling it shift beneath his weight and the steady baffle of waves.

To Seokjin, Jimin calls, “You go, hyung. I got it from here.”

Then, with the broad flourish of a hand kiss, Seokjin leaves them, placing Yoongi into Jimin’s care.

Chapter Text

“As the moon grew older
I reached across your shoulder
And gathered you a handful of stars.”
A Handful of Stars, Dinah Washington

21 October 2018 – Paris, France

Taehyung needs a new word. It tingles on the tip of his tongue like licking flame – daebak-tastic, or wonderfluous – because regular words don’t quite capture how frenetically overjoyed he feels right now.

First, he spent the morning in bed with his boyfriend: always a great start. Then he and Jungkook solved Seokjin’s riddle: super awesome. Then he toured Musee D’Orsay to see all of Taehyung’s most cherished Impressionist painters: beyond amazing. 

Now he has walked literal kilometers through the most comprehensive collection of artwork in the world with Namjoon, a man who knows as much history as Taehyung knows art. They have talked constantly and intently, so much that the time has flown by and Taehyung’s throat feels raw. 

 After lunch, he and Namjoon take a quick trip through the Louvre bookstore before going up to see the glass pyramid. Namjoon knows tons of facts about it, and Taehyung absorbs every word. 

They’re taking selfies outside the museum when one of their security guards waves them over. They have two of them – large, hulk-necked men who look best suited for action films starring Vin Diesel. Neither speak Korean, but both are fluent in English, which is why they’ve been assigned to Namjoon. 

While they’re talking, Taehyung sends photos to Seokjin, Jungkook, and Jimin. Then he checks in with Hoseok, who is, according to the plan, finishing his lunch with Kookie.

Taehyung wriggles his toes inside his socks. He heaves in the air, which smells of memories and dust. He feels… beyond excited. He’s beyond happy. But he’s anxious, too, for all the things that might go wrong.

So when Namjoon comes over, Taehyung asks, “Is there a word that means anxious and excited all at once? Like anxcitement?”

Namjoon blinks. “Huh. I dunno. There should be.”

“Right?” Taehyung taps his chin. “Maybe exciety?” 

Namjoon quickly re-centers. “Taehyung,” he says. “Don’t look now, but… I think we got a problem.”

Taehyung tries and fails at not looking. Anyway, the security guards are definitely looking, so Taehyung follows their line of sight, landing on a cluster of women hovering outside the plaza gate. 

Namjoon leans in. “The security guys say they’ve been following us.” 

“All day?” Taehyung asks.

“Pretty much.” Namjoon turns Taehyung to face him. “Benji-nim messaged to say that the girl we saw in London has followed us here, too. He thinks they might be working together to track us.” 

Taehyung tries to be bothered, but with the swirl of other things he’s feeling, it barely registers. “I don’t get it. They’re only fans. They won’t hurt us, right?”

Namjoon gives him that look, the one that says Taehyung is way too kind and trusting. “Think about tonight,” he mutters in Korean. “Think about what would happen if they find out what you’ve planned.” 

This sends a glaring, red flare into Taehyung’s heart. “Nooo,” he murmurs. His brain crackles with distraction, so much that he can’t think of anything beyond that single word.

Fortunately, Namjoon can think, and does. He goes to the security guards, returning minutes later with a plan.

“Phillipe here says there’s a private entrance on the backside of the museum,” Namjoon says. “Apparently he had to use it once with Elton John. He’s gonna use it for you today. Got it?”

Taehyung begins to nod and doesn’t stop. He flicks a glance at the girls. They keep sneaking eyes in their direction. 

“It’ll be okay,” Namjoon assures him. “We got this. You go with Phillipe. He’ll make sure you meet Hobi on time.”

“But… what about you?” Taehyung asks. 

“You asked for my help tonight, right?” 

Taehyung continues to nod. Namjoon catches his face between both of his hands to stop him.

“Then let me help. I’ve already been to Paris. Plus, I’ve been meaning to hang with JK.” Namjoon crushes Taehyung into a hug. “This is your day, Taehyung. We won’t let anyone interfere.” 

The bulkiest of the security guards comes to Taehyung’s side. The other taps his headset and gives Namjoon a nod. “Hector and I will lure the girls away. You’ll be fine.” 

“Hyung, I love you,” Taehyung blurts as his eyes cloud with tears. Phillipe begins to guide Taehyung back toward the museum entrance. He’s several meters away when Namjoon jogs over, catching his hand and turning it over.

“I was supposed to give you this,” Namjoon says, pressing a small, carved box into his palm. “Also... I love you, too. Now go.”

Taehyung stuffs the box into his pocket. He lets the security guard lead the way, back through the Egyptian exhibit to a private exit leading to the river. They have to run to make it on time, but they find Hoseok waiting with Sejin, precisely where he’s supposed to be. 

 

The evening sun burns the fog away, sharpening the sky to radiant blue. Taehyung and Hoseok tour the city, filming and taking photos as they go. They take pictures at Les Invalides. They pose on stone steps and dusky plazas, talking and eating and enjoying each other’s company. Once the sun begins to set, they meander their way to the Eiffel Tower. With Sejin and Phillipe keeping watch, they’re able to move freely around the park, though a few times, people recognize them and call out their names. This makes Hoseok beam with glee, but Taehyung remains twitchy after the encounter at the Louvre. 

“Can you believe this, Taehyungie?” Hoseok gushes. “We’re in Paris!”

“I can’t believe any of it,” Taehyung admits. “The European tour, the Jimmy show, the address to the UN… all of it feels extra-natural. Like, beyond anything we ever dreamed.”

“And when we go home, we’re receiving the Order of Cultural Merit,” Hoseok ponders aloud. “Not in all my life could I imagine that.”

“But you and Yoongi-hyung did,” Taehyung says. “You speak your dreams, and they come true.”

Hoseok grins. “Then we should be careful what we wish for, huh?”

“Oh. Maybe,” Taehyung says, “But thank you for coming with me tonight.” They climb the steps toward the Trocadero, pausing at the landing to gauge their view of the tower. “And for taking such good care of us, and for unsticking us when we get stuck.”

Hoseok gives him a pained smile. “You’re too sweet, Taehyungie.”

“Hyung, you’re our bedrock,” Taehyung tells him. “You’re our foundation. We wouldn’t be an Us if there wasn’t a you.”

The small pained smile morphs into a large one. “Nooo,” Hoseok says. “I’m a part of us. I wouldn’t be here without all of you.”

“Even so,” Taehyung goes on. “We want you to know. We notice .” 

Hoseok faces forward, his eyes tracked to the Tower. His voice cracks when he says, “Everything’s been changing, you know? And I’ve been worried. About us, about… you know, everything. I’ve been trying so hard to hang on, so it helps to hear I’ve helped. It really helps to hear it.”

“Hyung, we’re gonna show you, too,” Taehyung says. 

Hoseok sings, “So show me.” 

“I’ll show you,” Taehyung answers, and they grapple each other into a clumsy hug. “You’ll see, look,” Taehyung says. He checks his watch. The second-hand sweeps into the hour, and the Eiffel Tower bursts into a shower of sparks. 

Hoseok gapes, speechless, while all around them the crowd erupts into cheers. 

“Did you know this would happen?” Hoseok gasps. 

“Jinnie and I have our plans,” Taehyung beams. He touches each of his pockets, one containing a music box, the other containing a ring. “This is only the beginning,” he says. 

“What can possibly top this?” Hoseok marvels, taking out his camera to film.

“You’ll see,” Taehyung says again. 

“Is my Taehyungie keeping a secret?” Hoseok teases. “You can’t keep secrets, you always crack under tickling.” He jabs his fingers toward Taehyung’s ribs, sending him running.

“Maybe I’ve grown up,” Taehyung shouts as he darts away from Hoseok’s scrabbling fingers. He hides behind Phillipe the security guard, who begrudgingly plays along. 

“Anyway, I hope that isn’t true,” Hoseok says. “Stay young, TaeTae. For as long as you can.”

“I will,” Taehyung promises. “And it’ll be a good secret, hyung, I promise.”

Hoseok sends a searching look to Sejin, who lifts his shoulders in a shrug.

Safely concealed behind Phillipe, Taehyung retrieves the music box. He flips it over to read the numbers inscribed in Seokjin’s letter-neat script: 11.22 / 11.45. If he and Jungkook are right, that the numbers are times, then Taehyung has a little over an hour to get to the riverside and back before the rendezvous. 

Taehyung doesn’t want to rush, but he also can’t wait. So at 10:30, once the show has ended and the crowds have begun to disperse, Taehyung tells Hoseok it’s time for them to go.

 

The air cools as they near the river. They stuff their hands into their pockets, chattering against the cold, until they arrive at the stone steps leading to the Seine. The houseboat moored below wavers like a shadow cut from the water. Immediately, Hoseok trembles at the sight of it, until they see the  two pale ovals staring at them from across the deck.

“Taehyungie!” Jimin yells, his voice huge and echo-y. “You’re late!”

“I’m not,” Taehyung says. “We made perfect time.” 

Hoseok stands at the gangplank as Jimin tiptoes down to join them. Yoongi, at the railing, calls, “Hey, Hope.”

Hoseok squints through the dense twilight, his hand shielding his eyes. “Hey, Yoongs?” he says. “I thought you were with—”

“—I was,” Yoongi interrupts. “He brought me here. He...” Then, a ragged breath as the pieces drop into place. “Fucking Seokjin.”

“Don’t be that way, hyung,” Jimin giggles.

“Guys,” Hoseok asks as Jimin and Taehyung urge him up the plank. “What is going on?”

“We know,” Taehyung answers. “And we understand.” 

“You know... what?” Hoseok asks.

In answer, Jimin suggests, “You should check out the inside. There’s even a bed.”

Taehyung elbows Jimin, who howls even though he’s laughing. Then Taehyung kisses Hoseok’s cheek. “We wanted to give you some time alone, in case that’s all you needed. Plus, hyungs, it’s Paris.”

Taehyung catches the barest shift in Yoongi’s demeanor, and that’s when he knows they’ve got it right. He cannot wait to tell Seokjin. Which reminds him…

“I gotta go,” Taehyung says, dragging Jimin back along the gangway. “We love you!” Then they scurry away, giggling like miscreant kids who just stuffed fish heads into their headmaster’s mailbox.

At the foot of the stairs, Taehyung joins Sejin and Phillipe. He touches his pockets. He checks the time.

“Twenty-eight minutes,” he pants. “I guess I was late?”

Jimin shoves him. “Go, Taehyungie. You’ll make it. I know you will.” 

Taehyung looks to Sejin, who seems as ready to run as he is. To Jimin, Sejin says, “Phillipe-ssi will escort you back to the hotel—”

“—Oh, hello,” Jimin says in English. “You’re… big.” He loops an arm through Phillipe’s, giving him a coy smile. “Taehyungie, you got this. Now, run!”

With his words, Taehyung and Sejin dash up the steps and onto the street, running all the way back the way they came. 

Chapter Text

“Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be.. .” 
La Vie en Rose, Edith Piaf

21-22 October 2018 – The Eiffel Tower

Seokjin loves the waiting. He loves the tingle of excitement as the minutes wind down, as the final pieces of a plan click into place. He feels no need to check the time. He stands below the tower, in the dark, waiting for his guide to arrive. In the meantime, the clock ticks on, and Seokjin takes this moment to think.

Almost a year ago, Seokjin went with Taehyung to Busan. He thinks back to the frigid beach and the Gwangalli Bay Bridge. He remembers their brittle fingers linked as they fought to decide if there was enough between them worth keeping. 

Seokjin could have ended it then. They could have walked away, returned to the cabin, packed up the car, and said goodbye. 

Then he thinks of all the things they might have missed.

Mornings in his villa, Yeontan asleep between their feet. 

Evenings with his brother, playing League of Legends.

Weekends in Daegu, spent with Taehyung’s family.

Weeknights in Seoul, spent with Seokjin’s Mom and Dad.

Endless nights in hotels, eating badly and watching foreign TV. 

And now, this. If they’d ended it in Busan, they would have missed this. 

Seokjin peers up through the skeleton of the Eiffel Tower, matte black against a powder gray sky. From beneath, it looks like a spindling cage, bleak and somewhat menacing. Now that the last light show has ended, the crowds have thinned to straggles of wandering lovers. Somewhere in the shadows, Benji keeps watch, but it’s dark enough now that no one would recognize Seokjin unless they were standing face to face.

Then Taehyung appears at the border of the park, running until he reaches the edge. He slows pace, departing from someone, most likely Sejin, though the light’s too uncertain to tell. At almost the exact same moment, a woman emerges from a kiosk pulling a trim, wheeled cart behind her.

Taehyung and the woman arrive within seconds of each other. For a handful of breaths, Seokjin and Taehyung smile dumbly across the distance while the woman waits, patient and professional in her burgundy pantsuit. She’s blonde, tall in her expensive heels, and when she speaks, her English is inflected with the lilting curl of French.

“Monsieur Seokjin?” she asks. 

“Yes,” he answers. He cannot drag his eyes away from Taehyung’s smile.

“And Monsieur Taehyung,” she says with a nod.

“Yes,” Taehyung answers.

Seokjin tilts his head. Taehyung licks his lips with the tip of his beguiling tongue.

“I am your hostess, Rían,” she tells them. “Your tour will begin in—” she checks her wristwatch, “—eight minutes.” She passes an envelope to Seokjin. Then she hands another to Taehyung. “Your tickets,” she says. 

“Oh? Is there a mistake?” Seokjin asks, but Rían continues to detail their schedule as if she hasn’t heard him. Taehyung mashes his lips flat, suppressing a grin. 

To Taehyung, Seokjin says, “You have tickets, too?”

In Korean, Taehyung answers, “Jinnie. Your plans are my plans.” 

Seokjin blinks as he puzzles this information into place. Then realization washes through him. “They’re the same plans?” he asks.

Taehyung inclines his head. “We made the same plans.”

Seokjin covers his mouth as he begins to smile. 

Rían goes to the cart behind her. “Here are your picnic baskets,” she says. “You may leave these with the attendant when your night is complete. You will have fifteen minutes at the top of the tower, alone and undisturbed. Do you have any questions?”

Seokjin has only one, but it’s for Taehyung. Instead of speaking it, he gazes at him, taking in the licks of blond hair wisping from beneath his beret. Even in the gloomy light, he's as incandescent as a temple lantern that beckons to weary souls.

“Uh, no,” Taehyung tells her. “I don’t think so.”

Rían checks her watch once more. “Shall we wait for the others?” she wonders.

“The others,” Seokjin says. He thinks of the extra tickets and understands. In the reservation email, Namjoon had explained that this would be a special night. Seokjin can only guess what Taehyung’s message contained, but he doubts either of them gave further details. It only makes sense that Rían would assume they’d be waiting on their girlfriends.

“They’ve been delayed,” Seokjin lies. 

Rían pouts her full red lips. “Quel dommage,” she says. “Do you wish to continue as planned or perhaps reschedule?”

“No,” Seokjin and Taehyung reply together. Then Seokjin adds, “No. We will be okay.” 

“You are certain? I will transfer your deposit and arrange everything. You won’t be at a loss, I can promise.”

Careful with his English, Seokjin says, “Thank you, no. We will continue as planned.”

“Very well, then,” she says, taking up the handle of her cart. “If you will follow me, the stairs are right this way.” 

 

They climb the stairs to the middle pedestal of the tower, where an attendant scans their tickets and ushers them to an elevator. It’s open air, and as it ascends a light breeze whisks through their hair and clothes.

Seokjin’s cheeks ache from smiling. He says, “How long have you known, about our overlapping plans?”

“Not long,” Taehyung admits. “Jungkook helped me solve your riddle, and when I found the answer, I saw… it was the same answer.”

Seokjin touches his thumb to Taehyung’s chin, tilting his face to kiss him. But the elevator stops and the doors rattle back, revealing the metal meshwork of the tower and all of Paris spread around it like a ballgown sewn with stars. 

They’re quiet to the point of reverence as they arrange their picnic blankets, placing the contents of their baskets between them. Strawberries and champagne from Seokjin, and from Taehyung—

“Waffles and cream?” Seokjin marvels as Taehyung lifts out the plate.

“Like our first date,” Taehyung answers, his voice all throaty. “Remember?”

“Like yesterday,” Seokjin tells him. “Here.” Seokjin tears off a bite and when Taehyung goes for it, Seokjin smears cream across his lips. 

“Exactly like our first date,” Taehyung smirks, and Seokjin gives him a playful shove. 

“From now on, I wish for you to only have sweetness,” Seokjin says.

Anticipation ribbons through them as they savor every bite. They tell each other about their day, Taehyung reliving for Seokjin the moment when he delivered Hoseok to the houseboat where (hopefully) he and Yoongi will spend their night. 

“Hyung,” Taehyung says. “We did it.” 

Our plans.” Seokjin squeezes his hand. “And now, here we are. Taehyungie, look at our beautiful life.”

“You make it beautiful,” Taehyung says. His eyes rival the stars and all the lights below. 

“Here.” Seokjin pulls him to his feet. “Let’s make a video for our Moms.”

“And Abeojis,” Taehyung adds.  

“And Hyungsik and Seojoon,” Seokjin says. To Taehyung’s look of surprise, he explains, “They were part of this, too. They’ll literally murder me if we don’t send them something.” 

So they film 14 seconds of them arm-in-arm, shouting to their parents and friends from the top of the Eiffel Tower. “And now, for ourselves,” Seokjin says, and they take a series of photos backlit with the rosegold glow of Paris. 

Then, all soberness returned, Seokjin sets his phone aside. “And now, for you.” He takes both of Taehyung’s chilly hands in his own. “Have you played your music box yet?”

“No,” Taehyung says. “I saved it for tonight.”

Seokjin smiles. “Play it now.”

Taehyung tumbles it from his pocket. He turns the crank and the music rings out, crisp and twinkling as raindrops on crystal. But it’s not La Vie En Rose as he expected, but...

His eyes widen as he whispers, “It’s… Hold Me Tight? ” 

“My V, you wrote this song for us in a time when we were less certain.” Seokjin presses their foreheads together. He’s shaking now, his heartbeat in his fingertips. Reciting words he’s practiced a thousand times, he says, “I think there aren’t enough songs for us. There are songs about falling in love and songs about falling apart. But what about songs for those who hold on? Where are the songs for the man who has memorized the taste of your kiss, for the one who knows your touch by heart? We have been together so long now, and still, I want more. Every day, I’m grateful to whatever it was that drew our souls together. Taehyung, you gave me your song, so I’ll give you my promise: I will keep your deepest secrets and love every part of you. From now on.” 

He takes the pouch from his pocket to place the ring into Taehyung’s hand. 

Taehyung inhales. “Jinnie,” he breathes. “Will you put it on me?” To Seokjin’s breath of hesitation, he answers, “Only for tonight, and then only when we’re at home. But...” With his free hand, he trades the music box for the blue-and-white one in his pocket. He takes the ring from its bed of white satin and puts it into Seokjin’s hand. “...Tonight is for us.” They stare a moment at the rings in their palms. “Please, Seokjin. Accept my heart. It’s flawed, and it’s fragile, but if you’ll have it, it’s yours.” 

“I will always have your heart,” Seokjin whispers.

“And I will always sing for you,” Taehyung whispers back.

Seokjin slides the ring onto Taehyung’s finger. Taehyung repeats the motion, and they stand a moment, their eyes unblinking and unafraid. One of them moves, and they kiss, a long, soft, breathless kiss. 

Seokjin trembles as they part. He finds Taehyung’s hand and threads their fingers. Together, they watch the pale line of the horizon, so distant and yet so clear. 

“So, you wanna marry me?” Seokjin asks.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “I will.” 

“Well,” Seokjin shrugs. He smooths a tear from his nose. “Okay.” 

Taehyung rests his head against his shoulder. Beneath them, the city gleams with webs of glittering light, but up here, they are untroubled and untethered. They are safe and free and finally ready to fly.

 

END of PART FOUR

Chapter Text

PART FIVE: Flight

“Because in dreams, things can’t last forever.”
everythingoes, RM feat. Nell

25 October 2019 – BigHit Studios

Namjoon knows better than to walk and text. He also knows better than to be surprised when someone slams into him full-speed in the corridor. They skid a circle, each clinging to the other to keep from toppling, when the younger boy recognizes Namjoon and pales to the color of wet cement.

“RM-ssi,” he gushes, bowing in half. “I am so, so sorry. I didn’t know it was you. Not that it’s okay to run over someone that isn’t you, or anyone for that matter, or… I mean, just, um...sorry.”

Namjoon steps back. He’s not injured, and the kid seems no worse for wear, despite his wounded pride. “You’re… Heuningkai, right?”. 

Again, the kid bends double. “Hyung, you know my name?” he wheezes. “You know my name?”

“Uh, yeah.” Namjoon tips Heuningkai upright. “We met. You’re one of our new boys.”

Heuningkai knots his fingers. “I know, but, like... No one remembers my name.”

“Ah.” Namjoon touches his shoulder. “No worries. They will.” 

Heuningkai blasts him with a smile that could solve the world’s energy crisis. Namjoon worries the kid might actually have a stroke. He decides it’s best to let him continue to wherever it was he’d been in such a hurry to get to.

“Go on,” Namjoon says. “I’ll see you around. Keep running.”

Heuningkai bows again, then pelts off down the hall at a pace that makes Namjoon feel exhausted. He wonders, as he goes back to merely walking, if any of them had ever been that young. He strides the few remaining paces to Adora’s studio, where he finds her at her desk, squinting over an email.

His knuckles rap on the door. She swivels toward it. “Hey, I thought I heard you,” she says, coming over to greet him. 

“Yeah, I literally ran into one of your boys,” Namjoon says.

“Which one?” She offers him a chair. “Though I bet I can guess.”

“Heuningkai,” he tells her, folding her sweater from the seat.

She sits again and presses her fingers to her forehead. “That kid,” she groans. “He’ll be late for their own debut.” She slides her glasses up into her hair, making her bangs into a messy crest above her face. “You here to meet with PD-nim about the whole Jimin-Japan t-shirt thing?”

“Among other things,” Namjoon hedges. He doesn’t want to go too far into that subject until he better understands the scope of it. Right now, he only knows the basics: Jimin wore a shirt depicting the bombing of Nagasaki. Someone took a picture of Jimin wearing said shirt. And now, President Moon and the Supreme Court are ruling on Japanese reparations to Korean families forced into slavery during World War II. It’s politically dicey because to an outside observer, Jimin’s shirt makes it look like he endorses the bombing of Japan, which he doesn’t. But they’re scheduled to perform in Japan soon, and with tensions running so high between the two countries, they might have to cancel their shows. 

Fortunately, Adora seems to read his hesitation and sidesteps to a lighter topic. “So,” she says, “How was the Order of Cultural Merit ceremony?”

“Man,” Namjoon says, relieved and reasonably flattered. “Freakin’ unbelievable, right?” 

“Super impressive,” she says. “And well deserved. And your mixtape, and your collab with Aoki-san, which I love. I’m half-convinced Bang PD cloned you guys, and he’s keeping copies of you in some storage closet for media gigs and photoshoots.”

“Ha, I wish,” Namjoon says. “‘Cause as it is, we just don’t stop. Like, ever.”

“Someday you will though,” Adora says. Grimacing, she touches her forehead. “Oof. Ominous. Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” Namjoon tells her. They sit knee to knee for an awkward beat, before Namjoon remembers. “Oh hey, I got you this.” He fumbles a paper package into her lap. 

She unwraps the Dalek and smacks his shoulder. “Oh my gosh,” she gushes. She winds it up and sends it scritching across her desktop while monotoning, “Exterminate, exterminate.”

“It’s a… pencil sharpener,” Namjoon tells her. “For, you know, sharp ideas.”

She snatches it up. “Joon-ssi. He’s brilliant. Or, I guess… It. Daleks are genderless space-faring squids inside their odd metal trash cans.”

“Hm’kay. Weird.”

“No weirder than a kid who uses a song to travel back in time to meet his Mom,” Adora fires back. “How weird is that?”

Impressed, Namjoon chuckles, “You’ve been reading Murakami.”

“Not gonna lie, it creeps me out,” Adora admits. “Like, Oedipus-level creep factor, which causes me serious misgivings about these male authors and their Mommy issues. You know, it’s the same with Hermann Hesse—”

“—Oh my God, true,” Namjoon says, blushing furiously. “Khafka on the Shore and Demian do share similar Mother-Goddess archetypes—”

“—Which I notice you guys skirted in all your fancy referencing,” Adora says. “So, excellent job with that.”

“Mostly,” Namjoon allows. “Though, hopefully the concepts of redemption and self-creation seep through.”

“Oh, so that’s what Murakami’s getting at.” Adora gives him a sly smile. “And here I thought it was simply incest.” 

Namjoon nearly chokes. “Wow.” He swallows, hard. “That’s um…” He gives in and shields his face. “It’s actually pretty accurate.”

“I know it is.” Adora laughs. “Aish, the stuff we get into, right? Genocidal space squids—”

“—Time-traveling incest,” Namjoon hurries to add.

“Oof. Yeah,” she says. “What a couple of weirdos.”

Namjoon gazes at her. Adora gazes right back. The moment elongates between them, until she moves to bridge the awkwardness. “Just so you know, I haven’t heard from our nemesis, the sinister ex-manager Park Minyeong.”

“Here’s hoping no news is good news,” Namjoon says.

Adora exhales as she nods. “Hobeom-ssi says that things at Media Line are still in a bit of a freefall, but… I think East Light will land on their feet.”

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. “I hope that, too.” 

“Also,” Adora adds. “You might be interested to know that PD-nim’s prosecuting your petite sasaeng from France. Jaehyang-ssi submitted his formal report. He and Sejin-ssi came down earlier today, spent a lot of time in the big office. Seemed pretty hush hush on the whole affair.”

“That is great to hear.” Namjoon says. “Things got messy. I don’t know what we would’ve done without Benji-nim and our security guys. One of those girls hopped into my taxi. Like, jumped right in, like she knew me. Can you believe that?” 

“Yes,” Adora states. “Sadly, I can. Hence the legal team, and our repeated warnings for you guys to be especially wary.” 

This prompts a sudden itch in Namjoon to tell her all the other weighty life stuff that transpired in Paris, but these are things he can’t share with anyone. The familiar icy loneliness grips him, that aching wish for a confidant to tell these secrets to.

“So...” Adora hops the Dalek across her knees. “You guys get a break now—?”

“—We get a weekend. Ish.” Namjoon forces a laugh. “It’s okay, though. We don’t do well with downtime.” 

“Yep,” she says, pointing the Dalek’s plunger gun at him. In a robot voice, she goes, “Programmed for action.”  Then she scrubs her bottom lip. “Hey, speaking of action, you plan on asking that Minnie girl out?”

Namjoon stammers, every bit as flummoxed as Heuningkai had been earlier. Because truly, he hasn’t even thought of Hahn Minha since his conversation with Seokjin in London, in which Jin had simultaneously encouraged and tacitly forbid any such dealings with his long-time childhood friend. Since then, they’ve been far too busy with their supercollider schedule of events to think of anything else.

So despite the super-recent fleeting desire for a companion, Namjoon answers, “Actually, I don’t even think it’d be possible.”

“Good,” Adora says, breezily waving her Dalek. “‘Cause I’m thinking I might.”

Namjoon freezes, his mouth ajar, his fingers stiff against his thighs. “Oh,” he says. Then, “Oooh.

She chucks his knee. “Kidding,” she says. “I don’t think she’s into girls.”

“But…?” His throat goes oddly dry.

“Yes,” Adora says, with the slightest incline of a nod. “Very much so.”

The tumblers of his thoughts clink into place. “So that’s why you—?”

“—If Taehyung and Seokjin are,” she leads in.

“Then you would understand.” Namjoon rocks back. “That’s why you would understand.” 

“Also,” she says. “I get it. Why PD-nim chooses us. Like, I never came out to him in the way I’m coming out to you right now, which is between us because I trust you, and we just talked about Daleks and incest, so I figured why not take the risk?” Her eyes boggle a little, and Namjoon, equally boggled, nods for her to continue. “But I think Bang PD knows. I think he knew, even, which is why he hires the way he does. Ultimately, sure. He’s a businessman who seeks out strong, visionary talent. But at the same time, this industry both attracts and condemns people like Us. So he keeps us safe. He’s protective, in that way.”

Namjoon remembers back to that meeting, years ago, when Seokjin and Taehyung came out to him. At that time, Bang Sihyuk had asked about the others, and now Namjoon has to laugh. Because Seokjin and Taehyung are now engaged. Jimin and Jungkook are still together. And apparently, there’s been something going on between Yoongi and Hope. So in reality, it seems Namjoon’s the only one who might wear the hetero label, and even then, he likes to think of himself as having an open mind, so...

“You’re right,” Namjoon realizes. “I think he is.” 

“Hm,” Adora heaves out a sigh of relief. “How about that?" she asks. "Bang PD’s little band of misfits, off to conquer the world. And now we’ve got a group of baby misfits, too.”

Namjoon grins. He considers his collection of exceptionals, himself among them. Alike only in their differences, and yet somehow, they have made this work. 

“Isn’t that why people respond so well to us?” Namjoon ponders. “Our message is about personal acceptance, about loving ourselves, and that all began with us. We had to believe it first, before anyone else would follow.”

“I guess PD-nim might’ve known all along, the difference you would make,” Adora says. 

“Honestly,” Namjoon says, then he trails off, fighting down the sudden sting of emotion behind his eyes. “I’ve been worried. What made us Us was our willingness to embrace this life, to be so close that we could speak each other’s minds. Now with everyone choosing to move in their own directions, I feel that closeness slipping. I haven’t told this to anyone, but, to me, it is literally the most frightening thing.”

Adora thinks a moment before she says, “We all knew that might happen.” She lays a hand across his. “It does with everyone, eventually. People grow up. They change.” 

“But how do we keep it?” Namjoon whispers. “How can we hold onto that fire?”

Adora gives him a soft-shouldered shrug. “I wish I knew,” she admits. “But you’ll figure it out, Namjoon-ssi. You always do.”

Namjoon stands up, stretching in an effort to mask his doubt. Because of all the things the seven of them have faced together, this obstacle seems the most daunting, the most frightening, and the most absolute.

On his way to hug her, he scuffs the top of her slipper. “Figures,” he grumbles. “I dance around the whole world to come home and trample your feet.” 

“Gotta say I’m honored.” She side-hugs him. “Thank you, for the Dalek, and for remembering me all the way in London. But don’t forget about that Minnie girl. I’ve talked to her a few times. She’s neat.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I should,” Namjoon says. 

“Take her to a friendly dinner,” she says. “Sometimes, if we don’t let our brains out of their cages, they get stuck in dark places. They resort to things. Like cannibalism. And incest.”

Namjoon smirks. “That’s really gross.”

“Tell that to Murakami,” she says. “My point is, you spend a lot of time up here .” She gestures to his forehead. “But it’s time to allons-y, Namjoon-ssi.”

Allons-y ?” Namjoon echoes. “What’s that?”

“It’s French for Get out there,” Adora says. “Not just you and your bike. Not just you with the guys. One night out with someone new. And speaking of, I wouldn’t say no if you introduced me to Halsey.”

“Ha. I can arrange that,” Namjoon grins.

“Ha, you better,” Adora grins back.  

Namjoon lingers at the door. He feels a peculiar hesitation, a sense that he could spend all day in here, and they would both be safe. 

But maybe Adora’s right. Maybe he doesn’t need safety right now. His mixtape is done, their tour is almost complete, and they managed to stop Minyeong. All the others have been making their own plans; perhaps it’s time for him to do the same.

The studio halls are empty, but they’re loud with wild, chaotic sound. “Soon,” Namjoon breathes. “I can’t yet, but soon.” Then he steps out, his feet treading the familiar path to the office of Bang PD.

Chapter Text

“But life is for living, we all know,
And I don’t want to live it alone.”
Life Is For Living, Coldplay

5 November 2018 – Seoul Forest Trimage

Yoongi squares the blueberry to eye level, taking careful aim, and then, he tosses it. The little fruit bounces, once, and then rolls to a stop.

“Fail,” Hoseok says.

“A practice attempt,” Yoongi tells him. He plucks another berry from the basket and lines up his sights again.

“You’re wasting them,” Hoseok says, snapping the blueberry up to pop onto his tongue. 

“Not if you keep eating them.”

“I don’t wanna eat them.”

“Then don’t.”

“Then stop throwing them.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi snorts. “Right.” He squints around the plump blue fruit, then lets it fly. It rolls down Hoseok’s ribs, missing the mark by millimeters before trundling onto the sheet.

“Fail.” This time Hoseok has the audacity to chuckle.

“You know, this wouldn’t be so difficult if you were wearing… anything.”

“You made the rules, Yoongs,” Hoseok says. “You could be right here, with me.” He rakes his nails over his butter-soft sheets before patting the place in the bed beside him.

“I said I could do it, I’m gonna do it.”

Hoseok lifts his shoulders. He adjusts on the pillows. His skin is the color of honeycream, and he smells like desert spices, like fucking sandalwood and myrrh mixed with their mingled sweat, and holy christ… focus.

Hoseok teases the sheets down a half-centimeter.

“Hope. That’s cheating.”

He smirks. “You should hurry before you give me something blue.”

Yoongi hisses. He whispers thanks to Jimin’s ill-chosen t-shirt and the South Korean government for causing a kerfuffle large enough to grant them a few days’ reprieve. Otherwise, he and Hoseok would not be lounging around Hoseok’s apartment, bereft of all sense and clothing, in order to make up for the lost time between them. 

Yoongi raises a blueberry, kisses it for luck, and sends it hurling. 

This one strikes high, glancing shy of Hoseok’s left nipple before caroming down the slope of his abs. It comes to rest a hand’s breadth from Yoongi’s target, but when Hoseok starts laughing, it rolls in the opposite direction, onto the sheet. 

“Fail,” Hoseok says. He plucks it up and eats it. 

“Another man down,” Yoongi sighs. “A good one, gone too soon, but he saw heaven before he died.”

“Dork,” Hoseok caresses Yoongi’s shoulder with his toes. “Enough.” He throws the sheet aside, baring so very much skin, to haul Yoongi beside him. “Let’s kiss.”

“I mean, I guess—” 

Hoseok presses their lips together, doing the thing with his tongue that makes the inside of Yoongi go all weak and syrupy. Yoongi in his t-shirt stretches himself along Hoseok’s stark, lithe nakedness, and Yoongi knows he could go again. And again, if they wanted. They don’t have all day, but they do have right now. Plus, they’re young and stupid, and over-the-moon in love, so why the hell shouldn’t they?

“Anyway, I know what you’re doing,” Hoseok says, drawing slightly beyond Yoongi’s reach.

“It’s not like my hands aren’t telegraphing my intentions, Hope,” he replies.

“No, I mean…” He trails off, meeting his eyes as a means of finishing the thought.

Yoongi groans. He keeps his hands where they both can see them.

“I could go with you,” Hoseok offers. “I kinda owe him, too.” 

Yoongi curves his body around Hoseok’s, burying his face into his neck. “No, I should go.” He whimpers. “But I don’t wanna.”

Hoseok’s strong fingers go to work on Yoongi’s neck. 

“Now I really don’t wanna,” Yoongi moans.  

“Yoongs,” Hoseok says. “You said you need to talk to him.” 

“But we’re playing bellybutton basketball,” Yoongi whines. 

“Is that what that was?” Hoseok says. 

“I was aiming for your naval—” 

“—and failing to hit it.”

Yoongi shrugs. “Thus the need for practice.”

Hoseok tilts Yoongi’s chin to kiss him. “Go talk to Seokjin while we still have time. We can practice when you get back.”

Much as he high-key dislikes the idea, Yoongi melts from the bed, crawling across the fluffy rug to find his underwear and his pants. He tugs them on and turns to find Hoseok watching him. 

“You just gonna lay there naked while I’m gone?”

“I thought I might touch myself.” He does, then, a few slow, teasing sweeps. “A little pre-game action while I wait.”

“Hope. That’s... evil. I’ll hurry.” 

“Take your time, babe,” Hoseok purrs. “I can go like this all day.”

Yoongi shades his eyes, though he knows the image will stay with him the rest of several days. “I’ll be home soon,” he says, ducking out the door.

But not before he hears Hoseok call in response, “I’ll be right here.”

 

 

So Yoongi stands at the door of Seokjin’s villa, trying desperately not to think of bare-ass naked Hoseok reclining like some rockhard god in his bed across town. He thumbs the doorbell, sending Yeontan into peals of hysterical yapping. 

“Crap,” Yoongi mutters as he considers skulking off. This is not a conversation he wants to unfold in front of Taehyung. He’s not even certain it’s one he wants to have in person. Texting: That would be the way to go. But anyway, there’s a damn camera recording him from Seokjin’s door, so if he leaves now, he’d have to explain himself later, and there’s no chance he can frame that scenario in a way that doesn’t paint him as a coward.

Seokjin appears at the video screen. “Yoongi?” His face brightens. He babytalks to Yeontan, edging him from the door as he opens it. Yoongi, stiff in his formality, steps in and toes out of his shoes. 

Seokjin lifts Yeontan and foists him into Yoongi’s arms. “He needs to go for a walk,” he explains. “But I haven’t had time, I’m still unpacking from the trip and the house painters just left.” He guides them into the cozy living area, talking brightly as they go, “I wasn’t expecting anyone, but I have food, are you hungry?”

Yoongi nuzzles Yeontan with his chin. “Uh. Sure.”

They enter the kitchen, which looks exactly as Yoongi imagined it. Spacious and clean, with accents of mint and gold and pink. A series of bright paintings hang at intervals along the walls, bold colors with metallic splashes that somehow unify the decor. Seokjin's refrigerator has a built-in screen across which scrolls a flood of images: Pictures of all of them.

“You like it?” Seokjin asks, about the kitchen in general, and not just the digital scrapbook, though that is the part that’s got Yoongi all choked up.

His voice gruff, Yoongi says, “I love it.” 

“We might sell it,” he says, offhandedly, distracted now by Yeontan. “I got an offer, and it wouldn’t be an incredible profit but…” Seokjin purses his lips.  “Tannie,” he pouts. “Give Yoongichi a kiss.” The dog obediently licks his neck. 

“Ew,” Yoongi says, softly spilling Yeontan to the floor. 

Seokjin takes a melon milk and a bowl of udon from the refrigerator. Yoongi’s stomach, the betrayer, growls at the savory scent of the broth. 

“You gonna join me?” Yoongi asks as Seokjin places the bowl into the microwave.

“Can’t,” he says over his shoulder. “Tae and I stuffed ourselves in Busan, so only steak for me.”

Seokjin turns with a flourish to face Yoongi across the bar. He’s in his RJ pajamas, wearing a floral-print robe that looks like it either belongs to an aging auntie or, more probably, Taehyung. There’s a flush of color in his cheeks, and his sandy hair looks like it could use a retouch, but somehow it all works on him. Like the elegant chaos of Coco Chanel’s apartment, the mismatched grace of Seokjin in his kitchen somehow suits him.

Yeontan snuffles at Yoongi’s ankles, his toenails ticking on the tile. “Where is Taehyung?” Yoongi asks. Though he’s aiming for conversational, his tone turns it into an interrogation.

“He and Jimin went to Myeongdong,” Seokjin explains. “Jimin’s thinking about finally getting that tattoo, so they could be out a while. Jimin’s upset about this t-shirt thing, which... I don’t know? It seems like there’s something else bothering him, too. Anyway, Taehyung figured they could use a friendship day.”

The timer on the microwaves sings. Seokjin steps nimbly to the bar, pushing the bowl toward him like an offering to his guest.

Yoongi sniffs a tight laugh. His guest. That’s what he is now. Fuck.

Seokjin passes him chopsticks. “Eat,” he says, gesturing. He takes a bottle of water and some gochujang paste from beneath the bar. While Yoongi’s stabbing the pepper into his udon, Seokjin asks, “So. How are you?”

It’s a leading question; they both know what he’s really asking. Yoongi side-steps the chitchat, going straight for Seokjin’s heart.

“Hyung, I’ve been angry with you for ten fucking months,” he says. He doesn’t risk a look, focusing instead on the udon.  

Seokjin slides up a stool, sits, and waits.

“When you moved out, you didn’t even ask us,” Yoongi goes on. “You just left.” He grips the chopsticks until they bite into his hand. “First to your own room, then right out the door. And now you're thinking of selling this place and moving again? Like it's nothing. Like…” He shuts his eyes. “Do you even miss us?”

A long silence unravels between them. So long that Yoongi opens his eyes to check on Seokjin, who is staring at him, his arms crossed, his eyes doing that rapid blink thing they do when he’s upset. 

“I do miss you,” Seokjin says. But that’s it. He doesn’t explain or further expand, leaving Yoongi to spin out threads of possible conclusions. Then he stops himself. Because he can only control his own response to this situation, his own narrative of the events, not Seokjin’s. Mr. Choi has taught him that. 

“So, I, um,” Yoongi begins as he consciously unclenches the muscles in his hands. “I’ve been… in therapy. Since June I guess? Not only because I’m mad at you, but because, well, I wanted to die—”

“—Yoongi?” Seokjin breathes.

“It’s fine.” Yoongi waves. “I mean. It wasn’t. But I learned things. Important things, like something called transference, which is apparently a thing we do with anger. Especially when the anger is too huge and too messy to all go in one place.” 

Still blinking, Seokjin pushes a stack of napkins across the bar. Yoongi’s not crying, but he takes one anyway. He wonders if maybe this is all too much at once, so he decides to soften his approach.

“Remember in Malta, when we went fishing?” Yoongi asks.

“That was a good time,” Seokjin says. His voice sounds pinched and nasal.

“We both said we wanted to fish with our Dads, right?” Yoongi says.

Seokjin rubs his eyebrow. “Yeah.”

“On some level, I think I started to get it then. In Malta,” Yoongi says. He’s testing around the edges now, turning the words to make sense of them. “When I came out to my parents ten years ago, they fucking locked me up. You’d think that was bad enough, but it got worse because after, every time we talked we returned to the same spot: Why are you like this? Why are you broken? Why do you ask for so much?

Seokjin sniffles. Still he says nothing.

“Then it really went to hell, because after I…” Yoongi has to close his eyes again. He’s shaking like his bones might rattle apart. “After I tried to take my life, they just sorta gave up on me.” 

With that spoken aloud, it’s like the resistance snaps. He can breathe now, he can open his eyes, and across from him, Seokjin is weeping.

“Ah, hyung,” Yoongi says. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

Seokjin whimpers but doesn’t speak.

“That’s a lie.” Yoongi sniffs. “‘Cause I knew you might, which is why I put this off for so long. But what I’m trying to say is... “ He breathes, and breathes again. “I was pissed at my parents, ’cause they abandoned me. Now they’re both sick, and my halmeoni died, and they’re really struggling, and they need me. Hyung, I’m gonna move in with them. I’m gonna take care of them. And I am so fucking pissed because, where were they? Hm? When I was fifteen and ready to walk in front of a train, where the hell were they?”

Seokjin wobbles his head, like he agrees, but he’s not sure what he’s agreeing with.

“When you moved out,” Yoongi says. “All my anger at them boiled right over onto you. Bam: transference.”

After a moment, Seokjin stammers out, “So… are you still… mad at me?”

“Yes, I’m fucking furious,” Yoongi howls, but he’s laughing, which startles Seokjin to laughter, too. “Look at this place, Jin-hyung. Look at you.” Yoongi shakes his head. “You’re goddamn delirious, and you deserve to be. I’m mad that we’re all growing apart, that even Jungkook has a place of his own now, and I’ve been so afraid that all this meant I was gonna be alone again, so yeah… I’m angry as fuck.” 

Yoongi rounds the bar to Seokjin, who collapses forward into his arms, where they stand and silently weep for what seems like forever.

“But then,” Yoongi says, eventually, patting down the back of Seokjin’s hair. “You gave us Paris.”

Seokjin makes a strangled hiccupy sound. 

“And Hope,” Yoongi goes on. “We’ve decided to give us a second chance.”

Seokjin lifts his head.

“Yeah, that’s right. You and Tae didn’t corner the market on secret sexy times. Hope and I were actively banging for months before I freaked out and pumped the brakes. But now,” Yoongi says. “I mean, since you guys already know...” He shrugs, like he thinks Seokjin can figure the rest out for himself.  “And I haven't even said congratulations on your engagement. What an asshole, right?”

Seokjin stands there a long time, one hand braced on the counter. Yoongi returns to his bowl of udon, which has, regrettably, gone cold. But he eats it anyway, shoveling his mouth full of noodles to show Seokjin how much he appreciates it. 

After a moment, Seokjin sobs. “Fuck it,” he says. He goes to the refrigerator and takes out another bowl. He microwaves it and brings it to Yoongi’s side. 

As Seokjin mashes pepper paste into his udon, he says, “You know what I think? We should go fishing again. We said we would, remember?”

“I do,” Yoongi says.

“Then we should, you and me. Hashtag Sin.”

“Hashtag, you’re a beautiful idiot, you know that?” Yoongi says. “And, get this. I love you.”

“Gay,” Seokjin says, and they fizzle into laughter.

“Wow, months of therapy to manage those words, and you go and ruin it,” Yoongi says. 

“Not sorry,” Seokjin says. “We are gay.” He pudges his lips down to Yeontan. “Isn’t that right? Yeontan is gae too,” and Yoongi smacks him. 

“Nevermind, I’m glad you moved out,” Yoongi says.

“Aww,” Seokjin pouts. “But Yoongi, I love you, too.”

Yoongi grates a breath between his teeth. “Just eat your soup.” 

Seokjin’s a mess of a runny nose and puffy eyes, yet still he glows like some kind of earthbound saint. Yoongi knows he’s only a man, though, a hyung who is like him, a misplaced dreamer and a father’s errant son. These are the things they have in common, the things that bind them together. So after lunch, after Seokjin gives Yoongi the full tour of his villa, he returns home to Hoseok, considering all these characteristics they share. 

No matter what happens, they will always have this, and in that way, they’ll still be together. So Yoongi knows, they won’t lose Seokjin, and they don't have to worry about being left alone.

Chapter Text

“I haven’t imagined a life without you yet but please be happy
So that at least my lie can shine. ”
Beautiful Liar, VIXX

7 November 2018 – BigHit Studios

Jimin crouches, listening for the mark in his music, waiting for his breath to begin. The sudden burst of sound fills the room, and he counts, stretching up, toes pointed, arms extended, chest open, heart bare. 

He watches his reflection in the mirror wall, entranced by the form and flow of his limbs. Sometimes, when he dances, he can’t quite believe it’s him looking back. This boy – this man – moves with an almost unearthly agility, his muscles flexing and releasing precisely at his command.

Jimin wonders who this person is, executing these moves with such authority and grace. How can it be him demanding such focus from his body when his mind feels so breakable and weak? 

He breathes through the choreo, channeling his energy through every movement like a meditation, savoring the sting of his sweat against the abraded mark of his new tattoo. 

This is where he can control each muscle and reaction.

This is where he can atone for all of his mistakes. 

His focus wavers, and he bobbles, stumbling clumsily from the rhythm of his thoughts. Exhaling his impatience, Jimin goes to his phone to reset the song. The mirror gives him an unwelcome closeup: eyes drawn, face bare and rashy from the cold. His scalp, tingling from exertion, wafts an acidic tang of peroxide that makes a fist of nausea clench his gut.

He roughs his hands through his hair. It falls in messy sweeps over his eyes, making his reflection into an untidy, hay-stacked scarecrow with lips that would look more at home on a Barbie. He looks like a cartoon, the fake, flat version of Jimin taking the place of the real thing. 

“Not right now,” he tells himself. “Not today, okay? Today, let’s focus on making this right.”

He shivers himself, loosening his arms and shoulders. He still looks the part of a little kid playing dress-up in his uncle’s clothes. But in his mind, he relives the crisp fluidity of the dance as he commands it. He thumbs play, and as the music tumbles through the intro, he returns to the pool of light, waiting for his part to begin. 


Jimin lapses into the kind of absorbing concentration that blurs the minutes into hours. He has no idea how many times he’s run through the choreo when Hoseok opens the door, shattering the calm with his exuberant hellos. 

Caught completely off guard, Jimin sputters out like a firework, laughing like he does when he wants to hide his emotions. 

Hoseok drops his bag into an empty chair. He’s wide awake and somehow mid-conversation, forcing Jimin to focus hard on what he’s saying. The gears click when Hoseok mentions Jungkook, and Jimin remembers they’re meeting today for practice. Impromptu practice, because they’re not supposed to be here. They’re supposed to be in Japan right now, and it’s his fault that they aren’t. 

Hoseok goes still a moment, his hands on his hips. “How long you been here?”

“About an hour,” Jimin lies. More like three hours, as the screaming blisters on his toes will attest. But Jimin can’t bear a scolding from Hoseok, so he cuts the time and disregards the pain in his feet. 

“Hm,” Hoseok says, scrutinizing him with his school-teacher’s glare. Jimin makes fists with his toes, praying Hoseok won’t notice. 

“I went through the intro a few times,” Jimin says. “I have a question about the second measure, the part where I open the fan—”

“—Yeah, we can run it when Jungkook gets here,” Hoseok says, lowering to the floor to start his stretches. “It makes more sense to go through the whole piece together.”

Jimin stands there, gaping as he tries and discards several excuses.

Hoseok pats the floor in front of him. “Jiminie,” he says. “Take a seat.”

“I don’t need to, really,” Jimin says, retreating to his phone. “I’ll show you that part I’m talking about, and you can tell me if I’ve got it right—”

“—Jimin,” Hoseok says. “Sit.” The first part is bright and chirpy. The second, sharply imperative.

Jimin comes over. He sits butterfly-style, pressing his feet together to hide his blistered soles. 

“You wanna tell me what’s going on?” Hoseok says.

“You know what’s going on.”

“Maybe you should tell me,” Hoseok says. 

“Hyung,” Jimin stalls. He glances at the door and considers for a moment his chances of escape. They aren’t great. Jimin’s been dancing for hours, while Hoseok’s all fresh and spry. He would probably tackle him to the ground before Jimin could fully stand. 

Hoseok admits, “I sent Jungkook for breakfast, to give us some time.”

Jimin understands, then, that he’s trapped. The others have discussed this behind his back and sent Hope to deal with him, which makes him feel even more helpless and guilty than before. “Didn’t we talk enough at our staff meeting?” Jimin sulks. 

“We talked, yeah,” Hoseok allows. “You barely said a thing. Which is how I know you’re hurting. Jiminie, baby, you always check in on us.” He tousles Jimin’s knee. “Lemme do the same for you.”

Jimin feels the dam inside him threatening to burst. He jerks to his feet, going for his water bottle as he struggles to withhold the flood. His tattoo, which was swollen and oozing this morning, twinges beneath its plastic wrapping, which he should be able to remove today. The tattoo artist told him he should take a few days off from anything that might cause sweating, but Jimin laughed that suggestion right off. Now, though, he feels like a dog in a cone of shame, fighting the urge to scratch at it, wondering why he doesn’t just listen when people give him instructions.

Hoseok still watches him, expecting… what, an explanation? An answer? An excuse?

“All I did was wear a dumb shirt,” Jimin grates out. He stretches, splaying his arms. The figure on the other side of the glass responds – unreachable, impervious, perfect. “Anyway,” Jimin hears himself say. “Let’s talk about you and Yoongi-hyung instead. I wanna hear every detail.”

Hoseok stands, too, pivoting with unassuming smoothness toward their reflections. “We are very, very grateful to you for the part you played in Paris,” he says. “But Yoongi and I have decided to keep us separate from Us as best we can. So, we’re not gonna talk about that.” 

Jimin opens his mouth.

“Or Seokjin and Tae,” Hoseok adds, and Jimin’s mouth clamps shut. 

Pouting to the mirror, Jimin says, “Hyung, you’re no fun.”

Hoseok peels out of his hoodie, tossing it to the floor. “Fine,” he says. “You don’t wanna talk. Let’s stretch.” 

He begins his warm-up, executing a series of isolation exercises with the crisp precision of a finely-tuned machine. 

After a moment, Jimin goes, “Hyung, you wanna hear a funny story?” 

Hoseok flashes a look. “Sure?” he says, like he’s not really sure at all.

Smiling, Jimin says, “Yoongi told Seokjin, who told Taehyung, who told me the other day when we were shopping, that Jungkookie got his very own apartment.” He goes up on his toes, arms extended, his tattoo burning like a brand. “Did you know?”

Hoseok continues through his isolations. “I’m the one who told Yoongi,” he says. “It’s in the same complex as mine.” 

“Right.” Jimin deflates. “But don’t get too excited about being neighbors, hyung. For all the time I spend with TaeTae at Jin-hyung’s, they might as well live in Finland.” 

Ignoring this, Hoseok says, “Jimin, show me your form.” 

Careful not to roll his eyes, Jimin flows through his positions, pushing his energy into each extension, keeping his spine loose, his shoulders back. His neck still twinges from his injury during their tour, but right now, that pain pales in comparison to the tattoo and his blistered feet. In the mirror, his body moves with the metered motion of a marionette drawn up on invisible strings. 

When he reaches the end of the movement, Hoseok eyes him, satisfied. As if reading Jimin’s thoughts, he says, “We do make gorgeous puppets, don’t we?”

Jimin huffs at what used to be an inside joke, but which has now manifest itself into their concepts. It’s not lost on him, the significance of how, once again, their life parallels their music. Their creative team understands what they’re going through, how the industry tries to dictate what they wear, who they’re seen with, who they can date, and where can they go. Jimin thinks the writers and directors know a lot, but they don’t know everything. 

Like him, they’re operating in partial dark.

“You’re favoring your left leg,” Hoseok says. Jimin meets his eye in the mirror. “You keeping up with your PT?”

“Yes, hyung,” Jimin groans. 

Hoseok lifts his chin. 

“Sorry, hyung,” Jimin blurts, also straightening in response to that single, warning gesture. “Yes. I’ve been doing my therapy.” 

Hoseok continues to weigh Jimin’s words. He says, “Run through your forms again.”

But Jimin already knows what Hoseok saw. He strikes the first formation, gliding through each position, chin up, heels tight...

“There.” Hoseok points. 

“Dammit,” Jimin hisses. 

Hoseok folds his arms. “You can’t lie for anything,” he says. “Even your body gives you away.”

Jimin flounces down, rubbing cool thumbs over his toes. This breaks the seal on his tears, as suddenly, unbidden, everything he’s fought to hold back spills out in an ugly, shuddering gush. 

“Oh!” Hoseok drops beside him, gathering Jimin’s body against his own. “Jimin! It’s okay, it’s okay.”

“But it’s not ,” Jimin splutters. “It’s not okay. I messed up, and I keep messing up, and we’re not in Japan now because of me… and Namjoon, he warned me not to wear it, but I was like, ‘oh, relax hyung, it’s only a shirt,’ but he was right and now everyone is mad at me for my stupid, selfish mistake. And, and...”

Hoseok rubs a thumb over Jimin’s eyebrow. “Not everyone is mad at you.”

“Yes they are, I can feel it.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Hoseok says. “Yoongi’s not either. The way he talks, this political stuff is a gift sent straight from heaven. It gives us the chance to sleep in and watch reruns of 100 Days My Prince.” 

Jimin shudders. “Of course it does.”

“That man would live in his pajamas,” Hoseok says, and they exhale a breathy giggle. 

Then Jimin steels himself again. He says, “And Jungkookie is mad at me.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Hoseok says, shifting to cradle Jimin against him. 

“He must be, because otherwise, he wouldn’t want to leave me.” 

“Ooooh,” Hoseok intones. “So that’s what this is about.”

Jimin slouches. 

Hoseok tilts Jimin’s chin back so that he can look into his eyes. “Look. Jiminie. I’m the one who suggested the apartment for Jungkook. It’s a smart thing, to invest in real estate, to plan for our futures.” He brushes a tear from Jimin’s cheek. “You and me, we can’t dance forever. Our bodies will only go so far.”

Jimin shivers as something inside of him begins to flail. 

“Talk to Jungkook,” Hoseok suggests.

“No.” Jimin shakes his head. “He should’ve told me. And everyone else was like, ‘Protect poor fragile Jimin, he can’t handle the truth,’ and that is not okay, hyung. None of you should’ve done that.”

“Jimin—”

“—Jungkook told me he didn’t want to think of the future.” Jimin yanks away, grateful to put weight onto his swollen feet. “He told me he didn’t want to grow up, or think about anything beyond right now.” Jimin swallows his tears, replaces them with salt. “That was a lie.” He thrusts his shoulders back. His hair parts around his face, casting his eyes in shadow. “He does want to think about the future. Just not with me.” 

“You don’t believe that,” Hoseok says, his expression a mask of incredulity and pain.

Jimin presses into the balls of his feet, feeling the tenuous ache connecting him to the earth. “But I do,” Jimin says. “I’ve known for a long time.” He meets his own gaze in the mirror, and in spite of his words, he smiles. “When all this is over, so are we.” 

A hollowness opens within him, vast and quiet and still. 

Hoseok comes up and hugs him from behind. “Talk to him, Jimin. He’ll be here in a few minutes. I’ll give you some time alone—”

“—No.” Jimin keeps to his form, not daring again to crack out of fear that he might shatter. He cannot afford to be their weakest piece. He will not allow it. “I’m done with that. This time, he has to come to me.”

After a heartbeat, he shrugs gently from Hoseok’s embrace, going again to his phone to reset the song. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, ignoring the disaster of his up-close reflection, he says, “May I show you that place in the choreo now? If we can work through it a few times, I’m sure I’ll get it right…”

Hoseok blinks from his paralysis. “Of course,” he answers. “Anything you need.”

Jimin touches his hand. He presses play, and together, they begin to dance.

Chapter Text

“I want to do with you what spring does to the cherry trees.”
Pablo Neruda

10 November 2018 Hannam the Hill  

Seokjin will not remember the details of the morning, what jacket he chose, what color shoes he decided to wear. He won’t even remember his trip to Hi-Mart, or what items they’d been out of that he needed to buy. He’ll remember the cold in that vague way of Autumn, when everyone knows that true winter has yet to come. He doesn’t hold onto the small details, like the scents of fish and fresh apples in the market, or the wincing opaline brightness of the air, or the skitters of gold leaves shed from the gingko trees. He drifts on autopilot, airpods in his ears, all worries and concerns buried beneath his playlist. 

For him, Seoul could be anywhere: Tokyo, New York, or Amsterdam. The same cracked pavements, the same frantic traffic, signs in different languages, all shouting the same things. This city isn’t home for him, nor is the dorm or his address at Hannam. Home for him isn’t a place, not like it used to be.

Recently, he received an offer on his villa. If he decides to sell, he might break even, but probably not. His father will complain that it’s a bad investment, but Seokjin must consider other factors now. Like the need for an extra bedroom, or a kitchen with broader countertops, or a wider space for entertaining. To his father, who always looks at the bottom line, these are things he might not understand.

Ultimately, it will be up to Taehyung. For Seokjin, the places are as interchangeable as his clothing or a rented car. Taehyung is his fiance now, and what he wants far outweighs any attachments Seokjin has to a place.

When Seokjin arrives at the villa, he tends to his normal routine, switching his shoes for slippers, hanging his coat by the door. He greets Yeontan in the hall, and after filling hiss bowl, he separates the groceries from toiletries, scuttling his airpods to the bar. 

Music saunters from the bedroom, something big-band and American, a woman soulfully singing about a handful of stars. That’s as far as Seokjin’s English will take him, but the words are not as important as the person listening to them. 

That would be his Taehyung, likely in the throes of some chaotic creative endeavor.

Seokjin tiptoes to the door of their bedroom. He has to bite his lip; first, to keep from yelling in disbelief and, second, to stop himself from laughing. Because there stands Taehyung, perched atop a barstool precariously balanced on their bed. Dangerously wobbling, his arms outstretched, Taehyung haphazardly attempts to hook the end of a tape measure into a seam in the wall.

This, Seokjin will remember. As he crosses the room, toothpaste and floss in hand, he commits this scene to memory: the woman’s sultry voice belting her bawdy song, the scarecrow flappiness of Taehyung, loose pants flashing his bony hips. Then there’s the barstool, and the bed, and the tape measure repeatedly missing its mark. 

Yet Taehyung persists, his tongue mashed between his lips, completely oblivious to everything beyond this task. 

Seokjin comes alongside the bed. Gazing up, he says, “Hello, my fiance.”

Taehyung startles. Seokjin catches the barstool’s edge. “Beyonce?” Taehyung asks.

“Fiance,” Seokjin corrects. “As in husband-to-be.” 

“Oh,” Taehyung murmurs. “Fiance. That sounds nice.”

“It is nice,” Seokjin says. He climbs onto the bed, gripping Taehyung’s hips for support. He tilts his face up, and Taehyung bends to kiss him. 

When they part, Seokjin asks, “What’re we doing?”

Taehyung teeters down to the bed, holding Seokjin’s shoulders for balance. “Thought I’d hang that last piece. You know, the splashy one with the face in the moon?”

Seokjin loops his arms around Taehyung’s waist. “They’re re-painting this wall,” he tells him.

“Oh? Really?”

“Yep,” Seokjin says. “While we’re gone to Japan.”

Taehyung drops the tape measure. “Then I shouldn’t hang it?”

“You can,” Seokjin shrugs. “They offered to paint it, in case we decide to sell.”

“Are you going to sell?” Taehyung asks.

Seokjin tugs at his ear. “I don’t know yet.”    

Taehyung pans a glance to the items in Seokjin’s hands. “Those for our trip?” he asks. 

“For here,” Seokjin tells him. “We’re almost out.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says again. “I didn’t know.” 

Seokjin kisses his nose. Then he asks, “Did you talk to your Eomma?”

“I did,” Taehyung says.

“And?”

“She agrees.” Taehyung smiles. “They’ll all come here for Seollal. Here, as in Seoul, not necessarily, y’know, here.” The music switches, this time to a trot singer with a similar ribald love song. 

“We’d need a bigger place for them to all come here,” Seokjin says. He catches the scent of Taehyung, a puzzling blend of green onion and adhesive spray. Before he can get swept up in a separate line of questioning about what Taehyung’s been up to, Seokjin remembers to ask, “Eunjin and Jeonggyu, too?”

“Jeonggyu will be studying for exams, but Eunjin should make it,” Taehyung says. “And Jungie-hyung?”

“Yes, hyung will be here,” Seokjin says. “Any chance to spend time gaming with his new best friend.”

Taehyung brightens. “Is that me?”

“Yes, Taehyungie, that’s you. Not that I’m jealous or anything.” He bites his lip. He says, “If we sell the villa, we’d only have a month to get moved into the new place before our families descend upon us.”

Taehyung shrugs. “We can do it.”

Seokjin arches one brow. “It’s taken us four months to unpack our clothes here.”

“We’ll be motivated,” Taehyung tells him. “Hyung, we’ll get it done.”

If we decide to sell this place,” Seokjin muses. He turns toward the bathroom. Taehyung tugs him to a stop. 

“Jinnie, look,” he says, splaying his fingers against the bright sunbeam that pours from their east-facing window. His hand cuts a sharp, five-fingered shadow from the rectangle of sunlight on the opposite wall. A similar brightness sparks in Taehyung’s eyes. He takes the toiletries from Seokjin’s hands, tumbling them aside. Then, standing behind him, he adjusts Seokjin’s fingers into the shape of a heart.

Together, they lean against the barstool for support. Taehyung rests his chin on Seokjin’s shoulder as they quietly marvel over the heart cut from the shadow on the opposite wall. “Wait right there,” he says. 

“Hurry,” Seokjin tells him, careful not to shift or breathe, though the barstool on the bed remains precarious and the light outside wavers as the wind shivers through the trees.

Snagging his camera from the bedside table, Taehyung says, “Jin-hyung, don’t rush art.”

“I’m not,” Seokjin chuckles. “But the sunlight doesn’t obey me.”

“It should,” Taehyung says, rasping the words into Seokjin’s ear. He slides his arms around Seokjin’s waist, positioning the camera at his navel. 

“Yes,” Seokjin breathes. “Kim Seokjin, CEO of Daylight.”

Taehyung snugs him close as he adjusts the lens, bringing fingerheart into focus. He snaps several frames before he says, “This is us, Jin-hyung. My hand is your hand.”

Seokjin leans into him, turning his head to touch his lips to Taehyung’s. “I love us,” he tells him. 

Taehyung drops the camera to the bed. He slides his thumbs beneath the waistband of Seokjin’s pants. His voice smoky and dark, he whispers, “Jinnie, do we have time?”

Not really. Not ever. At the very mention of time, Seokjin’s brain spins out the litany of the things they still need to do. They’re supposed to be packing for Tokyo, they have meetings at the studio, briefings about diplomacy since relations with Japan right now are tense. They have rehearsal, wardrobe fittings, and a late dinner with Hoseok and Yoongi. Seokjung will come by at some point to pick up Odeng and Yeontan, and somewhere in the middle of all of that, Seokjin’s supposed to discuss a real estate transaction and coordinate Seollal plans with his Dad.

Seokjin shoves the barstool from the bed. “We’ll make time,” he says, stripping out of his shirt. He pushes Taehyung’s hat from his forehead, spilling out the tousle of his messy hair. He kneels, then, and presses a kiss into the cup of Taehyung’s belly button. 

Taehyung knots his fists in Seokjin’s hair, not rough but almost, and Seokjin pulls him down, kicking at bedclothes in the breathless anticipation of his skin.

 

In an effort to “save time,” they finish in the shower. Afterward, ravenous, they rove into their kitchen. Taehyung snags his camera along the way, skimming through the images as he pads up to the bar. They fold into an easy rhythm to make their breakfast.

Cooking together is still a rare occurrence for them, so Taehyung often asks for guidance. Poking the pajeon batter with his spatula, he says, “Do I flatten it?”

“Not yet,” Seokjin says. “Watch the bubbles around the edge. They’ll pop as it cooks. That’s how you know it’s ready.” 

Taehyung stares at the pajeon, rapt in his absorption as one by one the bubbles burst. Then he teases up the edge and deftly flips it.

“Wha! Taehyung-ah!” Seokjin gushes. “A masterpiece on your first time.” 

Taehyung brims with quiet pride, giving the pajeon an affectionate tap before turning it out onto the plate. It’s at this moment, Seokjin catches the glimmer of platinum on Taehyung’s hand.

“You’re wearing your ring,” Seokjin says.

“Until we go out,” Taehyung assures him. “You’re not wearing yours?”

“I did go out,” he reminds him. “Only to the convenience store, but... we never know.”

“Ah, true,” Taehyung frowns. 

Seokjin catches his hand and kisses it. “Someday, Taehyung.” 

“Someday,” Taehyung echoes. He stuffs a bite of pajeon into his mouth, too impatient for it to cool.

“Well?” Seokjin asks.

He groans, then tears off another chunk to feed to Seokjin. Then, a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Jin-hyung, I have more plans for you.”

“More?” Seokjin squints. “What more? How can there be more?”

Taehyung licks oil from his thumb. “More,” he tells him.

This both baffles and intrigues Seokjin. “I don’t believe it,” he says. “How can you possibly outdo Paris?” 

“You’ll see,” Taehyung says. Then shifting the subject, he says, “That picture we took, the one of your hands?”

Seokjin pinches off a strip of pajeon and feeds it to Taehyung. “Hm?”

“Let me share it.”

Immediately, Seokjin thinks, They’ll know. Then, just as quickly, he thinks, So what if they do? He and Taehyung are engaged. They live together. They’re building a future in which they will someday be husbands. They will raise children of their own, and run a pension hotel where people from all over the world will come to find their peace.

Seokjin recalls what Yoongi said, about him looking deliriously happy and deserving it, and he knows that Yoongi’s right. They do deserve it. They have worked hard to carve out this sanctuary, and no matter where they are, it’s strong enough now to give them shelter. He no longer fears Minyeong or any other person who might dare to disrupt what they have. 

So why shouldn’t Taehyung post that photo?  

“Okay,” he decides.

Taehyung growls, “Really?” Then he hunches over the viewscreen, hurriedly skimming the captured frames as if worried that Seokjin that might change his mind. Seokjin settles beside him, quietly watching while he works.

So this is what he remembers of the day: the smell of the pajeon, the distant, fragile lovesong lilting from the bedroom, and the shaft of sunlight banded across their bodies as they decide which image to post. 

This is the life Seokjin dreamed of, the home he sought, the happiness he hopes the others will find. Here is all of that, summed up in one single frame. 

“Our engagement photo,” Seokjin breathes. “Our secret, for us.” 

And Taehyung turns to kiss him. 

Chapter Text

“You got me.
I dream while looking at you.
I got you,
Inside those pitch black nights.”
Mikrokosmos, BTS

22 November 2018 – Osaka – morning

Taehyung wakes to the watery sunlight shimmering across their bodies. Seokjin, beside him, rests his head on Taehyung’s collarbone. His hand splays on Taehyung’s hip, his thumb hooked into the waistband of Taehyung’s sweatpants. He’s asleep and smiling, and Taehyung fills with a sense of anticipation for what he has in store for them. 

Today is their anniversary, and they’re in Osaka, which is, for them, a place of certain gravity. Taehyung believes in alignments, in the magic of dates and places. He believes fate has placed them here, on this day, and he intends to make the most of it. 

Starting here, in Seokjin’s arms. 

“Jagiya,” he whispers, bumping him with his hip. “It’s time to wake up.”

“Bring me the oil,” Seokjin murmurs.

“Bit early for that, but okay,” Taehyung teases. 

“I told Jimin to wash those,” Seokjin grumbles. “Are they clean? No, they are not.” Then he adds in a kind of indignant moan, “What are we, barbarians?”  

Taehyung presses his nose to Seokjin’s shoulder to stifle his laughter. It doesn’t work, though, and Seokjin’s lashes flutter as he wakes. His eyes find Taehyung’s, and they slowly draw into focus. 

“You’re laughing?” he groans.

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin unfolds against him. “Was I dreaming?”

“Yes,” Taehyung tells him. “You were yelling at Jimin.”

“Ah,” Seokjin smiles. “A good dream, then.” 

A shy anticipation tightens in Taehyung’s belly. “Hyung, I have a surprise for you.” 

Seokjin stares, unblinking. He says, “Do you?”

“Expect it tonight,” Taehyung tells him. “For our anniversary.” 

“After our show?” Seokjin asks. 

“Yes, hyung.”

Seokjin stretches languidly, his body warm and lithe and tight. “So much time,” he moans. “I can hardly wait.” 

“We don’t have to wait for that,” Taehyung offers, but just as they close in to kiss, there’s a knock on the door. 

Instantly alert, Seokjin straightens. “Did you order something?”

“No,” Taehyung says. He reaches for his phone, which is still on silent. There, at the top of his notifications, is a message from Namjoon. He turns the screen so they both can read it. 

It says, I need to speak with you and Seokjin-hyung. Pls msg when you get this.

Even as Seokjin types a reply, Namjoon’s voice calls from outside. “Guys, are you dressed?”

Taehyung, sort of. Seokjin, not so much. Seokjin lumbers up, grabbing clothes at random, Taehyung’s red pants and a hoodie they share, which he zips up with nothing beneath. 

“Are we in trouble?” Taehyung asks. His heartbeat quickens in response to the fear in his own voice. 

“Why would we be?” Seokjin asks, but he also looks distressed. He fusses Taehyung’s collar straight. He cups his chin. “Don’t worry,” he says. “No matter what, we’ll be okay.”

At the door, Namjoon says, “Guys, I hear you in there, please open the—”

Seokjin parts the door, spilling a wince of light across Namjoon. 

“Something’s happened,” Namjoon says, stepping back, expecting them to follow. Seokjin stays put, though, and Taehyung hovers with him, nervously gnawing at his thumb.

“What is it?” Seokjin asks. 

“Best not to talk here,” Namjoon says, panning an uncertain glance down the hall. Taehyung’s mind leaps to security cameras and lurking sasaengs. 

But Seokjin says, “The others—?”

“—Don’t need to be here,” Namjoon tells him. “Please, hyung.” His voice frays, and Taehyung’s heart plummets into his gut. 

“Okay,” he says, nudging Seokjin. “Okay, we’ll go.” 

Seokjin’s hard expression fractures. He pats his pocket for his key. Taehyung goes to the table to retrieve it. “Are we in trouble?” he asks, echoing Taehyung’s earlier concern. The way Namjoon cringes gives them enough of an answer. They follow him into the hallway, the door shutting behind them with a final, heavy thunk.

They take a stairwell down to a boxy concrete alcove. It’s open to the high, bright sky above, but its gray confines make Taehyung feel as though they’ve fallen down a well. A wind whisks in as they open the door, sending up a spiral of debris. There’s a sooty ashcan in the corner that reeks of damp cigarettes, and two men stand beside it: Sejin and Jaehyang.

“Oh? Benji-nim,” Seokjin says as they step into the hollow. He bows, and Jaehyang bows stiffly back. The five of them huddle a moment, chattering against the chill. The wind sucks the door open and closed, gulping like a drowning breath. 

Namjoon punches his fists into his pockets. He says, “Sejin-nim, will you please start by telling them what you told me.”

Sejin nods. “Recently,” he begins, “an intern stole Jimin’s shirt and sold it to a fan who wore it to a concert and then returned it. Jimin, without knowing, then wore this shirt on stage. The girl who bought the shirt boasted about it on her Instagram, which Benji-ssi was able to track down. Apparently, this kind of thing has happened a few times over the last several months, but thankfully, because of Benji, the company is taking action to prevent future incidents. We should remember this as we consider everything else. Benji-ssi has been a vital member of our security team. We would be wise to recall his service in light of recent… discoveries.”

Jaehyang meets Taehyung’s eye, then abruptly drops his gaze.

Cautiously, Seokjin mutters, “What discoveries?”

Namjoon answers, “Remember last year, when someone put a webcam in our dorm?”

Seokjin’s eyelashes flick. “Of course.”

“And do you remember also,” Sejin adds, “how we suspected that someone was selling our flight information—”

“—And Yoongi’s and Jungkook’s cell phone numbers?” Namjoon slices in.

Seokjin catches on before Namjoon or Sejin continue. “You?” he says to Benji, smiling that wry, wary smile he gets when he suspects someone is pranking him. “Not you.”

“Not what?” Taehyung asks. “Hyung, what are they saying?”

“Taehyung-ssi,” Jaehyang says. “Will you let me explain?” 

Taehyung’s complete confusion strands him at the edge of panic, worsened by the fact that everyone else seems to already understand. “Explain what?” he moans. “What’s happening?”

“All right.” Jaehyang breathes out. “As you know, my family is Korean American. My grandmother lived in Ulsan before moving to the US in 1974. She married my grandfather there, and they raised my Dad. He married my Mom, and we lived here and there in the States until my Grandma got sick about six years ago. My Grandpa had already passed, and my Grandma’s wish was to return to her family in Ulsan.” 

Seokjin tugs nervously on his ear. “Why are you telling us this?” 

“I need you to understand why,” Jaehyang says. He steps toward Seokjin, who teeters out of reach. “It’s important for you to know why.” 

Seokjin is shaking his head, but Jaehyang continues. “We moved to Busan to get my Grandma the care she needs. But we aren’t a wealthy family, Jin-ssi. We’re gyopo here. My Eomma barely speaks Korean, so we've struggled to find our place. After college, I moved to Seoul to help support my family. And that’s when I met Park Minyeong.”

The pieces slot sharply into place, and Taehyung croaks an involuntary, “No.”

“He helped me,” Jaehyang explains. “He got me this job, helped secure work visas for me and my Dad. He helped my brother and sister get into good schools. My sister will graduate next year if…” Jaehyang breaks off then, his eyes clouding as he tries to stay calm. 

This is when Namjoon steps in. “What Benji-nim is trying to say, is that Minyeong’s support has been conditional.”

“He’s blackmailing you,” Seokjin says. 

Taehyung echoes the word, turning it like a bitter seed behind his teeth.

“What does he want from you?” Seokjin asks. 

“Information,” Jaehyang admits. 

Seokjin touches cold fingers to Taehyung’s arm. “About us?” he asks.

“About all of you, at first. Then later, only you.” Jaehyang rubs his nose. “Evidence,” he says. “Photos, texts, anything tangible. I thought it was strange. I know how close you all are, and even though I grew up in America, I get that skinship is a thing. That’s all I sent him in the beginning: blurry pics of skinship.”

Taehyung’s blood pounds. He mumbles, “In the beginning?”

At the same time, Seokjin bites out, “What did you give him?”

“The itineraries and hotel locations were attempts to stall him, to give him something I didn’t think he could use. I gave him Yoongi’s and Jungkook’s cell phone numbers, because… well, they don’t use their phones like you do.” 

“And the webcam in our dorm?” Seokjin asks.

“I know. It’s unforgivable. I had them hide it in your common room, I figured if I put it in the least intrusive place, then..." Jaehyang lifts his hands. “But beyond that, I swear I gave him nothing.”

“Then why are we here?” Seokjin shouts. This time his voice echoes loudly in the alcove, startling Taehyung far worse than anything Jaehyang has said. 

Once again, Jaehyang shifts his attention to Taehyung. “When you asked him to marry you in Chicago, Taehyung-ssi, I… I knew I finally had a chance to give Minyeong the proof he wanted. My family would be safe, my debt to him repaid. And I was with you in Paris, Seokjin-ssi—”

“—We trusted you,” Seokjin slices in. “And you’ve been working for that monster. How can we believe anything you say?”

“Jin-hyung,” Namjoon soothes. “He’s trying to tell you, things have changed now.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Jaehyang goes on. “I went to Sejin-nim and I begged him for help. We arranged a meeting with Minyeong, and I told him face to face I wouldn’t work for him anymore.” 

Seokjin grips Taehyung’s hand so tightly that his knuckles turn white. Dimly, Taehyung wonders how he doesn’t feel it, how his bones aren’t snapping under the pressure, when Seokjin finally seems to catch his breath. 

“He did it, didn’t he?” Seokjin says. “Minyeong reported your family?”

“My Eomma,” Jaehyang answers. “She’s my Grandma’s caregiver, so she never applied for a work visa. Her visitor’s passport expired a long time ago, but we’re Korean so we figured we'd blend in. But Minyeong knew better. He knew she didn't have her papers. So he reported her.” Jaehyang trembles in the hollow stairwell, his face a mask of despair. “My Grandma’s too frail now to travel back to the States. She needs my Eomma, but…” He shakes his head. “Jin-ssi, who would do this to a person? To a family?”

“A monster,” Seokjin hisses.

“Yes.” Jaehyang gazes at him, his eyes alight with hope. “Exactly. My hope is to stay here, but I would need to keep this job. So last night, after speaking with my Eomma, I went to Sejin-nim and Namjoon-ssi for help.I told them everything, but...” He cups his hands to his mouth, then sweeps them up to cover his eyes. Sejin touches Jaehyang’s shoulder. Namjoon turns to Seokjin.

“Hyung,” he says. “I told him we’d have to ask you.”  

Seokjin nods like a sleeper slowly waking. “Because it involves us,” he says. “Because Minyeong has always been after us.” He looks down, seeming in that heartbeat to realize how hard he’s been clinging to Taehyung. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, carefully flexing his fingers to release him. 

Taehyung twists his wrist, feeling the pins-and-needles of his blood prickling back in. He’s amazed at how calm he feels, how distant and detached. “Don’t worry,” he murmurs. “I got you.” 

All at once, Seokjin’s rigidness snaps. There are tears on his lips, and Taehyung can see how hard he’s been fighting to control them. “Benji-nim,” he says. “I’m sorry, but...” He breathes. “I need a moment. I need some time to think.”

“Yes, Jin-ssi, of course.” Jaehyang steps forward, but Taehyung shoulders protectively in between them.

“We’re gonna take a walk,” Taehyung says, smoothly pivoting him and Seokjin toward the door. “Joon-hyung?”

Namjoon gives him a nod of understanding. “I’ll cover for you,” he tells them. “Let’s meet later, and then we’ll have to decide.”

Chapter Text

 “I still wonder wonder, beautiful story.
Still wonder wonder, best part.”
Scenery, Kim Taehyung

22 November 2018 – Osaka – Part Two

Bare black branches chatter against the wind. Taehyung tries and fails to reconcile this harsh, bitter daylight with the warmth of this morning, Seokjin’s closeness then to the icy distance of him now. Taehyung’s fingers ache to hold Seokjin’s hands again, and the fact that they can’t give each other this one, small comfort destroys him.

They come to a street corner blanched in sunlight. In the brightness, they strain to read the crosswalk sign. Seokjin pivots, uncertain, and then he flails. “Namjoon was right.” 

Taehyung feels disconnected, like he keeps missing vital pieces that would make this puzzle clear. “Please, Jin-hyung,” he says. “I don’t understand.”

“We can’t trust anyone,” Seokjin says. He continues a slow circle, taking in the crosswalk, the intersection with its cameras, the pedestrians fixed upon their phones. “And I am the biggest fool because—”

“—No,” Taehyung rushes to assure him. “You’re not.”

“But I am,” Seokjin says. His eyes glint. “He was our friend, Taehyung. I’m supposed to protect us, but the risks I took. The rules I broke. Our rules. Benji-nim was there that night in Gozo, remember? The night Namjoon caught us?”

“Yeah but—”

“—No. Taehyung,” Seokjin rattles out. “He could’ve recorded us. He could’ve taken pictures. He was right there, and I am so selfish to forget.”

“But he didn’t,” Taehyung insists. “Jagiya, he didn’t.”

Seokjin peers down the street, his eyes drifting to some vague middleground as he weighs out the facts. “No. But he did other things.” He sniffles, nodding. “Namjoon was right.”

“He isn’t right about everything,” Taehyung grumbles, but it's a weak protest, because here they are.

But Seokjin stands there, shuddering, his fist pressed to his lips. The streetlight changes, and the crowd surges forward, jostling around them until the light goes red. Then, like grains in an hourglass, the intersection fills again. A few people who glance their way do a familiar double-take of recognition, which sends a crawling wave of paranoia across Taehyung’s skin. They are exposed here, blind and naked, and Taehyung wants to grab his hand and vanish to where no one can ever find them. 

Taehyung looks to Seokjin, and his heart swells. Fear hangs heavy on him. He is drenched with it. In years past, he would have bolted. He would hide or go silent, but today he remains here with Taehyung, fighting with every drop of his strength to stay. 

Taehyung shoves off his worry about Benji. The reality of that will come crashing down on them soon enough. Right now, he focuses on Seokjin. He pulls him into a sidestreet and sits him down on the concrete edge of a flowerbed.

The canyon of the alleyway buffers the city noise. Within its walls, it’s safe and quiet and dim. Taehyung cups Seokjin’s face against his shoulder. Seokjin snuffles against Taehyung’s neck.

“It’s our anniversary,” Taehyung whispers.

Seokjin nods.

“I was gonna wait until tonight, but I think you need this now,” Taehyung says.

Beneath his embrace, Seokjin shivers. His voice hitching, he stammers out, “But I didn’t—I don’t have anyth—”

“Shh,” Taehyung soothes. He pats Seokjin’s ears. He says, “Remember in Moulin Rouge, when Christian wrote a secret song for Satine?”

His voice small, Seokjin murmurs, “Yes.”

“And whenever they sang it, whatever happened, they would always know that everything would be all right?”

Seokjin nods once more.

“Hyung, I wrote us a song,” Taehyung says. “I started writing it here, months ago, when I found your engagement ring. I didn’t know how to finish then, but in Paris, when you said there aren’t enough songs for people like you and me, that’s when all the pieces fell into place. So if you’d like to hear it, I’m ready to sing it.”

Seokjin rocks back to gaze into Taehyung’s eyes. He says, “You wrote us a song?”

“A secret one. For us,” Taehyung says. “May I sing it?” 

“Yes,” Seokjin breathes out. “VV, please, sing it for me.”

Taehyung takes his hands. There in the quiet alley, he sings the song that he wrote, the story of last New Year, when he followed Seokjin’s footprints in the snow. Then, at a gate in Daegu, he used his key to unlock the next piece of their story, one that will someday, finally, lead them home. 

Later, Taehyung will record the song with the melody he composed. It will be more polished, more technically perfect. But this is better. This is truer and more pure. It’s him and Seokjin: the scent of winter on the wind and his words blending with the traffic and birdsong. He hopes it conveys all his dreams and all his longings, but he also hopes it shows Seokjin that, like him, he’s no longer afraid.

Seokjin holds still a long while after Taehyung falls quiet. His tears subside and his breathing calms, but for the moment, he seems incapable of speech.

Taehyung gives him a nudge. “Hyung, do you like it?”

“It’s a song for us.” Seokjin snags the hood of Taehyung’s sweatshirt to dry his eyes. “I love it, Taehyung. Beyond...anything. I love it.” He exhales, several sharp, deep breaths, before he draws his shoulders back and recenters. 

“You okay?” Taehyung asks. He runs his hands over the staticky crown of Seokjin’s hair.

“I am.” He nods. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Taehyung tells him. “’Cause, I’ve been thinking.”

Seokjin casts a wary look at him. Ignoring it, Taehyung goes on.

“I hate these rules,” he says. “I hate what happened with Benji-nim. I hate that I feel sick whenever someone touches you. I hate the thought of anyone thinking you belong to someone else. I hate that we have to hide, that we pretend, that we’re still secret, when everyone should know we belong to each other. But I...” he shakes his head. “I understand.”

“You do?” Seokjin releases a sigh. 

“Yes.” Taehyung bows his eyes. “Because, it won’t always be this way. Jin-hyung, one day we’ll be married. And I have hope for our next story. Right now, this is our fate, but I get it. It’s only a piece of our puzzle. The whole picture is so much more.”

Seokjin tilts his head back to gaze into the high, bright sky above. “Ah, you comfort me, Taehyungie,” he says. Then he leans to kiss the freckle on Taehyung’s nose. “You help me remember that even our bad times are beautiful.”

“They’re part of our story,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin kisses him, then, the tender, patient kiss of lovers who know that this is neither hello nor goodbye, but the promise of more to come. The clouds grow dense with snow, and the concrete bench below them feels like a block of ice, yet Seokjin still seems reluctant to leave.

After a moment, he says, “Remember in Thailand—”

“—The time you threw your phone?” Taehyung finishes. “I think about it every day.”

Seokjin stifles down a sob. “You know, even back then, I wouldn’t let Minyeong take something that belongs to us. I would rather destroy it than let him touch it.” 

Taehyung tugs on the trailing edge of the red thread around his wrist. “Wha— hyung. That reminds me of that quote. You know, the one from Neitzche?”

Love is more afraid of change than destruction,” Seokjin mutters. “Yes, I remember.”

“I think I understand it now.”

“Yeah. Well,” Seokjin says, shaking his head. “Not this time.”

“Hyung?”

Seokjin goes still as he stares at him. His eyes clear, his tears dry on his cheeks, he says, “We have too much now to let someone destroy it. Not you, or me, or Benji, or Minyeong.” He threads their fingers together. “They get nothing from us now, not even fear. Okay?” 

Taehyung bobs his head. “Okay,” he says. “Does this mean you know what you wanna do?”

Seokjin tugs thoughtfully at his ear and he considers. “Namjoon says we have to decide about Benji, whether he gets to stay with the company or not, but… the real problem is Minyeong. It’s always been Minyeong.” He releases a shaky breath. “Abeoji would say the only way to stop someone like Minyeong is to confront him. But even so, I’m not sure that’s what’s best for us. When you fight fire with fire, everyone gets burned, and we have too much to risk for that.” He parts Taehyung’s hair so he can better see his eyes. “It’s not much of an answer, I know. I’m so tired now, and I’m hungry, and it’s our anniversary, and—”

“—Shh. Jinnie. It’s okay,” Taehyung cuts in. “We’ll tell Namjoon we’ll go along with anything that stops Minyeong. As for Benji, I dunno. We’ll talk with the others and PD-nim, too… But, it’ll work out. No matter what, we’ll be okay.”

“We will,” Seokjin says, a tired smile playing across his lips. “You know how I know?”

“Tell me,” Taehyung says.

“Because you sang for me.”

Taehyung growls, “Yeah?”

“Your words, Taehyung, and your voice. They calm me,” Seokjin says. “I can think clearly now. I can see ahead.” 

“Good.” Taehyung nods, once, then brushes Seokjin’s fingers with a kiss. “Because I still have plans for us.”

“Taehyungie...” Seokjin narrows his eyes. “More plans?”

“Mm-hm,” Taehyung hums, all mysterious and sly. “Distant future ones, but soon ones, too. My Jinnie. So many plans.”

Seokjin lays his head on Taehyung’s shoulder. “Good,” he says, letting his eyes slip closed. “Because, me too.”

Chapter Text

“Tell me it gets easier,
That I’ll figure it out.”
Easier, Mansionair

23 November – Osaka – after midnight

Sejin spoke with the owners of the cafe adjacent to their hotel. Since it was the dead of night, the owners agreed to shut down, granting them a window of two hours in which they could privately meet, drink industrial-grade coffee, and – for the second time in a year – have a discussion about their fate. 

They crowd into a back corner booth piled with stuffed animals. Their anticipation crackles between them, and he knows he should put them out of their misery. The sooner they get this done, the sooner they can return to their rooms and sleep. Tomorrow – or rather, later today – they have their second show at Kyocera Dome, and if they want to get through it unscathed, they all could use the rest. 

But there’s a foreboding itch at the back of Namjoon’s brain, a worry that this will be it, this will be the thing that breaks them. One of them is bound to finally run away.

Two years ago, maybe three, Namjoon would have thought it’d be Seokjin. A glimpse across the table shows his hyung buried in thought, but otherwise holding tight. Beside him, Taehyung stress-eats his way through a platter of madeleines, while Yoongi watches on, placidly amused. But in truth, they’re keeping their cool, which is excellent because those three are the ones who trouble him the most.

Until he pans a gaze around the table to see Jimin strangle-holding a zebra plushie, his eyes alight with an almost manic fire. Which makes sense, Namjoon realizes. Jimin’s always been close with the staff. To him, they're like extended family, so this business with Benji must feel like a kick to the head. 

Namjoon exhales and scrubs his hands over his face. The others read this as the signal to begin, and around the table, they all fall silent. He chuckles, lightly, at how well they know him, and how swiftly they respond to his cues. Mr. Choi would say they're codependent, but he would mean it in the best possible way. Namjoon’s not big on intimacy, but these little details give him hope. If their connection runs this deep, then maybe they have less to worry about than he thinks.

“So, uh,” he begins. “Guess you already know, we’re here to decide what to do about Benji-nim. Bang PD has agreed to let us weigh in, so I wanted each of us to have a chance to speak before we make our decision. He assures me that he’ll do what’s in his power to carry out our wishes, though at this point, I’ll be honest, it might not be that much.” 

After a beat of silence, Hoseok says, “Well, Joon, what’re our options, exactly?”

Namjoon clears his throat. “A few, actually,” he says. “The most extreme is outright dismissal from the staff. Or we can choose to keep him on, but only as part of our American security team.”

Namjoon holds his breath a moment, allowing the others the chance to speak. When they don’t, he goes on with the list. “Bang PD said if we agree, he’ll hold a spot for Benji at BigHit while his family pays the overstay fees. His Eomma will have to return to the States, and there’s a chance she’ll be banned from Korea for life, which—”

“—I vote dismissal,” Jimin hisses. 

“Aw, Jiminie,” Hoseok begins.

“—No.” Jimin sits up, unfolding himself from the toy zebra. “He lied to us, hyung. He kept things from us. He stole things. How can we ever trust him again? I think we should let him go.” He shrugs, looking both hurt and defiant. “I say good riddance.” 

“Man,” Yoongi sucks his teeth. “You are scary when you’re angry.”

“Look, Jimin,” Namjoon steps in. “I get where you’re coming from, I do. But in my opinion, I don’t think firing him is fair. I mean, yeah, he did lie, and he broke our trust, but he was trying the whole time to protect us. And when it came down to the line, Benji-nim did the right thing.”

“I agree,” Jungkook says. Jimin recoils as if Jungkook just lit him on fire. Jungkook holds up his hands. “He came to us for help, Jimin. And aren’t you the one who always tells me we should forgive our friends when they make mistakes?”

Namjoon understands this is meant to soothe Jimin. Under normal circumstances, it probably would have worked. Tonight, though, it has the opposite effect. Jimin twists tightly into himself, sucking up the air like an imploding sun. Around the table, the others watch him, wary to say or do anything that might further incite his fury.

Seokjin's the first to move. “Anyway,” he says. “Benji-nim’s not the one we should go after.” He flicks a glance at Taehyung, who nods for him to continue. “Minyeong’s the real threat. He’s been targeting us for years, and he will continue until we stop him.”

Hoseok casts a look of horror at Namjoon. Jungkook bends his forehead to his knees like he might be sick.

“So, hold up…” Namjoon begins, “You think we should confront him?”

“Within reason.” Seokjin tugs nervously at his ear. “Minyeong’s the kind of creature who only responds to strength.” He holds himself still, keeping his face cold and calm. “So we have to take action, to show him we’re not afraid.”

“But we are afraid, hyung,” Yoongi says, and Jungkook lets out a strangled groan. Namjoon passes him a napkin while Hoseok and Taehyung bundle in closer for support. 

“I’m not afraid,” Seokjin tells him, but his voice trembles, betraying a trace of fear.

“Yes, you are,” Yoongi says. “And you’re right to be. He’s managed to worm his way into our lives over and over again, and it’s terrifying. He and Benji-nim arranged to have cleaning staff put webcams in our house. In our house, hyung.”

“That’s true,” Namjoon cuts in. “And Minyeong contacted Adora, too. He was working for Media Line where she did her internship. He tried to get at us through her.”

“So the bastard’s been gunning for us for years,” Yoongi says. “But here’s the thing.”  He reaches to squeeze Seokjin’s hand. “Hyung. He’s beneath us.”

Seokjin shudders. His shoulders quiver as he struggles to hang on. 

“Yeah. I get why you think you should confront him,” he whispers, “why you think that’d be a good idea. You always wanna protect us, to protect Taehyung.” He shakes his head. “But we’re busy men, Seokjin, and pursuing him is a waste of our time.” Yoongi’s eyes tighten with a smile. “Remember a couple weeks ago, when we talked about my Dad?” he asks. “You know, I could go yell at him for all the shit he put me through as a kid, all the neglect and abuse with him projecting his unfulfilled dreams onto me, but… In the end, it won’t change him, and I can’t change the past, so… I’ma leave it and move on. And so should you.” 

Seokjin blinks several times. He threads Yoongi’s fingers between his. He breathes out, “How am I supposed to protect us if I simply let this go?”

“Yo, man,” Yoongi shouts, startling them all. “We got a fuckin’ legal team.”

After a spate of stunned laughter, the woman behind the counter calls out in Japanese, “Is everything alright?”

“Thank you, yes,” Taehyung yells back in response. “We’re fine.”

Yoongi says, “It's not all on you to protect us. And it's not your fault he's after us. Y'know, we imagine that Minyeong’s a monster, but he’s not. He's this annoying little flea who keeps biting our asses, but that’s all he is, okay? Let the guys in legal do their jobs. We’ll live our awesome lives and forget he even exists.”

Taehyung laughs then, covering his mouth to hide his smile. Namjoon notices the ring on his finger, the platinum band with its diamond smile. Before tonight, he’s never seen Taehyung wear it out. A quick glance at Seokjin’s hand shows that he’s wearing his as well. 

That's their show of solidarity. They came here tonight to determine Benji’s fate, to discuss what to do about Minyeong, but whatever judgment they make, Seokjin and Taehyung will decide it together. 

Then, in a flash, Namjoon gets it: How far they have come since February, when they sat around a boardroom table and discussed disbanding. Now it’s November. They’re in a cramped coffee shop in Japan at the tailend of a tour on which they have weathered all manner of illness and injury. They have been hounded by snakes and stalked by sasaengs. They became ensnared in political dealings way above their heads. They’ve stared down personal demons and laid new paths toward their future. They’ve survived all of these things, only to grow stronger and more connected, and Namjoon realizes now he never had a reason to fear. 

“All right, then,” Namjoon says. “Here’s what’s on the table: If we can, we keep Benji. We let legal deal with Minyeong. And henceforth, we let Yoongi handle morale. Vote?”

Yoongi shoots a finger gun to Namjoon. “Yes to the first two, no to the last,” he says.

“Yes to all three,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung raises his orange juice. “I second.”

“Thirded.” Hoseok lifts his mug of tea. 

Jungkook rubs at his eyes. “Just so long as we never have to see Minyeong again,” he says. “Ever.” 

Jimin turns his face to Jungkook’s. Tears shine in his eyes, but he nods as he breathes through them. “I can agree with that,” he murmurs. “And I guess…” he exhales and gives himself an all-body shake. “I guess to Benji-nim, too.” 

“Then it’s unanimous,” Namjoon says. He gets up, but Taehyung tugs him back into down. 

“Let’s sit a minute,” Taehyung says, shoving the half-ravaged platter of madeleines at Namjoon. “You can’t call PD-nim until morning, right?”   

“Yeah,” Hoseok agrees. “Let’s rest a bit. Just the seven of us.”

They’re silent a moment, long enough to hear the patter of rain in the gutter and the distant, constant traffic grind. The cappuccino machine wheezes as the store clerk cleans it, and outside, a man shouts as he hops the curb with his bike.

“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Jimin whispers. 

Jungkook touches his chin. “Yeah, too long,” he answers. 

“We should hang out again soon,” Seokjin says. “We should take some real time off, and we should celebrate.”

“Yeah,” Namjoon agrees. “We should.” He picks up a madeleine, and with the others watching for his reaction, he devours it all in one bite.

Chapter Text

“Sure I would kiss you, I'll lay with you
You're broke, no, I can't fix you
I won't, no, I won't diss you
But babe, yeah, I might miss you.”
What I Need, Hayley Kiyoko

4 December 2018 – BigHit Studios 

With the way Jimin is smiling as he enters, you would think that it was his birthday instead of Seokjin’s. He floats into the darkened practice room, the cake balanced between his palms, the candles bathing his face with a melon-colored glow. 

The staff have all gathered and they turned off the studio lights, so Seokjin knows they’re up to something, yet still, he acts surprised. 

That’s something Jungkook admires about his hyung. He plays along. Even though most of the time he’s either initiated the plans (like last year, when he kinda organized his own birthday celebration) or, he’s fully aware of their plans but feigns ignorance in order to make them happy. 

Jungkook does not excel at this. He rarely makes plans, and he’s even less likely to know what’s going on. However, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t noticed a subtle shift in Jimin’s mood. Recently, Jungkook’s become keen to the fact that Jimin has been absent from their normal routines. He’s beginning to high-key suspect that Jimin might be avoiding him. 

But that’s silly. It’s Jimin, Jungkook’s constant, steady light. He wouldn’t put distance between them. Jimin doesn’t even know what distance is.

Yet as the lights go up and they all begin to sing, Jimin doesn’t acknowledge him. Doesn’t even meet his eye. Sure, Jimin’s holding the cake and basking in all his centerstage glory, but normally, he would send a wink Jungkook’s way, or maybe that cute, shy quirk of a smile. 

Today: Nothing. 

Shit, Jungkook thinks. Something’s wrong. He begins to leaf through their recent exchanges, the whole flood of them, trying to pinpoint a place where he might have missed something, or done something, or not done something that might have hurt Jimin. 

Then Seokjin blows out the candles, and Jungkook remembers that the camera is filming. They’re celebrating. It’s Seokjin’s birthday. They're all supposed to be happy. 

Jungkook bounds to his feet. He hugs Seokjin from behind, fiercely gorilla-pounding his chest as Hoseok wishes him happy birthday. 

Taehyung says, “Hyung, did you make a wish?”

“Yes I did,” Seokjin answers. 

Taehyung’s eyes brighten. “What was it?”

Jungkook knows this is a Seokjin-Taehyung thing. Every year, they make a wish, which, for Seokjin, often evolves into a plan. And their hyung has so many plans. Beyond what the company has in store for them, beyond what his family desires, Seokjin is building toward something. Lately, Jungkook has been thinking that it’s time for him to start building, too.

Seokjin says, “I hope that we can continue to meet and enjoy each other forever, even as we get older.”

“What do you mean, meet?” Jimin balks. “We won’t end. We’ll keep our dorm for the next twenty years, so don’t worry.”

Jungkook already feels prickly to possible signals from Jimin, but those words seem particularly pointed. He tries again to catch Jimin’s attention. Jimin continues to focus on Seokjin. 

“I’ll give you a gift later,” Hoseok chimes in. 

Seokjin, blushing, answers, “Having you is enough already.”

“Hyung, can I be enough for you, too?” Jimin asks.

And what does that mean? Jungkook physically moves Yoongi, who softly snarls at being side-swiped. Jungkook ignores him as he gouges frosting from the cake to dollop onto Seokjin’s nose. 

“Yes, you… you…” Seokjin backpedals. “Having you is enough.”

Taehyung steps in, then, also going for the frosting. “Let’s put it on your lips,” he moans. They then proceed to do another Seokjin-Taehyung thing, where they get all handsy and intimate and forget about the cameras, the staff, and pretty much the entire world. Seokjin shuts his eyes, going still as Taehyung paints frosting across his mouth. Jungkook notes an arch of panic peaking into Hoseok’s brows.

“It’s like lip balm,” Jungkook rushes to say. “Yeah, lip balm.”

Hoseok coughs a nervous laugh. Taking cue from Jungkook, Jimin attacks Seokjin’s cheeks with whipped cream, sending Seokjin into full retreat. They tease back and forth a while longer before Sejin calls cut to end it, and the celebration begins for real. Seokjin, Taehyung, and Jimin sit on the floor with the cake between them while the rest of the group gathers around. 

“Maknae serves,” Yoongi announces, knuckling Jungkook’s shoulder.

“Yep,” Jungkook agrees, and Sejin hands down a serving knife. An intern wheels in a cart with juice and cupcakes, enough for everyone, but they all wait while Jungkook slices into the sugary mound of Seokjin’s cake. 

Someone passes Jungkook a plate. As he scoops the first piece onto it, he muses, “It looks like it’s from Mario.”

“But it’s not,” Jimin chirps. “It’s a special order from—”

“—Aiiya,” Taehyung growls. “A secret.” He lifts the second piece of cake from Jungkook to Yoongi. 

Jimin glimmers, puffing up with importance, like he’s in on Taehyung’s plans. 

Because he is, Jungkook realizes. And somehow, Jungkook is not. 

With the pieces all served, Seokjin finally tastes the cake. “Awww, Taehyungie,” he groans around the first bite. “It’s delicious.”

“I ordered it,” Jimin boasts. 

“But we made it,” Taehyung says. He pauses, his lips baring the twitch of a waiting smile. 

“Hold up,” Yoongi says, chewing then swallowing. “Did you bake this? ’Cause if Jimin ordered it, how’d you make it? You’re not making any sense.”

“No,” Taehyung says. “Jin-hyung and I made it.” 

Seokjin chuckles. “Oh, did I make it? Was I baking in my sleep? You would think I’d remember baking a cake with you.” 

Jimin bites his lip, buttoning in his laughter. 

Taehyung removes the flat piece of cardboard from the top of the cake box, revealing a gold rectangle printed with the name and address of the bakery. Seokjin mouths the words as he reads it, then aloud, he says, “Daegu? You had this cake delivered all the way from Daegu?”

 “Yes, jagiya,” Taehyung says. “Joon-hyung and Jimin helped arrange it. Joonie says he’s sad he can’t be here to see this part, but he’ll come by after going with Benji-nim to Gimpo.”  

Seokjin traces the embossed lettering of the rectangle, his thumb grazing the heart in the lower right corner. “This looks like that picture you took,” he murmurs. “Remember, the one of my hands?”

Taehyung leans in so only they can hear him. “Seokjung-hyung helped me design the logo,” he whispers. “That’s his gift to you. And this one’s mine.” 

Seokjin blinks several times. “The… cake?” he says, cringing like he’s afraid to dare more.

“Someday we’ll have a pension hotel where people can pick their own strawberries,” Taehyung explains. “And in the morning, we’ll serve them pastries from our own bakery—”

“—Taehyung-ah!” Seokjin shouts. He smacks his shoulder, then he hauls him into a clumsy hug, smooshing the cake box between them. Jimin and Jungkook flail out of the way, but Taehyung manages to sink his whole elbow into Yoongi’s piece.

“That’s fine, I was done with it,” Yoongi gruffs. “Too sweet for my taste anyway.”

“You love it,” Hoseok says, and they sneer at each other in a way that feels too private for so public a place. Jungkook averts his eyes, his gaze landing on Jimin’s, who answers with a wistful sigh.

“You... did well,” Jungkook tells him. 

Jimin lifts his chin, imperious as a feline. “I know I did,” he says. 

Jungkook pokes at his ribs. Jimin recoils. 

“Jungkookie!” he cries. “That hurt.”

“Shit, your tattoo,” he remembers. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

Jimin gets up. The thin veneer of his happiness cracks, and he hurries off, slamming into the intern with her cart before charging through the door. Jungkook darts after him without a second thought. 

 

He finds Jimin in one of the studio workrooms, facedown on the cot, his head buried in the pillow. Jungkook sits in the swivel chair, drawing himself as close as possible to Jimin without actually climbing into the bed. 

“Have I—?” Jungkook begins.

Jimin flips over, his face streaked with tears. “I get it,” he chokes. “I completely understand.”

“Do you?” Jungkook says. “‘Cause I don’t.”

“I understand you don’t want to be with me,” Jimin says.

“What?” Jungkook rocks back, hands on his head. “Who says I don’t want to be with you?”

Jimin draws his arms and legs up like an egg. “You do. You don’t say it, but with your actions, you might as well be screaming it.” 

Jungkook stands up. He paces, turns, paces back. “I can’t… do this,” he gestures. “You’re not making sense.”

“Oh, of course not,” Jimin spits. “Irrational Jimin, overreacting as usual. Yet here you are, always so calm. I wonder if you ever feel anything.” 

Jimin might as well have kicked him. Jungkook sits there, breathless, one hand to his chest. “Well I felt that,” he murmurs. “I think…Um.” Jungkook goes to the door. People mill around in the hallway, chatting, eating cupcakes, celebrating. The odor of the frosting hangs heavy in the air, and Jungkook’s stomach lurches over in a slow, uneasy roll. He presses his forehead to the door glass, fighting to keep his calm.