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Chapter Text

It’s a sight one doesn’t see very often.

Picture this: two young men, each wearing a short sleeved collared shirt. The shirts are angel wing white, ironed to a crisp, and neat. Both young men carry messenger bags strapped diagonally across their chests, both bags are full of varying pamphlets that all deliver the messages of God. Who could think the messages could be contained to a tri-fold brochure with an elegant font and a glossy finish?

Both are fleeing from the front door of an elderly woman’s house. That is Mrs. Han, a woman so old, skin so weathered that the neighborhood children often avoided going to her house for trick ‘r’ treat because, even with the many ghosts and ghouls propped on front yards for entertainment, she was much scarier. 

So, two young men in crisp white shirts with brochures about God and all His promises fleeing the front porch of Mrs. Han who’s running from her house with a rolled up newspaper in one hand and a house slipper in the other. To the inexperienced, it is truly a sight to behold. But to the two young men, both of which have had their fair share of the angry non-believer, it is merely part of their duty.

They escape the clutches of Mrs. Han with ease, straddle their bikes propped up against the lamppost out front, and escape the neighborhood, their pressed shirt blowing back against the wind. 

 

white shirt no. 1

 

There was a nickname had for Jeongguk in the last year of high school. The nickname had been so fitting that even the principal thought it was a good moniker for the end of the year’s ‘Most Likely To’ list. Under Jeon Jeongguk’s name, next to his grade (12th) and his yearbook quote (“You learn more from failure than you do from success”) was the moniker Most Likely to Meet God.

It was at his expense, Jeongguk knew, but he also took a small pride in it. Although, he knew pride was a sin. He repented for that. But as he did with his yearbook quote, which he looked up at last minute because he was too lazy to come up with something — he knew laziness was a sin, he repented for that as well — he embraced the moniker. After all, it was a testament to his devotion to God. 

It was difficult all throughout school. Even in the early days. In elementary, his mother would pack, along with his crayons and folders and such, a Bible made for child comprehension. When show and tell came around, he showed his Bible and told of the word of God as well as he could tell it. His parents had always been proud of him for that. (They repented for that as well). His faith was strong and unbreakable even at a young age. They worried for him, the prospect that children his age would eventually break him of his devotion was a prominent worry in their household. They were pleasantly surprised when Jeongguk not only made it through high school without ever becoming a problem child but when he announced he had no plans to attend college.

For he wanted to spend his days spreading the Good Word to all the Lost Souls he could.

He did this every day, going door-to-door and passing out pamphlets, sitting in different living rooms with different families, reciting the same Bible quotes he’d memorized as a child. He was so devout in this practice that the elder of their congregation, a man who went only by the name Asa, all but knighted him for his hard work. 

But Jeongguk didn’t do it for the attention or for the praise from both his peers and his elders come Sunday morning. He did it because the truth was that he’d read all about Hell, all the ins and outs of it, and he didn’t want it be anyone’s resting place. Even the people he was meant to hate, even the people who Elder Asa said were beyond hope, beyond words, Jeongguk longed to help them too. He still does.

Lost souls aren’t wanderers, intentionally going off the trail to pursue other things. They’re lost. All they need is a bit of direction.

 

It was the summer before Jeongguk’s 22nd birthday that Elder Asa had announced something that instilled fear into the hearts of the entire congregation, an odd mix of panic and comfort. It had come to him in a dream, Asa said, and he’d been told the exact time of the final hour. It was a message sent straight down from above and Elder Asa was so blessed to receive it. 

And the congregation was so blessed to know.

Jeongguk knew it then. He believed in second chances. He believed in all souls being redeemed even when they’ve gone astray. And he wanted nothing more than to get as many people into Heaven as he possibly could. The door-to-door work he’d been doing daily from 10 to 2 became a daily, all-day event. With the aid of a map and his faith, he got on his bike at 6:30 in the morning, travelled to the district farthest from his home and worked his way back door-by-door.

He had one year left until the end of the world and he was going to make it count.

 

Jeongguk went about doing this alone up until the tail end of that summer when their congregation’s very own prodigal son returned. 

White shirt number two, born Kim Taehyung, was the eldest son of one of the most devoted families in the congregation. It was a wonder, a shock, that a family whose matriarch spent every moment in their church and whose patriarch travelled outside of their provinces regularly to convert as many people as God would will could turn out to have a son like Taehyung.

Growing up in the congregation, this was not the case. He was like any child. Precocious, wide-eyed, and ever obedient courtesy of things like switches, leather belts, and the rulers of his teachers. For a long time, Taehyung never presented any problems. He sang in their choir, held Bible study with the younger children who couldn’t yet read for themselves, and had, all around, glowed with a piety and purity that even the most devout could only dream of. 

It wasn’t until Taehyung’s 20th year that the public opinion change. This change was due to a rumor spread by the youths that made its way to the elders: Taehyung was seen walking on the Wrong side of town (ripe with non-believers and people so far from God that even Elder Asa saw no use in going that way) holding hands with a boy. To Jeongguk, upon first hearing, this rumor was so innocuous that he struggled to find issue with it and knew he would still should the rumor be proven true. However, when it was learned that these alleged things were fact, other facts bobbed to the surface like drowned bodies.

Not only had Taehyung been seen holding hands with this unknown boy but it had become known that the Kims, the elite of the devoted, had previously had problems with Taehyung seeing this person. That, apparently, when Taehyung was seventeen, his parents took him to Elder Asa so that he could talk some sense into Taehyung. The nature of this talk was the real kicker. The congregation suspected that it had something to do with the dangers of same-sex attraction. 

After that, the once innocent hand-holding seemed to Jeongguk a wrong turn on the path of righteousness. He had seen Taehyung after those rumors only once and that was so he could announce in front of his parents and the congregation that he was going away to heal himself from his thoughts, that he only asked of them prayer and privacy “during this difficult time.” 

The congregation who’d been abuzz with talk surrounding Taehyung’s salaciousness and sin had stood to their feet in roaring applause. Jeongguk didn’t realize it then but it was the first time he would witness their hypocrisy head on.

In the days after Taehyung’s departure, his absence hurt.

They were never friends but Jeongguk had admired him. He thought him to be a perfect example of all the things Jeongguk aspired to become. He was genuinely kind, genuinely forgiving, genuinely helpful, just genuine. This was the thing Jeongguk wanted most. Not just to be righteous but to be genuinely righteous, to be good for the sake of being good and not for the sake of being told to do so, of being presented with the punishment handed down to those who do wrong. What hurt the most about Taehyung’s absence was that Jeongguk had to acknowledge something he’d buried so far down that even he, today, still digs for it.

As a child, he thought Taehyung was handsome.

Handsome in the way children think of attraction. Where being easy on the eyes meant being sweet and all around right. He liked it when Taehyung, two years his senior, would read with him during Bible study, when the older would sing in the choir, and when he would help Jeongguk sort through donated clothes and canned goods for the church’s charity events. He’d been ten then, Taehyung twelve, and he didn’t know what attraction meant.

It wasn’t until after Taehyung left, after the rumors and the prayers and the applause, that he figured it out. He isolated himself for days after, praying and praying in the dark long after his parents had retired to bed. He fasted for two weeks and, when asked why, he simply said he wanted to be closer to God. He didn’t tell people the real reason. How could he? He’d seen the disgust on their faces when they talked about Taehyung and the boy he held hands with on the wrong side of town. He’d seen the way the Kims, who had once shone and shown off their pride and joy of a son, could barely look him in the eye when he announced his leave. And he’d read the Bible. He knew what he had to do.

It was a Sunday when the prodigal son returned. Taehyung looked just as handsome as he’d always been, if not more. He still glowed with purity, still wore his sincerity on his sleeve, and still smiled as if the fate of the world depended on his happiness. The three years of absence had done him well physically. He seemed taller, leaner, and the work he’d put in had provided sinewy muscles and an even richer complexion. 

Jeongguk, though he didn’t show it, had been relieved to see Taehyung. It meant, to him, that there was hope. As long as he continued praying and continued fasting and continued spreading the Good Word, there was hope that his secret wouldn’t be a problem anymore, that his attractions would go away too. The relief he felt at seeing the older’s return was not felt by the whole of the congregation. Three years was enough time for more rumors to spread and for more people to get an idea of what wasn’t. So many of them were sure that Taehyung’s return was just so the Kims could save face in knowing that they raised a word that Jeongguk doesn’t have the stomach to repeat. It didn’t matter that he was better or that, according to his parents, he had a girlfriend named Natalie who wrote to him while he was away, giving him strength. They were so attached to Taehyung’s relationship with Natalie that there were even whispers that Taehyung would end up marrying her. Better to have him hitched than to risk his thoughts coming back. 

It was upon seeing the rejection Taehyung was facing that Jeongguk first entertained the idea of joining with him. He couldn’t cover all the districts on his map by himself. With someone to help him, he would certainly cover more ground. Although he thought this, he didn’t have the nerve to walk up to Taehyung and suggest it out right. That’s where the roles had reversed.

It was Taehyung who approached him. He’d heard about the work he was doing, he heard about the hour of the end, and he wanted to lend a helping hand. And even though it had been Jeongguk who, too, had entertained the idea, he was hesitant to agree. People would know, he thought. They’d see him and Taehyung and they’d know that he was the same. He couldn’t risk it. But then, before he could say no, he remembered what he had admired about Taehyung. That he always helped and that he was always genuine. He then remembered his entire purpose in going to each district anyway: that everyone deserved a second chance. 

It was then that Jeongguk nodded, shook Taehyung’s hand, and told him to meet him at 6:30 in the morning so they could get started.

 

how the ending begins

 

After nearly a year of spending practically every waking moment with Taehyung, Jeongguk has come to know a lot about him. Things like his favorite morning drink, the song he hums in between lulls in activity, and the fact that he is consistently late.

That last fact always manages to get Jeongguk in a bad mood but he’s found that he can stay mad at Taehyung for about as long as it takes for a red light to turn green. He’s grown fonder of Taehyung. His parents had been wary of the idea of him spending so much time with Taehyung. They, of course, were one of the many among the congregation who had applauded when Taehyung returned and praised him for his efforts in turning his life around but they too had their ideas about him. In their eyes, Taehyung was a risk. Once a problem, always a problem. With the help of Bible quotes on the importance of help and of forgiveness, Jeongguk had persuaded them to see his side of things. Begrudgingly, they accepted that Taehyung’s presence would be a constant in the last year of their son’s life. But they didn’t like it. Jeongguk knew that.

But even with the eyes of the congregation and even with his parents’ uncertainty, he’d grown to like Taehyung. He would deny it if anyone asked but he liked Taehyung’s inappropriate jokes, the way the older was so good but so much edgier than anyone else Jeongguk knew. Taehyung helped people in need without a second thought. Once, after they picked up a quick lunch of sub sandwiches in between doors, Taehyung had come across a homeless man who wanted money or food. Taehyung hadn’t even taken a bite of his sandwich but he gave it to the man without even thinking about it. 

It was things like this that Jeongguk admired. 

The inappropriate jokes that he knew he shouldn’t laugh at were just a bonus.

The two hadn’t grown closer. He didn’t have the nerve to ask Taehyung about the last three years of his life or what happened when he was seventeen, what happened when he was twenty. But Jeongguk likes him, feels relaxed around him. And that’s more thane can say for others.

Pop’s corner bodega was the place they met up early in the morning. The two of them lived in separate subdivisions and had chosen the bodega as the go-to spot after their first morning of working together when they realized, belatedly, that neither of them had remembered to eat beforehand. They chose the bodega not only because it was the halfway point between their homes but because Pop had the best egg and cheese breakfast croissants in the area. 

Jeongguk is already eating his croissant, half sitting on his bike with one leg extended to the ground for balance, when Taehyung finally appears.

Taehyung, breathless and grinning, rides up to him on his bike, mouth already fixed for a half-assed apology. He’s ten minutes late today. Jeongguk would point this out but his mouth is stuffed and he doesn’t feel like stating the obvious. 

He, instead, tosses Taehyung his bottle of mango orange juice and the second croissant still wrapped in sandwich paper. When Taehyung takes his first bite, Jeongguk is taking his last and wipes the corners of his mouth with a napkin.

“Can you finish that in five minutes?”

Taehyung looks at him and answers him by stuffing the entirety of the croissant in his mouth. As his cheeks bloat, some egg and flakes of bread falling from his mouth, Jeongguk’s stoic expression melts with a smile. For as long as it takes for a red light to turn green.

He rolls his eyes, still smiling, and Taehyung starts laughing, mouth still stuffed.

“Stop laughing,” Jeongguk says, his own shoulders shaking against his will. “You’ll choke.”

Taehyung’s smile widens at him and he shows off his open mouth full of mushed food and Jeongguk turns away, half disgusted and half humored. 

“Gross,” he mutters.

 

The map Jeongguk had of their area was covered in red ticks from a Sharpie. These ticks marked off every place he and Taehyung managed to hit in their quest for salvation. That’s not to say every area had been successfully visited. There were some visits that saw the both of them practically chased out of neighborhoods and others that they were, quite frankly, afraid to visit. Like the Raimi District. 

Once upon a time, the Raimi District had been home to the disenfranchised, to poor families who could barely afford rent let alone groceries. There were two stories in that entire district: a liquor store and an abandoned antique shop. If anyone who lived in the Raimi District wanted to get groceries, they had to go one district over which lead to issues of its own. But in the years since Jeongguk’s seventeenth, the Raimi District changed for what others say is the best.

Jeongguk is too young to remember much about the Raimi District, about how it was. All he can really rely on are the words of his elders who tell him the district, although deemed the wrong side of town (the same wrong side that Taehyung had been seen in all those years ago), is in a much better state than it was before. The only problem is that it’s still full to the brim of sinners. 

The district is now home to a lot of young adults, people Jeongguk’s age. Recent college graduates, people who were old enough to have a place of their own but young enough to not have a family yet. This side of town also had things like nightclubs, bars, and sex shops. All of that was bad enough as it was but the thing that really made people in the congregation stand up a little straighter when it came to the Raimi District was that it was its own version of San Francisco’s Castro. That is: undeniably gay.

Years ago, it wasn’t just a big deal that Taehyung was seen holding a guy’s hand. It was that he’d been holding a guy’s hand in a part of town that known for its gay community. It was like getting caught redhanded. 

Jeongguk had been avoiding going to this part of town for more reasons that one. He had his own secrets for one. He knew about Taehyung’s past troubles and he didn’t want to do anything to deter him from his success in changing. But, also for more reasons than one, Jeongguk had been wanting to go to the Raimi District ever since he set off last year with the date of the end rotating in his brain. 

In his mind, the people in the Raimi District were people like him. The only difference was that they were lost and he wasn’t. He could show them the way, he thought. He had already made up his mind about visiting this district. He couldn’t very well, in good conscience, leave people to be damned to eternity. First, though, he had to bring it up to Taehyung which Jeongguk feared more than anything.

“Where are we heading today?” Taehyung asks when the croissant is finished and his mango orange juice long gone, the trash of which has been tossed in the been. He re-buckles the strap of his helmet and adjusts it over his head as he leans over toward Jeongguk’s bike where the map is.

Jeongguk has never been the best with words. He rolls over different ones in his mind, trying to find the right way to respond, but, in the end, he knows it’s better to just spit it out.

“Is it okay with you if we go to Raimi?”

Jeongguk has never been the best with words but he’s always been good at reading people. He doesn’t miss the way Taehyung’s expression flickers to something hesitant, something afraid, or the bob in his throat. Taehyung looks away from him, smile long gone, and eyes down on the ground.

“We don’t have to go,” Jeongguk quickly says. 

“No, no,” Taehyung waves him off, shaking his head. He looks up at him, briefly. “We should go. I can’t avoid it forever, right?”

Jeongguk nods, wearing a thin smile and puts a hand on Taehyung’s shoulder. He’s never been the most affectionate either. But he hopes he’s relaying something with the action because he can’t use words. Outright saying that he was there for Taehyung would feel disingenuous. And being disingenuous around someone as sincere as Taehyung was like wearing a knock off brand in the middle of Gangnam.

Taehyung knows the area of Raimi better than Jeongguk. He’s the one who suggests they start at an apartment complex called ‘Casi Cielo.’ 

“It’s Spanish for ‘almost heaven,’” Taehyung tells him as they wheel their bikes through the entrance. His smile is knowing and comforting in the face of something so big and unknown. “I figure it’s better to start high then work our way down, right?”

Jeongguk smirks at him and nods once. He looks around the complex as they wheel in, all of the buildings are so bright with vivid colors, all different shades. The first block of apartments, 110 through 120, are contained in a bright yellow building to their right. The second block, 120 through 130, is bright pink, so ostentatious to the eye that Jeongguk has to avert his eyes.

There are pride flags in nearly every yard or in every window. 

Jeongguk swallows hard, his face heating up despite himself.

When he looks to Taehyung, the older’s eyes are on a building two down from the bright yellow one. It’s a muted orange. “I’ll start here, okay?”

Jeongguk nods.

Their system was the same when it came to apartment complexes or subdivisions. One of them would start at the very end of the, at the last house or the last complex by the cul-de-sac, while the other would start from the very first house in the community. If they were efficient (or kicked out fast enough), they would be able to meet in the middle and then leave together. 

Jeongguk starts down the unknown path, looking from house to house as rides down the road which winds and weaves. When he turns back, he expects to see Taehyung walking to the first house, maybe propping his bike up against the lamppost out front. But, instead, Taehyung is biking past the first two and heading toward the muted orange one he’d been eyeing.

 

The end of the complex comes up after what feels like an eternity. Jeongguk knows it was only, maybe, fifteen minutes. But it’s a whole new world he’s entering and his stomach is wrought with knots that not even the most calming of breathing exercises can untie. 

The beginning of the complex mirrors the end and the last building is bright yellow, much like the first. He swallows the lump in his throat, sets his bike on the curb, and trails up to the door. He grips the strap of the messenger bag across his chest and mumbles words of encouragement to himself. 

It may have been Jeongguk’s effort that started this tradition he and Taehyung have. It may have been him doing it first and doing it alone that prompted all of this but it doesn’t make it any easier. Jeongguk generally likes to keep to himself, likes to keep quiet. Not only that but his lack of skills when it comes to communication makes it hard for him to be likable on these missions. Taehyung, whose smile is radiant and charisma untouched, is always liked. He’s better at this than Jeongguk is, at the song and dance of approaching strangers in their homes to talk about God for a few minutes.

Taehyung is often invited inside to talk longer even if the person clearly isn’t interested in anything to do with God or, at least, not their version of Him. Jeongguk, on the other hand, has had doors slammed in his face, has been cursed at, has been outright lied to. Once, he approached a woman’s house and was turned away before he could ring the doorbell by a voice shouting through the window: “We’re not home!”

As frivolous as Jeongguk knew it was to be so focused on shallow things like acceptance, he hated being rejected. It never gets any easier to be turned away. More often than not, Jeongguk feels like giving up rather than have one more person slam a door on him.

He enters the building and turns to the door on his right, apartment 910. He tries to stomach the gravel in his throat and drags his feet against the floor as he approaches, one hand in his bag and gripped on a pamphlet, the other balled up into a tight fist. 

He takes a deep breath when he’s faced with the door and knocks three times. Both of his hands come to grip the pamphlet that he’s now pulled out of his bag and he waits, heart pounding, for someone to answer. Three seconds pass. Four, five…fifteen. Jeongguk thinks about knocking again but he decides against it and slides his pamphlet in between the door and its frame.

It embarrasses him, the way he’s able to breathe again and the way his shoulders relax when he walks away. He knocks on two more doors after that. One right across from 910, one next to 910. He gets no answer from either one. And, every time, he’s embarrassed when he’s flooded with relief. 

The last door he knocks on is bright teal in color and he doesn’t expect to get an answer, but he knocks anyway. His shoulders don’t tense up and he doesn’t hold his breath. If he had known, though, that the door would swing open, he wouldn’t have let himself breathe at all.

The woman who opens the door can’t be much older than him. Her hair, long, straight, and dark red, blows back when her eyes land on his. Her eyes are piercing and Jeongguk, on instinct, looks away. 

“Can I help you?” She asks but she doesn’t give him any time to answer. She turns around, facing the inside of the apartment as she adjusts the jacket over her body, and calls: “Jin, one of your pets is here.”

When she turns back to him, Jeongguk is only just starting to answer the first question she asked: “I’m here to—”

“Let yourself in,” she says as she walks out, breezing past Jeongguk. She adjusts the bag hanging off her shoulder and only turns around for a moment. “If you’re gonna have sex, just don’t do it in the living room. I have to sleep in there.”

“I—I wasn’t—”

“Bye.”

Jeongguk watches, unsure of what to do, as she exits the building. He waits until he remembers the door to the apartment is still open. Let yourself in, echoes in his mind and he does just that. Once he’s inside, he closes the door behind him but he doesn’t take his shoes off, staying on the threshold and waiting for someone to make an appearance.

“…Hello?”

There’s no response. Jeongguk continues to wait, kneading his hands together idly and taking in the space. The walls are painted a soft peach. The couch, like the door, is teal and looks beyond comfortable. There’s art and photographs and oddities on every inch of the walls. By the door, where Jeongguk stands, is a blown up collage of magazine cutouts. A pair of smooth legs wearing pink fishnet stockings, giant purple lips for a head standing in the middle of a winter desert. He’s staring at the collage, trying to make sense out of it, when a shadow falls over him and he realizes he isn’t alone.

He turns and his chest hiccups.

In front of him is a man, tall and lean with long, elegant limbs. He’s wearing white capris and a Hawaiian shirt (pink and teal) that’s unbuttoned. There’s no undershirt. Only a stomach of defined muscles with skin so smooth that Jeongguk has the oddest desire to reach out and touch. The man’s hair is light brown, pushed back and parted on the side but messy in the most appealing way. He tilts his head, lips — perfect lips — pouting.

He deadpans, looking down at the phone in his hand. “You’re not Woojin with my rice bowl.”

Jeongguk shakes his head and takes an unsteady breath. “Who?”

“Woojin. Food delivery? Ring a bell?”

“No. No, I was—”

“Then, no offense, but what are you doing in my apartment?”

“I…the girl let me in.”

The guy rolls his eyes and sets his phone down on the stand next to him. He takes weighted steps toward Jeongguk, comes so close to him that Jeongguk can smell his cologne and almost loses his senses. When he’s stood in front of Jeongguk, he leans behind him, so so close. It strikes Jeongguk that this guy’s neck is only inches away from his mouth and he doesn’t like the way his stomach flips when that realization settles. 

He’s so encapsulated in the thought that it takes him a minute to realize the door is open and the stranger is waving him out of it.

“Shoo,” he says. “You’re cute and all but I’m not interested in buying whatever it is you’re selling.”

The man puts a hand on Jeongguk’s chest to push him out of the door, which he does gently and with a softness in his eyes that feels unwarranted. It takes Jeongguk a minute to realize and, when he does, he recovers fast. He backs out until he’s standing in the hall once again but that doesn’t stop him from telling the man to hold on as he reaches into his bag.

“I, um…Do you have a few minutes to listen to the word of God?”

In front of him, the man crosses his arms and leans against the door frame as he wrinkles his brow in thought. “Depends…What’s He saying these days?”

Jeongguk’s eyes go wide. He didn’t expect this person of all people to actually ask him to share what he knew. He stammers over his words as he gets the pamphlet out. “Well, the Bible—”

“On second thought,” the guy utters with a sigh before closing the door quite suddenly and unceremoniously in Jeongguk’s face. 

For a moment, there’s nothing but the stillness that follows. Jeongguk stares at the shut door, unmoving, until the rejection sinks in again and he heaves a sigh, slinking his shoulders forward and dragging his feet out of the building. He thinks about trying the next building and working is way back up to the middle but he doesn’t feel like it. Not only is he embarrassed, rejected and dejected, but the disappointment comes off him in waves. He thought he’d buried that part of himself, the part that, only moments ago, was struck dumb by the sight of another man’s chest.

He rides his bike to the main entrance of the complex and kicks himself all the way there. When he does get to the front, he waits and tries not to drown in his self-hatred. He’ll have to repent for that, for the thoughts that went through his mind, for the way his blood started rushing and feeling heavy, for not being able to turn his eyes away.

Eventually, Taehyung finds him. 

Jeongguk had expected to see him coming from the middle or, at least, from any house other than the one he saw Taehyung go into earlier. The muted orange one he couldn’t take his eyes off of. But that’s the building he sees Taehyung walk out of, picking his bike up out of the yard, and starting his way down until Jeongguk whistles in his direction. 

He wonders, briefly, if he imagines Taehyung’s dumbstruck expression but he knows it’s real. 

When Taehyung makes his way over to him, he smiles sheepishly and asks: “Was I late?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “No. I just decided to call it quits.”

“Is everything okay?”

Jeongguk doesn’t nod or shake his head or respond at all. He wants to be more like Taehyung who went into the building of his choice and was only just now leaving. He must have talked to everyone in the building, must have shared the Good Word with every single person. Unlike Jeongguk who managed to, somehow, leave with more pamphlets than he’d arrived with. 

Taehyung puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. “We all have our off days. Nothing to be ashamed of. We’ll come back, okay?”

And Jeongguk nods, taking solace in those words. “Okay.”

 

 

Sunday service is always a treat for Jeongguk.

It reminds him, in his lost hours, what he needs to keep his eyes on. It reminds him of what’s important. And after the day he had yesterday, being reminded of what’s important is what he needs the most.

He spots Taehyung sitting on the left side of the church, in the first row between his parents. He’s an adult but they still treat him like a child, treat him as if they have to watch his every move. Not that Jeongguk’s parents are any different. They have a million different questions for him when he gets back from his missions. 

Was Taehyung behaved? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Who talked to you? Did you keep your wits about you which is Jeongguk’s favorite because the meaning of it is so blatant. They might as well be asking him if he still believed in God.

He and Taehyung don’t hang out outside of their missions. They don’t interact during Sunday service although everyone already knows they go their missions together. It would bring to much attention, too much suspicion, if they were to be friendly with each other. If the congregation knew that Jeongguk laughed at Taehyung’s jokes, they would think that he, too, fell prey to Satan’s whispers.

Elder Asa stands at the center, leaning into the microphone. 

“A year ago today, I shared with you the dream given to me by God Himself. Brothers and Sisters, the final hour is among us. It’s right around the corner. Seven days have we until there are no more chances to repent, no more opportunities purify yourselves and be allegiant to the One and Only. Stay steadfast in your faith. Don’t be tempted by the vain desires of this world when the hereafter awaits you.”

Right, Jeongguk thinks. This isn’t the time to be tempted by what he’s managed to bury for so long. He’s always wondered about same sex attraction, whether or not he could go to Hell simply for having it, simply for thinking that another guy was attractive. He would ask about this, to his parents or to Elder Asa, but he didn’t want to end up in the same place as Taehyung. He wanted to be free. And, he figured, as long as he never acted on his thoughts, he wouldn’t be sinning by having them.

Initially when the news of the last day came, the congregation was in hysterics.

But then, with Elder Asa’s wise words, they were quelled into comfort. Don’t you see? Elder Asa said. All that you’ve sacrificed, all that you’ve done, you will be rewarded for greatly. The end is a good thing. It means our suffering is over.

Now that they were seven days away from the end of the world, the congregation was vibrating with anticipation. People were talking about seeing heaven, about what they’d do there. Jeongguk had overheard one of the guys his age bragging about how many wives he ought to have when he got to paradise. Jeongguk didn’t know what to think of the hereafter. He was happy that he would’ve made it this far without becoming deviant, as Elder Asa would put it. But he was nervous. After all, he thought, there was no guarantee he’d end up in Heaven. He could end up in Hell. Or, worse perhaps, he could end up absolutely nowhere. He hadn’t given a lot of thought as to whether Heaven existed or not. 

But sometimes, in the middle of the night when he couldn’t get to sleep, he wondered if it really was. If he would really get to see it. 

There were many families in the congregation who were fully prepared for The End. Some families, like the Chas or the Kwangs or the Lees were so prepared that they had sold their houses, given away their worldly possessions including all their savings. He heard Mrs. Kwang brag that she and her family had next to nothing, only enough money for food to last the rest of the week and to pay for the motel before the rapture. They were, in her words, completely pious and so much closer to God for it. They would have no money for the motel or for food after the seven days were up.

Jeongguk’s family, as devout as they were, didn’t go that far. His mother had given away their furniture but they were still living and sleeping in the house he grew up in. As far as he knew, that wasn’t going to change. His mother had the point of view that there was no point in giving away worldly possessions for the less fortunate. The world was ending. The less fortunate would be in Hell anyway.

“I see a lot of new faces here today,” Elder Asa said, his smile weathered by old age and heavy with kindness. “Our youths Kim Taehyung and Jeon Jeongguk have been very busy, as you all know. In the last year, they’ve converted as many people as this congregation has ever seen. Just the two of them alone. Imagine how many souls would see salvation if we were all doing half of what they do every day.”

The congregation cheers for that, echoes of “amen” chorus through the church. Jeongguk sees Taehyung put his head down, smiling but only for show. 

 

That night, Jeongguk dreams about Hell.

He dreams of flesh tearing and screams so loud that they pierce his ears until he bleeds. He dreams of fire, the smell of burnt skin, and the sounds of bones crushing. He wakes up in a sweat, his face covered in tears. Dreams have always delivered messages. Like the one given to Elder Asa. He knows, upon waking, what this dream is telling him to do.

He has to go back to the Raimi District. He has to protect those people. Rejection be damned. It’s been nearly a year of non-stop delivering of the Good Word. He can’t let his desires, however much he may fear them, keep him from his mission. Not when he only has seven days left.

 

 

six

 

It’s Taehyung who suggests they go back to the Raimi District.

They’re eating their croissants, inside of Pop’s instead of straddling their bikes on the storefront, when he suggests it. He doesn’t look at Jeongguk when he does, all to focused on how the croissant bread tears in his hands. Jeongguk doesn’t tell him that he was thinking the same thing. He didn’t tell him about the guy yesterday or about how it made him feel. It’s easier to keep things to himself, especially when voicing them makes it too real.

He gets comfortable with the idea of returning to Raimi being Taehyung’s instead of his and he rolls with it, shrugging casually as if the suggestion doesn’t both excite and terrify him.

“Alright.”

 

Jeongguk knocks on the teal door with confidence this time. After watching Taehyung enter the first house in the subdivision, waving him off as he did, Jeongguk was determined to be like him this time around. He was determined to enter his apartment building with confidence and quote all the Bible verses with charm. He was determined to save. 

He’s prepared to give his speech. ‘Hi, did you know that God wants you in Heaven?’ or maybe starting a little bit harsher, maybe start with punishment first. ‘Hi, Hell is awaiting those without salvation. Have you been saved?’ 

Okay, maybe he’s not all that prepared. 

The self-doubt barely has time to trickle in before the teal door is swinging open and the man from yesterday is looking at him, appraising him with a smile that Jeongguk could only describe as comfortably annoyed. Jeongguk forgets everything he was going to say, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.

To his surprise, the man walks away, retreating back into his apartment but leaves the door ajar. Jeongguk stands there uncertain until—

“Come on, what’s God on about now?”

Despite his better judgment (the question is most definitely a slight against what he believes in), Jeongguk smiles at that and enters. Like yesterday, he stands at the threshold, not removing his shoes or making any move to. He looks at the collage again when he asks.

“May I come in?”

He hears the man scoff and he turns to see him seated on the comfortable looking teal couch. “I did leave the door open, didn’t I?”

Jeongguk looks down at his feet. Then back to the couch. “Can I sit?”

“Well, shit, is the word of God so short that you can deliver the entirety of it on your feet?” He cracks a smile when Jeongguk doesn’t respond, eyes wide and mouth posed for an apology. “I’m messing with you. Come in, relax.”

And Jeongguk does. The rest of the apartment looks as eccentric as the entrance. More painting cover the walls, odd sculptures made from recycled plastic bottles and copper wire sit around the coffee table. Across from the couch is a smaller violet Victorian looking loveseat. As Jeongguk sits, he realizes just how much of a mess the apartment is. Not a mess in that sense. It’s clean, neat, organized. But it’s chaos with everything looking mismatched as if they’d gotten most their things from the yard sales of strikingly different people.

When he finally tears his eyes from the room’s eccentricities, he finds the young man’s eyes on his, his smile small and amused. 

“Are you gonna start?” He asks. “I only let you in here because I’ve nowhere to be and I like your face but I’ll get bored soon so use your time wisely.”

Jeongguk doesn’t get this far often. 

All the confidence he’d picked up on the bike ride over has vanished. He reaches into his messenger bag first and pulls out a pamphlet. Clearing his throat, he starts handing the pamphlet to the guy who shakes his head.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” he says.

“Sorry?” Jeongguk is frozen there, arm extended over the coffee table in mid-air, a pamphlet with the words “Are you in good hands?” printed on the front cover.

“You start with God and I suppose that’s right,” the guy says, leaning back onto the couch and pulling his legs up so he’s sitting cross-legged. “But you’ve been here twice and you have yet to ask me my name. How are you going to make me care about God when you can’t even pretend you care about me?”

Jeongguk swallows hard and moves back slow, arm dropping back down to his side and pamphlet finding its way onto the empty space on the loveseat next to him. He can barely meet the guy’s eyes when he asks: “What’s your name?”

“Oh, no,” the guy shakes his head. “Now I feel like you’re just asking because I told you to. I’m not convinced you actually care.”

“I care.”

The guy narrows his eyes at him and turns his lips to the side. “…Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”

“I’m…Jeongguk.”

Cupping the side of his face with his hand, the guy tilts his head and Jeongguk becomes struck at how much he likes it, how cute he thinks the guy is. Then he has himself mentally and reminds himself to repent. “What’s your story, Jeongguk? You make a habit out of knocking on people’s doors at the asscrack of dawn?”

“Actually, I do. I’ve…Well, I’m trying to help people find God.”

“What makes you think they’ve lost him?”

“Well—”

“Scratch that. What makes you think I’ve lost him? I must seem really lost to you, right? Do you always come to the same place twice?”

“I’m…I don’t think you’re lost—”

“Then why are you here?” The man fakes a dramatic gasp, hand over his mouth. “Do you have ulterior motives?”

“No, no,” the joke is lost on Jeongguk, his eyes go wide and hands up in defense. “No, I don’t, I promise.”

“I’m messing with you, Jeongguk. Relax.”

“…I don’t have ulterior motives.”

“…Now, I don’t know what to believe. You don’t think I’m lost and you’re on a mission to help lost souls. But you don’t have ulterior motives either.”

“I’m here because God wants me to be here. He wants me to save you, to bring you to the right path, help you see the light. I had a dream last night.”

“Was I in it?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “No, but…But I had a feeling I had to come back here. I think God has a bigger plan for you.”

The guy hums, soaking that in. “What’s God think of me then? Why am I special?”

“I can’t…I can’t tell you what He thinks of you. I can’t know that, no one can.”

“Okay. What do you think of me?”

Jeongguk blanches. He doesn’t like being put on the spot but he’s been in the spot since he walked through the teal door. He looks at his hands as he clasps them together. “Um…you’re kind…”

“Kind?” When he looks up, the stranger is amused. “I closed the door in your face yesterday.”

“Yeah, but you opened it today.”

To Jeongguk’s surprise, the man looks impressed like that. His smile brightens and widens, eyebrows raising like Jeongguk said something profound. He nods to himself. “Okay. I’m Seokjin.”

Jeongguk smiles back. “Hi, Seokjin.”

Seokjin rolls his eyes but is still smiling when he replies: “Hi, Jeongguk.”

 

Jeongguk has tea now.

Here he is in a notably gay district sitting at Casi Cielo in some random handsome’s apartment drinking peppermint iced tea and trying to talk about God. He’s so shocked by the whole situation that he keeps forgetting what he’s supposed to say. 

“Come on, Jeongguk,” Seokjin says. “Focus. Heaven, Hell, where am I going?”

“I can’t—I’m not, like, a decider or anything, I don’t know who gets too Heaven.”

“Jeez, I know that. But I wanna know your opinion of me. You know how some people are obsessed with knowing your sign and your rising sign and your moon sign and all that jazz?”

Jeongguk slowly shakes his head. “Horoscopes go against God so…”

“Okay, well, pretend you do. My version is finding out if cute Mormon boys that knock on my door think I’m going to Hell.”

“I’m not a Mormon.”

“Really? I thought, for sure, I had you pegged.”

At that moment, a girl exits one of the bedrooms. It’s not the same girl from yesterday who opened the door for Jeongguk and who, Jeongguk remembers, sleeps on the couch. This girl is shorter, rounder in shape, and more relaxed. She exits one of the bedrooms in a silk robe, a roller set in her hair, and full makeup. 

“What’s with all the commotion?” She groans.

“Sorry,” Seokjin apologizes, still wearing his smile as he watches Jeongguk. It makes Jeongguk feel weird. Like he’s a pet or like the food on Seokjin’s plate that he can’t stop playing with. But at the same time, he really doesn’t want Seokin to look away. “Jeongguk is here to teach me about God.”

The girl rolls her eyes, wincing as she pours her coffee in the kitchen. “Jesus.”

“Actually, no,” Seokjin says at the same time that Jeongguk sheepishly declares that it’s a “common misconception.”

“Come on, Jiyoo-ah,” Seokjin waves her over, scooting so he’s not taking up all the space on the couch. “Come get saved with me.”

Maybe it’s Seokjin’s tone when he says it but it’s only then that Jeongguk realizes that he’s a joke to them. They don’t want to hear about God, everything he says is just entertainment to them. His cheeks heat up as embarrassment washes over him. He looks away from Seokjin and down at his hands again. What was he doing?

“I should go,” he mutters to the carpet.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Jiyoo says as she sits down next to Seokjin who eagerly takes a sip of her coffee despite the absolute horror on her face when he does.

“No, it’s…” Jeongguk gulps and his face gets hotter when he says the next part. “I just don’t have the time to waste on people who don’t believe in God. I thought I did but…”

Jiyoo looks amused but hides her face behind her mug while Seokjin is staring at Jeongguk with, for the first time, a straight face and an unreadable expression. Jeongguk starts to stand up when Seokjin responds.

“I believe in God,” he says. “What makes you think I don’t?”

“…You seem to think everything I say is a joke.”

Seokjin nods. 

“Sorry,” he says, shrugging. “I guess I’m just used to always feeling like a punchline.”

Jeongguk doesn’t stand. 

Seokjin goes on. “I guess I just think it’s rich. The first thing you say is that you want to save lost souls, like the depraved, like the real fucked up people. And you knock on my door and you don’t realize how insulting it is. But then you won’t admit to it either. The way I see it, right? You came here because you think I’m fucked up. You think this whole district is fucked up. And that’s disappointing. But what’s even worse is that you don’t have the nerve to admit it. You’re so sure that you’re right that you won’t say it out loud because you know it’ll sound wrong. Forgive me if I can’t take you seriously when you can’t even tell the truth.”

Jeongguk opens his mouth but doesn’t get the chance to say anything because Seokjin interrupts him.

“I’m bored. Time’s up.”

 

After he and Taehyung leave Casi Cielo, they go to a nearby ice cream shop and get two vanilla cones. They eat inside, away from the window. This is an unspoken agreement. For Taehyung doesn’t want anyone to see him with another guy “on the wrong side of town” and Jeongguk doesn’t want to be the other guy. 

Jeongguk thinks about this while they’re eating, the agreement. How they both knew. He thinks of what Seokjin says because part of him thinks it’s true but the other part doesn’t. After all, he was the one who agreed to work with Taehyung. He didn’t pick Raimi because it was a gay area. Just like he didn’t pick Casi Cielo, just like he didn’t pick the teal door. He told himself all of that but then, when it came time, he couldn’t tell himself why he picked those places to begin with.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says suddenly. “…Is it all true?”

Taehyung doesn’t ask if what is true. He knows exactly. It takes him a long time to answer and when he does, Jeongguk thinks the words are so practiced and so rehearsed that they have no meaning.

“I lost my way,” Taehyung says and that’s that.

 

 

five

 

It’s on their third visit to Casi Cielo, another silent agreement between them, that Jeongguk realizes that Taehyung hasn’t gone to any other buildings. 

He can’t prove that, not exactly. Because, for all he knows, Taehyung has gone to other buildings. But he knows that Taehyung frequents the third one down, orange in color. He doesn’t mention this to Taehyung or to anyone for that matter for two reasons. 1) He never thought it was his place to call people out on their secrets, not when he’d been harboring such a big one for all of his life. 2) Jeongguk hasn’t bothered to check out any other buildings either. 

Calling attention to Taehyung doing the same thing would just make him question himself.

For those reasons and those reasons alone, he refuses to go to Seokin’s place. It has nothing to do with what Seokjin said and how the words had imprinted themselves into his skin, on the walls of his brain, how the words were so stubborn as to never leave him even in sleep. Going to another building is necessary. The world is ending. He doesn’t have all the time in the world to waste on one person, no matter how cute he is.

The building he stops at is two down from the one Seokjin lives in, a pale green one that’s crawling with kudzu. At first, Jeongguk thinks it’s an abandoned building in a complex bursting with life. But, upon closer inspection, he realizes the kudzu is just a painting. He stares at it for much too long without going in. It awes him, the things a person can do. He didn’t have an ounce of creativity himself. If he’d taken part in any of the talent shows that his school had put on, the one thing he’d be able to do would be to have the audience shout out Bible verses at the top of their heads and he’d be able to, without fail, name which book it belonged to and exactly the number of verse. It used to pride him, being able to do that.

But looking at the kudzu, it just makes him feel…like he’s missed something. 

Without any more lingering hesitation, he enters the building and starts with the door on his left this time. It was starting with the door on the right that got him into this Seokjin mess in the first place. Is that logical reasoning? Probably not. Definitely not. But he doesn’t need to be logical when the sky is days away from crashing over their heads. 

He knocks on the left door with undeserved confidence and false bravado. It’s all a show now, he’s figured it out. It doesn’t matter if, on the inside, he’s shaking to the point of dizziness. What matters is that on the outside, he’s ready to deliver the messages that he’s been sent to deliver.

He knocks on the door again when he doesn’t get an answer the first time.

The door doesn’t open but he hears the shuffling behind it and the turning of keys. When that all stops, the door still doesn’t open and he doesn’t make a move to knock again.

“…Is anyone home?”

“What do you want?” 

The voice on the other side sounds across between apathetic and completely detached. It, momentarily, removes Jeongguk from his own mind and puts him in the shoes on the other side. What it would feel like, he wonders, to be that detached. He’d probably hate it. 

“Do you have a few minutes to discuss the salvation of your soul?”

A groan cuts in before he completely finishes his question and he pales, swallowing hard. Heat flushes the back of his neck. “Fuck, seriously, I don’t have time for this.”

“I…I would advise you to make the time. The world as we know it is coming to an end and I think you should consider repenting while there’s still time.”

The door swings open then. A young man, small in stature, with a pale complexion and the most piercing stare Jeongguk has ever had the dissatisfaction of falling under stands on the other side. His jaw clenches. “What do I need to repent for exactly?”

Unable to answer the question, Jeongguk stills for a moment. He looks down at his feet, his stomach in knots again. He follows the pattern of the carpeted floor whilst trying to untie them. He finally comes up with a cop out of an answer if there ever was one. “We all need to repent.”

“Or what?”

“…Or we’ll be punished. Have you considered where you’ll spend the rest of eternity?”

The young man narrows his eyes at him and whispers in a voice so scarily calm: “I’m going straight to Hell. And if you don’t leave now, I’m gonna take you with me. ‘Kay?”

The door shuts before Jeongguk has a chance to say anything else, to even consider what he was going to say next. As always, he slumps his shoulders and drags himself out but not before leaving a pamphlet by the door. 

It’s when he’s leaving the building, no energy to try to rest of the apartments, that he hears a window open behind him. He only knows it opens because the music that had been playing, initially muffled, was suddenly louder and clearer to comprehend. He didn’t even turn around which turned out to be a smart decision. If he did turn around, the egg thrown at the back of his head would have cracked in his eye instead.

He freezes mid-step as the yolk runs down from his scalp to the back of his neck. Rejection was already hard but this was something else. This was too much. He felt like crying and, if not for the complete numbness that overtook him at that moment, he most certainly would’ve. He doesn’t turn around, not even after that. He hears the music go back to being muffled, hears the window shut, but even then he stays in the same place.

Completely frozen.

When he does finally muster up the courage to look up instead of at the ground, his eyes trail two houses down and he meets Seokjin’s sympathetic gaze. Seokjin’s holding groceries, standing outside the door of his building, but just as frozen. He waves his hand in Jeongguk’s direction — come here — before entering his building.

Jeongguk very nearly stays in the same spot. But before his mind can make the decision to go, his body’s already moving forward, feet carrying him to Seokjin’s building. His brain doesn’t catch up until he’s standing outside of Seokjin’s open door. 

He steps in without asking this time, closing the door behind him and staying at the threshold. 

“What are you waiting for?” He hears Seokjin ask him. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

 

“You know you’re lucky,” Seokjin says later when he’s got Jeongguk leaning over into his kitchen sink as he washes his hair for him. 

He’d told Jeongguk to take of his angel white shirt so it could be washed and Jeongguk’s heart nearly stopped. He whispered that it would be indecent for him to take off his shirt and Seokjin, mind much quicker, simply said: ‘Then change in the bathroom, dummy.’

Seokjin gave Jeongguk a sweater to wear in the mean time. A gray one that was homemade if the holes in it were anything to go by. It hung too low by Jeongguk’s neckline but it was comfortable and he wasn’t in any position to complain when he was being taken care of so well. Seokjin’s fingers dig into his scalp, massaging as he washes the egg out of his hair with shampoo that smells just like lemongrass. Jeongguk finds himself, with his face in the sink, inhaling the scent as it’s rinsed out.

“Lucky how?” He asks and he has to raise his voice just the slightest to be heard over the rush of water from the tap. 

“Well, he could’ve thrown a vase at you for one,” Seokjin mutters. “Or, much worse, something that would have dried out your scalp. Egg yolk is actually pretty good for hair.”

“What about eggshells?”

Seokjin hums. “The jury’s still out on that one.”

Jeongguk smiles, his chest feeling lighter and laughter feeling not far off. The tears he’d been on the brink of breaking into feel far away now. All he can feel are Seokjin’s fingers in his hair and the desire for them to never leave. But good things, as he already knows, always come to an end. The faucet shuts off eventually and Seokjin wraps a towel around his head, tells him to sit down at the table, and dries his hair quickly and a touch too rough. 

But it makes Jeongguk laugh.

“There we go,” Seokjin says with a sigh when he puts the towel around Jeongguk’s shoulders instead. “All better. No need to cry now.”

“I wasn’t going to cry,” Jeongguk mumbles.

“Okay.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Okay, I said.”

Jeongguk quiets. He hears the tumbling of the washing machine in the other room and wonders what he’s going to do with the rest of his time here. He’s not talking about God. So, he’s wasting time. Time he doesn’t have. Time that no one has. 

Five days.

He feels something cold on his scalp and chills run down his spine. His shoulders rise instinctively. “What’s that?”

“Leave-in conditioner,” Seokjin says, running his hands through Jeongguk’s hair again. 

It’s embarrassing how good it feels. Jeongguk’s eyes flutter shut, his head tilting in whatever direction Seokjin pulls it in. He sighs, all too aware of the sounds he could make if he gets to relaxed. He allows himself the luxury of getting lost in the sensation of it, but not too lost. He’s so lost he almost doesn’t here Seokjin when he murmurs.

“You’re so stupid, ‘Guk.”

There’s not a single doubt that it’s an insult but Seokjin’s voice is so gentle when he says it that it almost doesn’t feel like one. Jeongguk opens his eyes. “Why would you say that?”

Behind him, Seokjin sighs. “I’m not defending him, alright? But…You can’t just go around telling people they’re going to Hell and not expect for someone to get upset.”

“I didn’t say he was going to Hell.”

“You just said…?”

And Jeongguk mumbles his answer, too aware of how it sounds out loud. “That he should repent.”

“Yeah, that sounds much better.”

Seokjin finishes with the conditioner and his hands leave Jeongguk’s hair much to the younger’s chagrin. He feels less dazed now. Maybe he was hypnotized by the feeling of it. 

“If you think I’m stupid, why are you helping me right now? Why didn’t you just throw an egg at me too?”

“Don’t give me any ideas,” Seokjin says.

Without having to sit still now, Jeongguk takes the opportunity to turn. He looks up at Seokjin from his chair at the dining table, eyes wide. He’s surprised but so pleased, oddly pleased, when Seokjin reaches his hand down and runs it through his hair again.

“You remind me of me,” Seokjin says, voice soft and miles away. Jeongguk fixes his mouth to ask for an explanation but Seokjin gives it to him before he can ask. “I had a bike, too, you know? A bag full of pamphlets and a spot in my choir. You’re not special.”

For some reason, Jeongguk can’t help but smile. It’s a small, soft smile that feels as easy as breathing. “I can see that.”

“You have no idea. I was the cutest choir boy you could imagine. I had a halo and everything.”

“…What happened?”

“Life did.”

It seems like he’s going to leave it at that but, upon seeing the bewilderment on Jeongguk’s face, Seokjin shrugs and looks off in a distance. 

“When you’re young, it seems like certain things are always true. Like…sometimes, when you’re young, you think it’s always going to be true that your parents will be together. Or that your house will stay the same. But then you get older and you realize things about the world and you realize that…not everything is always true 100%of the time. Does that make sense?”

“…Not really, no.”

Seokjin smiles at him again but waves a dismissive hand. “Fuck it, I’ve never been good with words anyway. Now, let me just get my scissors, you have split ends for days.”

Seokjin walks away but he doesn’t get very far. 

As he’s heading down the hall to the bathroom, Jeongguk calls out to him and the older pauses in his steps, turns around with questioning eyes, and that same easy smile.

“The rapture’s in five days,” Jeongguk says.

And Seokjin says nothing.

 

At the ice cream shop (they’ve made it a habit now), Jeongguk gets something different, figuring that he should just in case A) he doesn’t get to Heaven or B) Heaven doesn’t have all the ice cream flavors. The moon mist ice cream is an amalgamation of flavors sos starkly different that its union proves to be disgusting and Jeongguk never wants to try it again, but he’s happy to have tried it at all.

The ice cream shop is busy tonight with found families, small and large, filtering in and out of the parlor for cones and cups and ice cream cake. They’re all smiling and laughing, they look like the pictures of families that only exist in advertisements or within picture frames before you buy them. Taehyung and Jeongguk both have a hard time tearing their eyes away from the sight of such jubilance. 

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says.

Taehyung had been quiet since they left the complex today. If he noticed that Jeongguk’s hair smelled different or that he had a trim, he would have said something. But his mind is so consumed with whatever it is that’s keeping him quiet that he didn’t mention it at all. Jeongguk is grateful for it. He’d rather keep the egg incident between himself, the egg thrower, and Seokjin. 

“Hmm?”

He looks at Jeongguk with eyes so far gone. It’s only then that Jeongguk notices the slight puffiness below his eyes. Maybe it’s allergies.

“Do you think people who grow out of the congregation are lost? Or are they still, you know…good in the eyes of God?”

Taehyung furrows his brow. His gaze doesn’t break. “…Why do you ask?”

Jeongguk shrugs. “I’m just wondering. I guess it’s stupid to ask questions now of all times.”

Taehyung never does answer the question. But he does, as he digs into his ice cream, murmur: “It’s never too late for anything, Jeongguk.”

 

 

four

 

“The way I see it,” Seokjin starts, one hand holding onto his cup of peppermint tea and the other holding onto a rolled cigarette that he hasn’t lit.

Jiyoo had handed to him on her way out this morning, a parting gift of sorts for letting her spend the night. She planted a kiss on Seokjin’s cheek which he reciprocated and then she was out the door and Seokjin was tucking the rolled cigarette behind his ear.

“Do you wanna know how I see it, ‘Guk?” Seokjin says suddenly. 

Jeongguk shrugs, stirring his peppermint iced tea with unicorn straw Seokjin had given him. “I think you’ll tell me anyway.”

“You’re right,” Seokjin exhales easily and chooses that exact moment to bless Jeongguk with one of his easygoing smiles. “You’re starting to catch on, dummy.”

Jeongguk knows that he’s doing wrong by all of the other people sprawled all over all the other districts, the people that neither he nor Taehyung are helping. Well. Maybe Taehyung is helping more people than Jeongguk is. There’s no way Jeongguk could know for sure either way, not when he’s too busy making himself an integral piece in Seokjin’s apartment.

He figures that, at the very least if he can’t save everyone, he could at least save Seokjin. That’s how he reasons it with himself. Whether or not it’s true is a different thing altogether. 

“The way I see it, I’m living in this world and this world, as you and I both know, is basically Hell already. So, I might as well be a good person because nothing matters. Not because I’m expecting something in return but because what’s the point in being a shit person when everything is already so shit?”

Jeongguk thinks about it and he nods. He wonders what his reasoning is behind doing good things. He wonders if he would do good things if he didn’t know about the Bible and didn’t have the congregation or his parents. Would he be a good person without knowing what comes to people who aren’t good? Was he good inherently? Or did he just learn how to be what he was supposed to be? 

He doesn’t like how it feels, the uncertainty, how it looms over him like a raincloud so he changes the subject. 

“I don’t think we’re living in Hell,” Jeongguk says. “For one…we’re not being tortured right now.”

“How are you so sure about that? Climate change, mass shootings, famine and death all over the place? It may not be the torture you’ve read about, the physical kind. Maybe you’re expecting to see a little red man with horns. But psychological torture, I think, is just as bad. So…Jeon Jeongguk.”

And Jeongguk really loathes how much he loves that, how much pleasure sits in his stomach when he hears his full name said like that. He likes how it comes out of Seokjin’s mouth, the way it lilts at the start and at the end. He never cared much for his own name. But the more time he spends with Seokjin, the more he falls in love with it.

And Seokjin has taken to saying his full name when he’s teasing him. Jeon Jeongguk.

“If I’m already in Hell,” Seokjin says. “What’s there to fear?”

Seokjin could have a point but to Jeongguk it sounds like a poetry line in a language he doesn’t understand. Because the truth is that Jeongguk believes firmly in Heaven and in Hell. He can’t not believe in it. He feels it in his bones, the fear that starts settling in when he thinks of what awaits sinners and nonbelievers. He believes in God, he believes in the devil, he believes in angels, and he believes in all the things he’s been made to feel like he shouldn’t.

If it was anyone else, he’d feel silly. But it’s Seokjin and he knows Seokjin believes the same things that he does, knows he asks him questions that challenge his beliefs just so he can see things from a different perspective. 

But every time Seokjin asks one of those questions, Jeongguk starts feeling nauseous when he tries to answer it.

So, he changes the subject. He’s an expert at that now.

“Where’s your other roommate?”

Seokjin tilts his head at him, holding back laughter with a tight lipped smile. “You’re so lucky you’re cute.”

If Jeongguk looks down, cups his cheek to avoid the blush rising on his cheeks being too obvious, neither one of them acknowledges it. 

“I don’t have roommates,” Seokjin eventually says. “Just friends who sometimes need a place to crash and who know my door’s always open.”

“You do that for your friends?”

“Well, wouldn’t you? You have to take care of your friends, Jeongguk. If they can’t depend on you, who can they depend on? … Like I said, the world’s shitty. What’s the point of making it shittier?”

“…I knew it,” Jeongguk mutters at the palms of his hands, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. 

“Knew what?”

“That you were kind,” and then he looks up at Seokjin with a shit-eating grin. “I had you pegged.”

For the first time, it feels, Seokjin laughs and pride — he’ll repent for this later — blooms in Jeongguk’s chest for being the one responsible. 

When the laughter quiets, Seokjin rests his head against the back of the teal couch. “I’m bored.”

It’s one of the things Seokjin has taken to saying. ‘I’m bored,’ a constant reminder of why Seokjin had let him in to his apartment on that second visit. ‘You’re cute but I’ll get bored soon.’

‘So, use your time wisely.’

Jeongguk knows he should. So he sits up a little straighter in his seat, he means business now.

“So, Seokjin…”

“…So…Jeongguk.”

“What can I say to convince you to come down to the congregation with me?”

He doesn’t expect for Seokjin’s smile to fade but he finds that when it does, he isn’t all that surprised either. When Seokjin sighs this time, it’s heavy. Like he’s exhausted or, worse, annoyed. Annoyed with Jeongguk. 

“Honestly?” He eventually asks, lifting his head again. “Nothing.”

“Nothing.”

Seokjin shakes his head once and purses his lips together, jutting them out the slightest. “It’s all…Promise you won’t take this the wrong way.”

“…I promise.”

Narrowing his eyes, Seokjin leans forward, extends his hand out to Jeongguk and sticks his pinky out. “Swear it.”

Jeongguk hooks his pinky with Seokjin’s after only a moment of hesitation. “I swear.”

Seokjin holds him there for a few moments longer before sitting back, sinking into the couch. “I think churches are hypocritical.”

“…You’ve been to every church?”

Ha-ha. Of course not, I’d probably shoot myself. No offense.”

Some taken.

“Then how do you know all churches are hypocritical?” Jeongguk asks. “Maybe yours was. Mine isn’t.”

“What makes you so sure it isn’t?”

“What makes you so sure that it is?”

Seokjin shrugs. “Power corrupts people. That’s just…like, a known fact. Churches are usually ran by people with some kind of power. It doesn’t always start that way. No one starts off having a lot of power. They get there because they grow into a position where they’re revered and respected. But then the power gets to them. And they continue leading the churches and leading the sermons and leading groups of people into one all different kinds of beliefs. Even if those beliefs are harmful or unjustified. Then they perpetuate those harmful beliefs all the while preaching about the importance of loving thy neighbor.”

Jeongguk can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Some of it, he realizes, is directed at Seokjin. But some of it, oddly enough, is directed at himself and he can’t figure out why. “You think believing in God is harmful?”

Seokjin shakes his head, eyes gentle but penetrating at the same time, level with Jeongguk’s gaze. “I didn’t say that.”

“My church isn’t hypocritical,” Jeongguk says. “Elder Asa says love thy neighbor and he does.”

“Does he?” Seokjin asks, smirking. “So, what does he think about all of us over here? Where was he during the protests for marriage equality?”

A flash of Taehyung cuts into Jeongguk’s thoughts. “He prayed for you.”

“What did he pray for exactly? That we were safe during the protests? That we…got the rights we were asking for? Or, and be honest, was he just playing that we weren’t the way we are anymore?”

It was the latter. Easy enough.

Jeongguk knows that. After all, he chose Casi Cielo because they were like him, he thought. Just more lost. More astray. But saying it out loud proves to be difficult. To say it would be like eating glass or throwing the shards back up. It’d be too painful and he’d cut his tongue.

He looks away.

“You know that doesn’t work, right?”

“What doesn’t work?”

“Praying the gay away,” Seokjin says. “It’s basically like trying to pray away the color of your eyes or the family you come from. You’ll always have it. It’ll always be part of you.”

Jeongguk squirms in his seat and his skin. Suddenly, it’s hard to breathe.

Seokjin saves him.

“I’m bored. For real this time.”

 

Jeongguk waits in the middle of the complex, next to the mailboxes and just a short walk down from the community pool. He rides his bike in circles, gets off his bike and sits on the ground, plays imaginary hopscotch, does everything while waiting for Taehyung to meet him. Taehyung takes longer than usual. Much, much longer. Jeongguk has half a mind to leave without him. Just when he’s on the brink of riding his bike back home, the impending sunset enough for him to get a move on before dark, Taehyung is riding his bike toward him.

Jeongguk’s mouth is fixed for something to say. Anything, really. But he forgets all the words, all the lectures, all the teasing that had been on the tip of his tongue because Taehyung looks different. He can’t place it. Can’t put his finger on it. Because Taehyung looks as put together as he normally does, even more put together than when they rode here to begin with. His shirt looks cleaner, his hair laid down smoother. Jeongguk isn’t sure but he thinks Taehyung might even smell fresher. 

Then there’s Taehyung’s eyes which are far away from him, not meeting his gaze and talking exclusively to the concrete. “Sorry, I got held up.”

Jeongguk struggles to find the right words, struggles to find what it is that he wants to say at all. But he eventually comes up with: “That’s okay.”

It’s when they’re wheeling out of the subdivision, passing the entrance and the muted orange building of which, Jeongguk notices, the window to the apartment on the upper left side is aglow, that Jeongguk asks again. Deep down, he finds the question intrusive and rude and knows he shouldn’t ask it. But he wants to know if Seokjin was right. 

No. He needs to know that Seokjin was wrong.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk says to the ground. “Did you really struggle with same-sex attraction?”

The bluntness of his question throws Taehyung off guard but not so much. He expects for the older to give him a practiced answer, same as last time. But Taehyung, so quietly that he’s almost speaking to himself, says: “Yes.”

“And when you left…? They made it better, right? You’re not struggling with it anymore, you have Natalie.”

And while Taehyung neither confirms or denies this, he nods and agrees with a smile on his face, a smile that breaks the gloom he’d been wearing for the past few days. It’s small but fond and means so much more than Jeongguk could ever interpret. “I have Natalie.”

 

 

three

 

In the early hours of the morning, chaos erupts in the Jeon household. 

Long after Jeongguk has returned, had dinner, showered, prayed, and retired to bed, he’s shaken away by his father whose grip is so tight on Jeongguk’s arms that Jeongguk, even in sleep, can feel the bruises forming. He opens his eyes to his dad yelling at him, words he can barely comprehend, words that feel lost in the haze between dream and reality.

Jeongguk looks at his surroundings.

He’s in his room. He’s on his palette. His Mom is standing by the door with her arms crossed and her expression both anxious and angry. 

“Mom—?”

“Don’t,” his father grits out at him, grabbing Jeongguk’s face hard and turning it toward him. “Look at me. Answer to me.”

“I don’t—”

His dad shakes him again, pulling him up and slamming him back down onto the floor. Jeongguk’s head throbs. He feels dizzy, nauseous, more awake than he was but also less cognizant because of the impact. 

“Did you know?” His dad asks. It hits Jeongguk that that was the question he was asking all along. His breaths come out in spurts, panic making his head throb even more and his heart pound in his ears. His first instinct is to say no, to cry it out, to plead his case but he realizes, belatedly, that he doesn’t know what it is he’s being accused of.

“What?” He asks, eyes watering despite his best effort to disguise it. “What are you talking about?”

Taehyung,” the way his father says it, the way it oozes out of his mouth like arsenic makes Jeongguk wince. He’s never heard anyone speak with so much hate. “Last night. Did you know? Was it you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Were you—?” His father starts the question but cuts off when tears start pouring from his eyes. His sob is quiet and desperate but Jeongguk doesn’t make a move to comfort him, not when he still has one hand twisted into Jeongguk’s shirt and the other raised up in a fist. 

It takes a while for his father to calm down, for his mother to speak up. But eventually Jeongguk finds out what they’re talking about, gets a sense of what’s behind the anger. Late last night, while he had been sleeping, Taehyung left his parents’ house. This was a big deal because everyone knew Taehyung’s parents kept him on a tight leash. He was an adult, yes, but he had a curfew he had to adhere to, he was tested nightly for drug or alcohol use, and he was monitored closely. Taehyung knew their rules and he’d broken one of them.

He left in the middle of the night when he thought they were asleep. Instead of stopping him, his parents followed him. This next part, Jeongguk didn’t know. If he did know, he wouldn’t have insisted on going to Casi Cielo so frequently. The fact was that Taehyung’s parents were so paranoid about what he’d get up to that they’d gone as far as to track his bike. They knew about the visits to Raimi and they knew where Taehyung was going. 

They found him at Casi Cielo in plainclothes. He wasn’t holding anyone’s hand this time. He wasn’t kissing anyone. He’d been alone. But he was on the wrong side of town and he didn’t even have pamphlets with him, didn’t have an excuse. 

By morning, it seemed, everyone in the congregation knew what happened. As scared as Jeongguk was for Taehyung, as much as he wanted to try talking to him, to help him, he knew he couldn’t. His parents wouldn’t allow it. And even if they did, Taehyung wasn’t at his house anymore. Apparently, he refused to come back. Jeongguk’s parents grilled him about his visits to the complex and wouldn’t allow him to go anywhere for the rest of the day.

 As the third day passed him by, all he could think was that now he’d only have two days left to convince Seokjin. He’d wasted the last couple of days. He’d lost sight of what was important. But he was given a rude awakening. Necessary but tough to swallow. Hours later and he was still shaking from the way his father had grabbed him, his head was still throbbing. It didn’t make sense, the idea of his father hurting him. But Jeongguk figures he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t really care, if he wasn’t really worried for the salvation of his soul.

When he lays down for sleep, he lies awake and watches the shadows on the ceiling. They move as the cars go by and Jeongguk can’t help but stare in awe. This would probably be the last time he would see this, the shadows dancing. He had to keep that in mind. The finality of his every move. 

Something rattles against Jeongguk’s bedroom window and, as if made aware, the dancing shadows stop. Jeongguk turns his head, waits. Again, something small taps against the glass pane and Jeongguk rises from the floor, drags his feet to the window and looks out. 

It doesn’t occur to him to look down until a small rock flies up right in front of him. That’s when he sees him. Taehyung standing in his backyard, duffel bag over his shoulder. Jeongguk considers walking away. Just pretending he hadn’t seen Taehyung, pretending that Taehyung hadn’t seen him. But he remembers what Seokjin said about helping friends and he feels inclined to open the window.

So, he does.

He turns away and looks over his shoulder when the night breeze hits him. He tiptoes across the room and locks his bedroom door slowly so that the click isn’t so loud. When he returns to the window, Taehyung’s looking up at him desperately.

He doesn’t say anything. 

Neither one of them do.

Taehyung knows Jeongguk knows. And Jeongguk knows that. 

Neither one of them knows what to say.

It’s Taehyung who, like always, is the first to break the ice. He swallows hard, his whisper so strained that Jeongguk feels just as desperate. “Can I please sleep here?”

Jeongguk looks away. At the trees in the yard, at the side fence, anywhere but at Taehyung.

“Please,” Taehyung says again. “They kicked me out and I don’t—”

“You were doing so well,” Jeongguk says. He doesn’t mean for it to sound as hurt or as accusatory as it does but once it’s out, it’s out. He shakes his head. “I was counting on you.”

It’s the closest he’s ever come to sharing his secret.

Taehyung pleads with him, his eyes round and glassy. That’s the last time Jeongguk looks at him. 

He goes to shut his window and Taehyung’s voice raises just the slightest, pleading, begging. 

“Jeongguk,” he whispers and his voice breaks. “I have nowhere else to go. Please.

Jeongguk can’t look at him so he doesn’t. He keeps his eyes away when he gives his only response before shutting the window for the last time.

“I’ll pray for you, Taehyung.”

Chapter Text

two

 

In the days that followed Taehyung’s unofficial and undeclared, but wholly understood, excommunication, his absence sparked another fuse of rumors and theories. Between the youths and the elders alike, all Jeongguk heard was Taehyung’s name, unspoken but obvious, on everyone’s tongues. 

‘I heard he was inside one of those awful clubs, may God help him.’

‘Apparently, after they found him, he renounced God and refused to come home. He’d been so sweet as a child.’

‘Where did his parents go wrong?’

‘If that was my son, I’d drop dead.’

The only people who didn’t say anything bad about Taehyung, the only people who seemed to miss him as much as Jeongguk found he was starting to, were the children. Years ago, when Taehyung was first sent away for his transgression, the children he held Bible Study with were confused about his absence. They were only three or four in those days but even they felt an emptiness when Taehyung left. No one else in the congregation had his charm or his kindness or the simple way he talked to children without ever talking down to them. They recognized this even in their young age. When Taehyung did return one year ago, the kids were older. Seven, eight, and, though most of them had forgotten who he was, they all took to him immediately. Again.

While the congregation didn’t allow Taehyung to hold Bible Study with the children anymore — therein lurked a fear of what his influence could do — Taehyung was still kind to them. He still spoke to them when he could, entertained their silly games when prompted, and always made them feel bigger than they were. One of the kids, a little one called Inwoo, asked Jeongguk about Taehyung’s absence. Jeongguk didn’t have the heart to say anything.

And while the children wondered, the adults gossiped. 

They all seemed to forget who Taehyung was. Is. Kind, giving, welcoming, all the things that Jeongguk wanted to be, all the things he liked him for. All they saw now was a guy who liked guys. It didn’t matter that he was always organizing food drives for the less fortunate or that it had been his idea to start weekly dinners for the homeless. Jeongguk wanted to say something about this, his tongue itched to ask his elders if they really, truly had forgotten, to point out things like Mr. And Mrs. Han’s divorce two summers ago or the fact that Ms. Yang always smelled faintly of alcohol.

But he couldn’t bring himself to confront any of them, to point out their hypocrisy. Because, he realized, in doing that, he’d also have to confront his own and the fact that he turned Taehyung away when he needed help.

He’d done the right thing, though, right?

It’s hard to convince himself of this. Although the words come out right, he can’t shake the heaviness in his chest when he thinks about Taehyung’s voice, giving in its foundation, pleading with him.

 

 

If he knew where Taehyung was, he’d go there. He’d talk to him. He’d guide him back to the right path, would tell him that there was still time. As it stood however, as close as they had become, Jeongguk still knew little about Taehyung. He didn’t know of, if any, Taehyung’s hobbies. He didn’t know what stores he frequented or even what kind of drink he would most likely pick at a cafe. 

This did not make him completely hopeless. As he saw it, there were two people he needed to keep far from the gates of Hell. 

Getting to Casi Cielo on public transport is a lot more complicated than on bike. There are multiple steps. Two buses, one train, and a fifteen minute walk from the last stop to the apartment complex. Jeongguk supposes that this is why his parents had, unwillingly, given him permission to continue on with his door-to-door mission but had said he would have to do it without his bike. Maybe they thought if things were complicated enough, he wouldn’t go back to the Raimi District. Maybe they were getting suspicious. 

His father, especially, seemed dead set on Jeongguk staying home. All it took was one Bible verse on the importance of doing right, a call to a time that Elder Asa, in the midst of an especially heated sermon, spoke against, not just evil, but of the indifference of holy men. 

‘Indifference is how evildoers go on doing evil. It is how good people are stopped from doing good. To be indifferent is to sin greatly.’

So, Jeongguk’s father, in all of it, really had no choice but to let him go lest he be amongst the damned come Judgment Day. A day that approaching them soon. Two days. That was all Jeongguk had.

 

The fifteen minute walk to Seokjin’s door leaves Jeongguk sweating, staining his white shirt and masking his skin in a sheen. Before he knocks on Seokjin’s door, he does what he can to make himself look put together again, proactively embarrassed at having to look Seokjin in the eye with his appearance. When he realizes there’s not much he can do without a shower and some dry clothes, he cuts his losses and knocks, the teal door beckoning to him.

For a while, there’s no answer. And in the silence, Jeongguk hears his own worries increase in volume. He sighs.

Once more, he knocks and before he can complete his round of rapid raps against the door, it opens and Seokjin is appraising him. Today he’s in a pair of Hawaiian shorts that go just below his knee. It’s a vibrant orange in color with blue flamingoes dancing in a pattern. His shirt is completely mismatched, a loose wool sweater cream in hue. His hair is sticking up in all sorts of directions but, and this Jeongguk notes carefully, he still looks absolutely stunning. 

Pressed between his lips is a rolled cigarette similar to the one Jiyoo handed him days prior. Was it the same one, Jeongguk wondered. 

Upon seeing him, Seokjin’s expression screws up and he heaves a sigh, rolling his eyes as he turns from the door and retreats into his apartment. The door is, as usual, left open.

“I thought you were done lecturing me,” Seokjin says with his back turned, words the slightest bit unclear courtesy of the cigarette in his mouth.

Jeongguk closes the door behind him, toes off his shoes, and waits on the threshold to be invited to sit. “There are two days left.”

Seokjin faces him, sitting on the arm of the teal couch and removing the cigarette from his mouth, placing it behind his ear. He fixes Jeongguk with one of his gazes, the one that makes Jeongguk squirm the most, the one that says ‘I know everything there is to know about you.’ He crosses his arms. “All the more reason to bother some else, ‘Gukkie.”

For the first time since the door was opened, Jeongguk notes the yellow case lighter in Seokjin’s hand. “You can smoke while I’m here, I don’t mind.”

Seokjin waves his hand dismissively and turns away. “You already think I’m going to Hell, I don’t need you thinking any worse of me. Well? Sit.”

As Jeongguk trails inside, taking a seat on the Victorian sofa and removing his shoulder bag to rest next to him, Seokjin says:

“It’s not that I don’t like you, alright? You’re sweet and you’re funny. Your cluelessness really is endearing but, honestly, you have to know you’re wasting your time by now, right? You know that, don’t you?”

Instead of answering the question or even acknowledging Seokjin’s point, Jeongguk, when seated, shrugs and gestures to the cigarette. “You know smoking kills?”

Seokjin smiles sweetly, narrowing his eyes as he does. “You know the difference between tobacco and marijuana?”

“…Oh.”

Jeongguk has heard of marijuana, of course. He’d come across it various times in his life. Mostly in high school, always secondhand. Either from the smell coming off of a classmate’s clothes or hearing, at the bottom of the grapevine, of someone getting expelled for having possession of it. But he’s never actually seen it. He doesn’t know what to think about Seokjin smoking it.

“See?” Seokjin says, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “You’re judging me already.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Why are you here, Jeongguk? Niceties aside.”

Jeongguk shrugs. He knows why. He knows exactly why. But saying it… “I don’t want you to go to Hell.”

“Why would I go to Hell then?” Seokjin wastes no time with his responses, quick as a whip. 

“…”

“C’mon. You said I was kind, you said you thought I was a good person. So, why would I go to Hell? Tell me what you really think.”

And Jeongguk finds that he can’t say it while looking at Seokjin so he looks away, at the floor, at his palms sweating. He murmurs it too quietly but when the words are out, they sound loud. As loud as glass breaking, as loud as a gun shot. And he knows he can’t take it back. “Because you’re gay.”

He can’t risk looking at Seokjin’s reaction. He can’t risk seeing the hurt in his eyes. If it’s there which…of course, it is. He can’t risk seeing the damage he’s inflicted with four little words. He can’t risk being reminded of the five words he used for the same hurt to burst from Taehyung’s eyes. 

But the silence…

It becomes too much to bear. It grows thick until it can be touched, it grows until it has a mind of its own, until the Silence is a person. 

Jeongguk looks up. 

Seokjin is looking at him and Jeongguk has a feeling he never looked away. “Is that all you think of me?”

Jeongguk swallows hard, looks down again, and shakes his head. “No, but…”

“But it’s all that matters. To God, I mean.”

“It’s not all that matters, no, but…it’s wrong. It’s—”

“So, am I a good person or not?”

“You are. I think you are but— being gay is just wrong. It says so.”

Seokjin hums. “What’s wrong about it?”

“It’s—”

“Someone being attracted to someone else. It means two people being in love and sharing that love. It’s not murder, it’s not abuse, it’s not…It’s just love, Jeongguk. That’s all it is.”

Jeongguk shrugs at the floor again. “It’s just wrong,” he murmurs.

“Love is wrong. Huh. I didn’t know that.”

“Can you stop joking for one second? I’m just trying to help you.”

“I don’t need your help. I don’t want it.”

“…I don’t want you to be punished, Seokjin.”

“I’m gay though,” Seokjin bites back. It’s the first time his tone isn’t friendly. “So, I deserve it, right?”

“I just—”

“You can’t change me, okay? You can’t change anyone. Whether you think it’s wrong or not. I’m wrong? I’m depraved? What would God say about you, huh? Casting judgment on everybody you see, telling them their way of life is horrendous. But you’re better than that, aren’t you? So much better than everyone.”

“I don’t—”

“What are the seven deadly sins again?” Seokjin’s eyebrows are furrowed. He raises his hands and counts off his fingers. “Greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy — that’s you. Pride — that’s you. Lust — that’s you, too.”

Jeongguk’s confusion is apparent. It’s stained onto his face, reflecting in his eyes, it’s in the way his mouth is posed to say something and in the way his voice is notably absent. 

“Want me to explain?” 

Jeongguk doesn’t want to know but he does. He doesn’t say yes but he doesn’t say no either. Seokjin explains.

“You think you can save everyone. You think you’re a messenger. Instead of focusing on how to be a good person, how to make sure you’re right in the eyes of God, you spend all your time focusing on other people. In all the days you’ve spent telling other people they’re going to Hell, how often have you looked within? How many times did you ask yourself if you’ve been doing the right thing? I’ll take a wild guess and say…zero. Because you’re prideful. Lust…Do you want to guess what that one is, Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk shakes his head, fixing his gaze on the sculpture sitting on the coffee table. He can’t bear it.

“The first day I met you,” Seokjin says, “you nearly drooled on my carpet, you were staring so hard. I know that kind of stare…Which brings us to envy. You wish you had the nerve to be as free as me. To be yourself without having to second-guess it. By my count, you check off three of those seven sins. And do you know what’s funny? Being gay isn’t one of them. So…if you look at it from my perspective, and I hope you can do that, it seems to me that you’re the one who needs saving.”

Jeongguk’s heart is pounding in his chest, pounding out of it. He can feel every beat in the palm of his hands, in the slump of his shoulders, in the haste of his breath. He can feel it in his head along with every swell of shame that rises up like bile in his throat. His eyes start to burn and he finds he can’t lift his eyes again.

“Please,” he whispers after a long lapse. “The rapture’s in less than two days.”

Seokjin’s voice isn’t as cold when he responds. It’s almost warm again, almost friendly, but it’s drenched in disappointment and pity. “You don’t actually believe that, do you? It’s bullshit.”

Jeongguk’s vision blurs. “It’s true.”

“Then go help someone who actually wants your help, okay? Don’t waste your time on me. I spent years hating myself and I’m not about to let you destroy all the work I put into changing that.”

The next thing Jeongguk says struggles to make its way out of his mouth. It crawls and stumbles on his tongue before escaping with one last breath. “There’s no one else worth saving.”

To his surprise, Seokjin, after a moment of nothing, rises from the arm of the teal couch and crosses the room. He sets Jeongguk’s bag down on the floor and sits next to him.

“I’m flattered,” Seokjin says, “that you think so highly of me in such a short time. But that’s no way to think about people.”

“I mean…there’s one other person but…I don’t know where he is.”

When Seokjin says nothing, Jeongguk can’t help how everything else just spills out.

“He asked for my help last night,” Jeongguk says. He can’t see anything in front of him, everything is so blurry. “But I shut him out. I thought I was right but…I’m wondering if I did the right thing. He said he had nowhere else to go.”

“And this guy…he was your friend?”

Jeongguk doesn’t know. Taehyung is definitely, easily, the closest thing Jeongguk has to one. But he isn’t sure if friends would be the best way to describe their friendship. Because the more he thinks about it, the more he doubts that friends turn their friends away in their time of need. Still, he nods. “I think so…he’s gay, you know? Or…I don’t know, he might not be. He said he wasn’t anymore.”

Seokjin scoffs, a faint smile can be heard in his voice when he responds: “Whatever he is, he’s not straight. You can’t pray it away, remember? You can only pretend.”

“…his parents said,” and just then a tear falls onto Jeongguk’s pants. He’s quick to wipe his cheek and press into his eyes so that no more fall. “They said he didn’t want to come back. But he told me they kicked him out. And he asked me if he could stay and I said no…I did the right thing, right?”

Jeongguk looks up at him finally then. Next to him, Seokjin’s expression hurts more than the disappointment in his voice. The disappointment now is clear on his face. He shakes his head. “You know you didn’t.”

Another tear falls. Jeongguk looks away again and wipes it away. “He—”

“I think you should go,” Seokjin says and his voice is gentle but firm when he says it. 

Jeongguk doesn’t have to be told twice. He stands up in a hurry, lifts his bag from the floor, and rushes for the way out, wiping his eyes once again. He’s on the threshold putting his shoes back.

“And Jeongguk,” Seokjin calls out to him. “Don’t come back again.”

 

 

one

 

It ends with a storm.

The clouds will roll over and the sky will darken and the sun will disappear. Then the thunder will start then the earthquakes. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. It ends in fire. It will rain flames and the earthquakes will open up the ground and beneath it only Hellfire awaits. The sinners and nonbelievers will drop into the underworld without a last chance for repentance and the believers will be pulled up into Heaven in all its glory. 

The end starts with a storm.

Jeongguk sits in his room the day before the rapture with his hands together and his eyes focused outside the window. The sky is gray and the wind is blowing. A storm is coming in. He wonders if this is the beginning of the storm to come or if it’s just the last rainstorm before The End. Enraptured with the sight of it, he closes his Bible and stands from the floor. 

Stopping in front of the window, he presses a hand to the glass and stares up at the sky, watching the rain fall sideways. If this is the last rain he’ll witness, he wants to be there for it. He opens the window and the wind comes howling in. He closes his eyes as the wind rushes against him, blowing his hair back and making his clothes dance. A stray raindrop falls on his cheek, alone, and he opens his eyes to witness the last storm before the Last Storm.

 

 

the end of the world

 

Birds are singing when Jeongguk wakes up on the last day. When he opens his eyes and his sight comes into focus on the ceiling, he wants nothing more than to go back to sleep. To be completely unaware of all the chaos impending, to not have to hear the screams and shouts. But he knows he has to face the day, has to face himself. The question is still in his mind. Whether or not Heaven will allow him at all.

He lies there for as long as he can before his mother comes knocking on his door. She opens it slowly and smiles at him with a kindness he hasn’t seen from her in years.

“It’s time,” she says.

They didn’t have much of a plan for the end. What kind of plan did they need? All they had to do, really, was sit and wait for the end to come to them. The only thing they knew they wanted for sure was to do exactly that together. 

On paper, it sounded sweet and pure. But Jeongguk didn’t know what to think of it, really. To him, it started to seem that to be together was only a guise. For what, he didn’t know. It just didn’t feel real.

In the living room, sat in threes against the wall across from the window, they wait to be beamed upward before the sky and earth split asunder. Jeongguk holds his mother’s hand and his mother holds onto his father’s. It’s the anticipation that kills him the most. He fears what’s to come next for everyone else. And even though he should be relieved, should be happy even, he can’t help but think about the others. About Taehyung and about Seokjin and about all the Lost Souls he didn’t give himself the opportunity to help. 

But then again, he wonders, what if he was a lost soul himself? What if Taehyung and Seokjin weren’t lost at all to begin with? What if Seokjin had been right about everything he said? What if he’s not going up above at all?

Last summer when Elder Asa had announced the hour of the end, he said the clock would strike ten and the end would begin. It was now 10:30. They were still sat in threes against the wall, still holding hands, but now the anxiousness Jeongguk had been swimming in was beginning to mutate into something foreign. They wait.

At one point, the clouds start rolling in again. Here it goes, they all think, a collective hive mind of hopefulness. Then the rain falls, a drizzle at first. Kids on bikes ride by their window screaming and laughing as they try to outrace the storm. Cars continue driving up and down the street. The rain falls harder. But there’s no earthquake. No flames falling out of the sky. No beam of light pulling them up to Heaven. No Hell waiting below. No screams of agony or the smell of searing flesh. 

Jeongguk’s stomach begins to ache in places he didn’t know existed, with aches he didn’t know he could ever have. A cold sweat breaks out on the back of his neck and his entire body goes heavy with something akin to dread. They wait for hours.

The storm continues.

But the storm is just rain.

And the rain is just water.

At some point, they stop holding hands. At some point, their bones go soft. At some point, their legs go numb and they have to rotate their limbs to get the blood flowing. At some point, Jeongguk’s wariness falls into confusion which falls into, and this surprises him, anger. More than that though, there’s regret settling into every fiber of his being, spurning on a stinging in his eyes and a thickness in his throat that refuses to subside. 

It isn’t until the sun starts setting that his parents acknowledge what’s been clear to Jeongguk since the clock struck eleven.

There was no rapture. Or, if there was, it wasn’t happening today. Not at all.

Jeongguk’s bottom lip shakes before he catches it between his teeth. It doesn’t stop him from wanting to cry.

It’s Jeongguk’s father who finally stands and says in a quiet voice. “We should see Elder Asa. He’ll know the meaning of this.”

I know the meaning, Jeongguk wants to say. 

‘It’s bullshit’ rings in his ears.

 

They aren’t the only ones who pull up to the church and they aren’t the first ones to arrive. 

The lot looks almost like Sunday service with many cars packed in tight and people in scatters trailing toward the church doors. The sky is gray but fire free and the sun is up, softened behind a riot of rain clouds. His parents and everyone else rush to the door as soon as they get out of the cars but Jeongguk takes his time, dragging his shoes against the asphalt with his neck craned and face toward the sky. He lets the raindrops kiss his cheeks and the breeze embrace him. 

He thought yesterday’s rain would be the last time he’d ever witness it. He thought the shadows dancing on the ceiling of his bedroom were only going to dance for him one last time. He thought and he thought of nothing but lasts for an entire year. But now when he stands under the rain, not having a care of whether or not he gets soaked, he’s thinking only of firsts. 

When he gets inside, Elder Asa is standing in front of his podium, trying to talk down to the crowd. Jeongguk spots the Kwangs and feels a pang of guilt and sadness in his gut. Their house was sold, their savings depleted. They had next to nothing save for the clothes on their back. All for an End that wasn’t going to come.

How could he have been so stupid? How could they all have been so stupid?

He looks to Elder Asa and the eyes he once thought as kind warp into something so malevolent that Jeongguk has to look away. How could he have been so gullible?

“…forgive me,” the first two words that Jeongguk can make out as he approaches the rest of the congregation, all of whom are practically congesting the front end, suffocating Elder Asa where he stood. Good, he thinks, he deserves it. “I’m not trying to question your goodwill, Elder. I’m not questioning God. I just want to know…is this really the hour?”

Before Elder Asa can even consider answering that, someone else chimes in. “Has God delivered another message to you? In a dream, perhaps? Has the Day been changed?”

It ruffles Jeongguk’s feathers then, to hear not the questions people are asking but the way they’re asking it. They’re so polite, so reserved, so shy. So insistent on maintaining a rapport with Elder Asa. He realizes that the rest of the congregation must still see him as a radiant messenger, as a pious worshipper whose way of life is to be mirrored. The realization settles sourly in the pit of his stomach. 

‘It’s bullshit’ rings again.

“My children,” Elder Asa says. His voice is rich and awed, loud enough to be heard but gentle enough for his words to feel like tremors to an earthquake never to come. Unspoken but broken promises. “Don’t you see? This was a test of faith.”

Jeongguk feels his face screw up, contorted in both disgust and confusion. The sourness in his stomach grows more tart and he grows more bitter. 

Elder Asa continues: “God is wise. This was a test of our belief, of our faith, of our resilience against this wicked society. We’ve been blessed to continue our most important duty on this Earth. Blessed with more time. Don’t you see? We haven’t been abandoned. We’ve been guided.”

Around him, members of the congregation react viscerally. Some fall to their knees in praise, some moan and groan variations of “amen” and other holinesses, some grab hold of Elder Asa’s hands as if the answer to all of life rests in his palms. They all take it to heart, they all believe it. The anger that had been simmering starts to boil over. They all believe this absolute—

“Bullshit,” Jeongguk says.

It surprises even him. When the word is out, for a few seconds after, his face shows his own horror, eyes going wide and mouth dropping. A few gasps follow that, all eyes turning in his direction. Then silence.

It’s the silence that pushes him. He’s been silent all his life. He’s sick of the silence.

“Bullshit,” he says again. He looks to Elder Asa. “You’re full of it,” then his gaze goes round the people at his sides and in front of him. “You’re all full of it.”

“Jeongguk,” his father starts, voice stern and cold.

“It’s coming out of your ears,” Jeongguk goes on, looking to his parents now. “It’s coming out of your mouth. It’s all bullshit. It’s bullshit, it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit and you just keep lapping it up. You don’t even realize how bad it stinks.”

It’s Elder Asa who tries to satiate him, stepping out from behind the podium and approaching him slowly with open arms. Yesterday, Jeongguk would have seen a hug in the gesture. Today, he just sees a trap. “Son, I know you’re disappointed. I understand. We all do, don’t we?”

A few sounds of agreement cut in but Jeongguk pays it no mind. They’ll agree to anything he says.

“We’ll be away from this rotten world soon enough,” Elder Asa says. “I understand your disappointment.”

“No, you don’t,” Jeongguk says. “Because I’m not disappointed. I’m pissed off.”

“Jeongguk.”

“You lied to every single one of us. You strung us along for a year. A year. Did you even have that dream? Did God even give you a message? Or were just hoping that it’d happen within a year’s time? And when Mr and Mrs. Kwang came to you to tell you they gave up all they had for a day that isn’t even here, did you stop and think about it? Were you ever gonna tell the truth? Or were just planning to spin it into something else all along?”

Next, it’s father. Whose tense and taut voice sends the worst kind of chills down Jeongguk’s back. But even though he’s afraid, he finds that he’s not. He’s never felt braver. “Jeongguk. Don’t do this. Don’t make me regret—”

“Having me for a son?” Jeongguk asks. He turns to the Kims. “Like you guys do. You know what’s funny though? You’re lucky to have a son like Taehyung. Because he’s too good a person to ever tell you how full of shit you are. But me, I don’t mind one bit. You’re absolutely, positively full of sh—”

The slap stings his cheek, burns at his eyes, and the sound of it resounds in the church. Its impact is followed quickly by a collective gasp. Jeongguk turns his sights toward his father who still has one hand up, prepared to dish out another one.

“Keep talking,” his dad says. 

Jeongguk grits his teeth and nods at him. “Since you asked nicely.”

Then Jeongguk looks around the congregation, at everyone staring at him wide-eyed. His throat thickens. He’s not just angry. He feels betrayed. He feels like he’d been promised the world and was given, instead, a shiny coin. He feels lied to. He feels like he could cry. But he won’t do it in front of them.

He meets every eye on him carefully. “All of you can go fuck yourselves.”

His dad tries to swing at him again but Jeongguk dodges it and backs away down the aisle. 

“Especially you,” he says to Elder Asa. Then to Taehyung’s parents: “You guys, too. Fuck you.”

And then he’s running. Out of the church, out of the congregation, out of his parents’ sights. 

And out into the world he knows he isn’t ready for.

 

 

He lets himself cry under the rain. 

Nobody driving past him can tell the difference and neither can he. 

When he’s stood in front of Seokjin’s door, he knows he should leave. He knows he shouldn’t be there. For that reason, he doesn’t knock. But he doesn’t walk away either. Inside, his tears are obvious, his shoulders shaking and his sobs quietly filling the empty hall.

Eventually, the door opens and Seokjin is standing in front of him, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed and his expression smug.

“Happy End of the World,” Seokjin says, head tilted and voice low.

Jeongguk says nothing. He can’t. All he can manage is to succumb further to the tears pouring out of him. He slumps forward, bowing his head in shame and cries. He’s surprised when, instead of the door shutting in his face, arms come down around him, wrapping him up and pulling him in. He cries onto Seokjin’s shoulder who rubs his back and sways side to side. 

“I’m sorry,” he tries to say, almost says, with his voice breaking and all inflection drowning out. “I’m sorry…I have nowhere else to go.”

“Okay,” Seokjin murmurs into his neck. “I’m sorry, too.”

 

Jeongguk isn’t sure what Seokjin is sorry for until later. Later when he’s sitting at the tiny red dining table with another cup of tea — Earl Grey, this time — and a blanket around his shoulders. A bright yellow towel is wrapped around his head. Seokjin insisted. 

He’s in another one of Seokjin’s things, a hoodie this time and a pair of sweat pants. The sound of the dryer in the other room is the only sound for a while. All he can do is stare into his steaming cup, hands gripped on the ends of the towel. Nothing is on the horizon. 

God,” Seokjin groans in front of him. He’s standing in the kitchen, making a pot of instant macaroni. “Cheer up. The world will end eventually, I promise you. We’re halfway there anyway.”

Jeongguk continues staring at the blank space. He knows, by the churning of his stomach and the pain in his chest, that he could cry again. But his body must be out of water because the tears don’t come.

“…It was the only thing I believed in,” he says quietly. 

“…you’ll find other things. Like, I dunno…Aliens are a pretty cool thing to believe in. Sasquatches. Ghosts. Mind controlling furbies.”

“Please stop,” Jeongguk says, the tiniest smile forming on his lips. It slides off just as soon.

Seokjin does stop. He quiets for a while. When Jeongguk looks up, Seokjin’s dropping the powdered cheese into the pot and stirring it up.

“Well…you could always just,” he pauses and shrugs a little, mouth quirking to the side. “Believe in yourself, I guess.”

Jeongguk laughs shortly at that but there’s no humor and no smile to match. He shakes his head and stirs at his tea. “That’s not much.”

“Listen, if you’re gonna sleep here, the self-deprecation thing has to take a hike. It’s such a turn off.”

Jeongguk blushes.

Soon, Seokjin is sitting down across from him with two bowls of macaroni and a glass of iced tea for himself. He passes Jeongguk a spoon, looking up at him.

“I’m serious,” he says. “What do you like to do anyway?”

“I…I don’t know,” admitting it stings. 

He never had time for things like hobbies. In high school, he avoided friendships, even ones within the congregation because he didn’t want to be steered away from what he thought was more important. He thought friends would be distractions, thought hobbies would just lead him straight to the Devil. How stupid.

Seokjin helps himself to a spoon full of the macaroni. “I guess you oughta find out then.”

“How do I do that?”

“Live your life, that’s how. Live it for you. Not your Mom. Not your Dad. Not for…anyone.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk mutters after a while. He dips the spoon into the bowl of macaroni. “I don’t know how to do that though.”

“Well, the world didn’t end,” Seokjin looks up at him. “So you have plenty of time.”

It goes quiet.

Seokjin helps himself to the food and Jeongguk doesn’t. 

After a while, Seokjin hits the table. Not loudly, not violently, not with the hate Jeongguk had become privy to. When he looks up, Seokjin is gesturing at him with his mouth full.

“If you’re not gonna eat it, give it to me.”

“No, no, I want it. Thank you. I’m sorry…Thanks.”

He eats at last with Seokjin watching him subtly. When the food hits his tongue, he’s suddenly reminded of a simpler time. It tastes like the same kind of macaroni his mother made for him when he was young. He sighs but continues to eat.

“I told my parents to fuck themselves. I told the entire church to fuck themselves.”

It’s as if saying it out loud is the only thing that makes it sink in. He really did do all of those things, said all of those things. That happened. His cheeks start to burn at the memory and he wants suddenly to sink into his seat and take it all back.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” he mutters.

“They deserved it, I bet,” Seokjin says coolly and Jeongguk looks up at him wide-eyed. “What? You want me to believe falling made your cheek go all red?”

Jeongguk stuffs his spoon in his mouth and avoids Seokjin’s eyes. “He didn’t mean it.”

“You had it right the first time,” Seokjin scoffs. “Fuck that and fuck him.”

 

 

There’s no Jiyoo or Heeyeon tonight. None of Seokjin’s friends need a place to crash, not at the moment. Jeongguk realizes, wishful thinking perhaps, that he is the friend tonight.

The spare bedroom is dark when they enter, aside from the jellyfish lamp sat on the bedside table which illuminates various shades of purples, greens, and blues. The room is small but it’s the biggest small room Jeongguk has ever seen. The bed is in the corner, the long side pushed up against the wall which leaves room for the small bookshelf just by the door. And ample room to even do exercises with all the floorspace. A light-blocking curtain, black in color, hangs over the window. The floor is soft with plush white carpet, the cleanest Jeongguk has ever seen white carpet. 

He looks from the floor to Seokjin in question.

Seokjin looks down at the carpet, slides his foot against it, and smiles. “Yeah, I’m proud of it too. No food or drink in here. Obviously.”

There was a single chalk wall across from them with a bunch of different messages in different handwriting. Liquid neon of various colors spelled out messages of love and affection for Seokjin. Some notes were cheekier than others. Jeongguk wouldn’t be the first person to sleep in this room and he wouldn’t be the last. He thinks of Seokjin allows having his door open and then, suddenly, of Taehyung again.

He tries to swallow down the guilt.

Seokjin steps away from him, toward the other side of the room where Jeongguk spots the other big source of the lighting: rectangular fishtank propped on the wall opposite the window. Seokjin stops in front of the take and points out several of the fish.

“Over here, we have Ursala, Seuss — not Zeus, mind you — Frida, and, last but not least, Donna Summer.”

Jeongguk’s eyes follow the path the multicolored fish takes. “You named your fish Donna Summer?”

“It’s the least I could do to honor such an icon, no?” Seokjin stands up straight and points to the bed. “Well. Get comfy. I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me. Towels are in the bathroom closet. I don’t care if you get up for a midnight snack, just don’t touch my ice cream sandwiches. They’re for emergencies only. Don’t pull that curtain up either. The fish tank can’t be in sunlight or I’ll have algae all over the place. Cool?”

Jeongguk nods.

Seokjin nods too and turns to leave but before he can make it out the door, Jeongguk calls out to him.

“Sorry for coming back,” he says quietly.

“…yeah,” Seokjin nods, still smiling but the smile is soft around the edges like a faded memory. “Me too. Night, Jeongguk.”

“Goodnight, Seokjin.”

 

Out of habit, Jeongguk almost kneels next to the bed for evening prayer but before his knees can hit the carpet, he thinks better of it. His shoulders slump as he stands and lays down in the bed, not even bothering to get under the covers.

Outside, the rain still thrums against the roof and the window. The wind still sings through the streets, occasionally reaching a pitch high enough to permeate through the walls. And Jeongguk closes his eyes to the storm, listening out for the world, for the sense in the chaos, for the truth in every single lie told.

 

 

white shirt pink

 

It’s light and music that wake Jeongguk up at six in the morning. Light coming in front the living room, all warm and golden and bright bleeding into the bedroom. The music is coming from the living room too, the foreign vocals floating in and out.

When he opens his eyes, he sees Seokjin standing in front of the fish tank. His back is to Jeongguk as he feeds the fish and sways slightly, humming along to the music. For a second, Jeongguk just watches him swaying like that. He lets his eyes fall shut for the shortest moment, really just a sliver of a second, to the music. He can’t understand the words but the music almost makes him feel like his entire world hasn’t been turned upside down.

It’s that very comfort that makes him open his eyes, remembering his parents, remembering the church, and regretting. What has he done?

“Good morning.”

Jeongguk turns his head to the side, his hair flopping over as he meets Seokjin’s gentle gaze. He looks so soft. Still in his pajamas, which consist of a pinstripe baby pink and black silk button up with matching pants, and his hair sticking up, he somehow manages to not look a complete mess.

“Morning,” Jeongguk murmurs. “…I like your pajamas.”

Seokjin looks down at his clothes, the container of fish food in his hands. “Me, too,” he looks at Jeongguk, tilts his head. “That’s not your way of sweet talking me for free breakfast, is it? I’d be so scandalized.”

Jeongguk is sheepish when he answers too quietly while looking back at the ceiling. “I don’t even know how to do that.”

“Too bad,” Seokjin fakes a sad sigh as he leaves the room. He calls over his shoulder: “Breakfast in five.”

Jeongguk doesn’t wait five. He does’t even wait one. As soon as Seokjin has one foot out the door, Jeongguk has one on the floor ready to trail behind him. He notices how dark it is outside the window as he passes it on his way out. 

“Do you have to be at work soon?” Jeongguk asks when he settles down at the dining table. 

Seokjin scoffs standing over the stove and stoking at a pan. “Why, are you trying to get rid of me?”

“No. I just…Maybe, this is dumb but you don’t seem like the type to get up this early?”

Seokjin laughs a little. “There’s a type? What type of person gets up at, uh,” he pauses to look at the time above the stove, “six in the morning?”

“I don’t know. My grandma would be up at five.”

My grandma has your grandma beat by two hours,” Seokjin turns quickly to smirk at him. “The fish eat every morning. When I bought them, the guy said it’s best for the fish to eat in the morning or in the evening, just once a day. I work nights most of the time so ass crack of dawn, it is. Coffee, orange juice, or milk?”

Jeongguk considers it for a moment. “I’ve never had coffee.”

“Coffee, it is then. Wow, look at me corrupting you. I promise, you’re gonna have just one sip of the coffee I make and you’ll be hooked.”

Their conversation lulls and the music playing takes over. Jeongguk tries not to stare each time Seokjin breaks out in a little dance to whatever song starts playing, tries not to follow the words to closely when Seokjin tries to sing along, tries not to get lulled by the sweetness of his voice. But he’s never successful in either endeavor.

When breakfast is ready and they each start helping themselves to rice with black beans, omelettes, and diagonally cut slices of nearly burnt toast dusted with brown sugar. 

“So,” Seokjin starts after a while, mouth partially full “What do you think you’re gonna do next?”

“I…Shower, maybe?”

“I meant with your life. What are you gonna do now that the Earth is still spinning? Where are you gonna go?”

When Jeongguk doesn’t answer right away, Seokjin breaks it to him in that soft voice of his. 

“You know you can’t stay here forever, don’t you?” he doesn’t say it out right, only murmurs it so softly that it almost goes unheard. 

“I’m not sure. I’m thinking,” Jeongguk answers after a while, stops and exhales heavily. “…I was thinking I should go back. I think maybe I overreacted.”

Seokjin doesn’t say anything, only questioning him with his eyes, brows furrowed.

Under his stare, Jeongguk looks down at the table and does what he does best: shrugs. “I said some things I shouldn’t have said. And…I mean, like I told you, it’s not like I have anywhere else to go. It makes since to go home.”

“Hm,” Seokjin takes a long sip of his coffee, sets it back down, and rounds his shoulders before cutting back into a piece of the omelette in front of him. “Like Hell, it does.”

“…Well…It’s like you said, I can’t stay here—”

“And you can’t go back,” sighing Seokjin sets down his chopsticks and reaches his free hand out. He cups Jeongguk’s cheek, the same one that was hit, and makes Jeongguk’s heart skip a beat at the same time. “Does that still hurt?”

There’s nothing Jeongguk can say, really. Not because he doesn’t know what to say or because because he’s been stumped. He just can’t get the words out, can’t focus on anything but trying to breathe with Seokjin’s hand on him. After a moment, Seokjin pulls his hand away and goes back to the chopsticks.

Jeongguk remembers how to breathe again, tries not to make his shiver to obvious.

“You can’t just let people treat you any kind of way,” Seokjin says. “That’s how you end up hating your life.”

“…Are you talking from experience?”

Still chewing idly, Seokjin cradles his face in his hand and sweetens his gaze. “Why, yes, Jeon Jeongguk. I am…You ever read Giovanni’s Room? There’s this part in there that I always remember. It’s something like...well, the character Giovanni is kind of debating with this other character David about home. I say debating but they’re really flirting — don’t look so scandalized, ‘Guk, you just spent the night at a gay man’s house, ok? — and he says something like ‘you see, when you do go home after leaving it for a while, you come back to find it’s not the same. It’s strange. And strange places can never be home. As long as you never go home, you’ll always have a home to go to.’ Funny, huh?”

Jeongguk isn’t sure what to think of that, let alone what to say to it. He leans his elbows onto the table, sighing. “I don’t have any friends, Seokjin. I don’t have anyone. I mean…why do you think I’m here?”

“Because you feel like you can trust me. After all, why do you think I let you stay?”

He doesn’t answer the question.

“Can I stay here?” Jeongguk asks. “I’ll pay you.”

Silence again.

And then:

“Do you know where your friend is?” Seokjin asks. 

Jeongguk answers to the rice, shaking his head and shattering inside. The weight from yesterday returns and settles in the pit of his stomach.

He hears Seokjin take a deep breath, hears the creak of his chair as he leans back into it. “Okay, so…how about—? How long do you think it would take you to find a place of your own?”

“I don’t know. How much does it cost to get an apartment?”

“Depends on where you get it, sweetheart. How much money do you have? Any savings?”

Jeongguk feels like an idiot when he shakes his head. “I’ve never had a job.”

“…Whoa. So. You, my friend, are in dire need of help. All this talk about having something to believe in, we need to get you on your feet first. Whether you believe in it or not, capitalism is still a thing we all have to adhere to whether we like it or not.”

Seokjin stands up from the table. Jeongguk watches him as he trots past the living room and into the hall where the bathroom is until he’s out of view. When Seokjin returns, he’s holding a legal pad and a pen.

“We’re gonna make a contract,” Seokjin puts the pad on the table as he sits. “I’ll let you stay here as long as you get a job and as long as you start saving up for an apartment. You don’t have to pay me for a room since, by your admission, you have a grand total of zero dollars.”

“I can pay you when I start making money.”

Seokjin smiles, humored, while writing out the contract. “That’s cute. You’re not gonna earn an awful lot on minimum wage so you save every penny. Plus, you don’t have a job yet and there’s no guarantee you’ll get one right away. So, it’s best to not put it in the contract. I don’t wanna have to take you to court down the line. The judge would take one look at me and put you in jail by default. Can’t have that on my conscience.”

“Thank you,” Jeongguk answers in a whisper. “I’ll start looking today. But I…I don’t have my bike anymore.”

“Best find something in walking distance then.” 

 

 

The ice cream parlor looks different now.

Nothing about it has changed visually. The mint green walls are the same. The drawings of smiling cones and singing cherries are the same. Everything’s the same but it feels different. Not only to enter it alone, he supposes, but to enter it not in pursuit of ice cream. Unbeknownst to himself, he looks around the place, at each table and around the corner where the bathrooms are, for Taehyung. Of course, he’s nowhere in sight. 

It occurs to Jeongguk, just as he’s stepping up to the cash register, that he has no idea how to go about this. He should have asked Seokjin before he left but Seokjin had gone back to bed, insisting on getting rest before his first shift of the new week. And Jeongguk didn’t have the nerve to bug him any further. 

It was strange.

If anyone had told him yesterday that he’d be trying to get a job at an ice cream shop, living in Casi Cielo apartments with a cute guy and all his fish, he’d firstly assume whatever person was dead wrong. The world was meant to end after all. But even if it wasn’t. Even if Elder Asa hadn’t concocted all that bullshit, even if Jeongguk hadn’t been dimwitted enough to believe it, he still wouldn’t have guessed that this is where he’d be today. But then again, if the world wasn’t going to end, if Elder Asa hadn’t said what he said, Jeongguk wouldn’t have met Seokjin in the first place. He wouldn’t need a place to stay at all.

Walking outside of Seokjin’s apartment through the complex and down the various roads, he passed all kinds of life. From the people to the birds to the bright green caterpillar he spotted on the sidewalk. Life was everywhere. No one was dead and no one was tortured. The sky was bright blue and the sun too bright for words and the wind was blowing gently, making the day neither too hot or too cool. It was like seeing the world for the first time.

“Welcome to Scoops, what can I get for you today?” 

The woman at the register isn’t the same one he and Taehyung would see on their nightly visits. Her hair is dyed a bright green, black at the roots, and is styled into a micro pixie cut that suits her heart shaped face perfectly. A piercing adorns her eyebrow, one in her top lip. She looks like the kind of person who Jeongguk just yesterday would have avoided. 

But if he did, he would have missed the kindness in her voice and in her eyes. The kind of kindness that goes beyond being employee of the month. 

She tilts her head after a while.

“Are you okay?” She asks. “You look a little…”

“A little?”

She seems to consider not saying the next part but she concedes. “Lost.”

“I am,” Jeongguk admits after a little while. He nods, agreeing with himself. It’s fitting for him to be lost. This was an entirely new world. “Um. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to go about this but, um…are you guys hiring by chance?”

She seems to read him, pursing her lips and eyes softening in sympathy. “Down on your luck?”

“Is it obvious? I can’t go back home.”

Her eyebrows furrow and she reaches out to him, hand soft against his arm. “Do you need a place to stay? My girlfriend co-ops a shelter, she could—”

“No, no. Thank you. I, uh, fortunately have one friend in this world.”

“Two, now,” her frown turns to a smile as she pats his arm once more before putting her hand to her chest. “Aecha. Ironic because I kind of hate my parents.”

Jeongguk mirrors her, placing his own hand against his heart. He says his name.

A moment passes between them and, for the first time in a long time, Jeongguk feels completely understood. 

She inhales. “Well, Jeongguk. I can’t make any promises but I can put a word in here and ask around. I have plenty of friends who work around here, I’m sure one of them has something for you. Do you have a number I can take down or…?”

This had always embarrassed Jeongguk a little.

Even when he was convinced he was too pious a person to care for such frivolous things like material possessions. When he was in school, to admit it was to cast him beneath the already neon bright title of pariah. Now, it’s just embarrassing. His head bows the slightest when he admits, bashfully: “I don’t have a phone.”

She doesn’t even react. “I’ll take down mine then.”

She prints out a piece of blank receipt paper, tears it, and writes down her phone number in a green glitter pen. Her name, she writes in big cursive letters. She passes the receipt to him and holds onto it when he gets his hands on it.

“Come by anytime. I mean it.”

“Thank you…Um, I think you should know I’ve never had a job before. But I’m…I’m dedicated when I can be.”

She nods at him, smile soft. “Don’t worry.”

“Thank you,” he says again and repeats it as he walks out of the door.

 

It’s not like Seokjin told him not to come back unless he had a job secured. Realistically, Jeongguk could go right back to Cielo, back to Seokjin, back to Donna Summer the Blue-Yellow Zebra Danios. 

But he didn’t feel like going back. He didn’t want to invade Seokjin’s space any more than he already has. He didn’t want to sit there in silence, not what to do or what he can do. Without the excuse of sleeping, staying there just makes him feel like he’s going to be in the way. So, he goes to a few more stores asking about jobs. No one has outright turned him away, most people telling him they’ll let him know if anything opens up and giving him business cards. In the midst of pursuing these different opportunities for work, he finally realizes that he’s still looking for Taehyung. He looks for him every corner he turns, every store he enters, every employee he talks to. 

He wishes, more than anything, that he’d gotten to know Taehyung beyond croissants at Pop’s and inappropriate humor. He wishes he knew what type of person Taehyung was, what places he went to when he was upset, who he hung out with outside of the congregation, when his birthday was. He wishes he could find him. He wishes he hadn’t turned him away. He wishes that Taehyung is alright.

He makes his way back to the apartment after 4 o’clock. As walks through the entrance, passes the first few buildings, he eyes the orange one that Taehyung would go into. Part of him wants to knock on the door but he knows how ludicrous the idea is that someone Taehyung spent time with when he was just trying to convert them wouldn’t know where he was now. It’s the only thread he has though. And maybe that’s why he doesn’t go in, why he charges on to the end of the subdivision. It hits him that he can make sense of it, of Giovanni’s Room. 

As long as he never checks the orange building, there’ll always be a chance that Taehyung could be there. 

 

 

Music is playing when Seokjin opens the front door for him. 

“There you are,” Seokjin says to him but not to him, his back already turned as he enters the apartment ahead of Jeongguk and scurries to the bathroom. As Jeongguk toes off his shoes, Seokjin calls out: “I almost forgot. I need to interview you.”

Jeongguk trails inside, closes the door behind him, and plops down on the sofa. “Do you have a job for me or something?”

“Or something,” Seokjin calls out. “You’re my roommate now and, well, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to know who I’m living with,” and then he trails out of the hallway, standing in the living room as he puts a stud earring on. “I don’t even know how old you are.”

“Twenty-two. How old are you?”

Seokjin gets the earring in and straightens up, he smoothes down his shirt — a black button up blouse and smiles. “I’m not being interrogated here, JK, you are.”

“JK?”

He waves a hand as he sits down on the couch. “I don’t have enough time in the day to say your full name each time I wanna patronize you,” he sighs comfortably when he’s settled. “What’s your sign?”

“…I don’t know.”

Seokjin rolls his eyes. “When were you born, love?”

Jeongguk would probably die before admitting it to Seokjin or to anyone, even to himself for that matter, but he’s taken a liking to Seokjin’s latest use of pet names. Sweetheart circles back to him. “September 1st.”

“A virgo,” Seokjin says wistfully, nodding along to the afrobeat song that’s started on his stereo. “My grandmother warned me against people like you.”

Even though he’s not entirely sure what Seokjin means, Jeongguk smiles if only because Seokjin is smiling and because, as he realized days prior, he likes to have Seokjin’s attention. 

“What are virgos like then? What’s so dangerous about them?”

“They’re like you,” Seokjin winks. “You’re much more dangerous than you give yourself credit for. My Achilles’ heel is cute boys who don’t know how dangerous they are. Okay, next question — what kind of music do you listen to? And don’t you dare say—”

“Hymns, mostly.”

Jesus.”

“But I like ballads, too. Soft ones, you know, like IU or Yuna or…I think Carla Bruni’s nice.”

“Carla Bruni,” Seokjin repeats the name but it sounds much better coming from him. “I would’ve thought all French music was banned in Houses of the Lord. Even when they aren’t singing about sex, it all tends to sound a bit sexy, doesn’t it? Invokes impure thoughts?”

Seokjin doesn’t let him answer, he probably already suspects Jeongguk has no interest in responding. He moves on to the next question.

“Are you now or have you ever been a fan of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita?” 

The way Seokjin looks at him after posing the question makes Jeongguk feel unsettled, makes him squirm, wanting nothing but to wriggle away to some dark corner where he can’t be seen. Seokjin’s eyes are serious and penetrating, a slight deviation from their usual intensity. Jeongguk grapples with how he should answer the question. Maybe Seokjin wants him to say ‘yes.’ Maybe he wants him to say ‘no.’

He chooses honesty. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it, actually.”

Seokjin’s stare softens and he tilts his head a bit. “That’s a no, then. Good. It’s gross. Okay, then, I think I’m done.”

Jeongguk swallows hard and looks at the ground as he chances the next thing out of his mouth. “I guess it’s my turn?”

Seokjin turns to him, eyes wide and mouth fallen open as he gapes in bewildered amusement. “Who’s shacking up with who? Shacking up sans the shagging, that is.”

“How old are you?”

“We’re really doing this?” Seokjin looks at his wrist watch and exhales as he leans back into the sofa. “Fine, whatever, I have time. Twenty-seven in December.”

“And what’s your sign?”

“Sagittarius.”

Jeongguk hums the same way he’s heard Seokjin do at least five times, feigning disappointment. “Interesting.”

Seokjin laughs a little, covers his eyes with the back of his hand as he throws his head back. “Do you even know what a Sagittarius is?”

“Which brings us to our next question. What’s a Sagittarius? What are the downsides to your personality that I should look out for?”

“Ah, sweetie, there are no downsides to me.”

For a moment, it’s as if Jeongguk’s reaction makes it all too obvious how much he enjoys that. Another pet name, another term of endearment, appointed, he wonders, for how long? 

“Why would you name your fish Donna Summer?”

“Why wouldn’t I name my fish Donna Summer?”

“Next question — who is Donna Summer?”

Seokjin’s eyebrows furrow up so fast, his face the definition of shocked and tiny mix of anger. He puts his hand to his chest as if he’s affronted and his eyes fluter closed. “First of all, that’s offensive. Second of all, that’s not even about me. I thought you had questions about me.

“I don’t, really,” Jeongguk admits. “Just wanted to keep talking to you, I guess.”

“…We live together now so there’ll be plenty of time for that. I have to head to work,” Seokjin looks at his watch again and then pulls his phone out of his pocket. “But first. I wanna see how compatible we are.”

Although Jeongguk is aware — painfully aware — of how inexperienced he is in this sport called Life, he thought he understood, at least a fraction, that his and Seokjin’s compatibility was something special. Perhaps special isn’t the right word, not exactly. It was an immediate connection and although he could never in his life begin to make sense of it, not being able to put reason to the way they clicked didn’t change the fact that they did click. 

Seokjin types something out on his phone, reads quietly for a bit, and then smirks. He leans back and reads aloud: “Okay, it says here that we’re compatible most in conversation. Conversation is an aphrodisiac for both signs, apparently. You’re more analytical, I’m more philosophical — that tracks. It also says that the allure of our stimulating conversations can wear off once we sleep together and…”

Seokjin trails off, confusion once again marring his face. He doesn’t notice the way Jeongguk is visibly blushing, he way his shoulders get more tense or how he sits up straighter.

“Ugh,” Seokjin says. “It says that Virgos are givers in bed and Sagittarii are selfish. See,” he says as he rolls his eyes, stands up and pockets his phone. “This is why you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

Seokjin grabs a canvas bag from the table by the door and starts to put on his shoes. 

“Okay. I’m off to make money. Please don’t burn my house down and don’t steal anything from me. See you later?”

Seokjin goes to open the door and is almost out of it when Jeongguk stops him.

“Wait,” he nearly yells and scrambles from the couch. Seokjin pokes his head through. “What did it say? About our compatibility? Overall, I mean.”

Seokjin looks absolutely endeared, absolutely pitying, and like he absolutely adores Jeongguk at the same time. He praises him with another one of his knowing smirks and whispers: “Outlook not so good.”

Then the door is closed. 

Chapter Text

papered pink

Natalie had existed primarily in the prideful words of Mr and Mrs. Kim when they paraded Taehyung around as a walking result of God’s Mercy. God’s Mercy, for the uninformed, was how Taehyung could go from having impure thoughts and giving into impure impulses, from holding hands with a boy on the Wrong Side of Town to having a God-fearing girlfriend. Natalie and Taehyung met shortly before he went away into the clutches of what many in the congregation assumed was a correction facility. Whilst he was away, she wrote letters to him and to his parents.

Jeongguk never understood Natalie. He never doubted her existence. But, at the same time, she always felt somewhat like a childhood memory. The same way he could look back at a memory and wonder aloud whether that memory was his, someone else’s, or an invention of desire, he could think of Natalie. But he never could doubt her because, even without seeing her face-to-face, he’d seen her through the smiles Taehyung would wear when asked about her. 

Once, he’d even seen the picture she sent to Taehyung, the one Taehyung kept in his pocket. She was pretty with a round face, long feathered black hair, and one of the most alluring smiles. The first time Jeongguk saw the picture, he thought her smile was evident of her character. That she was, as the smile, self-assured and knowledgeable about things Jeongguk would never have any idea about. 

At some time during their missions en miniature, Taehyung read Jeongguk a portion of one of Natalie’s letters. This had been after Jeongguk asked, in earnest, if Taehyung really was going to marry her. Taehyung nodded, mostly at the ground but both shame and shyness were notably absent. 

He was beaming the way he only did whenever Jeongguk said ‘Natalie.’ 

“I wouldn’t mind it,” he said, smile growing.

Jeongguk had always been curious about things of that sort. Things like relationships and love and, although it brought him shame to think it, sex. He was curious about how people connected enough to even form relationships to begin with. This was, he suspected, because he had always struggled to connect with anyone. He couldn’t do it with with Taehyung, not with his parents, he couldn’t even connect with himself. 

“Do you love her?” He asked. 

There was zero hesitation in Taehyung’s nod.

His eyes were lost somewhere on the horizon. 

“Absolutely,” and then once more, mumbled, with a vulnerability neither of them had been privy to: “Crazy about her.”

Perhaps Taehyung had sensed that the answer wasn’t enough to satiate Jeongguk’s growing curiosity. Perhaps that’s why, in that moment, he retrieved a letter from his pocket and unfolded it. 

“This one’s from yesterday,” he murmured.

“She still writes you?”

“All the time.”

“And you always write back?”

That question, Taehyung didn’t answer. Instead, he cleared his throat and starting reading a section. After this happened, Jeongguk looked back on this memory time and time again because it amazed him to no end that Taehyung could be so open to someone like Jeongguk, someone closer to a stranger. 

‘When there’s distance between us, my comfort is the moon in all its masks. Crescent, Full, Half. I think its phases match me, the state of my heart when you’re Gone, With Me, and Away. The crescent is the worst. You may wonder what the difference is between you being Gone and you being Away. Gone is the distance without the words to fill up the space. It’s harder that way. But the moon brings me back to you. When I see it, I know you’re seeing the same one.’

There was more contained in that small letter. Jeongguk remembers the handwriting, how it looped and curved and was beautiful but seemed illegible all the same. The page, faint pink in color and smelling slightly of honeysuckle, was worn already. Folded, unfolded, and squared away into the deepest, warmest corner of Taehyung’s pocket, safe from prying eyes and filthy hands. 

“That’s what it’s like,” Taehyung said when the letter was out of sight and Natalie went from existing solely in smiles and in pictures to also existing in pink papered love letters.

Jeongguk eyed him in question.

“Being in love,” Taehyung looked at him then, gaze knowing. “That’s what you were asking, wasn’t it? Without saying it?”

 

Jeongguk didn’t understand it then and he doesn’t understand it now. 

In the past couple of nights spent under the jellyfish lights of Seokjin’s darkest guest room, in the company of Donna Summer in all her glory, Jeongguk has walked through memory after memory of Taehyung, trying to find, in them, a clue. When he revisits moments with his parents, moments with Elder Asa, or moments sitting for Sunday service, he can see the clues of their hypocrisy, the clues of his own disbelief — once simmering, now at full boil. He remembers the incidents that made him want to question the congregation and the answers that silenced him before he could. Things like the gossip and the two-facedness and the lies he so easily believed. It trips him up, how gullible he was. Maybe he still is.

The wound is still raw and Jeongguk can’t comprehend how or even if it’ll heal anytime soon. All in him feels raw and torn at the seams, shredded and unrecognizable. The worst part is that all the pain makes him want to do the one thing he hasn’t been able to stomach: to pray. To ask for some kind of guidance, some kind of reassurance. But every time the thought reaches him, before his knees can even consider bending to the ground, before his hands can clasp together, an anger he’s never known flares up inside him. 

And he thinks then that he can’t bear the task of pretending.

It was never easy for him to be genuine, not as easy as it was for Taehyung. But it was impossible still to be disingenuous in the slightest.

The turbulent waves of frustration are continually ebbed by calm waters of intrigue. 

Seokjin is to blame. It awes Jeongguk, how so easily he seems to fit into the empty corners of Seokjin’s apartment, in the empty corners of his life. Though it’s hard to imagine that any part of Seokjin’s life is empty. He’s much too aware that it has only been the two of them for the last couple of days meaning there’s been no one else to take up Seokjin’s time, no one else to compare their dynamic to, to see whether they really do just get on that well. But in these couple of days, there’s also yet to be a moment heavy with awkward silences. 

The silences he shares with Seokjin are anything but awkward, anything but dull, full of ease and sharp with a danger that Jeongguk can’t quite put his finger on. Seokjin had said that boys like him were dangerous. Virgos. Watch out for them. But Jeongguk thinks it’s quite the opposite, that boys like Seokjin are dangerous. Seokjin makes the parts he’d hidden from himself come to the forefront and impossible to ignore. Sometimes Seokjin looks at him and Jeongguk finds himself blushing furiously, not at being seen, but at the realization that not even the allure of Eden could make him want for Seokjin to look away. 

It’s the naivety, he realizes later, that makes him believe he’s special. 

He sees a connection between them that isn’t there, can’t be there. They’ve known each other for a little over a week. There’s no reason for Seokjin to find anything about him remarkable, to see him as anything other than a Lost One to pity. And when he hears Seokjin talking to his friends on the phone or listens to him come back from work in the middle of the night, he thinks he might know this already. The prospect never stops him, however, from waking up when Seokjin does, from breathing in his presence, from waiting up for him to get back from work in the evenings. 

He’s doing that now, waiting. Watching Donna Summer take up all the space in the tank with her larger than life personality. She reminds Jeongguk of Seokjin and the other fish — Seuss, Ursula, and Frida — are merely reflections of all the ways Jeongguk tends to fall under his spell. The apartment is quiet without Seokjin in it. No foreign music playing, no sounds of food boiling or frying, no scent of lemongrass or whatever’s in the oven. That’s the real reason Jeongguk has taken to waiting for Seokjin’s return. He can’t sleep when it’s this quiet. All it does is remind him of how alone he is, how small, how insignificant, and how terribly vast the world is in comparison. 

When he hears the front door open, he’s on his feet before he can even consider why he’s getting up to begin with. He could easily just listen out for the sound of Seokjin’s breathing, know he’s not alone, and go to sleep. But he gets up, opens the bedroom door, and the greeting sat on the tip of his tongue never goes beyond his lips because he clasps them shut when he sees someone entering the apartment at Seokjin’s side. 

They’re holding hands, this he notes first. And he ignores, among other things, the slight pang of  undeserved and unwarranted pain.

“Oh, really?” Seokjin laughs the question as he turns to toe his shoes off and lock the door. “I bet.”

It’s the tail end of a conversation that Jeongguk will later spend hours trying to create a beginning for. 

The guest, whose hand is still wrapped in Seokjin’s, laughs something light and husky. “Show me your room and I’ll prove it,” he says.

For a moment, for a split second, Jeongguk forgets that he exists. He forgets that he’s a person made of blood and flesh and bone. He forgets that his heart is beating and that he’s breathing. For a second, he’s surprised that people — Seokjin and Seokjin’s guest — can see a Non-Person such as him. But when they spot him, watching the two of them from a cracked open door, he remembers. And the first thing he feels is shame. Whether it’s shame at having been found watching or shame at existing, he doesn’t really know.

When The Guest spots him, he flashes a smile in his direction. The living room and foyer are still darkened with the exception of the street light peeking through the open blinds but Jeongguk feels almost blinded by the smile. By the sincerity of it. 

“Hey,” The Guest says. “I’m sorry, I hope we didn’t wake you.”

Jeongguk swallows, shakes his head. “’s okay. I was already up.”

“Jeongguk,” Seokjin says, his free hand left open in gesture to The Guest. The pang hurts a little more. He’d gotten used to the nicknames. To stray darlings and afterthought sweethearts. He’d gotten so used to it that hearing his own name feels a great disappointment. “This is Hoseok. Hoseok, this is Jeongguk. My ward.”

The two of them laugh a little, bending their heads together. It hurts again. He looks away with the surge of pain, this time feeling like the payoff to a joke he never got the set up for. 

The hand Seokjin had around Hoseok’s had unwinded itself and trailed up to Hoseok’s chest, staying there for a moment that lasted hours. With his other hand, Seokjin points behind Hoseok, at the hallway opposite Jeongguk’s bedroom. 

“Right down the hall, last room on your left. Wait for me?” It’s murmured but it sounds loud to Jeongguk’s ears. And the silence that follows that question — ‘Wait for me?’ — feels weighted in meaning. In the knowing smile on Hoseok’s face, still sincere but also darker. In the smirk Seokjin returns to him. In the play of their hands, briefly united again. 

“Alright,” Hoseok says. Then to Jeongguk, voice not as smoldered and eyes not as dark. “Good night. Sorry again.”

Jeongguk wants to say, again, that he was already awake. He wants for this absolute stranger to know that he didn’t disturb him, that he didn’t disrupt his night, that he doesn’t bother him. It feels as important as breathing for him to know that he doesn’t bother Jeongguk. But Hoseok is already walking away, disappearing down the hall and to the right. Jeongguk and Seokjin listen for the bedroom door to open and for the light to flicker on before talking.

“Okay,” Seokjin whispers mostly to himself before stepping out of the foyer, taking two paces until he’s in front of the guest bedroom door. He closes in on Jeongguk. “I’m not going to beat around the bush, okay? I’m gonna fuck that guy and I don’t want it to be awkward for you.”

It takes a while for Jeongguk to remember words. 

The first one that comes to him is a mumbled ‘okay.’

“I know you’re weirded out,” Seokjin says, sighs, then tilts his head. “You’re weirded out, aren’t you?”

To Jeongguk’s utter surprise, he isn’t. He may have told his parents and his entire congregation that they were so full of shit that it was coming out of their ears, but he hadn’t renounced his religion. Not in any way that would make it easier for him to acknowledge the secret he’d been holding on to. Still, he found that, when he thought of Seokjin having sex with his guest, he was — oddly — more jealous than weirded out. Jealous that Seokjin wasn’t holding on to a secret. And jealous, perhaps more, that it wasn’t him Seokjin was asking to wait in the bedroom. 

Of course, he’d never admit that.

“I’m not,” he utters quietly, to his bare feet. “I’m sorry I waited up.”

“Me, too,” Seokjin says. He taps his toes against the carpet. “Okay, look, I’ll — I’ll be right back.”

Jeongguk watches with wide eyes as Seokjin floats across the living room and disappears down the same hall. He imagines the look on Hoseok’s face when Seokjin is in the same room with him again, whether his expression would be relief or excitement or an odd cross between the two. Before he can imagine further, Seokjin is back with headphones and what looks like a phone. 

“Here,” he says, putting them both in Jeongguk’s hands. “These are more for you than they are for me. I don’t get embarrassed and I won’t apologize for anything you overhear tonight if you don’t put these on.”

Jeongguk looks at the phone in his hand, embarrassed once again. “I don’t know how to work this,” he admits.

Seokjin looks partly amused and partly annoyed. He shakes his head. “Jesus, JK, I didn’t know you were Amish too.”

And then Jeongguk smiles. Then the pangs are gone. Because he’s JK again and the world isn’t so vast anymore. 

Seokjin shows him how to work it, shows him where the music is, and informs him, with a barely held back laugh ripe with ridicule of ‘No, this is not a phone, dummy. It’s an iPod touch. Where have you been for the last decade?’ He shows Jeongguk all the apps and Jeongguk’s eye lingers on the film strip icon.

“You have movies on here?” He asks.

“Just one,” Seokjin answers quickly. “And it’s nothing you’d be interested in. Stick to the music. Brush up on Donna Summer so I don’t have to throw you out of my house.”

“And what—?”

Please,” and Seokjin pouts at him. “Please just take it and let me get laid. I’m excited about this one, he’s an Aquarius.” 

He knows what it means before he even asks so when Seokjin answers with: “Our compatibility is through the roof,” he’s only partially disappointed. 

“Good night, love,” Seokjin says. 

Jeongguk’s heart is soaring and sinking when he responds: “Goodnight, Seokjin.”

He watches until Seokjin’s silhouette has once again vanished down the hall.

 

In bed, he curls up with the iPod and with the headphones hugging his ears. He looks through the music, in search for something vaguely familiar. Like Sohyang or maybe even Insooni. Seokjin knew who Carla Bruni was so he looks for her but finds nothing remotely familiar. Apart from Donna Summer. He finds musicians with names like Bunny Girls, Jean Constantin, Seoul Sisters, Ha Ji Ni, The Isley Brothers, Lee Eun Ha, and Seaside Lovers. He listens to a bit of each song, skipping through not to listen to the music but to see if he can listen to Seokjin. Something in these songs speak to him and Jeongguk finds himself skipping through all of them just to know if he can find out what it is. 

Since a lot of the songs are in different languages, all of them from vastly different time periods, all Jeongguk can really surmise — and this, he gets from looking under ‘Genre’ — is that if nothing else speaks to Seokjin’s soul, disco certainly does.

He only listens to one song in completion. The only ballad-like song he could find, something called “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb. When that songs ends, fading into the sounds of the apartment, it occurs to Jeongguk, appeals to the part of him he tries to bury, that he could probably hear Seokjin. After all, he was given the headphones for a reason. He pauses the newest song before it can properly start and peels the headphones off. He listens out, straining, but he hears nothing, only his breathing and the hum of the fishtank.

Shame washes over him and he pulls the headphones back on, returning to the iPod and looking through the music again. Names fly back and forth on the screen. Sister Sledge, Kim Na Mi. His eyes flicker to the door. Back to the phone. Diana Ross. Gloria Gaynor. The distraction only lasts for a minute, maybe two, and then he’s pulling the headphones off again but this time he stands up from the bed too. For a while, he stands there in the middle of the room, unmoving and weighed down by the thought. There’s a moment of fear, of doubt, of the familiar stomach churn of knowing he’s doing the wrong thing but he decides, actively, that he just doesn’t care. 

He walks to the door and presses his ear against it, listening closely. Nothing. At least, not for a while. But the longer he stands there waiting to hear something, the more he thinks he can hear. He’s certain he hears the rustle of sheets, the familiar sound of Seokjin’s breathing — hastened, now — and the sound of a kiss. But he knows his mind is running away without him. 

He considers for a moment getting closer. His hand is on the knob, ready to turn, when he realizes that just because he possibly maybe could hear Seokjin doesn’t mean he has to. The guilt is sudden and unforgiving. It takes a glance around the room to remember the significance of the space. That it isn’t his and that Seokjin didn’t have to share it.

That’s when he actually feels his stomach churning and his heart racing and he holds on to the door until he can’t feel either of them anymore. But by then, he lets go and returns to bed. Later, he’ll write this off as a moment of weakness and blame it on the trap of curiosity. For now though, he’ll simply listen to music until he doesn’t feel guilty, until he falls asleep.

 

the earth anew

In the morning, he wakes just in time for Seokjin to enter the room and feed the fish, for the music he plays on his stereo to float into the room. But Seokjin doesn’t enter the room and the music on the stereo doesn’t play. 

Jeongguk looks at the time on the iPod and then to the fish who, and perhaps this is his imagination, seem to be waiting for him to make his move. Figuring he’s watched Seokjin feed them enough times, he rolls out of bed and does just that. He follows through the steps like normal. Normally, Seokjin will have the stereo on by the time Jeongguk follows him out the door. So, Jeongguk turns it on. Tries to. Fails. He reverses into the room, retrieves the headphones, and plays a song at random. 

He steps into the kitchen. Normally, the coffee is already made. It can’t be that hard to make coffee. He fills the kettle up, turns it on, and waits. His eyes trail to the dark hallway as it had the previous night. Nothing. No one. Not a sound. 

Seokjin keeps the coffee in a little silver container. Jeongguk uses a teaspoon to scoop helpings of it into two mugs, one bright yellow and one bright pink. Once the water is boiling, he pours it straight into each mug and stirs. He keeps stirring. He’s still stirring when sound finally comes out from the hallway. He turns toward it a bit eagerly only to be disappointed by the sight of Hoseok emerging from the darkness. He notes how much of a mess Hoseok looks now that it’s morning, how his hair is flattened on one side and how it sticks up on the other, how tired his eyes are, and how the pallor of sleep still colors him. He also notes the marks on his neck, the satisfaction in his smile, and, this especially annoys him, the way Seokjin’s pinstripe pajama shirt hangs loose on his frame. 

The shirt is unbuttoned in the same fashion that Seokjin often likes to wear his many Hawaiian shirts. It’s left to fall open as Hoseok waltzes into the kitchen and, as he does, Jeongguk notes the way his pants hang low on his hips and openly stares at the definition of his abs. He wouldn’t have allowed himself to do this just a week ago. A week ago, he wouldn’t have allowed himself to be in this position. And although now still, a small part of him wants to excuse himself so he can get on his knees and pray for forgiveness, all he can do is feel it. 

“Morning,” Hoseok greets him. 

His voice is gruff and heavy with remnants of sleep, vocals a little raw from the remnants of something else. Jeongguk watches as Hoseok opens the fridge and takes out the pitcher of filtered water Seokjin keeps there. He watches him as he pours two glasses. The words are gone again but his voice is gone with it. He can’t even hum in response. He gazes at Hoseok, at his body, at Seokjin’s clothes on him. Quite suddenly, he wants to reach out and touch Hoseok, to touch every part of him so that he doesn’t miss any surface Seokjin’s hand might have grazed.

He snaps out of it when the refrigerator closes, the pitcher of water tucked back into the shelf. With a glass in either hand, Hoseok turns to him, appraises him with gentle eyes, and asks if he’s okay. 

Jeongguk nods. He looks at the floor. “You…”

“…I?”

After a long moment of nothing, Jeongguk simply shakes his head and turns away, returning to the guest bedroom and locking the door behind him. Safely inside, he gives himself the freedom of breathing, closing his eyes as he exhales and rests his forehead against the door. He listens as Hoseok’s footsteps retreat down again toward Seokjin’s bedroom and his defenses go down with each step.

 

It’s not long after that that Hoseok leaves. 

Jeongguk listens with a meek eagerness. Listens to Hoseok putting his shoes on and to Seokjin bidding him goodbye and to the lock of the front door. He’s already fighting a smile, bunching his fists together when, not long after their goodbye, he hears the stereo turn on followed by a quick knock on his door. 

When Jeongguk opens it, Seokjin is smiling something small, wrapped up in a mint green silk robe. His honey eyes flicker from Jeongguk to the tank inside. They flicker back. 

“Did you feed my children?”

Jeongguk nods. 

The smile brightens a little. “Thank you.”

Before Jeongguk can say anything, there’s a grip on his wrist and he’s being pulled out of the room. He has no choice but to follow as Seokjin guides him into the kitchen.

“I think it’s the sweetest thing,” Seokjin begins. “I really do. Know that, JK, I think it’s really sweet. But what the actual fuck?”

He gestures then to the abandoned mugs siting on the counter, the water probably lukewarm by now and the coffee grounds floating at the top. 

Jeongguk clears his throat. “I thought it’d dissolve if I stirred long enough.”

When he looks back, Seokjin is looking at him, eyes bright and adoring and condoling. His lips are pouted before he breaks into an easy laugh, lifts his hand and bunches Jeongguk’s cheeks together. “I’ll say it again: you are so lucky you’re cute.”

He really does try to fight the grin that splits on his face, tries not to look as pleased at the compliment, at least not while under Seokjin’s gaze. But he fails and he smiles so hard that, even while his face is being squished, the grin comes through easily. 

Seokjin drops his hand and waves it toward the cups. “Clean this up, please. I’m gonna shower and when I come back, I’m gonna teach you how to make coffee,” he leaves the kitchen, tightening the sash on his robe. “This is unacceptable.”

 

Two showers and one rinse cycle later, the two of them are sitting at the dining table with two mugs of French pressed coffee. Jamaica Blue Mountain. It’s bitter to the taste, stinging on Jeongguk’s tongue. He’d wanted to add sugar and almost did when Seokjin offered it, the small mushroom shaped container of brown sugar beckoning, but when he saw Seokjin didn’t add any sugar to his, he pushed the container back. He doesn’t like it, black coffee but Seokjin seems to be enjoying his so he continues taking small sips.

Seokjin’s hair is still a little damp, wet strands locking together all string-like. His skin is reddened just slightly from the hot water and his mint green robe has been replaced with another one of his Hawaiian shirts — this one lavender and yellow. It, Jeongguk can’t help noticing, is unbuttoned slightly at the top.

Seokjin sighs, content, into his mug and lets his eyes flutter. “If, for any reason, you ever get it in your head that you want to make me coffee, please make it like this.”

Jeongguk nods.

Seokjin opens his eyes. He seems to evaluate him for a few seconds. “So. Tell me. Was it awkward for you?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “Was it awkward for you?”

Seokjin breaks into a smile and laughs a little. “I told you now, I don’t get embarrassed.”

“…Um, how was it then?…With an Aquarius.”

For a little while, Seokjin simply stares at Jeongguk. Almost blankly and almost humored, not quite either all the same. Then his eyes are flitting away as he thumbs at his earlobe, the top of which, Jeongguk notices, is turning red. 

Jeon Jeongguk,” he feigns a devastated gasp, hand to his chest. “Are you asking me about my sex life right now?”

“No, no, no,” Jeongguk says, holding a hand up. And although he knows that’s very well what he was doing, it seems a better option to vehemently deny the truth. “I was — no, I wasn’t. I’m — because compatibility. I was asking about that.”

Seokjin’s eyebrows raise a little, his eyes down on the mug as he runs his index finger around the rim. “Uh-huh.

“No, really, I was.”

“…If you must know, it’s true what the stars say about the chemistry between our signs.”

It’s clear that that’s all Seokjin has left to say on the matter. Despite it, Jeongguk finds himself wanting to ask. About relationships, about love, and, more pressing than anything, about sex. The sad fact is that Jeongguk knows very little about sex. He knows what he was taught in health class and from what he read during Bible Study. But he’s never experienced it for himself aside from a brief encounter with his hand in the dark before he found out, to his horror, that self-pleasure was also a sin. He knows what porn is but he’s never watched it, never could get rid of the fear that settled whenever he even thought about sex. 

He knows what it’s like to be sexually attracted to someone. There was Taehyung, there’d been boys, in passing, during his high school years. There’d been Seokjin and his Aquarius. He knows the feeling. The indecent heat that pools in his stomach, the way it gets hard to swallow, the way, in the cases of him losing control, his pants sometimes tighten. But he doesn’t understand anything about what happens after all of that. 

He wants nothing more than to ask Seokjin about it. But it’s too embarrassing to even think it so he resolves himself to his bitter coffee.

“I’m doing some grocery shopping later,” Seokjin says. “Do you want anything?”

The question surprises Jeongguk. He hangs his head. “I don’t need anything, you’ve done more than enough.”

“I know I have. That’s not what I asked though,” when Jeongguk doesn’t say anything, Seokjin adds: “It’s a lot to lose what you have as fast as you did. Maybe, the dust hasn’t settled yet but it will soon and you might find that something as simple as, uh, dasik is the only thing that eases the pain just a little. So…do you want anything?”

“…Melon bar?”

Seokjin beams at him. “Melon bar, it is.”

 

 

The soft serve waffle cone is split between swirls of strawberry and swirls of Blue Moon. The colors together are almost mesmerizing, so much so that Jeongguk has half a mind not to eat any of it. With Aecha sitting in front of him though, he has no choice but to dig in. He’s pleased when he does.

“Guess what,” Aecha says to him and doesn’t permit him a moment to guess when she immediately follows it with: “I got you a job.”

Her Scoops hat is off, sitting on her side of the table. Like this, Jeongguk can see all of her bright green hair and all of the black roots underneath. Without her apron or her hat, Jeongguk can really appreciate how young she is. She can’t be any older than him and she’s already helped him more than he’s managed to help himself. Taehyung comes to mind again but he pushes the thought away.

“Really?”

“Mm,” she nods, leaning over her lap and rolling her ankle. “How good are you with money?”

Jeongguk manages a small laugh. “Well, I don’t have any. So, probably not that good.”

Aecha laughs, too. “Point taken. Well, you don’t need to be all that good anyway. A friend of mine owns this…bookstore. She’s looking for a new cashier and she’s willing to pay you under the table until you can get everything together. But you have to start getting everything together.”

“I’m in. Thank you. Thank you. How much does it pay?”

“Minimum wage,” she answers, shutting her eyes and groaning when she rolls her other ankle. “8,000 won an hour. It’s not much but it’s better than the 0,000 won an hour you’re getting now, right?”

His smile can’t be contained or restrained. “It is. So much better. Thank you, really.”

She smiles gently at him. 

He doesn’t ask Aecha why when he’s more comfortable. Why she insists on helping him. Why she didn’t hesitate to write down her number. Why she actually made good on her offer to lend a hand. But somehow she picks it up anyway.

“We have to stick together, don’t we? If we didn’t, all of us would end up destitute every time our parents kicked us out for being...different.”

Jeongguk surprises himself when he doesn’t bother to correct her, when he doesn’t shake his head and start with “But I’m not…” He asks himself how long buried things stay buried. 

“What’s your friend’s name?”

 

The one thing Aecha failed to mention about the bookstore, the one thing that Jeongguk hadn’t even thought to expect, was that the books in question weren’t the kind you could get a hold of in the local library. When he found himself standing in front of the building, a small and modest shop with wooden design and clear glass windows, he thought the name of the store was interesting. 

Emboldened in white letters, placed high above the entrance, was the word: ’Sacked.’

Inside, Jeongguk immediately caught the attention of a middle-aged woman with long graying hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. She wore a gray t-shirt and was in the middle of what seemed to be a pressing phone conversation. She glanced at him as he walked in, narrowed her eyes at him, and then, to his utter surprise, mouthed his own name to him. He pointed to his chest and nodded. She, in turn, held up a single finger then waved the same hand around the store. Have a look. It’ll be a moment. 

That’s how he found himself wandering the aisles, eyes catching on every book cover, finger tips wanting to touch all the pages. It was somewhere between the second title he read and the fifth that he realized what kind of bookshop it was. With titles like ‘The Ethical Slut’ and ‘Getting Off,’ it became abundantly clear. An adult bookshop housing all sorts of memoirs, self-help guides, and fictional stories about sex in all of its different forms. 

He stood there in aisle three blushing furiously and bunching fists together for ages and he was standing there still by the time the woman had finished her phone call and found him.

She approaches him with even steps and a no nonsense posture, immediately shaking his hand in a firm grip. “Aecha’s friend, right?”

Jeongguk nods, trying to will his cheeks to go back to their normal color. 

“Hyunjoo,” she says. “If all this works out, I’ll be your boss this time tomorrow.”

He says nothing. She takes a moment to look him over, at his clothes in particular. Jeongguk has rotated between the clothes he wore on his back the day the world was supposed to end and whatever Seokjin offers him from his closet. Today, it’s his own pair of End of the World slacks and a pale pink plaid t-shirt from Seokjin. She eyes his cheeks then, still pink, and laughs a bit.

“Kid, you’re gonna have to get with it if you’re gonna work here. Lots of people are gonna ask you lots of questions about lots of personal things and you’ll have to help them find the right book.”

“I know.”

“You know. Okay, so, how are you gonna do that if you can’t even look at the book covers?” To prove it, she takes a random book of the shelf and holds it up for him to see. Jeongguk barely turns his gaze over to it long enough to read the title. His face grows even hotter. “What’s it say?” 

With his eyes turned to the ceiling, he takes a deep breath and answers: “Your Orgasm and You.

She clicks her tongue and sets the book down, crossing her arms after. “Look me in the eye and do it. I’m a customer in need of help. Young sir,” she says and Jeongguk almost laughs with his gaze still on the ceiling. “I’m curious about the art of self-love. Point me in the right direction.”

Jeongguk sighs then takes a deep breath. 

Taehyung is back in his mind now, something he’d said one of the times Jeongguk had struck out early, a door slammed in his face and one of his pamphlets balled up at his feet. Taehyung put a hand on his shoulder and said: ‘It’s hard to be brave. But it’s easy to help people. Right?’

Jeongguk swallows and looks to one of the shelves. His eyes fall on one of the titles he spotted earlier. He picks it up and hands it to the woman. The title makes his face heat up again but he doesn’t stammer when he clears his throat and says: “‘Getting Off’ is about that very thing. It’s really helpful.”

“You speak from experience?”

And then he regresses. “No, no, I— not me, I don’t—”

She rolls her eyes but her smile is kind. “Practice in front of the mirror.”

“…Practice?”

“And don’t make me regret hiring you. I’m only doing it because I owe Aecha a favor and because you look an awful lot like Bambi.”

She starts to walk away and Jeongguk follows closely, the book still in his hands. “Really?”

“Really you look like Bambi or really I owe Aecha a favor?”

“Really, you’re going to hire me?”

“I already did,” she says when she’s behind the counter again. “Like I said, don’t make me regret it. I’m happy to say I’ve lived a mostly regret free life up until now. Don’t change that.”

“I won’t.”

“Don’t,” she says again as if to drive it in further. She looks down at the book in his hands. “Why don’t you take that home with you? If you can get through it, you’ll get through working here without having a panic attack.”

Jeongguk nods but, on his way out after the details are squared away, he puts the book back where it belongs and hightails it to the apartment. 

 

 

On the nights Seokjin has off, he makes dinner and plays music and dances to different rhythms around every part of the kitchen. Nights like that, nights like tonight, are the one thing Jeongguk has to look forward to of late. When it’s just the two of them like this, it’s easy to pretend that there never was another life Jeongguk had, never was anyone else in it. When it’s like this, it’s easy to not ask himself, if he did have a phone, whether or not he would have any missed calls or apologetic texts asking him to come back home.

Every now and then, Jeongguk peeks up at Seokjin from the thin stack of job applications Seokjin had waiting for him when he returned. The idea of Seokjin going out and running errands, having lunch with a friend or picking up groceries or going to the bank and him, in the midst of that, thinking about Jeongguk made Jeongguk so irrationally happy that he couldn’t bear to share the news of his new job. It felt good, he thought, to be looked after and to be cared for. He wants nothing but to hold on to the feeling because he knows there’s a chance he won’t feel it again. Besides, he doesn’t know how long he’ll last working at Sacked. It’s best to have options and Seokjin had promised that the people who owned the stores and restaurants were willing to look the other way for a few weeks while Jeongguk got a hold of the things that everyone else already had. 

He watches as Seokjin shimmies along to the latest song playing. He knows now, from the last four times Seokjin has played it, that it’s called “The Glow of Love.”

When Seokjin spins around, spatula in hand, he looks at Jeongguk and Jeongguk looks down, puts the pen to the application and furrows his brows like he’s practiced. Practice is necessary for the moments he risks Seokjin catching him staring. 

He feigns focus until Seokjin starts his dancing again, turning back to the stove.

“I know I’m incredibly distracting but watching me isn’t gonna do you any good.”

“I wasn’t watching you,” Jeongguk lies to the tabletop because it’s easier. 

“Okay then,” Seokjin replies.

“I wasn’t.”

“Okay, I said.”

They both smile unbeknownst to the other.

As the songs play through, Jeongguk bops his head along to the music as he completes the first and second application. The more he does it, filling out information about himself, the less lost he feels. He knows his name, his age, and writing it all down reminds him that, for all intents and purposes, he is a person in this world even if he doesn’t feel like one half the time.

Soon, the food is ready. Spicy radish soup, roasted and seasoned tilapia, rice, and all the side dishes including a pre-made store bought mix of kimchi. It makes Jeongguk’s mouth water. When they’re both ready to eat, seated with applications set aside and the music lowered to a digestible volume, he voices how impressed he is.

“I didn’t know you could make anything other than boxed macaroni.”

Seokjin sets his chopsticks down, holds one hand up to his mouth to hold back a laugh, and points the other one to the front door. “Get out.”

Jeongguk’s smiling completely, digging into the food as he holds back a laugh. “Who’s gonna feed your children if I go?”

Seokjin rolls his eyes, picks up his chopsticks again. “You feed them one time and you think you did something special.”

“I think Ursula is warming up to me.”

Tch. You wish, honey. She’s hatching a plan to eat your heart out as we speak.”

 Instead of stewing over the words because maybe he’s the one eating his own heart out, he hums in response and tries not to think too hard.

“Where do you work?” He asks Seokjin. The question comes to him without announcing itself first leaving him no time to wonder why he asked it.

“Why?” Seokjin asks, picking up portions of sigeumchi-namul and holding it in front of Jeongguk. “You trying to work with me? Miss me that much when I’m gone?”

“Maybe” is the most Jeongguk can manage, soon stunned silent by the food hanging in front of him. He looks at Seokjin who just looks impatient.

“Take it before my arm falls off.”

Jeongguk feels his face heat up and he bows forward, mouth opening and allowing for Seokjin to feed him. His brain short circuits when he closes his mouth around the silver chopsticks. While it isn’t exactly heat indecent that pools in his stomach when he realizes, to his delighted embarrassment, that his mouth is where Seokjin’s was just moments ago and will be again, it’s a foreign warmth that almost feels too good to ignore.

He can’t meet Seokjin’s eyes when the chopsticks are gone and he’s left to chew slowly. But he hears Seokjin when he says: “I’ve watched you sit here three days now without touching a single vegetable and, frankly, it offends me. If you don’t want to eat vegetables, that’s your business but if I’m cooking it, it’s not going to waste.”

Jeongguk fears that his silence will make Seokjin point it out, how suddenly speechless he’s become and how suddenly shy. But Seokjin doesn’t draw attention to it. He goes back to eating from his own plate and answers the forgotten question.

“It’s a night salon,” Seokjin says. “I know, I know, it’s ridiculous. A night salon? Who the hell gets their hair done just to go to bed right after? But you’d be surprised at how many people like the idea of getting done up just to go clubbing and ruin all my hard work with some handsy overzealous bartender.”

Seokjin shakes his head and sighs like he’s annoyed just thinking about someone having the nerve to ruin a perfect blowout. 

“The audacity,” he murmurs.

Jeongguk mulls that over and finds his voice. “Is that how you met the Aquarius? The night salon?”

Seokjin swallows, peers at Jeongguk like he’s trying to see through him. Which he can and does. But Jeongguk knew that from the moment they met. “No. Are you trying to interrogate me again, JK?”

“No, I just…” Jeongguk takes a moment to remember the importance of breathing over babbling. “I’m…I’ve never had…a relationship. I’m always curious about them. I don’t…I can’t,” he breaks off, unable to find the words and opts for merging his hands together in gesture instead. 

Seokjin doesn’t seem fazed or convinced. “You’re connecting with me just fine.”

“Am I? I mean, I think we do. Connect. But I also think this is just natural for you. Like you can connect with everyone.”

“Maybe not connect. Not everyone wants to be connected with. Some people you just can’t tether and that’s okay. But it’s easy to find a footing even if it’s only temporary. Temporary relationships are still relationships. And I’m not a betting man when I’m sober but I’d bet that you’d have many temporary connections you just don’t know about.”

“Maybe,” then, toe by toe, his foot makes its way into his mouth. “What about you and Hoseok? Is that…a temporary connection?”

Seokjin puts on a different smile. It’s only been a few days but Jeongguk believes, with more time, he’ll not only get to see all the different smiles but soon he’ll have a meaning for each of them. Soon, he’ll understand the difference between the left corner of Seokjin’s mouth lifting before the right one and vice versa, understand the genuineness of the grin based on the show of teeth. He’s still trying to interpret this one when Seokjin says:

“A few days ago, you told me I was going to Hell because I was gay—”

“I’m sorry—”

Seokjin holds up a finger. “Apology pending.  Anyway, and now, here you are, asking about my love life.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed, how what Seokjin had referred to as his sex life is now his love life. The change in terms will rattle around in Jeongguk’s head for the rest of the night.

“…I’m sorry about that. For what I said. I didn’t…mean it.”

“But you did. Remember, it was the only thing you believed in. Your words.”

“I didn’t believe in that part,” Seokjin gives him a look and resolves. “I did. But I didn’t want to.”

“Why not?”

He very nearly fixes his mouth to say it, to declare himself as what he vowed he never would. To let what’s buried come to the surface without worrying about how sullied he gets in the process. But it is hard to be brave. 

“I don’t feel like someone most the time,” Jeongguk mutters and he doesn’t mean to do it out loud but it happens anyway. 

“Because you don’t know who you are right now,” Seokjin says as if it’s the simplest thing in the world. As if it’s always been so obvious. “You have to know that first before you can really connect with someone. Think about it. Pretend you’re a TV — you know what that is, Mr. Amish, don’t you?”

Jeongguk scoffs a laugh and nods.

“So, you’re a TV and you’re trying to connect to this, I dunno, this laptop. You can’t do it if you don’t know what kind of TV you are. For goodness sake, you don’t even know if you have an HDMI input.”

Jeongguk doesn’t know what any of that means but he nods anyway, taking comfort in, once again, being taken care of.

Seokjin finishes: “Figure out who you are first and worry about the rest later. Or don’t. Relationships are messy anyway.”

At that revelation, Jeongguk doesn’t know whether he wants to smile or frown. 

 

tango parade

It’s hard to shake away guilt.

Guilt feels like gum beneath the shoe. One can, as much as they want, drag their soles on the sidewalk in hopes that the gum will leave them. They can sometimes even try to pick it off with a wooden stick or a pen. But getting rid of the gum takes a ten times the effort it does for the gum to get attached in the first place. What Jeongguk takes away from this is simple: it’s very easy to make mistakes but it’s hard to rectify them.

He never thought, though, that his mistake would be believing and that his rectification would come in the form of a book shop full page-to-page with sex. 

It’s hard to unlearn things.

If you yell at a child long enough that if they ever drink apple juice, they’ll be punished or die a horrible death, that child will likely refrain from drinking apple juice for the rest of their lives. Or when they do drink it, if they do, they’ll always think about dying and they’ll always think about punishment even if it’s just for a second. In the end though, the apple juice will always just be apple juice, nothing more and nothing less. 

Hyunjoo has him start with the simple stuff. That is, a proper application, a list of references, and a guideline on what the job entails. It’s not quite the job orientation he’d been expecting. Seokjin had mentioned, in passing, how the start of a job is always the worst part from orientation to new rules to trying to keep up with learning in a fast-paced environment. But Sacked is a slow store, an easy one to work at as a beginner. Jeongguk had expected for it to be slower than most stores and it was but it was also busier than he expected. 

After all the paperwork, Hyunjoo has him shadow her to see how she works the register, how she goes through inventory, how she handles returns and exchanges. Most of what he’s getting paid for that first day is standing around with his hands in his pockets. The first customer he properly interacts with is a woman not too far from Hyunjoo’s age who drops off a book that has a split, dripping grapefruit on the cover. 

Hyunjoo watches his reaction as she handles the transaction. When the customer has gone, Hyunjoo turns to Jeongguk.

“What’s your deal anyway?”

“Deal?”

“You’re so young,” she says. “But you’re as big a prude as an old auntie.”

“I’m not a prude. I don’t think I am. This is all just…very new for me.”

“Oh, yeah?” She starts to unbox a new shipment. “Where’d you come from?”

“The end of the world. How about you?”

“You’re a funny one,” she smiles. “I’m from Takayama. Heard of it?”

Jeongguk shakes his head, mirroring her actions as a good shadow does. 

“No one has,” she laughs a little. “It’s a really small town in Japan. Really isolated.”

“Japan? You grew up there?”

Hyunjoo nods. “Mother’s Korean. I can see you’re confused about the name.”

He was.

“Must’ve been lonely,” he says. 

“You would think it. But it wasn’t that bad. It always depends on how you live, I guess. I’ve lived in New York. Probably the least isolated city in existence. And I felt the loneliest there.”

“Why do you think?”

“Simple. It wasn’t home.”

“So…do you feel isolated here?”

Hyunjoo shakes her head. “No, because this is home too. You can have more than one, you know.”

He doesn’t know. Even when he was home with his parents, even when he was excited about Sundays, he never felt like there really was a home for him. It makes sense. There can never be a home when you’re constantly aware of the fact that you’ll be leaving. You can’t get comfortable in a world that you’re sure is going to end. 

And it’s sad for him that even now, he still looks for the signs of the world ending. That, in the back of his mind, he thinks maybe he was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t bullshit. Maybe it’s still happening. At this rate, he’ll never have a home, let alone two.

“How long have you lived here?” He asks. It’s the roundabout way of asking what he really wants to ask. From her reaction, he can tell that it’s obvious.

“I’ve kept my nails short for about twenty years,” she answers. “Now, if you’re asking how long I wanted to cut them before I actually did…then we’re talking thirty years.”

She looks up at him from the books with a smile that tells him he’s missed something.

“…Nails?”

She sighs, shaking her head. “God help you.”

“He hasn’t been of much help lately.”

Oh. That’s it.”

“What’s it?”

“I thought you looked familiar. Vaguely. You’re the one who was leaving all those Jesus pamphlets all over the place. I haven’t actually gotten one — thank you for that — but I’ve heard about you.”

“You have?”

“It’s a small district, word gets around when there’s a kid telling everyone they’re going to Hell.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me,” she says. “I already know I’m going to Hell. It won’t be because I’m gay though. It’ll be because I put I put milk in my red wine.”

Jeongguk wrinkles his face. He’s never had wine but it’s always seemed wrong to mix milk with any drink other than coffee or tea. 

“Don’t judge me,” she says. “I can fire you.”

“Please don’t.”

“I’m busting your balls, I don’t mean it.”

“No, I know that but…for the pamphlets and stuff. I thought I was--”

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” she says. “We all have pasts. Some of us are lucky enough to have nows. Just make the nows count. Okay?”

“Okay.”

He barely gets the word out before the bell above the main entrance alerts the two of them of another customer. When Jeongguk looks to the door, he greets the customer with a fake smile and even faker confidence. Before he can ask about assisting in anything, Hyunjoo says:

Jimin, there you are.”

“Sorry I’m late,” the newcomer says with an easy sigh. In his arms yet another box, bulky and bursting at the corners. “There was traffic.”

Ha!” Hyunjoo explains to Jeongguk: “He lives five minutes away, tell him to come up with a better lie.”

Jeongguk almost does but looking at Jimin silences him. His face is a sweet one, the best Jeongguk could possibly begin to describe it. Round, soft but sharp and angular in other places. It’s a contrast, looking at him. He feels infinitely young and, at the same time, older than the universe. Like he knows things Jeongguk would never have any idea about.

Jimin laughs with Hyunjoo as he heads to the backroom with the box. Hyunjoo follows him, not before leaving Jeongguk with the brief instruction to take care of any customers if they come in and, most important, try not to blush. 

 

When Jeongguk returns to Casi Cielo, Seokjin has a visitor.

It isn’t the Aquarius. Or Jiyoo. He recognizes her as the girl he saw on his very first visit to Seokjin’s house. Heeyeon. She’s sitting on the Victorian loveseat, feet curled on the cushions when Jeongguk steps in.

“Oh my God,” Heeyeon says. “You’ve gotten your very own disciple.”

“You’re so funny,” Seokjin says, exaggerating his tone to a comical extent. “When’s your comedy special? I can’t wait to not show up.”

Heeyeon fakes a smile that just looks like she’s baring her teeth as if to remind Seokjin, or to introduce to Jeongguk, exactly how much bite she’s capable of. When she looks to Jeongguk, her composure is regained. “You look…better than the last time I saw you.”

“Thank you?”

She shakes her head, mouth pouting just a little as she looks him up and down, no doubt determining the value of his person. “Not much of a compliment, you weren’t working with a lot.”

Jeongguk is immediately distracted by a stray hand on his shoulder — Seokjin — and the comfort of his voice in his ear. 

“She hasn’t been funny since 1992,” Seokjin whispers into his ear to Heeyeon’s noticeable chagrin. His breath is warm against the shell of Jeongguk’s ear but it’s nothing compared to what’s brewing. “Pay her no mind.”

Seokjin walks away from him and returns to the couch as Heeyeon starts to insult him and they both start laughing. Any other moment, Jeongguk could appreciate this, how Seokjin interacts with other people. How it doesn’t seem to change all that much, how he’s always charming and relaxed and honest to an almost painful degree. How there’s not a single thing about him that’s forced or feigned for the comfort of others. How he doesn’t make himself small but also avoids making himself bigger to make anyone else feel small.

Jeongguk appreciates it now. He does. But it’s hard to think of anything other than leaving the room as quickly as possible. Indecent heat. When he was younger, that was the thing that tipped him off. In high school gym class, it happened often. He never knew how to deal with it. Touching himself wasn’t an option and, especially now, cold showering would probably be too obvious. 

“Jeongguk,” Heeyeon calls his name and pulls him out of his thoughts. “It’s Jeongguk, right? Could you please tell your roommate here that he’s not supposed to drink the bong water?”

Seokjin is laughing so hard that his eyes are watering and he keeps slapping at Heeyeon’s arm as she tries to elbow him, her laughing just as joyous. 

“Um,” Jeongguk swallows, leaning forward just a little. “Don’t — I’m gonna take a nap, I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t wait for anyone’s reaction or response. He does consider the possibility that his sudden exit might come off as rude but he doesn’t have the luxury of time to dwell on it. He enters the dark bedroom and almost locks the door behind him but refrains, afraid that the sound of it might cause more suspicion. He knows it’s irrational, that it’s the past talking again, but, he reminds himself, it’s apple juice. 

It’ll take more than a few days and a new job on the Wrong Side of Town for him to forget how he was raised. Maybe one day, he can get aroused without an obvious reason behind it and only feel bewildered and slightly annoyed at the inconvenience instead of like he needs to ask for forgiveness and salvation. It just won’t be today.

Chapter Text

scorched earth

An unspoken rule in the Jeon home was that friends of the opposite sex were off-limits. Anything you could do or converse about with a girl, for the most part, you could do with a boy. This, of course, was the case until things like hand-holding came into question. 

Jeongguk was, naturally, expected to respect women. To be polite to them. To be kind. To be courteous. To the older ones, be sure to follow every greeting and every answer directed toward them with “ma’am.” To the younger ones, be sure to address them as “miss” or “young lady,” and this, Jeongguk later discovered, wasn’t so much out of respect for the girls as it was to remind the girls of what they were supposed to be. It was the congregation’s way of making sure the girls knew they were ladies. Which was just a polite way of reminding them that there would always be things they shouldn’t and couldn’t do, a way of reminding them of things that self-respecting ladies adhered to: proper etiquette, marriage, and silence unless spoken to.

It wasn’t until Jeongguk had turned fifteen and overheard a conversation between a mother and daughter, the latter of which had been scraped and bruised from roughhousing in the courtyard, that he came to know how powerful a simple word like “lady” could be.

“Why can’t I play with the other kids?” The girl asked as her mother fussed over her, rectifying the state of her clothes and doing her best to return the nest atop her head into the neat braid it had once been in, topped off with a yellow bow. 

They’re boys, Hyelim.”

“So?”

“You’re not a boy, are you? You’re a young lady . And you’ll act as such.”

In kind, Jeongguk wonders if he’d always known this or if it’s one of those things, of which of late there have been many, that’s only just come to him. It feels in some ways like he’s always known but in others, it’s as if it’s his new life is constantly shedding light on the dark corners of his old one. With the new life comes new friends like Aecha who has a way of informing him of things that he thinks he should have always known.

“I feel bad for my parents sometimes,” Aecha says.

The two of them are walking from Scoops to Sacked, an ice cream cone for either of them in their hand. Aecha has just gotten off of work and Jeongguk is about to begin. It’s been a week now of working at Sacked and of trying to become, as much as he can, a person who’s a Person. Being a Person in the world means knowing what he’s doing or, as Aecha informed him, at least pretending to have a general idea. Jeongguk has been wandering around the general location of his self-purpose but has yet to approach. That being said, he’d been doing a good job of pretending he found it and he pretends with no one as much as he does in Seokjin’s presence.

Perhaps it was something Seokjin had said in a lost moment or the way he flicked his wrist or one of the million and one ways Seokjin has of making Jeongguk feel like he’s missed out on something. Whatever the reason, Jeongguk has become all too cognizant of how Seokjin perceives him and how he wants to be perceived. He thinks back to the Night of the Aquarius, to the light teasing in Seokjin’s voice when he referred to Jeongguk as ‘my ward.’ Although he hung on to it then, firmly enough to grasp the dull ache but loosely enough for it to have left his mind by morning, he didn’t take the time to place what it was about those words that had bothered him.

It wasn’t until Seokjin repeated the same joke in calling him that to Heeyeon that Jeongguk realized. He didn’t like the idea of Seokjin seeing him as a child or, generally, as someone so incompetent that he needed protecting and assisting in all areas. It was a strange realization because, with it, he had to ask himself why, if the idea of being seen as such bothered him so, his stomach fell into somersaults every time Seokjin went out of his way to take care of him. 

He hasn’t figured it out yet.

But lately, he’s been pretending. He tries now not to trail after Seokjin in the mornings although he still does, just less eagerly. Now, when Seokjin says breakfast will be ready in five minutes, Jeongguk waits one before following him out. That’ll show him.

He recenters his attention on Aecha. “Why?” He asks. “I thought you hated them.”

“I do,” she says, licks a stripe from her mint chocolate chip cone with eyebrows furrowed as she concentrates on the past. “But…Like imagine you’re super religious.”

Jeongguk doesn’t say anything. He hadn’t bothered to tell Aecha about his past, not in detail. He’d given himself enough of a backstory for her to understand what she needed to understand but not enough for her to really know who he was. He wanted to keep it that way. The mystery suits him, he supposes. Right now, he feels more and more like a walking, breathing question mark.

“You’re anti everything that isn’t straight and cis,” Aecha continues. “Then you have kids. And you think: ‘Great. These children will carry on my legacy of following Christ. Their good deeds will become mine. I’ll go to Heaven.’ And then all three of your kids, one by one, come out. All three. Gay as fuck. Go figure.”

In a way, Jeongguk supposes, he does feel bad for Aecha’s parents. But not in the way he would have felt before the world ended. He feels bad that they didn’t choose their kids over their church much like Taehyung’s parents. He feels bad that they lost out on seeing how their children turned out, how good they are. He hasn’t met Aecha’s siblings. He doesn’t even know her last name. But, even without those specifics, it’s obvious to him that Aecha is in the very rare possession of a good head on her shoulders. 

Their friendship is one of those things that exists only when they see each other and vanishes once they’re no longer in each other’s sight. For Jeongguk, it’s the only way friendship ever existed to begin with. With Taehyung, it was the same. When they were on their missions, they were friends. When they were at home, they weren’t. 

“Do you miss them?” Jeongguk asks, backtracks only when Aecha looks at him. “I know you hate them but…I mean, you must. A little bit?”

She nods after a while. “I miss my mom’s food. I miss my dad’s singing. I miss Saturday nights watching sitcoms with them. Mostly I think I just miss how they used to love me. But then I remember that…when they loved me then, they didn’t know me. And when they knew me, well…they stopped loving me. And then I just don’t care.”

It isn’t the answer Jeongguk wanted to hear but it’s also exactly the one he expected to get. Over the last couple of days, his feeling of being lost grew into a feeling of being abandoned although he knew well that it was him who left home on his own accord. He hadn’t been kicked out, he hadn’t been banished. It was his choice to leave but in many ways it feels like a choice made for him long before he acted on it.

Every night spent in Seokjin’s spare bedroom was just another night that he wished, partly and partly not, that he was in his own. The truth was, in no uncertain measures, that he missed his parents. He missed being home. He even missed, at times, the congregation. He didn’t miss Elder Asa. He didn’t miss the lies or the hypocrisy or the gossip that had basically become the blood of the church, keeping it alive because when there was nothing else to believe in, at least there was gossip. 

He wondered sometimes what the church would gossip about now. By this point, he was certainly old news and Taehyung was ancient history. Maybe another couple got a divorce. Maybe someone else started drinking on Sundays. Then again, there was the fact that the congregation always needed something to believe in. Even if that something was as ancient as the Bible. When he considers that, he thinks it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that he and Taehyung were still, in this very moment, all anyone could talk about. That, he doesn’t miss. 

But the camaraderie, the feeling of being united against something, of having a community, he misses that. He sees the community in Casi Cielo and it’s hard not to with the pride flags flying in every yard and the celebration of being different teeming out of every person. But, like many things in this district, he watches all of this from the outside. It’s a community, certainly. 

But it’s not his. 

His mind wanders to Seokjin again. He’s been trying to keep it from doing that.

“What do you know about astrology?”

Aecha eyes him inquisitively. “Um, not a whole lot. Why?”

“…No reason.”

“…How’s Hyunjoo treating you?” Aecha asks and it’s only at her question that Jeongguk realizes they’ve made it to Sacked. 

“She’s nice,” he answers whilst looking toward the storefront. “Sometimes, she’s mean. But even when she’s mean, she’s nice.”

Aecha nods, an amused smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Yeah, that sounds like Hyunjoo.”

 

“Astrology?”

Hyunjoo has a way of making Jeongguk second guess himself. 

One day prior, he’d told her his age and she echoed the number back to him, face screwed up in confusion. The silence that followed was so long because Jeongguk started doing the math to make sure he was right. 

She’s doing it now and it’s working to the point that he’s beginning to wonder what he’s trying to achieve by asking what she knows about astrology, why he’s asking to begin with. Astrology, he knew this from Elder Asa, was a sham. After all, it wasn’t up to the stars to decide how people were or what they did or choose their fate. It was up to God.

God?

He nods at the box in front of him, half supported by the middle shelf and half supported by his own hip pressed against it. He retrieves a book from the box and shelves it. “Yeah.”

“I know enough,” she answers, looking away from him, to Jeongguk’s quiet relief, and to her own box of books. “Why?”

“Do you know anything about Sagitarrii? Like…what do they like, like…in a…?”

The question fades into silence, the last word hanging on the tip of Jeongguk’s tongue, as he tries to make sense of what he’s saying before he can say it. His mouth had been fixed to say ‘lover.’ It shocks him, realizing that he was asking a question like that, so much he very nearly drops the box onto the floor.

“In a what?” Hyunjoo asks, her voice gruff and a touch annoyed. Jeongguk would probably be annoyed to if someone bothered him with a question they couldn’t even finish asking. “I’m not much of a guesser, Jeongguk.”

 “…a friend,” he finishes, mouth suddenly pressed tight into a line. If he opens it again, he fears, he’ll risk asking another stupid question.

“Oh, that’s easy,” Hyunjoo says. “An Aries.”

Jeongguk’s shoulders sag a little. “I mean, like…personality wise. I don’t know any of the signs anyway. What’s an Aries? What do they do?”

Hyunjoo laughs at him. “None of the signs do anything, they’re not parts of a cell. They just are. And, okay, a Sagittarius tends to be honest. To an annoying degree.”

Jeongguk nods at that. Seokjin was very honest. So honest that sometimes Jeongguk wished he would just lie instead. He thinks about the Night of the Aquarius and how Seokjin’s bluntness made him want to hide under a blanket.

“And an Aries…they’re pretty much the same. They’ll tell you what’s what even if you didn’t ask. And if you don’t like their honest opinion, they’re also ready to fight you on it. With words or what have you. Both of them are really confident, too. Like almost cocky—”

“Seokjin isn’t cocky,” Jeongguk says without thinking. 

Right after the words leave him, his cheeks burn something furious and he shuts his eyes hoping that he suddenly has the ability to, once he closes them, become invisible. The silence that follows doesn’t do anything to dull the throb of other worldly embarrassment. Eventually, he decides he has to say something because Hyunjoo will gladly allow the silence to stay and Jeongguk will have no choice but to stew in it.

He opens his eyes and takes his time shelving another book, releasing a slow breath as he does. “He’s…he’s confident but he’s not…” He sighs, suddenly frustrated. “What about other signs?”

He doesn’t hear — couldn’t possibly hear — Hyunjoo smirking at him or holding back her laughter but he feels at least 98% sure that it’s exactly what she’s doing behind his back. He hears her shelve another book. “Well. They sure like their Aquariuses.”

Jeongguk’s stomach sours and his face screws up.

“The Aquarius—”

“What about Virgos?” He asks, finally just spitting it out without having to embarrass himself by actually spitting it out. “Do they get along?”

To his utter disappointment, Hyunjoo barks out a little laugh, a snort to match with it, and answers: “Oh, God, no.”

He surprises himself when he turns to face Hyunjoo and hears, in his question, the slightest hint of a whine. “Why not?”

When Hyunjoo’s eyes meet his, her laughter returns but this time it’s louder and sounds more like the warning bark of a rottweiler. Her eyes crinkle at the corners and she shakes her head. He won’t understand the depth of her amusement until much, much later. But by then, he’ll have other things on his mind.

“It’s not impossible,” she says once she’s done laughing at him. “Astrology isn’t the end all, be all. It’s just fun. But, personally speaking, here’s how I think of the,” she pauses to put air quotes on the next part, “friendship between a Virgo and a Sagittarius: a Virgo is an Earth sign, a Sagittarius is a fire sign. Meaning nothing good can come from them being together, only scorched earth.”

Jeongguk knows she’s right.

Not about Virgos and Sagitarri being together but that astrology isn’t the end all, be all. For some reason, though, he can’t let it go. He fixes his mouth to ask her why they wouldn’t work, maybe even put his foot in his mouth again and cite that, for example, they seemed to be working just fine. But the phone rings and she dismisses herself before he can.

He continues unpacking the new shipment, shelving books based on surname. He stops only when he catches sight of a title, the book itself tiny in size, almost hidden in the corner of the box. The title, in pale green colors contrasting against the pastel pink background, reads: Coming for One.

He looks away, toward the end of the aisle, at the front desk where Hyunjoo is still stood behind, the phone pressed between her ear and her shoulder, as she writes something on a sticky pad. He returns to the box, reaching down for the small book, cradling it as if either it or himself will shatter if he’s too rough. 

The book cover, thankfully, is free of any visual innuendo. No dripping grapefruits or unpeeled bananas or sliced peaches. Why, he wonders, does sex and fruit seem to go so easily hand in hand? Aside from the title, the cover is bare with nothing on the backside apart from the ISBN number and bar code. Even the author’s name is missing.It’s not until he opens the book, reading the flap on the left hand side that he sees what it’s about. The very thing he picked it up for. 

‘In this personal, funny, and touching self described ‘semi-memoir,’ author Lee Insik recounts his first sexual awakenings, sexual encounters, and his coming out all the while living in a small, conservative town.’

A truth long unacknowledged by Jeongguk was that he thought about sex more often than he gave off. He recalls his first time seeing Seokjin and how his mind had been so consumed by how close Seokjin’s neck was to his mouth, for the shortest of moments, that he couldn’t think of anything else. He recalls repentance many a time in high school when the most scholarly student in his grade gave presentations. The subject matter never seemed to matter as much as the student’s intellect which was great enough that it quite possibly, quite possibly turned Jeongguk on.

Normally, he’d be content to just ignore it. But his life is different now and Seokjin told him to learn about himself and Jeongguk really wants to do just that. There’s so much to discover. He tucks the book on top of his knee, settling the box over it, just as Hyunjoo returns to the aisle. He waits for her to start shelving again before he asks. 

“Um,” he swallows hard. “Can I…borrow a book, maybe?”

Hyunjoo asks it casually, only half attentive. “Which one?”

Jeongguk feels his cheeks heating up again as he hangs his head over his box and just: “Please, Hyunjoo. Don’t make me say it, can I just borrow it?”

She laughs at him again. He has half a mind to believe the only reason she keeps him around is because she gets an employee and entertainment in one package. “Fine.”

 

 

The book is hidden under his — Seokjin’s — shirt, the bottom of it tucked safely into the hem of Jeongguk’s pants, as he makes it home. He wonders when exactly he started referring to Seokjin’s apartment as “home.” He tries to trace it back to an exact moment but he can’t recall. All he knows is that when he gets home, before the door is opened, he’s greeted by the mouthwatering scent of food cooking and his stomach grumbles. He didn’t grab a snack to eat on the way back even though he easily could have as Hyunjoo had given him his first official payment. Being paid ‘under the table’ meant walking around with a wad of cash which he didn’t feel comfortable about but he made it all the way here with the money still in his pocket.

He was eager to show Seokjin what he had earned, eager to show him he was keeping his part of the deal, and also, though he was told he didn’t have to, eager to offer Seokjin money for the sacrifices he made to keep a roof over Jeongguk’s head.

Before he can lift his hand to knock, the door swings open and Seokjin is appraising him, a sharp knife in his hand. “Hey, there.”

“Hi,” Jeongguk says, a faint smile pulling up the corners of his mouth. He can’t help it.

His gaze flickers to the knife and Seokjin laughs a little. “It’s not for you, don’t worry.”

He turns and Jeongguk follows him inside. “I wasn’t.”

“Your eyes said otherwise.”

Jeongguk toes off his shoes and follows Seokjin to the kitchen, up to the stove where he looks at what’s cooking. Two pots, one, red in color, bubbling over with hot kimchi jjigae and the other, white, holding nothing but boiling water. 

“What else are you making?” Jeongguk asks as he reaches into the utensil drawer, retrieves a spoon, and stretches it toward the jjigae.

Seokjin takes the spoon and slaps his hand lightly. “Surprises are fun, ‘Gukkie. Get your hands out of there.”

“They’re not even in—”

“You’re messing with its aura,” Seokjin says, fanning his fingers in a little dance before elbowing Jeongguk out of the way. “Move.”

Jeongguk laughs. It would bother him, on any other day, how light his chest is right now. “Its aura?”

“Food has aura too, okay? Don’t be small-minded.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says, his default when he doesn’t know what else to say. He looks around the kitchen. “Well, what else are you cooking?”

Seokjin laughs at the same time that he looks at him, expression wide-eyed and faintly, Jeongguk suspects, annoyed. “Why are you asking?”

“Because I want to help.”

Then Seokjin is quiet, mouth suddenly shut but smile growing in size. If his cheeks look the slightest bit dusted in foreign shades of pink, Jeongguk doesn’t think anything of it. For, if he knew that he made someone like Seokjin blush — even the slightest — he would cease to believe in the existence of the world as he knew it.

Seokjin looks away from him, down at the spoon he’d taken from Jeongguk which he places back neatly in the drawer. “Well,” he finally says with a little sigh. “It’s a surprise. Next time,” and then he’s looking up again: “The food’s already gotten used to me, it can’t have someone else suddenly poking and prodding at it.”

Quietly, Jeongguk says: “I don’t think it cares.”

“I do.”

“…Alright,” he stands back a little. “I, uh,” he reaches into his back pocket where he immediately put the money once Hyunjoo handed it to him. “I have news.”

Seokjin turns away from the stove, hands tucked under his chin, as he preens. “Is it that you got your first paycheck? Because I’ve been dying to tell you.”

Just like that, Jeongguk’s shoulders slump forward and he feels like his entire body is sinking into the floor just like his mood. He must pout or something because Seokjin’s expression melts into the one he wears only when he’s pitying Jeongguk but with that now familiar gleam of adoration. “You knew?”

Seokjin reaches out and, like he has many times before, runs a hand through Jeongguk’s hair. It feels like the first time. Jeongguk closes his eyes at the contact. “It’s a small district, honey. Of course, I knew.” 

When Jeongguk opens his eyes again, he keeps them on the floor. “Oh.”

“No, no, what have I told you about the self-pitying thing?” Seokjin asks, cupping Jeongguk’s cheeks and lifting his face so that they’re looking directly at each other. “It’s such a turn off.”

“I know but…”

“But…?”

“I wanted to surprise you,” he says. It sounds so tiny that even he has trouble not pitying himself further. “I…I just wanted to surprise you.”

He pulls, just slightly, away from Seokjin’s hold on him until the older drops his hands and Jeongguk’s face is free to pout all it desires to. His eyes find the ground once more, for a while, until he remembers the whole thing about how Seokjin perceives him and suddenly their gazes are meeting again. 

“That’s why I didn’t tell you.”

“That’s a relief,” Seokjin says, smile soft around the edges. He nudges Jeongguk’s chin. “I thought you were just too embarrassed to say you work at a sex shop.”

“It’s not — I’m — I don’t work at a sex shop.”

“Even if you did, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s only sex.”

Like most men, Jeongguk has dealt with, numerous times, the absolute inconvenience of sudden, sometimes purposeless, hard-ons. As an adolescent, this had been the most difficult to deal with because seemingly everything, right down to certain colors of a sunset, could set him off. Recently, he’s found that they come with less frequency but now, especially around Seokjin, they come at just about anything. All Seokjin did was say the word ‘sex,’ all Jeongguk’s brain did was flash a millisecond long image of he and Seokjin engaged in it, and now Jeongguk is trying to keep the incoming hard-on at bay.

His silence, all attention focused on telepathic lecture he’s giving to his penis, must be mistaken for embarrassment because Seokjin prods his chin again, sending electric currencies down his spine. 

“Right?”

“…Right.”

He desperately hopes that the affected nature of his voice isn’t as obvious to Seokjin’s ears as it is to his own. For the first time in ever, he genuinely wishes Seokjin would stop touching him. He also desperately wishes, not for the first time ever, not by a long shot, that Seokjin’s hand never ever leaves his side. As if hearing those thoughts, Seokjin removes his hand but not before sliding it across Jeongguk’s shoulders in a move that’s obviously meant to be consoling but just making the telepathic lecture stop working.

“And anyway,” Seokjin says as he turns back to the stove, returning his attention to the food and its aura. “Hyunjoo’s a friend of mine and when she mentioned she had this Bambi looking newbie working for her now, I knew she was talking about you.”

You think I look like Bambi?”

“I tell you all the time that I think you’re cute.”

“…But you meant cute like Bambi? Not like…?”

Seokjin turns to him after he trails off, expectant. Jeongguk shakes his head, pressing his mouth shut again. He knows how close he is, nearly falling over the edge, to saying something stupid. So, he excuses himself to take a shower where he waits an extra six minutes, thinking of nothing but math equations, for the excitement to wear down.

 

“I know I said you shouldn’t spend any money,” Seokjin says to him when they’re finally seated for dinner. 

“But…?”

“I think we should get you some clothes,” Seokjin says. “Don’t worry about walking, I’ll take you there. You don’t have to go crazy or anything, a couple new shirts couldn’t hurt. Besides, it would really cement the whole ‘Making Decisions for You’ thing. Right?”

Jeongguk knows Seokjin’s right. It’s a good idea. It wasn’t as if he could go on wearing Seokjin’s clothes forever, regardless of how much he liked the way the fabrics felt against his skin. Still, he doesn’t agree with Seokjin out loud because the thought of agreeing feels identical to telling a lie.

“I like seeing you in my clothes and all,” Seokjin says and Jeongguk’s mind stutters to silence. “But everyone deserves a style of their own. And something tells me you hate my Hawaiian shirts.”

“I don’t hate them,” Jeongguk barely manages to say. “…You like me in your clothes?”

Seokjin shakes his head as if he already knows where Jeongguk’s mind had gone, is going, and will go forever. “It’s not that deep, JK.”

“I’m not making it deep.”

“Okay, sure.”

“…I can wear them more often if you want. It’s the least I can do to repay you.”

Seokjin seems to be, to both their shock, at a loss for words. He opens his mouth to say something and something squeaks out of his throat. Then he closes his mouth and turns his head to the side, holding back a little laugh as he does.

“I’m gonna pretend you didn’t say that,” he finally says. “New clothes. Tomorrow.”

Before Jeongguk can object, not that he would think to, Seokjin is picking up some sukju namul with his chopsticks. Jeongguk opens his mouth before Seokjin even reaches out to him.

“How are you liking it there?” Seokjin asks. “Is Hyunjoo being nice to you?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, chewing slowly.

The idea arrives to him suddenly that he could easily tell Seokjin not to feed him or, like a logical person might do, just reach over and grab the food on his own. But then he would risk bringing one of two things to Seokjin’s attention: that he didn’t like it when Seokjin fed him (a grandiose lie) or that he liked it too much (a grandiose truth). Both of them proved to be problematic in theory and both of them, Jeongguk reasoned, would just as well end with Seokjin not doing it again. 

Both ideas quickly leave as soon as they arrived and Jeongguk settles once more for the silence that can neither confirm or deny his feelings on the matter.

“That doesn’t sound like my Hyunjoo, are you lying to me?”

Jeongguk laughs a little, head bowing forward as he helps himself to the stew. It’s scorching hot and spicier than he’d been used to having it but it feels good going down and tastes like heaven. 

“She’s a good person,” is what he settles with.

A Good Person doesn’t always have to be a Nice Person, this was something he had only learned recently. Even more interesting to him was the realization that a Nice Person wasn’t always a Good Person. One could be nice but then one could be Nice, acting their politeness out like a fame-starved performer on the last legs of a forgotten stage play. Disingenuous and desperate.

Seokjin’s phone sounds out a three note ringtone, the screen lighting up as the new text comes in. Seokjin furrows his eyebrows as he picks the phone up, glancing at it for only a moment before turning the ringer off and laying it back down on the table, screen face down. 

In his quest to find out more about relationships and sex, Jeongguk started to slowly take advantage of his surroundings at the bookstore. He didn’t so much read the books as he scanned through them, stopping as soon as there was any direct or indirect mention of sex. What he started to enjoy was peeking at the relationship aspects of these books, of which there were many. People wrote about The First Date and The First Kiss which Jeongguk found himself glancing at the other day before he got too embarrassed to carry on.

What he remembers now is this one minuscule section on Communication both before and after sex. The before part, he didn’t really look at, figuring it would involve physical affection galore. But the after sex part, he remembers. The answer to what compelled him to read it might lie in a certain water sign and a certain fire sign. Regardless of why, he remembers the importance of communicating after sex, particularly after One Night Stands. It’s this tiny blurb he’d read partly out of boredom during work hours that’s plaguing his mind when Seokjin doesn’t respond to the text. He wonders if it’s the Aquarius.

But how would he even begin to ask that?

“Who’s that?” He asks. In the back of his mind, he knows it’s none of his business and that Seokjin could very well answer the question by telling him exactly that. But Seokjin doesn’t.

“Friend,” he says. “Trying to get me to go out dancing this weekend.”

“You like dancing,” Jeongguk says. He’s seen Seokjin saunter and shimmy around the kitchen at all hours with whatever song playing on the stereo sending him into different rhythms. The idea of Seokjin dancing out “in the world” with people to saunter and shimmy with makes Jeongguk’s stomach somersault again.

It’s a pretty image to have.

“I like a lot of things,” Seokjin says. 

“You should go.”

“I’m not in college anymore, the allure of disco night doesn’t hold the same,” Seokjin purses his lips together and makes a gesture with his hands, fingers outstretching to find the right word, “pizzazz.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk leans forward, eyes widening a bit. “You like disco.”

“What is this, a ‘Tell Me Everything I Already Know’ fest?”

“No. I think you should go. It would be nice to…see you dance under the lights.”

Seokjin looks at him through slightly hooded eyes, his hand, holding onto his chopsticks, still hovering over his bowl of rice. The smile he wears is saying a thousand different things and Jeongguk can’t place a single meaning. 

“What makes you think you’d be invited?”

 

 

white shirt no. 2

The sunlight reflects off of Seokjin’s lavender star-shaped sunglasses, making parts of it appear turquoise in color and turning the silver frame blinding white. With his hair still mussed from sleep and another Hawaiian shirt hanging off his frame — this one lilac and orange — Seokjin looks like a dream that Jeongguk never wants to wake up from. 

Jeongguk has seen Seokjin’s car a couple of times, always in passing and never close enough to appreciate the sheer oddity of it. It seemed like a car that would be better suited for an old auntie than for someone who managed to make the simple act of feeding fish seem sensual. The car itself was a Hyundai Stellar, dated 1986 as Seokjin so proudly relayed, yellow in hue and rusted on the left side. A Little Tree, Caribbean Coloda scented, hangs from the mirror along with a rainbow pride lanyard. Inside, the car is just as old with windows that require manual winding to open and close them and worn leather seats. It, much like the furniture in Seokjin’s living room, is odd and an amalgamation of things that don’t seem to go together but it’s well-kept, clean, and organized. 

For a car that had been on the streets since before either of them were born, it ran well and it didn’t seem to be giving up on them any time soon which Jeongguk appreciated greatly. What he appreciated more though was the way the sun fell on Seokjin’s hair, turning the light brown locks into a brighter shade of honey and made his skin drip gold. His staring wasn’t too obvious, he hoped, thanks to the spare sunglasses Seokjin handed to him once they got in the car. The second pair was less bright and less Seokjin in comparison to the lavender ones. They were aviator shades, dark red, and kept falling of Jeongguk’s face so that he had to sit in the passenger seat with his chin lifted.

He finds that he really likes sitting in Seokjin’s car. Not just to sit in it, but to be, specifically, in the passenger seat. Specifically while Seokjin is driving. Specifically and especially when Seokjin has to do things like reverse the car or parallel park, when he puts his right arm over the back of the passenger seat, turning toward the rear window as he does. Before today, Jeongguk never would have guessed that parallel parking could be attractive. 

When Seokjin is done parallel parking this time, he turns back in his seat and turns the car off. While the engine rumbles into silence, Seokjin slowly removes his sunglasses and stares at Jeongguk.

A lump forms in Jeongguk’s throat. “What?”

Seokjin shakes his head a little, tucking his sunglasses into his shirt collar, then takes his phone out of Jeongguk’s hand. “Being the DJ on a drive is a serious job. I know it’s hard for you being in the presence of all of this,” this, Seokjin says as he waves a hand over himself from head to thigh, “but I expect you to keep the music coming.”

“I was.”

“You were staring at me.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Honey, you know I can see through your sunglasses, right? They’re not opaque,” Seokjin opens the car door and starts out. “Let’s go before the good clothes are gone. And I expect nothing but hits on the drive back.”

Jeongguk starts to defend himself as he climbs out of the passenger seat but before he can get started, before his face can flush, before he can stutter his way out of this one, his eyes fall on the bike. The bike is one of two parked parked at the rack but it’s the only one Jeongguk can see. It’s black and silver with a long scratch in the middle from the time someone keyed it. He remembers coming out of a complex to find the bike vandalized. 

His eyes shoot up from the bike to look at his surroundings. 

The thrift store is just one store in a block of them, housed between a record store and a sandwich shop. People walk up and down the sidewalk but none of them are familiar. He’s still looking, craning to look behind him, to look down the street when Seokjin is standing next to him, hooking an arm through his and pulling him gently to the store entrance.

The door pings when they pass through it. 

Jeongguk scans around the store. No familiar faces. He’s so caught up in the task that he only stirs when Seokjin pulls the sunglasses from his face and tucks them into his shirt collar.

“Okay,” Seokjin says. “Where do you wanna start?”

“Um…” Jeongguk looks around the store again, not at the different sections but at the different people. Maybe he’d imagined it. When he looks back, he shrugs. “I don’t know. Shirts?”

“What kind of shirts?” Seokjin tugs at the one Jeongguk is wearing, it’s a t-shirt that belongs to him. “I could see you in some lantern sleeves.”

Soon, Seokjin is whisking him away to into the an aisle where the clothes are arranged by color. Yellows fading into mustards fading into oranges fading into browns. 

“Which do you like?”

Jeongguk only barely looks around at the racks, caressing their fabrics as he does. “I don’t know.”

“Right, that’s the whole point of this. You get to find out…Start with a color.”

“…I like red.”

“Red,” Seokjin repeats, takes hold of Jeongguk’s wrist and guides him to another aisle where the shirts now go from pastel pinks to hot pinks to bright reds to maroons. The shirts range from collared long sleeve to polos to silk blouses that would look much better on Seokjin. Jeongguk’s hand passes over each shirt, trying to find the softest one. He goes without noticing Seokjin at his side watching him until the older speaks up, voice distant and warm.

“You don’t like the look of things.”

Jeongguk turns to him, hand paused on a baby soft cotton crewneck. His fingers are still dancing across it when he asks what Seokjin means.

Seokjin gestures to Jeongguk’s hand, lingering on the crewneck. “It’s all about touch.”

“Well…that’s not all,” he grabs the shirt, holding it up against his torso. “The look is nice. I like red. But clothes never last that long. The colors fade or stitches become undone. But the feeling is almost always the same. It’s all about what will last.”

“And will that last?” Seokjin asks, eyes going down to the front of the shirt.

“I think so.”

Seokjin doesn’t say it but Jeongguk could swear he almost hears it: an amused and conflicted little ‘Nothing ever lasts, JK.’ What he does hear is Seokjin make a uncommitted hum of agreement as he looks around the store. His eyes suddenly go bright as they fall on, a few aisles down, a rack of pants. 

“Corduroys,” he quietly gasps the word.

He leaves Jeongguk’s side for a moment, returning with two different pairs. One baby pink and one forest green. The smile on his face is twice as bright, mouth pressed to hold back a squeal of excitement. 

Extending the two hangers toward Jeongguk, he whispers a delighted: “Indulge me?” 

 

He tries on the pink corduroys first. To him, the pants look tacky and, although he’s never been the most fashionable, he knows enough to know that the style doesn’t suit him at all. When he steps out of the dressing room though, Seokjin’s reaction almost makes him believe the style suits him so well, he could say he invented it.

“Awww,” Seokjin coos at him, approaching him in quick strides and taking hold of the hem. He pauses. “Do you mind?”

Jeongguk shakes his head, all he can do being incapable of speech so suddenly.

Seokjin hooks his fingers through the belt loops on either side, tugging up and then tugging down just a little. Jeongguk looks down at Seokjin’s movements, not at them directly, but at his groin in suspicious surprise that this isn’t setting it off too. 

Seokjin deems it an absolute necessity to continue touching him. The prodding and the poking gives way to prolonged moments of self-reflection in the tiny dressing room. Not long ago, Jeongguk had asked himself, not truly expecting to ever have an answer, how long buried things stay buried. There, watching Seokjin fuss over the fit of the pink corduroys — absolutely not his style — he learns that buried things, like drowned things, don’t stay under long. 

The truth he never wanted to acknowledge was now impossible to ignore. The truth being that he, of sound mind and sound body, liked boys. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t sick. He didn’t need help. He just liked boys. He liked the idea of kissing them, of touching them, of finding parts of himself in their hands. And he especially liked Seokjin.

He liked Seokjin’s confidence, his smile, his kindness, and his honesty even when his truths made Jeongguk’s stomach sour. He liked the way his hands felt when they went through his hair, the little lilt that rose and fell in his voice whenever he said Jeongguk’s name, teetering on teasing and sweet. He liked Seokjin. And Seokjin was a man. To look at it head on is to find a swell of both freedom and fear. 

The truth head on, without veils or half-truths, was that Jeongguk was about as gay, if not gayer than, the Christmas spirit itself.

Of course, he had always known that, always suspected it. But it was something he never thought out loud, never said out loud, fearing that acknowledgement would make it real. He’d wanted it, upon initial discovery, to just be a phase that he would grow of. After all, once upon a time he liked playing with toy cars but he outgrew those plastic hunks as quickly as he’d outgrown his sneakers. 

He thinks of Natalie now, of her letter about love and the phases of the moon. This fact about him — and a fact, it was — was not a phase. It was the moon. The existence of it would never fade or go away. The world, his world, would never reach a point of the moon being wholly absent from the sky. Though its phases would always shift a little as he grew older, the moon itself would always be there and it will always be the moon.

His breath hastens. What an epiphany. 

In between the feel of Seokjin’s fingers at his shirt collar and this new realization, he manages only to fix his mouth to say something but before he can, Seokjin asks:

“What? It looks nice. I swear on my life, JK, you’d kill in some bell bottoms.”

Jeongguk shakes his head, looks away, and tries not to fold under the new weight of truth. “I…”

He almost says it then, almost confesses right then and there to Seokjin, almost, very nearly, comes out to him. 

But then he’s struck by lightning.

It’s quite a pain to be struck by lightning. In the fifth grade, Jeongguk had subjected himself to researching that very thing. He saw the scars, he read about the searing pain, and the abnormalities that followed. The one thing he retained from their research was that to be struck by lightning was to, in many ways, become forever changed. Though he never, and hopes to keep it that way, was literally struck by lightning, he thinks he’s pretty close to it now. After all, the return of the prodigal son, no matter how often he disappears or returns, is always life-changing.

Standing a few rows away, hanging clothes on racks, is Taehyung.

He’s sure for a few seconds that he’s imagining it. The guilt of turning him away has eaten at him since he did it and now the guilt was manifesting into a ghost and now that ghost was going to haunt him until the end of his days. He blinks a few times, looks to Seokjin, and then looks back at the rack. And Taehyung is still there. It’s him. In the flesh.

He isn’t sure if he tries to explain to Seokjin before he pulls out of his gentle grip, feet carrying him toward the aisle. If he does try, he’s sure that his words don’t make any sense. All he can focus on now is Taehyung, keeping his eyes trained on him so that he doesn’t disappear. Before he can step up to him properly, before he can step foot in the aisle, Taehyung looks up and directly at him, eyes widening.

Just as soon as their eyes meet, Taehyung looks away, back at the racks of clothes. To anyone in a  distance, it would look benign, the tension wouldn’t be noticed. But to Jeongguk and to a couple of the store goers close enough to see the hard set in Taehyung’s jaw and the way he started to organize the clothes with a new aggression, it was obvious. There’s a turbulence in each of their movements, thunder and lightning, sudden and angry in the way Taehyung tries to focus on anything but Jeongguk. There’s an earthquake in the shaking of Jeongguk’s shoulders as he tries to get a hold of his breathing, tries not to fold to fear in the presence of a ghost.

Jeongguk’s chest ached terribly. It’s caving in, collapsing infinitely, and exploding infinitely. A wildfire erupts inside him, eyes watering, and world shaking. 

“Taehyung.”

Taehyung says nothing, acknowledges nothing. Only the hard set in his jaw lets Jeongguk know that his presence is unwelcome. But why would it be welcome? Did he expect for Taehyung to see him and smile like he used to? To open his arms and pull him in for a hug? To ask him how he’d been? For the past to cease existing?

Jeongguk takes a breath, looks down at his hands as he squeezes them together. His nails dig into the palms of his hands and they hurt but he knows he deserves it.

“I’m…it’s good to see you…I didn’t know if you were—”

“I need this job,” Taehyung suddenly says. He doesn’t look at Jeongguk when he does but his eyes are suddenly cold.

Jeongguk doesn’t say anything.

“So,” Taehyung continues. His voice is shaking. “I’d really appreciate if you’d just walk away from me right now because I really don’t wanna see you and I’m not trying to cause a scene.”

The first tear doesn’t make a big fuss, slipping out Jeongguk’s eye but not rolling too far down his cheek. It’s stopped in its tracks by the back of Jeongguk’s hand, quick to be rid of it. He sniffles at the ground.

“I’m sorry,” he says. And it feels good, that much he can admit in the moment, to finally say it. To finally have the chance to say it. To know that he was wrong and to have Taehyung know it too. But the solace from it is short-lived, replaced by even more guilt. The fire inside ravages him and everything hurts too much. He shakes his head, a quiet sob starting to roll through him.

“I’m really sorry, Taehyung…I’m really—I didn’t know.”

Taehyung’s movements are so quick that Jeongguk almost misses it, the wheels of the rolling rack cry out as Taehyung reverses out of the aisle and crosses the store with it.

For a moment, Jeongguk is frozen but then he’s following him, on his tails.

“I’m sorry,” he says again when he’s close enough. “I didn’t know what else to do, my dad—”

“You’re too old to be blaming other people for your actions,” Taehyung turns, barely, to say the next part, voice dropping: “I didn’t ask your dad for help, I asked you.”

“I know. And I’m sorry.”

They’ve stopped now, Taehyung positioned in front of sale section, hanging up marked down items. Jeongguk stands behind him, close enough for their conversation to be reserved for their ears but far apart enough to not see all the little ways Taehyung’s body continues to reveal the depth of his anger. 

“I’m…” Jeongguk pauses, feeling like a broken record. His vision is blurry from the new tears. “I can’t say it enough. But I’ll keep doing it until you forgive me. I haven’t been able to shake it. I feel terrible…I did it because I was scared. Because — I’m like you and I didn’t want to be. I never wanted to be.”

He doesn’t have to use the exact words, the exact label. When Taehyung turns to him slowly, looking at him properly for the first time since the last time, he can see that it had been understood. He wonders if Taehyung had always known, had known even before Jeongguk did, this truth about himself.

Taehyung shakes his head and sighs heavily, steps closer to say in a quiet, broken voice: “Don’t you realize that makes it worse?”

Without waiting for an answer, Taehyung walks away, clothing rack in tow. The squeaky wheel, along with the question, will linger in Jeongguk’s mind for a long time. He stands there, silent and feeling as helpless as ever, shoulders hunched forward. Before he knows it, a hand comes down on his shoulder and the smell of lemongrass shampoo is surrounding him.

“Your friend?” Seokjin asks.

Jeongguk nods.

“…Do you wanna go back home?”

 

 

regan’s sloppy seconds

Seuss and Jeongguk are in the middle of an intense staring competition, of which Seuss, attention span of three seconds, is somehow winning, when Seokjin enters the spare bedroom. He’s dressed now for work, his sleek black dress shirt shaping his body out nicely and the smell of his cologne, exclusively for work purposes, puts Jeongguk in a quiet daze. He stands there on the threshold, leaning against the door for a moment.

“May I enter?” He asks.

“It’s your house,” Jeongguk murmurs, reluctantly tearing his eyes away from Seuss again and gifting Seokjin his attention. “You can do what you want.”

Seokjin takes a stride in, sits cross-legged on the floor across from Jeongguk, and cradles his face in the palm of his hand. His gaze is sweet and gentle. He waits. Jeongguk waits.

“…Was there…something you wanted to tell me?”

Seokjin shakes his head. “I’m getting the feeling you might want a conversation but…I’m also getting the feeling that you don’t want to talk. So, I’m yours until,” Seokjin looks at his watch. “Er, for the next fifteen minutes if you have anything you want to get off your chest.”

Jeongguk shakes his head, gaze returning to the fish tank. Seuss has moved on from the staring competition and has started, instead, to busy himself with following Ursula around as eagerly as a fish can. “I’m okay.”

“It’s okay to not be okay,” Seokjin murmurs. 

“I’m not not okay.”

“Okay.”

“Really.”

“Okay, I said,” Seokjin leans forward after a moment, balls his hand into a fist and playfully punches Jeongguk’s thigh. “But, hypothetically, if you weren’t...I’m right here.”

Jeongguk slumps a little, his eyes trailing down from the tank to the pristine carpet under him. He flattens his hands against the fabric, spreading his fingers over and over. A carpet angel, if you will. He admits it to his hands: “I just want him to forgive me.”

“…You really hurt him—”

“I know,” Jeongguk sighs, covering his face with his hands. In his palms, he mumbles again: “I know what I did.”

“Then you know, it’s only up to you to apologize. That’s it. You can’t make him forgive you and you can’t expect him to. He doesn’t have to, you know.”

“…Why not?”

“It’s not like it’s just about you. It’s about him. It’s about how he cares about himself, if he cares about himself enough. There’s two responses people have to being hurt, Jeongguk. You can’t choose which one he reacts with. Forgiveness is his choice and you have to accept that.”

“…I’d…I really want him to forgive me.”

“I know you do.”

“I could have…” He sighs and mumbles this next part in shame, cheeks flushing. “I could have loved him once, I think.”

If Seokjin is surprised by the admission, he doesn’t show it in anything aside from the slight lift of a brow, minute enough to be unnoticeable to the eye untrained in all things Seokjin. His voice is gentle. “When did you know?”

Not when, Jeongugk knows, he realized he liked Taehyung, held a schoolboy sort of affection for him when he was too young to know that it was wrong. No. Seokjin is asking when he first knew that he was gay.

“I think I always did,” he admits. “I just didn’t want to…What about you?”

“What about me?”

Jeongguk’s throats suddenly dry. He doesn’t know why he bothers asking but he does: “Do you forgive me?”

“For what you did to him?” Seokjin asks, laughs a little but not out of humor. He shakes his head. “That’s not up to me.”

“What about for what I did to you? What’s my apology pended out?”

“Of course, I forgive you. Why else would you be here?”

He thinks of it, it lingers and echoes with phantom movements touching him all over. A sharp intake of breath breaks the quiet and he’s looking down again. He doesn’t deserve this. “Why are you so nice to me?”

Seokjin looks amused. “Would you prefer it if I was mean? I can be mean.”

Smiling only a little, Jeongguk shakes his head. “…I keep not wanting to believe in God. And some days, now, I don’t, not really. But then…I think, of all the places, I ended up here with you. I could have ended up anywhere. I could have been sleeping under a bridge. But I’m here with you. Either He’s real or He isn’t and I don’t know what to believe anymore.”

He looks up at Seokjin as his words trail off. 

Seokjin is watching him closely, listening like everything out of Jeongguk’s mouth is important and worth paying attention to. He shrugs after a moment. “I can’t tell you what to believe in, Jeongguk. Whatever conclusion you come to, it has to be yours. Otherwise, you’re back at square one.”

They get comfortable in the quiet. Seokjin moves up from his original position and sits next to Jeongguk, both still on the floor with the backs now pressed against the side of the bed. 

“I used to think I was an atheist,” Seokjin says. “I was really sure about it, too. But I think I found out that I was just mad about the things I found out about my parents and about church in general. I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. But pretending you’re not something you are is just as bad as pretending you are something you’re not.”

The image of a young Seokjin standing in regal robes amongst a group of young boys, reading from the songbook and singing angelically suddenly flashes in Jeongguk’s mind. A memory although one of invention, not of actuality. 

“When we met,” he starts shyly. “You said I reminded you of yourself.”

“You still do.”

“…What happened?”

Seokjin exhales. “The same thing, more or less. Less apocalyptic and more…scandalous. Our priest just…wasn’t a good person. I stopped going to church after all of that but I didn’t stop, or try to stop, believing in God until much later.”

The older has a way of answering things that leaves Jeongguk feeling like he has more questions than he started with. But the way Seokjin answers things, with that quiet and warm finality, always tells Jeongguk it’s not a safe bet to push it further. Instead, he mumbles: “Does it stop hurting?”

“Eventually. There’s plenty of new wounds to be scarred by. There always will be.”

Suddenly, Seokjin asks: “Do you like it here?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk answers immediately, looking to Seokjin and eyes widening. “I…Thank you again. It’s really…very homey here.”

“…But it’s not home,” and then: “You miss your family, don’t you?”

Jeongguk nods, suddenly feeling like the dumbest person on Earth. His own father who he had trusted more than anyone and more than anything, who he believed and never questioned, who he knew would always take care of him had hit him not once but twice. All the while, his own mother who he cherished, whose voice he heard in times of need and of comfort, whose existence made life easier even when things were unbearably difficult, had stood idly by. He should hate them. Perhaps a small part of him does. But it’s overshadowed, continually, by the part that wants to have them near again.

“You must think I’m an idiot,” he mumbles.

Seokjin suddenly takes his hand, flips it so that the palm is facing him and he runs his finger across the lines. His voice is lower: “My dad…when he found out about me and my, um, I guess he was my boyfriend, I don’t really know. It’s weird, huh? Us rainbow kids, we don’t really have first kisses or first dates or…anything. When we get feelings, we stuff them into a drawer, stuff ourselves into closets, and try not to suffocate. Some of us aren’t so lucky…” 

Seokjin trails off for a few moments, eyes distant. He’s years away until he brings himself back and refocuses on the trail he’s making on Jeongguk’s palm.

“Anyway,” he says. “My dad shaved my head and made me sleep outside with just the clothes on my back for three days when he found out. Just my luck that he happened to find out in the dead of winter, isn’t it?” He clicks his tongue. “And I miss him. Every day.”

The casual tone of Seokjin’s voice is a ripple compared to the wave of frustration, sorrow, and anger washing over Jeongguk’s entire being. He feels like he could cry and maybe he would if Seokjin wasn’t in front of him and if he wasn’t so acutely aware of how frequently his tears reveal themselves in Seokjin’s presence. He holds them back, grits his teeth, and tries to focus on his breathing to calm down.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “You didn’t deserve that.”

“No one deserves it. And, anyway, it’s not your fault.”

Again, Jeongguk finds himself asking, voice tinged with a desperate melancholy: “Why are you so nice to me? After all of that?”

“…Like I said: a person can have one of two reactions to life cutting them a shitty deal. It can be either: ‘This happened to me so why shouldn’t it happen to someone else?’ or ‘This happened to me and I’ll never let it happen to anyone else.’ You’re just lucky to have caught me at a time in my life when I’m reacting to things the second way.”

Soon, their time is up. The fifteen minutes had turned into eighteen, nearing twenty when Seokjin started to stand, dropping Jeongguk’s hand. He says good night to Jeongguk, using his full name when he does and Jeongguk asks, almost to himself: “Can you call me ‘love’ again?”

He doesn’t know if he’s overstepped something or done something the wrong way or made Seokjin upset. He doesn’t risk looking up to see the older’s reaction, to know for sure the weight of his question. Eventually, Seokjin, quietly, asks: “Will it make you feel better if I did?”

Jeongguk nods. “I know it’s stupid.”

Seokjin simply reaches forward and, like the hundred times before, brushes Jeongguk’s hair back. “Okay. Good night, love.”

“Good night, Seokjin.”

 

It’s quite a thing to have one’s eyes opened. Once you start seeing something, you can’t unsee it. Sometimes, you see it even when it isn’t there. In this case, it’s there — it’s here — and Jeongguk questions himself: has it always been there or is it new?

When Jimin comes by the bookstore the next day, Jeongguk watches him enter with another box, the one less bulky than the last, and greets him kindly. Jimin who, up until that point, had always been quietly courteous, brandishing kind smiles and responding when spoken to but not going out of his way to make Jeongguk anything close to an acquaintance. But today when Jeongguk smiles at him, says good afternoon, Jimin only responds with a look.

No smile. No greeting. No reciprocation.

He doesn’t look angry or sad or hurt. He just…looks. Jeongguk gets the strangest feeling that he’s been seen right through. 

Jimin heads to the back in search of Hyunjoo who’d gone to pick up lunch for her and Jeongguk. They’d made a good sale and gotten exposure from an apparent “influencer” who visited the shop. So, she decided, a fancy lunch was a suitable reward. When Jimin finds no one in the back room, Jeongguk clears his throat.

“I can sign for it,” he says, struggling to get the words out with the new air between them.

Jimin stands there for a while, holding on to the books and looking like he’d much rather toss it in an ocean somewhere than hand it over to Jeongguk. But he concedes, shouldering forward and setting the box down at the register counter. Wordlessly, he hands the invoice to Jeongguk and doesn’t look in his direction as the signature is made.

“How’s your day been?” Jeongguk asks. There’s no point in the attempts because Jimin doesn’t answer his question. He simply sighs and waits for the signature to return to him. When it is, he promptly reaches over to the register, pushing the receipt printer and feeds out a blank strip of paper. He then grabs a pen from the other side and starts scrawling a note that Jeongguk presumes is meant for Hyunjoo. The silence eats away at Jeongguk until he’s only bone and scraps of untouched flesh.

Jimin takes leaves the box there, sitting the note on top of it and leaves without another word. Jeongguk tries to think back to something that he might’ve said, some way he might have offended Jimin the last time he saw him but nothing matches up. He watches Jimin leave, waits for him to be out of the building, before he glances at the note. And while he doesn’t actually read the note, the letters not making much sense to him, he becomes entranced by the beautiful penmanship.

 

 

It’s not easy to find another thrift store in the area, specifically not one with pink corduroys or reminders of past mistakes, but Jeongguk finds one after clocking out and walking around aimlessly for half an hour. There, he picks up three shirts: one crewneck, as similar to the one he’d been eyeing as he could find; one t-shirt, black and green; and one button-up shirt, stark white and neat. It’s the white one he puts on as soon as he buys it, taking cover in the store’s bathroom and carrying his used shirt in the store bag. He buttons it to the very top and tucks it into his — Seokjin’s — faded blue jeans. 

He bends over the sink for a while after, washing his face and trying his best to make his hair look neat. The best he can without a brush or comb or Seokjin’s expert hands or lemongrass shampoo. It’s not easy to make it not look an utter mess but he manages to make it near respectable. He stares at his reflection after, practices his smiles, practices not looking as heartbroken as he’s been or as hopeful as he is.

Leaving the Raimi District to get back to his side of town doesn’t take as long as it took the first time, leaving “home” to get to the Raimi District. During the second bus ride, Jeongguk thinks about what that could mean. Maybe it felt so long to get to Casi Cielo on public transport the first time because he thought the world was ending, because he thought Seokjin needed saving. Maybe it took longer then because he really wanted to go. And maybe the reason it takes such a short time now is because deep down he isn’t sure if he heading home is what he wants. But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to feel like Seokjin either. Missing his parents every day and not trying to try getting back to where they were. 

Upon entering his neighborhood, he marvels at the subdivision of identical houses. Growing up in suburbia never left much room for imagination but that isn’t a realization one makes until after they’ve left suburbia. Having been surrounded by people with piercings and colored hair, people who wore their personalities on their clothes, girls with girlfriends and boys with boyfriends, reentering suburbia feels like a trip in and of itself. He listens to his footsteps as he makes his way to his front door and tries not to look for meaning in the silence between steps.

His house looks bigger than it was when he’d left it. 

But he finds himself growing warmer. This was home still. He still had one. Perhaps James Baldwin had it wrong. Perhaps, there was still a home for everyone long after they’ve left it. 

His steps grow more eager as he hurries to the front door and he only hesitates for a second when he knocks three times. His palms itch, waiting for him to bunch his fists together, a nervous tick he never got rid of. But he resists the urge, finding comfort in the familiarity of the door frame. Soon, he hears footsteps on the other side, a rustling, the turning of a lock and then, at last, the turning of the knob.

The door opens to reveal his mother standing in one of her many house dresses, this one yellow in color. She is sunshine and Jeongguk suddenly feels as if his days have been spent in a marathon of winter nights.

Her eyes go as large as saucers as she takes him in. For a moment, that’s all there is. Him staring at her and her staring at him, both of them teeming in joyous disbelief. It had only been a couple of weeks. Maybe three. Jeongguk’s lost track of time. But when his mother utters his name in a tight, emotional whisper then pulls him into her arms, he feels like it’s been ages since he’s felt her touch. They embrace like that for a small infinity, standing on the doorstep intertwined as one.

Her hand finds his hair, the back of his head, and holds him tight. Her nose dips into his shoulder and she inhales. When she does this, an image intercepts Jeongguk’s mind, one of him as a newborn and of his mother as a new mother. The doctor hands her Baby Jeongguk bundled up in a hospital blanket and she tucks him to her chest, leans forward and inhales the top of his head before bringing him to life with a kiss.

He holds her tighter.

During their embrace, she murmurs all sorts of praises and all sorts of endearments, going from “Thank you for bringing him back” (this, to God) to “Oh, I love you. I’m sorry.” It’s her words that ease the worries that had been brewing in secret. When they finally tear themselves apart, she reaches for both his wrists, encircling them and frowning at the feel.

“Have you eaten?” She asks, eyes watery, when she looks up at him again. “Oh, come in, come in. Let’s get you fed.”

 

She puts her kettle on first, pouring a premix of hot chocolate into one of her coffee mugs. Then she flits around the kitchen, grabbing hodgepodge of items to prepare something hot. Jeongguk watches her, seated at the dining room table in a daze. He looks around at the house. All of the furniture has returned. He wonders, for a second, whether his mother believed in Elder Asa’s apocalypse to begin with. Whether she really did sell the furniture like she said or whether she just put it in storage in case the End never started.

Once she gets the ingredients together, she starts a pot of gamjaguk, a childhood favorite of Jeongguk’s, and sits across from him with the hot chocolate. 

“Thank you,” he says to her, eyes never straying from her gaze. 

She reaches over and puts her hand on top of his then holds it, cradles it like a delicate dove. “Where have you been? Dad told me not to worry, again and again, but I couldn’t help it. All I could do was pray that you were alright. Have you been alright?”

He nods. “I’ve been safe.”

“Have you been eating?” She encircles his wrist again. “You’re thinner. I should add chicken to the soup,” and, with that, she makes a move to stand again before Jeongguk gently stops her. 

“No, no, Ma, I’m okay. I promise.”

She returns her grip on his hand, smiles at him. “Where have you been staying?”

He doesn’t know why but the idea of telling anyone outside of Raimi about Seokjin or telling anyone outside of Raimi about Raimi, about what it’s like to live there, feels like a betrayal to the community. So, he doesn’t say that. “With a friend. A good friend.”

“Have they been treating you well?”

Jeongguk nods. “…I have a job now. I got my first payment a couple of days ago.”

He doesn’t expect her to jump for joy. His parents had always been and, as far as he could see into the future, would likely always be the kind of people who think work is a necessary evil. They used to tell Jeongguk he didn’t have to get a job and that he shouldn’t have one, that, as long as the money came to them, he could spend his days spreading the Good Word and not falling prey to the Devil’s Whispers. To have a job was to be closer to those whispers.

She doesn’t congratulate him but she does smile again, although it’s tighter now and pats his hand. “I’m glad you’re being taken care of. I was so scared,” she says again. “So scared that you had strayed away from what was right. I didn’t know where you were, what you were doing, who you were doing it with. All I could do was pray and look at what happened. God brought you back to us. In one piece.”

Jeongguk looks away.

“Tell me,” she says and her grip on his hand tightens again. “Have you been praying still? Have you asked for forgiveness?”

He only lies because her grip is becoming too much to bear. “Yes,” he says. “I have. I did.”

“Good,” she sighs and loosens her hold on him. Jeongguk looks down at his hand where the ghost imprint of her hand turns his skin white before it slowly fades back to its normal pallor. 

“Elder Asa has been praying for you too,” she says. Jeongguk tries not to let his disdain become too apparent. “He understands what happened then. You were upset then. It was a mistake. What’s important now is that you’re back.”

“…No, Ma, I’m…I didn’t come here to stay,” he says slowly, watching her reaction as his words trickle out. “I came here to…visit.”

She lets go of his hand. “Oh?”

With the warmth of her touch gone, all Jeongguk has is empty air. And the air feels cold now. He slides his hand off the table and puts it on his lap. “Yeah, I…there’s someone waiting for me, I’m not here to stay.”

His mother seems to mirror his movement, pulling her hands off the table and placing them on her lap, leaning back into her chair now. He can’t read her face anymore. 

“I understand,” she says. Then she looks at his shirt. “You don’t have any clothes, do you? Of course, you don’t,” she clicks her tongue and shakes her head as she rises from the chair. “I’ll go pack them up for you. You sit right here, you eat and we’ll talk some more before you go, okay?”

“…Okay.”

Jeongguk watches his mother leave the kitchen and when she’s gone, he tries to fix his eyes somewhere else. He settles on the hot chocolate, taking slow sips and looking at the clock. Seokjin would wonder where he was, wouldn’t he? He would, right? 

He soon finds that sitting is doing nothing to ease the weight in his stomach now and his mother’s been away for longer than he would have thought. It had been there before, as he was coming here, but now it was back almost tenfold. By the time he finishes his hot chocolate, the waiting makes his stomach hurt. Wandering the house gives him a bit of solace. He traces his fingers against the fabric of all the furniture, each piece is old but it feels new. All the sets go together, couches match coffee tables which match lounging chairs and bookshelves. He finds himself missing the oddities in Casi Cielo, the abstract collages and plastic bottle sculptures. 

When he gets to the garage, he’s surprised to find his bike still sitting there. It had been so long since he’d seen it, the feel of it and its shape had flown from his memory. He smiles down at it, settles his hand against the seat and sighs, reveling in moments from the past. The now returns, interrupts, when a shuffling sounds from behind him. He turns to see his father standing in the doorway.

The warmth he’d felt upon seeing his mother doesn’t return. The coldness he felt when she took her hand from his returns, colder. 

“Dad,” he says, nodding his head in acknowledgement.

“Come inside, Jeongguk.”

Whatever goodwill and optimist was lingering in Jeongguk’s mind is gone by the time his father opens his mouth. He looks down at his hand, sitting on the bike, tries to swallow down what feels like bile rising up in his throat. Then, with his steps heavy as lead, he enters the house. As he passes him on the way in, his father’s hand comes down on his shoulder and grips him tightly. It hurts. It’s not like his mother’s grip which had grown more constricting but didn’t become painful. Right off the bat, his father’s nails are digging into his shoulder and it hurts.

He hisses in pain. “Dad.”

Pushing him down the hall and into a corner, his father presses him against the wall, grip still tight. “It’s not your fault,” he says to him, voice too gentle too soon. “It’s out of your hands now. But we can fix it.”

Jeongguk’s mouth rounds out to ask what he means by it but then his eyes fall on his mother who’s holding the cross she’d kept hanging in the upstairs hallway and a rope. It’s only then that Jeongguk sees the Bible in his father’s free hand. His eyes flutter shut as he rolls them and he lets his head fall back against the door.

“Are you kidding me?” He whispers. 

He had heard of the church putting together exorcisms before but he’d never actually been part of one, let alone the person being exorcised. 

“Elder Asa is on his way,” his father says. “He’ll help you be rid of your demons. You can come back home.”

Jeongguk lifts his head and looks at his father. “I don’t want to come back home. That’s not why I’m here.”

His father shuts his eyes as if the words are too painful to hear. Then, to Jeongguk’s mother: “Miran.”

And then Jeongguk sees his mother, in her sunshine yellow house dress, approaching the two of them with her crucifix and her rope. He wrestles his way out of his father’s grip, pushing against him hard and scrambling out of the corner. 

“Are you kidding me?” He nearly shouts at them, voice breaking. “What’s wrong with you? Are you sick? Are you fucking crazy?”

“You wanted our help,” his mother says. “You know you’ve strayed too far, that’s why you came back.”

“I came back because I missed you. How dense do you have to be to not understand that? There’s nothing wrong with me. There was but there isn’t anymore, you know why? Because you were the problem.”

He can’t believe it. He missed these people. And he knows, even in this moment, that he will continue to. He also knows now that James Baldwin didn’t have it wrong at all. In his mind, he apologizes to the writer for doubting his wisdom.

His father makes a move toward him and Jeongguk can see the movement before it has a chance to happen: his father lunging at him, tackling him to the floor and his mother swooping in with her rope and cross and neither of them realizing how batshit insane they are. He runs out the front door before any of that can happen. His father chases him out and his mother chases his the both of them. Their pounding footsteps and his parents yelling echo in the street as they all run for the main entrance. That is until Jeongguk remembers his bike. 

He switches directions so fast, turning on his heel and hightailing it back to the house. His father reaches out for him as he passes, grasps at his shirt and tugs until something tears but Jeongguk gets out from his hand. He rushes back through the front door, through the house, and then through the halls to the garage. He grabs his bike, chest pounding until it aches. He opens the garage, ready to leave, but is welcomed by the sight of Elder Asa’s familiar black car pulling up to the house and his parents, breathless, marching up the driveway.

Jeongguk’s sight flickers from them to the garage door, back to inside of the house, and, without hesitation, he carries his bike into the hallway. He straddles the seat as he does and cycles out through the halls and out the front door, leaving dirty tire tracks on the carpet. 

 

 

 

Aecha isn’t at work when Jeongguk gets to Scoops. 

Initially, he’d been planning to, after he realized that no one back home was trying to follow after him anymore, just go back to Casi Cielo. But he remembered Taehyung and how his parents found him out. He didn’t know bikes could be tracked but it made sense. If someone had a bike that they were worried about being stolen, having a tracker in it would make sense. He just never thought people would use it to track people. Knowing that, he wasn’t sure whether his parents could, if they were so inclined, just come for him later when he least expected it. And he dreaded the idea of them coming straight to Seokjin’s door, not just coming for him, because Seokjin, he’d come to know, deserved a lot of things (coffee he didn’t have to make himself, someone to feed his fish, someone to, perhaps, massage his hands after a long shift) but he would never deserve that.

His first idea had been Aecha, maybe she’d say yes to keeping it at the shop or taking it home with her. But then, he thought, she didn’t deserve that either. The problem was that no one deserved a fraction of congregation with exorcism on their minds coming at their door. So, ultimately, he decides to just leave the bike in the alley between two stores he’s never been to, two stores that, as far as he knows, have no relation to the people he’s come to care about in this district. He sits the bike on the side of a trash bin, out of view from the street, away from the prying eyes of curious pedestrians.

Then, without looking over his shoulder, he walks home.

 

When Seokjin opens the door for him this time, he looks concerned but still somehow, through it, retains that easy way about him that Jeongguk is slowly starting to fall for. If he hasn’t already, that is. 

“I was this close to calling the cops,” Seokjin says. “I mean, I know you don’t have a curfew or anything but — Jeongguk?”

In the middle of Seokjin’s would-be tirade, en miniature and with too many breaks in character, Jeongguk stepped over the threshold and pulled Seokjin into a hug, arms around his waist and grip tighter. He buries his face in Seokjin’s neck and murmurs into his shirt: “Thank you again. Really.”

A hesitant hand comes up to his back and then is followed by another ultimately culminating into a hug just as tight. Seokjin squeezes him when he asks, confused: “Are you okay?”

“I’m great,” Jeongguk answers. 

The shocking thing to him is that he isn’t lying when he says this. Seokjin had said that it was okay to not be okay. Knowing this, he could admit that for a long time, he wasn’t. But now, holding Seokjin, staying in Casi Cielo, hearing Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” just starting on the stereo inside, he feels better than he ever has. He had it wrong before. 

He’d been dying, drowning, muscles cramping and failing him as he tried to fight the tides. And it was Seokjin who stood at the bank of the shore, reached his hand down, and pulled Jeongguk out of the water. He thought that he was the one who was going to save Seokjin but now he knows that Seokjin was the one who saved him.

He holds him tighter before they eventually, slowly pull apart and Seokjin is looking at him, peering into his eyes like he’s trying to read what’s going on behind them. 

“Come on,” he eventually says, taking Jeongguk’s hand and bringing him inside. 

Jeongguk doesn’t miss it, in fact it’s all he can focus on. How Seokjin actually takes his hand this time, not his wrist, not his forearm. His hand, each of Seokjin’s fingers interlacing with his own. Perhaps this is home.

Chapter Text

spring mid summer

There were awakenings, the God-like kind, that came down on those whose hearts were light enough to bear the weight of the truth, light enough to hold faith and piety. Those awakenings, Jeongguk had known of all his life. It was what he should aspired to have, aspired to become. Awakened and enlightened and so much closer to God for it. 

Then there were Awakenings, the ones that existed of and for the self. The ones that writers of every era and every crees had written stories about, the ones that people left their homes in pursuit of. That search of the self. Jeongguk was still in the middle of his search. And yet, his awakening happened.

On the very night that he should have been — if the stories that went around the congregation had an ounce of truth in them — tied up, doused with holy oil, and attacked with Bible verses of every kind, he spent, instead, crying. He had told Seokjin that he was okay, better than okay, and he meant every word. Although he’d spent that same night crying in bed, biting on his fist to quiet himself, he felt more than okay. Because he knew he was going to do the very thing that has terrified him most of his life. 

He was going to be him.

Whoever the hell that was.

The lingering fears and quiet voice telling him that he was some sort of Abomination had been banished. He’d accepted that the voice was not, as he initially suspected, his conscience but his guilt. Renouncing Elder Asa was easy. Leaving the church was easy. Abandoning his parents was not. But after returning home and finding fear where he should have found comfort, the guilt had no choice but to whither away along with his hope that he would be different.

He’d listened to Aecha’s story and to Seokjin’s and he knew enough of Taehyung’s to know, to hope, that his story with his parents would have a different ending. That he could be the rare exception. In the end, the very naivety that sent him back home was the thing that made him leave again. Only this time, he had no plans on returning.

As he cried that night, his shoulders shaking and heaving with storms, he felt as if he was being regenerated. Every tear that left him, every ache he felt, every part of himself that the storm destroyed was a turning point. The storm would make the flowers bloom, the tears would leave him feeling lighter, and his destruction was the chance for him to be made anew. 

 

 

Jeongguk cycles his bike up and down the Flower Island strip. 

The strip, at the heart of the Raimi, is perhaps, during the day at least, the busiest part of the district. It houses a couple of cafes, one cat centric and one not; a three-level bookstore (not centered around sex education); a record shop; a ‘spiritual’ shop that exclusively sells incense and tarot cards and crystals; and, not last and not least, a thrift store. It was the same strip Seokjin had taken him to in search of lantern sleeves and corduroys. It was the thrift store Jeongguk had spent a good amount of time avoiding. 

He had considered not going. He truly did. But, as he saw it, he needed help and, although he knew he didn’t deserve Taehyung’s help, he lacked the pride (or maybe the self-awareness) to not ask at all. He left Seokjin’s early enough to be one of the first who arrived at the strip, before it started to get busy. When he arrived, he checked the hours of operation hung on the main door of the shop. He knows the store won’t open until 9 o’clock. But he doesn’t know when 9 o’clock will be. He didn’t have a watch. He didn’t have a phone. The most he could do was play the waiting game. 

As the minutes ticked by, he rode up and down the strip, starting at one end, wheeling forward fast and then taking a hard left turn, and cycling back down. One big circle, over and over again. The act itself felt mundane but also stimulating. Like a meditation. 

With his hands gripped on the bars and his feet seated on the pedals, to him would arrive moments he was sure he’d forgotten. Each moment was related to times he spent on the bike. Like the time he fell off of it whilst trying to run away from Mrs. Han, the scrape on the side of his elbow that bled profusely for thirty seconds and then stopped all at once. Most, nearly all, of his memories with his bike are of the time he spent on his missions. Thinking over those moments, which are now suspended in a shapeless, edgeless frame, it’s difficult to process that it wasn’t that long ago. 

How long had he been in Casi Cielo now? Almost a month? 

To think that one month prior, his life was absent of the people he’s come to know and that his world was so small…It strikes something in him. He becomes amazed and saddened, happy and full of dread at the same time, awed at the rate at which things can so drastically change. He wonders what will come of his life and of his world within a month. Will it shrink? Will it grow? Will Raimi, like his missions, become a distant memory? Will his bike? Will Seokjin? 

If he gets lost in the Then and the questions it brings along, it’ll be impossible to find his way back to the Now. Though he pulls himself out continually, the sting of it still creeps up every now and then still. When it does, his mind will defend itself and go to a safe space. 

It’ll go, much to his distress, to Seokjin.

Seokjin was safe. 

His safety was the reason why Jeongguk didn’t tell Seokjin about his parents or the would-be exorcism. It was easy not to tell anyone to begin with but it was easier, especially, to not tell Seokjin. He had the fear since he was a child that if he were to share bad things (like bad dreams and bad days), the brute of its sourness would become real and the sour would overtake the sweet. If he spoke of bad things, whether they existed in anxieties or realities, they’d grow to taint everything around him. But if he keat it to himself, those bad things could only live and die within him. 

Something annoyingly similar to his conscience tells him that Seokjin would crown that theory with the breadwinning title of “bullshit.” 

But Jeongguk would much rather let the things that plague him die in his throat before they can make their way out of his mouth, before they can taint the outside world.

It’s not that he can’t tell Seokjin, that he’s embarrassed or afraid of being Not Okay. He’s known for a while now that it was easy to tell Seokjin things, to tell him of pretty things and of ugly things and of things he’d rather leave unsaid. But he can’t help thinking that every weight he loses in moments of vulnerability is a weight Seokjin finds and carries for him. 

He doesn’t want anyone to carry his burdens for him. 

The sound of his thoughts become roaring and their volume nearly makes the sound of two wheels sliding against the concrete go completely unnoticed. But he notices it, the arrival, and he looks up in time to see Taehyung  approaching the store on his bike, eyes down on the pedals. Taehyung had always had this way about him, an oddity in making the most mundane things seem weighted in meaning. Often times, on their missions together, Jeongguk would look toward Taehyung whose eyes wandered off in some far, untouchable direction and wonder if he knew the meaning of life. There was, in the most unexpected moments, a heaviness behind his eyes that suggested he did. He looks that way now as he cycles to the store entrance, the fringe of his dark hair hanging in front of his eyes.

Jeongguk looks to the store. 

It’s still not open. Inside, the lights are off. He looks back to Taehyung, somewhat awed. It’s the first time in his life that he’s ever seen Taehyung on time to anything and if they were okay, he would say something about it. He’d tease him and they’d laugh and things would be easier. If they were okay, he reminds himself. Again, he thinks of the rate of change and his growing world.

He rounds his shoulders and takes a deep breath, preparing for all of the things that Taehyung could possibly say, all the harsh words that would wound him and how those wounds would still pale in comparison to the ones he knew he deserved.

Before he fully realizes he’s cycling forward, he’s skidding to a stop in front of the bike rack. 

In front of him, crouched down beside the rack, Taehyung busies himself with the task of locking his bike up. He doesn’t acknowledge Jeongguk, not with a glance, not with a word. But they both know. 

Jeongguk suspects that Taehyung had always known, had cycled his way to work all the while knowing, somehow, that Jeongguk would be waiting for him. For a while, all Jeongguk can do is stare. His eyes round the curves of Taehyung’s face, his cheeks, his chin. It isn’t until he reaches Taehyung’s hands that he realizes he’s looking for the wound he inflicted. It’s hopeful of him to think that he could find it on his body, wishful thinking that, if he could find the exact location of the wound, he could find a way to heal it. 

He could make things okay again.

He opens his mouth for a greeting—

“I’m gonna be late,” Taehyung says. Clipped. Short. Cold.

Jeongguk looks at the store again. The lights are still off. He looks down at the concrete. 

“I know I shouldn’t be asking any favors but you’re the only one I know who could help.” 

At last, Taehyung looks at him through narrowed eyes, calculating. Uninterested but still offering his attention. 

Jeongguk squeezes his handlebars. “…I got my bike back.”

Taehyung’s eyes drop down to the bike and it’s as if he’s noticing it for the first time. 

To anyone else, Jeongguk would explain but Taehyung has lead, very nearly, the same life that he did. He was the only person who would know the significance of getting his bike back and, especially, of being suspicious about the bike’s safety. 

Taehyung takes one look at the bike and then looks again Jeongguk with something akin to contempt. The contempt gives way to concession and he nods his head.

“…Wait around back,” he says.

 

Jeongguk fully expects to be waiting behind the store for the next few hours. 

The store would have to open and then, after that, Taehyung would have to clock in, start work, and work long enough to get a break. Jeongguk isn’t a priority and he shouldn’t be. He doesn’t expect to be.

He’s gotten comfortable, sitting on the ground surrounded by bottlecaps and cigarette buds. His bike is propped up against the brick wall and he’s busying himself by humming a song. Every now and again, he closes his eyes and imagines how Seokjin would dance to it. As the image of that fades in, the hummed song fades into a fully pronounced melody with orchestras and vocals and proper lyrics. 

In the days following the visit to his parents, he found that music was one of the two things that brought him peace of mind. Without it, he learned that Silence came bearing the gift of Pain and Pain came bearing the gift of Past and Past, once it arrived, came empty handed and always overstayed its welcome. To fix this, he made sure music was constantly playing. Even after Seokjin left for work or retired to bed, Jeongguk would use the music player and headphones to drift off to disco. Silence had become an enemy that he didn’t have the desire or energy to go toe to toe with.

The second thing that brought him peace of mind, which he questioned until he felt dizzy, was watching Seokjin dance. It wasn’t as if Seokjin was a professional dancer. Not a ballerina or ballroom dancer or someone possessing the skill to work their body into art. But to watch him, even in the midst of the most trite of activities, was often mesmerizing. To watch him dance was dazzling. It wasn’t as if Seokjin danced wildly either, that he demanded attention with the steps he took. His dancing was quiet and cooling like a spring breeze. In the tiniest sway of his hips or in the dance of his fingers, Jeongguk could find the most breathtaking beauty. 

His admiration of Seokjin’s movements never seemed to go unnoticed. Only a few days ago, in the midst of sashaying to the likes of S.O.S, Seokjin asked him why he never joined him. Jeongguk didn’t have an answer for him then but the more he thought on it, the more he believed it was better to sit safely on the sidelines. 

The song is interrupted sooner than he expects, after about fifteen minutes, when the back door to the thrift shop opens and Taehyung is stepping out, the action pushing a breeze in his direction and blowing his green unbuttoned dress shirt open. Jeongguk wonders, with a bit of longing, whether Taehyung is borrowing clothes like him or whether this is his style, whether he’s found it. 

Jeongguk has paid a few more visits to the thrift store. Each visit sees him attempting to find a bit of himself in articles of clothing. Casi Cielo is full to the brim of people, including Seokjin, who are self-assured and free in all the ways Jeongguk isn’t. It’s not uncommon for him to be caught admiring how they express themselves. How they just know what they like and what they don’t. How they just know who they are and who they aren’t. He’d never given much thought to clothes or fashion but now it feels important somehow, as if wearing clothes he likes has the ability to bring him closer to the person he wants to be. 

Regardless of how Taehyung found the style, it suits him easily and much more than a plain white button up ever did. 

Taehyung doesn’t say anything as he walks toward him, pace quick and focused. His gait is, as much as a walk can be, no-nonsense, each step seemingly aware of how little time he has to waste. He grabs Jeongguk’s bike from against wall, flicks out the kickstand so it’s propped up on its own and steers in on the center between the handlebars. Jeongguk watches, still sat with his hands in his lap, unsure of what else to do or say. His tongue weighs heavy with all the things he wants to tell Taehyung. But it’s the very weight of those words that leave his tongue struggling to lift long enough to get any of them out.

With expert hands, Taehyung uses a tool to unscrew the top of the head tube. With the top gone, all that’s left is an empty space which Taehyung peers into. He shakes his head.

“You’re good,” he says.

“…That’s it?”

“Yep,” Taehyung starts screwing the top part back in.

“Are you sure?”

“I did take mine out. I think I would know for sure.”

“…Thank you.”

Taehyung doesn’t respond to that. Not even with a dismissive huff of acknowledgement. When the flat top is screwed back on, Jeongguk fully expects for Taehyung to walk back inside without any parting words but he doesn’t. Not right away. 

Taehyung steps back, closer to the store but still facing the bike, still facing Jeongguk and plays idly with his hands.

“Can never be too careful,” he mutters to his fingers.

Jeongguk nods, looking back down at the bike. “…I looked for you…Er, I tried to. I didn’t know where to look.”

“…”

“…Did you come straight here after or…?”

For a long time, Taehyung says nothing. 

The silence lingers long enough for Jeongguk to both grow wary of its gifts and to figure that Taehyung isn’t going to say anything. He’s okay with that, remembering what Seokjin had said about forgiveness and apologies. He grips his hands on the handlebars and prepares to kick the kickstand back, to wheel back the direction he came from and leave Taehyung alone. Solace and peace of mind are the very least that Jeongguk can offer, the absolute least he can do.

“No,” Taehyung says only after Jeongguk has straddled the bike. “…I slept in the park for a bit.”

Jeongguk swallows down the thickness in his throat and tries not feel the sudden sting in his eyes. He looks back down at the ground, toeing the gravel. “What brought you here?”

“I could ask you the same question. But I won’t. Because it’s none of my business.”

There are many things that Jeongguk has accepted he isn’t good at. Communicating for example, being for another. His awareness of all the things he isn’t good at has made him appreciate all the things he excels in. Like taking a hint.

He nods at the ground and readies himself to leave. He hesitates though, before he can. His tongue fights the weight holding it down and soon, to his own shock, he utters: “They tried to exorcise me, you know?”

He laughs after, soulless and quiet, to try and lighten the blow. He hasn’t said it out loud, not until now. To say it is to taste it, to taste the past and the ridiculousness of it. How sad it makes him. The forced laughter fades out awkwardly. The silence starts to ache again.

Taehyung’s expression hasn’t changed. It, like Taehyung himself, is undeterred by false performances of bravery or carelessness. There was yet another reason why Jeongguk had wanted so much to be like Taehyung. He could read people. He knew them. He knew himself. In comparison, Jeongguk felt he knew little to nothing.

Taehyung’s eyes are hard and caring at the same time. “Did they hurt you?”

“No,” Jeongguk answers quickly, almost too quickly. For a moment, he thinks Taehyung might mistake the quickness for desperation. He shakes his head, slows his words. “No, I’m okay.”

“I didn’t ask that.”

An unsaid ‘I know you’re not’ hangs between them.

Taehyung looks away for a while, sighing heavily.

“I don’t need to know why you left,” he says. His gaze is more intense when he looks back: “I’m more interested in knowing why you went back in the first place.”

In the days that followed the catastrophic event of his parents losing their minds, Jeongguk had reflected on that question. When he was in the shower after work and hissed after putting soap on his shoulder, realizing belatedly that the skin was broken from where his father dug his nails in, it came to him. When he had dinner and thought, for a fraction of a second, of the gamjaguk he didn’t get to eat. When he picked up clothes from the thrift store or when Seokjin lent him another shirt or pair of jeans and he thought of the clothes sitting up in his bedroom that his mother never gave him. He would think of why he went back, regretting having ever returned to that Hell of a suburbia. His initial reason, the simple fact at having missed his parents, no longer seemed good enough or sane enough to warrant the pain his return caused.

Under the weight of Taehyung’s stare, he finds that he can’t answer. Words have, once again, abandoned him. He can only shrug, mouthing at the concrete but unable to say anything. 

He doesn’t look up when Taehyung starts to speak but he hears, with relief and terror, the sudden gentleness in the older’s voice.

“You can’t do that. It doesn’t matter how much you miss them or — it doesn’t matter. They don’t want what’s best for you. So, don’t go back again. Ever. Do you understand?”

Jeongguk nods.

Jeongguk.”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says, near defensive. “I know.”

He looks up at Taehyung then. Quick enough to see the tail end of the hardness returning to his eyes. But something in Jeongguk is swelling, something in his heart is bursting. From joy? From relief? He doesn’t know. He just knows he’s never been so happy to see Taehyung in his life. 

Taehyung turns away without another word, heading back inside.

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says it again. “I really am.”

Taehyung doesn’t grant him another look. But he does say in a quiet sigh, as he’s opening the door and just before he crosses the threshold:

“I know.”

 

Lee Insik writes about sex like it’s not a sin. It takes many reminders, more than he’d be wiling to admit, for Jeongguk to remember that it isn’t. At first, when he reached the passages of the book where Insik wrote about his first encounters with sex, stray hands and stray mouths stumbling in the dark, Jeongguk would stop reading and fight the quiet urge — growing quieter every day — to ask for forgiveness. Though sex is different now, it’s not a bad thing reserved only for the worst of sinners, the lessons he’d been raised with still echo in his mind.

In his readings, his mind often wanders, at its own volition and in spite of his unwillingness, to Seokjin. He catches himself wondering, in the midst of learning of first times and first kisses, about the things Seokjin would like. For this, he always feels more than a pinch of guilt. What surprises him about this guilt is how it’s completely unrelated to the question of sin or religion. Instead, it has everything to do with the guilt of putting Seokjin in that position. Even if it’s just his imagination, it never fails to feel like a violation of Seokjin’s privacy. 

“Excuse me?”

Jeongguk peels away from the book and looks toward the new customer.

Hyunjoo had told him that he was lucky his first job was under her supervision because, in her words, she didn’t give “half a fuck” if he read on the job as long as he was still, even if only half-assedly, doing his job. He believed her enough to take advantage of the reading because who knew what else the real world had in store for him. What if his next boss wasn’t so…Hyunjoo?

“Yes?” He says, not bothering to close the book propped against the cash register. “Can I help you?”

The customer, a young man who has to be only a few years older than Jeongguk, approaches the counter and props an elbow up. He lifts his sunglasses and puts them over the crown of his head. “So, um, this is going to be kind of embarrassing but…”

Jeongguk waits expectantly.

“See, my boyfriend is kind of a…baby gay. I mean, he’s a total silver fox but he’s new to this whole thing and I just…I’m looking for a book that’s going to guide him through some things. You know? Without me blabbing in his ear all the time. Something that can just be…for him. Got anything like that?”

“A few.”

Jeongguk gets up from behind the counter and walks to the third aisle down from the main register, making sure the customer isn’t left too far behind. As it stood, Jeongguk had improved when it came to getting the right books for the right customers, helping them by directing them to the right location. But he still struggled to talk about things. Hyunjoo, for example, was perfect. She had a way of making people feel special but not lied to. She did this, quite simply, by being herself.

She was kind but not overly nice, not to the point where it felt fake. She teased the customers like she teased Jeongguk and had a way of making them feel like they were being helped by an old friend. 

Jeongguk wanted to be like that but the skill of small talk wasn’t one bestowed to him. He often led the clients to the right shelf and the right author in complete silence. He could feel that, by not saying anything, he only made the situation more awkward. But by saying something, by saying anything, he also ran the risk of putting his foot in his mouth again. And it wasn’t like every customer was a carbon copy of Seokjin. They wouldn’t all just laugh it away, call him cute, and send Jeongguk into a tailspin by idly brushing a hand over his shoulder. 

When he got to the right area, he got down on a knee to reach the lower levels and retrieved a book called Midnight Delight. Without any big introductions, he handed the book to the customer.

“Um,” he started. Stumbled. “This one’s a popular one. It’s kind of…not really a how-to guide but more of a self-help textbook. That’s how I’d describe it anyway.”

The customer flips the book around, appraising the back flap.

Jeongguk continues. “It’s really good for…well, it helps ease the transition, I guess.”

The customer looks up at him in question.

“I’m…assuming your boyfriend is…well, he must’ve only come out recently,” the customer nods. “So, that helps with, I dunno, knocking down preconceived notions, I guess. If it’s not your thing, I could—”

“No, no, it’s fine…I’ll give it a scan and let you know if I need more help. Cheers.”

“…Cheers?”

“Thanks.”

“Oh. You’re welcome.”

When Jeongguk returns to his seat behind the register, before he can open his book and delve back into the world of Lee Insik’s coming-of-age, Hyunjoo stops him. She’s stood in the back room, leaning against the door frame with an expression that teeters on impressed. 

“What?” Jeongguk asks.

“I saw how you handled that,” she says, crossing her arms. “Not bad, Bambi.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes but smiles down at his hands. If he feels his face warming just the slightest, he doesn’t do much to hide it. 

“Leave me alone,” he mutters, not really meaning it but knowing that it’s a language Hyunjoo can understand. He returns to the book, crouching forward and digging in. He gets a few sentences into it when he stops and turns toward the back room.

“Can I buy this?” He calls out.

Hyunjoo returns to the threshold, eyes the book subtly and nods. “I don’t turn away customers. As long as you’re paying for it, you can do what you want.”

Jeongguk rings the book up, takes out one of the three 10,000 bills from his pocket, and pays for the book. He gets his receipt, tucks it in between the first few pages and nods at Hyunjoo. She shakes her head. He furrows his brows.

“Next thing you buy better be a wallet or I’m firing you.”

He ignores her for the most part, permitting himself to laugh only a little and as quietly as possible. He goes back to reading, thinking the exchange has ended when Hyunjoo speaks up again.

“When you’re done with that, if you want to read others like it, I’ve got a lot of recommendations. And…you know, you can borrow them any time.”

Jeongguk closes the book, looks at her, and smiles. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” she waves a hand and then tucks it in her back pocket. She looks at him for a moment, weighing her next words carefully. “…How’s it going with the Sagittarius?”

There it is. 

It was embarrassing, completely maddening, when Jeongguk had slipped up and said Seokjin’s name in Hyunjoo’s presence. That embarrassment increased tenfold when he learned that Hyunjoo and Seokjin knew each other. He was convinced that he’d never live it down. It was hard enough for him to acknowledge how much he liked Seokjin but it was another thing entirely for other people to know it as well.

“You don’t have to do that,” he says. “I know you know it’s Seokjin. You could’ve told me you knew him.”

“What would be the fun in that?” She laughs to herself. “…You’re taken with him, aren’t you?”

He doesn’t say anything. He knows he’s not the first person to be smitten with Seokjin and he knows, to some degree, that he’s far from the last. There were people in the world like him who stayed stilted and quieted by anxieties, stayed ordinary. There were people in the world like Taehyung who were charismatic and breezy, whose genuine way of being made it easy to become one with a bit of everything. Then there were people like Seokjin, once in a lifetime people, people with smiles larger than life and laughs that sounded like music. 

Having a crush on a man isn’t hard to accept. He’s had many before although he always refused to call them what they were. Still, it was something he could deal with. They are, after all, just men. Having a crush on Seokjin felt, in many ways, like falling in love with the sun and its warmth. He would never be able to get close enough to touch it without destroying himself completely. 

“It’s alright,” Hyunjoo finally says. “Keep it yours.”

 

Casi Cielo feels more and more like home every day. 

The strange thing for Jeongguk is not that Casi Cielo has started to feel like home but that Casi Cielo feeling like home has made him realize he’s never felt home before in his life. There were odd glimmers of it here and there. When his mother took care of him when he was sick, when his father would carry him on his shoulders at the park. But most of the time spent with his parents was spent living in fear. Not of them, at least not at first, but of doing the wrong thing. Of being a sinner in the hands of an Angry God. 

Life had always felt as if he were living it with a deadline. And while there’s nothing wrong with being aware of a deadline or being aware of the unpreventable nature of death, life begins to feel less lively.

Every day he wakes up in Casi Cielo is a day that he feels more alive. Now when he passes all the different buildings of the complex, when the colors of all the different pride flags bleed together in a flurry of light, he doesn’t feel anxious. He doesn’t feel like he’s in over his head. He feels at home.

Before he reaches the end of the complex, he spots Seokjin standing by the mailboxes. Jeongguk had thought it was an incredible inconvenience to have constructed the mailboxes in the middle of the subdivision, especially for people who lived at the start and at the very end. But Seokjin said he didn’t mind. He liked the walk.

Jeongguk slows down on his bike until he’s a few feet away from Seokjin then he comes to a complete stop, setting both feet down on the pavement. 

With a short stack of envelopes in his left hand, his house keys in his right, draped in his silk pastel green robe (which was left open and blowing slightly in the breeze), and his star-shaped shades on, Seokjin looked like a sonnet. The pajamas underneath his robe were fairly simple in comparison to the rest of him: a plain white t-shirt and a pair of pants with a floral pattern. It never got any easier or any less enchanting to see Seokjin be so unapologetically himself.

Seokjin looked from Jeongguk’s face to the bike, eyebrows raising just the slightest and a little pout forming on his lips. “Who’s this?”

Jeongguk shrugs, looking down at his bike. For a long time, it was his most prized possession. He’d paid for it with his own money, earned from the labor of yard work and of helping friends of the family move. He’d gone as far, a couple of times, as to help complete strangers move. Every bit of labor, every ache, every sore muscle was worth it when he bought the bike. It was the one time he ever really indulged himself. It was the one time he ever asked himself what he wanted and went for it.

It was just a bike. But it meant the world to him, even more now than before.

“It’s a bike.”

Seokjin scoffs. “Well, yes, hon, I can see that. Where’d you get it?”

“It’s mine.”

Seokjin looks from the bike and directly at him. It isn’t until their eyes are locked that Jeongguk realizes what he’s said and then he looks away. “The one you left at home?”

Jeongguk nods but says nothing.

Thankfully, Seokjin, who’s always pushy in little ways, also always knows when to not push. He doesn’t ask about home or anything else. He simply adjusts the collar of his robe and looks down at the bike again, nodding.

“She’s cute,” he says simply.

Jeongguk smiles. He squeezes the handlebars, raising his shoulders a little and rocks back and forth. His stomach does a little flip as he prepares to ask.

“Um,” he clears his throat, squinting from the rays of the sun but even still trying to maintain a facade of cool. “Do you want — I can give you a ride back home.”

When he looks up, meeting Seokjin’s eyes again despite his better judgment, Seokjin is smiling at him with a familiar mirth swirling in his eyes. The smile he wears is one-sided, the right side lifted but not the right. And his eyes are twinkling. Jeongguk stores the image in his mind for future defining.

“I don’t have a helmet,” Seokjin says after a while, tone suddenly soft and sweet, playful. 

Jeongguk has thought it before, that, to Seokjin, he was a source of entertainment. He thought that on his missions, convincing himself that he went back for Seokjin again and again because he wanted to save him. Not because he liked the way Seokjin looked at him or the way he tilted his head or the way he seemed to become amused at Jeongguk’s words so easily.

Jeongguk settles, he stops moving back and forth, settles down in the seat, and relaxes his shoulders. He shakes his head, biting his lip. 

“I don’t either.”

Seokjin laughs a little, shakes his head but concedes, stepping closer to the bike. “If I break my neck or something, I’ll never let you live it down.”

Jeongguk smiles. “Okay.”

He stands with both feet firmly planted on the concrete while Seokjin settles onto the bike, putting his feet on the rear axels. Jeongguk sits down on the seat and grips the handlebars tighter just as Seokjin’s hands come down on his shoulders. A somersault, two, maybe three, in the pit of his stomach and he takes a deep breath.

“Ready?”

“Don’t kill me,” Seokjin says instead of ‘yes’ and the two of them are off.

The air rushes against them, the breeze blowing their hair and the tail end of Seokjin’s robe back. At first Jeongguk takes his time, going slow and focusing on keeping the bike balance. But when he rides over a speed bump, Seokjin’s grip on his shoulder tightens and Jeongguk likes it all too much. So, after, he varies up the speed. Sometimes going at a normal pace and then going fast just so Seokjin holds him tighter and the contact feels real. 

Perhaps the sun won’t destroy him.

 

It’s the sound of water running that wakes Jeongguk up in the morning. At first, he mistakes the sound as being part of a dream. It’s a while before he realizes it isn’t and even longer before he he wakes up. Groggy and dazed, he wakes to the source of the noise standing ahead of him.

Seokjin stands in front of the aquarium, a bucket placed on the floor at his feet, and a tube in his hands. He’s still in his pajamas. The silk pinstripe ones that Jeongguk has grown to adore. 

“What are you doing?” Jeongguk asks, his voice heavy with slumber and cracking in different places.

Seokjin looks to him, shushes him, and turns back to the tank. “Ignore me. Go back to sleep.”

“That’s…kind of hard to do at the moment,” Jeongguk sighs a little, closes his eyes again and revels, for one last moment, in the warmth of the bed. Then he sits up, places his feet on the floor, and tries to let his eyes adjust to the light coming in from the living room. 

“What are you doing?”

“Spring cleaning,” Seokjin answers. “Donna’s giving me shit for it.”

Jeongguk scoffs. “Donna was probably sleeping too.”

“Oh, shush.”

“What time is it?”

“I don’t know. Five? Six?”

Jeongguk yawns as he looks around the room. 

“It’s August,” he says.

“Hmm?”

“Is it spring cleaning if it’s the middle of summer?”

“Shush.”

“…Do you need help?”

“No,” Seokjin says easily. Then he turns to Jeongguk, smiling, and winks. “But now that you’re up, I’d love the company.”

After leaving the room to brush his teeth, Jeongguk sat with Seokjin in the spare room and watched him go through the steps of cleaning the tank. He watched him clean the gravel, replace the water — “20%,” Seokjin told him — and test out the water’s chemical balance. All the while, the four fish fluttered around as if nothing was happening at all. 

He wonders if he would like being a fish better. To be completely unaffected in or out of Seokjin’s presence. Jeongguk kind of envies them for that freedom. For him, it’s all too easy to lose track of time while watching Seokjin do something as simple as exist. 

“Do you want coffee?” He asks Seokjin after a while, deciding it would be better to make himself somewhat useful. 

Seokjin doesn’t look at him, eyes focused on the chemical strip in his hands. “You know I do.”

“Dark roast?”

Seokjin smirks. “Surprise me.”

With an unreasonable giddiness in his step, Jeongguk leaves the room and heads into the kitchen. It had taken several false starts and a myriad of Bad Cups for him to figure out exactly how Seokjin liked his coffee. With the French Press, Seokjin’s preferred method of coffee making, it took two tablespoons of ground coffee (two and a half if the coffee in question was a lighter roast) and roughly, water poured to the 4-Cup Level in the electric kettle. The perfect time to spoon sugar into any of Seokjin’s mugs (but preferably, Jeongguk learned mainly from observation, the soft lilac one with the odd square shape) was while the water was boiling. 

But, first, did Seokjin want sugar?

“Yes,” Seokjin calls out to him from the bedroom. “Two, please.”

Two teaspoons, then. Each scoop carefully leveled. 

It was important, too, that the sugar was equally distributed on the floor of the mug. Otherwise, and this was according to Seokjin, it would “look wrong.” The way Seokjin took his coffee all depended on his mood. He’d drink it black on some days, with a little sugar on others, but some days — and these days were rare — he’d take milk and sugar. 

Did he want milk today?

“Eh…No,” Seokjin’s voice carries out. “That’s alright.”

No milk. Good. Otherwise, Jeongguk would have to start all over because the milk always went before the sugar. Never after.

When the water was at full boil, it was time for Jeongguk to fill the French Press. Only half way, mind you. He wasn’t an idiot. Seokjin liked his coffee strong. Even when he had sugar and milk, if he couldn’t taste the coffee, he said, what would be the point? When the French Press kettle was half full of hot water, it was time to put the lid on but it wasn’t yet time to plunge down so that the filter separated the grounds from the water. 

First, the two had to marry. The coffee had to be just right. Let it sit for four minutes.

During the four minute wait, it occurs to Jeongguk that Seokjin had only instructed him on how to make coffee once but the little things, like putting the sugar first and lilac mug, weren’t things Seokjin told him. They were things that Jeongguk, once again by getting lost in the time spent mesmerized by Seokjin’s every move, learned on his own.

After the four minutes are up, he plunges down and pours the coffee — he went with the dark roast — into Seokjin’s mug. He stirs until it feels right and then sets the mug down in Seokjin’s spot on the tiny dining table. When all is said and done, he sits at the chair opposite Seokjin’s and asks himself, wordlessly, what the hell he was doing.

As much as he didn’t like the idea of other people knowing about his crush on Seokjin, the sad truth was that he had no control over what people knew and what they didn’t know. And, according to Jiyoo who had picked up on his infatuation on her last visit, he couldn’t help being so obvious about it.

During Jiyoo’s visit a few days prior, she and Seokjin drank wine coolers in the living room and talked about everything under the sun. Jeongguk caught the occasional glimpse of the conversation, picking up enough to fully appreciate the ease with which Seokjin navigated simple communication but not enough to recall the topics. What he does remember is leaving the spare room for a melon bar, sitting at the dining room table to eat it, and Jiyoo coming over to him just after Seokjin excused himself to the bathroom.

“My dear,” she said in that reproachful and sincere way of hers. It was one of the few times they ever conversed. “You know you’re painfully obvious, right?”

“…Obvious about what?”

Jiyoo glared at him and scoffed before looking behind her in the direction of the bathroom and looking back a teasing grin. 

Painfully,” she said again. “Like…it’s making me feel flustered. I don’t get flustered.”

Jeongguk shrugged then. 

He looked down at the table, picked a little at his melon bar, and prepared himself for the inevitable. 

Jiyoo was a good friend of Seokjin’s and, from what Jeongguk knew, a good person. He was ready for her to tell him he wasn’t Seokjin’s type (he was sure of that), that he was too immature, that he should just forget all about his schoolboy crush because nothing could come of it. What could? He’d never been in a relationship. He still had a tiny voice in his head telling him there was something wrong with him for wanting one with a guy. He’d told himself the same things during late nights when not even the music could help fend off the gifts of Silence. 

Jiyoo surprised him when she asked, “When are you gonna go for it?”

Ignoring the blatant fact that Jeongguk wouldn’t even know how to begin to ‘go for it,’ all he could think, in that moment, was that Jiyoo thought too much of him. He shook his head, could barely meet her eyes when he muttered. “I’m…I don’t think we’re on the same page.”

She looked at him as if he were growing a second head. 

“From what I hear,” she said. “He thinks you’re cute.”

Jeongguk rolled his eyes a little. “Cute like Bambi. Not like…”

“Like?”

He shrugged again. “Like someone, I dunno.”

Like Someone. Someone had the looks, Someone had the talk, Someone could charm Seokjin right back. Jeongguk, as far as he was concerned, could never be Someone. After all, he still had yet to become anyone.

Jiyoo opened her mouth to say something, only to stop when they both heard the telltale signs of Seokjin returning. She lingered just long enough to settle that they “never had this conversation” and then she was back in the living room.

It was a tiny exchange but one that ran rampant in Jeongguk’s mind. He’d been trying for days to figure out how to distance himself from whatever it was Seokjin saw him as (he could never be sure and he didn’t have the nerve to ask). It started as him simply wanting to show Seokjin that he was, in fact, capable of taking care of himself. 

Then, after Jiyoo, the desire in him mutated into something else. It wasn’t just about showing Seokjin he could take care of himself. It was also about, probably more so, how well Jeongguk could, if given the chance, take care of Seokjin. How he could return the favor, how he could be Someone to him. It didn’t matter that he didn’t fully understand the intricacies of himself as an individual, let alone as an individual in a relationship. What mattered was that he wanted Seokjin to see him as Someone. In this case, specifically, not just anyone. 

“Ugh,” Seokjin groans, rolling his neck and reaches his arms up toward the ceiling. The stretch makes his shirt rise and Jeongguk looks away, taking a sudden interest in his nails. 

“I have no idea,” Seokjin says when he sits down, “why I chose fish, you know? They don’t care about me. They’re not affectionate. I’m pretty sure they forget who I am every week.”

Seokjin lifts the mug and takes a sip. Jeongguk actively avoids watching for his reaction. Jiyoo did say that he was painfully obvious so he’s doing his best not to be. The problem is that he doesn’t know how to look at Seokjin without being obvious. The only thing he can do is not look at all.

Seokjin hums and, as if the sound were a Pavlovian bell, Jeongguk turns to him and can’t tear his eyes away.

“That,” Seokjin murmurs into the coffee, “is amazing. You should make the coffee all the time.”

“I can,” Jeongguk says, perhaps too soon and perhaps too eagerly. He changes the subject when Seokjin looks at him knowingly. “Do you always do spring cleaning in the middle of summer?”

“…I spring clean whenever the mood strikes me,” he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. 

“…in the middle of the night?”

Seokjin opens his eyes. “Hm…couldn’t sleep. Thought I should be productive. I’m sorry though, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It kinda seems like you did.”

Surprise settles on Seokjin’s face, his eyebrows raising just a little. “Oh?”

“Yeah, I mean…it wasn’t exactly quiet. And you could’ve picked any time.”

“…And?”

“And, so,” Jeongguk chooses his words carefully. It’s easy to be transparent with Seokjin about his feelings (sometimes) but it’s a lot harder to be transparent with Seokjin about Seokjin. “…maybe you wanted to wake me up? Just…maybe you were looking for the company. I know the middle of the night can feel really,” he sighs, struggling to find the word. “Big? Like…it’s just you in this big space.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Seokjin says at last. “But I’ll neither confirm or deny.”

“That’s fine. But, so you know, if you wanted to…like, talk or anything? To me? Like — if you wanted company, you could ask me or — you don’t even have to ask. I like spending time with you so…”

For a while, there’s nothing but quiet. Its presence makes Jeongguk blush because the words, the way he struggles to get them out, never ceases to be a source of embarrassment. And, of course, the quiet always grants him ample time to over think. 

Seokjin responds with: “And you say you don’t know how to sweet talk.” 

It prompts a tiny laugh from Jeongguk which, in turn, prompts a louder one from Seokjin. Before the laughter has a chance to lull, Seokjin adds:

“I like spending time with you too.”

The words feel eerily close to death but, at the same time, close to life. As if in Seokjin exists the ability to start and stop Jeongguk’s heart on a whim.

Seokjin looks him up and down, at his shirt, a long-sleeved crewneck white in color that depicts the logo of a sports team that Jeongguk hasn’t even heard of. He only got it because its cost was 2,000 won. His sweatpants, gray in color, were a size too big so the bits around the ankle had to be rolled up. 

God,” Seokjin groans, a little wrinkle in the middle of his forehead. “You dress like such a straight guy.”

 

 

the lore of glitter

Jeongguk has only cooked a couple of times in his life. During food drives or holiday events wherein the congregation volunteered to cook meals for the homeless, he sometimes assisted in preparing a dish. Usually with a dash of seasoning or by just placing a plastic spoon on a paper plate. Though his experience in cooking meals was limited, the main thing he’d counted on was his ability to follow directions.

He’d visited the bookstore on the Flower Island strip, flipped through dozens of cookbooks to find the most simple yet filling dinner recipe. His idea was simple enough: he wanted to make a meal for Seokjin. Nothing fancy. It wasn’t like he could afford to pull out all the stops anyway. It was a simple gesture, he’d reasoned, of appreciation. He couldn’t pay rent, he couldn’t do much to return the favors that Seokjin showered him in. But one dinner? He could manage that.

The recipe he settled on was gyeran mari with sides of hobak bokkeum and rice. It wasn’t the most exciting meal ever but he hoped that Seokjin would like it. Before he left for work, he checked the refrigerator and the pantry and made a list of the ingredients he needed to buy. The zucchini, more eggs (there were only two left), sesame seeds, scallion, and carrots came out to 8,500 won plus tax. He made a note of it so that if — when — Seokjin told him it was silly to waste his money on making him dinner, Jeongguk could ask him if 9,000 won really made a dent in his apartment fund.

The bag of groceries swings backwards and forwards, hanging on the left handlebar as Jeongguk wheels into the complex. He was running a bit late and trying not to panic. He hoped that Seokjin wouldn’t have already started on dinner. It was his night off though so, really, anything was plausible. 

He’s humming again — “Whispering Waves” by Donna Summer, a song that Seokjin plays too often — and excited about returning home. He’s mid daydream, focused on how he’s going to prepare the food, testing himself to see if he can remember the exact recipe, and imagining Seokjin’s reaction. A little smile that doubles in size when he tries the food — it’ll taste delicious, Jeongguk will make sure of it — and a lilt in his voice when he says Jeongguk’s name in appreciation. The daydream ends abruptly though when he’s passing the first couple of buildings, looking to them as he always does, and sees, at the third house down, Taehyung’s bike.

Without considering why he’s doing so, he skids to a complete stop. The building, faint orange in color, is familiar. It was the one Taehyung had gone into on their first visit to Casi Cielo. It was the one that he frequented. Although, at the time, Jeongguk had suspected Taehyung hadn’t gone to any other houses, he didn’t dwell on it for long. But now, looking back, it seems strange. The thought occurs to him again. Is this where Taehyung had been staying? The entire time? Right here? In plain sight? Before, it felt silly to think so but now he's not so sure.

He doesn’t stop to consider what his plan is before he’s leaving his bike propped up against the lamppost and approaching the building. Taehyung has made it clear, too many times, that he didn’t want to see Jeongguk. Him being courteous enough to check Jeongguk’s bike for him didn’t change that. But Jeongguk couldn’t stop his feet from carrying him forward. 

He enters the building.

It’s identical to Seokjin’s building. The same layout. Four doors at four corners, stairs in the center leading to the second level where another four doors would likely be. Jeongguk looked around. There was no sense in walking around and knocking on every single door. But his curiosity was stubborn.

Then, abruptly, a memory returned to him. It was the day Taehyung had been thrown out of his house, it was the day a few days before the End of the World. He was leaving the subdivision with Taehyung at his side and his eyes strayed from the road ahead long enough to see the light turned on in the orange building. The upper left side.

It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a clue. It’s not a confirmation. But it’s something. It was one of those things that made Jeongguk second guess himself, something that had been occurring more frequently these days. One day, he could be so sure that God didn’t exist and then something would happen, like a light in a window, and he would think there was no way He couldn’t. 

He jogs up the stairs and, once up, goes to the second door on the left, the one farther from the steps. The door is adorned, on either side, with potted succulents. There’s a mat on the entrance that reads, upon closer inspection, ‘I hope you told us you were coming over.’ 

Jeongguk laughs a little, steps on the mat, and, with the slightest hesitation, knocks on the door. 

Lots of ideas run through his imagination on what to expect. It would be extremely hopeful and overly naive of him to think that Taehyung would open the door. And although he knows this, how silly of an idea it is, he still expects to see Taehyung’s face behind the door. What after that then? Apologize again? Hope Taehyung has forgotten? Hug him? Be grateful, simply, that he was alive and well? 

That, he doesn’t know.

There’s no time to consider it though. When the door opens, the imaginations of seeing Taehyung again are vanquished when he sees, instead, Jimin’s face. 

He’s sure the surprise on his expression is obvious. His eyes have probably gone as wide as full moons en miniature. He’s aware, too, of Jimin’s reaction, of the surprise spelling bewilderment and of the slight aggravation. 

Jimin closes the door a little so only his head is poking out and asks: “What are you doing here?”

“…”

That was a good question.

Jeongguk furrows his eyebrows, looks at his surroundings again and returned. He closes his mouth. It had fallen open, almost cartoonishly, at the surprise. He looks at the mat. “I’m — I didn’t know you lived here, I’m sorry.”

“So? You’re just knocking on random doors? I thought you’d given that up.”

That awakens something. Jeongguk looks up at Jimin, confusion returning. He had never mentioned the pamphlets or his messenger bag or any inkling of his missions to Jimin. They’d never even had a proper conversation. It would be easy to assume that Hyunjoo mentioned it but it didn’t seem like her. 

“Sorry—?”

“If there’s nothing,” Jimin interrupts and starts to close the door.

“Is that your bike outside?” Jeongguk asks in a single breath. 

Jimin doesn’t say anything but for a while he doesn’t close the door either. Eventually, he settles for:

“Good night.”

On his way out, Jeongguk passes by Taehyung’s bike and wonders how he ever missed it.

 

 

Seokjin isn’t alone when Jeongguk returns to the apartment. He’s accompanied by both Jiyoo, sat on the sofa, and Heeyeon who’s standing by the dining table which is decked with all kinds of creams, powders, and brushes. There’s music playing, as always, on the stereo. 

“There he is,” Seokjin says when he opens the door. 

“Here I am,” Jeongguk echoes as he steps inside, taking a look around the living room. “Were you waiting for me?”

“Of course, we are. There’s not a lot of time left so you’ll have to get ready fast.”

“Get ready?” Jeongguk holds the bag of groceries behind his back when Seokjin’s eyes flicker to it. “For what?”

“Disco night,” Seokjin answers. “Unless you changed your mind about wanting to see me dance.”

The smile on Jeongguk’s face makes him duck his head down a little to try and hide just how pleased he is. He holds a hand up to his mouth for a moment before sliding it to the back of his neck. “Um, no. I didn’t change my mind.”

Seokjin smiles at him.

“Good,” says Heeyeon. When Jeongguk looks to her, she’s pulling a chair out and thrumming her fingers against the frame. “How do you feel about makeup?”

 

 

Makeup wasn’t a Sin, not exactly. But it was one of those things, on par with holding hands with a boy or playing with dolls, that was frowned upon in most religious households, including Jeongguk’s. He has both memories and old pictures of his mother in her youth. She wore makeup. Nothing dramatic, not like Jiyoo’s eyeliner which is sharp and pointed with bright purple painted on her eyelids. Jeongguk’s mother, in those pictures, fancied the simple things. Like faint pink lipstick and, perhaps, mascara or foundation. As the years went on though, his mother’s use of makeup waned until she wore nothing at all. 

It wasn’t mentioned directly, for no one would dare say it out loud, but for a woman to wear makeup, in the eyes of the congregation, was for her to be “loose.” Wild, not to be tamed, unsuitable for marriage, an unholy woman. Lipstick, sometimes, was fine when used sparingly and tastefully. But if that lipstick was red? Cross your heart and pray for her soul. Makeup on a woman was already a problem. Makeup on a man? Makeup on Jeongguk? That was a call for an exorcism if there ever was one.

He almost said no to Heeyeon’s offer when she asked.

But then he thought of his promise to himself, of the sobs that wrecked him as he built himself anew. Then he heard Seokjin’s voice, saw a dismissive flick of his wrist, and said to himself: ‘Fuck it.’

Heeyeon has him sat at the dining room table and she’s working a cream into his skin, moving her fingers in circular motions. She’d called it a primer. As she worked it in, she asked him questions which he did try — honestly — to answer but his attention was also on Seokjin whose makeup was being done by Jiyoo. 

Jiyoo was already dressed. Jeongguk, come to think of it, had never seen her not dressed. Every time he encountered her, she seemed to always be ready for a ball or a fashion show. Makeup, hair done (always in large ringlets), and clothes that smelled of the highest society. 

“Jeongguk,” Heeyeon says to him. “Can you pay attention?”

He tears his eyes away for a second and they’re back before he can rein himself in. “I am.”

“Then, what did I just ask you?”

“…You said pick a color.”

“What kind of color?”

At a loss for words, he meets her eyes and sighs. “…Fine.”

“A warm tone,” she repeats and gestures at the palette in her hands. There were little squares, each square filled with a different color. The colors ranged from yellows to oranges to browns to golds. 

He looks up from the palette to Heeyeon. “A what?”

“Oh my God,” she sighs, rolling her eyes and standing up straighter. “Fuck it, I’m picking for you.”

“Wait, wait,” Jeongguk looks at the palette again and taps at one of the golden squares. It’s a deep hue, almost bronze. “…I like this one.”

She looks at him for a moment as if she’s trying to decide how genuine his decision is or if gold is really his color. She soon accepts it, settling down in the chair she’s pulled out next to him and instructing him to close his eyes. After a moment, Jeongguk feels something brush against his eyelids.

“What are you doing?”

“…”

“Are you still—?”

“I’m ignoring you,” Heeyeon says at last. “Not so fun on the other end of it, huh?”

“I wasn’t ignoring you.”

“One thing you’re not going to do is lie to me. You’re not good at it and I have a fool proof bullshit detector.”

Jeongguk smirks a little. “What color are you going to pick?”

“I don’t pick the color,” she murmurs. Jeongguk can feel her getting closer to his face. “The color picks me.”

“…Okay.”

Heeyeon laughs quietly. “You’re so weird. Like E.T or something.”

“I’m cuter than E.T,” Jeongguk says, surprising himself but smiling happily when the words are out.

“Oh, don’t let Seokjin’s words go to your head. He thinks anyone with half a brain and a smile is cute.”

“Mm,” is his sarcastic response. “Okay.”

“Oh, my God,” Heeyeon says again. Then, directed to the others: “Father God is giving me attitude right now, can you guys believe it?”

There’s laughter from the living room.

“It’s always the shy ones,” he hears Jiyoo say. “No bark, all bite.”

Heeyeon uses all kinds of tools on him. All kinds of powders and creams and pigments. By the time it’s all finished, he feels like a shiny toy from the way all three of them examine him. When Seokjin looks at him, Jeongguk very nearly has all breath knocked from him. 

To him, Seokjin has always looked like an Angel. Not the Angels of the Bible with terrifying wings, the ones capable of taking away souls and the like. It was more like the world’s definition of an angel. Soft, pretty, a walking and breathing symphony. The Seokjin standing in front of him is the same one but now he looks even more like an angel. While Jeongguk had chosen gold, it seemed that Seokjin had chosen silvers and lavenders.

White pigment, sparkling, had surrounded Seokjin’s eyes which were framed by accentuated eyelashes, dark brown. The corners of Seokjin’s eyes had been dotted with a pastel purple which faded easily into the white. His light brown hair had been fluffed out, coming off in little waves, rising and falling, crashing right into Jeongguk’s sensibilities. The thing that put it all together even more was the set of silver and purple stars, specks of glitter, spread out on Seokjin’s right cheekbone and curving up to his temple. A simple gloss finish spread across Seokjin’s lips prompted Jeongguk to bite his own in response.

His voice is gone when he sighs out, “You look beautiful.”

Squished between Jiyoo and Heeyeon, Seokjin smiles, the faintest of pinks rising on his cheeks. “Funny, that. I was just about to say the same thing.”

The moment is interrupted when Heeyeon chimes in: “What are you waiting for? Go take a look.”

It takes a moment for Jeongguk to tear himself from his seat, eyes still locked with Seokjin’s. When he does make his way to the bathroom, he’s momentarily entranced by his own reflection. For a second, he doesn’t even recognize himself. He stands there until he comes back into focus. Until he can recognize his eyes under the gold glitter, until he can see his cheekbones beneath the highlight over it. When he sees himself, he feels both terrified and elated.

There was the exclamation inside him, bursting with excitement. This was him!

Then there was the question, almost dreadful. This was him?

He felt charmed and frightened, once again, by the rate of change and the endless possibilities of the future. 

In his daze, he almost doesn’t notice when Seokjin steps through the door (he’d left it open) and comes up behind him. Seokjin surprises him by resting against his back, putting his hands on Jeongguk’s shoulders and settling his chin in the crook of his neck. Like this, they look at each other through the mirror.

“What do you think?” Seokjin asks. 

Jeongguk smiles a little. “…I think…I have nothing to wear with this.”

“Oh, good,” Seokjin exhales, his eyes fluttering closed. He hugs Jeongguk a little and Jeongguk raises his hand just to rest it against the one Seokjin has around his waist. “I almost thought you wouldn’t even consider that. Come on.”

Seokjin leads him into his bedroom.

It isn’t until they enter it, until the warm light from the bedside lamp pools onto their hands tangled together — the main thing that Jeongguk had been focused on — does it strike him that it’s his first time stepping foot into Seokjin’s bedroom. To do so feels more intimate than anything he’d read of Lee Insik’s first times of wandering hands and mouths. Seokjin lets go of his hand at the threshold, stepping into the room and going straight for the closet while Jeongguk slows, taking the time to appreciate this new facet.

Seokjin’s bedroom is simple. Warm.

The walls are painted a simple cream color and the furniture seems more put together than anything in the living room. The bed, sat low in its frame, is big, the comforters strewn on top of in a somewhat neat but also chaotic manner. On the dresser sits a multitude of Little Things — tangible Seokjin-isms, if you will — that make Jeongguk smile faintly.

There are pictures of Seokjin from childhood to now, pictures of friends, pictures, Jeongguk assumes, of relatives. There are the familiar star-shaped sunglasses, a hairbrush, and a couple of books. Jeongguk recognizes some from James Baldwin and it makes his smile widen. To be in the room, somehow, feel sacred and he, quite suddenly, feels oh so blessed.

“Here it is,” Seokjin says as he turns from the closet with a floral print silk shirt in his hands. The shirt itself is black while the flowers that fall around it are golden. “What do you think?”

“I like your room,” Jeongguk says.

Seokjin smiles faintly but scoffs and steps closer to Jeongguk, holding the shirt up against it. “I meant about this. I think it looks nice but I’m also the same person who bought it so what does my opinion matter? Do you like it?”

No.

“Yes,” Jeongguk says, taking the shirt from Seokjin. “Thank you.”

“I think I have the perfect pair of…” Seokjin trails off, stepping once again to the closet and returning after a few moments with a sleek pair of leather jeans. Well. Pleather, as Seokjin tells him when he hands them off. 

“Every gay guy has a decent pair of leather pants,” Seokjin thinks better of it. “No, actually, that might be a stereotype. I’m messing with you but, honestly,” he leans forward and fluffs Jeongguk’s hair a bit, primping him up as he probably does with his clients at the salon. “I forgot how new all of this is for you and I don’t want you walking around thinking stereotypes are facts.”

Seokjin falls back and eyes the outfit.

“It seems like a lot,” he says. “I know, but,” he lowers his voice and smiles gently. “…this is a big night. You just don’t know it yet. Trust me.”

“How so?”

“You’ll see….Shoo, go try it on.”

Jeongguk does consider, for the briefest of moments, changing right there in Seokjin’s room. For a second, he feels bold enough to do it, bold enough to be completely transparent but the feeling leaves him just as soon as it arrived and he goes to the bathroom. It takes him a while to squeeze into the pleather pants and when he finally gets into them, he can’t argue that it doesn’t look half bad     .

When the look’s complete and he’s watching his reflection again, the only thing he can think is that his parents would probably die if they ever saw him like this. If Elder Asa’s words had any validity, too, he would be struck down by lightning before he could even consider stepping out in public in such a state. And then, he realizes with a foreign excitement, that it feels good. He feels good. And then his parents, Elder Asa, lightning — all of those things didn’t matter, all of those opinions didn’t matter. What did matter was him.

He later with Heeyeon, who hasn’t changed into anything special and is still resting in her jeans and white t-shirt, and Jiyoo in the living room while Seokjin puts on his special outfit. It was hard for Jeongguk to figure out what constituted special when it came to Seokjin or even when it came to Seokjin’s friends. There was, of course, what Heeyeon was wearing then there was Jiyoo, on the other side of the spectrum, who wore a ‘holographic’ corset and a flared miniskirt. The fact that Seokjin, who Jeongguk always saw wearing the most comfortable clothes with the loudest colors, even owned ‘pleather’ pants was surprising.

He wasn’t sure what to expect.

When Seokjin did exit his bedroom, just after calling out to Jiyoo to put on his ‘entrance music’ (“Love to Love You Baby”), Jeongguk was both awed, unsurprised, and absolutely, stupidly, happily head over heels. 

He could barely see the outfit Seokjin wore under the eye-catching, grandiose robe he was shrouded under. It wasn’t any ordinary robe. The main material was sheer, white in its faint hue, but the edges of the robe, the end of the sleeves and the bottom, were trimmed in feathers. As Seokjin stepped out of the hall, he did a dramatic little twirl to which Jiyoo laughed at and Heeyeon rolled her eyes all the while smiling. The twirl made the robe open a little and Jeongguk could see the outfit beneath, white lace bell bottoms and a simple top with the most exaggerated lantern sleeves. 

It was undeniably Seokjin and, naturally, that meant Jeongguk was undeniably sprung.

 

 

The club is alive with people from all different parts of all different towns.

There weren’t many gay clubs to choose from in the area, not many to choose from in the whole of the country. Seokjin explained it to him before they left. The clubs were very often the only opportunity people had to be them without having to hide it, without being hyperaware and hyper concerned about every move they made. So, the clubs, especially on Friday nights, were usually packed with people from rural spots, from fishing villages, from mountain towns. For one night, they got to gather in a place full of people who got them.

On the way to the club, Jeongguk had several tiny epiphanies, explosions of emotion and overthinking in the backseat of Seokjin’s car. He’d look out the window and be terrified, his stomach in knots and his nails digging into the palms of his hand again. Then, he’d relax, trying to reason with himself. How bad could it be? What was the worse that could happen? Then that question would send him into another tailspin. It was a seemingly endless cycle.

And then, when they pulled up to the club, those anxieties quieted once they were out of the car and once Seokjin grabbed his hand, leading the way. He knew Seokjin wasn’t holding his hand the way couples held hands, he knew it didn’t mean anything but it wasn’t the meaning — or lack of meaning — that quelled his worries. It was the contact. It was the warmth. It was knowing that yes, the possibilities of what could go wrong were insurmountable but, at the very least, he wasn’t alone. And although he’d only known Seokjin a short time in comparison to everyone else, he felt, truly and deeply, that trusting Seokjin was as easy as breathing.

Jeongguk sees the line of people starting from the entrance and heads toward the end of the queue but Seokjin’s hand, firm in its grip, guides him directly to the doorman. He watches as the waiting spectators’ faces morph from outrage to, after their gazes land on Seokjin, understanding. He did look amazing, after all.

“Wooil,” Seokjin says when he gets to the doorman, leaning forward to exchange air kisses. “You look as angry ever, life must be treating you well.”

“Now, there’s a face I haven’t seen in a minute,” Wooil, whose expression had melted from icy and serious to goofy and deeply adoring once he saw Seokjin. “When’s the last time you came by?”

Seokjin waves a hand, the sparkle of his nails — rose gold and silver — glimmer under the streetlight. “I can hardly keep up anymore.”

Then Seokjin holds up his hand, wiggling four fingers and works his magic. Wooil looks at him with a smile that says he knows he shouldn’t do what he’s about to do but he also can’t deny Seokjin anything. He unlatches the velvet rope and waves them in.

The inside of the nightclub is bright with different spotlights. Pink, green, yellow, blue. It’s a small space. In the daylight or without the giant disco ball placed in the center of the ceiling, the club probably looks normal. It could look like an upscale restaurant when the flashing lights were gone and the swaying bodies dragged themselves home. It could look quite simple.

But it’s stunning. The lights, the bodies, the music which is so loud that it thrums hard in Jeongguk’s ears, so loud that he can feel the bass vibrating his body with it. It’s the first time in his life that he’s ever felt music and it’s an amazing feeling. He doesn’t recognize the song but Jiyoo groans, disappointed, something about “Fucking ABBA every fucking night.”

The music swells as Jeongguk watches, dazed, at the people on the dance floor. On the leftside wall, closest to the entrance, people stand by the bar. The bar is constructed with a blue neon light just beneath it and behind it, three bartenders move at a rapid speed without a single hesitation in their motions. They make drinks, shake, ice, and slice with such expertise. It’s almost like watching dancers or the rain. Jeongguk is momentarily captivated.

What’s even more eye-catching are the outfits of the clubgoers. He thought Seokjin had outdone himself, thought Jiyoo looked eccentric but he hadn’t even scratched the surface. There were people in neon from head to toe, some people in authentic 1970s suits with the flared pant legs and sharp collars, there were people in dresses, there were people simply in sweats and a t-shirt. In some way, to Jeongguk at least, all of them looked celestial.

He nearly blushes when, in his scanning of the area, his gaze finds a couple engaged in the most passionate kiss Jeongguk has ever seen with his own eyes. A gay couple with their hands and mouths entangled in such a way that Jeongguk couldn’t tell where one person started and the other began. He reverts his eyes but finds his gaze trailing right back to them. 

It’s not shame that washes over him. Not guilt. Not fear. 

The corners of his mouth tug upward just the slightest. He looks around the club for any naysayers, for any rioters or picketers or people trying to pull the couple apart. But there’s only dancing, talking, kissing. There’s only people living their lives. He feels tears sting at his eyes as his smile grows. The anxiety is still coming off him in waves but the couple, that couple that he knows he’ll never see again, gives him a comfort he wasn’t aware he’d been looking for.

“Drinks?” Someone yells. Then Seokjin echoes the question to him, tearing his attention away from the couple.

“They have sodas, too,” Seokjin says — shouts — leaning close to his ear after he saw Jeongguk’s expression. “You don’t have to drink.”

The four of them approach the bar. As they walk toward it, Jeongguk turns away to find the kissing couple but he’s lost them.

At the bar, Heeyeon orders drinks with names that Jeongguk can’t even begin to put an image to and, just before Seokjin can lean forward and yell for an order of club soda, one of the bartenders sets down four shot glasses in front of them. The shot glasses are full of a blue liquid that Jeongguk knows isn’t kool-aid…but, frankly, it looks a lot like kool-aid.

“From the gentleman at the end,” the bartender explains. He doesn’t wait for a question or an explanation before diving back into his work. 

The four of them turn to the end of the bar where a young man, wearing a muted blue suit, waves shortly with a charming, dimpled smile. Jiyoo approaches the stranger with open arms, Heeyeon acknowledges his presence but goes back to the drinks, and Seokjin takes Jeongguk with him when he walks in that direction.

“What the fuck?” He hears Seokjin yell when they reach Blue Suit. This question, yelled and profane, clashes with Seokjin’s action when he asks it: reaching out and pulling the stranger into a single-armed hug. “I thought you were still in Europe.”

Jeongguk doesn’t hear the response, the conversation leaves without him. He looks at Heeyeon who’s content to sit by the bar and drink while looking at her phone. He almost wants to be her in that moment. There’s word for this, he knows. Third-wheeling. He doesn’t like it.

He’s patient (and terrified) enough to wait as Seokjin does his catching up. He doesn’t bother to listen in on the conversation so he barely notices when a question gets thrown in is direction. Seokjin nudges him and, after Jeongguk turns to look at him, brings a hand to his face and caresses his cheek gently. He’s smiling when he does it, laughing. Teasing.

It means nothing, Jeongguk has to remind himself.

“Are you the boyfriend?” The stranger asks and Jeongguk’s throat tightens.

He knows the answer is no and, yet, he looks to Seokjin to answer it. As if Seokjin will surprise him and say, “Why, yes. He is.” That doesn’t happen. Jeongguk fears that Seokjin will call him his ward again or something worse but he doesn’t. He only shakes his head and resumes his conversation. 

Somehow, the absence of a title makes Jeongguk feel worse. At least, “ward,” no matter how much he detested it, had a relationship in it. The lack of a title takes that relationship away. Did they even have a relationship? Were they even friends? Was Jeongguk just too obtuse to realize they weren’t?

Next to Blue Suit, Jiyoo looks at Jeongguk, wiggling her eyebrows a little. 

When are you gonna go for it?

Jeongguk untangles his hand from Seokjin’s, walks up to the bar and downs one of the blue shots before he can talk himself out of it. It burns something terrible and, for a minute, he thinks a fire has erupted in his throat. Right after he does it, his stomach fills up with an emptiness and a dread but he can’t be swayed. He shakes his head, returns to Seokjin's side, and leans in until his mouth is only a hair’s breadth away from the shell of Seokjin’s ear. He takes a deep breath, tries to start the sentence and falls short before he tries again. He’s thankful for the loud music and the pulsating bass and the warm bodies. All of those factors probably make the state of his voice — shaking and somewhat brittle — impossible to notice.

“I still want to see you dance,” he finally says when he feels bold enough. “Under the lights.”

And when Jeongguk pulls away to see the effect of his words, he’s pleased to see a smile that he knows the meaning of. ‘I thought you’d never ask,’ Seokjin’s beam says when he re-joins their hands and, after a quick parting word to Blue Suit, takes them to the floor.

Once there, Jeongguk becomes filled with the worst kind of dread. He stands, frozen in front of Seokjin as everyone dances around them. That's the thing about boldness and bravery. For him, the two were always fleeting. Running away in terror as soon as they arrive. 

Seokjin must read the confusion on his face because he laughs, reaches forward, clasps Jeongguk's hands, and places them on his waist. He leans forward: "This is not how you dance to a fast song, but I'm taking it easy on you. Don't get used to it."

There, slow dancing to a song that doesn't warrant it, with people dancing around them more vibrantly and more excitedly, Jeongguk discovers a brand new ache in his heart. Looking at Seokjin who sways side to side with him, arms around his waist and eyes closed as he drinks in the music, Jeongguk feels nothing but absolute affection. It hits him, just how much he likes Seokjin. So much that he truly feels that his heart could burst from holding it all in.

He thinks of the kissing couple. Swallows hard. He wants to do the same. He wants to hold Seokjin so tightly that anyone watching wouldn't be able to tell where he ended and Seokjin began. 

"...I like you so much," he says only because with his voice being drowned out by the sound of the music, he doesn't believe Seokjin will be able to hear him. It's the only reason the confession comes out easily and without hesitation.

And then Seokjin opens his eyes a little while later, just as the song is coming to an end. He hugs Jeongguk and replies. 

"I know."

Chapter Text

unicorns, leprechauns, and God

 

The ever lulls between working and living are voids of time that Jeongguk has begun to fill with daydreams. The subject of those daydreams scarcely seem to matter as much as the emotions they bring and the emotion was usually the same: contentment. In these daydreams, the places would always change, the weather and even aspects of his personality would be different. Wishful reveries often sent him to high mountains, to tiny villages, to farms in Ireland, and to seas in tropics. In them, it wasn’t only the emotion that remained a constant. More often than not, the default daydream he too often entertained had everything to do with what it would be like to kiss Seokjin. 

This, he thought about more than anything.

He blames it on kissing couple. If not for them brandishing their affection for each other, in slow motion no less, he would be able to keep his mind from wandering to such things. For days now though, he hasn’t been able to tear himself from the allure of those reveries, of wondering how Seokjin’s lips — how he even when he believed nothing and no one but The Almighty could be without flaws, he thought Seokjin’s lips were perfect — would feel against his own. He didn’t even know how to kiss, never had his first one, couldn’t even entertain the idea of being good at it right off. Still, he wondered.

The window of opportunity to dwell further is slammed shut when the sound system in the book shop starts to spew out screeching guitars and an aggressive drum patterns. He flinches a little at the volume and at the aggression and soon hears Hyunjoo, standing behind his seat at the front register as she puts up new sale signs, curse at Aecha. It doesn’t seem to faze Aecha who only laughs and turns the volume a bit lower. 

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” Aecha says to Jeongguk. She’s sitting in Hyunjoo’s rolling chair, the one that usually sits in front of the desk in the backroom, with one foot on the seat as she twirls it from side to side. She joined them in the shop shortly after their lunch break, saying she had time to kill before her girlfriend got off of work and she’d rather waste it with people who didn’t annoy her completely. Her amusement is poorly masked. She looks to Hyunjoo. “What? I turned it down.”

“Play music as loud as you want,” Hyunjoo says. “But what the hell is this? Do you call this music?”

“This?” Aecha holds her hand — gripping onto her phone, the source of the new music — and shakes it. “Crying Nut.”

“Crying what?”

“Oh, unni, don’t you know anything about good music? This is punk rock at its purest.”

Jeongguk smiles a little, amused as he looks between them. He doesn’t tire of watching the two of them spat. They’re like sisters and they could bicker well into old age but sometimes their spats remind Jeongguk of a married couple. Then, on the other hand, the frequency of their bickering sometimes makes it hard to believe that they’re such good friends. Or maybe this is what friends did. He still feels like that’s something he’s missing out on.

“Pure? This?”

“Say what you want. ‘Balad Body’ is a classic. Why, what does Hyunjoo think of as pure punk?”

“The Comes. This is nothing compared to them.”

Aecha blows a raspberry.

“I should kick you,” Hyunjoo says. Then to Jeongguk: “What do you think, Bambi?”

Jeongguk’s eyes go a little wide and he sinks as he shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t even know who…or what you’re talking about.”

Hyunjoo cackles shortly, going back to her sale posters and shaking her head with a fond smile on her face. Aecha looks to Jeongguk curiously.

“What kind of music do you listen to anyway?”

“Disco, mostly.”

Again, Aecha wrinkles her nose and then echoes the genre back to him as if to ensure that she hadn’t misheard him. When he nods, she turns away from him and contemplates it quietly. Then she tilts her head back and forth a little, a little of this and a little of that. “Your honesty is very punk. I appreciate it.”

“Thank you?”

“Gimme your phone,” Hyunjoo cuts in. When the phone is in her hand, the music stops as she looks at the screen. “We’ll have to find a balance between disco and punk. Otherwise, Bambi’s gonna get scared.”

“No, I’m not.”

“See, he’s got his defenses up already.”

“Does that even exist?” Aecha asks. “Disco and punk?”

“Something you can dance to and head bang to?” Hyunjoo looks up as the first chords of a new song start to play. She smirks. “That’s what David Bowie’s for.”

They spend the next fifteen minutes of their lunch hour listening to an album Hyunjoo said was called Aladdin Sane. All the while, the debate of what constituted as pure punk waged into a full blown war with one side — Hyunjoo — citing “No More Heroes” by The Strangers as the best punk song ever and the other side — Aecha — calling “No More Heroes” cookie cutter and, instead, citing “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”

Their music sends Jeongguk back into his mind but, instead of reverie, he falls in a reality. A past reality. Disco night. He sighs inwardly. What a mess, that was. Once Aecha and Hyunjoo’s ever-fleeting attention is away from him, he dwells in it. 

He had surprised himself when that night came to an end. After he and Seokjin returned to Casi Cielo, hand in hand, specks of glitter confetti — of which had dropped from the ceilings during the final song — still clinging to their clothes. By the end of dancing, Jeongguk looked a right mess but Seokjin looked like a fallen angel. Imperfect, clothes ravished, eyes tired. But glowing. The surprise had come  just before they went their separate ways when Jeongguk managed to ask what Seokjin had meant by ‘I know.’ 

For most of the night, he’d ignored it. Pretended he didn’t hear it or didn’t know what Seokjin was talking about. And fortunately for him, Seokjin wasn’t pushy, was easy with letting him keep up a ruse. He’d already made the choice decision to play dumb. So asking outright was a shock to him more than it was to Seokjin.

The detail of Seokjin’s smile after the question was asked eludes him still. Was it one-sided? Were his teeth showing? Was it tight-lipped? Did the left side rise before the right? The right before the left? He only remembers that Seokjin smiled, tapped the tip of Jeongguk’s nose and answered simply:

“Exactly what I said.”

After that, Jeongguk went back to pretending. 

The bell above the entrance tinkles signalling the arrival of a new customer. It always works like magic for Jeongguk, pulling him out of his spells of overthinking if only temporarily. He opens his eyes to reality, turns to the door with his mouth fixed for a polite greeting that comes out strained with a confused tone.

Taehyung is approaching the counter, steps quick and purposeful. The sight absolutely transfixes Jeongguk for many reason. The main one being the hard set in Taehyung’s brows, the second being the way he was looking right at Jeongguk, had been since the moment he walked in, made Jeongguk feel very much like a child about to be in big trouble. The final one was simple: he’d accepted, as much as he could, that Taehyung had no interest in forgiving him. This much he could fathom. What he couldn’t fathom, what turned his stomach just to think it, was for Taehyung to properly confront him about everything that happened. He knew that he deserved to know what his actions caused and part of him has an idea of. Maybe that’s why his stomach sours the way it does.

Taehyung stops in front of him, places his hand gently on the counter. “I need to talk to you.”

“…Okay,” Jeongguk mumbles.

“What time are you off?”

Jeongguk’s eyes flickered away to the locked POS screen where the time was displayed on the upper right hand corner. He didn’t look back when he answered. “30 minutes.”

“I’ll wait.”

And before Jeongguk can even think to ask him what this is about or to make up a lie so he could avoid whatever was coming, Taehyung is nodding politely at Hyunjoo and Aecha and then making his way out the door.

She waits until Taehyung is out the door and then Hyunjoo asks. “Who’s that?”

He thinks about it. Who was Taehyung? Not only as an individual but who was he to Jeongguk? What was their relationship? Did they even have one now? Did they ever have one at all? Slowly, he shakes his head and murmurs.

“I don’t know.”

 

Jeongguk takes his time clocking out, gathering his belongings, and leaving the store. As a last ditch effort, he offers Hyunjoo some extra, off the clock assistance for the preparation of tomorrow’s sale. But she must be able to tell what his intentions are because she laughs him off and sends him on his way. It wasn’t that fear had taken hold of him, not fear of Taehyung anyway. Only anxiousness. About what, he wasn’t sure.

When he does finally leave the store, he walks up to the bike rack out front and spots Taehyung waiting for him across the street. The weight in his stomach returns. He takes his time, once again, pulling the bike out, straddling it, and pedaling across the street. At last, when he stops in front of Taehyung, keeping his eyes on the sidewalk, Taehyung asks if he’s hungry.

It’s the last question Jeongguk would have expected to hear from Taehyung. From Taehyung directed to him, no less. He looks up. Taehyung is eyeing him carefully, as if perusing for the tells that would give Jeongguk away should he attempt to lie or evade him. 

Jeongguk looks back down. He shrugs. “I could eat.”

“I’m craving jajangmyeon,” Taehyung says without missing beat. “I know a spot, just follow me.”

Taehyung starts to bike ahead. Before the two of them speed up enough for the wind to blow their shirts back, he adds: “My treat.”

When they get to riding together, it feels like strolling through a different version of before. Like deja-vu but less jarring. It feels almost warm to return to a time that should have been simpler, for it to be simpler now despite the differences. Who would have known that the first time they rode their bikes into the Raimi district was the first time they would get a glimpse at their new homes? Jeongguk hopes that’s what Raimi for Taehyung. Home. 

Ten minutes after they first biked off, Taehyung slows to a stop in front of a modest hole-in-the-wall shop. Squished between a cocktail bar and a dessert shop, the restaurant is barely noticeable. Any other day and Jeongguk might have gone right past it. 

“Do you come here a lot?” Jeongguk asks as they prop their bikes against the brick wall of the building. 

“Not really,” Taehyung answers but when the two of them walk inside, the cashier greets him by name. Jeongguk smiles a little at that.

The decor is minimal and homely. Framed photographs spot the off white walls, most of them, Jeongguk can only assume, family related. His eyes catch each picture as he trails behind Taehyung who picks a table near the back. The location reminds Jeongguk of their missions together and the ice cream they’d get at Scoops, how the decision was made to sit as far away from the big window as possible. Though he knows it’s different now, the memory still bites at him. 

Once they’re seated, a bit of the uneasiness he’d felt returns. He waits, in terrible aching silence, for Taehyung to say exactly what’s on his mind. But Taehyung stays quiet and the air starts to weigh heavy. It weighs heavy when the waiter approaches their table and takes their order. Weighs heavy, heavier, while they wait for the food in absolute silence. Jeongguk resolves himself to wait for Taehyung to speak first, wary of the outcomes that could unfold should he be the one to break the silence. But it isn’t until after the food arrives and after their waiter leaves them to themselves that Taehyung says anything.

While mixing the black bean sauce and noodles together, Taehyung quickly nods to Jeongguk’s untouched bowl: “Go on.”

So, Jeongguk does. He lets go of the anxiety long enough to take a cautious bite and then the taste of it so decadent with flavor and with memories that he can’t help but become weightless to it. Jajangmyeon had become something of a specialty for him growing up. He knew of kids who had it every other day. It wasn’t the case for him. The dish was paired with moments of celebration and achievement. As he eats, he’s swept in the positives he’d forgotten. It should sadden him but it doesn’t really. He only feels relieved to have those good moments, as rare as they may have been.

It’s only after Jeongguk gets comfortable with the silence, eating his food and actively not worrying, that it vanishes. A reserved and elongated “So” cuts into the quiet and Jeongguk looks up from his food. Taehyung’s thumbing the top of his ear when he starts.

“I was trying to figure out how to say this. But I think I’m still trying to phrase it like you don’t know. And you know now. So, there’s no point in…so, I’ll just — you can’t show up to Jimin’s house like that.”

Jeongguk stills, his mouth completely full.

It doesn’t take him long to realize Taehyung had waited for him to take his biggest bite yet before speaking. That doesn’t stop him though. He swallows as big a portion as he can and manages, mouth half full: “I didn’t know.”

“Now you do.”

“…I wasn’t — I didn’t mean to bother him. I didn’t know he lived there. I saw your bike and—”

“So, you wanted to bother me?”

Jeongguk winces, swallows the rest of his food and plays with what remains in the bowl. He mixes his black bean sauce and noodles over and over to avoid Taehyung’s gaze. “I guess so, yeah.”

Taehyung sighs, sounding equal parts exhausted and annoyed. “That’s not—”

“I just wanted to see you were okay. That’s all.”

“You saw me. I’m fine.”

“…I don’t know that. I saw you. But I don’t know that you’re okay, I still don’t. I just wanted to be sure.”

“Guilt’s a hell of a thing, I guess,” Taehyung mumbles and continues to eat all the while shaking his head in semi disbelief.

“Yeah. It is. I’m--”

“Apologize to me again and I’ll have to make you pay for your own food. It’s out of my hands.”

“Okay, I won’t. But you know, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“…Are you okay then? I mean, really?”

Taehyung looks up. “Are you?”

Jeongguk half shrugs. “Getting there.”

Taehyung nods. “Me too,” he returns to his food and goes on, “I appreciate that you’re concerned. But you have to know…there’s boundaries, alright? I mean, we’re not friends.”

Again, Jeongguk winces and begins to gnaw on his upper lip as he continues to stir the food even though it’s long been stirred to death. “Aren’t we?”

He can hear a tiny smile in Taehyung’s voice, see the shake of the older’s head from the corner of his eye as he answers softly: “We’re not.”

“…Could we be?”

A moment passes where Taehyung’s only response to that question is the slight pursing of his lips and the sudden sympathy that gleams in his eyes when they look directly at each other. It mirrors, to Jeongguk’s eyes, the pity Seokjin would bestow on him when they first met. A verbal answer doesn’t come. Instead, Taehyung goes back to before.

“Just…whatever you need to say to me, say it to me. Leave Jimin out of it.”

In that moment, it all becomes very clear. Maybe it’s in the way that Taehyung says Jimin’s name or in the little spark of life behind his eyes after it rolls off his tongue. He says ‘Jimin’ and it reminds Jeongguk of the phases of the moon. He must really like him.

Before he can really make sense of what he wants to say, Jeongguk says: “I guess you’re still gay after all, huh?”

They’re equally stunned when their eyes meet again, Taehyung’s have gone wide and his mouth hanging open partly. Jeongguk wants to be swallowed up in a great big hole where he can’t see the light of day ever again. But then Taehyung’s surprise and silence begins to morph into a smile and then into laughter. 

“You’re not wrong,” Taehyung sighs. 

“…Was that all you wanted to say?”

“Pretty much. It was going to be a lot more theatrical than this, a lot bigger but…I don’t know, Jeongguk, it’s hard to be cruel to you.”

“You were going to be cruel?”

“That was my plan.”

Jeongguk finds himself smiling. “I don’t think you know how to be cruel. It’s not that you can’t be cruel to me. I don’t think you can do it at all.”

“Well, you know very little about me.”

Jeongguk can’t argue with that. “Why’d you take me to lunch just to tell me we’re not friends?”

“…You have to eat, don’t you?”

That’s enough of an answer, he supposes. Jeongguk looks away from Taehyung and from his food, toward the main register and the kitchen just behind it. He busies himself listening to the clashing of knives and pans, the sound of sizzling. 

“Jeongguk.”

He turns away from the kitchen.

“How’d you even get here?” Taehyung asks. 

Pursing his lips, Jeongguk runs through all the things that have happened since the very first day he stepped foot in the Raimi district. He knows that’s what Taehyung means. How did he, the person often teased in high school over his devotion to God, the person who avoided life outside of the church as if it would only lead him to a path of sin, end up in Raimi? 

Softly, he answers. “The world didn’t end. That’s all.”

“…You like the food?”

Jeongguk nods.

Taehyung mirrors him and tugs at his earlobe briefly again, his eyes averted when he adds, “We can come again if you want. I’ll call you.”

“I don’t have a phone.”

At first, it seems like Taehyung thinks he’s joking but then he squares away. “You work tomorrow?”

“Yeah.”

“Same time?”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll get you a phone when you get off then.”

Jeongguk starts to object. There isn’t enough money. I doesn’t actually need one. Why do you want to help me anyway? But Taehyung, who has always been more well versed, is swifter and it’s only when he stands, dropping money down on the table, that Jeongguk even realizes he’s already finished eating. Without another word, Taehyung leaves and, with him, Jeongguk’s objections.

 

 

Although Jeongguk had been doing a tremendous job of not looking anywhere near Seokjin since disco night, they still managed to communicate. Seokjin had informed him that he wasn’t going to be home to let Jeongguk in after he got off of work. This piece of information was special because, with it, Seokjin had given Jeongguk a key to the apartment. 

Reason and logic, always present but often taking lunch breaks, told him that having a key, for this situation, made sense and was nothing but the prevention of an uncomfortable situation for Jeongguk. However, he still got caught up in the sheer domesticity of it. Caught up in the comfort of their familiarity, in what could come of it, and, most importantly, in the fact that Seokjin trusted him. For some reason, to have Seokjin’s trust felt as grandiose and as earth-shattering as it was to have Seokjin’s hand in his. 

The key hangs around his neck, on a silk black chord that Seokjin slipped it on just for him. Seokjin had even, always fond of doing an extra thing to make Jeongguk blush, put the makeshift necklace around his neck for him. It was just a key. But, God, it made Jeongguk feel like…Like what? Like he was made of stars. Like earth was, after all, Heaven and that one only had to look for it. And here, he found it.

It’s strange coming back to an empty apartment but he still preens happily when he steps inside and locks the door behind him. Seokjin didn’t have work that night and he said he might be back later than usual but not late. He didn’t give an exact time and Jeongguk didn’t ask for one in fear of giving himself away. He doesn’t know how long he has exactly to get dinner done but he knows he’ll have to start soon. He drops his things off in his bedroom — when, oh when, did he start calling it that — and checks on the fish. Then, he picks up another pair of pants he bought at the thrift store and was saving for this very occasion — black corduroys for 5,500 won — and a worn gray and white band t-shirt. He sets the clothes in the bathroom for later, washes his hands, and head into the kitchen.

He starts with the gyeran mari. First, he chops the vegetables. Onions, bell peppers, scallions. He then in bits of ham and cheese, slicing everything into the tiniest cubes he can manage. While preparing the eggs and mixing everything together, his mind goes from wondering what Seokjin would think, of the food to hoping he liked it to wondering what he even thought of him. He didn’t grant himself a lot of time to sit with that ‘I know.’

At the time, under the lights and between bustling bodies, those two words almost broke him. He would have, if not for him having been the person who asked to dance in the first place, would have run away right then and there. After that though, the idea of even acknowledging what happened brought him too much bewilderment. It’s hard to ignore now. Standing in Seokjin’s kitchen and cooking, with Seokjin’s utensils and pots and pans, a meal for Seokjin.

When he thinks of it now, asking aloud what it was about being found out that rattled him so, he realizes how little it has to do with Seokjin knowing. As it was, when Jiyoo found him out, it had not been her knowing that rattled him. It was that Jeongguk had expected for her knowing to be followed by an inevitable rejection. ‘You’re not his type.’ 

With Seokjin, it unsettled him tenfold because now the rejection was direct. ‘You’re not my type.’ And, with Seokjin, the rejection would only be worsened by way of an added ‘honey,’ ‘sweetheart,’ or, Heaven forbid, ‘love.’ 

‘Love’ had the distinction of being both the best and the worst. The simple uttering of it, the sound of passing Seokjin’s lips, had the power to make Jeongguk melt into nothing. Yet, he never really wanted Seokjin to call him anything else. If Seokjin was to reject him, pointed and out loud, he would more than likely soften the blow with ‘love’ and the word itself would never be the same.

He’s somewhat — note: barely — come to accept that Seokjin did not now nor would he ever feel the same. To even imagine Seokjin responding to him the way he responded to Seokjin was like believing in unicorns or leprechauns or, maybe, God. (Jeongguk was still unsure of where he stood on that particular belief). The idea of it seemed too ridiculous. 

It’s just like this, whilst frying the first bit of egg batter in the pan, that he realizes the rejection he so fears has likely happened already and that, deep down, he had known that. That quaint little ’I know’ was the rejection and that’s why it had been so unnerving.

He pauses in his movements, gaze roving from the pan to the ingredients still splayed out on the counter tops to the niche little knick-knacks that screamed Seokjin’s name. The mushroom shaped sugar container, the turtle shaped tea infuser, and the soft pink oven mitts. He looks back to the food. He’d given himself a reason for this dinner, for wanting to make it and it was simple: to repay Seokjin for all he had done. It was a nice reason but it was only half true. What he really wanted was to be there for Seokjin as a friend and as…

Though, what was it Hyunjoo had said about them? Scorched earth?

He shakes the self-doubt that’s beginning to creep in and continues cooking.

 

 

It’s two hours and twenty plus minutes when Seokjin’s keys jingle at the front door. Upon hearing them, Jeongguk leaps from his seat on the sofa toward the stereo where he quickly puts on the first song he finds on the iPod. “Sunny” - Bobby Hebb. He’d listened to it way too much and if it had been a record or a cassette, he was certain that he would have worn it to bits. Before the doorknob can turn, he goes back to his seat on the couch and looks around desperately for something to put in his hands, unsure of what to do with them. How was he going to appear as effortlessly charming or aloof if he didn’t have something in his hands?

He tugs at the t-shirt against him and slides his palms down the corduroys. After the food was cooked and the kitchen was again clean, he showered and made use of his new soap. He liked that he smelled like Seokjin, that his lemongrass scented soap lingered on him. He especially liked that when the two of them left the apartment together, be it to the supermarket or to the mailboxes, anyone who approached them could likely tell that they smelled the same. Jeongguk liked Seokjin’s scent and even sometimes — these moments were always followed by the worst kind of embarrassment and shame — he would dip his nose down into the collar of one of Seokjin’s shirts and inhale. This was the main reason that, although he had come into possession of plenty of his own clothes, he still kept one or two of the shirts that had been lent to him. 

All that being said, the morning after disco night, he awoke to an idea: he needed a different kind of soap. It was silly to think it, he knew, but if he got a different soap, maybe he would become less fixated on lemongrass. He spent too long in the aisles of a drugstore looking for a different kind. He came across oak moss and lavender, lavender and vanilla, vanilla and cinnamon, cinnamon and lemon, lemon and mint. In the end, he settled for a blend of amber and sandalwood. 

Before the door opens, he pulls the collar of his shirt up, inhales, and wonders if Seokjin will notice the difference.

The hinges swing and Seokjin steps inside, eyes finding Jeongguk almost immediately, and he breaks into a grin. Shutting the door behind him and toeing off his shoes, he says, “I thought, for sure, you’d lose the key.”

“Kind of hard to lose it when you put it around my neck.”

“Well, you never know,” then Seokjin enters the living room and looks around the space as if he’s evaluating. “Nothing’s burned down, I’m impressed.”

Jeongguk smirks but half rolls his eyes. “I thought about it but…”

With a little relieved sigh and a smile of amusement still on him, Seokjin drops down onto the opposite sofa and kicks his legs up over the armchair. He closes his eyes and his smile starts to ease at the corners. 

“Long day?” Jeongguk asks.

“You’re not mad at me anymore?”

“I was never mad at you.”

“I don’t know,” Seokjin exhales and runs a hand through his hair, mussing it the way Jeongguk is starting to find he wants to. “You’ve seemed distant.”

“…I wasn’t mad, I promise.”

Seokjin hums. “What do you think of takeout tonight? I know a really good Greek place. Well…It’s decent.”

“I, um…I made dinner already. For you.”

He winces a little after the ‘For you’ comes out. Is this what Hyunjoo meant about being obvious?

Seokjin opens his eyes and looks at him almost blankly. Like this, with fringe hanging slightly over his eyes and one of his stud earrings turning turquoise under the light and with his lips parted open, Jeongguk is practically yanked once again into the kissing reverie. He bites his own lip and looks away.

“Really?”

Nodding at the carpet, Jeongguk answers. “Gyeran mari. Some hobak bokkeum, too. I don’t…I should have asked, I don’t — do you like gyeran mari? I put ham and—”

“Thank you,” Seokjin says, a smile returning but this one smaller and so gentle. “Let me get the day off of me and we can eat.”

 

 

Seokjin returns from the bathroom in his pinstripe pajamas and slippers, strings of his hair are still damp and his face flushed from the shower. This may very well be Jeongguk’s favorite way to see him. Something in it, in the pajamas and in the ‘just out of the shower’ complexion, sounds like trust. He briefly strokes the key still hanging from his neck and smiles to himself.

He made Seokjin sit at the dining table, making him promise not to lift a finger and he brought everything to him. Making his plate with six rolled eggs, his side bowl of fresh rice, and setting the stir fried zucchini in the center. To go with the dinner, Jeongguk had brewed a batch of peppermint tea and had been icing it while he waited for Seokjin’s return. Now, he pours the tea into a thin glass and sets everything carefully in front of Seokjin who tries (and fails) to bite back a smile. 

Once everything is prepared, Jeongguk sits across from him and tries not to let his nerves show. He smiles. “Bon appetite.”

Seokjin smiles back and looks at the food, eyebrows raising as he takes it all in. “You know,” he starts. “Other than restaurants, of course, I don’t think anyone’s cooked for me. Other than my grandma.”

“No one?”

“No one,” Seokjin says and although it makes Jeongguk said — it doesn’t seem to faze Seokjin — it also makes him unreasonably giddy. The idea of being a first for Seokjin. Is this what it feels like to become someone? “I’ve never had gyeran mari for dinner either. Exciting night. Thank you.”

Jeongguk nods, a semi-bow, as he gets a hold of his own chopsticks. He doesn’t touch his plate though, too focused on Seokjin taking his first bite. He watches for the little giveaways, for a fold in Seokjin’s expression or a little wrinkle in is forehead. He braces himself for the impact of Seokjin spitting it out but that doesn’t happen.

Seokjin, instead, smiles at the taste, looks directly at Jeongguk and nods as if he’s impressed. Only then does Jeongguk feel he can stomach taking a bite of his own but even then his belly is already full of fireworks and butterflies. 

“Not bad,” Seokjin says, hand over his full mouth. “Is this your favorite dish to cook?”

“I’ve never made it before. I don’t really cook, to be honest with you.”

Seokjin’s eyes widen and that’s when the little wrinkle appears. “Seriously? What possessed you to do it all of a sudden?”

Jeongguk had been preparing for this moment. It was one thing to make an entire meal for Seokjin but it was another to admit to him what this had all been for. Words, feelings, genuineness. The three things that evaded Jeongguk the most for all of his life. But he had to be honest. He had to be brave. He owed it, not only to Seokjin but, more importantly, to himself.

He takes a deep breath, looking down at his food.

“I wanted to thank you,” he says. “You won’t let me pay rent which…thank you for that, too, actually. And you took me in when you didn’t have to. Which, when I think about it, is kind of insane. What if I wanted to kill you or something?”

“You don’t have it in you, love. Besides, what if I wanted to kill you?”

Jeongguk laughs. “Fair enough…I couldn’t think of anything at first. But then, you know, you’re always doing the cooking and…just making everything a lot easier for me and I wanted to do the same for you. I,” he stumbles on his words — was this really the right thing to say? “I can take care you so…Um, and I’m sorry.”

“Your apology was already accepted.”

“No, not that. I’m sorry for,” he stops again, squeezes his eyes shut and takes another deep breath, body bracing once again. “For liking you. As much as I do. Or at all. I think I might have put you in a weird position because of how I feel. I’m sorry for that. You don’t have to worry about…I know you don’t like me that way and I don’t expect you to so, please don’t feel bad or anything.”

At last, Jeongguk opens his eyes, lets the tension in his shoulders roll away and looks up Seokjin to gauge his reaction. To his utter surprise, Seokjin doesn’t look uncomfortable or annoyed or upset in the slightest. He’s smiling again, hiding this one behind the hand holding his chopsticks, and a faint — so faint Jeongguk almost misses it — shade of pink dusts over his cheeks. He almost expects for Seokjin to start laughing at him.

Instead, Seokjin looks at him, drops his hand down and picks up another roll. “What makes you think I don’t like you?”

“…You didn’t say you did.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t.”

Jeongguk is sure that his heart stops beating, perhaps it tumbled out of his chest, on its own quest to attempt making sense of this anomaly. The idea of Seokjin fancying him? Unicorns and leprechauns and God. He opens and closes his mouth like a fish out of water. He’s supposed to say something right now. What the hell was he supposed to say? 

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Seokjin says, eyes catching his and expression teeming with both amusement and adoration. 

“You…” Jeongguk had put his head down to speak again but suddenly Seokjin’s hand is under his chin, lifting his face so that their eyes are connected once more. The action makes him blunder, speech trailing off and heat flushing his face.

“Can you please look at me?” Seokjin asks in barely a whisper.

Yes, Jeongguk wants to say. Absolutely. I’ll never look away.

He carries on, voice failing him. “You like me?”

Seokjin cups his hand against his own cheek and shrugs. “I don’t know. You tell me, you seem to have it all figured out.”

Jeongguk shakes his head quickly. “I don’t, no. I don’t. Tell me?”

“…You know what I like about you? You wear your heart on your sleeve,” to punctuate this, Seokjin taps his hand against Jeongguk’s wrist. “Your eyes give away everything. It makes you really honest.”

Jeongguk heard every word but, still, his mind went in circles after ‘You know what I like about you’? 

“So, you do like me?” He asks.

Then there’s laughter, Seokjin’s shoulder shaking as he shakes his head and returns his attention to the food. Jeongguk swallows hard. What a revelation. His eyes flicker down to Seokjin’s hand where the chopsticks are held, quickly approaching the hobak bokkeum. Without thinking of it too deeply, Jeongguk uses his own chopsticks to pick up a portion of zucchini first and holds it out in front of Seokjin.

Still, Seokjin’s hand lingers on the side dish but he hasn’t picked anything up. His eyes are on Jeongguk’s, stare intense and warm and sending Jeongguk back into that reverie. For a second, Jeongguk thinks he’s just going to ignore it. But then Seokjin leans forward, opens his mouth and bites into the zucchini. When his mouth briefly wraps around the end of the chopsticks, he closes his eyes and Jeongguk gets lost in the tiny action.

“Hmm,” he says. “Tasty.”

 

It doesn’t go unnoticed by Jeongguk that the question still seems unanswered. But he walks away from the dinner with a newfound comfort in Seokjin’s words. The meaning of them remain lost but their sound brings a foreign ease. He insists on washing the remaining dishes as well, sending Seokjin off to bed when the older tries to wash them instead. Not putting up much of a fuss, Seokjin soon departs and Jeongguk towards the sink, turning on the faucet and filling the left side compartment. 

With his back turned, he doesn’t see how Seokjin, halfway to his bedroom, spins on his foot and returns to the kitchen, taking quiet steps. He doesn’t notice when Seokjin stops behind him. He does notice when a chaste kiss is pressed to his cheek and a quiet “Thank you” is whispered against the shell of his ear.

 

 

puzzle pieces

Everyone seemed to have a look.

Hyunjoo’s look, frequently showcasing oft-oversized flannel button ups and brown cargo pants, fit her well. With her long hair pulled back back and up, tight and neat, her look, from the moment they met, told Jeongguk something about her. For one, she was practical. She liked comfortability, simplicity, and not standing out. 

Seokjin was partly the same. He liked comfortability, often walking around the house and to the mailboxes whilst still in his pajamas or robe. He liked simplicity in terms of accessories. His stud earrings were simple, crystal quartz — sometimes smokey, sometimes rose gold — or silver. But Seokjin was larger than life and he knew it. And if you’re larger than life, you stand out.

Aecha, when she’s not in her Scoops uniform, likes belts and chokers and all her piercings. Six in her right ear, three in her left, two over her left eyebrow, one in her lip. There were probably more, knowing her, but the ones on the surface said enough. She liked boldness and honesty, brash truth. She liked punk rock.

Jeongguk still knows next to nothing about Jimin. Other than the apparent fact that Jimin isn’t too fond of him. When they first met, he took note of Jimin’s jewelry first. A misshapen crystal — emerald green — hung from a chain around his neck. It fell to the middle of his chest and often swung around when he was dropping off equipment for Hyunjoo. The cardigans he wore would flow behind him, making all of his entrances and exits especially dramatic in their flair. Lastly, his hair, side-parted and forever swaying in tiny waves, added something to it.

What did Jimin’s look say about his character? If he didn’t know Taehyung, what would his look say about him? 

Jeongguk is trying to do that now. To get to know Jimin and to pretend he doesn’t know Taehyung. He’d spotted the two of them on his way out of Sacked. The plan was for him to simply meet Taehyung after work. He didn’t know what time exactly, whether they were meeting at Sacked, whether he had to go somewhere else. The specificities of it didn’t matter much because when he left the store, Taehyung was across the street. If not for Jimin’s presence, Jeongguk would have rode right over. 

But he waited, suddenly wanting to go back inside and ask Hyunjoo for overtime.

He couldn’t move though. The sight of Jimin and Taehyung standing across from each other on the side walk — between them a small dog patiently waiting on a leash held in Jimin’s hand, the two of them engaged in a deep conversation — felt like being in two places at once. For so long, the world of Raimi and the world of the Congregation felt like two very different planets with distance galore between them. Jimin was one thing, Taehyung was another. They looked different. It was the first that Jeongguk had ever seen them together outside of his internal questioning. And somehow, looking at them now, it’s hard to imagine them being or having ever been apart to begin with.

Visually, they fit like two puzzle pieces. Quite literally made for each other.

Watching gets to be too much as soon as the two of them say goodbye to each other, voices soft and heads bent together. He watches Taehyung crouch down to pet the dog but he stops watching as soon as Taehyung kisses the top of Jimin’s head in the middle of their embrace. Jeongguk stills when it happens. How on Earth had he missed it? 

He thinks of Taehyung standing at the pulpit of the church and announcing, head bowed, in front of everyone that he was going away for his “indecency.” He thought that Taehyung, that version of him, was the Taehyung. But now, looking at him and his shared affection with Jimin, it feels like he couldn’t have possibly have it more wrong than he did. We’re not friends.

Jeongguk waits until Jimin walks away, cardigan swaying and the little dog on the leash trotting ahead of him, before approaching Taehyung. When he does, he tries to keep his eyes up from the ground. 

“Hey,” Taehyung greets him. “Ready to go?”

Jeongguk’s eyes, briefly, go from Taehyung to Jimin’s departing figure. When he looks back, Taehyung, seeming to understand the unasked question, shakes his head. Off limits.

“Ready?” He asks again.

“…Sure.”

 

It’s a strange thing to look at someone he knows and to not recognize them at all. It was true that, even back then, he didn’t know Taehyung well enough. He’d always known that they were more acquaintances than friends. Still, he had assumed he knew all about Taehyung, about what transpired with his parents, about who he was. But perhaps that’s what the real danger is in assuming without knowing.

Taehyung takes him to a little tech shop where he picks up a pre-paid phone for 30,000 won. He spends another 25,000 won on a card which, this has to be explained to him more than once, grants him things like minutes and data. Taehyung informs him that, once the data and the minutes run out, he’ll have to buy a new card but it works as a starter phone and especially on a budget. In the middle of it, Jeongguk asks, heart bursting, why Taehyung was helping him at all.

Taehyung thought about it, eyes going toward the ceiling for an answer. “…Don’t make me overthink it, I’ll change my mind.”

Neither of them say anything after that.

Then as they’re leaving the shop, Taehyung breaks the silence again. 

“The first one I picked up here was a flip phone. And that was just a few years ago.”

That’s not really a surprise. 

There was a reason that he’d asked how Taehyung would feel about returning to Raimi on their first visit together. What the rumor mill of the church had churned out was at least partly accurate. It was this side of town, after all, he was in when he got caught the first time. But Taehyung having had a phone? A few years back? 

Jeongguk furrows his brows. “…When you were away?”

They approach their bikes but don’t get on them, choosing to walk as they push them alongside instead. 

“A little before that,” he answers. “I used to…”

Taehyung trails off. When Jeongguk looks over at him, he’s smiling and seeming to hold back a bit of laughter. 

He continues. “I used to hide it in my underwear when I got back home. Gross…But I ran out of hiding places.”

“…On that day,” Jeongguk starts a bit hesitantly. “What did you do?”

Taehyung looks at him and then to the sky starting to darken. His eyes stay there, on the invisible stars, when he speaks again. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Jeongguk nods.

“I don’t think I ever really believed that. Asa,” Taehyung says. The absence of the word ‘Elder’ is more insulting than any bit of profanity he could have used in its place. “He was always…I never liked him anyway.”

Add that to another thing that Taehyung was superior at. Genuine, kind, selfless, and perceptive or, as Heeyeon would put it, in possession of a “fool proof bullshit detector.”

“You know something funny,” Jeongguk clears his throat. “When it happened, I told him he was full of shit. I told my parents, too.”

He almost lets it sleep that he’d said the same to the Kims but he doesn’t know how Taehyung will take it. From his perspective, it could very well look like an attempt to slither into good graces undeserved. 

A quiet laugh from Taehyung, the sound weighing heavy, is the main response. It’s followed only by a quieter: “You weren’t wrong.”

“What about you?” Taehyung asks. “The earth didn’t open up, fire didn’t rain down from the sky, and, what? You came here instead?”

“…I kept coming back here. Even after you — with your parents, you know? I kept coming back to the same place. I think I thought I had to save him or something. But…I dunno, I think of it now and I think I just wanted to be around him.”

Taehyung nods slowly.

“Anyway, when it all happened — or didn’t happen — I came here. I didn’t know where else to go and…I guess I just trusted him to know what to do.”

“And you’ve been staying with him?”

Jeongguk nods, a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth and his fingers itch to reach for the spare key around his neck. “It feels like home.”

It’s quiet for a while. When their eyes meet again, Taehyung is smirking.

“Are you out out?”

“I think so.”

“How long ago did you know?”

“I think I was thirteen,” Jeongguk says after a moment’s contemplation. “And I spent…nine years trying to pretend I wasn’t. Turns out I’m not good at pretending.”

“I don’t know. You’re better at it than me.”

Jeongguk smiles brightly and shakes his head.

“What?” Taehyung asks.

“I wanted to be like you for so long.”

Taehyung looks surprised. “Why?”

“You’re good at so many things and I’m not. And now you tell me that there’s one thing I am better at than you and it’s pretending.”

Taehyung laughs. “…Tell you another secret?”

“Yeah.”

“I think I might’ve known you were gay before you did. I don’t know, you tell me if this is true or not: you liked me at one point.”

Jeongguk is sent back to being twelve years old, of Taehyung being fourteen. How enamored he’d become.

“Am I that obvious?” He asks. When Taehyung simply laughs as an answer, Jeongguk says. “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”

“That you’re obvious? You mean you haven’t been hearing it all your life.”

“No.”

“Well, why’s it coming up now?”

“…You’ve told me two of your secrets so I guess it’s only fair that I share one. The guy I’m staying with. I like him a lot. Like a lot. And everyone tells me how obvious it is, even him,” Jeongguk looks down at the pavement. “It’s the first time, I think, that I haven’t tried to bury it. So, it feels brand new and…really intense.”

“Does he like you?”

Silence for a bit. He wonders what it would be like if that was the case. If Seokjin liked him, if they lived together the way Taehyung and Jimin do, if they had a dog and routines and the glow of love. “I have no idea. I thought he definitely didn’t. But now I’m wondering if he does. And then, when I wonder that, I wonder how that could happen? What would he even…?”

He trails off, at a loss for words. It didn’t make sense no matter how much he thought about it. 

“I think it was the same for me,” Taehyung offers after a long while of saying nothing at all. 

“With…?”

He doesn’t say Jimin’s name, Taehyung giving him that now familiar look. It was off limits. Jimin was off limits. When he seems sure that the name isn’t going to be said, he nods.

“Yeah. With.”

Jeongguk is content to leave it there. Taehyung obviously doesn’t want to talk about his relationship, whatever it was, and he’s okay with that. He’s happy enough to be talking to Taehyung at all.

When he least expects it though, Taehyung goes on.

“I knew I liked him from the start. Even though I kept thinking ‘This is wrong.’ I kept thinking it over and over but I also kept thinking, whenever I talked to him or even just saw him, ‘If it’s wrong, it’ll feel wrong.’ And it never did.”

It’s nice to have it heard in someone else’s words. It puts sense to everything Jeongguk has felt. That push and pull, every time he looked in Seokjin’s direction and felt bad for doing it…but then he always looked back. Because it never did feel wrong. It was as simple as that.

The dusting of orange and pink and purples in the sky reminds him of the moon and suddenly he’s looking up, searching for a crescent. “…Do you feel bad for Natalie though?”

He expects for, maybe, Taehyung’s silence to return, this one full of quiet anger or something of the sort. Taehyung laughs though, louder this time. When Jeongguk looks away from the sky, Taehyung is running his thumb across his chin and still smiling. 

“Jeongguk,” he laughs the name, not looking over. “There is no Natalie.”

And then, as suddenly as the moment had disappeared from his memory, Jeongguk recalls what had been so mesmerizing about seeing Jimin’s handwriting. It was familiarity.

 

As it turned out, Taehyung had more secrets than Jeongguk knew. He had so many questions when they parted, wanted advice for everything, wanted to ask Taehyung how he felt when he first embraced it — liking guys and living in a world that vilified it. But he didn’t. He figured he would have many opportunities to because, before they went their separate ways, Taehyung put his number in Jeongguk’s new phone and told him they’d meet again. Not before adding:

“You’re still not forgiven yet.”

 

 

Jeongguk had memorized Seokjin’s number.

When he was looking for a job, he’d given Seokjin’s number because it was the only one he technically had. He’d written it down on so many applications that it was ingrained in his memory. As he approaches the teal door, he gets an idea and pulls out his new phone. He dials Seokjin’s number, smiling like a fool.

It rings three times. Seokjin answers, voice fuzzy and distant over the phone but still warm and familiar. “Yes?”

“…It’s me.”

He can almost see the quirk in Seokjin’s brows. “Jeongguk? Where are you calling from? You okay?”

“Yeah, I just,” Jeongguk plays with his hands as he tries to contrive a lie on the spot. “I forgot my keys. Could you open the door for me?”

Seokjin clicks his tongue in disappointment but it’s feigned and light. “How soon until you get here?”

“I’m here now.”

Seokjin says nothing. Jeongguk hears shuffling on the other end and then behind the door just before it swings open. Still holding the phone against his ear, Seokjin appraises him with a brand new smile before ending the call.

“I take it you’re not Amish anymore?”

“Stop,” Jeongguk says, grinning. 

In his black dress shirt and black jeans, the only minimalist pieces of clothing in his wardrobe, Seokjin is dressed for work. 

“How long do you have until you go?”

Without looking at the time, Seokjin answers with ‘fifteen minutes’ and pulls him inside. They sit on the sofa, Seokjin almost crowding around him to get a look at the phone. As he takes hold of the phone, he asks, “Did you really lose the key though?”

Jeongguk shakes his head.

“You lied to me?” He puts a hand on his chest, pretending to be shaken. “I don’t know whether to be offended or impressed. No case?”

“I already spent more than I should have but I figured I’d need one. You know, like, if I wanted to look for a second job or…call you, or something.”

“Did you already put my number in?”

Bashfully, Jeongguk nods just as Seokjin runs a hand through his hair. He does it all the time, the action so familiar that when it doesn’t happen, everything almost feels off. Yet, Jeongguk hasn’t gotten used to it, those stray touches always leaving him somewhat intoxicated. It doesn’t help that right now, they’re so close that, if Jeongguk were so inclined, he could simply bow his head forward and press their lips together. While his gaze does flicker to Seokjin’s lips for the span of a second, he knows something like that belongs only his unpredictable bouts of daydreaming.

Seokjin saves Jeongguk’s number into his own phone, files his name under ‘Gukkie’ and opens the camera app. He turns the phone toward Jeongguk, tells him to smile, and takes the picture. He shows the finished result to Jeongguk and asks if he likes it. Once that’s squared away, Seokjin goes back to Jeongguk’s phone.

“Have you taken any pictures yet?” 

“No.”

“Do you mind if the first picture you have on there is of me?”

No.

So, Seokjin extends his arm and poses but not really. He doesn’t have to do much to make himself look like a piece of art, living and breathing beauty frozen in time. All he has to do is take the picture. Jeongguk watches as Seokjin adds the picture to his contact information before handing it back to him.

“There. Now you’re modern.”

Seokjin rises from the sofa, presumably to leave, but Jeongguk stops him with his hand striking out and wrapping gently around Seokjin’s wrist. They’re justly surprised — both pleasantly — at the contact. For, it had always been the other way around. 

Jeongguk looks at where his hand is — right on top of the pisiform — and caresses the bad of his thumb over it. He hadn’t given himself too much time to second guess the action. If he had, he wouldn’t have done it at all. But now that he’s started, he doesn’t want to stop. He wishes he could caress every part of Seokjin just like this. Gently, with all the time in the world.

“Can we take one together?” He asks when their eyes meet again, smoldering.

He’s never seen Seokjin look so delighted and so bashful. He bats his eyelashes, pretends to consider the idea. “Why?”

Unable to put a mask on, mind somehow both gone in familiar fantasies and present with sensuality, Jeongguk can only tell the truth. He’s helpless to reality, unable to pretend. “Because I like seeing us together.”

His smile widens when Seokjin’s does the same, when he reaches out once again. Jeongguk expects for a hand to run through his hair but it’s different. Instead, Seokjin takes hold of a single lock hanging near his eye and, with all the tenderness in the world, tucks it behind his ear.

“That’s the right answer,” he murmurs. 

Seokjin pulls him in, putting an arm around him and preparing to pose. He pauses before holding the camera out, tilting his nose downward until it’s inches away from Jeongguk’s collarbone. Just before he snaps the first picture, he says.

“You smell nice.”

The first one they take is still tinged with the moment that preceded it. Later, when Jeongguk looks back on it, he’ll see the pleasure in his own face, see the surprise, see the nerves, and, even more so, the complete happiness. And he’ll see something in Seokjin he’s never seen before. In the second photo, they both smile. In the third, they wear silly expressions, Seokjin sticking his tongue out and Jeongguk scrunching up his nose. Only three pictures of them together, all stored on Jeongguk’s new phone, and enough for him to marvel at for the rest of the evening (and make the second one his background wallpaper). While he’s lying in bed later, long after Seokjin has gone to work, he’ll stare at the photos with a relieved grin because they fit.

 

 

seven minutes

Aecha is visiting Sacked again, this time during Hyunjoo’s and Jeongguk’s shared lunch break. They took their breaks together, putting a ‘Back in 1 Hour’ sign on the front door, and heading to the break room with whatever sounded good that day. Another reason there was to be grateful to be working with a person like Hyunjoo — she often shelled out for both their lunches. Of course he knew she wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t the only other employee but it still felt nice. Some days, when he can afford to, he repays the favor.

Music is playing again. Punk, uninterrupted, with its thrashing guitars and thunderous drums and screaming that’s meant to be singing. Hyunjoo had reluctantly agreed as long as both The Comes and Crying Nut were left off the playlists. Jeongguk doesn’t really get punk but, almost like with watching Seokjin get lost in disco grooves, it’s always kind of nice to see people enjoy the things they enjoy. Hyunjoo eats her pre-packaged sandwich from the convenience store while Aecha swipes through her phone, nodding along to the latest song. When he’s not looking to the two of them, Jeongguk is doing the same thing, going back again and again to look for any incoming messages. He’d sent Seokjin a text just after he arrived to work. It took a while to contemplate it, to figure out what to say. 

He thought of a simple greeting. Hi. Hello. What’s up?

The fact that they lived together made the whole thing more daunting. In the end, after drafting several attempts and backspacing them away, he sent the second picture they took together. Their smiles small but eyes teeming nothing but the purest of happiness. He wanted to add a question to see if Seokjin saw the way they fit together but it seemed his courage had taken the day off.

Opting for a distraction, he looks toward Aecha, eyes lingering on one of her many piercings.

Since disco night, Jeongguk had become even more enraptured in the look of things. In the glamor of eyeliner, in the statement held in a single necklace, in the lore of glitter. Everything he saw that night, he continued to carry with him. He wanted to be like those people, not to copy their styles but to be confident in having his own. That was the beauty in it. Self-expression. It boggles his mind that the idea of it never occurred to him before. He supposes he should be grateful, for many reasons, that Elder Asa was so notoriously full of shit.

The new thing he’d become fascinated by were earrings. He’d always liked looking at Seokjin’s when he wore them, his favorite pair of crystal quartz studs that turned all different sorts of colors in different light. The admiration had recently grown into a desire. He wanted one of his own.

“Aecha.”

He puts his phone down, opting for a distraction. She only hums in reply, eyes still down on her phone. 

“How much does it cost to get a piercing?”

Almost immediately, she looks up from her phone. He should have mentioned piercings sooner. “Where?”

“…Here, I mean…I’m not gonna go to—”

“Where on your body?”

“Oh…” Jeongguk reaches up and tugs slightly at his earlobe. “Here.”

Aecha sets her phone down and leans forward, taking hold of his ear and inspecting it almost. “You’re gonna pay money to get a needle through your ear? I could do it right here for free, dude.”

“You? Wouldn’t it be better if, like…a professional did it?”

Aecha backs away only to shoot him a look of confusion as she points to the piercing above her eyebrow. “I’m a total semi-pro, I swear.”

Hyunjoo, still turned toward the computer at her desk where she’s finishing up an inventor check, calls out to them. “I wouldn’t trust her anywhere near my body, Bambi. Be warned.”

Jeongguk looks between the two of them. “Have you ever pierced anyone’s ears before? Not just yours?”

“Jeongguk,” she says, sitting down on the table. “Jeongguk, Jeongguk, Jeongguk. I went to an all girls summer camp when I was thirteen. It was the second most gay experience in my life. I spent that summer piercing the ears of every girl in my bunk.”

She reaches for his ear again and asks if he’s really considered it. He hadn’t. Not completely. But he liked the way it looked and he wanted one of his own. There was, of course, the promise he’d made to himself. Unapologetically himself, whoever that was.

“I think so,” he says. “Will it hurt?”

“I’m gonna stab a piece of you with a dull pin, yes, it’s going to hurt. But it’ll look awesome.”

“When can you do it?”

“We can do it now, right?” Aecha turns to Hyunjoo. “Unni, how much time’s left in the break?”

“Less than 40 minutes, if you’re gonna do it, go for it now.”

Aecha shoves his shoulder without malice. “Come on.”

Jeongguk follows her. “Where are we even going?”

“Supplies. Alcohol, needles, a sharpie — all the things that, believe it or not, I don’t carry around in my pocket.”

 

 

They end up having to buy, along with the alcohol, a mini sewing kit that comes with three different types of needles, three spools of thread (one black, one white, and one red), a miniature pair of scissors, and measuring tape. 

“I guess I’ll have to take up sewing,” Jeongguk says when they’re sitting on a bench just outside the convenience store. He’s got both his feet up on the bench, sitting with his legs crossed and the sewing kit in his lap.

“It’ll do you good to have a hobby,” Aecha mumbles. She’s poured a bit of rubbing alcohol in the cap and is holding one of the sewing needles inside. Before she sanitized the needle, she’d sanitized two of her own earrings, tiny silver hoops — one with a crescent moon hanging on the end and one with a coiled snake — with a different batch of rubbing alcohol. ‘When it’s healed,’ she said, ‘I want my earrings back.’

“I have hobbies now,” Jeongguk lies.

“Name one.”

“…Leave me alone.”

When the needle is sterilized — when Aecha says the needle is sterilized — she jumps down from where she’d been sitting, on the back part of the bench and sits in front of him. She instructs him to use one of the cotton balls and swipe his earlobe. They both take a deep breath before she leans in, needle in hand and gripping his ear.

“Hold still,” she says and Jeongguk doesn’t have enough time to even think of a response before the needle is quickly piercing his skin. There’s a little bit of pain, only a little, for half a second and then nothing. 

“That’s it?” He asks.

“That’s it.”

She puts in the snake one first.

Just as quickly, his second lobe is done. They stand from the parking bench, new belongings in hand, and stop in front of one of the shop windows on the street. Jeongguk turns his head from side to side to get a good look at them. He’d feared, as with anything new, that he would end up hating it or that it would look terrible on him. But when he sees his reflection, he’s pleased to find that he not only doesn’t hate it but that, with the earrings, he can think of someone liking him without thinking of unicorns, leprechauns, or God.

Later, when Seokjin sees it, spotting it over dinner, his response is equal parts mirth and intrigue. He bites his bottom lip, eyes it again, but says nothing. It’s the silence itself that stops Jeongguk from asking whether he likes it. Because, for the first time, it’s obvious that he does.

 

 

The next evening that Seokjin has off of work starts off uneventful. They listen to music, they have dinner, Jeongguk has a melon bar and Seokjin has an ice cream sandwich. They shower — separately, of course, brush their teeth, and get into their pajamas. A little while after that, they continue listening to music, Seokjin reading from one his many books while Jeongguk tries to make use of his brand new sewing kit that he’s struggling to have an interest in.

Seokjin closes his book quite suddenly, looking off into space for a moment before looking to Jeongguk and — “Do you wanna watch a movie?”

Jeongguk looks around the living roommate the absence of a television set, before looking to Seokjin again and raising a brow.

“I have a laptop, dummy,” Seokjin closes his book and, as he goes to his bedroom, calls out. “What do you say?”

“Sure.”

The truth was he was beginning to get tired but he was also, for a while now, utterly powerless to all prospects that included A) Seokjin and B) Seokjin’s time. 

Seokjin returns with a laptop and takes a seat next to Jeongguk on the teal sofa, tucking his feet under him. The screen displays an array of different films, posters ranging from bright and happy and sickeningly feel-good to gray and desolate and sickeningly upsetting. They settle on a thriller which, according to Seokjin, is an absolute cult classic that Jeongguk is sure to love. The film itself isn’t scary but it does eat away at Jeongguk’s nerves and leaves him gnawing on his bottom lip and gripping a pillow, the atmosphere of tension and eeriness unsettling him little by little. 

They’re only thirty or so minutes into the movie when his phone buzzes against the coffee table. He doesn’t even look away from the screen. Whatever or whoever it is doesn’t matter as much as finding out what’s going to happen next. His unwavering attention paid to the movie makes it hard to notice anything else. He doesn’t see, for instance, Seokjin’s reaction after his eyes, on instinct, fall toward Jeongguk’s phone where he notices, just behind the notification and the hour, the picture they had taken together. He doesn’t see the way Seokjin’s eyes widen, sparkle, and then lower. He doesn’t see the way he smiles, the way Seokjin starts to look at him. 

What he does notice is when the movie stops playing. He looks to Seokjin who’d paused it suddenly. The softness emanating from Seokjin’s eyes, the warmth behind them, the smile — a brand new one — all amass in something too intense for words. He tries to think back to a time when Seokjin had looked at him like this and comes up short. 

“What is it?” He asks.

“…Stop biting your lip for a second?”

As he releases his bottom lip from between his teeth, his eyes widen a bit in question. Why?

Seokjin’s tone is sweet, low, and gentle when he answers. “Because I can’t kiss you if you don’t.”

What’s it called when one’s heart stops beating and they stop breathing and the blood flowing in their body seems to freeze in its tracks? Oh, right, death.

Jeongguk dies right there. It’s a strange sensation to be frozen in motion but on fire all over. His eyes have gone as wide as saucers, want teeming from them. His breath hastens and, briefly, he looks to the screen as if to tell the film that he no longer had any interest in it whatsoever.

“Is that okay?” Seokjin asks lightly after a moment.

Words, wisdom, and wile have left him to his own devices. He can’t think of what to say, can’t even find his voice if the words were there. He just nods eagerly, licks his lips, and thanks God (?) that he had the good sense to brush his after dinner. 

It’s Seokjin who scoots closer, so close until their knees are touching. Sandalwood mingles with lemongrass. What to do with his hands. All the books he read and none of them told him what he was meant to do with his hands. Seokjin places one hand on Jeongguk’s knee, the other against his cheek and starts to lean in. Jeongguk can feel his breaths flutter against his cheek and he swallows a knot in his throat, trying not to whimper.

When their lips are inches apart, he finds a word. Six of them. “I might be bad at this.”

It all comes out in a rush.

Seokjin grins quickly and reassures him. “It’s the easiest thing in the world, trust me.”

Then, at last, their lips are pressed together. Seokjin’s lips are soft, plump, and warm. Against his own, in his imaginations, Jeongguk always wondered what it would feel like. He had it right, for the most part. What his imagination didn’t account for was the gentleness with which Seokjin would kiss him, how his mouth doesn’t part immediately but when it does, it almost happens in slow motion. How, when both their lips are parted and Seokjin takes in Jeongguk’s bottom lip for a moment, it feels so pure and so exciting. How, after Seokjin tilts his head and briefly licks the inside of Jeongguk’s mouth, he pulls back for a moment just to ask if that’s okay.

Left alone again, Jeongguk only nods and eagerly reaches out to bring Seokjin back to him. He knows what to do with his hands now, keeping them at the front of Seokjin’s shirt and holding on for dear life. He follows Seokjin’s lead, kissing slow and carefully. It occurs to Jeongguk that this way of kissing could be boring to someone who had more experience than him, someone who hadn’t waited as long as he had to kiss the very person in front of him. So, he tries to be more passionate and the only way he can think to do that is with more tongue.

He’s only a few seconds into his new method when Seokjin laughs and, as he does, breaks the kiss. He cups his other hand against Jeongguk’s cheek and kisses his chin softly. 

“Too much tongue,” he says. “See…”

He trails off when he rejoins their lips and repeats the slow rhythm, tongue nipping at Jeongguk’s and then caressing it. Jeongguk closes his eyes, head moving in tandem with Seokjin’s. He moves one his hands from the front of Seokjin’s shirt to his shoulder and deepens the kiss without becoming lewd. 

Too soon, Seokjin pulls back again, this time with Jeongguk leaning forward and trying to chase his lips. When he realizes the kissing isn’t going to continue, Jeongguk opens his eyes to see Seokjin biting his lip and looking at the computer screen. 

“That bad?” He asks.

Seokjin shakes his head, thumbs at his ear again. “No, it just — it seems like a bad idea, right?”

Jeongguk deflates. He was afraid this would happen. “Because I’m a Virgo?”

Seokjin snorts into a little laugh and shakes his head again. “No.

“…Then, why? I liked it, I mean…Did you not?”

“No, I did. I’ve wanted to do that for a while.”

“Probably not as long as me.”

“Definitely not as long as you,” Seokjin looks to him and laughs at his expression. He reaches his hand over and plays with Jeongguk’s sleeve. “Well, because…you’re living here rent-free and, if we bring this into the mix, it complicates things. I don’t know, it feels like I’m taking advantage of you—”

Jeongguk groans in disbelief. “Come on,” he says. “You know you’re not. You…you’re definitely not.”

Seokjin seems to consider it but only for the shortest moment. He closes his laptop and stands to his feet. “Just…if we’re living together like this, it might not be a good idea.”

Jeongguk doesn’t whine although he wants to. He looks down at the carpet, mouth — which is likely a bit pinker than normal — open slightly. He starts to bite on his lip again. “If that’s what you want.”

He can almost hear the pity again, this time in the silence instead of Seokjin’s voice. “Good night, Jeongguk.”

“…Good night, love.”

He doesn’t look up to see Seokjin’s reaction but he waits until goes to his bedroom to retreat into his own. For a while, he’s too buzzed to go to sleep. The shot he took at disco night paled in comparison to the intoxication he was feeling now. As he lays in bed, tossing and turning, he lips and bites his bottom lip over and over, falling into — not reverie now — memory. In ways, he supposes, kissing Seokjin was a mistake. Because now that he’s done it, he’s going to think about it even more than he was before. 

Hours into the night, he doesn’t know for how long, but he still can’t sleep. He looks at his phone, considering how pitiful it would look for him to send Seokjin a text. What would he even say? It wasn’t right for him to get Seokjin to reconsider or to try and force him into something he was clearly hesitant about. God, why did Seokjin have to kiss him at all? 

At 2 A.M., he gives up on sleep and gets up from bed. If he couldn’t sleep or stop thinking, the least he could do was wallow in his pity with the aid of a frozen dessert. He opens his bedroom door expecting darkness and silence and, instead, comes face to face with Seokjin whose hand is balled into a fist, prepared to knock on the door. They share one long, quiet look and suddenly, as if they were living magnets, pull their bodies together and kiss again. Seokjin was right about the kissing coming natural and, as they kiss, Jeongguk thinks to himself that if it really was wrong, it would feel that way. 

And it doesn’t.

His mind is in the moment but also wandering. From Now they’re the Kissing Couple to unicorns and leprechauns to the future, theirs if they had one. When he pulls away to catch his breath, while their foreheads are touching, Jeongguk murmurs: “I wanna raise a dog with you.”

Seokjin’s thunderous, jovial laughter cuts through the quiet. “What?

Chapter Text

skin

It turns out that the world does end and it ends more than once. It ends at least three times in a single day. It ends every single time Seokjin kisses him, the gentle caresses against Jeongguk’s skin — be they on the back of his hand or the side of his neck — serving as the signs to Armageddon. A fire the size of the earth starts up each time Seokjin leans in and, by the time their lips are together, the world is alight with skyscraper flames. Once their tongues are grazing, once they can taste each other, Jeongguk sees the beauty in scorched earths and the charisma in cataclysms. Each time they make the world end, it’s always rebuilt anew by the time it’s over. When they part, their mouths still clinging to each other the slightest and their eyes finding one another once again, the world becomes a utopia. Better and purer and safer than it was before they kissed. 

Jeongguk thinks the reveries should have stopped by now, that kissing Seokjin for real would have ceased them in their tracks but they persist in their cruelty, arriving to him in the most unexpected moments. From a logical standpoint, it makes sense — the more one has, the more one wants. The more they kiss, the more Jeongguk will think about it. It doesn’t help that now they kiss so often, it’s almost become a routine at this point. It was easier not to think about them before, to force himself into reality because the prospect of them together was so fantastical that it was always hard to believe in anyway. But now, it’s real. And if there’s anything he’s learned since the onset of his new life, it’s that there’s nothing harder to escape from than reality.

Now, what he revels in are memories. He’ll dwell over glints of affection and warmth, fixate on all the little ways Seokjin will touch him. He plays them over and over in his head. How sometimes, when they kiss, Seokjin’s hand will settle onto the back of his neck. Or how other times, his hand will cradle Jeongguk’s cheek, thumb brushing over his skin. Jeongguk’s favorite , also the rarest, is when Seokjin, just as lost in the moment, puts his hand in Jeongguk’s hair. No matter the action Seokjin takes, no matter what way he chooses to caress him in the midst of it, Jeongguk’s stomach always flutters and flips and fizzes like shaken soda. He still doesn’t know what to do with his hands beyond holding onto Seokjin’s shirt or one hand, no nerve for both, on his shoulder. He wants to touch more of him, wants his hands to wander but he fears that if he was to give in, to caress him all over, Seokjin would awaken from whatever hypnosis he’d fallen under. Jeongguk would touch him and Seokjin would pull away as if touched by fire then realize suddenly that he was kissing No One.

When they’re kissing, Jeongguk doesn’t want to stop. He only thinks about it after the fact — that bliss he feels when they’re together is what he’d spent most of his life trying to run from. The bliss is so intoxicating that, when they’re in the middle of it, he doesn’t even want to break apart for air. When Seokjin’s lips are on his, Jeongguk thinks he could drown like this, die like this, and he would be happy. When they aren’t kissing, like now, Jeongguk longs for it. He bites his lip, runs his fingers across it, props his arm up and rests his hand against the side of his neck just to see if he can make himself feel the way Seokjin does. Though he knows better at this point, he still makes an effort to not be obvious so when he checks the time in the middle of restocking the ‘Self-Love’ section, he does so subtly.

“Got somewhere to be?” Hyunjoo asks. 

“Sorry?”

She eyes him briefly then proceeds to restock. “You keep looking at the clock. Do you have a secret second job I don’t know about?”

Jeongguk looks at the time again. “No.”

He agreed to stay later than usual so they could stock up on the new material before tomorrow. But he thought staying late meant that’d leave around 4 o’clock or maybe, if it ran later, 5. But it’s nearing 6 o’clock and they’re still here with a few boxes to go. He can feel himself starting to vibrate. The urgency has everything to do with  Seokjin’s work schedule. If he leaves here any later, there won’t be any time for them to kiss before Seokjin has to go to work.  

But then there’s no guarantee that Seokjin wants to kiss him right now anyway. It’s been a few days since they started their soiree and they’ve moved at the same pace. In more ways than one, they’ve quite literally done nothing but kiss. For Jeongguk, it’s the world. For Seokjin though…he wasn’t sure. For all he knew, Seokjin had long grown bored, perhaps he’s moved on already, perhaps it never meant anything to begin with. How can he be sure they’d end up kissing anyway? After all, he doesn’t even know if they’re…a thing. They have yet to talk about it.

Hyunjoo’s already suspicious. “If you have to be somewhere, don’t let me keep you.”

“No, I said I’d stay so I’ll stay.”

“Mm-hmm. Well, keep the sulking to yourself.”

“I’m not sulking.”

“You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, Bambi. I thought we established this.”

No, they hadn’t. But he can’t say it doesn’t make sense. His only response is a shrug. She’s the one who continues.

“How’s that going for you anyway?”

“What?”

“…Do you want me to say it or you going to run away?”

He sighs. “I don’t get why you know everything.”

Jesus, I don’t know everything. You have him as the background on your  phone. If anything, you told me.”

“…It’s going. I like fire.”

She snickers. “I’m glad.”

“You are? Why?”

“Seeing you gloating is better than seeing you moping…Again: if you have to go—”

“No, I don’t have to.”

Later, when they’re all finished up, his actions contradict his words as he rushes out of the door without saying goodbye. If he had lingered even for a moment, he would have heard Hyunjoo’s laughter and would’ve felt even more silly than he already did. Still, he pedaled back home so fast that his thighs burned. He didn’t slow down to catch his breath, didn’t slow down for anything. By the time he wheeled into the complex, he’d broken into a slight sweat and hoped that he would at least have time to run a damp washcloth over it before they kissed again. 

When he gets to the apartment, before he can get the key from around his neck, Seokjin has opened the door and is standing in front of him. Dressed for work, keys in hand. Jeongguk pants heavily and gnaws on his bottom lip, doing his best not to appear as disappointed as he feels. The sound of him trying to catch his breath is, for longer than he would have liked, the only sound between them. 

Seokjin looks him up and down, holding back a laugh. “Honey,” he says after a moment. “Don’t tell me you rushed all the way here just to plant one on me.”

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. “Okay.”

“…’Okay,’ you didn’t or ‘okay,’ you did?”

“‘Okay,’ I won’t tell you.”

Seokjin smiles, looks down at the time on his phone, and steps aside so Jeongguk can enter. “I have fifteen minutes.”

Jeongguk’s heart leaps and he steps inside, forgetting about the key, forgetting about the sweat, uncaring toward anything that isn’t this. This being Seokjin leaning forward, Jeongguk grabbing the front of his shirt, and them kissing deeply. He doesn’t stop kissing Seokjin, not to watch his step, not even as he’s toeing off his shoes. He completely forgets about the door until he hears it close, until Seokjin gently pushes him against it and then all he can pay attention to is how well they fit together. How Seokjin cradles his face and kisses him so softly that he feels like he could shatter otherwise. It’s one thing to feel broken. It’s one thing to feel as if one is breaking. Shattering, the threat of shattering, feels different. It makes him feel soft in all the right ways.

Seokjin licks at his bottom lip and Jeongguk quickly — hopefully not too eagerly — parts his mouth for him. Each pleasured sigh he releases is one Seokjin inhales. Flutter, flip, fizz. He wants to be as bold as Seokjin is, wants to surprise him, make a move that isn’t one Seokjin usually makes first. So, he raises a shaking hand and slowly settles it against Seokjin’s cheek.

Seokjin hums, pleased and surprised. He pulls away. The action startles Jeongguk and he remembers the feeling of fire, remembers the threat of No One. He quickly removes his hand but Seokjin returns it to his face, keeping his hand against Jeongguk’s and ensuring he won’t stray. Then he opens his eyes. 

“That’s nice,” he murmurs, the words trickling over Jeongguk’s skin.

“Yeah?”

“Hmm. I had half a mind you didn’t want to touch me.”

“…You want me to touch you?”

“Only if you want to.”

“I want to.”

“You’re not just saying that, are you?”

Jeongguk shakes his head, leaning forward slowly. “I’m not,” he mumbles against Seokjin’s mouth before capturing his lips again. The kiss is chaste, over as soon as it began. “I want to.”

They kiss again, the world burning itself brand new. Seokjin moves one of his hands up, fingers dancing along Jeongguk’s tresses and onto his scalp. If he hadn’t broken himself into being wary of how easily excited he became, he would moan at the sensation. He liked having Seokjin’s hands in his hair. Sometimes, he thinks about the neighbor with the thrown egg and how, if not for his aggression mixing badly with Jeongguk’s persistence, he never would have felt this. 

Their tongues meet and Jeongguk thinks of it as a dance. A slow dance. On their second kiss, Seokjin said it was like a massage. Don’t think of it as a wrestle, he said, sighing into Jeongguk’s mouth and making him dizzy. Make it soft. It’s soft now, their chests flush against each other. He can faintly feel Seokjin’s heartbeat against his own. There’s a rhythm to it.

His hand finds a button on Seokjin’s shirt. He plays with it idly, wondering, in the back of his mind, what it feel like if he could feel their heartbeats together completely. If they were skin against skin. Suddenly, he wants to touch Seokjn. Not to that effect, not just yet. But to, at least, feel the warmth from his bare arms, bare chest, feel him without veils or layers. He almost tugs at the button in question but then Seokjin is pulling away and, again, Jeongguk follows his lips. 

There’s a few seconds of darkness. Jeongguk waits to open his eyes, waits for the new world to settle in, bites at his lip to get one last taste of Seokjin’s tongue. When he does open his eyes, the first thing he takes note of is how fondly Seokjin is looking at him, how his face is flushed and his lips pinker. How he’s the one responsible. 

“Fifteen minutes?”

“Nine,” Seokjin says. “I think. If I stay any longer, I might not leave.”

Don’t leave then, Jeongguk wants to say, almost says. He nods. “Yeah.”

Seokjin smiles at him, kisses him again. “Goodnight, love.”

His heart is still pounding when he steps away from the door so Seokjin can get his shoes on and leave. It’s still pounding when, long after the door’s closed, he drops down on the sofa and exhales elation, falling back against the cushions and hugging a throw pillow to his chest. As he curls up, burying his face in the pillow and trying his hardest to hold back his smile, he feels himself hardening. This was, to him, the only downfall to ‘making out’ with Seokjin, the way the excitement of it always left him sitting on his hands and trying to envision grandiose tragedies to make himself soft. It was, more than anything, annoying. He chooses to ignore it, rising from the couch to retreat to the bathroom where he can shower the sweat from his body and go to sleep. And then, at last, be visited by dreams that bring more fervor.

In the bathroom, he peels out of his clothes, especially careful with his pants which graze against him for the briefest moment, pulling from him moans of pleasure. He bites his bottom lip hard when it happens, holds his breath and steps out of the pants slowly. Once the clothes are off, his erection springs free and he stares at is as if it’s the first time he’s seen it. Almost in a trance, his hand draws toward it, fingers brushing across his shaft. It’s the slightest bit of contact and it almost sends him into a tailspin. 

He had only touched himself once, a long time ago. It was impressive to him still that he managed to go so long without doing it once he found out it was a sin. It didn’t matter how hard he would get (when he least expected it), how deep his desire ran, he always had it in him to keep a level-head. An idle mind, after all. But now, his resolve was fading. Still.

He yanks his hand away, turns the shower on and waits for the water to get hot. When the steam is unfurling from behind the curtains, he steps inside, closes the curtains, and distracts himself with keeping clean. Since disco night, he’s bought more of the sandalwood soap. He, for one, liked the smell and it was only a bonus that Seokjin seemed to like it as well. When they sat close, he would sometimes hear Seokjin take a little whiff of it and he would smile as discretely as he could. 

What felt the best was when Seokjin would do it obviously, when he’d settle into the crook of Jeongguk’s neck and rest his chin there or nose against his clavicle. Or how, when they kissed, Seokjin would hold his body against Jeongguk’s. Or how…

Oh, did he just get harder? Was that even possible?

He shuts his eyes, groans, and stands there under the water without moving. Then without grace, practice, or finesse, he grabs hold of himself and gasps. That’s all there is for a little while, just holding it without moving. Then, he moves his hand. Little strokes first, up and down, up and down. Shuddering, he leans forward, holding onto the shower wall for support as his strokes grow more desperate, as his mind fills with all sorts of images: he and Seokjin kissing, he and Seokjin holding, Seokjin alone and in just his robe, Seokjin alone and in nothing at all. Them together. 

He rolls his hips forward, mouth opening as he lets out the faintest of moans, as his hand rubs against him, squeezing. It doesn’t take him long at all. His toes curl, his body convulses, and he watches as spurts of white fall onto the shower floor and circle down the drain. 

 

 

The matriarch and patriarch of the Kim family have frequented Jeongguk’s thoughts lately. The more time he spends with Taehyung, presumably the real Taehyung, the more he wonders if his own parents had any idea who their son was. Whether they knew, for instance, that he liked his hair longer than he had worn it — been allowed to wear it — at home or that he listened to psychedelic music or that, most important, he was truly in love. He doubted it. The more time they spend together, Jeongguk also notices how relaxed Taehyung has become. In his memories, prior to their reunion, Taehyung didn’t seem like he was high-strung or tense or stressed. But he looks at him now and sees all the telltale signs of distress he didn’t notice before. Now, Taehyung breathes without looking over his shoulder first. 

They’ve met in a boba shop this time. Two cups of green and purple, matcha and taro, sat between them. When they meet ike this, Jeongguk is always careful not to speak unless spoken to. The rules of their non-friendship have yet to be spelled out in certain terms but he’s come to understand them all. The biggest rule, the one that would end any chance of them becoming actual friends should Jeongguk break it, was that all Jimin talk was off-limits. Sometimes, if he was careful, he could sneak in an inquiry about Jimin and, as long as he didn’t say his name and as long as Taehyung was in a good mood, it wouldn’t all go bust. The second rule was that neither of them was allowed to show up unannounced at the other person’s place of employment, not without at least texting first. The third rule, one that Jeongguk had given to himself, was that when they met, he would remain silent until Taehyung wanted to talk.

There were times when Taehyung wouldn’t say much of anything. They would sit in the eatery of their choosing, perusing menus and picking at their quick bites, without either of them saying a word. It seemed that, at least sometimes, Taehyung didn’t so much want to talk to anyone or about anything as much as he just wanted some company. It was an easy thing for Jeongguk to understand, to make sense of, because he often felt the same way. The silence, particularly their silence, doesn’t come bearing gifts anymore. He’s grown comfortable with its presence. And yet, still, when Taehyung does choose to break the silence, the sound of his voice brings relief. 

“Why do you work at a sex shop?”

This is the question Taehyung chooses to end the quiet with. Jeongguk chews at his boba, looks away at the other patrons in the shop but none of them look the slightest bit interested in him. He looks back to Taehyung, barely meets his eyes before landing on the tabletop. 

“’S not a sex shop.”

“…Okay. Why do you work at a sex bookstore?”

“Because they were hiring, Taehyung. Why else?”

“Do you get paid proper?”

“You mean, like, for the work I put in? I don’t know. It doesn’t always feel like work. She could probably pay me less.”

“No, I mean…is she paying you under the table or what?”

“Oh. Yeah. She is.”

Taehyung hums, takes a sip of his boba. “Me, too.”

“Do you like working at the thrift store?”

Taehyung looks at him oddly and then laughs a little. “Of course, I don’t. But, you know, we can’t really afford to be picky. Have to make up for lost time.”

Time wasn’t the first thing Jeongguk thought of when he fell into periods of self-loathing, when he thought back to who he was so sure he was. He would still get angry at himself for the things he used to believe in, angry for the things he did to himself. It was rare for him to get angry with his parents. Thinking of them never failed to fill him with the deepest, sharpest kinds of dread and sorrow. The intensity of those two emotions didn’t allow room for fury or even disappointment. But now that Taehyung has said it, he does feel a little angry. When he thought of his parents, he thought only of what they didn’t do, never what they did. And the fact was that they did stifle him. They took from him not only freedom but experience and, most importantly, time. It’s only when Taehyung says it that he realizes that’s precisely what he’s been doing since The End was postponed: making up for lost time.

“I’m trying to get a place to live before the year’s up,” Taehyung says and sighs. “But it’s hard.”

Jeongguk nods. So far, working with Hyunjoo and being paid 8,000 won per hour for mostly 7-hour shifts for five days a week, Jeongguk had made a decent amount of money. Although he has yet to begin his search for apartments in his price range, he was beginning to suspect that he had more than enough money to put down on a cheap one-room studio somewhere. The problem for him, thanks to Seokjin’s kindness, wasn’t saving money. It was the issue of ‘somewhere.’ He didn’t know where his new apartment, should he find one, would even be. He didn’t know how far away it would end up being from Casi Cielo. It was easier not to find out.

But he still agrees. “Saving money is tough.”

Taehyung shakes his head. “No, saving money is easy when you’re in our position. We don’t have anything yet. That also means nothing to pay for. Starting all over is what’s hard.”

It isn’t until then that Jeongguk realizes what Taehyung has said. He does a double take, shaking his head and furrowing his eyebrows. “No, but…wait, I thought you lived with Ji—”

He cuts himself off, clamping his lips shut when Taehyung’s eyes fall on him. He nods, understanding. Off-limits. 

“Sorry,” he mutters. One of these days, when they’re close, when they do become the very friends that Taehyung is so sure they aren’t, he’ll ask why Taehyung puts all talk of Jimin in bubble wrap.

“…I don’t live with him,” he answers after a while.

Jeongguk says nothing but his face must give his confusion away.

“Jeongguk, don’t you think you would have run into me sooner or later? If I had been staying with him the whole time? You said you were staying there.”

“I am.”

“Well? You would have noticed, surely.”

He’s split between himself, wanting to ask and wanting to be quiet. “I’m…Can I ask?”

“Ask what?”

“It’s not about him, okay? But…if you — I thought you guys were together.”

“We are.”

“So, why aren’t you living with him?”

“Have you always been this nosy?” It’s a legitimate question, one that Jeongguk could easy fold under but Taehyung asks it with a levity that he doesn’t deserve. “Look, I’ll say this much: I care about him.”

That much was obvious.

“And,” Taehyung continues, a quiet storm starting to brew in his expression, an even mix of concern and fondness reserved for someone else. “When we move in together, I don’t want it to be because my parents kicked me out and I had nowhere else to go. I want it to be a thing. You know?…Like I ask him one day and he says yes and we decorate our new place together. I want it to be right. Do you get it?”

He partly does and partly doesn’t. But he supposes the only reason he can’t understand it completely is because he’s been spoiled by spending so much time with Seokjin, sleeping under the same roof as him, eating every meal together that if he had to do it any other way, he’d probably break. Not shatter.

Jeongguk nods again. “…You like talking about him.”

Jeongguk.”

“I’m just saying. It…if you do, why don’t you want to talk about it?”

He only asks because he wants to tell Taehyung things about Seokjin, wants to tell him everything. He has questions on questions for Taehyung, every time Seokjin does something that he doesn’t completely understand. Every time his heart skips a beat, falters, and falls to his stomach in the best way, he wants to ask Taehyung about it.

Taehyung seems to think about it, shrugging his shoulders and taking another sip. His answer, though the words are scathing, comes out mild. “I don’t trust you is all.”

“…That’s fair.”

“I know it is,” Taehyung says softly. 

“…Is it okay if I talk about relationships then? I mean, mine?”

“Knock yourself out.”

“Okay…So…How do you know if you’re dating someone?”

The storm eases into sunshine that radiates from a single grin. Taehyung shakes his head, cradles his face in his hands while laughing. “Is asking out of the question?”

 

 

maltese

They did did nearly all the things that people in a romantic relationship would do. They made meals for each other. They held hands, this even before his accidental confession. Seokjin rarely used his name, often relying on endearments. ’Honey,’ ‘Sweetheart,’ and ‘Love,’ terms appointed for an infinity not yet on the horizon. And now, they were kissing. For all intents and purposes, their coupling should be apparent and expected. 

But then again, there was the Aquarius.

Jeongguk hadn’t seen the Aquarius prior to that night and he hasn’t seen him since. This didn’t bother him. What did bother him was the not knowing what that meant for Seokjin, whether it meant that, for him, their kissing was casual and easy. It wasn’t a stretch. Seokjin has experience and life and the status of being Someone, all things that Jeongguk is still clamoring to get a hold of. For Jeongguk, a kiss means the end of the world. For Seokjin, it could mean little or, worse, nothing at all. A while ago, Seokjin had told him, almost in passing, that relationships were messy. Back then, he didn’t know what that meant. But it’s becoming clearer with each passing day.

The apartment is empty by the time he comes back. It’s only after he sits with the emptiness that he decides he will, like usual, wait until the early hours of the morning for Seokjin’s return. Except this time, when Seokjin walks in, instead of retiring to sleep, Jeongguk will greet him and the two of them will talk. He has to know whether — if and how and to what destruction — the world ends for Seokjin when they kiss. 

If they were dating, boyfriend and boyfriend, what did this mean for him? For them? The idea of it made Jeongguk’s stomach turn in both good and bad ways, mostly good. He wanted this to be the case. People who were dating hugged and kissed and confided in each other. They trusted each other and accepted each other and held each other up during the most heinous and tumultuous of hours. They kissed and they touched and they loved. He wanted all of that with Seokjin, of course. Had since that second day when Seokjin tilted his head at him, cupped his cheek, and Jeongguk thought he was the cutest person alive.

But it still made him ache. After all, one doesn’t unlearn a lifetime of lessons in a short span of time. In the back of his mind (where he often pushed the thought when it came to him), he wondered if he was sinning. If there was a God and there was an End and he was going straight to Hell for his transgressions. 

By the time Seokjin does get back, stepping in quietly at two in the morning, Jeongguk feels as though he’s been burning bright at both ends for eons.

Seokjin flinches when he notices him sitting in the dark. He sighs heavily, hand clutched to his chest, and whispers almost harshly: “I’m too young to die of a heart attack, what’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says back lamely.

It isn’t until he stands to his feet, makes his way over to Seokjin, and embraces him that he realizes how deep his relief is. Silence wasn’t the problem, really. He could handle the silences, comfortable ones, with Taehyung and with Seokjin and with Hyunjoo. What he could not handle was Solitude and Silence together. It was like being attacked. With his arms around Seokjin’s waist and his chin on his shoulder, the defenses start to go down. He’s not alone, he can rest. He sighs into Seokjin’s shirt. 

“Sorry,” he says again. 

He pulls back from the embrace to greet him properly, planting a hesitant and somewhat awkward kiss on the corner of Seokjin’s mouth. It might be the first time he initiates the gesture and perhaps that’s why he falls back on his heels with his face flushing.

“Are you okay?” Seokjin asks. His eyes are tired but his presence isn’t. Even in slumber, Seokjin likely had the ability to make sparks fly.

Jeongguk nods. “How was work?”

Raising a hand and half-rotating his wrist, fingers fanning out, Seokjin looks away from Jeongguk in search of an answer. “It was — what’s the word? Laboring.”

He brushes his thumb against Jeongguk’s chin.

“Why’d you wait up? Don’t you have work in the morning?”

“I do, yeah.”

Seokjin clicks his tongue. “You should have gone to sleep.”

“Maybe, but I, uh — I wanted to talk to you.”

“Mm, if you must,” Seokjin takes his hand. “But can I lay down while you do it? I’m dead on my feet and corpses shouldn’t be standing up. It’s unnatural.”

Jeongguk doesn’t move, not even after Seokjin starts to step away from the door. It’s Seokjin who stops, hand still around Jeongguk’s.

“We don’t have to,” he says. 

“No,” Jeongguk replies. “No, I want to. We can…lay down.”

“Oh, God,” Seokjin groans and continues on the way to his bedroom, Jeongguk trailing behind him. “You’re making it a big thing.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Lies, my love. Lies.”

Stepping into Seokjin’s bedroom now feels different than it did the first time. Now, Jeongguk looks at the bed, a low-sitting platform with cotton white sheets that look as soft as clouds accompanied by a crown-shaped upholstered headboard (light pink in color), and it looks bigger than it did before. Now, he’s going to lie on the mattress. Now, he’s going to lie under the covers. With Seokjin. Now, he can’t think straight.

“Get comfortable,” Seokjin says, unbuttoning his dress shirt and shrugging it off. The white undershirt clinging to his frame and tucked into the waistband of his slacks provides Jeongguk a relief he didn’t know he needed. If not for the shirt, his heart might have stopped at that very moment. “I’m gonna shower and then we can talk, okay?”

Speechless, Jeongguk simply nods. He looks at the bed, goes to sit on the edge.

“You’ve showered, right?” Seokjin asks suddenly.

“…Yes.”

“Good. No one’s allowed in my bed without showering first, that includes me. I’ll be back.”

With the pacing of a tortoise, Jeongguk settles onto the mattress and tries not to make it “a big thing.” After he hears the shower start up, he pushes his hands down flat against the duvet, making imprints. It feels as soft as it looks. He runs his hands across the sheets and imagines all the nights Seokjin has spent in between them. Alone. With Someone. Sleeping. Reading. Watching a movie on his computer. The thought of a life so full nearly brings tears to his eyes and he balls his hands into fists before they can fall.

He stands. The bed feels heavy. He goes to the dresser instead and looks closer at some of the pictures he’d spotted the first time he came in. The first one makes him smile and he reaches for it, bringing the frame closer. It’s a picture of Seokjin in a cap and gown with a bouquet of flowers cradled in one arm and his degree in another hand. He looks the same. Younger, cheeks rounder, eyes not mirroring the smile on his face. Next to him, holding on tight, is an older woman in a floral print dress shirt and a jean jacket. Her curly gray hair is short and her eyes, Jeongguk notices, look like Seokjin’s. Her smile is just as big as his but she looks as though she’d been crying minutes before the picture was taken.

He sets the picture down in its rightful place and goes on to the next one. This photograph is older, grainier. He immediately recognizes the child in the picture, in jean overalls and a yellow t-shirt, as Seokjin perhaps aged three or four. He looks like he’s on the verge of tears but he’s adorable. He’s surrounded by two people with their arms around him, a man and a woman. They’re wearing the biggest smiles, probably in the midst of a laughing fit, and they look proud with their crying bundle of joy. Seokjin’s parents. The smile Jeongguk had been wearing fades and he sets the frame down immediately.

The other pictures don’t get much of his attention afterward. He spots a few, some of Seokjin with Heeyeon and Jiyoo, some of the gray-haired woman. But he doesn’t touch anymore of them. He reluctantly sits down on the bed once again and all he can think about is the absence of Seokjin’s parents in his graduation photo. He wonders what it must have been like for Seokjin then, to have been so young when his parents decided they didn’t want to be part of his life. It distresses him to realize that Seokjin probably has all kinds of wounds under all the layers, all kinds that haven’t been licked clean.

Seokjin soon returns to the room and is in the middle of buttoning the last few tops on his pajama shirt when he looks at Jeongguk. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Why do you look like that then?”

“This is just how I look.”

Seokjin wiggles his eyebrows but doesn’t push it, only crosses the room and plops down on the bed with a content sigh. His eyes flutter closed as soon as his head hits the pillow. Jeongguk watches him relax with a bit of an ache in his chest. Without presenting himself the opportunity to overthink it, he reaches for Seokjin’s hand and plays with his fingers. If the act bothers Seokjin, he doesn’t say so. He doesn’t even open his eyes, only stretches his hand out as Jeongguk navigates the lines in his palm.

“Seokjin?”

“Hmm?”

“…you’re happy, right?”

“Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?”

“It is now.”

Seokjin exhales, adjusts his position against the pillows. “Sure, I’m happy. Why?”

How does he explain it? How does he say it without it sounding desperate and unreal and pitiful? How does he say that he wants Seokjin to be in a good place, to be content with life, to not be hurting deep down because the idea of him hurting makes Jeongguk hurt. Because he wants Seokjin to be happy and he needs to know if he’s not because maybe he could do something to change it. He doesn’t say anything though. He looks down at Seokjin’s hand again and presses his thumb into the palm, kneading back and forth and in little circles. 

“Ah, that’s nice,” Seokjin cracks an eye open. “What’s the occasion?”

Jeongguk shrugs. “Just ‘cause.”

He busies himself with sinking into Seokjin’s hands, working out all the work put into them.

“Just ‘cause,” Seokjin echoes, voice delicate. 

Jeongguk doesn’t look up for a while and when he does, he finds a gaze on him. Through half-lidded eyes, fatigue blurring the intensity, Seokjin looks for the question that Jeongguk doesn’t want to ask. Jeongguk looks away almost immediately. It always excited him, knowing that Seokjin could read him so well even after such a short amount of time. But now it felt unnerving. He could blame it on the bed or on the intimacy or on the fact that they’ve long since breached the easiness of acquaintanceship. Whatever the reason, it made him more vulnerable than before.

Seokjin takes hold of him and pulls Jeongguk’s hand toward himself. Jeongguk follows the action, watching as his hand gets closer to Seokjin’s mouth and faltering when a kiss is planted on the back of it. The breath Jeongguk releases is a trembling one. Seokjin still holds onto his hand, keeping hostage and holding it against his face as he watches the younger.

The magnets return and, soon, Jeongguk is drawn forward. With his knees still planted on the mattress, he leans to Seokjin and kisses him tentatively. The only sounds he can hear are their soft exhales and the rush of his heartbeat. Once that first kiss is said and done, he pulls back only hair’s breadth away to gauge Seokjin’s reaction but he doesn’t get to see it because Seokjin pulls him back, letting go of his hand to pull him in by the collar of his shirt. Then the destruction begins. An earthquake when their lips touch again, a tsunami when their lips part, a comet when their tongues meet. 

Jeongguk sighs into Seokjin’s mouth when the kiss deepens, when their tongues slide against each other and he can taste every part of him. He shivers when Seokjin’s hand slides from his collar, fluttering down his neck, dancing across his collarbones. It’s dizzying, being this close to him. He hasn’t gotten used to the way it makes him feel. Like he’s drunk and floating and nothing else matters.

He’s disappointed when Seokjin pulls away but neither of them go far. 

“Lay down with me,” Seokjin murmurs against his mouth then kissing his cheek briefly. “If you want to, of course.”

A moment’s hesitation, barely a moment, and Jeongguk leans all the way down, lying on his stomach, half on Seokjin’s body and half on the mattress. He stretches his legs out under him and slots himself into Seokjin’s side. It’s surprisingly comfortable given the position, lying almost diagonally across the bed. There’s not long to dwell on it when Seokjin’s mouth returns to him, hands going to his favorite place and curling into his hair.

It’s different with their bodies partially pressing together like this. It’s different laying down. He can feel Seokjin’s heartbeat thundering into his own, forcing the two rhythms into synch. It puts different images in his mind. The world ends, yes, but the skies also open and lavender scented honey drops down like rain. The drops cling to him, clings to them both. Lavender honey drenching their bodies and gluing them together. And it should probably hurt but it doesn’t. It feels like bonding, like becoming one.

The air is hot and heavy by the time he realizes what great heat is pooling into his stomach. He pulls away from Seokjin then, swallowing hard as his breaths catch up to him. He stares at the mattress as he takes note of just how hard he’s gotten. He sighs, embarrassed and can’t meet Seokjin’s eyes when the older asks him what’s wrong.

“…”

“…this isn’t going to work if you don’t talk to me, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk looks up then. He knows what it means. Not that just kissing won’t work, not that anything after that won’t work. That they, the unit, the couple, the whatever they might have been on their way to becoming, would not work. Not if Jeongguk kept everything inside. 

“Don’t call me that,” he says softly.

“I can’t call you by your name now?”

“You can, it’s just…I just prefer it when you don’t.”

“What do you want me to call you then?”

Jeongguk barely smiles, looking away. “You know what.”

“Fine,” Seokjin says with a smirk and takes a deep breath as if preparing himself. “Love,” he says and smiles wider when Jeongguk blushes. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s embarrassing,” he answers and that seems to be enough of an answer for Seokjin because he looks down. He can’t see Jeongguk’s groin from their position but he figures it out. 

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Seokjin murmurs. “Really…It doesn’t mean we have to go further, not if you don’t want to. It doesn’t mean we have to stop if you don’t want to. It’s not a bad thing.”

Jeongguk nods, taking it in. “…Can we just…can I just lay here with you? Is that okay?”

Seokjin nods, humming his affirmation. And so Jeongguk lays down, resting his head on Seokjin’s shoulder and laying an arm across Seokjin’s stomach. They lay there in silence, the comfortable kind, breathing in and out each other’s presence, soaking it in. Both their eyes closed to the world but wide open to each other, they each feel like they’ve stumbled onto a new territory. A shift happens only when Seokjin takes hold of Jeongguk’s hand, slotting their fingers together and resting their union over his chest.

“…Tell me about your grandma,” Jeongguk says after prolonged quiet. 

“My grandma? What kind of segue…?”

“You talk about her a lot. I mean, maybe not a lot. But more than anyone else.”

“Do I?”

“Mm. She warned you, you said, about boys like me.”

Seokjin’s chest shakes up and down with laughter, slightly rocking Jeongguk with it. He welcomes the motion. “That does sound like the kind of BS I’m privy to spouting. Um, I don’t know. She’s something else…Remember when I told you about my dad?”

Jeongguk’s stomach sours and he doesn’t think he could mask the despondency in his voice if he were to speak so he only nods. 

“He wanted me to sleep outside for three days. But I only made it one. Because the next day, he told my grandma — his mom — and I think, for him…it was supposed to be this moment of, I dunno, ‘Look, Ma, I can discipline my kid’ or maybe he wanted her to think highly of him for putting a stop to me liking guys. Whatever it was, he told her. Like he was venting about it as if she was going to take his side…And she lived far from us, you know? It was always a big thing when she came to visit. So, imagine my surprise when that night, as I was getting ready to sleep outside again, I heard her pickup truck.”

Jeongguk’s chest lightens. He smiles a little into Seokjin’s shirt.

“She didn’t waste any time either. I heard her car door slam and I heard her walking around the house. I wanted to get up and go to her but I was scared, I think. When she saw me, she grabbed me by the hand and she made me get in the truck. She asked me if I was okay, she patted my cheeks, you know? How grandmas do…She told me not to move and then she went inside, cursed out my parents, and grabbed a bunch of my clothes out of my room. Then we were gone.”

“…Did you see them again after that?”

“Meh. Here and there, never good. Every time I saw them after that, I would tell myself that nothing changed and it was still going to be a shit show. And, yet, still…I got my hopes up. I think I was lucky though…for having her, you know? She couldn’t have cared less. I could tell her if I liked someone at school and she would listen and she’d kind of, you know, coo about it. But she’d always tell me to be careful, she’d tell me not to tell the person how I felt. Not because she thought I should be ashamed but because she knew how people were and she was terrified that I would get hurt. That someone would hurt me. But she still wanted me to be who I was. Not a lot of people have that.”

Jeongguk holds Seokjin a little tighter. “I wanna meet her. I’d like her…Can I?”

“…When we’re there, yes. She’d hate you though,” Seokjin raises his eyebrows — What?— when Jeongguk looks at him, alarmed and concerned. “The whole Virgo thing,” Seokjin says as if it’s supposed to be obvious. “She’s really into astrology. But she’ll get past it…We’re not there yet though.”

“…Where are we then?”

“What do you mean?”

Jeongguk nearly rolls his eyes, resolving himself to play with the fabric of Seokjin’s shirt. “I mean, like…am I, you know…?”

“Pretend I don’t.”

“…Am I your boyfriend or…whatever?”

“Do you want to be my boyfriend or whatever?”

“Yes. But…I don’t want to be a bad one. And I haven’t — I mean, I’ve never been one. So, I might be a bad one. I like you a lot and I think you deserve a good one. But I don’t want you to be my boyfriend if you don’t like me back. Do you?”

“This again?” They look at each other, Jeongguk raising his head so their eyes can meet properly. “Honey, you would not be in my bed right now if I didn’t.”

Heat flushes Jeongguk’s cheeks and he dips his head back down, burying his face in Seokjin’s chest. His words are muffled when he asks: “So, you like me?”

“Oh my God,” Seokjin laughs loudly. “How do I say this in a language you’ll understand?” He quiets, perusing his mind.” …Ah. Maltese poodle.”

Jeongguk’s eyebrows bunch together. “What?”

“If we raise a dog together, I want a maltese poodle. Okay?”

Realization settles and Jeongguk blushes furiously, thankful for the cloak their position provides and trying not to smile so hard that his cheeks hurt. “…When.”

“Hmm?”

“When we raise our dog. You said ‘if.’”

There’s a smile in Seokjin’s voice when he responds. “Confidence is a good color on you…We should get some rest.”

“You’re right,” Jeongguk starts to sit up, ready to return to his room.

“You can sleep here, dummy. I like being the little spoon but I’m willing to make an exception tonight.”

“Can I be the little one?”

Seokjin looks as if he’s disappointed, almost pouting, and Jeongguk swears to himself that he’ll be the big spoon for the rest of his life if it makes Seokjin happy. 

“…Okay,” he says. “But next time—”

“I’ll hold you. I promise.”

The smile Seokjin grants him with is a new one and Jeongguk smiles back. The world isn’t ending again but it’s purer already.

 

 

girl, invented 

Waking up the next morning felt unreal. 

There was no hum of the fish tank, no darkness apart from it. There was warmth that wasn’t his own in a bed that wasn’t his own. There was an arm over his waist, hanging in front of his stomach. There were short breaths tickling the back of his neck and legs tucked under his. He trailed his fingers up and down Seokjin’s arm and held the hand against his stomach, closing his eyes and listening to the rhythm of Seokjin’s breathing. Then he, with a kind of reluctance he’d never been privy to, dragged himself out of bed to get ready for work.

Before he left, he fed the fish and made coffee, dark roast, and peeked into Seokjin’s bedroom to catch one last glimpse of him holding onto sleep.

All throughout the day, that image sits with him as does the feeling of Seokjin’s arms around his waist. At random moments, in the middle of stocking, in the middle of eating lunch, he’ll think of the previous night and smile at the ground. Everything around him had started to move at a slower, easier pace. The colors of the district were soft and pleasing to the eye. Every song he heard, both to completion and in pieces, sounded like heavenly bodies. And all the rude customers and the tiny inconveniences paled so small in comparison to the bliss he was feeling.

For a split second, he thought of Eternal Damnation and thought of what the Congregation would say if they knew he spent most of the night kissing a guy. He thought of Hell and of Paradise and how he didn’t know which one he was going to. And then, just as suddenly as the thought arrived, he was able to laugh it off because, as it was, he had the key to Heaven hanging around his neck.

The work day ends soon and still not soon enough. When he finally clocks out, gets his bearings, says good night to Hyunjoo, he’s already envisioning what kind of destruction tonight’s kisses will bring. He’s bristling in excitement, immersed already in the would-be. He doesn’t notice Taehyung waiting for him across the street and is only pulled out of his thoughts when Taehyung whistles at him.

After Taehyung has ridden up to him and their bikes are side-by-side, he hits Jeongguk with a fact that makes him feel nothing but dread. 

“Jimin wants you to come over for tea.”

It can’t be, Jeongguk thinks, that he, the person who read extensively about the punishment allotted for wrongdoers, whose skin went cold at the idea of hearing a final trumpet, who was so caught up in the threats of the Underworld, was afraid of a guy who wore cardigans. But he is. Perhaps, a little, at least. On edge.

He swallows hard. “Um…I can’t.”

“I didn’t even tell you when.”

“When?”

“Like, now.”

“I can’t,” Jeongguk sighs, feeling as anxious as ever. 

“You have somewhere to be?”

Jeongguk especially hates this, how difficult it is for him to tell bald-faced lies. If it was easy, he’d be lying all the time. “…No, but—”

“Jeongguk, you are not about to stand up my boyfriend.”

“I’m not?”

Taehyung smirks at him. “He just wants to talk to you.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“…If you’re really that uncomfortable with it, fine. But he was looking forward to it. And I thought you could play with Berry Baby.”

“What’s that?”

“My dog. Berry Baby.”

“…That’s not fair.”

“I know,” Taehyung says and heels the kickstand down. “Let’s go.”

 

It’s all too soon when they get to the orange cream building. How many times had Jeongguk rode his bike down this path and how many times, he wonders, had Taehyung been there. He wonders if Taehyung or Jimin ever saw him riding by, whether they saw him enter and leave the subdivision, whether they ever thought anything of it. Of him.

He almost asks Taehyung but his throat is too dry. 

They stop in front of the building, prop their bikes up against the lamppost on either side and enter the building. It’s the melding of two worlds once again, watching Taehyung run up the stairs and circle round to the apartment. Two worlds that should be separate, together. Fantasy in reality, reality in fantasy.

He’s only beginning to corner around the steps when Taehyung gets the door open, keys rattling in his hand. The door opens to the sound of music and tiny barking. Taehyung looks to him.

“Come on.”

He doesn’t wait, stepping in and calling out Berry Baby’s name. When Jeongguk gets closer to the door, he smells something sweet wafting out. Like cookies. He stands by the door for a long time, considering how fast he would have to run home before Taehyung realizes he’s gone. In the end, he takes a deep breath and crosses the threshold. The cookies, still baking in the oven, clash a little with the rose-scented incense in the living room but it’s somehow welcoming.

It’s only slightly different from the layout of Seokjin’s apartment, the placement of the living room and the kitchen are flipped. The biggest differences consist in the taste, how vastly it differs from the oddities in Seokjin’s apartment. Jimin’s is put together in a way that’s almost uniform. The walls are white, possibly the same color they were when he first moved in, and covered in pictures. Pictures of people: family and friends, pictures of things, pictures of nature. The couch is a soft blue and in front of it, the white coffee table has an open book on it and a porcelain tea set. Three small cups atop small saucers, lilac and turquoise in floral print. One of the first thing he really takes note of is the TV mounted on the wall and the old movie playing on the screen.

Atop some of the tables are pure white candles of all shapes and sizes, some burnt down to their last light and others still untouched by fire. There are, too, crystals like the one Jimin wears around his neck. Some big, some small, all different colors and all giving off the kind of sacred energy only exuding from holy places. On the windowsill sits three different flower pots, the same flower growing beautifully from each one. The same blue lily bent toward the sun. 

Stepping into Jimin’s house feels, again, like stepping into an entirely different world. 

The sounds of tiny scraping against the hardwood floor catches Jeongguk’s attention. He turns toward the corridor just in time to see the same dog he’d seen before trotting down toward him. The black Bichon Frise wags her tail as she makes her way down. It isn’t until she’s a few inches from Jeongguk’s feet that he realizes her eyes are set on the door. Reacting fast, he turns back and shuts the door before she can escape. 

With her plan ruined, Berry Baby sits down at Jeongguk’s feet and looks up at him with big watery eyes. Jeongguk smiles at her.

“Hi, there.”

She steps closer to him and whines. Jeongguk bends over, hands stretching out toward her.

“She’s setting you up.”

Jeongguk freezes. He looks to the corridor again and Jimin’s walking down with a tray of langues de chat. He looks annoyed with Jeongguk already and Jeongguk, half out of his mind, thinks he should apologize before he remembers who invited him here in the first place.

“She’s really good at manipulating people, that’s why I keep her around.”

Jeongguk looks to Taehyung who, in lieu of waving a dismissive hand (which he can’t courtesy of the kettle he’s carrying), shakes his head and smiles as if to confirm that, yes, Jimin is joking. 

“She is tricking you though,” Taehyung adds as he sets the kettle on the coffee table next to the tray of cookies. “She’s smelled the cookies and she knows we won’t give her any so you’re the last chance she has. Don’t fall for it.”

As if she’s heard the conversation, Berry Baby whimpers, tears her pleading eyes away from Jeongguk’s and goes back down the way she came, tail literally between her legs. 

“Ah,” Taehyung turns on his heel and picks the dog up, cradling her in his arms and kissing the top of her head. “Don’t be a scrooge, Baby,” he looks to Jeongguk as he plays with the dog. “If I don’t fuss over her, she’ll go sulk in her bed.”

Jimin sits down in one of the chairs aligned to the sofa and starts pouring tea in each of the cups. “Jeongguk?” He calls. “Sugar?”

“Um, sure. Yeah.”

“How many?”

“Whatever’s fine.”

Jimin eyes him briefly then goes back to the tea, lifting the container from a small jar and taking out two cubes of sugar. He drops them into one of the teacups and slides it over to Jeongguk. He then tends to the remaining two cups, one of which gets no sugar and the other which gets four. Without even looking at him, Jimin passes the four-sugared cup to Taehyung then sits back in his seat with his own cup in his hands.

Jeongguk waits. He looks to Taehyung, to Berry Baby preening under his attention, and then to Jimin who’s still watching him. Caving under the gaze, he changes his focus to the television.

“What movie is this?” He asks.

Good Morning,” Jimin answers, turning back and looking at the film. “I just got this TV so…I thought it’d be funny.”

“Funny?”

“It’s about two kids who make a vow of silence until their parents buy them a TV.”

Jeongguk nods, unsure of what to say and looks down at his tea. Its bright red hue transfixes him for a moment, the strong strawberry smell wafting out. He thrums his fingers against the side of the cup, wondering if this new silence is as awkward for them as it is for him. 

“So…?” He says after a while. “Nice place.”

“Thank you. How do you like living here?”

“It’s, yeah, I like it. People are nice. It’s colorful.”

“You plan on staying here for good? Or are you just kind of feeling it out?”

Jeongguk takes a sip of his tea to buy himself time. He doesn’t know the answer to that. He says as much when the seconds are up. He looks again to Taehyung for a fleeting moment, accepting that Taehyung had no intention in taking part in this conversation. After all, he did say, point blank period, that Jimin was the one who wanted to talk. 

“I’m trying to save up now,” he says. “Then I’ll look for a place of my own, I just don’t know where yet.”

“Have you started looking at places?”

“Not yet.”

“Is it okay if I give you a little advice? Read the fine print carefully and pay attention to your landlord’s behavior before you sign anything.”

“…Thank you,” he says it as if it’s a question. “It’s nice to be meeting you like this. Like…I don’t think we’ve actually had the chance to talk before.”

“That’s why I wanted you over,” Jimin nods. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I should apologize, actually. I didn’t know you were that Jeongguk until after the fact. If I did, I would have said a lot more to you when we met.”

“Good things, I hope?”

“Not all, no.”

Jeongguk looks at the TV again, feeling himself starting to sink. 

Jimin sets his tea down and, in the same motion, pushes the tray of cookies closer to Jeongguk. “Help yourself. They’re fresh.”

Hesitant, with hands shaking, he takes a single cookie from the tray and takes a bite. Whilst he’s mid-bite, mind really only partly focused on the sweet taste and partly focused on how Jimin’s stare is so intense, he feels as though he could burst into flames. It’s here that Jimin chooses to get to the point of it all.

“That night,” he starts but is quickly cut off by Taehyung who says his name half-whining and half reprimanding. Jimin looks to Taehyung, eyes gleaming. “You have a right to know, don’t you?”

They watch each other for a few short moments, engaged in a silent conversation. Then Taehyung turns to Jeongguk, gaze partly apologetic and, somehow, uncaring at the same time. He looks down at Berry Baby and cradles her close to his chest, kissing the top of her head and resting against her fur. 

“I won’t be the one to do it,” Jimin says quietly. 

And, this, Jeongguk really has to listen out for, straining his ears because Taehyung’s voice is so quiet, so willowy when he asks into the fur of the dog: “Jimin wants to know why you didn’t let me in that night. Why you didn’t try to help.”

Jimin narrows his eyes at Taehyung for a second and the short gesture lasts long enough for Jeongguk to surmise that it wasn’t just Jimin who wanted to know, that, possibly, he didn’t want to know at all. But the way his expression toward Taehyung softens also tells Jeongguk that Jimin was willing to let that be the case if it meant Taehyung could get the answer he wanted.

Jimin turns away and looks at Jeongguk again. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way because, believe me, I’m not trying to be cruel. I just think…I don’t want you…”

“Just say it,” Jeongguk says.

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt again,” Jimin says all at once. “There.”

“…I locked the door,” Jeongguk says when the quiet becomes too heavy. He looks at Taehyung. “When you came by that time…I locked my bedroom door and I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t really think about it, I just did it. When I realized you were outside, I thought about ignoring you but I didn’t want to be a bad friend. Ironic, right? Then I went to the window and then, well, you know everything after that. When you were gone, I kept thinking about it and I kept thinking that I did the right thing. Don’t get me wrong, I felt guilty. Because I was guilty, I am. But, still, I was convinced that I did the best thing I could have done and I don’t know why I thought that.

“But then…I remembered locking the door. Why I did that. For a while, I couldn’t remember but when I think about it now, I think I knew the last place you should have been was with me. Before I knew what happened with you, my dad, he…He was really mad at me,” Jeongguk swallows hard, looks down at his fists and he presses his nails hard into his palms. “Angrier then I’d ever seen him. He heard about you being here and everything that happened. I think he thought I might have played a part in it, that I knew about you or that I was the guy you were with. He didn’t do it but he was going to hit me. At least, I think he was…I was really scared, Taehyung. I never saw him like that before. I still feel like I should have done more to help but, if you want to know the truth, I think I did the right thing not letting you in.”

The muted air grows thicker after that. 

Jeongguk bows his head, grabs at the back of his neck and sits his elbows atop his knees. He’s never been on a plane but he knows that this is what flight attendants tell passengers to do if the plane starts going down. Bracing for impact. 

To the floor, he adds: “I didn’t know what he’d do if he found you in my room. So, I locked the door and I didn’t let you in…I should have helped though. And I’m sorry.”

It hurts in ways he couldn’t have fathomed, to relieve that night, to remember his parents at their most and remember what it was that sent him away in the first place. It wasn’t just that the world didn’t end, not really. It was that he knew, even if he didn’t know he knew, that he wasn’t safe there. He couldn’t be safe with them. That night, when his father raised his fist toward him, Jeongguk thought, to no uncertain degree, that, surely, his father wouldn’t hit him if he didn’t ‘really care.’ He knows now that that simply wasn’t true, that he had tried to protect himself from the ugliness of reality, from the ugliness of what he, for so long, didn’t acknowledge as abuse.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, voice breaking.

When he feels hands come down on either side of his face, he expects to raise his eyes and see Taehyung but he, instead, sees Jimin. He almost recoils backward but Jimin holds him there, bringing their foreheads together and closing his eyes. From behind Jimin’s hair, Jeongguk manages to meet Taehyung’s eyes at least partially and sees him smiling back with a watery gaze. He nods. Jeongguk nods. They see each other.

Out from Taehyung’s arms, Berry Baby wiggles onto the floor and trots up to Jeongguk’s feet. She stands up on her hind legs, her front paws settling on Jeongguk’s knees and she sits her chin down on top of them. She, like Jimin, closes her eyes.

A single tear rolls down Jeongguk’s cheek as his smile widens and he breaks into an easy laugh. 

 

 

He sits with them for a little bit of time after that. They drink the rest of their tea, eat their cookies, he gets to play with Berry Baby who does, in fact, try to guilt trip him into sharing some of his cookies with her. When it’s time for him to go, Jimin bids him goodbye and does so with a newfound easiness that wasn’t before there. Taehyung takes his bike and rides with him to the end of the subdivision. They take their time, practically wheeling in slow motion.

“Taehyung?”

“Hmm?”

“What was that about?” Jeongguk asks, gesturing behind him without lifting his hands from the bars. “The forehead thing?”

“Oh,” Taehyung smiles a little, zig zagging his front end. “Jimin’s very spiritual, into chakras and auras and all. I thought he was a witch or something when we first met. But the forehead thing, it’s a good thing. It means he’s recognizing a closeness to you. Like, he understands you. Get it?”

“Not really. But I’m glad.”

“Me, too…I hope it didn’t seem like we were trying to ambush you, it’s just — I wanted to know and he, well…”

“He wants to protect you,” Jeongguk says. It’s so easy to see it now. “No, I’m glad we got to talk about it. I feel like…I don’t know, I’m just glad.”

The wheels of their bikes, scrubbing against the concrete and rolling over the odd chunk of gravel, is a quiet hum in comparison to the roaring wave of Jeongguk’s relief. He didn’t realize how much it affected him, not knowing where he stood with Taehyung, not knowing what they were. It feels easy now. He feels happy.

”You’re still not forgiven,” Taehyung says. “I just can’t stay mad at you.”

”Lucky me. Why’s that?”

”Because,” he sighs, “at the end of the day, you and I had the same upbringing. I can’t be mad at you for doing something I probably would have done.”

There wouldn’t have been much of a choice for either of them, Jeongguk knows that. The teachings of Asa were clear. But he struggled to imagine Taehyung doing anything like that.

”...You would have let me in,” Jeongguk says.

A new quiet, ample with ease and relief, falls between them until—

“…I’m staying with his parents,” Taehyung says suddenly and the relief grows. There, peeking out from behind the words, is trust. “They don’t live far from here.”

“His parents? Isn’t that a step farther than living with him?”

“Not really,” Taehyung looks at him quickly, seemingly trying to gauge whether it’s really worth it to tell. He concedes, exhaling. “I used to stay with them a lot back then.”

“Back then…? You mean, you’ve known Jimin since—”

“Since I was sixteen. Jeez, Jeongguk, whose hand do you think I was holding?”

Jeongguk isn’t surprised but a part of him kind of is. He shakes his head in semi-disbelief. “Why Natalie?”

“Once they sent me away, boys were off limits. Every single boy. They thought I would somehow end up trying to kiss one of them. Girls were off limits too. Because they thought if I spent too much time with them, I’d somehow, through osmosis or something, be even gayer,” Taehyung laughs. “There was either complete solitude or nothing. I thought we’d have to say goodbye to each other for good and I did. Week one in solitude and I got a letter from someone named Natalie and I knew it was him.”

“And what about the picture you showed me?”

“Ah…Story for another time.”

 

 

bare

 

Seokjin coils a finger around the Key to Heaven later that night. They’re kissing again, this time in Jeongguk’s room. It had happened without much of a plan, as most of their encounters of late. They had dinner, dessert, played a bit of a card game and then, Seokjin said he was going to bed. The only plan in store was for Jeongguk to follow him there after getting his pajamas for the night. But, in the midst of trying to decide what discounted sports jersey he most preferred to sleep in, he was surprised by Seokjin returning to the room just to give him what was meant to be a simple kiss.

It was becoming more and more obvious that, for the two of them, simple was an impossibility. For, now, they were sitting on top of the bed and caressing and kissing and inhaling each other’s exhales. Every now and then, they pull back from each other just to say something — most of it nonsensical — and then they’re back to bringing on the end of times.

“Mm,” Seokjin hums on his tongue, the hand on the side of Jeongguk’s face settling onto his shoulder as he pulls away. “Is this a new fashion statement?”

He’s asking about the key. 

Jeongguk licks his lips. “Maybe. Do you like it?”

When Seokjin doesn’t say anything, only smirking a little, Jeongguk leans into to reunite their mouths just as Seokjin turns his head. He ends up planting one on his jawbone and, though it should probably embarrass him, all it does is remind him of something he’d so long ago forgotten.

“I like the sentiment of it,” Seokjin says, still twirling the key around. “I just don’t think copper’s your color, honey.”

Jeongguk is, admittedly, barely listening. His mouth is open, eyes dazed and half-lidded as he tries to meet Seokjin’s lips again. But Seokjin, and this, too, is becoming clearer with each day, has a thing for teasing. He pulls away, to the side, little by little each time Jeongguk almost captures his mouth again and his smile brightens each time.

Jeongguk sighs, only smiling when Seokjin laughs at his expense and asks a feigned innocent ‘What?’

“What is it?” Seokjin asks again, letting go of the key and cupping Jeongguk’s face. “What are you trying to do?”

“Forget it,” Jeongguk says as if he doesn’t care but he does. Almost too much.

He swallows down a sigh of relief when Seokjin kisses him again and, instinctively, his arms go to wrap around Seokjin’s waist and he could hold him like that for the rest of the night. But he thinks of the layers and their heartbeats and his hand nears the hem of Seokjin's shirt. He holds it there, heart in his throat, as he waits for some sort of sign to tell him he's not in over his head.

Still kissing him, Seokjin nods, reaches back and gently, slowly, guides Jeongguk's hand under his shirt. The warmth is almost overwhelming, the softness of Seokjin's skin. Jeongguk's hand quivers as he slides his palms up and down the warmth, navigating new territory. His hand wanders to Seokjin's ribs, to his back, and to his waist again.

Again, Seokjin breaks. “I like that," he murmurs. And adds: "I thought you were getting ready for bed.”

“You distracted me.”

“It’s really your fault for being so easily distracted. I’m innocent.”

They kiss again and this one is cut short because the idea returns to Jeongguk. He thinks of the moment he was first pushed out of this apartment, the kind hand on his chest and the flick of Seokjin’s wrist as he waved him out. How, even then, he was struck by how close Seokjin’s neck was to him. He parts from the kiss, staying close to Seokjin’s mouth, eyes still partly closed. 

“I’m teasing,” Seokjin utters softly, thumbs circling his cheekbones. 

“I know,” Jeongguk bites his lip again. He sighs. “Can I, um…can I kiss your neck?”

He can feel Seokjin sit up a little straighter, can almost feel the vibrations of anticipation fluttering within. He strokes his hand against the small of Seokjin’s back and waits for an answer. Seokjin’s eyes, now darker and somehow warmer, meet his and he nods without saying anything. 

Taking his time, Jeongguk kisses Seokjin’s chin first. Then his jawbone again. Seokjin tilts his head back just as a sweet close-mouthed kiss is pressed to the side of it. Two identical sighs of pleasure and then another kiss, this one down lower, just above his collarbone. It’s almost a moan, the sound Seokjin makes, not quite but close. It’s louder than a sigh and it spurs Jeongguk farther. He starts to open his mouth a sliver, leaving wet kisses up and down Seokjin’s neck and then he blows against them. Seokjin pulls back from him, slipping from his grip. His eyes are just as dazed when they look at each other. He straightens out his shirt and looks to the fish tank.

“You didn’t like that,” Jeongguk says. 

“What? No. I loved it, I want you to do it again but,” Seokjin sighs and nods to the fish tank. “She’s judging me.”

Jeongguk looks to the fish tank and expects to find nothing but Donna Summer is, indeed, front and center and seemingly looking right at them. She stares a few seconds longer before swimming to the other side of the tank. He has never, in all his life, seen a fish behave that way. Maybe Seokjin hadn’t been exaggerating. 

“I name her Donna Summer,” Seokjin says, “and she thinks she’s all high and mighty. What I should do is change her name to Anita Ward. That’ll put her in her place. Come on.”

Seokjin stands and outstretches his hand. Jeongguk takes it. As the two of them leave the room, hand in hand, Jeongguk feels so alive.

“Where’d you learn that blowing technique?” Seokjin asks.

“I read it in a book.”

“Mm. One day, you and me are gonna sit down and you can show me all the things you’ve read about.”

“I’d like that,” Jeongguk smiles.

Chapter Text

speculum rosa

God had existed primarily in words on sacred pages, in the fearful quiet home to empty churches, and in bleeding bodies posed above pulpits. To meet Him, one only had to be pure in mind and body and to undoubtedly and uninhibitedly believe. And for quite a while, for Jeongguk, belief had yet to manifest. 

It was true that he paraded around his devotion to God before he could even understand what God had meant to him, if anything at all. For a long time, he didn’t know Him or understand Him. He used to think he started to when he was ten, the year he started to pray for patience (the one thing a believer should never pray for) but now he isn’t so sure. He may have only just come to know True Belief a few days ago when, in the middle of the night when he was close to dozing off, Seokjin turned in his arms to face him. Being the big spoon was easy and he’d gotten somewhat used to it. Somewhat because it was admittedly hard to get used to the luxury of having Seokjin in his arms. Feeling the warmth from his body, the way his arms, wrapped around Seokjin’s waist from behind, rose with every breath Seokjin took. These things, the observations he’d make long after Seokjin had gone to sleep, were impossible to get used to. 

Things like the way Seokjin breathed, stomach ballooning out, and how sometimes the inhales and exhales stopped for a fleeting, terrifying moment. During the minutes when Jeongguk lied awake, this typically long after Seokjin had fallen asleep, that suspended moment of nothing never failed to fill him with terror. He grew up thinking of grand Ends and Cataclysms and Death, so much so that even now, the idea of death arrives to him often. The moments when Seokjin stops breathing, even if just for a split second, fill him with the worst kind of macabre scenarios. And in that tiny moment, his life is dreadful and bleak and his chest feels like it’s numb and fissuring to nothing all the same. Then, Seokjin inhales sharply and his breathing returns and Jeongguk thinks, without fail, ‘I could love him.’

 Sometimes, sleep evaded Seokjin. It would, no matter how much fatigue Seokjin was feeling, become a fish and Seokjin a desperate fisherman trying (and failing) to catch hold of its wiggling, slippery form. So, when he turned around to face him, Jeongguk thought it was one of those sleepless moments. That Seokjin would shuffle a bit, turn back around and try to sleep. Maybe he’d give up and go to the kitchen to brew a pot of lavender tea and wait for the sleep to overtake him. But Seokjin wore a tired smile, eyes heavy-lidded as if he’d been on the brink of sleep when he remembered something that couldn’t wait.

His fingers slipped from between their bodies and he trailed his fingers over Jeongguk’s eyebrow, down his cheekbones, and settling on the corner of his mouth. His eyes did much the same, trailing over Jeongguk’s features in the dark.

“Hey,” he whispered.

“Hey,” Jeongguk echoed back. He smiled and drew tiny circles on Seokjin side. 

“…How do you feel about this?”

“This?” Jeongguk looked, as much as he could, down to where Seokjin’s hand was still against his face and looked back up. 

Seokjin shook his head. “No…About us, what we’re doing.”

It was really a loaded question to ask and Seokjin, somewhere deep down, had to have known that. Jeongguk could have rambled. He’s quite good at that, after all. He could’ve gone on about how happy he feels to get off of work and come home to Seokjin, to be able to call it home, to be able to call him home, how he feels giddy when they’re just holding hands or eating dinner, how when he looks up at the night sky now, he sees diamonds in place of stars. 

Instead, he answered: “I like it.”

“You don’t think we’re rushing things?”

Jeongguk quieted, unsure of what to say. He didn’t know much about relationships but he felt like that question was the beginning to a break-up line. Though he knew little about love (is that what he was calling it now?), he knew all too much about doubt and Seokjin was teeming with it. His chest lurched and he opened his mouth to say something, going quieter when he realized he couldn’t think of anything.

“I don’t want you to feel,” Seokjin looked away from him, just behind him as if searching for the right words. When he found them, he looked back to Jeongguk, cradled his face and got closer. “Pressured. I don’t you to feel pressured. Or rushed or—”

“I don’t feel like that.”

“Maybe not now…”

“No, not at all…Do you not want to kiss me anymore?”

“God, no, I like kissing you…I just want to be sure that you like kissing me. That you want to be, you know? Because…it gets tricky when it’s like this.”

Seokjin didn’t have to explain what ‘this’ meant but he did.

“I’ve been screwed around by too many people who aren’t sure of who they are and I don’t—I don’t mean you’re unsure, just that if you’re not, you know, if you don’t know how you feel about us, we should slow down. We shouldn’t try to define it otherwise…let’s say we have sex and then you realize you don’t like this as much as you thought you did, I just…I could do without getting hurt. Either of us. I don’t want to call it anything if we’re not sure what it is.”

Jeongguk didn’t know how to say it without, again, sounding too earnest or too pitiful. He didn’t know if it would be an ignorant thing to say, didn’t know if it would be too sincere and whether its sincerity would drive Seokjin away. But what was sat on the tip of his tongue was the promise, the confidence that he would never hurt Seokjin. He was incapable of it. But he thought better of it and settled for holding Seokjin closer. 

“…Okay,” he said without meaning it. “…Do you think I’m fickle?”

Seokjin shook his head, a little wrinkle growing in the middle of his forehead. Jeongguk had the strongest desire to kiss it away but he refrained. “I just want this to be great for you, that’s all.”

He learned then that, in the middle of the night, when Seokjin was sleep-deprived and full of too many thoughts, he was surprisingly vulnerable. It seemed uncharacteristic in a way but Jeongguk, too, understood that he still had plenty to learn about him. That was the most exciting thing, he suspected, that he only knew so much about Seokjin and loved everything about him. He had much more to learn, much more to love. 

Seokjin’s show of vulnerability felt identical to what it was to be able to hold him, to kiss him: a luxury that Jeongguk was certain he did not deserve. Even more so, it touched him that, of all the things that could have kept Seokjin awake, it was the question of Jeongguk’s happiness that staved off sleep. He knew he cared about Seokjin and he knew that Seokjin, to some very small degree at least, cared about him. But that night, it all felt different. 

He nodded too, head against the pillow and then pressed a chaste kiss against Seokjin’s mouth. “I can go slow,” he murmured against it.

“Good.”

“…Does that mean we have to stop kissing?”

Seokjin laughed hard, the sound of it squeaking in the quiet bedroom as his head fell forward onto Jeongguk’s shoulder. 

“No,” he said, pressed a kiss to Jeongguk’s collarbone. “Never.”

And then they kissed again, less chaste and all too passionate for it to be followed by slumber. Then, without much of a fuss, Seokjin smiled at him, stroked his thumb against Jeongguk’s bottom lip, turned around and put his back against Jeongguk’s chest. After that, it was Jeongguk who was left awake, thinking of what it now meant to take things slow.

 

 

Prayers for patience were frowned upon because a prayer for patience was merely a prayer for tribulation in a cheap disguise. Whether prayer was real or just another placebo, Jeongguk is still thankful for the time he spent pleading for it because knows that, if he’d been a person so easily perturbed by the dragging nature of time, he wouldn’t have made it this far. 

It didn’t occur to him, how much he wanted Seokjin — yes, in that way — and how long he’d waited for it. Before he even realized he was waiting, before he even thought they had a fighting chance. He wanted Seokjin more than he could make sense of, more than he could say, more than he could bear. Apart from the obvious fact that Seokjin was attractive, beyond, and had a constant air of sensuality about him, the other element is that Jeongguk never allowed himself to be who he was. Now that he’s free to be himself, with every little thing, he allows himself, he finds it harder to hold onto resolve. 

First, he was kissing Seokjin’s lips. Then, he was kissing Seokjin’s neck. Now, lately, he really wanted to kiss Seokjin’s shoulders, his stomach, his back, and, desperately, his thighs. It was like something in him had gone off, exploded in a way. If one spends enough time denying a release, the release comes whether they’re ready or not. It doesn’t just break, it bursts like an old dam. Just as overwhelming, just as dangerous. Oh. Seokjin was right about ‘boys like him’ after all.

 Still, it’s not as if he’s in any way dissatisfied with what they have. Quite the opposite. The simple act of holding Seokjin’s hand sends him on a tailspin, makes him feel like he’s breathing the purest air, living without need on cloud nine. When he wakes up to Seokjin in his arms or when they have breakfast together, he thinks his chest could burst from too much elation or that his face will split into bleeding halves from smiling too hard. He likes Seokjin so much, he worries if it’s too much. This is obvious even in his fantasies. Because when he thinks of being with Seokjin, he thinks of kissing him in places he hasn’t yet, of discovering new places to touch that make him sigh. 

He doesn’t think, not with nearly as much frequency, of what Seokjin could do for him as much as he thinks of what he could do for Seokjin. How he could hold him, how he could please him, how he could get him to make more of the sounds he slips out when Jeongguk kisses up and down his neck. If he was ever in a position where he had to explain his current desires to his old self, he would explain it like this: Seokjin’s body was a deity and Jeongguk only wanted to worship it.

But waiting isn’t tedious. 

Technically, he’s waiting now, his hand in Seokjin’s as the two of them navigate the organic produce section of the Raimi District’s small grocery center. There are other couples like them that they pass every now and again and, with each couple, Jeongguk becomes filled with glee. Part fit was because, after so much uncertainty, he felt that perhaps he was with his people, after all. Perhaps he did have a community. The other part is the excitement, the relief that he and Seokjin can hold hands here and if someone looks at them, it’s never because ‘A gay couple? What an abomination!’ It’s because the two of them look good together.

And perhaps they shouldn’t look this good together. Not with Seokjin in one of his more eye-catching ensembles: a pair of white capris, a loose silk dress shirt that was two sizes too big (mint green), and a knee-length silk robe, white with black zig-zags streaking across it. The robe was thrown on last minute when, just as they were gearing to leave the apartment, Seokjin the weather and saw that rain was on the way. Jeongguk didn’t see how the flimsy material was supposed to keep him dry but he’s already accepted that Seokjin had a rhythm of his own, one that Jeongguk can’t always keep up with and that’s what makes him him. 

So far, the day was still sunny and bright, the air sweet with summer leisure. Seokjin’s outfit, complete with his favorite pair of star-shaped sunglasses, made him look like the personification of grace and ebullience. Meanwhile, Jeongguk thought he didn’t quite fit standing next to Grace & Ebullience. His t-shirt was black for one, stark black, and it advertised the band ‘The Damned.’ The shirt was a gift from Aecha who was still quite insistent that if he just gave punk music a chance, he would probably like it. Along with his acid washed jeans and black boots (on sale for only 10,000 won) and the earrings he still hadn’t returned to Aecha, he looked like the personification of…well, whatever the opposite of grace was. 

“What should I be looking for?” Jeongguk asks, a half-assed attempt at being helpful, of at least pretending to be. The only reason he tagged along to the market at all was because more time with Seokjin was time well-spent. He felt he should at least pretend he had an interest in the shopping itself.

“Nothing,” Seokjin answers breezily, his head turned away as he peruses the shelves of seasoning. He turns to Jeongguk for a second just to wink. “I brought you along for arm candy.”

But then he pulls out his phone and consults the notes app where he composed his shopping list before they left. He hums as he starts to read through it out loud.

“Soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar…”

Jeongguk looks on fondly at Seokjin’s profile, always admiring the simple act of Seokjin being. He realizes that Seokjin could read him the dictionary and he would be smitten by the sound of his voice. Honey, rice wine, minced garlic…

“Ginger, sesame oil, and black pepper,” Seokjin finishes his list and looks to Jeongguk. A bit of surprise flashes, momentarily, across his face when their eyes meet. “What?”

Jeongguk blinks. “What what?”

Seokjin smiles, his eyes flickering from Jeongguk’s right eye to his left. “You were staring.”

Jeongguk smiles. “No, I wasn’t.”

“Uh-huh, sure. Were you listening to anything I said?”

Jeongguk nods. “Honey,” he answers, enunciating the word and smiling more when Seokjin rolls his eyes. “Um, brown sugar and…I dunno.”

“Here,” Seokjin hands him the phone. “You can take the list with you. Why don’t you grab the sweets and I’ll focus on the savory?”

Jeongguk’s gaze wanders down to Seokjin’s lips and his next words come out in a dazed murmur: “Yeah, sure, I could…I could do that.”

He looks up just in time to notice Seokjin’s eyes falling down toward his mouth and he can’t help but smile.

“What are you waiting for then?”

“I don’t wanna let go of your hand,” Jeongguk answers honestly.

Then they both look down at where their hands are intertwined, transfixed on the pleasantness of it. How their hands, together, feel safe and warm and soft and everything that’s right. Again, Jeongguk hears Taehyung’s voice echo in the back of his mind — ‘If it’s wrong, it’ll feel wrong’ — and it doesn’t. 

Seokjin strokes his thumb against the back of Jeongguk’s hand briefly. He looks up at him, fluttering his eyes closed and shaking his head a little. “You’re so—”

“Lucky I’m cute?” 

“That, too,” Seokjin answers, trying to hold back a smile. He lets go of the shopping cart and uses his free hand to bop the tip of Jeongguk’s nose. “You’re so cute, it’s annoying.”

They continue to shop, taking their time down the aisles and not letting go of each other. Jeongguk wonders if this still constituted whatever it meant to ‘take things slowly.’ If they weren’t calling themselves a couple, should they not hold hands? Do people who aren’t dating hold hands? Friends do, he knew that. But usually friends who held hands didn’t also make out in their spare time. At least, he didn’t think they did.

“I could be less cute if you wanted,” Jeongguk says after a little while.

“And how do you plan on achieving that?”

“I could pay someone to hit me. I saw that in a movie. They could break my nose.”

Seokjin tsks. “Sorry to break it to you, honey, but you’d be just as cute with a broken nose.”

“…I could put a bag over my head.”

“And I could take it off.”

 He could picture Seokjin saying the same words on a very different occasion, the two of them in his bed or in Jeongguk’s bed. Clothes on their way to the floor or on a dresser — anywhere except on their bodies. When he’s sure Seokjin isn’t looking at him, he squeezes his eyes shut and tries to keep his mind focused on something other than that.

They take their time getting what they need and Jeongguk takes his time admiring. When Seokjin checks for a ripe watermelon in the produce section, when he orders chicken in the poultry section, and when he checks in on employees he knows by name in the bakery section, Jeongguk doesn’t falter in his gaze. It’s more than just being mesmerized by Seokjin’s beauty internally and externally. When he watches Seokjin closely, whether it’s directly toward Seokjin or simply at how his hand looks enfolded in his own, the act manages to make time go by slower. 

Just the other day, Hyunjoo had mentioned in passing about available apartments in the area. Jeongguk didn’t pay it any mind at first. He didn’t need a roommate, he wasn’t looking for an apartment. It wasn’t until after the conversation was over that he realized that wasn’t true. The thing about bliss is that it tends to make one oblivious. He’d forgotten that his living situation was temporary. He wasn’t meant to sleep at Seokjin’s place for good. That wasn’t the deal they made. He would have to move out eventually, there was no denying that. And so, all he really wanted was for time to not do what time did best — pass.

 

 

 

On their way back home, Jeongguk plays all the right songs. He starts off with Sister Sledge and eases his way into Brothers Johnson, adding in Kim Nam Mi and eventually bringing up David Bowie which Seokjin notices right away. 

“I didn’t know you liked David Bowie,” Seokjin says, a little smile on his face as he turns a corner toward their destination. “Well…I didn’t know you knew who he was.”

“Of course, I know who he is.”

“Mm-hmm, did you always?”

“…No.”

“Right.”

“Do you want me to change it? I can play something else.”

“I like it,” Seokjin says, shushing him immediately with a flippant wave of the hand that finds its way on top of Jeongguk’s knee. It’s innocuous, really. Seokjin doesn’t even seem to care that he only has one hand on the wheel or that his other hand is making Jeongguk’s heartbeat tip the scales in terms of what was a healthy BPM. “We don’t always have to play my songs, you know.”

Jeongguk finds his voice after a moment. “Okay.”

Eventually, he’ll bring up The Damned and TV on the Radio and all the other bands he’s become interested in. Every now and then while he’s at work, the stereo will blare out a song that catches his attention and when that happens, it sends him on a deep dive. He finds the song, the musician, and marks down the album the song appears on to listen to later. Eventually, he’ll introduce Seokjin to his favorite industrial tracks and acid jazz artists and baroque pop albums and everything else he decides he likes. (And he will always like a little bit of everything because, for so long, he didn’t grant himself the luxury of liking anything). Each time he introduces another song, Seokjin will listen to it carefully and always pick out something he likes about it. For now though, they just listen to “Queen Bitch” and share the occasional smile teeming with too much affection. 

When they’re a few minutes from Casi Cielo, Seokjin surprises him by pulling over to the side of the road. Jeongguk’s first instinct is to look out of the window, down at the street, toward the hood of the car. Maybe the engine decided to die after all of these years. He remembers again that the car is older than the both of them. But there doesn’t seem to be a problem. No animal scurrying away from the front of the car, no broken glass on the asphalt, no flat tire, no smoke from the hood. 

He looks to Seokjin in question who rests against his seat and looks at him. “Wanna drive?”

Jeongguk’s eyes flicker from Seokjin to the steering wheel. “…No. I don’t know how.”

“Oh, how do you think of me? It’s not like I’m gonna leave you here to figure it out by yourself. Don’t you want to give it a shot?”

“I mean,” Jeongguk pauses and licks his lips. “Sure, but…I don’t want to break it.”

Seokjin laughs. “It’s half broken anyway,” he looks again to Jeongguk for a small moment before unbuckling his seatbelt and getting out of the car. “Come on,” he calls over his shoulder.

Without much enthusiasm, Jeongguk unbuckles his seat and gets out of the passenger side. As they pass each other at the front end of the car, Seokjin briefly squeezes his shoulder. Once he’s down in the driver’s seat, seatbelt secured and door closed, Jeongguk feels equal parts terrified and excited. He looks down at his feet, unsure of where to put them. 

Seokjin gets down in the passenger seat, shuts the door, and puts on his seatbelt. Then he leans over the console and looks down at Jeongguk’s feet. “Pick a foot and stay with it.”

“Just one?”

“You’re not using both,” Seokjin laughs. “Unless you do want to break my car, in which case…”

Jeongguk picks his right foot and sits on top of the smaller one. The brake pedal. 

“Good,” Seokjin says and looks at him expectantly.

“What?”

“Drive.”

He looks at Seokjin and he decides that this little gesture is one he won’t ever stop appreciating. Seokjin probably doesn’t even realize that it’s something he does, how he doesn’t volunteer information without being prompted, how that little gesture pushes Jeongguk to try things out for himself first. To figure things out. Not to get talked down to or…what have you.

His eyes flicker down to Seokjin’s mouth again and he, without hesitating, leans forward quickly and kisses him before turning back to the wheel and putting the car into drive. He presses down on the gas and the car lurches forward. He switches to the brake pedal and they jerk to a stop, heads bobbing at the force. 

Seokjin laughs.

Jeongguk starts to unbuckle his seat, prepared to get out of the driver’s side before he gets them both killed but Seokjin reaches out to him, takes hold of his hands and laughs into his shoulder.

“It’s not funny,” Jeongguk argues weakly, trying not to laugh.

“I know, I know. Don’t give up yet,” Seokjin pulls back, looks down at his feet again. “Try again. Let your foot off slowly this time.”

Jeongguk does so. He puts his foot down on the gas just as slowly and the car rolls forward. 

“Good,” Seokjin says softly. He rests his hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “It’s a straight shot for, like, five more minutes. Then…?”

“Right turn,” Jeongguk says. Then left, then home.

He drives at about thirty miles per hour but there aren’t anymore sudden movements, no jerks or lurches. The ride is smooth and easy but still nerve-racking thanks to not just the fear of crashing but the rush of goosebumps that rise up on his neck every time Seokjin strokes the back of it.

“See?” Seokjin says softly after a little while, mouth close to Jeongguk’s ear. “Not so hard, right?”

The sky darkens before they get to the apartment complex and by the time they reach the main entrance, the rain has started to drizzle down. By the time they reach the mailboxes, the rain is pouring and the sound of it falling against the roof of the car is harsh and heavy like hail. Jeongguk decides to stop there, pulling over by the mailboxes and waiting it out. 

“It won’t last long,” Seokjin says and strokes against his neck again. 

And because Jeongguk’s mind has already started to go from the rain and the driving to the way Seokjin’s hand feels against his skin, he can’t decide if Seokjin means that the rain won’t last long, that their ‘slow’ period won’t last long or that they won’t last long. He settles on the rain and nods, leaning back into the seat and moving Seokjin’s hand from his neck, taking it into his own without really thinking about it. He almost doesn’t notice the way Seokjin looks at him.

“Now, you’re staring,” he says when he does. “…What is it?”

“Nothing, just,” Seokjin trails off and looks down at their hands. “You wouldn’t have done that a couple months ago.”

There were a lot of things he wouldn’t have done a couple of months ago. It still boggles his mind, how quickly things have changed. When the summer started, he had no plans for the future because he was sure that he didn’t have one. When the summer started, he was counting down the days until The End. And now, as the summer starts to wind down, he’s thinking about the future constantly. “Yeah,” he murmurs to their tangled fingers, “I don’t even recognize me before anymore. If that makes sense.”

“It does…Sometimes I see old pictures of me in my choral gowns and I think, ‘Wow. Who was he?’”

“And what’s the answer?”

“…Not me,” Seokjin answers. “Simple as that.”

Jeongguk hesitates, not wanting to make this moment about them but he’s curious. He swallows and wastes time staring at their hands. “What if I’m not done becoming me? Like…are you still going to like me if I can’t recognize me now?”

“I can’t predict the future,” Seokjin answers after a while with a quiet sigh. He leans his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “And I don’t think you should worry about my opinion but… I can say with certainty that I’m attracted to you most when you’re just being yourself.”

“…Why is that?”

Seokjin is quiet, the silence serving as his unasked question. 

Jeongguk clears his throat and when he speaks again, his voice is quiet. Saying it out loud is already hard enough, saying it louder will make him redden and make the idea of walking the rest of the way in the rain more appealing than sitting in the car with the awkward air he’ll no doubt create.

“Why do you like me at all?” He asks. “I’m…I don’t get it.”

“What’s there to get?”

“You know what I mean.”

Seokjin lifts his head and meets his gaze. “No, I don’t.”

Jeongguk’s eyes drift from Seokjin’s eyes to all of his other features, the ones that never fail to make his heart stop, and back again. His mouth parts but for a while nothing comes out. He sighs, shakes his head, and looks at their hands again. 

“You’re like…if paradise was a person,” he mutters, “and I’m…I’m not that.”

He doesn’t expect to find, when he looks up, Seokjin’s nose to be wrinkled in mild disdain or for him to scoff. Seokjin shakes his head all the while taking his free hand and resting it against the collar of Jeongguk’s shirt.

“That self-deprecation thing,” Seokjin answers quietly, “I don’t like it. You should be nicer to yourself.”

“Seokjin—”

He’s quieted immediately by Seokjin pressing their mouths together, cupping Jeongguk’s face in his hands. Of all the sensations to take into account — Seokjin’s hands cradling his face, Seokjin’s lips overtaking his own — Jeongguk is also vaguely aware of his own surprise, the small lift and fall of his eyebrows and his frozen reaction. He’s still for only a few seconds until his right hand settles into Seokjin’s hair and then they’re kissing. He can hear their sharp inhales, the song still playing on the radio, and how their mouths collide.

He wraps his other arm around Seokjin’s waist and gets lost in all of it. He feels as though he can’t get close enough to him, can’t grab enough of him. It’s not just him, either. It’s as if his own body has started to crave for Seokjin to touch him, crave to touch. They hold tight until their chests are pressed flush together and for a while they both forget about the rain, the radio, and the past. 

 

 

crescents and halves

Hyunjoo doesn’t really say anything about Jeongguk’s new habit of looking down at his phone every three minutes or the grin that refuses to leave his face. But every time he looks up, he finds her giving him a look with one of her knowing (and only marginally judgmental) smiles. And each time, he reddens a little, looks back down at the phone and mutters, without malice, for her to just please leave him alone.

“What?” She asks this time, only pretending to be bashful. She looks down at the books in her hand and shakes her head as if they’re the ones being so obviously smitten. “I think it’s sweet and I don’t think a lot of things are sweet.”

“You’re making fun of me.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

She narrows her eyes at him. “How old are we really?”

Jeongguk laughs and pockets his phone. “You’re the one who said ‘scorched earth.’ I thought you’d be disappointed.”

“Well, Bambi, I’d have to care first,” she says and they both laugh again.

When she passes him, pushing his head to the side playfully, they both know she doesn’t mean it. They may have only known each other for a short period of time but she cared, at least in some fleeting way, about his happiness just as much as he cared about hers. Jeongguk fixes his mouth to thank her not only for that but for everything. For being patient with him, for accepting him, for extending kindness when he didn’t really deserve it. But the phone rings before he can. 

She picks it up, using her overly polite customer service voice and Jeongguk returns to his own phone, thinking of ways to say all the things he wants to say to her. The newest message from Seokjin takes his attention away and it makes him frown the slightest. 

from: Seokjin <3

I got called into work a bit earlier. I might miss you.

The response he immediately thinks of is too honest — “I will miss you” — but after typing it out and seeing the words in front of him, he pales in shame and backspaces to oblivion. He tries to respond a few more times but ultimately stares at the screen with his thumb hovering helplessly over the keypad. How ridiculous, he thinks, that he can kiss Seokjin for as long as the runtime of any movie, sometimes longer, and he can’t think of how to respond to such a simple message.

“Oh,” Hyunjoo says quietly, holding the phone to her chest and unknowingly saving him from the peril. He turns to face her only to find her looking out the door. “Why don’t you help Jimin out? Looks like a big shipment today.”

He looks toward the entrance and sees Jimin standing at the trunk of his car which is parked across the street. There are two boxes already on the road by his feet and he’s reaching into his car for another. Jeongguk looks briefly at the message again before putting his phone down and leaving the store, jogging across the street and picking up the boxes already on the ground. He nods at Jimin in greeting as he ducks down and gathers the boxes to his chest.

“Thanks,” Jimin says as he lifts the other two boxes from the trunk. 

“No problem. This is bigger than usual.”

“Unfortunately,” Jimin sighs and they walk across the street together.

“Why unfortunate?”

Jeongguk can hear a little disappointed sigh from Jimin before he answers. “These are my books.”

“I know that,” Jeongguk answers as he balances both boxes in one arm and foots the door open.

“No, they’re mine,” Jimin says again, stepping through the entrance and maneuvering his way to the backroom with ease. He sets the boxes down on the break table and, after Jeongguk’s set his own down too, adds: “I wrote them.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk looks down, points to the box closest to him and — “May I?”

Jimin raises his eyebrows a little and half scoffs, half laughs. He drops down into Hyunjoo’s chair. “Knock yourself out.”

Jeongguk uses the key around his neck to open the box. He could easily use one of the many box cutters they have around the store but he’s both too lazy and too eager to look for one. Besides, the key works just fine. When the box is opened, he’s greeted to the sight of four identical front covers. The background is baby blue with an illustration of a partially nude body lying on partially illustrated grass. Above the body are three different moons and above the moons, the title.

Astral Ascension: Sensuality and the Stars.

Beneath that, the name at the bottom of the page isn’t Jimin’s at all. A pen name. 

Jeongguk stares at the cover, unsure of what to think. He can tell Jimin is looking at him from the corner of his eye, no doubt trying to gauge his reaction. Jimin probably runs into skeptics all the time and he likely suspects Jeongguk is no different. 

“I like the cover,” Jeongguk says as he turns the book around. “What’s it about?”

“Heavenly and physical bodies and how they interact.”

“…Yeah, explain that like I’m five?”

Jimin laughs and nods. “So, when the stars and planets align a certain way, their position can have different affects on sensuality and libido. Like, if there’s a full moon, having sex during it or just after it can open a new chapter in a relationship or open one’s heart to a different kind of love. The stars control everything, you know.”

“That’s cool,” Jeongguk says, not knowing what else to say. 

He doesn’t get it and he’s not going to pretend he does but he also won’t pretend that the concept doesn’t sound interesting. He looks briefly to Jimin, at the crystal hanging around his neck, before looking back down at the book and remembering how Taehyung said he initially thought Jimin was a witch. Phases of the moon, stars, crystals, energies. It wouldn’t be surprising.

“I didn’t know you wrote.”

“Yeah. Self-publish, too…I didn’t know you read,” Jimin says and they laugh. 

The ease of their conversation, the lack of heaviness in Jeongguk’s chest remind him that they, like he and Seokjin or he and Taehyung or he and himself, have plenty of time to learn about each other. They could be friends.

“True…Can I read this?”

“Are you going to buy it?”

“…How much is it?”

Jimin smirks. “I’m kidding. Go ahead, I don’t mind. I’d actually be honored.”

“Thank you.”

Hyunjoo enters the backroom and soon she and Jimin get caught up in their own conversation. When he realizes their chat is done for, Jeongguk quietly slips out of the room, book in hand. He settles at the front end and opens the the book to the acknowledgements page. 

To the Sun and all his warmth.

Jeongguk smiles without knowing why and fans through the pages.

Soon, Jimin is leaving the backroom and tipping an invisible hat in Jeongguk’s direction. Before he leaves though, he hesitates at the door, hand posed against the glass and frozen for a moment. He turns half way, facing Jeongguk from across the store and looking at him in consideration.

“You okay?” Jeongguk asks.

“I’m fine,” Jimin answers easily. “Um,” he lets go of the handle and steps away from the door. He puts his arms behind him and takes swaying steps to the register. “You and Taehyung have known each other a long time.”

“…Yes.”

“And, like…if you were a serial killer, he would have known by now, right?”

“I’m not…following.”

“Are you still looking for a place to stay? Because he’s almost ready to get one but rent’s a little ridiculous…but if he could find, say, a roommate…?”

“…You want me to live with him?” Jeongguk doesn’t mention the whole question of trust or the period of time where Jimin seemed to hate him. It’s in the past now. But still. “You trust me?”

“More than a stranger,” Jimin answers and props his elbow up on the table, cupping the side of his face and sighing. “And since he refuses to move in with me…Think about it.”

“Would he even want me as a roommate after…everything?”

“You’ll have to ask him that. I just want you to consider it. Will you?”

Jeongguk shrugs and nods at the same time. “…Sure.” It comes out like a question. “Thanks for the book.”

“Anytime.”

 

After work, and after sending Seokjin the simplest text he could think of — I’ll wait up — Jeongguk bikes his way to the thrift store and does cycles around the block while he waits for Taehyung to get off. As he circles round and round, his mind does the same thing, going over the same thought again and again.

What if his moving out ends everything that’s started with Seokjin? After all, his experience pales in comparison and maybe this is just something Seokjin does. Maybe he wants to take it slow because it doesn’t mean anything, maybe he’s just passing the time. And maybe, once Jeongguk moves out, whatever they are will become a thing they were, barely were, perhaps could have been. What if this is only happening because they were living in the same place?

Well, now he’s not so sure he wants a place of his own.

He doesn’t catch Taehyung when he’s leaving, misses how the older pauses in his steps when he spots Jeongguk going round. But he hears Taehyung when he calls out: “I thought we had a rule about this.”

Jeongguk is mercifully pulled from his thoughts and he waits only a moment before cycling Taehyung’s way. “It’s more your rule than mine, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t matter whose rule it is, just matters that it isn’t broken,” Taehyung says with a forged sternness that quickly folds into a laugh. He goes about unlocking his bike, adjusting the strap of his messenger bag across his chest before he gets on the seat.

“…I wanted to ask you in person,” Jeongguk says. 

There’s a lull then. 

Taehyung has pulled his bike from the rack and is readying to go when he looks back at Jeongguk, still waiting. “You gonna ask it then?”

Jeongguk squeezes at the handlebars, slides the foot not on a pedal against the pavement. The grit is soothing to his ears. Only for a moment. “Um…since you’re looking for a roommate and…like…we’ve known each other since we were kids, um—”

“How much money do you have saved up?”

Jeongguk has half a mind to thank Taehyung for rescuing him. But then he doubles back. “Wait, that’s all?”

“How much?”

“I don’t know yet. Enough, I think.”

Taehyung raises a quizzical brow. “You think?”

“I’m sure it’s enough,” Jeongguk corrects hastily as they start to ride down the street together. “I just haven’t been keeping count, that’s all.”

“I think the whole saving thing proves difficult when you’re not keeping count of what you’re saving.”

“…Leave me alone. Do you want to room with me or not?”

Taehyung skids to a complete stop and, for a second, Jeongguk thinks that he’s said something wrong. But then Taehyung is pulling his phone out of his pocket, filtering through a few things, and then showing the screen with him. There’s a picture, one of an illustrated layout of a two bedroom apartment. 

“There’s more,” Taehyung says and swipes to the next picture and the next. It looks spacious but plain and all Jeongguk can think is that it doesn’t scream ‘home.’ “What do you think? It’s not far from here or from the bookstore, I checked.”

“You checked?”

“…Yeah. Just in case you asked.”

Jeongguk smiles, elbows Taehyung gently. “And it’s not far from the complex either. I figure both of us will be spending a lot of time there…Will we?”

There’s really two questions being asked. One’s about Casi Cielo but the main one, the big one, is about Seokjin.

Jeongguk answers simply: “We kiss a lot.”

Taehyung smirks and returns his focus to the phone. “It’s a wolsae arrangement so we’d pay 750,000 per month. First month plus the deposit up front.”

“And that’s how much?”

“1,500,000.”

Jeongguk stares at the pictures of the apartment for a bit longer, lingering on the scant details, trying to picture his new life in those empty corners. He tries to breathe life into it with imagined furniture and different colored walls and full fridges. 1,500,000 wasn’t nearly as much as he was expecting to spend either. He hadn’t even bothered to look at apartment rates, didn’t even know how much he was meant to be saving. He’s certain he has the money too which makes him feel grateful and anxious. Grateful because he knows it wouldn’t have been easy to save the money if Seokjin wasn’t being as gracious as he was. Anxious because his new life wasn’t as far away as he thought.

“Can you afford that?” Taehyung asks.

“I’ll find out…Are you sure you’ll be okay staying with me?”

“I lived with my parents for over twenty years, I’m sure I can handle living with you.”

It stings. “That’s comforting.”

“You know what I mean,” Taehyung narrows his eyes at him. He reaches out and, mirroring Jeongguk’s earlier movements, nudges him. “We’re good. Okay?”

“…Okay.”

 

 

Saving money can sometimes be as simple as pretending not to have any. And although Jeongguk wasn’t exactly pretending, he used so little of the money he earned that it was easy to leave it aside. Every week Hyunjoo paid him, he took the cash and slipped it between the mattress in the guest bedroom, a hiding place that was neither clever nor inconspicuous. But without a bank, the best way to save the money was to hide it from himself. 

When he gets home, he goes straight to the guest bedroom, greets the fish, and lifts the tail end of the mattress, swiping his arm under and sweeping all the cash out onto the carpet. It’s almost strange to be in the room so early in the day. He hasn’t slept here in ages and only comes in to feed the fish, occasionally to talk to them when he starts to feel guilty for leaving them alone. His clothes still take up space in the top drawer of the dresser and the books he’s collected on the floor by the bed. But it’s not lived in the way it once was.

Kneeling on the floor with a hard set in his brows, he carefully counts each bill. When he gets to the last one, setting it down on the stack of ones, he sits back on his heels and looks down in awe. Taehyung said it would be 1,500,000 up front and here Jeongguk had saved a little over 2,000,000 won. If they were going to go have on the down payment and first month’s, he would still have 1,000,000 left over before they had to start paying monthly. He had more than enough money for the apartment. His shoulders sink.

He should feel happy about this. Elated. Completely euphoric. But all he can think about is the fact that his time was up. He had to leave. Of course, he could just not tell Seokjin and he could extend his stay a little longer. But that was dishonest and, excluding the fact that Jeongguk loathed to be dishonest, Seokjin didn’t deserve to be lied to. He would have to tell him. And he would have to leave. And they would have to become a relic of the past.

He doesn’t cry although he feels as if he could. He sits there for what feels like hours before finally turning away from the money, eyeing the fish in the tank and trying to exhale all the weight from his shoulders. 

 

 

It’s ten after one when Jeongguk wakes up to the feeling of a finger tracing the shell of his ear. He shivers in his sleep, clinging to nothingness for a second before he opens his eyes and his vision focuses in on the dark living room. He shuts them again and sighs, lifting his hand to capture the one now dragging up and down the side of his neck. 

“What are you doing out here?” Seokjin asks him, voice quiet and careful as if he’s still trying not to wake him up.

“I said I’d wait up.”

“Right, see, I thought that meant you’d be awake,” Seokjin chuckles fondly and squeezes Jeongguk’s hand. “If you were tired, you should’ve just gone to bed.”

Jeongguk hums, letting go of the last few remnants of sleep. “Didn’t wanna go alone.”

“Why, is it haunted or something? Should I be scared?”

Jeongguk finally opens his eyes then, looking up through a haze of tired eyes and unruly hair to see Seokjin looking down at him with a feigned expression of fear. He tries then to remember how Taehyung described being in love, to find out if that’s the thing that makes his chest ache in the best way when he sees Seokjin.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Should you be?”

Seokjin scoffs, pulls at his hand. “Come on, let’s go to bed.”

“Can we just lay here? I’m too tired to get up.”

“Oh, you’re tired?” Seokjin lets go of his hand to place his at his chest. “I can’t relate to a thing like that.”

Jeongguk laughs up at him, tries to argue but Seokjin’s on a tangent, pretending to be angry. When he looks away, upwards to the ceiling as if to find the citations for his argument, Jeongguk grabs at his hand and pulls him down on the couch beside him. That’s when Seokjin laughs, when their bodies collide in such a reckless way that it should hurt — and maybe it will later — but only reminds Jeongguk of two perfectly matching puzzle pieces. 

Eventually, after the laughter dies down and they get settled as comfortably as they can on such a small space, Jeongguk, with his nose in the crook of Seokjin’s shoulder, asks him how work was. 

Seokjin lays the back of his hand over his eyes and sighs wistfully. “It was everything I thought it’d be.”

Jeongguk laughs and inhales. “You smell like peppermint.”

“Do you always go around smelling people?”

“No,” Jeongguk says, his arms tightening around Seokjin’s waist. “Just you.”

He could, in all fairness, blame his sudden honesty on too much sleep, on the haze between waking life and dreams. But he’s fully awake. Awake and aware of how little time they have left. The way he sees it now there’s no time to waste for silly things like self-preservation. He wants to be honest with Seokjin, to be with him the way he wants to without overthinking it. After all, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

He thinks Seokjin will call him out on it or tease him about it but all Seokjin does is brush aside his hair like always. “I like how you smell,” he says. “It’s…earthy. Kind of sweet, I like it.”

Jeongguk doesn’t share how funny he thinks that is. To be compared to the Earth by the person he compares to the Heavens. He’ll dwell on that when he has the time to. For now, he fixes Seokjin with a soft gaze and murmurs: “Can we try something?”

Seokjin’s eyes widen. “As for taking it slow…?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says quickly. He blushes just thinking of it, of what happens after slow. “It’s not — it’s something different. I think about it a lot and…”

“And…?”

“Would you…?” He leaves the quiet in the air for a little while longer, letting the suspense linger and watching with amusement how Seokjin’s expression grows more and more curious. “Wash my hair?”

It’s not what Seokjin was expecting, that much is clear. He stares for a moment and then bites his bottom lip just as it begins to quiver from held back laughter. Then he does laugh, ducking his head down toward Jeongguk’s shoulder, his own shaking with merriment. 

“What, I’m serious,” Jeongguk says, still smiling. “It was nice.”

“I’m sure it was. I am an expert, after all.”

“…You don’t have to do it now,” Jeongguk says, realizing. After spending eight hours washing and conditioning and cutting hair, Seokjin probably had zero interest in doing the same at home. “Or, I dunno, ever.”

Still laughing, Seokjin gets up from the couch and outstretches his hand. “Come on. I’ve been wanting to clip your ends for weeks now.”

 

It’s different from the first time.

Now, when Jeongguk bends forward, dipping his head down into the bowl of the sink, he’s all too aware of Seokjin’s presence behind him. Now, when the scent of lemongrass fills up his senses, his craving grows more intense. When the running water runs down his head, the rush of it sends tingles down his spine. When Seokjin’s fingers move against his scalp alongside, he doesn’t have the sense he had last time to not get lost in the pleasure of it. It feels good, it feels better than it did last time. He blames it on the lack of a filter, the dam of want, and the lingering slumber when he moans quietly. 

Seokjin’s motions are dexterous, gentle, and slow. He takes his time with the shampoo and takes even more time with the conditioner, allowing it to settle into Jeongguk’s hair before he rinses it out with warm water. His fingers go in circles, tiny ones and big ones, soft ones and rough ones. Jeongguk knows it won’t be the last time he asks. Afterward, when Seokjin wraps a yellow towel around his hair and pats it dry, when their eyes meet, there’s something different in the air. Between them, the atmosphere has always weighed heavy with want but now the weight is crushing. It permeates the space so much that it’s hard to breathe. They take one look a each other and know that they both feel it. 

Seokjin pats his hands dry on the end of the towel hanging off Jeongguk’s shoulder and makes a move to turn away. “Let me grab the scissors.”

“Wait.”

Jeongguk reaches out and takes hold of Seokjin’s hand, bringing it to his chest without tearing his eyes away. He can feel how his heart beats against his palm. Their eyes meet and there’s a beat of absolutely nothing but smoldering stares. Seokjin steps closer, taking small and somewhat hesitant steps, until their faces are inches apart. When they’re closer, almost chest to chest, Seokjin raises a hand and settles it against Jeongguk’s face, looking into his eyes with so much adoration that it feels unreal. His thumb brushes against Jeongguk’s bottom lip and Jeongguk closes his eyes, reveling in the feeling. He doesn’t open them when he leans in to his touch and they meet somewhere in the middle, kissing as they’ve done a dozen times before. This one is as gentle as the first one, soft and plush and dream-like. But it aches in ways it never did. The cataclysms Jeongguk had envisioned so many times before was inside him now, earthquakes in his chest, lightning in his stomach. He felt his skin vibrating all over. It feels different. 

He can feel it in the gentle tease of teeth against his bottom lip, taste it in the sweetness of Seokjin’s tongue. When he moves his hands to Seokjin’s waist, he waits for Seokjin to stop him. He stays there, unmoving apart from his curious fingers dancing across, until given the green light and then he slips one hand under his shirt, settling onto the small of his back. The response arrives in the form of Seokjin, in turn, putting one arm over Jeongguk’s shoulder and the other against his waist. Jeongguk breaks apart to look at him, gauge his reaction, as he slowly slides his hand from Seokjin’s back toward his stomach. Seokjin only nods hastily, mouth parted, and hurries to kiss him again. 

With his fingertips learning the landscape of Seokjin’s body, Jeongguk takes his time. He traces circles against his waist, trailing upwards and flattening a hand over his ribcage . When he feels he knows the expanse of skin well enough, he moves on to discover more, trailing his hand lower down Seokjin’s stomach and —

Jeongguk stills. 

Not just his hand but his mouth, too. Seokjin notices, pulling away and looking at him in concern. He doesn’t ask what’s wrong though, doesn’t get a chance to, because Jeongguk’s hand starts to move again. Slowly. One finger circles around Seokjin’s navel again, getting closer to the center where he stops again to caress the hard jewel once more. When he realizes, Seokjin’s expression morphs to something else and he smiles, allowing Jeongguk to marvel at it.

Jeongguk leans backward a little, rests against the edge of the counter, to lift the shirt and look directly at the navel piercing. Two tiny barbells, turquoise in color, gleam against Seokjin’s skin. He swallows hard, mouth going dry. “Is that new?”

“No. Why, do you hate it?”

No, no. Not — I don’t hate it, it’s pretty…I’ve just never seen it before.”

He hadn’t felt it before either. 

“Well, you’ve never seen me without a shirt on,” is Seokjin simple — and wrong — answer.

“Yes, I have,” Jeongguk responds almost too quickly. He doubles back. “When you — the first time I came here, you didn’t have a shirt on.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Well, no, okay — you had a shirt on but it wasn’t buttoned. I didn’t see this then.”

Seokjin makes a little hum of either appreciation or astonishment. “I didn’t know you were looking that hard.”

Jeongguk shakes his head, taking one last look at the bellybutton ring. “You knew,” he says. “You knew.”

He leans forward and brushes his nose down the side of Seokjin’s neck. Up and down. Against his collarbone. Stray kisses against his clavicle. 

“Okay,” Seokjin sighs, contentedly. Jeongguk had recently discovered the soft spots on Seokjin’s neck. There were two. One was just a few inches above his left collarbone. Each time this spot was merely brushed against, Seokjin would make a sound that Jeongguk thought of as music. That’s the spot he kisses first. “Maybe I did.”

The second spot was a higher up, closer to Seokjin’s earlobe. This spot, when kissed, had the ability to make him go, quite literally, weak at the knees. When Jeongguk kisses it this time, he’s rewarded by Seokjin’s arms tightening around him and one hand going up to his hair. The towel, he belatedly realizes, has fallen to the floor in the middle of it all.

Seokjin has leaned his head to the side, exposing more of his neck and murmuring encouragements, bursting with pleasure and affection. Jeongguk kisses the base of his throat, down to the collarbones again, and when his lip touches on fabric, he knows what he’s going to ask Seokjin before he fully realizes the weight of the question. It’s so easy to ask under dimmed lights. He can only imagine what he’ll ask for when they’re in the dark. 

He tugs at Seokjin’s shirt. “Can I see you without one now?”

They make a sliver of space, enough distance for them to look into each other’s eyes, for Seokjin’s dark ones to pierce his for an answer. Then, without giving a verbal answer, Seokjin backs away and starts to unbutton his shirt. His movements know no haste. He does so as if they have all the time in the world and it’s this that Jeongguk envies him most for. He’s wanted to be as free as Seokji, has wanted — still wants — to be with Seokjin but he hasn’t known an envy like this. He wishes he could be like Seokjin when it came to time, when it came to knowing — believing — that they had all the time in the world.

As his long fingers undo each button, he watches Jeongguk. Their eyes are locked in a heated gaze. If the air was thick with want before, it’s caving under the weight of it now. Seokjin bites his bottom lip until the flesh turns white and Jeongguk swallows hard. He bites his own lip, wanting nothing more now than to bite Seokjin’s the same way. When the shirt’s finally off, he nearly dives forward into Seokjin’s arms but Seokjin stops him, tugs gently at the hem of his shirt until Jeongguk lifts it over his head. Free of veneers, they admire each other’s bodies in the dark.

Jeongguk stares openly, dazed and amazed at the smoothness of Seokjin’s skin, the narrowness of his waist and his contrasting broad shoulders. In the dim light, his skin looks like liquid gold. He looks like art and Jeongguk is reminded of marble statues in museums. It’s almost like Seokjin used to be one of those statues and he came to life. He’s perfect. Jeongguk furrows his brows, eyes still wide as he bites on his lip.

He sighs. He wants him so badly. 

“You’re Heaven,” he says before he can stop himself, voice barely rising above the quiet. The response he gets is a single smile, amusement and affection shining in the dark.

The moment their bodies touch, skin against skin, heat against heat, Jeongguk is once again reminded that paradise can exist in a single person. Seokjin’s hand wanders from the nape of his neck to his shoulders to his chest where it stays. Jeongguk wonders, as they kiss and as their hands navigate the foreign territories of each other’s bodies, why they hadn’t done it this way sooner. They’re on each other, with each other, and he still can’t get enough. He can’t touch enough. He can’t feel enough. They get so close that Seokjin’s piercing grazes against his skin and, when it does, he sighs in pleasure. In this moment, he thinks that the world really could end right now and he wouldn’t care as long as he got to be doing this while destruction leveled the earth. He keeps one hand behind him gripping the edge of the counter so that his knees don’t give out.

He feels it when the heat starts to creep in, pooling into his stomach, and when the pressure starts to build in his groin. He bites his lip again, body aching to be touched and he briefly squeezes his thighs together. Normally, this would be the point that he’d want to stop but stopping doesn’t even occur to him now. When Seokjin starts to pepper kisses against his neck, he can only stare at the ceiling with his mouth slack and eyes glazing over. He thinks of nothing for a while and then of time and then of the courage that exists without inhibition.

He turns to the side, meeting Seokjin’s mouth again. They breathe in and out together. He can taste Seokjin’s want. Seokjin can taste his. In a breathless, shaking whisper, he asks: “Will you touch me?”

He wouldn’t be surprised if Seokjin’s response to that was a roll of the eyes and an intentionally dense ‘I am touching you,’ so he’s pleased — terrified and anxious but pleased — when the response he gets is Seokjin looking into his eyes for a long moment before kissing the tip of his nose. “Are you sure?”

Jeongguk knows he looks pitiful, almost pouting. He thinks about it for a second that lasts for too long. He knew he wanted this and he knew how badly, how deeply. “I won’t break if you touch me.”

“No?”

“I’ll break if you don’t.”

A lull again. Seokjin slides his palm up from Jeongguk’s stomach back to his chest. He circles a finger around Jeongguk’s nipple which makes his mind stutter to nothing for a moment, his body reeling forward unsteadily. Oh, he likes that. He hisses involuntarily when Seokjin does it again. Oh, God, he likes that a lot. 

“I’m gonna have a lot of fun with that,” Seokjin murmurs against him and they laugh. Jeongguk, with a shiver of uncertainty and excitement and Seokjin with intrigue. “…Where?”

Jeongguk’s hand is shaking when he takes hold of Seokjin’s wrist, guiding it farther down. Seokjin’s fingers drag down against him, nails gently grazing his skin until they come to a stop at the waistband of Jeongguk’s sweatpants. Jeongguk stills then, looking up through shy eyes before looking back down at the ground. He swallows hard, unable to say it.

Seokjin takes over. He drags his hand down further, still on top of the fabric, and only stops when he reaches it. The heat is all consuming now, his hardness undeniable. Seokjin cups part of his erection and Jeongguk’s breath catches, his toes curling. He doesn’t have time to get used to how it feels like this before Seokjin pulls the waistband of his pants forward and slips his hand inside, taking a tender hold of Jeongguk’s cock. 

Jeongguk does moan this time. Out loud and without reservation. What it is to be touched by someone else, by not just anyone but by someone whose touch envies the heat of wildfires — something entirely new. He gasps when Seokjin runs a finger down his shaft, when a thumb strokes  at the head. And just when he thinks it can’t get any better, it’s over. Seokjin slips his hand out from the pants and Jeongguk opens his eyes to find him racing toward the living room.

He doesn’t ask, doesn’t say anything as much as whines the tiniest bit. He watches Seokjin shuffle around in his canvas bag until he stands up with a small bottle of hand lotion. It’s jasmine-scented, Jeongguk knows because he’s smelled it before. He fixes his mouth, ready to argue that this isn’t the best time to moisturize but Seokjin, in two fast motions, squeezes a bit of lotion on his hand and returns the hand to Jeongguk’s cock. This time, he wraps his hand around the shaft and squeezes slowly.

Jeongguk shudders, jerking forward and gasping at the sensation. Seokjin’s hold on him is just loose enough, pace just slow enough for him to feel like he’s clamoring for ecstasy. But his pace is also firm enough, fast enough for Jeongguk to feel like it couldn’t get any better than this. 

The motion sends Jeongguk spiraling, praying witness to impossible stars and propelling him to believe in miracles. He moans weakly and all he can feel is Seokjin’s hand around him, his paced and steady strokes, his absolute expertise. Seokjin kisses him again, swallowing down each sound he makes. He moves to Jeongguk’s side, kissing his neck and shoulder with his face buried in the crook of it as he increases momentum. Jeongguk wraps an arm around him and, with his face resting against Seokjin’s shoulder, tries his best not to become more of a mess than he already is. And he knows he’s a mess that, with every stroke, he’s unraveling but, honest to God, it’s never felt so good to be in shambles.

He nearly digs his fingers into Seokjin’s flesh when he feels himself nearing the end. In harsh, ravished whispers, he shares that he’s about to, that he will, that he’s almost — and Seokjin shushes him. 

“I know,” Seokjin says quietly, his own voice so much calmer in comparison. “I want you to.”

Then, he does. His toes curl again, his vision goes white, he squeezes his eyes shut and shudders as the wave of pleasure overtakes him. The high is incomparable and as his body goes lax under Seokjin’s touch, he wonders if part of it was knowing that Seokjin wanted him to, that he didn’t care how much of it ended up in his hand. He holds onto Seokjin as he tries to catch up to his own breathing. Seokjin whispers to him and kisses his temple so lovingly.

He’s careful when he pulls his hand out, careful not to move too fast, knowing how sensitive it all feels. Jeongguk’s vision comes back into focus soon enough for him to look down at the palm of Seokjin’s hand, at the cum — his cum —  sitting clear in the middle of it. It shouldn’t be as appealing as it is. It shouldn’t make him want to fall in love the way it does.

After Seokjin lets go of him and rinses his hand beneath the faucet, Jeongguk watches it circle down the drain and everything sinks in. Someone had touched him. Seokjin had touched him. Seokjin made him come. For a second, his mind goes blank. Thinking again of unicorns and leprechauns and God.

“Are you okay?” Seokjin asks, reaching down for the towel discarded the floor and drying his hand off. He looks up, his gaze as soft and easy as it’s always been. He doesn’t look ruined the same way. “Was that okay?”

“It was more than okay,” Jeongguk answers when he comes out of it, voice a little raw. He wants to ruin Seokjin in the best way, wants him to feel everything he just felt tenfold. 

Seokjin clicks his tongue and rises to his feet, throwing the towel over his shoulder and crossing his arms. “I wasn’t questioning my skill,” he says easily then with more seriousness: “Really, though. Was it?”

Jeongguk grabs his wrist, pulls him forward, and kisses him. “It was more than okay,” he says again. “Really.”

Seokjin nods, whether he believes him or not isn’t clear but he isn’t going to push further. 

Part of Jeongguk does want to look away when he asks. He wants to ask the floor, ask his feet, maybe the ceiling but there’s a bigger part of him that needs to see Seokjin’s reaction. He wants to see his want, he wants to feel it. He wants to see every expression that flashes its way onto Seokjin’s face. “Um,” he pauses, considering how to word it. “I-is it my turn?”

“You make it sound like a game,” Seokjin asks, slotting himself into Jeongguk’s arms. He nips at his jawbone. “Like, ’it’s my turn to hold the joystick.’”

“Isn’t it?”

“…You know you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to.”

“Well, what makes you think I want you to?”

Jeongguk didn’t consider that. For him, getting hard happened easily. Sometimes, at the smallest, most innocuous touches and sometimes at absolutely nothing at all. To think that something as big as what just happened between them was but a glimmer for Seokjin, he almost wanted to hide under his bed.

He clears his throat. “Are you not…?”

“Not?”

“Like…turned on?”

“I don’t know,” Seokjin hums and pulls back, his eyes darkening. “You tell me.”

Although it was him who proposed it to begin with, it’s only at that very second that he realizes exactly what he’d asked. His mind draws a blank, his mouth somehow goes simultaneously dry and drooling, he closes his eyes. “Um…yeah, okay.”

He clenches his fist once to stop them from shaking and then reaches down between them. It happens sooner than he expects it to, perhaps due to anticipation, but his hand soon brushes against the fabric of Seokjin’s jeans and he feels it. Feels him. If Seokjin does moan, Jeongguk misses the sound of it because the only sounds he can hear are his own heartbeat and the embarrassingly keen moan he exhales when feels it. His heart pounds in his chest as his hand circles the length. Thick and harder than he expected. 

He feels dizzy.

“Am I?” Seokjin asks.

Jeongguk nods, unable to speak. “Mm.”

When he sees how Seokjin is looking at him, wide-eyed and waiting and lustful, his head starts to pound. What if he was terrible at this? What if he messed up somehow? What if he touched Seokjin and couldn’t make him come? Or worse — he touched Seokjin and Seokjin lost his arousal. There’s a knot in his throat when he thinks of all the things that could happen. He wants to be great for Seokjin. Memorable, worthy, great. What if he’s not?

He’s still thinking about when a knocking at the front door makes them both jolt away. He slips his hand out from Seokjin’s jeans and they both look toward the door. Neither of them make a move forward until a voice on the other side of it calls out: “Jin,” the nickname elongated and high-pitched, “I know you’re home. Let me in so I can go to sleep.”

Then Seokjin sighs. “Heeyeon,” he answers without Jeongguk asking. 

“This late?” Jeongguk unconsciously covers his chest and Seokjin smiles at him, bends forward, and tosses the shirt to him as he starts to put on his own.

“Don’t worry. She’s likely very drunk and won’t even notice you.”

With his shirt on, Seokjin makes his way to the door and, just before he opens it, Jeongguk counts all the ways that he hates himself. He should’ve just gone for it. He stands there in the kitchen dwelling on it even after Heeyeon makes her way inside and stumbles against Seokjin. 

Seokjin takes hold of her and maneuvers her to the sofa. Heeyeon mumbles a few incoherencies, rubbing at her eyes as she falls onto the cushion. She looks at them, pausing in her motions, and stares at Jeongguk for so long that he feels himself reddening. Then, with a little smile, she sighs and lays down, shutting her eyes. 

“I’m so happy,” she says, an unsteady hand pointing in Seokjin’s direction, “that you’ve finally given your disciple what he wants. He’s glowing.”

It’s not as crude or as blunt as it could’ve been given her sobriety but it’s pointed enough for Jeongguk to become a stammering, blushing mess as he excuses himself to Seokjin’s bedroom. By the time Seokjin is done listening to Heeyeon vent and making sure she won’t vomit in her sleep, the mood is over and they don’t get anywhere else for the rest of the night. As Jeongguk holds Seokjin close to him, he kicks himself for overthinking the only thing he’s wanted.

 

strength of stone

Jeongguk gets to sleep in the next morning which is a great thing because he didn’t get to sleep until around four in the morning anyway. He spent most of the night trapped in his own head, replaying everything and silently berating himself. The solution came to him near the end of him spinning his wheels. Maybe he couldn’t guarantee anything he did with Seokjin — specifically, the things he did to or for him — would be flawless and perfect. It would be his first time doing anything after all. And besides that, there was still the fact that he had to learn what Seokjin liked. But none of that meant he couldn’t practice his techniques enough to develop a skill. 

 He knew how he liked to be touched. He knew how to hold himself, when to squeeze, when to stroke, exactly where to touch himself. Maybe he could use some of those moves on Seokjin. It would be better than trying and failing and embarrassing himself. Once his ‘plan’ was outlined in his head, sleep overtook him. He woke up hours later to the smell of coffee. 

 “There you are,” Seokjin says next to him sitting up in bed and leafing through a book. “Glad you decided to join the living.”

A little groggy, Jeongguk scans around the room as he scoots himself into a sitting position. In the mornings, sometimes, he has to account for reality. Life with Seokjin feels too much like a dream, soft around the edges and out of focus. Every time he wakes up, he braces himself for the reveal that it was all only a dream. 

“How’s Heeyeon?” 

“Somewhat sober and at work.”

He looks to Seokjin who eyes him back as he takes a sip from his mug. He looks soft and angelic. Jeongguk feels sorry for all the people who don’t get to wake up to him. He closes his eyes again and rests his head against Seokjin’s shoulder, more than happy to spend the rest of the day here.

“You okay?”

The tone Seokjin uses is reminiscent of the one he used the previous night when he’d asked the same question, voice tinging with care and worry and hesitance. Jeongguk tries not to think about it too deeply, answering positively, but when the silence left over hangs in the air, he lifts his head. “Why do you keep asking that?”

“Is it so wrong to see how you are?” Seokjin asks but he closes his book, setting it on the bedside table as if he knows the question will open something up. He slides until he’s lying down and he pulls Jeongguk with him so that they’re side by side, facing each other. “I won’t ask.”

“I didn’t mean it that way, I just…you’re asking like I shouldn’t be.”

“I just wanna make sure.”

Jeongguk looks to the bed sheets, mulling it around. “I want this,” he says in lieu of the mess of jumbled nonsense bouncing around in his head. He takes Seokjin’s hand. “This. You don’t have to…”

“I don’t have to what?”

“I don’t know, treat me like I don’t know what I want? Like I can’t make decisions for myself or something, I dunno.”

Seokjin softens, stroking a finger against the crown of Jeongguk’s eyebrow. “I wasn’t trying to make you feel like that.”

“I know you…I know. It just seems like you’re worried and I don’t want you to be.”

“I am,” Seokjin admits with a light exhale. 

Why?”

How could he possibly make it any clearer, how much he wants this? All this time spent being told he was as obvious as obvious could be and he was still struggling to make his feelings a doubtless knowing.

Seokjin kind of groans, shutting his eyes as if what he feels he has to say is too ugly to say out loud. He has a moment where he freezes, says absolutely nothing and makes no sudden moves. Then he concedes with, “Can I tell you something?”

“You can tell me anything.”

“Okay. Good. In high school,” and then Seokjin stops, sighing again. He says the rest without opening his eyes again. “There was this guy I liked. He was on the swim team. That’s not important but,” another sigh, “anyway. He and I had danced around each other for a little bit until eventually he admitted that he liked me although he’d never been with a boy before. I hadn’t either, I mean, not really. I was fourteen. So, we started to sort of date, you know, the only way boys like us can. And we kissed and we held hands in dark movie theaters. One day, we took things further…It was my first time trying something like that.”

Seokjin doesn’t specify what it was that they’d tried but he doesn’t have to.

“He liked it or he said he did. I thought we’d be closer then because…well, sex does that, doesn’t it? Again, I was fourteen. I didn’t know any better. The next few days though, he started ignoring me. When I saw him again, he said he didn’t want to talk to me anymore, said that I ‘ruined him.’ He said it like I held a gun to his head or something. You wouldn’t guess that he was the one holding my head down after I said — sorry, you don’t need to hear all of that.”

He opens his eyes then and looks past Jeongguk, deep in thought.

“It’s just,” he says, “I don’t want to do things with you for you to decide that you hate me later. If we go to fast or if…you’ll go running for the hills and I like you too much.”

The confession is followed by complete quiet, Jeongguk’s mind reeling. He wants to ask Seokjin what he likes about him again (he still doesn’t get it), he wants to reassure him that he would never run away from him, that if Seokjin wanted to be rid of him at all, he’d probably have to kill him first. Part of him even wanted to know the High School Swimmer’s name so that he could find him and tell him he was a jerk and that he hopes he dies alone. He thinks about everything for a little while and then he squeezes Seokjin’s hand.

“There’s nothing I don’t like about you,” he says. 

Seokjin looks surprised not at the words but at their random appearance. He recovers quickly. 

Jeongguk thinks of all the ways he thinks of Seokjin. When he’s wide awake, half-asleep, convinced he’s in love, and even annoyed. “Back when I started staying here, I woke up one day and I thought that the world did end after all, that me being here with you was my own little paradise.”

He tugs the necklace from under his shirt and holds up the ring. “Do you know what I call this?”

Seokjin shakes his head, looking intrigued. 

“The key to heaven.”

Seokjin’s eyes briefly widen before he snorts and laughs, belting into Jeongguk’s chest as he does. The laughter doesn’t subside for a little while and when it does, Jeongguk pushes Seokjin back again so he can look into his eyes. He keeps his arms around him.

“I like your eyes—”

“Oh, God!”

“I like your smile—”

“We are not doing this,” Seokjin says with a laugh as he tries to pull himself from Jeongguk’s grip.

Jeongguk smiles, holds on tighter and starts to kiss Seokjin’s face, starting with his forehead. “You have a million and one smiles and they all mean something different. If you had any idea how many hours I put into trying to define each one…I like your clothes—”

“No, you don’t.”

“On you,” Jeongguk says. “I like how you dress. I like that you dress for yourself all the time. I like that you don’t apologize for being who you are. I like that you’re funny and that, even when you’re not, you think you are. I like that you’re kind even to people who don’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve it. I like that you care even when you don’t and that you smell like lemongrass and that you dance in the kitchen and—”

“I get it.”

“And I like the bellybutton ring I had no idea existed until last night.”

“…Is that all?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “It’s not even close. But one last thing?”

“If you must.”

“You’re incredibly attractive. I like that, too.”

Seokjin laughs.

“So, trust me,” Jeongguk inhales. “I want you more than you could possibly know. I’m not running away.”

“Then what about last night?” Seokjin asks after a moment. “You didn’t seem like you wanted to.”

Jeongguk shakes his head, eyebrows furrowing. “I wanted to. I really, really wanted to.” The ‘Then why didn’t you? hangs in the air. “I just wanted to be great for you. And I’m not…there’s not a lot I can do for you.”

“Don’t say that,” Seokjin scoffs.

“No, but, really. I — it’s not like I have a ton of experience. And when I touch you, when I — I want it to be great. I want you to feel the way you make me feel even when you’re not touching me. I want the world to end.”

What?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Jeongguk says quickly. “But…what if I’m terrible at it and you decide you’re not as interested in me as you thought you were? What if you run away?”

“I’ll run away from you because you didn’t give me the perfect hand job?…What a Virgo.

“What?”

“Look,” Seokjin gets even closer and slots a hand around Jeongguk, settling it into his hair. “Nothing is going to be perfect the first time. Nothing is going to be perfect, period. I don’t want to be with you because I want the cosmos to explode behind my eyes are something. I want to be with you because I want to be with you.”

It must be love, Jeongguk thinks in that moment. It has to be. His heart flutters. “…Can I take you to breakfast? Anywhere you want to go.”

“Sweetheart, I’d hate to be crude but is this your way of suggesting if I give you more hand jobs, I’ll get a free breakfast of my choice?”

No,” Jeongguk gasps, scandalized, before realizing it’s only a joke. As soon as that realization settles, he rids the surprise from his expression and tries to play along, bashfully saying, “But if you’re offering…”

It’s Seokjin’s turn to gasp and he does so with a smile even as he slaps his hand against Jeongguk’s forearm. 

 

 

The Jazz Castle, a diner not far off from the Flower Island strip, is the spot Seokjin picks out for breakfast. Inside, the walls are painted a soft green with all different kind of cute illustrations dotting along. Smiling ice cream cones, adorable woodland creatures and the occasional motivational quote stenciled in elegant cursive decorate the walls. When they arrive, Seokjin is greeted by a couple of the employees who look genuinely pleased to see him, offering real smiles in lieu of the standard ‘customer service’ grin. 

They take the middle booth right in front of the window.

Seokjin slips his sunglasses off and sits them atop the napkin dispenser. “They have the best bingsu here.”

“Really?” Jeongguk looks down at the menu. “Is that what you want?”

“Are you kidding me?” Seokjin asks. When Jeongguk looks up, his hand is on his chest in that faux-scandalized charade of his. “Dessert for breakfast? What are you trying to do exactly, get me to marry you?”

Sure, Jeongguk knows it’s a joke. He knows it would be impossible for them to get married anyway, at least not here. But the idea does, in the back of his mind, linger. 

“Maybe,” he says. 

Seokjin quiets and smiles softly, picking up his own menu. “Well, in that case, I’ll go for some dessert waffles, too.”

“You can have anything you want.”

Jeongguk looks up from the menu just as Seokjin is undoing the first couple of button from his Hawaiian shirt. He zeroes in one the undershirt he’s wearing, a white long-sleeved shirt that he knows advertises a 1968 wrestling match. He knows because it’s his. His eyes flicker up to Seokjin’s whose looking back at him with a smirk. “When did you put that on?”

“Oh, this?” Seokjin looks down at the shirt, unbuttons a bit further until his shirt opened completely, showing the full illustrated advertisement. It was a vintage shirt that Jeongguk found just when he was about to give up looking for anything decent. It only cost 5,000 won but on Seokjin it looks much more expensive. “It was just sitting in my room, can you believe that?”

Almost at a loss for words, Jeongguk says: “That’s my shirt.”

“No,” Seokjin tilts his head, feigning ignorance. “Is it?”

The shirt doesn’t clash with Seokjin’s regular clothes. His peach capri pants and teal Hawaiian almost compliment the grungy vintage tee look of it. Complimentary colors, he supposes. How two things that are completely different tend to look the best when they’re together. Pink and blue. Pastel and grunge. A Sagittarius and a Virgo.

Jeongguk loves the way it looks. His clothes hanging on Seokjin’s frame. He doesn’t know how he missed it. If he doesn’t dwell on the nature of time, this is what he has to look forward to. The good things aren’t over after all, they’re just beginning. 

“I was trying to make fun you,” Seokjin says, tugging at the shirt. “So, you could see what I see but it’s really cozy. I might keep it.”

His mouth is fixed to tell Seokjin something, he can’t remember what, when his attention is drawn from inside the diner to outside where his eye catches on two figures passing the window. He turns his head toward the window once, back to Seokjin, and then to the window again where he cranes his neck, eyes trained on the couple walking by. He recognizes the harmony of their hands intertwined, the way they fit so well together. 

He watches them as they approach the entrance to the diner and only then does he look back to Seokjin. “That’s Taehyung.”

Without saying anything, Seokjin turns in his seat toward the entrance just as Taehyung and Jimin are walking inside. Jeongguk follows his gaze and he finds the two of them entering with their arms around each other, Jimin looking up and smiling at Taehyung who’s looking right back with just as much fondness. They move in slow motion, in tandem, and in complete unity. 

Seokjin turns back to him, eyes a little wide and smile impressed. “They’re so cute together,” he looks back again. “Invite them to sit with us.”

Jeongguk pales. “No, I—”

“Oh, please? They’re your friends. You’ve met mine.”

“But they’re not my friends.”

“That’s not nice.”

“No, seriously, they told me we’re not friends.”

Seokjin scoffs. “That sounds made up.”

And then to Jeongguk’s horror — although, he can’t say he’s quite surprised — Seokjin turns again and raises his hand. He doesn’t wave, only wiggles his fingers. He doesn’t have to speak, doesn’t have to make his wave quick or flailing. All he does is lift an arm and it’s as if he turned on an unmissable beacon of light. 

Jimin spots them first, turning away from Taehyung, spotting Seokjin, and flashing a restrained but polite smile. The lack of attention makes Taehyung turn toward them too. For a little bit, there’s nothing but awkward, polite smiles from across the room until Seokjin rotates his wrist, waving them over slowly.

“Sit with us?”

 

It’s unnaturally and unnecessarily awkward for the first few minutes. Jeongguk knows from a reasonable standpoint that he’s the one that should alleviate the air, after all he’s the one that knows everyone, he’s the glue that should put them together. But, once again, the sight of two different worlds colliding him stills him until he’s just staring at everyone.

Seokjin, who’s moved to sit next with him now, only lets the quiet sit for so long. The lack of conversation doesn’t seem to faze him as much as it fazes everyone else. With one arm lying on the back of the booth seat, bent toward his hair where he twirls a finger around a chestnut brown lock, he looks to Taehyung, the one he knows the second best.

“Taehyung,” he says. “It’s Taehyung, right?”

Taehyung nods, eyes going from Jeongguk to Jimin. “Yes.”

“Can I guess your zodiac sign?” Seokjin asks. “Or would that bother you?”

Jeongguk makes note of how this makes Jimin smile a little and how he looks to Taehyung expectantly. 

Taehyung shrugs. “No, that’s fine.”

“Okay,” Seokjin sets his arm down into his lap and leans forward, peering into Taehyung’s eyes. “Um…I’m getting strong water vibes.”

“Are you?” Jimin asks, suddenly intrigued. He puts his arm on the table, bites his bottom lip, and cups his cheek as he looks between the two of them.

“Am I warm?” Seokjin asks Jimin who pretends he doesn’t know. “Oh, come on, you’re not even going to give me a hint?”

Jimin laughs and shakes his head. 

Seokjin looks to Taehyung again. “Um…Cancer?”

“That’s what I thought!” Jimin exclaims. He touches Taehyung’s shoulder. “I told you, right?”

“Wait, he’s not?” Seokjin lays a hand on his chest and looks miffed. “I’m never off about these things.”

“He’s very multi-faceted,” Jimin says, a matter-of-factly. “Should I tell you?”

“Please.”

“…Capricorn,” Jimin says and laughs when Seokjin’s expression goes into shock and disbelief. “I swear.”

The two of them laugh together and start to dive into a conversation of all things star-related. Jeongguk and Taehyung exchange a look of surprise and satisfaction. If either of them could have predicted that their significant others would have gotten on this well, they may have taken the initiative to introduce them sooner, personal feelings aside.

Taehyung holds onto their moment, eyes going steely. He lays a hand over Jimin’s. “Green tea, right?”

Jimin nods, kisses Taehyung’s cheek in a flash, and goes back to his conversation.

Without having to be told, Jeongguk slips out of the booth to follow Taehyung to the front counter. If Seokjin notices, he doesn’t say anything about it. 

They wait patiently at the register for one of the two employees on duty to be available. It’s one of those silences that Jeongguk has come to understand completely. It’s the one he’s allowed to break, the one that he should break because he already knows what Taehyung’s waiting for him to say.

“I have more than enough,” he says.

Taehyung looks to him then away. “Me, too.”

“…So? What now?”

“Look,” Taehyung says after a window of nothing. He licks his lips and leans his head to the side. “I’d understand if you didn’t want to do it. I’d get it.”

“I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t I?”

Taehyung raises his eyebrows slightly, smiling and nodding back to the table they came from where. “Because you’re basically living with your dream guy. Honestly, you should see how you look at him.”

That doesn’t surprise Jeongguk. Perhaps, it should. He should be completely displaced at the idea of it but he’s adjusted so much to being the most obvious person in the room, he can’t say it bothers him. What he’s more interested in now, what he probably shouldn’t even ask is—

“How does he look at me?”

He asks it so quietly that when Taehyung doesn’t respond right away, he gets comfortable with the idea of the question being unanswered, being unheard. But when he looks at Taehyung, Taehyung seems to be trying to come up with an answer.

“I don’t know,” he mutters. “Like you’re the first sign of warm weather after winter, I guess. Look, I only say it because I’m having doubts too. I know we’re going half but still it’s…I just think it’d be easier if I had my savings.”

At that moment, the second employee comes to the register wiping his hands on a dish towel. He smiles and bows apologetically. Taehyung is easy-going, brushing off the apology and smiling kindly. He orders the bingsu and a few other quick bites, all the while Jeongguk is thinking of the past again. He remembers, quite suddenly, that Taehyung once told him that it wasn’t hard to save, that the hard thing was having to start all over.

Jeongguk thought nothing of it then but now…

He looks at Taehyung, waiting for the exchange to be over and when it is, when they wait by the hand off counter, he clears his throat. “You had savings.”

It isn’t a question but it is. 

Taehyung looks to him and seems to consider not saying anything. Jeongguk imagines that, in Taehyung’s mind which is full of the life he’s managed to keep completely private, giving away more than he wants is like the tearing of the flesh. 

“I had about about 1,000,000 saved up,” Taehyung says after a while. “Wasn’t easy.”

That’s a big number even now. But for Taehyung to have saved all of it when he was still living at home? When they weren’t supposed to work, weren’t supposed to do anything but sleep and eat and rejoice? He had a job? He had savings? Jeongguk decides then that every single thing he knows about Taehyung has to be dumped and forgotten. None of that stuff in the past matters. He doesn’t know anything about him, only who he was trying to be. If he forgets everything else, he knows three things: 1) Taehyung has a dog, 2) Taehyung has a long-time boyfriend and 3) They are not friends. 

“How?” Jeongguk asks, not expecting an actual answer.

“Lots of different ways,” Taehyung says with a shrug. “Anything I could get my hands on,” he laughs. “Sometimes, when we’d go door to door, I’d sell more than just God’s word, if you know what I mean.”

Jeongguk gawks. “No, I don’t — what’s that mean?”

“Ah, it doesn’t matter.”

“1,000,000 won…”

“It’s a lot of money,” Taehyung says. “Was a lot of money. None of it matters now though, we have what we have and we don’t have that. It’s best to just forget about it.”

It was at home, Jeongguk realizes with a quiet melancholy. He didn’t know all Taehyung did to get that money but regardless of what he did, he knew that the labor wasn’t so much an issue as was the time wasted, the time he didn’t spend with Jimin. He wonders if all that money was saved just to get back to him, to start a life with him. For all that to be gone now…

“You think your parents found it by now?”

“I don’t know,” Taehyung exhales honestly, a somewhat sad but still darkly amused grin on his face. He shakes his head. “But I’m not going back to find out.”

“…We’ll be fine,” Jeongguk says, determined. “If I have to get a second job too, I will. I’d be happy to do it.”

Taehyung smiles at him, a real one not forced or ridden with sadness or anger. A genuine grin, one reserved for friends and moments of true relief. He puts an arm around Jeongguk. “Let’s do the application then.”

When they return to the table, Seokjin has moved to Jimin’s side of the booth and the two of them are holding hands, deep in conversation. They’re both still amused although the laughter has faded into subtle, sweet smiles. 

“A libra?” Jeongguk hears Seokjin say. “No wonder we get along, why haven’t we met sooner?”

 

 

Darkness, vulnerability, and imagination are, in many ways, one in the same. Where one is, another usually follows. Maybe not always all three at the same time but at least two. If one’s lost in their imaginations, you could say reality is plunged into darkness. Or, like now, if one is in the dark, what’s before them shrouded in mystery, their imaginations run wild and they feel vulnerable.

After getting back from work, Jeongguk opened the door to the apartment to find Seokjin waiting for him. He wasn’t inside for a full minute before Seokjin took him by the hand, covered his eyes, and said he had something to show him.

Jeongguk’s imagination is going off the rails.

It’s a relief when he hears Seokjin’s voice, how its sweet tone shivers the back of his neck, “Okay, you can open them now.”

Jeongguk does.

When he opens his eyes, standing on the threshold to the bathroom, he feels like he’s stepped into a different world. Soft purple lights sink the room into something completely different. Along with the string lights hanging above the door, there are two lit candles, one sat on the bathroom counter and one closer to the bathtub which is full, bubbles and all. Other than the obvious — that the display is pretty — Jeongguk isn’t sure what to think. 

“What do you think?”Seokjin asks, wrapping his arms around Jeongguk from behind and resting his chin on his shoulder. 

Jeongguk shrugs, one-sided because he doesn’t want to jostle Seokjin’s position. “It’s nice?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin hums. “I’m glad…I’m gonna ask you something. Promise you won’t laugh?”

“…I promise.”

Seokjin turns him around so they’re facing each other. Hanging his arms on Jeongguk’s shoulders, he sways the two of them back and forth. “Would you like to take a bath with me?”

Jeongguk’s body responds before his brain does. His stomach drops like, a chilling thrill running down his spine. His skin cools and burns, goosebumps spreading across his arms. His throat goes dry. 

Oh,” it comes out like a whimper. His senses slowly trickle back in. “Um…”

“We don’t have to.”

“Yes,” Jeongguk nods eagerly. Too eagerly. “Yes, I’d — yes.”

Seokjin laughs, bringing his hands to frame Jeongguk’s face. “You sure?”

Jeongguk nods again, an overwhelming grin splitting his expression too light. He captures Seokjin’s lips in a sweet kiss and tightens their embrace. 

It’s been a couple of days since Seokjin touched him for the first time, also a couple of days since Seokjin and Jimin have become good enough friends to warrant frequent visits to each other’s places. Jeongguk doesn’t think the two are related. That would be silly. Still, who knows?

He and Seokjin haven’t taken any other steps. They’ve stuck to kissing and cuddling and being what Heeyeon called “gross” with each other. But he hasn’t touched Seokjin anywhere below his waist and vice versa. Jeongguk doesn’t feel impatient for them to take things further either. Unbeknownst to Seokjin, he’s been spending a lot of time trying to prepare for the next time they did take things further. He’s read up thoroughly on the passages from sex positive books, the same passages he used to pretend didn’t exist. In two days, he’s learned enough to feel like he could write a quarter of a book on his own.

He realizes when Seokjin squeezes him one more time that this is probably that moment. And for an instant, all the time he put into preparing for ‘The Next Time’ vanishes and his brain short circuits when he realizes—

“I’m gonna see you naked,” he mutters aloud to Seokjin’s utter beguilement. Jeongguk nearly slaps his hand over his mouth, reddening. “Sorry,” he murmurs into his palm.

“Don’t apologize,” Seokjin says, dragging him into the bathroom. “I think it’s cute. I think you’re cute. And I need you to believe me because I’m getting tired of saying it.”

“Are you?”

Seokjin wrinkles his nose. “No.”

He can’t help but feel as if they’re going about their relationship in all the wrong ways. It’s mismatched and messy and imperfect. They started out complete strangers then they started living together then they kissed and only after that did they sit down and talk about their feelings. Now, they were going to see each other naked in a moment that isn’t explicitly sexual in any means with no guarantee that sex will follow it. Their relationship is an amalgamation of inconsistencies and it should bother Jeongguk but it doesn’t. Everything with Seokjin, after all, feels perfect.

“I have to say,” Seokjin sighs suddenly, going for the waistband of his pants. “I’m impressed with myself. I didn’t even ask how far away you were and the water’s still hot. Am I good or what?”

“Or maybe I’m just predictable.”

Seokjin pouts and starts to pull down his pants but Jeongguk, without thinking, tells him to stop. As soon as the words are out of his mouth and as soon as Seokjin freezes, he kicks himself. Why does he keep ruining things for himself? When Seokjin looks at him in question, Jeongguk can barely get the words together. He can’t even register, at first, what it was that prompted him to put a hold on things. 

“Are you okay with me seeing you…?” He can’t say ‘naked’ again because the word itself is causing distress. A good kind of distress, but distress nonetheless. “Without clothes?”

“Yeah.”

Seokjin says it so easily. Once again, Jeongguk falls into peril wondering just how small these vast steps are in Seokjin’s eyes. The world probably doesn’t even end for him when they kiss. 

“Are you?” Seokjin asks softly. 

Jeongguk thinks about it. He’s okay with it. The idea of it. In the back of his mind, he runs through the worst-case scenarios. Seokjin could see him and think his body is repulsive, could leave the bathroom without another word. Even that scenario was okay because Jeongguk figured he’d die of both embarrassment and a broken heart before he could feel too much shame. 

He nods. 

“Yeah,” he tries his best to say it just as casually as Seokjin but it comes out weaker somehow.

When Seokjin goes for his clothes again, he starts at the shirt first. He pulls off the loose sweater, another homemade one with messy stitches and the occasional patch. Jeongguk watches silently as the sliver of smooth skin gets bigger and bigger, until the shirt is discarded in a tiny pile on the floor and Seokjin’s torso greets him, the navel piercing gleaming in the purple light. 

Jeongguk is biting his lip so hard that it hurts. He goes for his own shirt, pace slow not because he’s trying to be a tease but because it’s distracting to watch Seokjin’s clothes disappear. He pulls his arms from the sleeves of his long-sleeved shirt but doesn’t make a move to pull the shirt over his head, fearing what he might miss if he does. 

Seokjin notices, smirks at him, but doesn’t stop. He keeps his eyes on Jeongguk, on the bob in his throat and the widening of his eyes, when he undoes the top button of his pants. Almost subconsciously, Jeongguk does the same with his own. At the same time, they pull their pants down to their ankles. Seokjin steps out of his, kicking them to the side. Jeongguk does the same although it’s marred slightly by a stumble and a near fall onto the ceramic floor. 

When he recovers, it’s just in time to see Seokjin slipping his briefs down and—

“God,” Jeongguk sighs, looking Seokjin up and down and trying to catch the breath that’s been knocked out of him. Every inch of Seokjin’s body is beautiful even the parts that shouldn’t be. Like his knees and his collarbones and his dick which Jeongguk is admittedly having a difficult time tearing his eyes away from. “You’re perfect.”

“I’m not,” Seokjin responds. “But you’re sweet for thinking so.”

Seokjin doesn’t wait for Jeongguk to disrobe before he gets into the tub. Only when he’s fully submerged under the hot water and the bubbles does Jeongguk think about how unlikely it should be for them to both fit. 

“Are you coming?”

Those three magic words are enough for Jeongguk to move into action. He flings off his top and pulls his pants down so fasts that he accidentally scratches his nails into his thighs. As he does this, Seokjin hides a laugh behind his hand and Jeongguk has enough self-awareness to know Seokjin isn’t laughing at his body, only at how fast he’s moving. He gets into the bathtub before Seokjin’s eyes can linger. It might be unfair considering how he got an eyeful of his own.

He squeezes into the bath, pulling his knees against his chest. The water is hot enough to hurt but it wouldn’t be a bath if it was just one degree lower. The smell of cherry blossom is strong in the air, he imagines it staining into his skin so that the scent stays with him forever. When he looks at Seokjin, Seokjin is sitting the same way at him, chin settled atop his knees as he smiles.

“Is this weird?” Seokjin asks. “You can tell me if it’s weird.”

“Not weird,” Jeongguk murmurs. “Just…unexpected.”

“I didn’t mean to spring it on you,” Seokjin says with a little laugh then he shrugs, dipping his hand into the water and swirling it around. “It’s something I like doing but I haven’t had many people to do it with.”

Jeongguk tries to imagine what kind of person would deny Seokjin anything. He doesn’t think they exist. “Why not?”

“No big reason, I don’t think. Just that a lot of people think it’s sexual when it’s not. I mean, it can be. I see that. But it’s better than sex.”

“It is?”

“Mm. It’s intimate. Everyone can fuck but not everyone can be intimate. See, I can do something like this with you because sex isn’t all you want from me.”

It isn’t. Still, Jeongguk asks how he knows that.

Seokjin clicks his tongue. “You’ve been sleeping in the same bed as me for a while now and you haven’t tried anything. Besides, people who just want sex don’t take the time to learn exactly how I like my coffee.”

“You told me,” Jeongguk says as if he hadn’t memorized things that Seokjin hadn’t told him. His favorite mug, his tendencies to bounce from cream and sugar to just cream to just coffee. He smiles and blushes when Seokjin looks at him, tilting his head as if to say, ‘Oh, come on.’

“Well, not everyone listens. So, I thought…I should try it with you because you won’t pounce later.”

Again, Seokjin is right. Again, Jeongguk asks how he knows.

Seokjin’s eyebrows furrow and the smile he wears is a sympathetic, adoring one. “You’re sweet.”

They get comfortable, best they can in such a small space, and the longer they sit, the easier Jeongguk can breathe. He gets used to it although he supposes a big reason why it’s easy to adjust to knowing that they’re both naked is all thanks to the sprawling amount of bubbles covering them up. He’s thankful for it. 

“I think about it though,” Jeongguk says quietly after some time. “Sex.”

“Of course, you do. Everyone thinks about sex. Even people who don’t like sex think about sex, just in a different way—can I stretch my legs?”

Jeongguk nods, caught off guard. 

Seokjin leans back against the wall of the bathtub and stretches his legs until his feet are propped up on the edge, near Jeongguk shoulder. Jeongguk looks at his legs. They’re smooth, shining with rosewater and glimmers of suds, hairless. Before he can stop himself, he reaches his hand out and runs a finger up and down Seokjin’s calf. Seokjin lets him.

“You were saying?” 

“Nothing,” Jeongguk says now to Seokjin’s leg which he hasn’t looked away from. “Just…Just that I think about it sometimes.”

“Right. Me, too. But it’s not all I think about when I see you.”

“What else do you think about?”

“Lots of things. This, for instance…I like sleeping with you. I like eating dinner with you. I wanna take you places.”

“What kind of places?” 

Jeongguk puts another hand on Seokjin’s leg, fingers on either side of Seokjin’s calf fluttering against his skin in tandem. 

“I dunno. A planetarium so we can watch how the world started and then…we watch a nature documentary to see how it ends.”

Jeongguk looks at Seokjin for only a moment, at his eyes which have fallen closed, his mouth which is parted slightly. He looks so relaxed, so at ease, and Jeongguk’s heart absolutely combusts at the reminder that Seokjin trusts him this much. It could be love, he thinks again.

“…Does it hurt?”

Jeongguk chances another look to see Seokjin hasn’t opened his eyes. “Does what hurt, honey?”

“…sex.”

He feels it when Seokjin’s gaze lands on him again. He distracts himself by taking hold of Seokjin’s ankle and massaging the area. 

“It’s not supposed to,” Seokjin answers after a while. “But sometimes it can. It depends on how you do it and who you’re with. Some people are more considerate than others.”

“You don’t have to answer but…did it hurt when you did it the first time?”

Seokjin shrugs. He lifts his hand, outstretches his fingers, and eyes his nails. He doesn’t answer the question, not really. He only tilts his head a little and murmurs, “When it was over, I was happy.”

A nearly overwhelming desire to apologize overtakes Jeongguk and, while the apology is posed on the tip of his tongue, Seokjin clears his throat and asks if he’s nervous.

“Nervous?” He echoes, his mind jumping to a million and one different meanings to that very simple question. Seokjin asked it as if they were about to have sex in a few minutes, as if this bath was just pre-foreplay foreplay. But then again, maybe Seokjin is just assuming, maybe he doesn’t even mean them. “No. Not...I just…”

He trails off, not sure how to express that he loathes the idea of not being enough without sounding pitiful. 

Seokjin is looking at him, waiting.

“I just want to know what to expect,” he says. “Not just — I mean, like, I know the — how it works. What goes where, who does what, you know but…I want to know…how do you…?”

Seokjin raises his eyebrows.

“…Like it?” Jeongguk finishes lamely, blushing furiously. 

If Seokjin is surprised, he does a tremendous job of not showing it at all. Apart from a slight quirk on the corner of his mouth, there’s nothing that gives him away. Be it intrigue or horror, he’s completely devoid of a reaction. He rests his head against his hand.

“I like it a lot of different ways,” Seokjin says. “I’m…I like to have fun. Over, under, standing, sitting, in bed, in cars—”

Jeongguk swallows hard.

“—lots of different ways.”

“So, do you like…being the big spoon or…?”

There’s a reaction then, Seokjin smiling so wide that his cheeks puff up. “That is so cute.”

“Don’t tease me.”

“Mm…I like both,” Seokjin answers slowly. “Bottoming is really — when it’s with the right person and when you’ve properly prepared — really nice. Some people get hung up on it because they think it’s feminine but sex is all about pleasure and making people feel good. The person you’re with, yourself. It’s nothing more than that. And I’m a firm believer that, as long as your lover’s into it and no one’s getting hurt, you should do what makes you feel good, you know? I like topping, too and I’m more than happy to do it. Still, I have to admit…”

“What…?”

“I have a soft spot for being the little spoon,” the smile Seokjin wears now is so wistful and miles away, his eyes distant. “There’s a spot that…when it’s hit just right, it’s like…your body is made of dying stars.”

“Dying stars?”

“Yes. Those burn the brightest,” Seokjin looks at him, knowingly. Jeongguk can tell that he’s thinking about it, the last time he felt that, and Jeongguk wants desperately to be the person to make him feel it again. “It’s all over your body, too. Not just…you know.”

Jeongguk is thinking about it now. Thinking about what Seokjin looks like when he’s lost in the throes of it. Does his back arch? How do his moans sound when they’re that passionate? How does he move his hips (in either position)? How do his kisses change? How would he feel inside? How would Jeongguk feel inside him?

Before he knows it, he’s rock hard. He’s hyper aware of how the water feels against him, hyper aware of his nudity, of Seokjin’s, of his legs. He thinks of how, if Seokjin wanted to, he could simply uncross his legs and put one on either side of Jeongguk’s shoulders. How, if he wanted to, Jeongguk could just crawl forward. He stares at Seokjin for too long and, by the time he looks away, he’s certain that Seokjin has read every thought in his head.

He wouldn’t be surprised if Seokjin asked him to leave so he could enjoy the rest of his bath alone. While he’s looking down at the water, at the bubbles, he prepares for it. Instead, Seokjin asks him:

“What are you thinking about?”

Kissing you, Jeongguk thinks. Holding you. Sorry for the crudeness but…fucking you. “Dying stars,” Jeongguk says.

Seokjin’s eyes flicker from Jeongguk’s eyes to the water. There’s no way he can tell that Jeongguk is hard. Right?

Before he can think about it too much, Seokjin is looking at him again. 

“Kiss me?” He asks only to be polite because they both know the want is already there.

And Jeongguk is nothing if not polite. He never makes anyone asks twice and Seokjin, although an exception to many rules, is no exception for that one. He gets up on his knees and crawls for it as much as he can before settling against Seokjin and kissing him in a way that he never has. This kiss feels desperate and hungry before their lips even meet. When they do, it’s ravenous and wanton and frenzied, the desire so overwhelming that they both feel dizzy. There’s more tongue this time too, more instances of them pulling away — for split seconds — just to meet again and taste everything.

Through it, he’s vaguely aware of the little sounds Seokjin makes, the little pants that brush against his lips, the little sighs he eagerly swallows up. He’s aware of Seokjin putting an arm around him, aware of how he settles against his body, and on fire when their cocks touch under the water. He moans brokenly into Seokjin’s mouth but doesn’t stop kissing him. Before he knows it, he’s rutting against Seokjin and Seokjin is helping him do it, both hands on his hips. The water sways. He hears splashes hit the floor but he doesn’t stop. 

The more Seokjin touches him, the less he can believe that he once relied on touching himself. His hand pales in comparison to the way Seokjin makes him feel. Like his blood runs lava, like he’s weightless and too heavy all at once. Seokjin’s length, its hardness and its heat, are making his mind swirl, his mouth deliciously dry, his mind delirious from pleasure. He rocks against him, rolling his hips forward again and again until Seokjin keens against him. And the sound makes him stop. 

When he does, breaking the kiss and looking down, Seokjin looks back at him curiously, almost afraid that he’s done something wrong. 

Jeongguk doesn’t give him the chance to ask if he’s okay or if they should stop or to reassure him, once again, that they don’t have to if he doesn’t want to. He swallows the knot in his throat and admits with a slightly wavering voice, a voice on edge: “I want,” he sighs and decides the words just needs to come out, “to taste you. I, like…give you a blowjob, can I?”

It feels like the first time he’s ever seen Seokjin shocked, eyes wide, at a loss for words. He waits for Seokjin to give him some sort of an answer, a confirmation, and as soon as he gets one — Seokjin nodding once — Jeongguk steps out of the bathtub and takes hold of Seokjin’s wrist, guiding him to the bedroom. They leave watery footsteps in their wake which Seokjin quietly groans about and Jeongguk promises, mentally, that he’ll clean it up.

He can’t say much else because his mind is only on one thing. When they’re in the bedroom, Jeongguk stops at the foot of the bed, standing Seokjin in front of it, and kissing him again. He moans again, pleased, when Seokjin kisses him back and wraps his arms around his waist. Then he trails kisses down from his mouth to his chin to his jawline and then to his neck. He pays close attention Weak Spot No. 1 until Seokjin is practically shaking in his arms. He moves on to Seokjin’s collarbones, sucking at the skin. Chest, stomach, the cute piercing.

He gently urges Seokjin to sit down and when he is, Jeongguk kisses his thighs, knees, calves. And when he lifts one of Seokjin’s legs, resting it against his shoulder to kiss his ankle, he pauses in his motion when he spots a tiny mark on Seokjin’s inner thigh. He leans forward, spreading Seokjin’s legs further and a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tattoo of a daisy greets him. 

He looks up at Seokjin, smiles, looks back at the tattoo and kisses it. He rubs at the area with his thumb. He gets lost in it for a second, not in the tattoo itself but in the discovery of it. That there was still so much about Seokjin he had to learn, that time would still move but time wouldn’t leave every stone unturned. They had a future of learning and knowing if they wanted one. And he wanted one.

When he looks away from the tattoo, he slows down, his pacing becoming less desperate, less feral. He gives himself time to settle with what he’s about to do. When he looks at Seokjin’s cod, fully hard and waiting for him, his mouth legitimately waters. As soon as it does, any lingering question of whether to or to not is long gone. 

After a little while, when he still hasn’t made a move, Seokjin’s hand settles in his hair. Jeongguk knows that the movement isn’t a sexual one. Seokjin’s not urging him to just get his mouth on it already. It’s a gesture of comfort, of reassurance, of ‘you don’t have to,’ but before Seokjin’s mouth can even fix itself to utter those reassuring words, Jeongguk takes takes a hold of him and, with no more hesitation, wraps his lips around the head of Seokjin’s cock. 

Instinctively, the hand in Jeongguk’s hair tightens for a fraction of a second as Seokjin shudders against him but then the grip loosens into something much softer, much sweeter. Jeongguk takes a moment to feel it in his mouth, how the weight of it settles against his tongue. It tastes like the rest of Seokjin. He swirls his tongue around the head, eliciting another sweet sigh and pure guttural pleasure. Then, he pulls back only to take more of it into his mouth. He’s not even started yet, only testing his boundaries. He didn’t spend multiple nights while Seokjin was a way at work practicing his intake by way of melon bars for nothing.

He takes in as much as he can, even when his eyes start to water and he doesn’t pull away until he feels Seokjin is sufficiently satisfied. Then he pulls off, wiping the drool from his bottom lip and taking a deep breath. He looks up at Seokjin, his mouth hanging open. Seokjin doesn’t look quite ruined yet. He’s on the edge of it. 

Dying stars, Jeongguk thinks as he takes a hold of Seokjin’s shaft and pumps his hand up and down. He’s thankful for all the people brave enough to write about sex without worrying what people think, thankful for the passages he’s read on giving the perfect blow job. He strokes Seokjin faster and faster before taking him into his mouth again, salivating when he tastes him. It sounds like music to his ears, the sound of his own mouth around Seokjin’s cock and the sound Seokjin makes when he’s overwhelmed. It’s harmony. It’s beautiful. They’re beautiful.

He picks up his pace until Seokjin’s hand is in his hair again, not pushing and not pulling, not rough and not demanding. A lock of hair tucked behind his ear, a thumb brushing against his cheekbone. He looks up at Seokjin, his mouth full and jaw aching to find Seokjin looking back at him, eyebrows furrowed and mouth slack. Before he knows it, Seokjin pulls him away and his mouth comes off with a pop. Seokjin starts stroking himself but Jeongguk stops him.

“What are you doing?” He asks, his voice only a rasp.

“I’m about to come,” is Seokjin’s breathless, heavenly answer.

“I know,” Jeongguk says. “I want you to.”

He doesn’t have to explicitly say that he wants to taste it or anything else close to it. Seokjin takes one look at him, the words registering and stills. Their eyes are still locked when Jeongguk takes Seokjin’s hand away from his cock, taking hold of it and intertwining their fingers. He takes him into his mouth again, bobbing his head a little and upping the ante until Seokjin is keening and groaning again, until his seed is spurting onto Jeongguk’s tongue. 

Jeongguk’s eyes widen when he tastes it. He struggles to keep it in his mouth, some of it dribbling down his chin. When all is said and done, he pulls off sealing his mouth shut and wipes his chin. Without a second thought, he swallows it, licking his lips afterward. At last, he looks up at Seokjin again who’s looking back at him with a shocked expression.

“Wow,” he says.

“Wow?” Jeongguk echoes. “Good wow?”

And Seokjin rolls his eyes, smirking a little and laying back on the bed, pulling at Jeongguk’s hand as he falls back. “You’re an overachiever, you know that?”

“That’s a good thing.”

“Sure.”

“Sure?”

“Mm,” Seokjin sighs, his eyes closing. Jeongguk lays down next to him and watches him for a few moments until the older opens his eyes and starts for him. “My turn?”

He reaches for Jeongguk’s cock but Jeongguk’s holds onto his wrist, stopping him. “I’m okay.”

Seokjin almost questions him but then he looks down where Jeongguk’s member has gone soft. He looks back at Jeongguk. “You came?”

Jeongguk nods, eyes fluttering shut. “I like doing that,” he murmurs.

“Blow jobs?”

“Not exactly, just…making you feel good. I like that.”

There’s a moment of silence and then Seokjin is lying down again, cuddling against Jeongguk’s side. “That’s what I like about you, JK,” he says against Jeongguk’s ear. “You treat me how I deserve to be treated.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes at that. He turns to Seokjin, brushing his nose against the crown of his head. “I found an apartment,” he says. “We’re waiting for approval.”

He doesn’t know what he expects for Seokjin to say. He just knows that when Seokjin looks at him, brushes his hair back, and tells him he’s happy for him, his chest feels like it’s breaking and being glued together at the same time.

Later, when it’s past midnight and the two of them are in bed, completely retired from all the woes and wonders of the day, Jeongguk traces circles around Seokjin’s face. They’ve somehow gone from spooning to facing each other, hands held in the middle. Now, Seokjin is fast asleep. It really is a gift near greater than life, a blessing unfathomable to be here with Seokjin, to be trusted by him. Jeongguk watches him sleep with fondness making him ache all over. 

He never thought, not for a moment, that he’d be the kind of person who would fall in love. Relationships always evaded him. People always evaded him. To connect with anyone other than God felt wrong. He didn’t have friends. He couldn’t even fathom the bare idea of having lovers. He wonders what he back then would say if he saw him now. Would he be impressed? Hurt? Disappointed? Envious?

Looking at Seokjin, he suddenly thinks of Jimin and of Taehyung. He thinks of their relationship, persevering through Overbearing Parents and Strict Religion, persevering through distance and time and every obstacle one could think of. He thinks of how difficult it must’ve been for Taehyung to stay away from the person he most wanted to be with. And then, he’s thinking of the money. 1,000,000 won. He does the math in his head. Say, Taehyung earned one 10,000 won in a single day. That was one hundred days of being away from Jimin. One hundred days of tucking small bills into hidden nooks and crannies, keeping a mental count of how many days he had left. One hundred days of not being able to see the person he loved smile, hear him laugh, smell his hair. One hundred days of missing and aching.

Jeongguk doesn’t believe he could bear the weight of such a great distance. He brushes a bit of Seokjin’s hair from his forehead and just as his fingers collide with Seokjin’s skin, he’s hit with the realization.

He has to get Taehyung’s money.

He pauses in his motions, thinking of it. As he saw it, he had yet to earn Taehyung’s forgiveness. As far as he saw it, even if Taehyung had already forgiven him, he doesn’t believe he deserves it. If not for him, Taehyung may have been able to go back and get that money. He may have been able to stay some place instead of on a park bench for a few days, may have been able to get a place of his own sooner. The more he thinks about it, the more assured he becomes. It really was the absolute least he could do.

He looks again to Seokjin’s sleeping form. 

“I’m so fucking stupid,” he mutters to himself.

 

 

tender

After much consideration, he settles on Aecha. She’s the only one who doesn’t know Seokjin or Taehyung, can’t report the plan back to either of them like Hyunjoo or Jimin. She’s the only one distant enough from the situation to be completely unbiased. Whether she thought he was in the wrong or not, having only known a fragment of all the transpired, she was the ideal partner in crime. When he breaks down what he can to her (religious family, The End of the World, strife, and redemption), she snaps at him.

“You’re so fucking stupid.”

“I know,” he counters. “What else am I supposed to do?”

Not run straight into the arms of the people who tried to send you to a—”

“We don’t know that they were going to do that.”

She narrows her eyes at him, scoffing as she backs into her seat. “We do.”

Jeongguk sighs, clenching his fists together and looking away. They’ve met at Scoops again at the tail-end of Aecha’s late shift. She looked partly annoyed when he stopped her before she could make her way out but was still incredibly patient about it. Now that she’s heard everything though, she’s invested and properly annoyed.

She pinches the bridge of her nose. “I feel like this is a suicide mission.”

“It’s not like I’m going alone, I’ll have you with me.”

“So, what’s your plan exactly?”

“…Well, we go to Taehyung’s house. I go in through his bedroom window and look for the money.”

She gasps. “You don’t even know where it is? Have you ever seen one, not even one, heist movie? Half-assed plans always end with someone either getting maximum prison time or their heads chopped off.”

“It’s a good thing we’re not in a heist movie then.”

She glares at him. “…How do you even know his window will be unlocked?”

He doesn’t.

“How do you know if they’ll be home? If they won’t be home?”

“We’re gonna go at night.”

“First of all,” she says, holding up a finger, “Stop with the definitives because I haven’t said yes yet. Second of all, doesn’t that mean they’ll be home?”

“Yeah…but it’s less suspicious at night.”

“It’s also more dangerous. What if they’re awake? What if they call the cops? Jeongguk, I like you. I consider you an almost friend, really. But I’m not getting five years for you.”

“…Please.”

Aecha looks at him for a moment then heaves a sigh, rolling her eyes. She looks away from him toward the main register and is silent for so long that Jeongguk is certain the quiet is her answer. No.

“We’ll have to go during the day,” she murmurs. “You said they were really religious, right?”

“…Right.”

“So, would they be at the church? Even if it’s not Sunday?”

It all comes back to him in that moment. The church activities, the weekly schedule. He’d so long put it out of his mind that he didn’t realize all that information was still there. He runs through the schedule in his head.

“They have Bible study for Miracles on Wednesdays,” he says.

“Miracles?”

“Yeah, it’s stupid, it’s — like people who were saved again. They call them Miracles. Every Wednesday.” 

Aecha nods slowly. “…I guess I can borrow Choonhee’s car…How are we getting in?”

“Window—”

“You don’t know that it’s unlocked. Think.”

Jeongguk does. Over and over. Until… “Oh.”

“Oh, what?”

“I think,” he remembers Taehyung unlocking Jimin’s door after guiding him to it. “…I think there might be a key.”

She glares at him again, except this time she slaps his arm hard. “Why didn’t you start with that?”

“Because it might be out of the question,” he mutters. “I don’t — I can’t think of a way that I could possibly get it. Not without telling someone else which…is risky. I mean, I could talk to Jimin but…”

“…?”

“He doesn’t seem like he’d keep anything from Taehyung,” and while Jeongguk might appreciate the beauty of that in any other time, right now the fact just seems a bit of an inconvenience.

“You won’t know if you don’t try. We need all the planning we can get in.”

“Okay. I’ll see about it.”

“What about the money?”

“What about it?”

She levels him with a simple: “You don’t even know where it is. You’re assuming he hid it in his room but how do you know that for sure? What if it’s buried in the yard? What if it’s in the garage?What if it’s in the last place you would dare to look? What then?”

Jeongguk stares at her, aghast and, frankly, afraid. He didn’t consider any of that, not even a little bit. He swallows hard. “It’ll be in his bedroom.”

He’s lying.

“Are you sure?”

She knows it.

“Yes. Where else can a person comfortably hide who they are?”

Aecha raises a quizzical brow but says nothing more, neither of them can argue with that logic. 

 

 

To Jeongguk’s surprise, Taehyung comes into his job the next day, the day of the ‘heist’ as Aecha so stoically put it, and places a key right in the palm of his hand. For a second, Jeongguk’s brain is communicating to him in stutters and dashes, unsure of what to think. Had he been found out? Was Taehyung going to lecture him, try to talk him out of it? Was he going to yell at him? But he realizes, upon seeing Taehyung’s smile, that this isn’t the key he was looking for. He looks down at it, the way it sits in his palm, adjusting to the weight of it. As he does this, the Key to Heaven weighs heavier around his neck. 

“No,” is really all he can manage to say.

Taehyung doubles back. “That wasn’t the response I thought I’d get.”

“…No,” Jeongguk says again. “I’m — it’s great, I just…Don’t applications take forever?”

“This is the first one I’ve done, I have no idea. But, you know, Jimin knows the owner so it probably went faster than normal.”

“Wow,” Jeongguk sighs. 

He was still adjusting to having told Seokjin to begin with. He wasn’t ready to move on, to move out. Who was going to feed the fish when Seokjin was too tired to get up? Not that he ever was. He stuck to a schedule and he did right by it. But still…

“When do we move?” He asks.

“When we have time, I’m guessing. I’m, uh, moving some things to Jimin’s for now. Gonna stay with him until you and I can start packing it in. It’s closer.”

“Right.”

“…Jeez,” Taehyung exhales in a laugh as he nudges Jeongguk’s shoulder, “You don’t have to look so down about it.”

“I’m not.”

“Because if you don’t wanna live with me—”

“It’s not that.”

“—you don’t have to,” they both go quiet after that. “…You know it doesn’t mean it’s over, right?”

When their eyes meet again, Jeongguk can tell exactly what Taehyung is referring to. 

“I don’t know a lot about…how it is with you two,” he continues, “but…a new address is just a new address. Okay?”

Jeongguk nods, trying his best to swallow down the doubt. “Okay.”

Taehyung’s eyes stay on his for a few moments longer, as if trying to ensure that he really understands. Then he raps his knuckles against the counter and turns to leave without saying goodbye. He tries to recall a time that Taehyung ever said goodbye to him or to anyone and he comes up short. 

“Oh,” Taehyung says suddenly, turning around again and digging into his shirt pocket. He retrieves a purplish rock from it and sets it down on the counter with all the carefulness the world, as if any sudden movements could shatter into nothing. “Jimin told me to give you that.”

“Really?”

Jeongguk picks it up and rolls it around in his hand. He can’t think of any reason why Jimin would want to give him anything, much less a crystal. He assumes it’s important to him, sacred, that it means something that he doesn’t yet understand, can’t yet define. The most he can say for it is that the crystal is pretty, its soft lilac-almost pinkish hue pleasing to the eye.

He looks back to Taehyung. “Tell him I said thank you.”

“Right, yeah, it’s not for you,” Taehyung laughs a little and thumbs at his ear. “He asked if you could give it to Seokjin. It’s gonna help with…something, I forget.”

Jeongguk chuckles and rolls the crystal around again. “They hit it off, didn’t they?”

“Yeah. Even if we weren’t living together, I think we’d be seeing a lot of each other. Jimin wants to have you guys over for tea.”

“You mean he wants to have Seokjin over for tea.”

“…Well, yeah. But you can come.”

They both laugh and, as they are, Taehyung steps away, rapping his knuckles once again on the counter, separating them on a good note. It isn’t until he’s out the door that Jeongguk realizes the key he wanted has gone with him, the window of opportunity is sealed shut once again.

 

 

Aecha pulls up to the bookstore a few minutes before Jeongguk’s shift ends. Inside, the lights are going dim and so is Jeongguk’s confidence. He knew that, before he even hatched his plan, he was, in many ways, afraid of going back home. Of course, it wasn’t his home he was going to. But it was close enough to the Congregation, close enough to his parents for the drive to open up a pit in his stomach. And aside from Aecha, no one knew where he was going.

Deep down, he knows there isn’t a lot that could go wrong. For one, he isn’t alone as he was the last time he went back. Plus now there was a car and not just his bike. If he needed to get away, he could do it a lot faster. Still. He knew was afraid of going back home but he didn’t know how painful or how deep the dread ran until he saw Aecha parked by the entrance. 

When Hyunjoo sees the car, Aecha sitting in the driver’s seat and scrolling through her phone, she asks him if they have plans for the night. 

“Something like that,” he mutters.

“Huh. Don’t get too smashed, I need you hear in the morning.”

He doesn’t even bother to correct her. He thinks, almost, of telling her where he plans on going, part of him wanting to convince her to talk him out of it although she would have no idea what she’d be talking him out of. Instead of telling her any of that though, he stands from his seat when it’s time to leave and, when they’re locking up, embraces her. He’s never touched Hyunjoo beyond the casual touch or the unintentional brushing of shoulders in the middle of stocking aisles. 

Her surprise is evident in the stiffness of her back. But soon her arms fall around him, squeezing him only once. Her embrace is an awkward one, almost entirely absent of the softness but teeming with the warmth. He holds onto her for longer than necessary and when they part, she doesn’t say anything although he expects her to. She just looks at him, looks at Aecha, and squeezes his shoulder.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says firmly, hands still on his shoulders, and it’s clear that it’s her way of telling him to be careful, to come back, to not disappear. 

He nods, trying to smile through the weight in his stomach. “Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

 

The drive from the Raimi District backwards home does nothing to soothe his nerves. Aecha’s selection of the most abrasive and dizzying of punk deep tracks doesn’t help. But her normalcy, her lack of an edge, serves as a comfort if only a small one. She’s not afraid — why would she be? — so he shouldn’t be either. 

He watches as the architecture changes, as they weave from the city to the in-between and to the suburban area. He watches in complete awe when they pass Pop’s and again when they pass the church. It looks the same, the parking lot full of cars and, through the music blaring from the stereo, he can almost hear the chorus praising infinite Heavens and finite Earths. The wind blows against him as he watches it past, Aecha’s driving not giving much room for a lingering gaze. The church shrinks in size until it is, once again, nonexistent.

It’s too soon when they get to the neighborhood, too soon when they pull up to Taehyung’s house. Looking at it now, it’s a wonder that he and Taehyung weren’t better friends. They didn’t live  that far from each other, only two subdivisions apart, and yet they scarcely went to each other’s house. When they did, it was because of their parents, not in their own interests. When they pull up to Taehyung’s house, Jeongguk is sure his heart is going to collapse in his chest. 

He wishes he’d told Seokjin or at least a small part of him does.

Aecha parks the car across the street from the house. When she turns off the engine and the music stops, he misses both. She turns to him after appraising the house for a few moments. She must see the fear in his expression because she falters. “…I’m right here,” she says. “You’re good.”

Jeongguk takes that in and he nods. 

He opens the car door.

“Wait.”

He turns back.

“The key,” she says. “You have it, right?”

Jeongguk reddens. “No.”

“Dude—”

“I couldn’t get it, okay? I said it might not be an option and it just so turns out that’s exactly the case.”

She scratches the top of her head, making her bright green locks shake, presumably, in frustration. 

“You can, like, get in, can’t you?”

Aecha turns to him. “What, break in? Me? What did I tell you about doing time for you?”

“That you wouldn’t.”

“So you were listening.”

“Can you do it or not?”

“…I can.”

“So, just tell me how. I’m a fast learner,” and he almost tells her, as if to prove this, that he gave a near perfect blow job the other day but he decides that it’s not an image she wants in her head. 

She rolls her eyes before reaching over his side for the glovebox. It’s a mess of rumpled papers and envelopes when she opens it. As she feels for something inside, Jeongguk’s imagination runs amok.

“What are you gonna use?” He asks. “A knife? Or do you have one of those things they have in movies where it’s like…a lot of knives, one small and one—”

She retrieves her hand, showing him a bright blue credit card and glares at him. “Come on.”

They both get out of the car and as they’re walking across the street, she mutters, “I was going to be the lookout but if we get caught, I guess we get caught.”

“We won’t get caught.”

“If we do, I’m not doing time. I’ll throw you under the bus so fast, I swear.”

They make it to the front door.

Jeongguk wonders if they look out of place. He suspects that Aecha is more out place than he. She has on one of her larger pair of black cargo pants with belts and buckles, bells and whistles galore. A checkered long-sleeved shirt that hugs tight around her arms sits under a shiny vest the same shade of green as her hair. He realizes, standing next to her, that he’s probably just as mismatched as he is standing next to Seokjin and he’s grateful for it. He thinks of pristine white shirts and uniformity.

“Okay,” Aecha mutters to herself. “How do you do this again?”

She licks her bottom lip, taking it in and biting it. She wiggles her fingers and wraps it around the doorknob. With the other hand, she slots the card in between the door and the doorframe. 

“Now, I think I just—”

She wiggles the doorknob, jostling it back and forth quickly. Jeongguk refrains from the urge to look around. He suspects if he scans around the neighborhood to see if anyone was watching them, they’d look more suspicious. But Aecha isn’t helping, jerking the doorknob in such an obvious way that he’s certain if someone hasn’t called the cops by now, they will soon.

He pushes her hand away. “Could you be more subtle?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she whispers, “Did you want to give it a try?”

“…Leave me alone.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says and goes for the door again. “You just have to…wiggle it a little and—ah!”

Something clicks behind the door and then Aecha is pushing it open. She closes her eyes, faces Jeongguk and does a little bow like she’s a performer thanking a roaring crowd. He rolls his eyes. Too late they take notice of the person standing on the other side of the door. When they finally do take notice, it becomes hard to breathe.

Mrs. Kim, Taehyung’s mother, stands on the other side, watching the two of them with a blank stare. She doesn’t look alarmed, not like she might call the authorities but she doesn’t look exactly welcoming either. She has no reason to be, of course, but it makes it hard to know whether they should run away or charge inside. All three of them stand there frozen.

Mrs. Kim looks from Aecha, from her hair to her vest to her boots, to Jeongguk where her eyes settle with familiarity. She eyes his hair, longer since the last time she’d seen him, his earrings, his clothes. She touches a hand to her chest and it strikes Jeongguk that the gesture is something Seokin does all the time but it’s on someone else, misplaced and with an entirely different meaning. 

He isn’t the only one who’s changed. Mrs. Kim looks different. Not completely. She looks like herself, the same rich complexion as Taehyung and the same eyes, her features only smaller and sharper. Her hair is still fashioned into a modest cut, not too long and not too short. There was a rule about that, Jeongguk was sure. About the length of one’s hair. He’d forgotten it. All of her features are the same but she seems like a different woman. And the only word Jeongguk can think of to describe her now is ‘lost.’

She takes a shaking breath, inhaling slowly and covering her mouth. 

“Is he okay?” She asks, her voice watery. 

Jeongguk’s stance eases then. He relaxes, seeing not a threat of shouts and threats but only a threat of tears. She, he realizes, is in shambles. He notes her robe, wrapped snugly around her nightgown. Was she only now getting out of bed? Part of him wants to reassure her, comfort her, tell her that Taehyung is fine, absolutely fine and that she has nothing to worry about. But there’s another part, angrier and less merciful, that wants her to suffer not knowing. He’s nothing, though, if not kind. He shakes his head before the words come to him. 

“He’s fine,” he answers. “He’s — he doesn’t even know I’m here. He’s fine.”

Her hand moves again, from her mouth to her chest. Her eyes wander from Jeongguk’s face to the car across the street. There’s a question in her eyes.

“Honest,” Jeongguk says carefully, resisting the urge to block her view. “He’s not with me.”

Those four words seem to break her. Her voice breaks and she sighs as if that was the one thing she’d been holding out hope for. As if she’d been spending all this time locked up in this stupid house waiting for her son to come back. As if she wasn’t part of the reason that he was gone. 

She recovers from the news quickly, masking it with a forced, sad smile that only lives for a few seconds before it dies into the a familiar frown.

“Would you like to come in?” She asks.

Jeongguk shakes his head, hoping that the sympathy is apparent in his expression. “…I just…”

He trails off.

She sniffs and looks away. “He’s really okay?”

“More than okay. Promise.”

She looks like she’s going to say something else but she changes it to: “Come inside,” she waves her hand, motioning for them to step closer. “Please.”

“Mrs. Kim—”

“You don’t want anyone else to see you. It’s only me here, come on.”

She doesn’t wait for them to step inside, taking hold of them both by the shoulders and gently pulling them in. She closes the door behind them, not before looking outside. It’s behavior like this that punches Jeongguk right where he least expects it. This is where he was raised. These were the people who raised him. These were his values. He’d been living in fear his whole life without knowing, looking both ways out of his own house.

“I know we don’t know each other,” Aecha says when the door is closed and Mrs. Kim has faced them again, “But, like, why’d you let us break into your house if you were standing here the whole time?”

Mrs. Kim crosses her arms but it’s not defensive. It’s as if she’s only trying to comfort herself. “I thought you were…”

And then her eyes trail to Jeongguk’s. She doesn’t finish the sentence but he knows. They all know. 

“Why aren’t you at Bible Study?”

She inhales a bit shakily. “Haven’t been feeling well. Under the weather, that’s it…Have you eaten?”

“Mrs. Kim—”

“Okay,” she nods quickly, wiping her face although no tears have fallen. They probably aren’t far away. “Okay…you’re here for his things, aren’t you?”

“…Yes.”

“He didn’t want to see me,” she says. “I understand it but I can’t say it doesn’t…”

“You did kick him out.”

Both Mrs. Kim and Jeongguk look to Aecha in complete surprise. Jeongguk elbows her.

“What?” She asks him and then turns back to Mrs. Kim. “You did. I don’t know the whole story but Jeongguk doesn’t know how to lie so I believe him. You can’t do shitty things to people and be surprised when they want nothing to do with you. Anyway, we didn’t come to talk about your feelings. We just want to get what belongs to him and get out of here.”

Mrs. Kim looks to him for…a confirmation? For comfort? For him to say, ‘No, Mrs. Kim, she has it all wrong. You were right. You did the right thing.’ The expression is a familiar one, one that Jeongguk wore for weeks after Taehyung’s excommunication.

Jeongguk looks away. “…you didn’t let him take much when you let him leave. It’s only right.”

She doesn’t look offended or sadder than she’d already been, only like they both have given her something to think about. She tugs the sash of her robe around again, tighter. Then she steps forward, brushing past them.

“Come,” she says.

She guides them to the hall closet where two large plastic bags sit with a myriad of unused forgottens. She drags the first bag out and Aecha grabs it without asking, without hesitating. Aecha, Jeongguk remembers, knows what it’s like to be abandoned by parents, to be forced from the only home you know. She holds onto Taehyung’s things like they’re her own, like she understands their value. Mrs. Kim drags the second plastic bag out and Jeongguk takes it.

“You were going to throw his stuff out?” Jeongguk asks when Mrs. Kim has her back turned, returning to the shelf at the top of the closet. 

“No, no, no,” she shakes her head quickly. “Never that. I was hiding it.”

After she says it, she pauses and seems to have a second thought about the wording. But she doesn’t correct herself. 

“Give me that,” Aecha says to Jeongguk, opening her hand for the second bag. “I’ll put them in the car.”

Aecha balances both bags. When Jeongguk offers to open the door for her, she shakes her head and leaves out on her own. As she does, she fixes her eyes on Mrs. Kim’s figure, trying to communicate something with him. 

Jeongguk stays by the closet door. “Um, Mrs. Kim?”

“Yes.”

“…Taehyung had — I think there’s something in his room that I need to get, um—”

Mrs. Kim turns around from the closet and immediately hands Jeongguk a Bible she retrieved from the top shelf. Jeongguk makes no move to hold it, only looking down at it and grimacing inwardly.

“I’m not so sure that’s what he’s looking for,” he says.

“Take it,” she says. “Oh, and one more thing.”

She drops the Bible into his hand without waiting another second, walks away from the closet and disappears down the hall. Jeongguk waits until she returns a few seconds later with a small potted plant. A fern. She holds it out to Jeongguk until he takes it under his arm without knowing why. 

“It’s all there,” she says, kneading her hands together. “It’s a better hiding place. Tell him I said that. He had it in his sock drawer. 1,000,000 won just sitting there.”

She shakes her head.

Jeongguk looks down at the plant, reaches into the soil and digging through it with a few fingers. He scratches at the surface until he sees the material of a paper bag. He looks at her again.

“…Why didn’t you just take it?”

“It wasn’t mine.”

“…”

Eventually, Jeongguk remembers the finite nature of time. He makes a move to leave, not before extending the Bible toward Mrs. Kim. “I can’t take this,” he says.

She pushes it back gently. “Take the Bible.”

“He won’t want this.”

“He will,” she nods. Something in her voice, in her expression, breaks. “He will.”

The last of Jeongguk’s resolve fades. He thinks of insisting once again but she pushes him back. 

“He’ll be back soon,” she says, no longer talking about Taehyung. “Go.”

Reluctantly, Jeongguk leaves, holding a Bible in one hand and a plant in the other. He walks out of the door and once he’s on the front step, he turns back to say something final, but the door shuts before he can. 

 

The drive back is quieter, the music playing at a lower volume, the wind coming through the car less unruly, Jeongguk’s nerves not wired. He asks Aecha if she can go a few neighborhoods over and when she does, when they drive by his house, he stares openly at it as they pass. 

“Do you want to stop?” Aecha asks.

He considers it. He does. “No. I’m okay.”

Later, when they’re leaving that side of town, Aecha reaches over and squeezes his shoulder. It’s the closest thing he’ll ever get to a hug from her and he embraces it. 

“I’ll tell you what,” she says. “I’ll let you play one disco song but that’s it.”

He laughs.

Before they reach the Raimi District, he picks up the Bible sitting in his lap. He thinks of how much it used to weigh, how important, how vast. Now, it just feels like a book. He runs his hands over the front of it and then the back, the cracking leather tickling his fingertips. Absent-mindedly, he opens it. Not to read, just to fan through the pages. But there aren’t any. Pages, that is. 

Where sacred words should be, there’s an empty space. The book has been hollowed out. He looks at it for a moment, mind abuzz. In the heart of the hollow lies a pile of folded papers, all pink in color. His heart bursts. He picks up one letter, unfolds it and goes straight to the end, to the last two words. He already knows what they’ll say before his eyes fall on the loopy handwriting, before he sees the closer:

‘Love, Natalie.’

He folds the letter immediately. The words, he knows, aren’t meant for him but somehow they mean the world. He folds it back neatly and puts it back in the hollow space. When he closes the Bible now, it feels heavy again. He holds it to his chest and spends the rest of the ride looking out of the window, watching his world come back into view. The wind hits his face, Bauhaus plays on the radio, and he thinks that now he truly understands what James Baldwin had to say about there always being a home as long as you don’t return to it.

 

 

Aecha drops him off at Casi Cielo.

She helps him carry the two bags up to the second level but doesn’t stay for any longer than that.

“It’s personal,” she says when he asks her why she doesn’t want to stay, pointing out that Taehyung would probably want to thank her too. “Just don’t leave me out when you tell the story.”

Before she goes, she extends her hand and Jeongguk, unnerved by the gesture, goes to hold it. She bats his hand away, laughing.

"My earrings," she says. "Rental period is over." 

She winks and leaves without another word. 

Jeongguk stands in front of Jimin’s door, holding the Bible and the plant, the two plastic bags on either side of him. He takes a few deep breaths, closing his eyes to prepare. And then he knocks.

It doesn’t take long for the door to open. It’s Taehyung who opens it and, when he does, he doesn’t look at Jeongguk right away. He looks down at the doormat — ‘I Hope You Told Us You Were Coming’ — and says: 

“Now, Jeongguk, I know you see that.”

He laughs as he says it and when he does look at Jeongguk, it’s with a bright smile. But then he takes note of the plant, the bags, and the Bible and the smile slips from his face as if it had never been there. The brewing of a storm, his expression becomes. Jeongguk braces himself for the rain and the hail and whatever else the storm is going to bring. 

It’s almost funny. Taehyung looks half angry, pissed off, steaming. And half on the verge of tears, half touched, half awed. Jeongguk watches, unsettled. For him, it’s much the same. He could cry, he thinks. He could also laugh. He wants to hug Taehyung and to apologize. So, he does.

“I’m sor—”

“You don’t listen,” Taehyung says, shaking his head. But his voice is soft and winded, his eyes mirroring the same affection. “Why’s it so hard for you to listen?”

Jeongguk smiles through watery eyes. “I don’t know.”

He outstretches his hand and gives Taehyung the Bible first. He watches Taehyung cradle it like it’s the most precious thing in the world. He looks away when the moment becomes too much, when it feels like he’s invading on a private moment. He’s surprised when he feels himself being yanked into Taehyung’s arms, when he hugs him tightly. 

Jeongguk doesn’t know how long they stand there at the threshold, holding onto each other. He does know that the warmth is needed, that it feels good, and he realizes that he can’t miss his family because he has them. He has Aecha, he has Hyunjoo, Taehyung, Jimin, Heeyeon, and Jiyoo. And he has Seokjin. He has love all around him. The real danger was not in returning home, he realizes. It was in leaving it. He was home.

“Thank you,” Taehyung murmurs to him, voice giving. “Thank you.”

 

rose quartz

At one in the morning, when Seokjin is turning the knob to the front door, dragging himself in on tired feet, Jeongguk greets him with two mugs of hot chocolate. Almost immediately, Seokjin smiles when he sees Jeongguk. It’s a smile so grand and so bright that it envies the sun. They greet each other with a kiss. Two. One on the lips, one on the cheek. They slot their hands together. They sit in the living room. Perhaps, it’s the dawn of the future that makes Jeongguk think so much of the past. Regardless of the reason, when they sit down, Jeongguk is hit with the memory of the first time he sat on the couch, Seokjin sitting across from him. 

For a flash, he sees himself. He sees Seokjin. He sees himself falling in love without realizing it. It’s the memory that pulls him forward where he presses another kiss, this one on Seokjin’s temple. 

“What’s the occasion?” Seokjin asks. 

“It’s always a good time for hot chocolate.”

“I don’t think I can argue with that.”

They both take a cautious sip.

“Mm,” Jeongguk sets his mug down. “If you want, I can run you a bath.”

Seokjin frowns. “I’m too tired to have sex right now.”

Choking is the best word for what Jeongguk does next. “N-no, that wasn’t what — I figured it’s been a long day and you might want to relax or…I know you’re not gonna go straight to bed.”

“You do, do you?”

“…Tell me I’m wrong.”

“I won’t. You’re not,” Seokjin pretends to scowl, taking another sip. “But you knew that.”

Jeongguk smiles. “So…? Bath or no bath?”

“Let me finish this and I’ll let you know. For now though…”

“Yes?”

“Just put your arm around me and tell me nice things.”

Jeongguk smiles again and does exactly that, gently pulling Seokjin into his side. His arm rests half on Seokjin’s shoulder and half on the back of the couch. “What should I tell you?”

“Again: something nice.

“Um…Oh,” Jeongguk says when something comes to him. But he hesitates, not knowing whether it’s good or bad. “I got my key today.”

“That is nice,” Seokjin exhales, genuine levity in his voice. “Ah…so, you’re abandoning me soon.”

“I don’t have to go.”

“I’m teasing, love. I think it’s really impressive. It’s hard to save up, downright impossible sometimes and you did it in no time at all.”

“It wouldn’t have been so easy if you didn’t help.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I’m not. I didn’t get you a job, you did. I didn’t find an apartment, you did. It was all you.”

Jeongguk pulls back a little just to see if Seokjin is serious. “Right and I couldn’t have done any of that if you didn’t let me stay here.”

“You don’t know that.”

“…It’s true, though,” he squeezes Seokjin’s shoulder. “You…you saved me.”

Seokjin looks at him this time. He shakes his head, puts one hand against Jeongguk’s cheek. “No. You saved yourself. I know you’re trying to say…but it’s not — I’m not perfect, you know? I didn’t save you, I was just here. I…I don’t wanna be your…”

“My what?”

“Your God,” Seokjin sighs after a while. He strokes his thumb against Jeongguk’s cheek. “I don’t wanna be your God. I don’t want you to worship me, I want you to…”

“To what?”

“…Like me. And then, I don’t know, maybe later, you could do more than that. We could do more than that.”

Three words almost slip from between Jeongguk’s lips. He shuts his mouth and swallows the words down. But he itches to say it. Seokjin already knows he likes him. What he doesn’t know is that Jeongguk is growing more and more certain that he loves Seokjin. He’s already done more than that. It nearly makes him laugh when he realizes that, in this one instance and in this one instance alone, he’s miles ahead of Seokjin. He says nothing, only takes Seokjin’s hand from against his face and kisses his knuckles. 

“Almost forgot,” he says just after they get comfortable again. He retrieves the crystal from his pocket and drops it into Seokjin’s expecting hand. “Jimin wanted you to have this.”

Seokjin’s fingers curl around the stone and he inspects it fondly. “Lepidolite. He was telling me about this before,” he looks to Jeongguk, “It’s supposed to help me sleep. I have to put it under my pillow before bed.”

Jeongguk watches Seokjin’s hand ball into a fist, the stone tucked in the heart of his palm. “You like my friends?”

“I thought they weren’t your friends.”

“They told me that. Or Taehyung did. But I think that’s gonna change.”

“I like them, yes. A lot. I think, when you have your place, we should all take turns hosting dinner parties.”

“…Right. My place.”

Seokjin pinches his cheek. “Don’t be so glum about it. It’s a good thing.”

“Yeah, but…”

I don’t want to leave you. 

He swears, would swear for the rest of his life, that Seokjin hears him although he doesn’t say it. A moment of a quiet, understanding gaze and then Seokjin pats his thigh. 

“Tell me how you’ll decorate it.”

“I haven’t given it much thought.”

“Oh, honey, no. Okay, hear me out — jade walls, like a soft jade not a gaudy jade.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Furniture. Tan, maybe? Ooh, what about orange? Like a cream orange?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’ll need a—”

Jeongguk quiets him for a moment with a sudden kiss. Into the kiss, Seokjin laughs and kisses back. 

“I like you a lot,” Jeongguk whispers as if it’s a secret after they pull apart.

“I know,” Seokjin whispers. “Ditto.

 

 

After that, time passes much faster.

He’s bequeathed by Hyunjoo two days to collect his belongings and move them into the new apartment. Despite having explained to Hyunjoo, three times at the very least, that he didn’t own enough things to warrant two days off. All he really needed, if he was being honest, was two hours. But it was Hyunjoo’s insistence that he adjust to his new place, make it home, get to know it before he returned to work. He almost believes it’s an excuse to be rid of him.

He and Taehyung put their schedules in synch. Tomorrow, they’ll officially move into the new place and, courtesy of both Seokjin and Jimin’s absolute horror that neither of them had any idea where they’d get discounted furniture, they would have beds, not just their respective trash bags, to put into their rooms. He and Taehyung have also developed a system, tiers for achievements. Their first plan of action was to invest in a sofa, this would be within the next paycheck. Then they’d invest in a table because Seokjin was serious about the dinner parties. The last thing would be the paint because neither one of them could decide on a color. In the meantime, whatever affordable luxuries they could revel in, they’d use to sprinkle throughout the apartment.

Bits of those luxuries come in the form of gifts. A lavender plant, a sage plant, and a black tourmaline crystal the size of a small alarm clock from Jimin. Seokjin offers one of his stainless steel pots and gifts each of them with two of his favorite books.

The day before their move, Jeongguk and Seokjin make a dinner of dakgalbi. As they do, they listen to music and feed each other different samples. In between preparing side dishes and the like, they slow dance to fast songs and kiss as if they have all the time in the world. And perhaps they do. Perhaps time is never really running out. Perhaps time isn’t real…perhaps he’s been spending too much time with Jimin.

Neither of them speak about the move. Without an official, verbal agreement, they both seemed to have decided that they didn’t have to acknowledge the fact that this would be their last night as people who lived together. It didn’t mean they were over or that Jeongguk would never spend another night in Seokjin’s bed. He knew that wasn’t the case. Still, the idea of walking out the door and not coming back right away made him ache. When they slow dance, he holds Seokjin tight, arms around his waist, face buried in his shoulder. He inhales the scent of lemongrass, not wanting to forget how it mingles with Seokjin’s natural scent. He holds him so he won’t forget how well their bodies fit together, how easily, and how soft. He never wants to let go.

He almost says it again, those three words so prepared to leap from the tip of his tongue. The words, he realizes, are braver than him. He settles on saying it without saying it, slowly kissing Seokjin instead.

He makes note of how Seokjin tastes. Peppermint tea lingering on his tongue. When they part, Seokjin holds on to the front of his shirt, not permitting him to go too far. And it’s only when they look into each other’s eyes that Jeongguk realizes that this moment is the moment.

It’s almost magical, he thinks, how they both just know. Sex was a thing of pure want but that didn’t mean logic didn’t play a part in its buildup. People had conversations about sex. They have had conversations about sex. He thought all those conversations were always verbal. But now when he looks at Seokjin and he sees the desire, he realizes that sometimes those conversations, those precursors, are silent. Because right now, Seokjin is telling him so many things without uttering a single word. 

He swallows so hard that he almost hears it.

Seokjin parts his lips as if to ask him but he closes them just as soon only to kiss him again. This time, Jeongguk feels it too. The passion, the need, the hunger. He closes his eyes, trying to revel in the heat of it all. 

He’s nearly shuddering when Seokjin brushes his fingers across the back of his neck, featherlight caresses. “What are you thinking about?” He asks in a murmur. He already knows.

Seokjin sways with him a few more times, saying nothing. Then he slows. “Dying stars.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk sighs. “Me, too…What about the food?”

“It won’t go anywhere…We might be hungry after anyway.”

The idea of an after when Jeongguk can barely gather the frame of mind for the present. His heart starts thumping in his chest again. They aren’t even naked yet.

“Right,” he says, “I think I read that.”

Seokjin smiles at him sweetly. “You tell me.”

“After is good.”

The next kiss isn’t bound by anything. Hands wander. Bodies collide. Mild and chaste go out the window. Seokjin tugs at his shirt, walking backward toward the living room where they fall onto the couch. Lying under him, Seokjin feels so right. Soft and hard, warm and hot. Their chests against each other vibrate with respective heartbeats, the anticipation felt in the thrum of it. Jeongguk is starting to feel dizzy before they pull away. Will there ever be a time when he kisses Seokjin and doesn’t feel his head swirling? Is there such a thing as too much pleasure? Too many kisses?

If so, he’ll die finding out because he has no intentions to stop, not even to take a breath. He’d be all too happy to die in a state such as this. In fact, when Seokjin does pull away, he almost whines at the loss. He can breathe again but at what cost?

“Lift up for a second,” Seokjin breathes out, ravished already.

Jeongguk gets on his knees and Seokjin takes the moment to spread his legs before pulling Jeongguk back so he can lay between them. The position allows for the tiniest bit of relief, he finds, when he feels the outline of Seokjin’s cock against his own and rocks into him almost immediately. He pants and whimpers into Seokjin’s mouth, riding against him, wanting to come but wanting, more than anything, to not. It’s almost a struggle for them to kiss like this, almost a struggle to process both sensations at the same time. Jeongguk stops the motion as soon as he feels it building up. He lays against Seokjin, stilling, and stopping the keys just to bury his face in Seokjin’s shirt. 

Seokjin mouths at his earlobe. “How do you want it?”

Before, Jeongguk would have assumed that answering that would be difficult. But it’s not. He knows he wants to feel good. And now he knows himself well enough to know that making Seokjin feel good is how he gets there. The answer he gives comes out in short breaths. “The way you like it.”

Seokjin bites his lip and his eyes flutter a bit. He plays with the collar of Jeongguk’s shirt when he asks, “Do you wanna get me ready?”

Okay.

He’s read about this. He looks at his fingernails first. 

“Right,” he mutters. “Yeah,” he looks down and fumbles a bit with the front of Seokjin’s pants. “Should I just—?”

“Let me get the party favors first,” Seokjin laughs, rising into a sitting position and gently pushing Jeongguk away from him. 

“Party favors?”

“Yes, honey, we’re not using spit, are we? It’s not the Stone Age. Be right back.”

Seokjin leaves him with a kiss to the cheek. As soon as he’s gone, Jeongguk realizes, without the adrenaline, that he’s burning with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. Through his mind, thoughts cycle endlessly but the recurring one is concern about how he’ll do. He’s not afraid that sex will hurt, not fearing how it’ll turn out for himself. He trusts Seokjin, knows that he’ll make sure he feels comfortable, that he’s enjoying himself. It’s Seokjin who’s on his mind, whether he can do the same for him. He runs a hand through his hair and tries to give himself a pep talk. 

Before he can, though, Seokjin returns and when he spots what Seokjin is carrying — a condom, a small bottle — his heart runs up to his throat. He must look absolutely terrified because Seokjin frowns.

“Everything okay?”

The sound he makes doesn’t sound reassuring or human for that matter. It pulls a little giggle from Seokjin, one he tries to mask by covering his mouth. 

“If you changed your mind—”

“I haven’t.”

He didn’t say that too quickly, did he?

Smiling again, Seokjin reaches for the waistband of his pants. Jeongguk springs into action then. 

“Let me do it,” he murmurs.

He tucks a hand into Seokjin’s pants just so he can pull at the material as he stands up. He doesn’t take it off yet. Instead, he presses a kiss to Seokjin’s neck and starts with his shirt, hands going toward the end of it. He separates from Seokjin long enough to pull the shirt over his head and toss it behind him. Again, soft kisses. Weak Spot No. 2. 

Seokjin moans his name. How can misname sound so wonderful?

He doesn’t stop kissing even as his hands trail back down to Seokjin’s pants which he tugs down in one swift motion. Then his hands are sprawling. Hair, neck, shoulders, waist. When he rounds his hands against the curve of Seokjin’s ass, he elicits a moan from the both of them. 

Somehow, Jeongguk gets out of his clothes. It’s a testament to how much attention he’s paying to Seokjin’s body that he doesn’t even realize it until he’s sitting between his legs again. He’s biting his lip so hard that he’s sure it’ll bleed. It hurts but he doesn’t stop, biting is the only thing keeping him, he’s convinced, of blowing his load right there. 

Having Seokjin splayed out in front of him, he can’t help but all the times he’d imagined this very thing. And just how shit his imagination is in comparison to the real thing. Maybe he didn’t always understand Seokjin, maybe, sometimes, things were easier to grasp when he was imagining it. But fantasy is a poor substitute because the real Seokjin is right here.

“I think it’s great that you’re happy just to look at me,” Seokjin says after a while. “But I really want to have sex and we can’t do that if you just watch.”

“Right.”

Jeongguk takes the bottle, pops the cap, and squeezes the lube onto his fingers. He warms it up with his hands, actively ignoring how shaky his hand has become. Settling between Seokjin’s legs again, almost completely lying on top of him, he’s reminded of what it feels like to return home. Unlocking the front door and stepping inside isn’t much different from this, lying bare against Seokjin’s skin. Either way, he’s home. 

He nuzzles Seokjin’s neck and nips at the sensitive skin. As he does, he lowers his hand and circles Seokjin’s waiting hole. His breath hitches when he feels it and looks to Seokjin who nods.

“Slowly,” he whispers.

The first finger is slow and steady. Seokjin’s back does arch partly off the couch when it’s fully inside. Jeongguk moves the digit around, listening closely to Seokjin’s moans, paying attention to how he moves. When he adds a second finger, Seokjin starts to move his hips with him, meeting his partial thrusts halfway. Their kisses become weighted, motions heavy. Needier. Hungrier. 

Jeongguk squeezes out more lube before he adds a third. He waits for Seokjin to tell him he’s ready. He wants him to be ready. Unselfishly, because he wants it to be great. Selfishly, because he’s sure he isn’t going to last long at this rate. He can already feel himself growing harder, feels the tension building in his stomach. A morbidly curious part of him wonders if he could come from this alone, just by seeing what it does to Seokjin.

Seokjin untangles his hand from around him and slides it between their bodies. He takes hold of Jeongguk’s wrist. Pulls his hand away and out only to push it back in. Seokjin rolls his hips against his fingers, practically—

“Ride them,” Jeongguk mutters before he can stop himself. 

Seokjin doesn’t stop immediately, his thrusts only slowing down but not stopping. He opens his eyes to Jeongguk, his irises dazed and swirling with cosmos. 

“You read my mind,” he heaves.

They move sit up, Jeongguk keeping hand down on the couch and Seokjin positioning himself above his hand. He holds onto Jeongguk’s shoulders as he grinds down on his fingers. The sounds he makes do nothing to quell Jeongguk of his need. He doesn’t know what will happen if he waits any longer to touch himself. He’s held off for as long as he can. And it’s not an easy task to withhold while watching Seokjin open himself up on his fingers.

He takes his free hand and wraps it around his shaft, shuddering when he does. He’s so sensitive. He inhales sharply and the pleasure almost makes him shut his eyes but he can’t look away. As if knowing that, Seokjin opens his own and looks at him intensely. He doesn’t stop his movements.

Seokjin bites his lip and whimpers, a hand going up to his chest. 

“You make me feel so good,” he exhales, voice light with luxury and heavy with lust. 

Instinctively, Jeongguk squeezes the base of his cock and he does close his eyes then, groaning. 

“Are you…?”

He can’t even finish his sentence. Getting the words out is hard enough. If he says it, he might risk coming already.

Seokjin nods, lip still caught between his teeth. He rolls his hips a few more times before pulling up, Jeongguk’s fingers slipping out of him. Only when his hand is free does Jeongguk wish the warmth was back.

But then Seokjin is climbing onto his lap, straddling him. They kiss like that, Jeongguk’s hands on the small of his back and Seokjin’s posed on the back of the sofa. 

Still holding onto himself, Jeongguk, lost in the moment, rubs the head against Seokjin’s hole and Seokjin almost jumps. He clicks his tongue and moves away, reaching for the condom. He tears the wrapper off and, in one swift move, slides the condom down Jeongguk’s shaft. 

Before Jeongguk can fix his mouth to apologize for nearly forgetting, Seokjin is against him again. He gets on his knees, still straddling Jeongguk’s lap, so that when they kiss Jeongguk has to tilt his head up higher. They become a mess of tongues and touch and exchange of sweet sighs. 

Jeongguk feels Seokjin take hold of his cock. He looses a shaky breath when Seokjin strokes him once, twice. Seokjin parts from the kiss to look at him, gaze tender and loving. He guides him and soon he feels the head of his cock brush against Seokjin’s entrance. He groans when he feels it, rotating his hips for more. 

“Patience,” Seokjin murmurs against him.

But he doesn’t have to wait long because Seokjin, without breaking his gaze apart from the slight fluttering of his eyes, settles himself onto Jeongguk’s cock. Jeongguk’s hands fly down to Seokjin’s waist where he grips hard enough to leave marks. His mouth falls open and the moan that escapes him is a damning one. Seokjin lowers himself little by little, taking in inch by inch. Somehow Jeongguk knows it’s not completely to pace himself. Part of it that Seokjin, like Jeongguk, wants to savor this moment.

He holds on tighter when he’s fully sheathed inside. Enveloped in slick, throbbing heat. He can barely think. All he can do is kiss Seokjin as they both adjust. Seokjin throws his head back and starts to wiggle his hips from side to side slowly. And he thought they fit before…In more ways than one.

Seokjin is so tight around him, feels so good, Jeongguk curls his toes against the floor and leaves imprints on Seokjin’s skin.

They meet each other’s eye again when Seokjin lifts up slowly and falls back down around him. The pace they set is slow, almost painfully slow. But, like this, they can look into each other’s eyes. Jeongguk thinks that he could be imagining it. He probably is. But every roll of Seokjin’s hips feels like the three words still sitting on the tip of his tongue. 

Again, they’re making music with their bodies, making music from each other. Through their next kiss, Seokjin nibbles at his bottom lip. The simple, almost gentle, act prompts Jeongguk to try what he’s been thinking about for months. He takes Seokjin’s bottom lip between his teeth and tugs at it just a little as Seokjin’s pace increases. When he releases Seokjin’s bottom lip, he moves his attention to his neck again, his collarbones. 

“Ah,” Seokjin sighs and, for a moment, stops moving completely. He proceeds slowly. “That’s — right there.”

They move together. Seokjin rocking against him, Jeongguk holding onto his hips. He thinks of it as Seokjin showing him exactly what spots to hit, exactly how to please him. They chase the feeling, hips moving faster, hands guiding faster, breaths coming out in heavies and highs. It’s too much, it’s not enough. More, never more. Less, never less. 

Too late, Jeongguk notices how much of the tension has tightened inside him. He can’t keep up with the pace now, overwhelmed and nearing the edge. What finally sends him over isn’t Seokjin tightening around him or his hips moving faster. It’s when Seokjin meets his eyes again, tilts his head back and runs his fingers through his hair. His only warning are his arms gripping Seokjin even tighter and then he’s coming. The release is overdo so it rattles through him, shakes him to his core. He careens forward, body near spasming as Seokjin rides him through the orgasm.

After, he relaxes against Seokjin, feeling both sated and annoyed with himself. 

“Sorry,” he pants into Seokjin’s skin. He swallows hard, moans quieting. “‘m really sorry.”

Seokjin lifts his head again. “Why? That’s what you’re supposed to do?…What are you sorry for?”

“Because,” inhale — exhale. “I came and you didn’t.”

“…You’re such a keeper.”

Seokjin tears his eyes away sooner than either of them expect. He looks down between them, wiggling his hips a little. 

“You’re still hard?”

Only after Seokjin says it does Jeongguk realize. “Guess so.”

Seokjin wiggles his hips again, experimentally. “Is that okay?”

Jeongguk nods.

It’s not completely rare, he knows that. He also knows that the clock is against him now. There’s no telling how much time he has before he completely goes soft or before he gets to sensitive to do anything. With one hand still gripping Seokjin’s hips, he flips Seokjin over and lays him down without pulling out. This time, he moves, trying to follow the same pace Seokjin had kept. At the same time, he reaches his hand between them and takes hold of Seokjin.

He matches the pace of his hips with his hand, fast and nearly relentless. Seokjin mewls under him, hands outstretched above his head. It’s a beautiful image to have. Seokjin’s hair fanned out like a halo, skin flushed, eyes, closed, lips red and shiny. Jeongguk moves faster, gaze unbreaking.

He almost laughs. He still wants Seokjin, wants to touch him, wants to kiss him even now. 

Seokjin warns him best his can, mumbling something incoherent. His body tightens up and then his seed is splaying onto his stomach. Jeongguk pulls out and lets himself down, lying between Seokjin’s legs. They’re both trying to catch their breath, skin with a matching pink hue and a sheen of sweat. 

Seokjin’s hand finds a way into his hair again, settling on the back of his head. Jeongguk kisses Seokjin’s temple. He wants to stay like this forever but it doesn’t last long because Seokjin taps against his arm, urging him to stand.

“I don’t wanna get cum on the couch, you understand.”

Seokjin takes hold of his wrist and guides him to the bathroom.

“Can’t we just lay down?” Jeongguk asks.

“Shower first.”

 

Moving day arrives sooner than either of them want it too. But time will always move regardless of what people want. She's headstrong like that. They spend the rest of the evening holding each other without saying much of anything. When the sun rises in the morning, they share just one look and it holds the weight of the world.

They spend most of the day together, holed up in the apartment and listening to music and making the world end, until a half hour before Seokjin has to leave for work. Since he couldn't get the day off for the official move, their goodbye -- 'It's not goodbye, Jeongguk, stop being so dramatic -- has to take place earlier.

If it was up to Jeongguk, Seokjin would sleep at his place tonight, bare mattress and all. But he wants everything to be great for Seokjin. Not just them, he knows. Not just with sex. But with life, with the world. He told Seokjin as much the night before and Seokjin just pulled the arms Jeongguk had around him tighter. 

"I'll be by tomorrow," Seokjin says.

They're standing at the doorway now. Outside, Taehyung and Jimin are waiting for him, waiting to take him to what's supposed to be his new home. He doesn't see how it'll compare to the one he's in now. 

"I'll bring dinner," Seokjin adds, playing with Jeongguk's hands. "We have leftover dakgalbi, after all."

Jeongguk blushes and partially covers his face. "God..."

"It was great," Seokjin says as he's said many times since the previous night. "Really."

Jeongguk holds on tighter to Seokjin's hands, his chest feeling heavy.

"Stop treating this like goodbye," Seokjin reassures him. Again. He splays his hand against Jeongguk's chest. "It isn't. You're getting to me."

"Sorry, sorry...Thank you. For everything."

For loving me.

"You're welcome. I'd do it again."

Jeongguk thinks of that, of the pain and the anguish, of having his world turned upside down, of having to question the only things he ever believed in. And he agrees. He would do it all over again. Again and again. And again, for good measure. If it meant knowing Seokin.

"Me, too."

He trails his fingers from around Seokjin's pisiform to encircle his wrist, up and down his arm. "You promise you'll come by?"

"You promise you'll come by? Donna Summer's gonna miss you."

Jeongguk scoffs. "No, she isn't."

"Okay, she isn't. But it sounded nice, didn't it?"

Seokjin shakes his hand a little.

"We have so much more," he says suddenly. Quiet. Meaningful. "So much more to do. You know that. It's not the end of a chapter, it's just the start of a new one. Trust me...You and me? We'll be great."

Jeongguk smiles slowly, taking comfort. He squeezes Seokin's hand. "We are great."

They kiss. It's bittersweet on Jeongguk's tongue. He thinks of grand ends and grand beginnings. Six days to make the earth and one to it. He thinks of how many worlds could exist, thinks of how many timelines there are, and is ever grateful to exist at the same time as Seokjin. He doesn't know whether God is real or not. But he knows that something divine had to have happened for him to blessed this way.

"Okay," Jeongguk says after, biting his top lip. "Okay, I guess I'll--"

"Wait, wait," Seokjin appraises him for a small moment, lets go of his hand, and reaches up to take his rose quartz stud from his ear. He opens the palm of Jeongguk's hand and drops the earring onto it, closing his hand after. "Until you find one you like."

He nearly says it again. "...I like this one the most."

Seokjin beams, runs his thumb across Jeonggu's bottom lip. "Goodnight, love."

They let go of each other's hand eventually and part. In the car, Jeongguk puts in the rose quartz earring and, as he's leaving Casi Cielo, he realizes just how excited he is for what's to come. The pride flags bend in the wind, waving to him on his way out. There's so much more to come.

All the while, he imagines Seokjin closing the door to his apartment. Entering the guest bedroom -- he'll tell himself it's only to check on the fish. Seokjin will step inside and be surprised to find the vintage t-shirt lying on the bed, neatly folded. He'll cross the room to pick it up, bring it to his face and inhale sandalwood. His gaze will fall, unintentionally, on the chalk wall where three words Jeongguk can't say are written in orange chalk. 

Seokjin will smile. 

Chapter Text

hi, i love all of you

that's no way to start a letter but, oh well, i've already done it now.

anyway, i just...am still so floored with the amount of love/appreciation i've seen for this little story. like...i dipped out of writing fics for a minute so i really didn't expect anyone to read this story? and a lot of people did? and i still don't get it???

but that's not why i'm posting this. by the way, i'm sorry if i got anyone's hopes up. i just have no other way communicating with you guys (i deleted my curious cat & twitter a while ago and i don't really want to make new ones) but i still wanted to communicate my thanks to all of you.

the big thing i wanted to ask was...i've been sent a lot of art for the story and all sorts of things over the course of its run. when i could, i put links to those beauties in with chapters and summaries but i want to keep them all in one place and...i think...this is that place. i'd love for everyone who ever reads this story, now or in a few years, to be able to see the art and the videos (oh, god, that video). because it means a lot to me and i feel like it's made the story become even more of a real thing.

so, i'm linking some here but also, like, if you can -- please comment with anything i might have missed? i'd appreciate it. i love you all forever for making this story real, for keeping it alive.

okay, love you all, bye

 

video
trailer i love this baby

illustrations
i love this (bike ride)

i lOVe tHiS

i luvv (first kiss)

just before the first kiss (oh my) 

the first time they met?? jesus christ I'm gonna cry 

movie posters????

y'all have spoiled me, thank you