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twist in the tale

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Thump and bruising beat of the world around him, and for once, precisely nothing about it is self-inflicted, or even something that he would have considered, at the end of a night of far too many rounds of terrible soju, at the end of a night of breakdowns and every single kind of bad idea known to -- three men and the demons running wild in the backs of their heads.

Okay, not something he should be thinking about at all, but -- he throws back the shot that the bartender passes him, the bright fiery burn of the blue-yellow liquid and the smooth flower-honey-taste on the tip of his tongue that dissolves into an unexpected kick of hot-pepper surround-sense smell and taste that makes him grit his teeth and shake like a leaf in a high wind -- the thing is, he could have chosen to refuse that shot, and it’s his third or fourth of the night, and he’s already signaling for the next one.

And the -- person behind the bar, golden earrings and golden choker and golden eyeshadow and black lipstick over a pressed shirt and a black waistcoat -- only grins, neon lights catching on the piercings in their eyebrow, and shakes their head. Does that mean yes, he’ll get another shot? Does that mean no, he’s cut off for the rest of the night? That would be a shame, really, it’s barely gone midnight if his watch is still working, if his smartphone is still keeping time. Who the fuck knows.

The night’s too young and the featured rappers have yet to take the stage.

Again, this is not his thing and this is not his scene but -- there are two faces he knows in this crowd of entire strangers, and he is here for them. Only for them, and whatever it is they’re going to wind up saying or doing on that rickety mock-stage in the corner. No more than a bunch of production crates anyway, he thinks, the sorts of things actual musicians would probably store their amps and speakers and tech in; he’ll leave those names and functions and designations to the same other two that he’s waiting for.

He’s still considering what they’ve been telling him, way back before they even fell into each other’s beds, separate pairs that became the occasional giggly drunken set-of-three and then everything else that had followed on from there. He’s still considering because he has the luxury of that time and the absolute lightheaded privilege of nearly no relationship drama at all. He’s still considering because what he does, for an actual living, for an actual passion, is an ongoing process. Just as theirs is and yet -- they’d let him in, they’re willing to, and he’s giving that all the time to develop. All the days to come and go and slowly take root in the depths of him. The music, the beat, the bounce of it all --

Speaking of which -- it’s an absolute shock to the system when the thump of this club falls silent. A brief eternity of silence, the hook of it that catches in Hoseok’s senses -- and it works because it’s so profound and then it’s cut short.

The bartender is the first person to scream when the lights track around the room in dizzying flashes and then stop dead on the unmistakable shape of Yoongi, dead center on the stage. Gone the gravity that pulls his shoulders and all the rest of him down into a curve that probably only looks indifferent and listless. Gone the all-encompassing hood, gone the cap and its dangling rings, gone the shadow in which he hides the piercing knowing gaze in his eyes.

Bare-faced on the stage and nothing but a knotted bandanna to hold on to his hair -- and for good measure, Yoongi’s only freshly applied that shocking luminous teal, so he’s literally impossible to look away from, so he’s literally impossible to miss, so he’s towering even more than he usually would in this world of anticipating faces and avid stares, four corners and wall-to-wall crowd and all of their incredible focus riveted to him.

Hoseok had watched him emerge from the bleach, from the shriek of the blue box-dye, and he’d already been on his knees or else he thinks he’d have dropped straight to them, because every time Yoongi does this it’s like he’s reclaiming his rightful place on top of the world: the workaday black of his hair sloughed away and emerging as the demand of him -- the demand of the words that he could spit out into amp and mic and speaker, volume and power perfectly wound together --

Speaking of demand -- Hoseok blinks and only then realizes that Yoongi’s been holding his gaze all this time. The smile that stretches his mouth wide -- that’s been making the rest of the room scream -- the edge of knowing, before he touches the mic to his mouth -- before he takes a breath that rattles with power -- that shakes through Hoseok --

Words, furious torrent, rattling down Hoseok’s willing nerves. A story of injustice, a story of things that need to be made right, a story of a world that needs to be torn to pieces and rebuilt, and the demand for that rebuilding to be inherently better --

He knows Namjoon is supposed to crash in with the second verse, he knows where the words and the rhymes are supposed to clash and yet he still feels his heart drop with the shock of it, of the two of them suddenly facing each other on that stage -- Namjoon with the proud jut of his chin. Eyes narrowed with equal parts rage and determination and the fire to get the message across, and the different grace of the way he gestures, like translating the rhythm into a visual line.

Where Yoongi contorts his hands into universally understood shapes -- the middle finger is just the beginning, really, all things considered -- Namjoon punctuates his words with arms and wrists and the flutter of his hands.

Watching them really fall into it like this, now that they’re sharing the story, now that they’re shouting it out, he can nearly forget everything else.

He can fall straight into them once again, like there’s no one else here, like he’s the only one who can hear this.

Which -- shouldn’t hit him as hard as it does, considering the rehearsals. Is that even the right word for -- the rambling conversations? Late days of sunlight-slanted patches on the floor, warming Namjoon’s bare feet and the ragged holes in the hems of Yoongi’s track pants. Warming his own shoulders and the inked lines on his upper arm, the cluster of seven-pointed star and crescent moon and radiant sun -- the same cluster in its duplicate images in this room. One below Yoongi’s collar bone, and the other near the crook of Namjoon’s elbow.

Plates pushed aside on the scratched dining table, marmalade-bits on the nearest knife; the heel-ends of bread and their perfect pale-ivory interiors, the chew and the melt of the crumbs. A final smear of butter lingering on steel, and the two of them quietly murmuring about speed and catching their breaths.

And they’d been perfectly content to talk it out and -- ask him questions. How does this pun sound, and how does the structure of this verse work? What are his opinions on the order of the -- expletives? Should the refrain be shared, or alternated, or -- ?

“Why are you asking me these things when I don’t know a damn thing about what you’re doing?” he remembers asking, as he poured the last of the coffee in the pot into Yoongi’s mug.

Blink, from the two of them, weirdly disjointed for all that they’ve been talking from a shared brain not a minute ago. Namjoon’s eyebrows making for his hairline, and the corners of Yoongi’s mouth turning down for a fraction of a second.

He’d made a face at both of them -- it hadn’t lasted and he’d crammed a piece of crust into his mouth just to have an excuse to look away -- he hadn’t been prepared for Yoongi to grab his hand and press a kiss over the knuckles.

He had maybe been expecting the caustic affection in the words: “Sorry. Sometimes you’re just not paying attention though.”

“I can’t tell whether to be insulted or to be amused.” He’d put his foot down on the floor. He’d almost thought about going on with the day, regardless of their words.

“I mean. Okay. We should have said this, because it’s a thing that needs to be said. But -- Seok. We need you to be part of this.”

Shake of his head. His own frown, that felt heavy enough to make him walk away. “You need someone who knows what you’re doing. That’s not me, hyung, and you know it.”

Because that’s what’s been holding him back, all this time. He -- had almost entertained the thought of learning how to craft rhymes, how to put together the blistering commentaries that seemed to flow from his lovers like breathing, like ink-stains on their skin, like their fingers pushing pens into rapid-fire movement, stabbing out searing words onto patient paper -- and then he’d gone as far as creating one song around the idea of mirages and -- let it go.

It’s so much easier for him to shake people’s perspectives around, using a different medium. Using a different set of instruments. Flesh and blood, the tension of his skin and his bones and his muscles on the move, the actual lines in his own face becoming part of the expression, of the impression -- of the emotions. Not to be locked into one medium but to know that he could already do so much with this one that he knew. To know that he could keep going and keep pushing the boundaries.

He did it with his physical self, was the thing, and his lovers did it with their minds and their words -- and all three of them poured their souls into the work and that was where they could all meet each other’s eyes, that was where they found themselves on the same page. Not with this, not with their lyrics bursting off the pages in the morning, hard-hitting even in the slowness of sunlight and pooling glittering lines in the shadows of their water-glasses.

And Namjoon had chewed at the corner of his own mouth for a moment before saying, “What he’s trying to say is, you’re the intended audience, actually.”

Namjoon screams on stage in the here and now: his voice rising in volume, deepening in register, and the wordless shout turns into a war cry --

Hairs rising on the back of Hoseok’s neck, lightning-charge shattering down his nerves, driving the verses deeper into his mind --

The same person now, the same person then, quietly earnest even though he wouldn’t even look up from the chipped rims of the plates. “The clubs aren’t the point. The stages aren’t the point. The words are. We want people to hear what we’re trying to say.”

“People like you, Seok, we’re telling you the story, we’re just telling it a certain way.” Yoongi, hands chasing some of the words through the morning air. “Structure, right? It’s all just structure. Diss tracks, or cyphers, or battling. That’s structure. Like -- hip hop. Ballet. Like the ways in which you move. But if you cut that away, if you forget about the structure, what do you do about the message? How do you get the story across? That’s the point.”

“If you can’t understand us then we’re just talking and we don’t mean a damn thing.” Namjoon’s sigh, chasing the words. “In the club, they’re maybe ready to understand the structure before they understand the words. But -- story’s no use if it doesn’t get through. If they get stuck on the structure and don’t hear what we’re trying to really say. That would be -- failure mode.”

He’d never quite heard them be that double-blunt before. “I’ve never known you to fail.”

“That was before,” and Yoongi’s grimace had deepened for a moment. “I still have nightmares about it, you’ve heard me, it’s still shameful. Bombing out and not even because I’d nearly died of anxiety. Happened once or twice.”

“Being laughed off the stage.” Regret had still sharpened the edges of Namjoon’s words. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes for a month, it felt like. And then it took longer to work myself back into the right mind. To try again.”

They’re the farthest thing from failing, in the right here and now -- maybe they’re swatting at each other, rhythm of their attacks spiraling escalating and the club shakes with shouted agreement --

The story of the world failing and falling. The story of the world, changing. Some kind of improvement that’s harder than dreaming and more necessary than breathing.

Shot pressed into his hand, and he balances it on his fingertips, throws it back, and -- he can almost hear that morning in the strange story his lovers are telling on stage, and maybe, maybe if he listens hard enough he’ll almost be able to hear what they’re trying to say.

And -- not for the first time, either -- he wonders what the story they’re really telling him is. Not in the sense of doubting. In the sense of discovering -- in the sense of getting through to the truth, to whatever it is that they want him to hear, in the moments of the three of them and the shared lines of their histories, the shared lines of their structures -- whatever those might be. More than the rooms and the beds that they occupy together. More than the rhythms of their hearts beating against each other.

He wants to hear that part of the story.