"Taehyungie, you have to wear shoes to Yejun's birthday party."
"No!" He swung his legs on the high chair in protest. Namjoon sighed.
Taehyung was newly turned four, and despite learning it over two years ago, he was still relishing in the wonders of the word no, especially when it came to the incomparable displeasure of having anything on his feet that wasn’t dirt. This was unfortunate for Namjoon, as it was fucking January and he would heavily prefer if his toddler kept all his toes. (Okay, maybe it wasn't that cold. Actually, it was a surprisingly nice day, hence the outdoor party. Still.)
He leaned his forehead against Taehyung's, who didn't understand the gesture and tried to squirm away. "Sweetheart. We are already running late. If we don't leave now, you won't get to see Yejun at all, or any of your friends. And we have to wear shoes before we can leave."
Tae said nothing, but the stubborn set of his chin gave him away. He was not budging.
Namjoon leaned back on his heels. "Fine. I guess you don't get to go in the bouncy castle, or eat the cake, or play with your friends. You know, I heard Yejun's noona was even doing face-paint... I bet she could've made you into a tiger."
Tae's legs stilled.
"But, only little boys who wear shoes get to be tigers. Now if you want to sit in your room barefoot—"
"Tigers don't wear shoes," Tae said. Namjoon hid his smile. I got him.
"Yes they do. Where do you think their claws come from?"
Tae looked down at his own feet, puzzled. "Feet?" But the answer was uncertain.
"That's what it looks like. But they're actually wearing super cool claw-shoes with the claws attached. That's why they run so fast, and why they're so quiet."
Tae's face stilled as he processed this new information. Namjoon loved that blank expression he made whenever he was learning something he deemed important enough to remember. It soothed the irritation in his chest at Tae’s disobedience like vaporub. Maybe that wasn't a very poetic comparison, but there was a lot of vaporub in Namjoon's life, and in his books it was as good as holy water.
"But I want claw-shoes."
"Maybe we can get you some claw-shoes later, if they make any for people. But for now, we have to wear your super awesome Hulk shoes so we can make it in time for Yejun's noona to paint you into a tiger, okay?" As he spoke, he shoved the socks and shoes onto Taehyung's feet while Tae was distracted doing the mental math of whether he should be fighting about wearing shoes, fighting about not having claw-shoes, or should give up fighting so he could be face-painted. It seemed like a lot of work. Being a toddler must be exhausting.
"Are you excited to see Yejunnie?" Namjoon asked, hoisting Taehyung out of the chair before he could make up his mind. His face lit up, and he babbled excitedly about yes because last time Yejunnie and I played with his legos and I got to make a pirate ship and play pirates except instead of stealing because stealing is bad we found the treasure inside of volcanoes and then gave it away—
Thankfully, this rant lasted through Namjoon deposting Tae in the car and the entire car ride, and while Namjoon did listen as much as he could while driving safely and submitted commentary when appropriate, Taehyung seemed content to ramble happily whether or not Namjoon listened. This was one thing he was grateful for about Tae, even if it drove him crazy sometimes: he could entertain himself quite well once he got started.
They pulled up to the house with the balloons attached to the mailbox right behind another SUV, out of which strolled a cherubic child with red-rimmed eyes in the arms of an extremely tired, extremely windswept, extremely sexy young man. Tae's story had ceased and he was watching the duo with focused, curious toddler eyes, but Namjoon couldn't really blame him. The man wore a white button-up shirt and slacks with his hair pushed off his forehead like he just came back from work. Namjoon walked into the open door behind him.
"Hi guys!" Jackson greeted, running up to them. He sounded winded, which made sense given that there were a dozen toddlers in his house. "Glad you could make it."
"Happy to be here," said the Beautiful Man. Namjoon didn't know why his speaking suddenly made him seem more like a real person and less like a beautiful hallucination, but he didn't like it.
"Where's the birthday boy?" Namjoon ignored Tae's wiggling to escape.
"He's in the backyard with everyone else. Talk later, though: I have to find some strawberry milk." And with that, he flurried off.
The Beautiful Man turned to Namjoon, looked at his kid. "Jiminie, is this one of your friends?"
Jimin stared and stared at Tae but said nothing, which was as good as an answer. His face was ever-so-slightly screwed up, like if you blew on him wrong he might cry.
Taehyung waved brightly. "I'm Tae-Tae!"
Jimin looked at him for a moment longer, and then buried his face in the Beautiful Man's neck, who only laughed. Namjoon died a little bit.
"And I'm Seokjin," he said. "Although Jin is fine too."
"Namjoon," he said, following Seokjin towards the sound of delighted screams. "Are you a friend of Jackson's?"
"I know his sister better, but Jiminie and Yejun get along great." They reached the doors, and placed both boys on the ground. "Are you gonna be a good boy for Jackson-hyung and Yejunnie?"
Jimin nodded earnestly, clearly itching to book it outside after hearing all the fun being had.
"If you need anything, come find me, okay Taehyungie?" Taehyung nodded too.
Jin and Namjoon stepped back, but instead of sprinting off, the boys turned shyly to each other.
"I like your Hulk shoes," said Jimin.
"They're tiger claws," said Taehyung.
A big, heart-melting smile split Jimin's face in half, and Namjoon could see Tae look a little blinded by it. Jimin reached out and grabbed Taehyung's hand, and Tae smiled back. They raced each other out the door, stumbling and laughing as they ran. Namjoon heard Seokjin let out a sigh.
"I recognized that look," Namjoon said. "That was a post-meltdown look. Did you also have to wrestle him to get out of the house?"
Jin's head dropped into his hands. "Worse," he said. "We passed a homeless man asking for money, and Jiminie wouldn't stop crying when I told him what being homeless meant." Seokjin looked up at Namjoon desperately. "'Won't he be cold, appa? Can I give him my tteokkbokki, appa? Can't he live with us, appa?'" They turned back to the child in question, who was too caught up in laughing with Taehyung to remember his previous distress. "He's only four, but he's too empathetic. I'm worried it'll kill him one day. That he won't have any kindness left for himself."
Namjoon continued to observe the kids, playing some strange game where they threw grass up in the air and tried to run before any of it fell on them. He recognized the tone of truth that only came when someone was too tired to be anything but honest, and thought about how children fell in love every single day with every single person and thing they saw like it was nothing.
"I don't think people have a finite reserve of love. I think it's like a muscle: the more you use it, the easier it becomes to use." Tae tripped over something, and ripped off his shoes in frustration. "I think that's a pretty good problem to have, a kid who loves too much and too deeply. That's the kind of person who could probably change the world."
Namjoon could feel Seokjin's gaze on him, but when he turned to make eye contact, Seokjin turned back to the kids. Jimin was ever so gently putting Tae's shoes back on, and Tae was letting him, listening intently to whatever Jimin was saying. Tae was such a shit. He was literally the most contrary and independent and obnoxious kid. Namjoon's heart swelled bigger than that stupid bouncy castle Jackson had rented. He worried his body wouldn't be able to contain it all.
"I think you're right," Seokjin said at last. "If there was an end to the reserve of love I have, I would've found it by now."
Taehyung kissed Jimin's forehead gently for tying his shoes, the way Namjoon always did to Tae when Tae was being sweet. "I don't think we'll ever find it."