Seokjin doesn’t know much about liminal spaces or moments, but he thinks, sleepily, that this is a bit of both: a fluorescent Paris Baguette creeping from the dregs of September sixth to the first seconds of the seventh, inching towards midnight closing time. The Gangnam intersection blinks and flashes outside the windows and logically there must be a sparkling nightlife out there but these vivid emotional highs are nowhere to be seen on the sparse, darkened sidewalks outside. These emotional highs are probably packed like sardines in underground noraebangs or drowning indoors in frothing pitchers of bitter Cass beer, so close yet so far from Seokjin’s reach.
Liminality is about ambiguity, hyung.
Seokjin buries his face in his arms from where he's slumped on the counter, beside the cash register. He’s bone-weary and so, so sleepy. The name tag pinned to the front of his apron digs uncomfortably into his chest. Of course, he thinks miserably, I take one late night shift by myself and I go back to remembering things.
One thing in question is a blurry but pressing scene in his mind’s eye—his friend from university sprawled on an old couch, Seokjin himself with his knees tucked against his chest in an armchair, an organic chemistry midterm in his near future. (Seokjin's long since discarded his textbook for haphazardly stacked soju bottles stacked haphazardly on the coffee table.) His friend downs a shot and lets his head loll back, voice an earnest murmur. You know what liminality is, hyung? Imagine you’re underwater and you can’t see but you know you’re floating up to the surface. One place blurs into the other, but you’re in a spot in the middle that’s not quite either. Just a step, or a—he hiccups—or a second, away from something different. Like you’re one small breath away from stepping through a portal to the end of your world.
Seokjin remembers being brazen, then, brazen and more than a little tipsy; remembers being pouty and glassy-eyed and mumbling something about how scary that sounds I feel like I wouldn’t trust myself to breathe; remembers lurching off the armchair and letting out an indignant, choked breath when his friend rolled off the sofa and landed squarely on Seokjin's back with a teasing well how’s your breathing now hyung, the two devolving into a tangle of protests and limbs and booze-breathy laughs—
“Um, a large classic bingsu and two chai lattes, please.”
A young lady stands in front of him, looking more amused than appalled by his ongoing impression of a limp banana peel. Her companion giggles behind her, hugging her purse close to her chest.
Seokjin pulls himself upright with a sigh. “That’ll be thirty-three thousand five hundred won,” he recites, and heads for the coffee machine.
The hot green beverages simmer on the pick-up counter minutes later, white awkwardly dotting the surface. Seokjin grimaces as he wipes the milk frother with a rag. If Taehyung were here, he'd have carefully spilled steamed milk hearts or flowers or cutesy mascot characters into the caffeine—but tonight there’s only Seokjin, and his sad latte art skills at best confined to abstract Pollock impressions.
His phone buzzes in the pocket of his slacks. Seokjin fishes it out.
tae: the exhibition is awesome!! thanks again for letting me leave work early uwu
tae: also this reminded me of you
Attached is a photo of a photo of a chandelier, captured mid-fall and glowing against the backdrop of a dim Chinese restaurant. There are even hazy fish tanks in the corner, if Seokjin squints hard enough.
me: I don’t know how to feel about this
tae: me neither! isn’t it amazing
Seokjin sends a sticker of a bewildered, flailing rabbit in response before double-checking the café playlist. Twice fills up the queue as the two young ladies in the corner giggle softly at each other’s jokes and spoon each other bites of the syrupy bingsu melting next to their intertwined fingers. Seokjin slumps back onto the counter. He would coo at the couple, even through the bittersweet pang in his chest, if he wasn't too busy feeling like a slug in uniform.
(Just a step, or a second—)
"Shut up," Seokjin mutters into the crook of his arm, slumping even flatter. He always hates being alone, of course, so the smothering misery isn’t anything surprising, but all night he’s been plagued by smothering exhaustion. Even now, as he wipes down the counter with his sleeves, Seokjin feels his eyelids droop and threaten to glue themselves shut. He shakes it off, drums his fingers to the chorus of Fancy filtering through the speakers overhead, and begs his tired mind to wait until he leaves the store and collapses in his ratty apartment bed.
Finally, a minute past midnight, there's a quiet screech of pushed chairs and the couple finally leaves, hand-in-hand, into the sweltering September night—Seokjin's cue to start officially locking up. He sleepily hums along to the music and trudges through his mental checklist. Chairs up. Cash box locked. Music stopped… oh, right. The lights.
Seokjin flicks off the switch.
The fluorescent lights blink out. The sleepiness swells—
(Like you’re one small breath away from stepping through a portal to the end of your world.)
The couple is probably two blocks away by now, hands swinging between them, and Taehyung is busy staring in awe at minimalist photography in some obscure corner of Hongdae. So Seokjin is alone in the darkened bakery, alone and bleary-eyed and stuffing leftover pastries into a paper bag, when he first hears the quiet, disembodied hello.
Then the ghost blurs into view in front of him, and Seokjin forgets how to breathe.
Sugary static buzzes in Seokjin's skull and his fingers when he blinks back into consciousness—the latter because his right forearm is awkwardly sandwiched between the side of his head and the lacquered wood floor. He shifts and swears a crackle jolts through his brain at the movement—like someone’s cranked the dial up on an old television set, the kind Jungkook is definitely too young to have ever had the misfortune of troubleshooting. Seokjin’s fingers twitch, stiff and cold, and he reaches out. Warm and squishy.
“Thank fuck you're alive but also what the fuck,” Taehyung sputters, swatting Seokjin’s fingers away to frantically rub at his teary eyes. His softly sculpted face and tousled mint hair blur into focus. “You slept here last night? That can’t have been comfortable.”
"Wasn't," Seokjin agrees with a wince at sore muscles, registers that the dim sky outside is gaining bright overlays at an easy pace, and that he’s behind the Paris Baguette counter, his paper bag of leftover pastries marking his sleeping place on the floor. Why didn't I go home again? he thinks. Peeling wallpaper or not, the ragged apartment has a warm bed and a semi-chiropractic mattress, which is all Seokjin really wanted from the place when Hoseok's mom gave him the discounted price, a.k.a. the only reason he can afford the Gangnam real estate.
—but then last night hits him like the quadruple-shot espresso with pumpkin spice and yellow sprinkles he'd once made and shotgunned the night before his chemical kinetics final. Seokjin heaves himself to his feet—too fast, because he staggers and has to steady himself with a grunt on Taehyung’s shoulder. That’s right, he thinks in horror, he passed out—he remembers bingsu girlfriends, the flicked lights, the disembodied hello—
—the misty ghost strolling around the café, a tendril of fog wisping out of its side to poke at the bag of old pastries lying sadly on the floor. Seokjin thinks he can hear a low voice, and he realizes the ghost is— talking to himself in a perplexed tone, sparse words like feeling and name floating into Seokjin's hearing range—nothing like kill, which leaves Seokjin feeling less worried about dying a horrifically paranormal death, at the very least.
“I know you always say you’re not yourself until you sell your first cup of coffee, but go make yourself some first,” Taehyung laughs, shoving Seokjin towards the coffee machine.
Dazed, Seokjin lets the momentum carry him towards the shiny black caffeine shrine. Yeah. Coffee, he thinks, sliding a paper cup with a Paris Baguette cupsleeve under the nozzle. Maybe this whole thing is some strange hallucination fueled by—by whatever the fuck his tired brain was going through last night, and the caffeine will snap him out of it.
Like, really? Liminality? God, he hasn’t heard that word since—
The machine beeps, and Seokjin doesn’t even think as he lifts the cup to his lips—except it’s still an Americano, and instant regret hits him the way instant coffee never has, not since the yellow sprinkle monstrosity. His tongue sings bitter as he whines an ehhh and desperately wipes it on his sleeve.
On the other side of the shop, Taehyung flicks on the house lights, and sections of the store light up one after another: the chalked menus nailed high on the wall, the chilled glass food displays, the stacked wooden chairs in the seating area. Taehyung’s already got his apron on, cloth creased halfway through the B of Baguette with one strap hanging off his shoulder entirely, and yellow sunflower print blooms from his shirt underneath, so blatant that Seokjin can’t help his eyes from being drawn away from the logoed apron. It’s probably Taehyung’s subtle, artistic method of questioning the capitalist establishment. Maybe Taehyung’s been spending too much time with Yoongi—
Seokjin stills, his tongue still halfway out and tinged with bitter coffee. He slides his eyes up, very slowly. The ghost stares back with blurry almond-shaped spots of darkness (oh god are those supposed to be eyes ) and Seokjin chokes on his own coffee bean-flavored spit.
The ghost tips its head, faint wisps unfurling from the tips of its swept bleached hair. “Are—okay?” Its voice is hollow and layered at the same time, its original pitch indistinguishable from its ethereal overtones, but Seokjin swears he can hear a tinge of worry.
Seokjin nods mutely.
“Good,” the ghost says, decisively. “—important.”
Seokjin had honestly planned on avoiding any acknowledgment of the ghost’s presence whatsoever, but now that the spirit’s in front of him, he finds he can’t look away, as if affixed by some morbid fascination. The faded coloring of the ghost's skin is matched by the muted yellow of its unbuttoned short-sleeved collared shirt; even its t-shirt and jeans look more ashen than black. Its face is where things get even murkier—it has a face of some sort, but the specificities of his features blur even more than his body when Seokjin tries to parse them out, resulting in fuzzy dark spots where eyes and a mouth ought to be. Even the ghost’s cheeks seem more like indistinct patches of color than continuous skin.
It doesn't look like a stable body at all—just the hazy impression of one, as if flitting in and out of reality.
The ghost looks down, and Seokjin, entranced, follows its gaze. “Oh,” he says, because he’d dropped his cursed Americano at some point, and now there’s a sad brown puddle collecting under his soles, along with a now-soggy cupsleeve. “I’m just gonna,” he starts to say, already making a stumbling beeline for the back, but he’s not sure if he’s speaking to Taehyung or the ghost and—
—Seokjin's mouth feels dry and bitter now. Oh god, I’m talking to a ghost, he thinks faintly as he grabs a sopping mop from its bucket in the closet, traipses numbly back to the front. What the fuck is the protocol for when your store location is haunted? The thick employee manual collecting dust in a cabinet somewhere has addendums addressing the number of toes that a part-timer can show at a time, for fuck's sake (it’s been a rule of high controversy since Seokjin hired Taehyung), but apparently the executives or whatever Human Resources department Paris Baguette has under paycheck thought it unnecessary to include paranormal activity after its very extensive precautions against cult-like behavior. Is this a herald of capitalist doom? Has Yoongi been right all—
"—you and Yoongi-hyung okay?"
“I’m fine,” Seokjin automatically says over the sloshing of the mop—he thinks, vaguely, that he might just be diluting the liquid into a bigger, more faded puddle on the store floor, and he can see the ghost hovering behind him even as he mops—but then he fully registers the question. He blinks up at Taehyung, who’s now leaned against the front counter. “Of course we’re—why would we not be okay?”
Taehyung shrugs, oblivious to the ghost flitting around his shoulders, seemingly curious of him and his sunflower print. “Well, you know. You moved out of his place, and you two have been living together for, like, two million years. And Yoongi-hyung walked me to work today but he refused to come in because—” He offers air quotes. “—'it's probably best if he doesn't see me for a bit.'"
“Oh. Well...” Seokjin trails off, idly wraps all his fingers around the mop handle as he scrambles to think of something that won’t worry Taehyung, because there’s no way he can tell him, not now—but his mind draws a terrified blank because the ghost is still watching them, much too close and Seokjin doesn’t know if there’s a specific distance limit for curses but he’s pretty sure he and Taehyung are definitely within firing range—
—Taehyung coughs, dragging Seokjin back to the present. Right. Distract Taehyung first.
“We’re fine, really,” Seokjin says, sweat beading at the back of his neck. Just act normal, just act normal. “I mean, he texted me, like, thirty pictures of Holly coughing up the insides of a pillow last Tuesday. Pretty sure it was one of my old ones, too.”
“Really?” Taehyung still looks doubtful. The ghost inches closer to him, waving a hand in front of his oblivious face.
Seokjin swallows. “Yeah, really.” Pretend the ghost’s not there, talk like you normally would! “Speaking of Yoongi-yah… I’d bet a week’s salary that you didn’t go home alone after the exhibition last night."
Taehyung flushes—distraction successful. "Doesn't matter anyway," he mumbles. “So maybe he sucked me off, it's not like he likes me or anything—"
Seokjin sees the ghost pull a blurred face at this grin where he is near the front door, and—okay, mood, as terrified of the ghost as he is. "Ew, not in front of my breakfast—”
"Literally what breakfast."
Well, great, now Seokjin has to find an actual—oh, wait. Seokjin bends down, plucks a lemon danish from the paper bag of leftovers, and promptly makes heavy, sultry eye contact with Taehyung as he takes a massive bite. The danish is stale and feels rubbery against his molars, but Seokjin is a dedicated man, and he finishes it without a single bit of disgust showing on his face. The comedic juxtaposition to his sweaty-palmed fear isn’t lost on Seokjin, and the urge to break out into nervous laughter nags enticingly at his windpipe.
"Hyung, please," Taehyung says, his baritone sliding into a whine.
"This is literally how you look at me when we're on lunch break," Seokjin says. "Now imagine it with gawking customers. How does it feel, Tae? How does it feel?"
Taehyung sticks out his tongue and turns away—but Seokjin doesn’t get to feel relieved, because the ghost turns, too, looking straight at Seokjin with hazy black holes of eyes, faded yellow shirt drifting ominously in some spiritual breeze. Seokjin blankly notices the smudge of lemon cream left on one of his back molars. It’s hard to swallow the last bit of his stale breakfast, though, when he’s got a strangled scream bubbling in his throat.
The ghost opens its mouth. "—jin-ssi..."
Oh god, you know my name, Seokjin thinks, then belatedly realizes he’s said it aloud.
The ghost flickers, as if reality’s glitched for just a moment. Then the ghost raises a finger, very slowly, to point at Seokjin’s skewed nametag.
“Seokj—ssi,” the ghost repeats, like a mantra.
Seokjin decidedly does not shiver. “Wh-what is it?”
“The—soon,” the ghost says in a stutter, then scowls, tries opening the dark blob of its mouth again. No more sound comes out. The sky lightens outside the windows as the ghost gestures at the clock with urgency instead, the sunrise finally streaming over the stacked Gangnam buildings, filtering through the ghost's body, and glinting off the café’s wooden flooring.
"Yes, uh, it’s six-fifty,” Seokjin stammers, drying his sweaty hands on his apron before whispering, “please don’t kill me, I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life but I don’t wanna die either—”
The growling sound the ghost makes makes Seokjin snap his mouth shut. It flickers again, then—reappears beside the front door, its wispy hand now gesturing at the hanging sign reading Open on the wrong side before returning to point insistently at the clock—
—oh. A less primal but no less urgent terror strikes Seokjin now, because: "shit it's six-fifty already—Tae, sweep the floor and change the signs, I'll try to piece together some food before seven—"
Taehyung curses and runs for the closet, presumably for their old Eiffel Tower-emblazoned broom. Seokjin darts into the kitchen and rummages through the boxes in their pantry and their fridge for their delivered goods, grunting as he tries to carry as many logoed and plastic-wrapped sandwiches and salads as he can in one go.
"—dropped this," the ghost says, because of course it followed him, and it tries and fails to pick up a discarded quinoa salad with its intangible fingers and increasing frustration.
It seems… harmless, and trying to be helpful. Seokjin tries to align this new discovery with ghost scary ghost bad, but only ends up with a headache. "You can leave it!" Seokjin blurts out, partly because irritated ghost is something he primarily wants to avoid, but mostly because seeing the disheartened ghost keep trying to help anyway tugs a little at Seokjin's heartstrings (and maybe he's weak for this kind of thing, so sue him).
"Want to help," the ghost manages in its echoey, layered voice, despondent—
—and shit, even faceless, ominous spirits can be cute and pouty. Seokjin's too panicked about making opening time to really sit down and give the revelation some thought, so he quickly proposes that the ghost search the fridge for a large egg carton I couldn't find it fucking anywhere yesterday before scurrying back to the front displays with his spilling armloads of Western café food.
"Found it," the ghost declares proudly, pulling its head back through the fridge door, when Seokjin runs back into the kitchen. "—drawer, back right."
"Thanks," Seokjin pants, and yes, the eggs are there when he yanks the drawer open. Running through the ingredients for an egg and muffin breakfast sandwich in his head, he turns on the stove and manages not to flinch when the ghost appears curiously over his shoulder.
"Not burning," the ghost says in faint awe. It’s—tall, Seokjin notices, now that the two are standing so close to one another, and he subtly glances down to make sure the ghost isn't actually floating an inch off the ground. (He isn't.)
Seokjin’s instinct to banter kicks in before his brain wakes up enough to stop it. "Of course it's not—how bad at cooking were you when you were alive?" He regrets it the moment the words slip from his mouth. "Shit. Sorry. Um—"
The ghost sounds more subdued than sad, however, when it speaks again. It stuffs its translucent hands in the pockets of its jeans. "—don't know," it says, its voice gaining continuity with each word. "I can't remember."
Oh. Seokjin lets the sizzling oil and cracking eggs fill the silence for a moment. "What do you remember?”
The ghost wilts, and that’s an answer in itself.
“Nothing at all? Not even your name?”
A shake of the head, bleached hair drifting slowly with the movement. “Just a—feeling,” it murmurs. “A warm feeling.”
Seokjin exhales through the aroma of fried egg, and he can't believe he's holding a semi-regular conversation with a ghost, but—"That's, uh, kind of sad as fuck. Don’t know what kind of answers you’ll find in a Paris Baguette, but I support you, I guess. As long as you don’t destroy my store.” He gives the ghost a sideways glance. “...you’re not going to destroy my store, are you?”
The ghost’s lips and cheeks blur, and Seokjin hopes it’s smiling, dearly hopes he hasn’t just cemented a dismal fate for this Gangnam store location. It’s pretty much all he’s got.
The English muffins finish toasting. Seokjin wordlessly assembles the breakfast sandwiches and carts them over to the front, sliding them into the display case just as the front door swings open with a jingle. As if magnetized by Seokjin’s presence, the ghost follows, lingers by Seokjin’s side as he watches Taehyung wait patiently behind the cash register, watches their first customer pores over the selection of sausage croissants with hovering tongs.
What was it his friend had drunkenly said all those years ago?
One place blurs into the other, but you’re in a spot in the middle that’s not quite either.
The café doesn’t feel like a liminal space anymore, even though there’s now a ghost haunting it, quite literally straddling the line between life and death. Seokjin wonders if it's because he himself has somehow crossed over to some other side.
(Here is a memory—
Storming into the university library with the weight of the week’s homework on Seokjin’s back and a plastic bag full of fried chicken in his hand, searching the heads of students until he finds the wispy mint in a far corner, rushing up to Yoongi with livid indignance on his tongue because Seokjin’s been texting you all day and the first thing you say is that you want food what kind of disrespect. Except Yoongi just shrugs and there’s a stranger there too with the most unfairly pretty guilt written all over his face. Nice to meet you sorry for keeping your friend I’ll just go now but Yoongi snorts into his notebook when Seokjin drops the plastic bag on the stranger’s lap because he'll do anything to prevent this catch from leaving.)
Seokjin finds, as the morning continues, that it’s really hard to be terrified of ghostly retribution when you watch an approximately six-foot foggy humanoid try and fail to hold the door open for customers in a crescendo of well-intentioned frustration. Still, as Seokjin distractedly takes the orders of their stream of customers, unease settles on him like an itchy blanket, and he keeps a careful, distant eye on their resident ghost.
Seokjin’s no paranormal expert—he’s only certified in biochemistry and customer service and general existential sadness, for fuck’s sake—so he decides whatever regret keeping this weird ghost on the material plane is none of his business. That’s a domain better left to shamans and tarot card readers Seokjin has no intention of meddling with, because he’s almost entirely certain he’d just be told more spiels about the omnipotent whims of fate. Fate can do whatever it wants with this ghost—as far as Seokjin’s concerned, he’s just along for the ride, like he always is.
Luckily, the ghost seems equally as keen on avoiding Seokjin—or perhaps it’s simply much more concerned with figuring out its own existence. Seokjin wonders, as he recites seven thousand two hundred won and watches the ghost shakily levitate with outstretched arms fit for a tightrope walker, if it’s also forgotten exactly how it died—that is, if it realizes it’s dead at all.
(The thought leaves a bitter taste in Seokjin’s mouth, like the unwanted Americano from earlier.)
All this uncertainty and the faint absurdity of the whole situation keep Seokjin’s jokes to Taehyung half-hearted, his have a nice day smiles uneasy. The chatter of caffeine and carbohydrate addicts filling the sunny space somehow makes his antsiness worse in its cheery juxtaposition, and his grumbling stomach only makes matters worse because he can’t really eat on the clock and the stale danish was as filling as, say, a salted piece of cardboard.
So when Jimin walks in at noon, glowing even though he also looks as if he’s just rolled out of bed—well, Seokjin could kiss him in all his messy pink-haired glory. Of course, Taehyung beats him to it, immediately jumping over the counter and running into Jimin’s outstretched arms, wrapping every one of his four limbs around Jimin’s black sweatpants and the breezy peach shirt reading I put the bi in bilingual in blocky print. Their laughter intertwines and draws both amused and annoyed looks from the other customers.
“Jin-hyung!” Jimin greets cheerfully, once he’s finally untangled himself from Taehyung’s embrace. “You’re alive.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Seokjin says warily. He tries very hard not to flinch when the ghost, perking up in curiosity, floats over.
Jimin tosses him his smartphone in response. Seokjin fumbles but catches it and, being the sentimental idiot that he is, would probably get choked up by the show of trust in his hand-eye coordination if he weren’t busy looking at the picture of himself, unconscious on the café floor and gaping mouth clearly discernible, even in the dark of pre-dawn. There’s a hasty scribble of bright blue drool streaming from his lips and a neon green ㅋㅋㅋ scrawled on his forehead.
“Flattering,” the ghost says.
Seokjin turns off the screen and places it facedown on the counter.
Taehyung doesn’t even look ashamed. "What, no mention of my color variety? I thought the bright blue really juxtaposed the lighting."
“Don’t worry, Jin-hyung,” Jimin assures. “Even passed out and drooling, you put the beauty in beauty rest.”
"Thank you, Jiminie." Seokjin doesn’t point out the blatant rip-off from Jimin’s shirt; he's not one to challenge a compliment. “This is why you’re my favorite.”
Taehyung drapes himself over Jimin’s shoulders and goes happily limp, like a puppy uncaringly splayed over its sibling’s back. “Jiminie’s everyone’s favorite. Hobi-hyung is so lucky,” he beams.
Seokjin rolls his eyes, fingers blindly groping at the stubborn knot of his apron. “Yes, they’re sickeningly sweet together, but more importantly, Jiminie’s my ticket to lunch break. Here.” He holds out the apron expectantly.
“Your lunch what?”
Jimin tries to wave it off. “Actually, I was just getting lunch for Hoseokie-nii—”
“Great! You’re the best!” Seokjin tosses the uniform at Jimin, and the apron drapes itself over his pink hair, Seokjin’s nametag lightly bonking Jimin in the forehead.
Jimin, certified sucker for compliments, shuts his mouth quickly with a flushed smile. “Ah—anytime, hyung.”
“You can’t just do that,” Taehyung protests, but because he’s the certified sucker for quality time with Jimin, he doesn’t make any move to stop Jimin from swinging his long legs over the front counter and hopping down onto the other side, apron hanging loosely and untied over his lithe figure.
“Why not?” Jimin grins. He taps the name tag on his chest. “I’m Kim Seokjin, your favorite hilarious boss. Now get to work, commoner.”
“Make me proud,” Seokjin says, wiping away a fake tear.
Taehyung remains unimpressed. “Jin-hyung, don’t tell me you’re going to—” He lowers his voice to a stage whisper. “—another establishment to eat lunch. Think of the gossip, the scandal! What will the media say?”
“Then you don’t want Lotteria. Gotcha.”
“—which I would never say, how could I dream of reprimanding the best manager and hyung I could ask for, get me the mozzarella cheese sticks please.”
Jimin stands on his tiptoes, bares the Kim Seokjin on his puffed chest, and musters his best chastising glare. “Kim Taehyung, are you encouraging a potential customer to spend his money at another franchise? Are these cheese sticks of yours worth your job?”
“I just think cheese sticks are neat,” Taehyung says.
“I see how it is,” Jimin says, deflating, “you really just like your cheese sticks more than me.”
Puzzled, the ghost looks between the two supposedly bickering “employees” with the rapid alternation of someone watching a tennis match, but Seokjin just sighs, resigns himself to the self-proclaimed soulmates’ antics, and the inevitable complaint from the obligatory emotionally-constipated customer, and the ensuing angry letter from upper management. In other words, it’s a great time for Seokjin to start sidling towards the front door.
Taehyung grabs Jimin’s hands, eyes glistening. “No, I do like you,” he insists, “but do you even like me?”
“Of course I like my soulmate,” Jimin gushes, tapping Taehyung’s name tag. “I like so many things. I like my boyfriend and the way my name sounds on his tongue and that it sounds smooth in Korean but different smooth in Japanese. I like the ocean spray and snug headphones and the Peking duck from the restaurant down the street. And also cats—”
A customer taps on Seokjin’s shoulder and points a crooked finger towards the display of pecan delights, but Seokjin shuts her down with an I don’t know sorry have you seen the cute manager over there with the pink hair though? before she can open her mouth, and he shoulders his way out to the bustling Gangnam afternoon before anyone else can ask him about allergen information or bingsu flavors. A cascade of relief washes over him as the door swings shut behind him, leaving behind the glass his job, his friends’ noisy faux break-up and make-up—and, most importantly, the ghost with no memory of its own name.
Its own name, Seokjin silently repeats as he waits at the pedestrian crossing minutes later, because as it turns out, distance and the closed door of the Paris Baguette isn’t enough to keep the whole situation from bothering him—
—the ghost fizzes into existence beside him, buffering like static for a second before “settling” into its typical translucent form, feet unsteady on the concrete. “What?” it says faintly, “but I was just—the sunflower boy—”
It dawns on Seokjin, suddenly—a conjecture that seems more unsettlingly true the more he thinks about it, because no one else can see the ghost. “You’re not haunting the Paris Baguette,” he whispers. He leaves the second part unsaid.
“I don’t understand,” the ghost says shakingly.
A white stick figure blinks from the pedestrian walk light. Someone roughly bumps into Seokjin’s shoulder as two chattering crowds walk across the street and seamlessly blend together, and Seokjin numbly lets his feet carry him along with the flow. The ghost drifts wordlessly after him, stunned and playing with the ends of his yellow shirt like it’s a safety blanket.
Seokjin pulls out his phone, pretends to take a call as they walk. “Guess you’re stuck with me for now,” he says, still feeling a bit dizzy, and that can’t be normal but none of this is normal and clearly the universe won’t let Seokjin pretend otherwise anymore. “Sorry.”
“No, I should be saying sorry,” it mumbles, ducking its head. “You clearly wanted some time to yourself. Now you have to deal with—me.”
Guilt creeps under Seokjin’s skin and makes itself at home. “No! No, I—” He swallows, tries again. “I actually hate being alone, it was just that Tae and Jiminie were being a bit much and—” He awkwardly jerks his head behind them, back towards the Paris Baguette. “You know. Today’s been a little, uh, overwhelming. But it’s not really your fault. Clearly you have no idea what’s going on, either.”
The ghost cracks a fuzzy smile at that. “...yeah.” It seems to hold itself straighter, though, less hunched in shame, and Seokjin counts it as a small victory. A harried business woman walks right through the ghost, briefcase phasing through the ghost's thigh, and it only shakes its head a little, as if reorienting himself, before shooting Seokjin a shy glance. “You do have funny friends.”
A laugh slips out before Seokjin realizes it, because—yes, as tooth-rottingly cute as Jimin and Hoseok are (and Taehyung and Yoongi, Seokjin supposes, even if they are anxious, skittering wrecks when it comes to the other), the fact that Jimin and Taehyung aren’t together still bewilders Seokjin to this day. “Yeah, they’re a handful,” he agrees. “Love them to death.”
"'Love them to death,'" the ghost echoes. Seokjin feels it stare at him with some unnamed emotion before it silently turns its attention back to the road, to the lunchtime crowd of people ushering them through the world of the living.
Stumbling down the stairs of a noraebang in tipsy, giggling fits and snagging a spare room and collapsing on the plush seats, watching him struggle to feed a 1000 won note into the machine, you choose first hyung you choose first and Seokjin gleefully pressing the sticky buttons through the Tablo menu until he reaches The Song and the two stare into each other’s crazed gazes as they scream their way through EYES, NOSE, LIPS in full dramatics and two ends of the English fluency spectrum, but an hour and a half later Seokjin’s crooning a ballad with too-pink ears and trying very hard not to look in his direction for fear of meeting the stare he knows is softly waiting for him.)
The ghost looks around the shiny Lotteria, its walls stenciled top to bottom in random meat-related English vocabulary and its deceptively upscale fast-food furnishings, with an air of bemusement. “Did you know that, with that order of a bulgogi burger and Coke, you’ve made yourself complicit to the fifth biggest conglomerate in South Korea’s capitalist regime?”
“Oh god, not you too,” Seokjin says, then, “and I can’t believe you made it sound like I forgot Tae’s cheese sticks.”
“Fine. Did you know that, with that order of a bulgogi burger, Coke, and cheese sticks—”
Seokjin plucks his bag of food from the pick-up counter. “Yes.” When the ghost actually pouts, the petulance shining through loud and clear even through the ghost’s blurry facial features, Seokjin raises an eyebrow. “Okay, Lotte the Big Bad Wolf, whatever. Their burgers are still amazing.”
“They’re not that good.”
“Still good, though.” Seokjin wanders back to the front door, studying the receipt in his hand before tucking it into his pocket. “Do you even remember having one?”
“I think so…? Don’t think I liked it that much.”
Seokjin checks that his paper-wrapped burger is indeed there and pulls out his plastic cup of Coke as they step back into the sunlight, the afternoon shining through the ghost’s form and hitting the sidewalk shadowless. “Alright, I’ll bite,” Seokjin says, “pull a Jimin and tell me what you do like. Go on.”
He means it half as a joke, but the ghost’s face scrunches up in thought as they stroll down the sidewalk, taking a different route back. After a few minutes, the ghost lets out a decisive hmph. “I think I… I liked trees. Like trees. Soft sand, new book smell…” His voice grows more confident. “Crabs… hermit crabs. A good beat and a good tune. Shoes that lace past your ankle. Home-cooked food… hm. Jimin-ssi’s shirt?”
Seokjin pauses in the middle of a sip of his still-fizzing soda.
“Girls,” the ghost adds, then thoughtfully, “and boys. And you.”
Seokjin gets a windpipeful of carbonated sugar and keels over, coughing drops of soda onto the sidewalk. “Why the fuck,” he rasps.
The ghost hums. “Dunno. You feel right, hyung," he says, then leans forward and—brings the wispy remnants of his lips to Seokjin's cheek, except instead of passing harmlessly through his skin, Seokjin feels it, feels a strange, hot-cold touch suffuse through his own skin. There’s the quiet sound of a peck, too, grounding Seokjin in the reality of it all, and—
Seokjin doesn’t drop his paper bag of Lotteria goodness, but it’s a near thing. Some flimsy napkins do spill out, though, sadly hitting his shoe before scattering onto the concrete around him, and it takes Seokjin a few seconds to notice the dirty looks passersby are giving him for littering and standing stock-still in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Shit, sorry, I’ll just—” Seokjin drops into a squat and gingerly collects the trash, mind going haywire because—
With a worried sound, the ghost flits down and settles beside him, long fingers sliding through Seokjin's hand. Intangible again, then. Seokjin doesn't know how he feels about that.
"You—" Seokjin fumbles for words and the last napkin. "Why did—um." Deal with the easier bit first. “You called me hyung.”
The ghost curls its fingers from its resting place within Seokjin’s own. "It felt right. You feel right," the ghost repeats in lieu of an explanation, then, in a guiltier tone, "...should I not have done that?"
Seokjin snatches his hand away, lets out an awkward laugh, crinkled and stuttering, because what the fuck is he supposed to say to that? Does—does the ghost even know better? “You say that like you’ve got a whole list of transgressions,” Seokjin says lightly under his breath—his quickened breath, he realizes, but he falls back on the familiarity of sarcastic small-talk. If he can banter with fuming customers (you want to see the manager well he doesn’t want to see you bye) he can banter with a ghost. A possibly enamored ghost.
Seokjin side-eyes the ghost, takes in the wispy clothing and drifting hair and distant, foggy gaze. With how coherent and—and human it’s sounded (how human he’s sounded, Seokjin corrects dazedly), Seokjin’s forgotten that his first impression of the spirit was that he didn’t seem all… there, even for a ghost. Flickering in and out of reality, alternating between clear-headed bickering and blankly-stated fragments, intangible one moment and delicately touching Seokjin’s hand the next—it’s like reality itself doesn’t quite know what to make of this ghost, what kind of laws or logic ought to apply to his existence.
"’Transgression.’ Good word," the ghost says, voice distant.
(Fucking shit, the resemblance—)
“Hyung, huh.” Seokjin makes himself pull a face, forces his feet to move again. He tosses the wad of dirty napkins and his now-empty Coke into nearby receptacles. “I thought you didn’t know how old you were, before you—you know. For all you know, you’re stuck at thirty-five and I’m the h-young spring chicken with a spring in my step!”
To Seokjin’s relief, the pun and a half seems to snap the ghost out of whatever trance he’d slipped into. “I’m not sure why, but if you call me hyung, I’ll riot,” he says with an unsteady smile, and Seokjin offers one in return before they slip back into an uncomfortable silence.
They turn a corner, and the flashy mannequins and sparkling confectionaries that line the Gangnam street display windows briefly peter out in favor of towering goshiwon buildings for live-alone students and humble office buildings. The buzz of the crowd quiets, making the silence between Seokjin and the ghost more pointed—
“Oh,” Seokjin hears, and he whips around to see the ghost sidling closer to him, black holed-gaze transfixed by a tangential alleyway. The ghost fidgets with his yellow shirt again, distantly says, “What’s—what’s down there?”
“Um. A bunch of noraebangs, some cram schools, a few family-run bakeries…?” Seokjin squints down the alley again, through the cast shadows, before he realizes. “Oh, wait. My apartment’s a few blocks that way—ah.”
The icy hot sensation is back again, this time more muted but more suffusing as well, enveloping Seokjin’s free hand entirely, because—the ghost has both his translucent hands clasped tightly around Seokjin’s, grasp tight and clammy and oh-so-warm. The ghost’s—trembling, Seokjin realizes, and so he doesn’t flinch when the ghost slowly bends down to lean his head on Seokjin’s shoulder, into the crook of his neck.
“Sorry, hyung,” the ghost says faintly, “Didn’t ask for permission.”
“It’s fine,” Seokjin says, eyes tracking the flickering of the ghost’s body, the spasm in his yellow collared shirt, the shaking in his echoing voice. He doesn’t ask what’s making the ghost so scared, doesn’t question whether or not this has anything to do with the topic of death they’ve been skirting all day. He simply adjusts the Lotteria bag under his other arm and—squeezes back, wrapping his fingers protectively around the ghost’s own. “Want to hurry back?”
“Yeah,” the ghost mumbles, nuzzling into Seokjin now.
Even blocks away, the ghost doesn’t let go.
Seokjin ignores the strange looks from passersby and holds on even tighter.
(Shivering in the wintry chill but stubbornly refusing to head back alone because Seokjin promised he’d wait for him to finish class except only to himself and a surprise is a surprise is a blood promise but fuck it’s cold and Seokjin clutches his organic chemistry lab manual close to his chest with purpling fingers, why didn’t I bring gloves. Blinking when a plaid scarf drifts down, hugging his neck and squeezing around his face and brushing against the bottom of his eyelashes, warm fingers wrapping around Seokjin’s own and squeezing those as well, a whispered laugh layered with concern how long were you out here come on let’s go to that coffee shop with the fireplace.)
Jimin returns Seokjin’s uniform with solemn grace and leaves the store with the Sprite and salad he came for in the first place. If Hobi-niisan’s hungry, I’m blaming you, Jimin says brightly, a tone Seokjin matches with a mouthful of bulgogi burger and a reply of then also tell Hoseok-ah I’m not sorry at all, bye!
(Five minutes later, the ghost silently lets go of Seokjin’s hand. The resulting emptiness unsettles Seokjin enough for his fingers to occasionally twitch in vacant air, as if in longing.)
Soon, it’s back to work as usual, and the ghost gets bored very quickly, which is fair. Seokjin thinks he might be bored, too, except he’s been working this mind-numbing job for so long now that it’s hard to tell the difference. The ghost distracts itself with people-watching from various perches around the store—a display case here, an inch away from the ceiling there. Now, he sits with folded legs in front of the counter, squinting at the same two old men he’s been eyeing for the hour before declaring that the one with glasses has scratched his nose sixteen times, take that, hyung.
Seokjin yawns behind the cash register—another reminder of the creeping evening and his unconventional night. He thinks of his apartment and its old mattress for a wistful second before the phantom sensation of the ghost’s frightened clutch comes whispering back. “I win. Definitely nineteen scratches on the other guy,” he says lightly. “Way to waste your un-life.”
“Excuse me?” the customer in front of him says, sounding mildly offended.
Oops. Tucking stray hair behind his ear with a disarming smile, Seokjin leans over the counter just so. “Sorry, I said, we don’t stock strawberry cheesecake at this location. Can I interest you in some real dessert?" He makes sure to inflect his voice like an idol at a fanmeet chirping thank you for your support with their arms folded neatly on a table.
His customer melts a little under Seokjin's faux-warm gaze anyway and hurries away with a plate of blueberry tiramisu instead. The ghost, on the other hand, looks stricken. "You don't like strawberries?"
“Strawberry flavor tastes like diluted Maraschino cherries and no one deserves to have that in on their tongue,” Seokjin stresses. “Anyway, all I have to do is smile and suddenly everyone forgets they’ve just been insulted. Easy.”
Taehyung doesn’t seem to mind when Seokjin speaks aloud to the ghost—honestly, it wouldn’t be the first time Seokjin’s complained or joked into the void—but he still takes the chance to whisk past with a platter of fresh croissants, mouthing Seokjin's words back at him with exaggerated haughtiness.
"Distasteful," Seokjin mutters. “Hm. Dis-tae—"
"Not in front of our customers, Manager-nim," Taehyung says in mock horror, deaf to the stifled laughter sitting below him, and he dodges an approaching customer with a skip and a dramatic bow. “Look, this is how you should—” He breaks off into a sudden confused frown. “Wait. Hyung, watch out—”
“What—oh, fuck, ” Seokjin says lamely, because that’s when the customer at the register snatches the toasted ham and cheese sandwich from his hands and runs, stumbling out of Taehyung’s reach (and the ghost’s reach—a valiant but futile effort) and shouldering her way past a disgruntled teenage girl. “Ma’am!” Seokjin exclaims, frazzled, and he calls out the first thing that comes to mind. “Ma’am, if it’s one step short of a ham melt, is it really worth it?”
“The correct answer is no,” a new voice says—
—and Jungkook, like a fucking hero, suplexes the thief to the ground in the threshold of the Paris Baguette, the dazed woman half-sprawled on lacquered wood, half-sprawled under the evening sky.
Jungkook straightens, waving the retrieved sandwich with a puffed chest and no small degree of pride. “What would you do without me, hyung?”
“Wow, thanks,” Seokjin deadpans, and promptly fumbles the catch with a startled fuck.
(“That one step makes a big difference in a sandwich, you know,” the ghost remarks belatedly. “It’s like saying a bowl of red bean ice cream is just preemptive patjuk.”
“I hate that,” Seokjin hisses, “why would you say that.”)
Jungkook buys a plastic-wrapped sub sandwich for himself and a cursed large Americano for Yoongi, who he’s planning to meet in Hongdae at sunset for their irregularly regular night of busking. With his all-black attire, complete with an inky bucket hat and obligatory chains, he certainly looks primed and ready to fit in with the trendy Hongdae youth. Seokjin can’t tell if the image is bolstered or ruined by the vigor with which Jungkook chows down on his sub. He decides on the latter.
When he tells him so, Jungkook scowls around his cheeks full of lettuce and deli meat. (You look like an angry chipmunk, Taehyung comments helpfully.) He chews a little more, obstinate, before swallowing and declaring, "I won’t stand for this! I'm going to Paris Croissant from now on. Consider my customer loyalty suspended until you at least take my job application out of your stupid mailbox.”
“Oh no, what will I do if I don’t have the great Jeon Jungkook vying to work for my humble Paris Baguette?” Seokjin says with a flair of his hand. “Also, Paris Croissant is literally our parent company, so nice try, genius.” He pauses. “Tae, why do you look so surprised, you literally work here.”
“Yeah, at a Paris Baguette. I swear there are more Paris Baguettes than Croissants. There are, right?” Taehyung’s shocked expression morphs into contemplation. “...which bread represents the French more, do you think?”
“Oh my god, I always thought it was a rip-off brand,” Jungkook says dazedly. “The Caffè Pascucci with the terrible bingsu it is.”
“Um. I’ve got bad news for you, buddy.”
“You’re kidding,” Jungkook despairs.
It quickly becomes very apparent which customers are regulars and which customers usually frequent a location a few train stops away (with the only gray area consisting of the particularly unfazed customers with their AirPods in and their ability to care very much out), because resigned and scandalized are the only two facial expressions Seokjin recognizes as he and Jungkook dart around one another, fighting more than play-fighting with many a slapped butt. Jungkook interrogates Taehyung all the while about his not-date with Yoongi last night, a game Seokjin joins only too eagerly.
(“There was this one photo he liked a lot. Called it beautifully metaphorical,” Taehyung says dreamily. “It was of a single wad of tissue next to an empty trash can.”)
Eventually, Jungkook finishes off another, smaller sandwich with even greater ferocity, accepts Taehyung’s proffered warm honey green tea for your voice, and has just gifted Seokjin his parting buttkick when Taehyung stops the younger boy at the door with a startled shout.
Jungkook turns with wide eyes. “What?”
“Wait.” Taehyung’s voice is faint but certain. “You should go with Jungkookie, hyung.”
The ghost straightens, suddenly, looking very intrigued. Seokjin just feels confused.
Face lax in earnestness, Taehyung folds his hands under his chin, props his elbows on the counter—narrows his eyes, like he's trying to pinpoint a silhouette in a fog that stretches for kilometers. "Listen. You need a break, but you're not gonna go home no matter how much I tell you to. So go to Hongdae, hyung, maybe go for dinner, get some rest in your actual bed… take tomorrow off?" he eventually says, eyes wandering distantly around the shop. "And it'll help… you, I think."
Seokjin opens his mouth to protest, but Jungkook gives his shoulder what he probably thinks is a light punch and beams. "Yeah, come watch us! You're always busy, so you haven't been in ages, and you know Yoongi-hyung and I love it when you’re in the audience!"
"But I'm the manager, Tae can't just—I can't just—" Seokjin sputters. "The shop—"
"Will be fine. Tae-hyung's got it handled—right?"
Seokjin glances over at Taehyung and manages to catch him queuing up the entirety of Mitski's Bury Me at Makeout Creek in a few deft swipes (along with a strange mixture of Louis Armstrong tracks and Exid's Up&Down) before stowing his phone in his pocket. He flashes Seokjin a thumbs up and a bright, boxy grin.
“You did leave it with a non-employee for your lunch break,” the ghost reminds him helpfully.
Jungkook bounces on the balls of his feet. "C'mon, hyung, please? Why not?"
Why not? Seokjin silently echoes, thinks of the outdated calendar stowed under his old bed, remembers scrawling red ink over a September week and seeing that red on every other calendar he’s owned since then, even when the month’s new and blank and untouched by plans and deadlines and anniversaries. Remembers the first year, Yoongi showing up and refusing to leave him alone and Seokjin blowing up in fury and tears, fighting back with slammed doors and silent sobs and regrets, regrets. Why not, why not, why not, but—
—the ghost’s fingers, icy hot and pulsing in warmth.
“Why not,” Seokjin says.
He says it more like he’s musing aloud than agreeing, but a pleased glow lights up Jungkook’s whole face nonetheless, teeth peeking out in his hopping excitement. " Sweet , because I already told Yoongi-hyung,” he says, shoving his phone in Seokjin's face.
yoongi-hyung: no wait ask him if he’s sure first
Seokjin wonders, sometimes, exactly how many puppies he must have saved in a past life to deserve a friend like Yoongi in this one. He slowly types a short answer on Jungkook’s phone with a single index finger, his coordination unsteady on the vertical canvas of a keyboard.
me: he’s sure ;)
yoongi-hyung: ugh hyung get off his phone
yoongi-hyung: okay good work jungkook-ah. now you gotta coerce him into paying for dinner. do it for the meat. I believe in you
yoongi-hyung: also uh
yoongi-hyung: does tae seem okay? no limping?
Tugging half-heartedly at his apron again, Seokjin hands Jungkook his phone back.
“I like your friends,” the ghost says, with a contentedness Seokjin doesn’t quite feel.
Seokjin spends the commute to Hongdae feeling like his head is encased in a glass bubble, slowly but surely filling with fish tank water, imaginary betta fish gliding against his cheeks like ghostly kisses in the sun. He guesses from the snippets he distractedly catches that Jungkook’s chattering about the night’s setlist, but most of Seokjin’s attention is focused on the ghost and his earnest interest in the underground bakeries and clothing stories passing by in glimpses between bustling business suits and choker-adorned necks alike. The ghost claims to remember them when Seokjin subtly asks, but Seokjin doubts that's entirely true.
The bubble sensation only augments when the trio plop into empty seats inside the train compartment, and Seokjin dozes off more than once to the ghost’s layered voice musing aloud about the Hongdae’s possible influence in the downfall of the fashion-at-the-cost-of-comfort ideology, whatever that means.
Yoongi's already there with his frayed blond hair when they reemerge under the darkening sky. His synth, a microphone, and bundles of sprawled wires already reserve the space below the semicircular stairs—the Hongdae auditorium. He doesn’t look up when Seokjin approaches, just takes his Americano with a quiet thanks and a long, meaningful sip. Eventually, he smacks his lips in thought, breaks the silence between them as the sun sets between the restaurant roofs around them. “You came,” Yoongi finally says.
"I did," Seokjin says.
"I didn't have time to change the setlist for you," Yoongi adds offhandedly.
Seokjin senses a certain weight behind that statement, but he hasn't watched Yoongi and Jungkook busk in months and so the warning falls on uncomprehending ears. "As if you would. We both know how stubborn you get about music," he says anyway. He sounds stilted, even to himself, and the ghost glances at him in concern, brushes against Seokjin's shoulder in wispy comfort.
Yoongi offers a wry smile. "That's true."
They watch Jungkook stretch off to the side and wave at the growing crowd, smiling brightly at the shouts of encouragement from regulars and curious passersby alike. The crowd's building up, a small sea of bucket hats and oversized pastel sweaters and glinting jewelry forming on the steps, pressing together even in the September heat.
Yoongi idly taps the mic. "...proud of you, hyung."
It's very hard to swallow all of a sudden, so Seokjin just offers an awkward nod, saliva building up in his clenched throat.
Jungkook grabs the mic stand, adjusts it to his height. "Thanks for coming, everyone," he says through the speakers, and Seokjin shuffles off to the side to watch the performance begin.
The ghost hovers at his side, unconsciously leaning on Seokjin's back in his excitement. Yoongi begins playing the introduction of a popular song with some classical piano chords—an IU ballad, typical Jungkook—and when Jungkook opens his mouth to sing, Seokjin swears the Hongdae bustle quiets, just for a moment.
"Oh, wow," the ghost breathes when the first notes ring out, lifting a hand to his mouth in exaggerated but somehow also genuine amazement. His wide eyes are still enshrouded in that ethereal fog, but the ghost's eagerness remains palpable as the song goes on, as he whispers your friend's so good hyung oh my god did you hear the fluidity and looseness of that broken chord, hyung just listen hyung—! and they’re probably lucky no one else can hear the ghost’s ramblings because Hongdae may be loud but even this noise would probably get them dirty glares and—
—well. It's really cute.
Dimly, Seokjin recognizes the very dangerous route he’s taking, like he’s forgone the fork in the road altogether to take a tangential, beaten dirt path instead, snaking into the disappearing horizon, and when did he stop humoring the ghost, when did it become something like—and all he can do is nod and smile, see the darkness creep over the impromptu auditorium and the streetlights and storefronts flicker on in warm yellow and bright neon, listen to the melodies and the beats and the intermittent applause, feel the ghost's otherworldly fingers reach out and intertwine and meld with his own, hot cold hot cold—
Yoongi shoots him a look at the fourth, maybe fifth song, and Seokjin bites the gummy inside of his cheek, tastes coppery blood as the achingly familiar instrumental starts, because—oh, it's one of his, and Seokjin abruptly remembers that both he and Yoongi are brazen on skin but sentimental fuckers at heart.
The ghost squeezes his hand, tightly grabs Seokjin's upper arm with his other. “Whose is this?” he murmurs distantly, “it sounds…”
“Mm… maybe.” The ghost nods his head to the slow beat, hazy face seeming to grow even hazier in his contemplation. “Pensive. Good use of R&B.”
Seokjin nods numbly, watches Jungkook rap the syllables smoothly into the mic, and even though he knows Jungkook isn’t aware of the true depth of the words neatly spilling from his tongue (Yoongi wouldn’t divulge would never share that, he’s sentimental not tactless), Seokjin can’t help but glance up at the clear night sky, half-expecting to see gathering clouds, to feel the first plink plink of rain on his skin, because his cheeks feel moist, isn’t that the strangest thing?
(He blinks wetly. As if summoned, the ghost leans in close with his bleached hair tickling Seokjin’s scalp and hums along to the track, the vibrations soothing the stinging in the corners of Seokjin’s eyes.)
Time seems to lose all coherency as the night goes on. (“We shouldn’t belittle time as a mere social construct—so is language, and you don’t see elitists scoffing about how that doesn’t matter,” the ghost muses aloud.) Yoongi’s prepared quite the diverse repertoire, from the latest K-pop hits to old favorites to indie tracks probably one other person in the audience has heard before. Some people shout the duo’s names, and others shout requests that Yoongi acknowledges with a simple wave of his hand and a flicked switch on his synth. The crowd soaks it all in and repays by dropping crumpled currency into the open case at Jungkook’s feet.
(Of course, there’s always the obligatory heckler, tipsy as he shouts, bet you think you’re all that, making money off of that noise! It’s illegal, you idol wannabes! and while Seokjin would have been the one to shut up the drunk once upon a time, Yoongi and Jungkook have amassed a following and so he lets their fans take charge—this time, a lady who hisses, they’ve got an SFAC license dimwit now sit down there are kids here who can’t see.)
“I’m glad I’m here right now with you,” the ghost murmurs sleepily.
Seokjin exhales in the thrum of the music, the hum of all the human beings here spending a seventh of September night in the sweaty fervor of Hongdae and just—existing, happy to be alive (and one happy despite that). “Yeah,” he says, and falls silent as the crowd rises in roaring applause for his two bowing friends, to Jungkook’s breathlessly repeated thank you so much for coming, we love you guys!
"There's gotta be at least sixty thousand won in here," Jungkook says later, once the crowd has mostly dispersed or split off in search of other buskers. He locks the case back up, then shakes it and listens to the coins rattle mutely against paper currency with a widening grin.
Yoongi delicately places his synth in its own box and ties it firmly into place with deft hands. "We did good, Jungkookie," he agrees, an undercurrent of warm satisfaction in his tired voice. "You held up well. Throat okay?"
"Yeah! Tae's tea really helped."
Yoongi ducks his head at that. “Yeah, he… always helps,” he says gruffly, and Seokjin barely holds back the primal urge to give his old roommate the verbal equivalent of a noogie. “Still, it'd be better if you could take a break once in a while. Want to alternate next time?" He side-eyes Seokjin. "Maybe Jin-hyung could take the mic off your hands for a song or two?"
"You sing?" the ghost says, intrigued.
"Yah, I haven't sung since—university,” Seokjin says, hoping his smile doesn’t look too forced, pretends he doesn’t notice Yoongi and a confused Jungkook trade looks over their equipment. “I don't want to disrupt the sixty thousand won cash flow.” He claps his hands together with an air of finality. "So are we feeling meat tonight?"
They wade through the streets' fighting aromas, eventually finding a cozy but bustling barbecue place a handful of minutes and crowds away. The fragrance of cooked meat saturates the air to the point that even the ghost leans into Seokjin's ear and admits he's never felt more jealous of the living in his undeath (Seokjin tries very hard not to laugh). Jungkook is beside himself in excitement, pulling Seokjin and Yoongi as the waiter leads them to a table by the wall and hurries off to get a neighboring table some more ice water. They order pork belly and beef brisket and lamb and at least four other platters, and Yoongi makes sure to get some soju and beer clustered next to the tabletop grill as well.
"I hate Cass," Seokjin says.
"I know," Yoongi says dismissively, "but when it comes to somaek, you couldn't care less."
"Shut up and pass me two shot glasses," Seokjin says.
They teach Jungkook how to mix the cocktail, stacking shot glasses and pointing out the makeshift measuring line that appears when the glasses overlap. Jungkook takes to somaek about as well as they'd hoped and he turns very giggly very fast, though his grilling skills don't seem to deteriorate at all—a born meat-eater. He and Seokjin fight over the tongs so fiercely that a waiter comes by and meekly asks if they want another pair, only to be waved away in the face of the two's stubborn competitive spirit. They fight over who gets to cut the meat and who's best at putting more food on Yoongi's plate while also stealing the juiciest bits from each other across the fiery grill. Yoongi complains but watches them fight anyway, sipping at his somaek in his comfortable corner and silently refilling their wet glasses of water, his smile gradually loosening more and more. Across from him, unbeknownst to him, the ghost watches with a blurrier but similar smile.
Soon, Jungkook is in giggling shambles, and Yoongi has long left the sentimental fucker station in favor of the outright sappy steam-powered train. The ghost definitely shouldn’t be drunk at all but lounges with his head on Seokjin’s lap anyway, his cheek warm against Seokjin’s thighs but his legs apparently nonexistent to the nearby wall. And then there’s Seokjin, who thinks, distantly, that he might have misplaced the filter usually covering the melancholic mess that’s always swimming in his thoughts.
"Yoongi-yah," Seokjin says, drawing out the honorific with narrowed eyes, “I love you and Jungkookie to bits and pieces but, like… am I happy that I came tonight? Am I really?”
“Hyung, what—?” the ghost mumbles below him—ah, yes, Seokjin thinks, the sweet, sweet confirmation.
“Are you asking me if you’re happy or are you asking me if you’re happy?” Yoongi says, then blinks. “I mean. You know.”
“Of course Jin-hyung’s happy,” Jungkook argues, trying very hard to pick up a piece of chicken with his chopsticks. “You heard me and Yoongi-hyung up there, and after listening to us you have to feel happy. It’s a—a rule.” He succeeds in procuring the meaty tidbit and munches on it with no small satisfaction. “Or my rule, I guess. Yoongi-hyung says—says something something representation of sadness—?”
“Sometimes people just wanna listen to music and hear that other fucking people are sad too. Just a—a shitshow of sad, but less shitty because we’re all feeling shitty.” Yoongi nods solemnly, as if he’s said something particularly profound.
“From what I hear, you weren’t feeling so shitty last night,” Jungkook laughs. It’s a bubbling sound, like someone’s spiked his somaek with Sprite. “A beautifully metaphorical photograph, huh, hyung? Very smooth.”
“I really was talking about the photo,” Yoongi mumbles. “Taehyung’s beauty isn’t metaphorical, it’s just—” He waves his hands. “There, unashamedly there. A sunflower in a sea of tulips. A fucking drum pounding away in the back of an orchestra. You can’t ignore it and you can’t bear to try because it’s stunning as hell, and probably knows better than you, too.” He pauses, then adds in a pout, “okay, maybe his beauty’s a little metaphorical, too.”
“Jin-hyung. Seokjin-hyuuung.” The ghost paws at Seokjin’s tummy, and his form glitches, just a little—and maybe whatever’s tethering him to Seokjin is tethering him to his physiology, too, and Seokjin finds himself surprisingly okay with the revelation that he’s got a tipsy ghost in his lap. “You too. Metaphorical beauty. Metaphysical beauty.” He stretches an arm, ghostly fingers raking through Seokjin’s brown bangs. “Tangi—tangible beauty? A whole beauty.”
“That’s rich, coming from someone with black holes for eyes,” Seokjin says, and apparently only his mirror neurons are working right now because his shot glass-free hand absently reaches down to tangle in the ghost’s hair in return. It’s a strange feeling, like dunking your fingers in chilled velvet, but it’s not unwelcome.
“My eyes are fine,” Yoongi protests. “Taehyung thinks they look very nice. He looks at them a lot.”
Jungkook crows. “Seems hard to do when you’re busy with your mouth.”
Red makes itself at home in Yoongi’s face, but to his credit, he forges on anyway. “Yeah, well, that’s not the only thing we were doing you little shit—”
“Is this why you moved out, Jin-hyung?” Jungkook suddenly asks, unfocused but confrontational. “Were they really that loud?”
Seokjin assures him otherwise, but his mind squeezes through a memory tube and suddenly he’s thinking of Yoongi’s glossy-eyed breakdowns morphing into frail talk of dreams into the late hours of the night, you’re really important to me Jin-hyung and I’m scared of change but—but fuck if I can’t stop thinking about the future, what could be, don’t tell me you don’t—Seokjin downs another shot of somaek, and only feels faintly guilty when the ghost below him flickers again like a light spitting morse code.
When he and the ghost dip back into reality, Jungkook is still talking, and Yoongi has faded to more of a soft pink than the outright crimson from before. “I love you guys sooo much, but how am I supposed to show you?” Jungkook declares, then frowns. “I bet I’m a good kisser. You’re probably a good kisser too, Jin-hyung, oh my god we’d be such good kissers together, let me love you, hyung.”
“Don’t want to,” Seokjin says, “go kiss Yoongi.”
“You’re not Taehyungie,” Yoongi says, “go kiss Jin-hyung.”
Jungkook crosses his arms, leans in real close from across the table. “I knew it. You’ve got someone else, don’t you, Jin-hyung?” His voice morphs into a whine. “Let me—lemme fight ‘em. I’d win, you know I’d win.”
The ghost stirs in Seokjin’s lap, but looks more dazed than anything. Seokjin stares at the soju bottles in their varied levels of optimistic and cynical representation, observes the way his green reflection morphs in the rippling liquid, and suddenly feels more sober than he’s felt in a long time. “Yeah, sure,” he hears himself say—detached, like his voice isn’t his own, and he knows it’s about time to flag a waiter for the check. “Give him a punch in the face with my name on it, Jungkookie. But you have to find him for me first.”
(Soju bottles littering the carpet and Yoongi grabbing him by the shoulders but Seokjin just laughs and laughs and maybe cries a little a lot too because warmth spills down his cheeks. Burying himself in his friend’s shoulder as Yoongi dials a number that doesn’t respond and leaves voicemails and texts Seokjin can’t bring himself to send, what would he even say and write, I just have a feeling on repeat in his head like a broken browser add-on meant to replay certain snippets of YouTube videos but everything is numb because who is Seokjin to stand in the way of fate, to defy the laws of the universe—)
Seokjin turns his worn key in the lock and grunts as he pushes the sticky door open, the slightly stagnant air of his apartment meeting his senses. "Make yourself at home," he says, his voice still distant to his ears, and the ghost sidles into the darkness after him.
Exhaling, Seokjin kicks his shoes off at the entrance, the soles smacking into the discolored wood. He doesn't have a shoe rack, but he doesn't have many shoes anyway, just a few pairs of sneakers in varying degrees of wholeness and his carefully-maintained formal footwear, tucked safely in the corner. He sends a forlorn glance at the bathroom door before trudging past it—he's too exhausted to shower and get ready for bed, too disoriented to trust himself not to trip and hit his head on the toilet or the showerhead.
The ghost is in his room already, perched on his cracked windowsill and stretching his long legs. In the near-complete darkness, the ghost emits a faint glow, making him a disorienting swath of faded color in the otherwise monochromatic room. It feels more like a negative photograph than, say, a liminal space. Seokjin suddenly feels like he's the ghost, detached from his body and roaming around his home in the darkness.
The ghost seems to be staring at his own shoes, very intently.
"What are you doing?" Seokjin says as he places Yoongi's cardboard box on his nightstand.
"Trying to take my shoes off," the ghost says distractedly. “Oh! There they go.” Seokjin snorts and leaves the ghost to marvel over his now-mysteriously shoeless feet.
Snubbed showers aside, Seokjin has enough sense in his sluggish mind to tug off his clothing, the smell of alochol and grilled meat and sesame oil clinging to his discarded shirt and pants like dried glue. They get tossed in his laundry basket without a second thought, and though Seokjin hesitates at the hem of his boxers, those quickly follow, hanging off the edge in all its Supreme glory. (Its old glory—he’d gotten it in university, and it’s held up surprisingly well since.) He’s not sure, though, as he pulls on a fresh black pair, if the heat in his face is from the last tinges of somaek or the embarrassment from being bare in front of his ghostly companion, who Seokjin can glimpse fidgeting in the closet mirror. Oh, what the hell, Seokjin thinks with tipsy brazenness. He yanks on a large white shirt before slumping onto the mattress face-first.
The thought comes to him suddenly. "Hey—do you even need to sleep?"
"Don't know." But the ghost's voice sounds unfocused, and Seokjin rolls his eyes before blindly patting the empty space next to him on the mattress. When Seokjin lolls his head to the side, he sees the ghost light up—literally, the walls gaining a hint of their tan hue—and the ghost collapses onto the ratty cot with a fuzzy “smile.” Seokjin doesn’t get bounced upwards from the impact, no divot appears in the quilted fabric, but the ghost is undeniably limp and content in the mattress, so Seokjin doesn’t question it.
The ghost hums, the note thrumming in Seokjin’s ears. “You should drink some water,” the ghost says. “I think that’s supposed to help.”
“I’m not drunk,” Seokjin mumbles into the crook of his right elbow. “I’ll just hate myself tomorrow. Whatever.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy.”
They sprawl in silence. Seokjin follows what he thinks is the ghost’s cloudy gaze and sees the moon through his scratched window, a sliver of a crescent visible in the inky night. Eventually, the static of the ghost’s eyes shift, and Seokjin knows he’s looking at him.
"What did Yoongi-ssi give you?" A slow, curious question.
Oh, right. Seokjin does a half-hearted wriggle to put the cardboard box back in his view. "Uhh… stuff I forgot in my room before I moved out? I was kind of in a rush, because Hoseok-ah's mom was helping me move in but she had to go help another client in an hour, so." Seokjin cracks his neck and sighs. "Just memorabilia, I think—don't know what else I'd stash in my desk."
The ghost doesn't ask who Hoseok is, too preoccupied with shuffling closer to Seokjin and peering at him with wide, blurry "eyes." "Like a deconstructed scrapbook?"
Seokjin blinks. "A deconstructed—more like an unconstructed one." And he blames the alcohol because any other night he'd brush it off and tuck the box away, but tonight he's riding off of Yoongi's nostalgia and a lot of buzzing what if's in his sluggish mind, so he inches over within arms-reach of the box and tugs it onto the mattress with them. Dust drifts into the air and tickles his nose. Seokjin stifles a sneeze and cracks the box open, squints into the dark. "Get over here," he says, and the ghost obligingly scoots even closer, his softly glowing left shoulder and left leg overlapping with Seokjin's right pair, their knees melding together into some spiritual Frankenstein creation. Looking at it, it seems—"disjointed," Seokjin jokes in a mumble, and the ghost makes a sound crossed between a groan and a laugh.
The ghost's closer proximity slightly lights up the box's contents, revealing it to be filled with small things from scattered movie and museum tickets to tiny mascot sticker sheets to a chipped shot glass emblazoned with a pixelated jumping Mario. There's even a miniature notebook, each tiny page the frame of a different pressed, faintly veiny petal of the same white lily—an old gift turned keepsake. Seokjin digs past them all with his fingers, splaying them and making gaps in the memorabilia to peer into the box's shallow depths, extract the items buried under the charming tidbits like hidden treasure or—
Oh, Seokjin thinks, a weighty melancholy rising from his chest and muddy head like molasses.
Polaroids. Messy, scattered polaroids, small stacks pinched between numbing fingers and pulled from their place of silence, pulled into the ghost's faint glow. Seokjin at a coffee shop, swaddled in winter clothing with ears pink as he laughs in embarrassment. Yoongi and Seokjin attempting to fish in the school botany pond, makeshift rods already bending at the seams. Seokjin reaching for the cameraman, blurry indignance painted over his face as he gropes for the off-camera arm. Another young man, pink hair flat and bangs caressing the tips of his crescent-shaped eyes as he beams at the camera, dimples on full display despite his long-limbed tangle in a mess of blankets on a couch. The same young man, poring over a notebook with a gel pen in one hand and a broad shoulder in his other, Seokjin leaning his head into the crook of the other's neck. A haphazard selfie, Seokjin struggling to fit both him and his sleeping companion in his estimated frame, the two splayed on the grass underneath the leafy shadow of a summer tree.
"You look so happy," the ghost mumbles in wonder. "So that's… you, and Yoongi-ssi, and...?"
The gloss of the photo tickles the pad of Seokjin's thumb. "Namjoon," Seokjin says slowly, the sound rusty on his tongue, "Kim Namjoon." The name feels like a prayer, full of hesitation and the primal fear of broken promises, a pile of spiky glass against his gums.
"He loved you," the ghost whispers, reaches out with a hesitant hand, fingers pausing before touching the polaroid faces, brushing the surface gently. "This Kim Namjoon…"
The ghost's breath hitches, countenance shifts, a hand lifting to his foggy face.
Seokjin's mind slows further, the ghost and the polaroids spinning helplessly in his vision. No. The silent plea never pushes against his lips, but it rings true in his mind nonetheless, a mantra of what he'd unconsciously known but refused to accept repeating in his thoughts. Don't say it, oh god please don't—
The photographs slip from the ghost’s fingers, but he doesn’t seem to care. "Oh. Kim Namjoon," he repeats in a relieved, ethereal sigh, like something very important has finally locked into place. "Right. That's… me."
(—his whole universe, not even looking back as if saying no not you never you.)