Actions

Work Header

how to talk to other humans (and other valuable life skills)

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” 

 

The dark mahogany make the light in the hallway feel stale, trapped. The air is too but Jeongguk drinks it up greedily, bent over his knees and cradling his front like he’s holding the whole world, all its softest parts. As far as Jeongguk is concerned, he is.

 

He musters up, “Uh. What?”

 

“In case you were looking for the secret password for entry,” the voice says. He looks up and pink hair greets him, a shock of neon. He’s noticed her before, always sitting in the front of the lecture hall, her pens as bright as her hair. “He’s really into The Princess Bride this week. Haven’t you noticed?” 

 

Jeongguk shakes his head. He only notices the things he needs to. The essentials. He doesn’t have time for semantics, for what is or isn’t fair. 

 

The heating inside the building kicks on. She tugs at her scarf, darts her eyes around Jeongguk’s chest, trying to be subtle and failing. 

 

He’s gotten used to the strange mix of pity and confusion people look at him with now. He grits his teeth through it, sometimes manages an unaffected smile. 

 

She says, “Better than Sympathy For Lady Vengeance if you ask me. Too violent. Or Reservoir Dogs . Tarantino can fuck himself.” 

 

“Aren’t they all about death?” 

 

“What?”

 

“Those movies you mentioned. Or he mentioned. They’re about death.” 

 

She lifts a brow and this side glance is all for him. “ The Princess Bride isn’t about death. It’s about love.” 

 

Jeongguk asks, “There’s a difference?” 

 

She chortles loudly. It echoes in the sterile and imposing hallway and with a flourish she pushes the door open, “Accompanied minors first.” 

 

The sound from the room pours out around them, but more intensely the light does, the big windows facing the eastern part of the building, and Jeongguk stands there, blinded, frozen, about to back up, half blabbered excuses trying to slither from his throat.

 

“-who said, “ A language is not just words -” Ah. Jeongguk. You’re late.” 

 

There’s an old refrain Jeongguk’s mother used to say. Expect the expected and forgive the unexpected. When he grew up he realized she was mixing the phrase up but he’s found her spin on it more useful than the actual saying. 

 

When he signed up for LING 2001 at the beginning of the semester he was expecting to get a good grade, learn a thing or two if he was lucky. He was not expecting a lecture room that always feels brighter than the sun, more words than he knows how to process, and Kim Taehyung.  

 

It’s like being prepared for sunshine in the middle of a thunderstorm. Even the meteorologist gets it wrong and everyone manages to forgive them. 

 

“And Mina.” 

 

“And Mina,” Taehyung echoes brightly. It’s just Taehyung . Not Mr. Kim, or Professor, Kim or otherwise. He was clear on that the first day, insisted upon it. He knows all of his students names, their surnames, memorized their birth towns, their favorite writer and candy from the first day of class where he’d taken the time to get each student to speak, a bag of jelly candy open on his desk as incentive for the shy ones. The taste of peaches had melted on Jeongguk’s tongue, ripe and sugary, Jeon, Busan, Lee Chae-Rang, anything that would satisfy his sweet tooth

 

Mina takes her seat without much fanfare, receives a bemused smile that’s more amused than anything. That same smile gets turned on Jeongguk. The amusement eases, concern softening it, and Jeongguk’s insides seize up, prickle like thorns, breath caught in the top of his chest. 

 

Taehyung says, “I see you brought a guest today.” 

 

The thorns pierce his skin. His hands come up in the gentlest fiercest hold, cradling the tiny body held to his chest, the softest littlest heart setting the beat of his own. 

 

“He won’t cause a fuss! He’s very well behaved. He’s so quiet. So quiet. Honest. I promise you won’t even notice him and I’m- no one else could watch him and students don’t have access to the university daycare, I’m so-”

 

To undermine Jeongguk’s words, or to make his own case, Jinhyung thumps his feet against Jeongguk’s hips and huffs a loud breath, a squeal if it weren’t such a small sound. Jeongguk cups the back of his head gently, a thoughtless gesture with too much thought. 

 

“Hey,” Taehyung says just as gently, as thoughtfully. He approaches and everyone is staring, of course they are, but Jeongguk focuses on this, the way soft vowels flow from Taehyung’s mouth, the hard ones kicking against his teeth. “Hey. It’s okay. You’re alright. He’s fine. Don’t worry, okay?” 

 

Jeongguk wants to believe that but he has three more classes to explain this in today and he’s always worrying lately. It’s all he does some days. 

 

Taehyung seems to sense this and his face does this thing were it gets all squigly like he’s trying to figure out how to explain a certain text to a student whose idea of poetry mostly comes in meme form. He smiles kindly at Jinhyung, at Jeongguk. “He’s our auditor for the day. They’re never too young to learn. He’s absorbing everything like crazy at this age. He’s like a sponge. Every word we say around him counts.” 

 

The breath that’s been swimming up to Jeongguk’s head floats back down to the rest of his body. Comparing babies and sponges goes over his head but he feels the inexplicable urge to cry or laugh or both, and Taehyung can probably tell, that gentle smile back on his face, and it’s like Jeongguk said. Sun in the storm. 

 

It’s all he can do to take a seat. He pulls out his laptop, the case skidding against the desk. Jinhyung fusses in his lap, tiny fists banging on the mouse pad. Jeongguk does all he can to soothe him with quiet shushes and rocking them both gently side to side as everyone pretends to stop staring. Taehyung picks up the lecture right where he left off, something about Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition Jeongguk understands about half of. It’s not that he doesn’t want to know it’s just hard to make time for all the things he should. 

 

It’s all he can do yet Jinhyung won’t let up, a gurgle starting in his throat, a constant drone of unhappy baby sound, and it’s like he’s finally making Jeongguk pay for all those blissful nights of sleep, for thinking he must have lucked out and been gifted with the only human born right from the get go with the perfect sleep cycle. 

 

A twin feeling starts up in Jeongguk, more like choking, and it makes him jealous almost, how easy it would be to throw a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants, to make fists at the world and wail until someone understands, takes him in their warm arms. 

 

Jinhyung looks up at him with utter betrayal, his tiny face coloring in dismay like not only is he the only human born with the whole R.E.M. thing figured out but with telepathy. It would serve Jeongguk right. He looks down and it’s like looking at one of his own baby pictures, big wet eyes and an indomitable nose, and realizes the adolescent years will probably be hell. It’s the first time he thinks this and it’s too early to be thinking it but the choking thing in Jeongguk’s throat tastes like tears and they say college makes you cry but he never expected it to happen like this. 

 

A shadow falls over his desk and Jeongguk bows his head, a slimy feeling in his stomach. It isn’t shame but if it is, it’s not at the tiny unhappy thing in his arms. 

 

“I’m sorry. I know it’s disruptive. We’ll lea-”

 

“Listen.” 

 

The not-shame curdles Jeongguk’s stomach and maybe he isn’t too far from his own tantrum after all. 

 

“I’m so-”

 

“Let me take him.” 

 

He looks up so fast he must crack his neck, must crack every bone in his body from the sound alone, but he guesses its okay being boneless now. The happy giggle Jinhyung lets out might make no longer having a spinal cord worth it. 

 

Taehyung watches him calmly, crouched next to Jeongguk’s desk. Jeongguk thinks about the creases that’ll indent his slacks now. For all his carefully curated outfits, Taehyung doesn’t seem the type to care. 

 

“Um. What.” 

 

With seemingly endless patience, Taehyung gestures to Jinhyung. “It’s an easy solution. He’s being fussy so he probably needs to move around. You need to take notes. I can move around. See? Easy.” 

 

“Uh,” Jeongguk says, hands cradling Jinhyung’s sides protectively. He always remembers being a selfish child, didn’t like to share. His tiny fists could have jealously guarded the whole world if they’d been big enough. No one at home ever berated him for it, indulged it. “He doesn’t like strangers.” 

 

“Oh. Well, that’s easy too.” Taehyung holds a hand out, a respectful distance from Jinhyung’s person. “Well, hello there-”

 

“Jinhyung,” Jeongguk mumbles at Taehyung’s raised eyebrows. 

 

“Jinhyung,” Taehyung adds, smile a little wider, voice peach soft. “I’m Taehyung. What’d you say we give your buddy Jeongguk here a break? It looks like he could use one.” 

 

Looking as unimpressed as Jeongguk feels, Jinhyung’s one reaction is to drool all over himself in Taehyung’s direction. 

 

Jeongguk wipes at Jinhyung’s wet mouth with his fingers and Taehyung doesn’t blink or look like he wants to puke so maybe Jeongguk is a little more than unimpressed. Jinhyung must be too because he blinks at Taehyung, makes a high curious noise, feet bouncing as he reaches for his extended hand. 

 

Someone clears their throat and Taehyung says, to Jeongguk, “You can trust me with him. Promise,” and to Jinhyung, “Wanna help me teach about language? Bet you know a thing or two about the importance of it already.”

 

Everyone is staring but it’s the cooing noise Jinhyung makes, a clear sign of a sob fest or a giggling fit, that springs Jeongguk into action. He unstraps the carrier from his sides and unhooks it from his shoulders, careful to hold Jinhyung firmly. Taehyung stands and it takes a few adjustments, Jeongguk’s trembling fingers tightening here and loosening there because Taehyung is deceptively broad in some places, thinner in others, and suddenly it’s Jeongguk with empty arms and his TA with a chest full of his baby. 

 

For a moment, it seems like this is going to work. Despite the wretched feeling in Jeongguk’s stomach, the empty growling protectiveness surging up in his gut, Jinhyung looks fine. Content even, feet wiggling happily. In his bright button up and very professor-looking slacks, a baby carrier looks less out of place strapped to Taehyung’s chest than it should. 

 

Then, Jinhyung takes a deep breath, the back of his head bobbing as he fills his lungs, and those things might be tiny, might fit inside of Jeongguk’s ten times over, but they have the kind of power even Jeongguk at his older age hasn’t learned and he knows it’s over. He’ll have to drop this class, will probably fail his course, and why did he think he could ever do this, that he had a right to try?

 

Jinhyung opens his mouth wider and he lets out the biggest yawn Jeongguk has ever seen him make. His head falls against Taehyung’s chest, eyes drifting closed, lips smacking. 

 

Jeongguk blinks dumbly, betrayed and awed. 

 

Taehyung looks at him too kindly like he can tell, like being good at verbal language and its cues has made him good at the non-verbal too, the body’s cues. “It’s going to be okay. Okay?”

 

Dumbly betrayed and impressed Jeongguk says nothing. Takes his seat. 

 

Taehyung jumps back into his lecture like he doesn’t have an extra seven-kg of weight on his person, keeps his voice soft but words strong and clear. Jeongguk retains nothing but he types, pays enough attention to hopefully parse together some study notes and Jinhyung naps on a stranger's shoulder all through it, stirs every so often and looks exactly as tiny as he is next to Taehyung’s startlingly large hands. 

 

Jeongguk counts the seconds until the end of the class in the back of his mind. 

 

Taehyung says, “The thing that makes language powerful isn’t the words themselves. It’s the way we use them.”     

 

And Jinhyung lets out the sweetest giggle, quiets the terrible little monster in Jeongguk’s heart. 

 

“Ah! My esteemed colleague is right. Verbally, inflection can be everything. Emphasis.” 

 

It’s not what he expected today, his lecturer wearing Jeongguk’s purple baby carrier, the sun pouring all around him, the whole world secured to his frame. 

 

It’s not what he expected but he guesses he can forgive the weather man too.

 

“It was a man far more wise than I could ever hope to be who said, " Life isn’t fair" -”




---


 

“I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.”

 

“It’s fine-”

 

“No one could watch him so I had to bring him and there’s nothing explicitly in the university regulations against it. I looked it up.”

 

“Jeongguk-”

 

“And I know-”

 

“Mr. Jeon.”  

 

Jeongguk looks up, startled at the formality, but Taehyung’s face isn’t stern. There’s a light smile on his lips, a warm sheen in his expression. 

 

“He was great. Best co-lecturer I’ve ever had. Maybe don’t tell the administration I let an uncredited student in class today, but I think we can keep them out of it,” he grins at his own joke, sobers when Jeongguk’s face doesn’t change, but his tone is still light as he says, “You were late and that’s not great, but under the circumstances, I think Professor Park can be kept in the dark too.” 

 

He steps back around the podium and shuffles some papers, collects the washable markers he uses during class and connects their caps together. The whiteboard is full of scribbles, ancient Latin and Kanji, Umberto Eco quotes and paraphrases from Ban Ki Moon speeches, broken down script lines from a Scottish movie Jeongguk couldn’t understand more than five minutes at a time of no matter how slow he set the playback.  

 

Jeongguk simmers in the relief of having Jinhyung safely strapped to his chest again, the gratitude at Taehyung’s calm. 

 

Taehyung picks up the dry eraser but doesn’t turn towards the board. He leans against the podium and his silence is sudden and heavy.

 

“I’m sorry to ask, but is-”

 

“He’s mine,” Jeongguk says, rushed. Not because he’s embarrassed or ashamed, but because it’s easier. Because it’s the truth. It’s Jeongguk’s truth. He’d never had to hold a heart other than his own up until a few months ago, but this tiny one is his, is Jeongguk’s, is the one thing he’s ever known that immediately was. He cradles the back of Jinhyung’s head, the satin of his hair. “He’s mine.”

 

Taehyung’s face gives nothing away. He nods. “I figured that or your brother. He looks exactly like you.” 

 

Jeongguk shrugs, Jinhyung moving with him. 

 

“But what I was going to ask you is why you’re in this class. You’re a junior, right?”

 

“Oh. Yes. But I didn’t take my Humanities/Social requirement during my first year. My advisor recommended this class. Your section with Professor Park though it was almost impossible to get into.”

 

Taehyung’s mouth downturns, considering. He tosses the eraser in the air, catches it with his other hand. “Do you always listen to your advisor?”

 

Jeongguk frowns, perplexed. Jinhyung coos. “Isn’t that what they’re there for?”

 

Taehyung snorts, un-instructor-like, but it makes sense. He’s still a student too. “You’d think, huh.” He nods though, pleasant smile back on his face. “Well. The syllabus looks erratic, and it is, but important words aren’t limited to what was said half a millennia ago. Or half century ago. So I hope you learn at least something different than if you’d stuck with Intro to Lit .” 

 

Jeongguk wasn’t expecting to learn too much from Intro to Linguistics: Words and Their Power . Then again, he expected about the same from any non-major course. Jeongguk isn’t here to learn, capital L, admire these sacred hallowed halls. He’s here to pass. Get his degree. Secure a job that’ll guarantee dental and daycare and a future at a good pre-school and a better prep-school, a house full of presents during the new year, a pair of sneakers every time the current ones becomes too small. The time for learning, for wide eyed curiosity, to stumble and try and pick himself up and try again when he trips. That train passed Jeongguk’s station a while back. 

 

Jinhyung sniffles, bats his hands towards Taehyung’s wrist, the thin silver bracelet hanging off of it, a cross dangling in the light. 

 

Taehyung lets him play with it, careful Jinhyung doesn't get it in his mouth. The movement slopes the collar of Taehyung’s dress shirt, a similar chain peeking through, and Jeongguk wonders if he has the same thing around his neck, a second cross resting between his lungs. 

 

“How are you so good with him?”

 

Taehyung looks up from where he’s been explaining to Jinhyung how the links are inspired by some famous sculpture in simple but clear words, how the metal changes color depending on the light, his wrist moving slowly while Jinhyung coos. 

 

Jeongguk says, “I wasn’t lying when I said he doesn’t like strangers. He throws a fit every time I take him to the doctor for a check up. Sometimes I’m scared he likes people even less than I do.”

 

“You don’t like people?”

 

Face heating, Jeongguk plays with one of the velcro straps on Jinhyung’s shoes. There’s no judgement in Taehyung’s voice, just piqued interest. He’s obviously older than Jeongguk, obvious in the academic position he holds, but he’s all wide eyed curiosity like he’s still a sponge too, constantly learning, knowing, tripping over his feet, picking himself up and dusting himself off with his wide palms. “I’m not good at them, I guess. Or at talking to them.” 

 

Taehyung’s mouth curls. “Lucky for you, you’re very young. Plenty of time to learn.” 

 

“When do you stop being very young?” Jeongguk asks, annoyance filling his stomach.

 

“Sixty. Sixty-five if you’re especially spry.”

 

Jeongguk feels his mouth tremble but he doesn’t have much to say to that. Doesn’t have much to say in general. 

 

Taehyung straightens, the cross falling out of Jinhyung’s clutches. Jinhyung, like most babies, isn’t too fussed by this, quickly latching onto the next best thing, the sleeve of Jeongguk’s sweater. “I’m an older brother. Oldest of five. My hands know better what do with a baby than without one.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Mhhhm. The youngest is getting too big for me to carry him. Not sure what I’ll do once he is.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“It’s cry, in case you were wondering.” 

 

“Your parents must be… young.”

 

“They still act like they’re seventeen. Were terrible at birth control like it too.”

 

Jinhyung squeals, yanks on Jeongguk’s sweater more roughly than he treated Taehyung’s bracelet, and they both seem to realize Taehyung’s words at the same time, Jeongguk a step ahead and his arms circling Jinhyung protectively, Taehyung expression twisting, shamed. 

 

“I didn’t mean-”

 

“I have to go,” Jeongguk says as his phone rings.

 

“Jeong-”

 

“It’s really- I’m sorry, again. It won’t happen again.”

 

“Jeongguk.”

 

Jeongguk really has to go. His phone keeps buzzing for attention, he has another class to get to, is sure Taehyung does too. He still turns from where he’s almost at the door. It’s the lilt of Taehyung’s voice, that surety, and TA’s aren’t full professors, but Jeongguk has always leaned towards respecting authority, and that is what Taehyung is to a certain degree. 

 

Taehyung’s face is doing the squiggly thing, pinched and embarrassed, an earnestness in his voice when he says, “If it happens again- if you don’t have anyone to watch him -you’re always welcome here. This is your classroom. You’re always welcome. All of you.”

 

The sun falls in slats on the walls, on the floor. It illuminates Taehyung’s face, his sincerity. Jeongguk wouldn’t have expected it but he doesn’t expect much of anything anymore.

 

He nods. Gets all the way to the door before he looks back, catches the surprise on Taehyung’s face when he says, “Thank you, 교수님 .”




---


 

Namjoon won’t stop apologizing. 

 

Jeongguk lets him babble on from the curb as he watches him secure the car-seat to the backseat of his hideously sleek SUV even though it’s already safe. The seat never leaves the car.

 

Jinhyung claps along like Namjoon is singing a song, legs pumping, mouth trying to emulate the sounds. There’s a rhythm to the apologies, how Namjoon got the dates mixed up and then forgot that he did, and what shitty luck that today was the one day he had to go into the office and no one ever teaches you how to properly maintain a schedule as a freelance artist and Namjoon is in his 30’s now he should have learned this. 

 

“Hyung.”

 

Namjoon hits his head on the roof of the car. The nice dress shoes he never gets to wear are getting soaked in rainwater. “Can’t remember the last time you called me that.”

 

“I call you that all the time,” Jeongguk says. Jinhyung backs him up, garbling excitedly in Namjoon’s direction.

 

“Even longer since you called Yoongi that. I think it may have been when you were seventeen. No, sixteen? Before you hit your obnoxious growth spurt.”

 

Hyung .”

 

Namjoon rightens, the car seat quadrupled secured. He leaves the door open, yanks the left shoulder of his coat back into place. There are tiny lines starting to burrow into the edges of Namjoon’s eyes and forehead. He’s at a dissonance with the Namjoon of Jeongguk’s memories, big square glasses and counterfeit Japanese brand hoodies, his hands pulling Jeongguk along while Yoongi rolled his eyes but never said anything against Jeongguk’s tiny feet following them everywhere, his smaller footprints embedded in mud and pavement and sand right behind theirs. 

 

Jeongguk says, “It really was okay. The professor. I mean my TA. He was understanding. Don’t worry. Thank you for coming to pick him up. You didn’t have to.”

 

Hurt flashes across Namjoon’s face before he can hide it, school his expression, but Jeongguk sees it, feels it like it’s a living breathing thing suckerpunching him in the stomach. 

 

Namjoon says, “Ggukie-yah. Of course I had to. Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve told you that.”

 

“Namjoon-hyung-”

 

Against the glossy black sheen of his car, Namjoon’s smile looks painful. “You have another class, don’t you?” 

 

Smarted, Jeongguk nods. He lifts Jinhyung from the carrier, takes a moment to press his face to his cheek, inhales because he never gets tired of that balsam of a scent, not the same as when Jinhyung was a newborn but still unmistakingly baby, tiny things that breathe life, the new, that remind Jeongguk how very not young he is anymore. 

 

He gives Namjoon the baby bag, tucks Jinhyung into the seat, heart squeezing when Jinhyung reaches for his own cheeks, thumbs pressing into the impression of Jeongguk’s dimples. He does this every day. Jeongguk doesn’t know why it feels like a knife to the heart now, biting into a peach pit. 

 

“Say bye-bye, bub,” Namjoon encourages, steps back and walks towards the driver’s seat. 

 

It’s just five hours. Just his economics class and a core faculty requirement. He skipped his second class, new that professor wouldn’t be so forgiving. 

 

Like he understands, language and words and what it means that Jeongguk is standing on the sidewalk and not inside the car too, Jinhyung reaches a fist out, coos, the sweetest sound. 

 

It’s just nap time and feeding time and maybe his next attempt to crawl and Jeongguk almost wishes he had been turned back earlier, that he’d been disappointed but had spent the morning watching Jinhyung watch Peppa Pig and playing one of those classical music podcasts for kids and working on tummy time because Jinhyung is this close to rolling over on his own and Jeongguk might miss it. He might miss a lot of things. He already is. 

 

He needs more time. More words. He needs a lot of things. 

 

Swallowing it all up, Jeongguk drops a kiss on the top of Jinhyung’s head, his cheek, does it until he smiles and giggles, until their smile is on his own face. 

 

“I love you Be good for hyung,” he says, tests the seatbelt one last time just in case, and steps back. Closes the door like it’s made out of glass.

 

Namjoon rolls his window down. Jeongguk looks at the air-freshener that sits on the dash, its knock-off Totoro shape bouncing the sun off its belly. “See you at home?”

 

“Yeah. See you.”

 

Namjoon smiles and Jeongguk guesses it doesn’t matter how many lines take over his face, over his own. He’ll always see Namjoon at twelve, front teeth missing from an accident with a tree branch, gap proudly on display, the biggest thing in Jeongguk’s world. Second biggest. 

 

“Have a good day at school, kiddo.”




---


 

That night as he’s giving Jinhyung his nightly bath, he promises himself it won’t happen again. Jinhyung blows a bubble in his face, its soapy shiny pink and greenness bursting on Jeongguk’s nose. 

 

They’ll plan better next time. He wouldn’t want to misuse Taehyung’s kindness. He doesn’t expect much from it but he doesn’t think he could forgive it, if i turns out it isn’t true.




---


 

“So if language is, in fact, instinctual, if the impulse to speak is in our DNA, and language does, in fact, shape society, does that mean society, and the culture that defines it, defines us, is instinct as well- no, Damien, it’s not a yes or no question. I want you to think about it. I want you to think. In your essay. That’s due next week in case you guys forgot.”

 

There’s a collective groan in the lecture hall. An elated giggle drowns it out, a battling war cry in defense of essays and academia and thinking. That, or it’s bottle time. 

 

“Why, yes, Professor Jeon is indeed correct. The instinct theory is just that, a theory. But what I- I mean we, of course -want you to think about is what that might mean for why we speak the way we do. It could pose a pressing question about evolutionary linguistics: if what we say is instinct, what does that say about why we once spoke the way we did and why we no longer speak that way? If scientists ever get around to figuring out time travel- and it’s about time I say -if I met my ancestor from hundreds of years ago, could we understand each other? If we tried hard enough, given enough time together. Even just a little?”

 

Slouched in his seat, Jeongguk types his notes one handed, mind whirring on auto-pilot, the other searching in his backpack. This time, Jinhyung had bodily thrown himself out of his carrier towards Taehyung hard enough Jeongguk tipped forward, and it only serves Jeongguk right, a perfect karma. Jeon Jeongguk would make the world’s strongest baby. 

 

The stares had been less persistent, more awed at how scarily good Taehyung seems to be at strapping himself into baby transportation aids. More love struck, like every female student, and a few of the male ones, had immediately started ovulating the second Taehyung had Jinhyung secured to his chest, because the only thing more attractive than a man who’s competent with a baby, is an attractive one. Jeongguk gets subjected to those looks often enough, always mixed in with that edge of pity, confusion thrown on top when they’re out with Namjoon and Yoongi, because it’s obvious then, who looks the most like a father and who doesn’t. 

 

Taehyung strolls the paths between the rows of desks. He’s the kind of dynamic lecturer, flits around the classroom like it’s a park, takes a seat in the middle, calls on a student and lets them go on until they get to their point, what they want to say, gets at what they mean. The first day of class he’d been sitting in one of the last rows and made the students turn their chairs around, dismissive towards the lecture podium, because if it was one thing education had gotten wrong, his education Taehyung said, it was the illusion of hierarchy. That students were the only ones who had anything to learn. 

 

“Now. The other side of our hypothesis is, if language isn’t instinct- and when we’re talking about DNA here, we both are and aren’t talking about genetics- then, what is it?” 

 

He pauses dramatically like he’s waiting for a lightbulb to turn on above a student’s head next to Jeongguk’s desk. Jeongguk curls his hand inside his bag, fist cupped around the bottle he’d been rummaging for. 

 

Taehyung nods as some kid in the second row asks one too many questions, pushes the DNA angle, but he stays put, arm casually curled around the carrier at the height of Jinhyung’s belly.  

 

Realizing he has Jeongguk in arms distance once more, Jinhyung seems to remember he exists, vocalizes excitedly, patting at Jeongguk’s head with chubby sticky fingers. Jeongguk shushes him gently, the earlier sting at being abandoned easily soothed. He pulls his hand out of his bag, reaches past him, and holds it out towards Jinhyung’s current favorite transporter, shaking it obviously.

 

Taehyung doesn’t skip a beat. He takes the bottle from Jeongguk and ambles back down the aisle. 

 

Jeongguk stalls for a second too long, body tense from where he’d risen to take Jinhyung for his feeding. He forces himself to sit. 

 

“All of this poses an interesting logical thought exercise but we’re getting a little too chicken or the egg and we’re not quite there yet, but it poses the question: do thoughts or words come first? Can I have a thought for something I don’t have the word for? It’s the language as use vs language to symbolize function debate all over again. But here’s the real question, I think, and I concur Prof. Jeon here agrees with me though I’m sure he can speak for himself-”

 

It wins him a few chuckles, a hearty laugh or three. Jinhyung fists his bottle over Taehyung’s guiding hand, his tiny index curled around Taehyung’s much larger one as he drinks, mouth too busy to debate language and what it is or might be. 

 

“Why are we so convinced it has to be one or the other?”

 

He lets the question land, settle, and by the looks of the students around him, it seems to register with them in a way it doesn’t Jeongguk. He wonders what their reactions would be if they were upperclassmen, if their eyes would be just as wide, far less innocent. 

 

“Now,” Taehyung says, and there’s still twenty minutes left in the hour but his tone indicates he’s wrapping up, segueing into, “leaving behind Pinker- who by the way you should all take as seriously as you do Freud- and Chomsky and Whorfian theory, what do Freaks and Geeks and Reply 1997 have in common? No? No takers? Tina, this is right up your alley, throw me a bone.” 

 

An answer is fumbled through, a thesis posed as a hypothesis as a conclusion, and for the first time Jeongguk wonders what he’s gotten himself into by skipping Intro to Lit I. 

 

“The way language is used. Exactly. Yet, other than capturing almost true to life syntax of how certain culture groups of teenagers talk? A lot more than you think. But we’re not getting into that either. Yet. What I want to leave you guys with, I think, brings it back to the central point, and with this I’m going to wrap it up for today. I’m paraphrasing, so forgive me, but it’s related to the discussion, I promise.”

 

A sense of collected audible breath fills the room and Jeongguk is thankful but he just wants to be holding his kid.

 

I dream of painting and then, I paint my dream.




---


 

Professor Zhang’s office hours are from 2pm to 4pm, Mondays and Thursdays. 

 

During Jeongguk’s first attempt at a collegiate academic career, he never went to office hours. It didn’t make any sense. Why subject more time asking questions when he could just bury himself under library books and google searches and figure it out for himself?

 

“Professor Zhang?”

 

“Jeongguk.”

 

The desk chair spins and Jeongguk’s raised fist thumping on the door frame, surprised. 

 

“Oh. Professor Kim.”

 

Taehyung grimaces, eyes magnified behind thick frames. His hair is in disarray, legs folded beneath himself, an oversized sweatshirt with the university logo stretched over his chest. There’s a stack of exam pamphlets on his lap, ink smeared along his knuckles. He’s very stressed senior like the kid who always falls asleep in Jeongguk’s finance classes. “Please. Just Taehyung. Professor Kim makes me sound ancient. And, well, considering this PhD is killing me, the professor thing isn’t going to happen but thanks for thinking I look the part.”

 

Jeongguk stares. Asks, “I thought TA’s had their own offices?”

 

“We do. But they found mold in the old Humanities building. And asbestos. And allegedly a marijuana harvest in the abandoned janitor’s closet.” 

 

“Oh.”

 

“So the grad students are taking over professors’ offices. You just missed Bae Joohyun. Has some really interesting things to say about inter-sectional feminist theory and the interplay with Confucianism, but be careful with rebutting any of her points unless you enjoy getting your ass handed to you.”

 

Jeongguk stares some more. Clears his throat. He crosses his arms, leans against the door jamb. “Um. Is Professor Park supposed to be here soon? I had a question for him.”

 

“Park doesn’t really do office hours. But I can answer any question you have. Or try to, at least,” Taehyung says, and he sounds like he’s really going to, like it’s his mission. His feet drop to the carpet, the exams he was presumably correcting forgotten. Attention on Jeongguk, eyes hyper focused lasers on whatever inquiry Jeongguk may have behind his, frankly, nerdy glasses. Like bright purple baby carriers, he makes it work. 

 

“It’s- it’s a question about the class.”

 

When nothing else comes, Taehyung’s gaze narrows the slightest. He clicks his tongue, sweeps his arms over the desk e and stacks his hands on top of a battered copy of Neon Genesis Evangelion Volume 3. There’s an even older manga wedged beneath it, the frayed edges of Dash! Kappei . The desk is overwhelmed, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask , a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, a book on Hegelianism. A bound copy of old Korean fairy tales and horror fables. Stories, words and their rules from well before Taehyung’s time.  

 

“Well. You can try emailing him but he checks his email less frequently than he shows up here.”

 

“It’s about.” Jeongguk bites his lip. The words are stuck to the roof of his mouth, the kind intensity of Taehyung’s eyes, like whatever Jeongguk says matters, is more than Jeongguk was prepared for at 2:35pm on a Thursday. “It’s uh. It’s about my essay. My grade.”

 

“Oh,” and now Taehyung is all surprise, face melted in confused relief. “Then that question is for me.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk repeats and he wonders how many times a day someone fills in the silence with oh , placeholder of a sound, useless but pure instinct. “I thought-”

 

“Look, if we’re getting technical, yes, Professor Zhang is the lecturer of LING 2001 sections 3000, 3001, and 3002. But if we get practical? His TA’s do all the work. So if you want to dispute your grade, you can email him, but he’s just going to pass it along to me because I gave you that grade.”

 

Jeongguk nods, saves the oh for another time, fights his instincts. 

 

Taehyung furrows his brows, thumbs tapping against the manga cover. “I’m a little surprised I have to say. A B+ is a solid grade.” 

 

Jeongguk slumps. A sigh slips past his lips and he wonders if Taehyung and Professor Zhang, who has to have some say in the syllabus, or Chomsky or Pinky or whoever are right to bring it up all the time. If it’s at least a little instinct. A sigh is language in a way, a word that doesn’t quite mean anything, that says everything. 

 

“I have to maintain a 3.95 GPA minimum for the semester. Scholarship requirement. I have some wiggle room to not get perfect A’s, but I’m also taking Calculus this year-”

 

Taehyung winces sympathetically. 

 

“-so I’m accounted for when it comes to wiggle room. I was counting on not having to use it for this class.”

 

“I see.”

 

Jeongguk straightens from his slump, sucks in a breath. “I didn’t-”

 

“Is it athletic?”

 

“What?” 

 

“Your scholarship. Is it for a sport?”

 

“You’ve seen the type of extracurricular-activities I have,” Jeongguk snorts. Realizes how rude that is, coughs. “I don’t have time for sports. It’s academic.”

 

If this surprises Taehyung, he hides it well. “Speaking of. How is my favorite adjunct doing?”

 

A switch flicks off, the mention of Jinhyung making Jeongguk soft, softens him, his guard down and vulnerable. It’s, well, instinct. “This morning he refused to eat his cereal. He’s been on a rice strike for a week now. Threw it all over the floor though he was cackling hysterically while he did it. It took twenty minutes to clean but it was cute.” 

 

Taehyung smiles. It’s funny, really. Jinhyung doesn’t like most people, but people love him. He seems to like Taehyung, a little more than Jeongguk can wrap his head around, so it isn’t strange that Taehyung is as endeared by this as Jeongguk is. 

 

Taehyung asks, “Why are you in college, Jeongguk? Why did you choose my class?”

 

The camaraderie soft in his belly evaporates, shoulders pulling back. “I told you, my advisor-”

 

“I remember. He advised you,” and his voice is so placating, so professorly and adult-like it sets Jeongguk’s teeth on edge, how people probably look at Jeongguk and see a child but Taehyung with his titles and almost titles and fancy words is taken seriously, is treated like an adult, while Jeongguk who only knows responsibility, who thinks of himself last, is treated like anything but. “But there are dozens of courses that fill first year requirements. You have to request access to even apply to this class. So, why?”

 

“Because-” he stalls for so long it seems like nothing will come but Taehyung waits, watches for every sound that isn’t a word but isn’t nothing either., “I don’t know. I thought- I don’t know.”

 

“Okay. Well-”

 

“I need him to have a good life. I need him to have a dad who can provide for him. I don’t want him to grow up and be ashamed of who his dad is. I don’t want to give him anything else to be ashamed about.”

 

Here’s something Taehyung doesn’t pull off as being preternaturally good at it: hiding pity. He doesn’t let it linger long, pushes the sleeves of his sweatshirt to his elbows and picks up one of the books on his desk. “Have you ever read A Girl on The Shore ?”    

 

Jeongguk frowns. “No.” 

 

Taehyung tosses him the book. Jeongguk catches it by the spine, pages fluttering. 

 

“It contains some explicit scenes but that’s not the point. If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t read it obviously, but I got it cleared with the faculty board so you can’t file a complaint about obscenity materials.”

 

“Okay… what-”

 

“You ever watch Casablanca ?”

 

Jeongguk bites back a scoff, smooths down the ruffled edge of the pages. The cover is new but worn. “I was basically born this century, so, no.”

 

Taehyung smiles wide, amused, sharp with it. “Well, I want you to read that,” he gestures at the manga in Jeongguk’s hands, “And then I want you to watch Casablanca . And then I want you to argue why Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar is bullshit using them both as examples. In an essay. Three pages.”

 

“I don’t-”

 

“It’s extra credit, Jeongguk. Make your case, make your points convincing, and your B+ gets bumped to an A- .” 

 

It’s a virtue of how delicate the manga is that keeps Jeongguk from crushing it. “I didn’t tell you all that so you would pity me or give me special treatment,” he says. He sounds strained. He sounds like all of his soft vulnerable bits have been exposed, afraid they’ll be used against him. Taehyung would know. He’s held Jeongguk’s biggest vulnerability in his hands.

 

Taehyung doesn’t rise to the bait, get defensive, and he can’t be more than five years older than Jeongguk, can’t have been doing this for long, but it’s like he’s taken to it like he has to handling anyone under the age of 12 months of life, to oversized nerd glasses, to walking into a room and making someone think of the sun. 

 

“It’s not special treatment. It isn’t. You’re not the first student to tell me off on being a harsh grader. Lucky for you guys, I’m also a softy who gives out too much extra credit. You don’t have to do it but the offer is there.”

 

Cradling the manga to his chest, Jeongguk asks, “So the theory is bullshit? The instinct thing?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. “You tell me.”

 

Jeongguk isn’t sure that’s something he can do. Any of it. Isn’t sure he’ll even have a case to make, points to support it with. Any of it. Keep his grade point average, get his degree, be someone to be proud of some day. 

 

He thinks of Jinhyung, his wide eyes, his lovely giggles, the way his temper tantrums never seem to last. Even the hazardous baby things, diapers and spit up and vomit and crying, how Jeongguk’s time will never be his own again, will always be Jinhyung’s first and forever. How he doesn’t seem to like people, but he seems to like Jeongguk a lot, more immediately, more real than anyone else has ever liked Jeongguk. 

 

Taehyung says, “You wrote a good paper, Jeongguk. You’re a strong writer, conscience. But I asked you to write something personal, and you wrote about the Asian Financial Crisis of ‘97. I was barely strapping my own velcros when it hit so I’m guessing you didn’t know what a shoe was yet.”

 

Jeongguk scoffs, doesn’t hold it back. If Taehyung is the kind of lecturer who gives his students pornography and does his office hours shoeless, he can’t be one for much formality deep down. 

 

He hikes his backpack higher on his shoulder, holds the book in the crook of his elbow. “Three pages?”

 

“Not a page more, not a page less.”

 

Jeongguk nods. 

 

There’s a thank you on the tip of his tongue but it feels like there’s a lot he has to thank Taehyung for, the words too big for his mouth, for the way Taehyung seems to do things without a thank you noose tied at the end of them. 

 

His nod this time is more of a bow, hopes it says something Taehyung understands, and turns. 

 

“Hey.”

 

Taehyung has his elbows on the desk, the pack of exams from earlier open on a page, red ink spilled on white. It’s been a grey day, but the sun has pushed between the clouds, and the glare sneaks in through the office blinds reflecting off the thick lenses of Taehyung’s glasses. “Have you really never seen Casablanca ?” 

 

Hesitant, Jeongguk nods.

 

“Well.” Taehyung tips his glasses back and with the sun all around him, he says, “Here’s looking at you, kid.




---


 

The sound of water fills the apartment.



Jeongguk removes his shoes, steps into his house slippers, sheds his jacket and bag, and follows the sound.


He patters down the hallway and the noise becomes clear, splashing and fast paced babbling, a softer voice over it, someone snoring underneath.



Jinhyung is being an outright terror in the bathtub, toys bobbing along the water’s surface. He splashes and kicks, bubbles kissing the top of his head like a cap, his chin and cheeks. The front of Yoongi’s shirt is soaked. Namjoon is propped up against the toilet, mouth open as he dozes. 



Jeongguk watches from the door and the phantom weight he’s been carrying all day lessens, transforms into warmth.



Jinhyung spots him first. His eyes zero in on Jeongguk, an ecstatic yell punching out of his lungs as he pounds the water with open palms.



Yoongi looks over a damp shoulder. Says, “Hey, kid. How was class?”



Five words and Jeongguk is five, being picked up by a thirteen year old Yoongi on his walk home from middle-school. He’s seven and Yoongi is fifteen, Jeongguk’s school bag perched in the basket of Yoongi’s bike. He’s eleven and Yoongi is nineteen, already home, his bags packed and stacked by the door, the haunting rumble of the car still running in the driveway the impending doom that Jeongguk’s life would never be the same again.

 


“Class was class. How was work?”



“Work was work. What’s that?”



“Oh,” Jeongguk says, hands suddenly heavy with the book in his hands. “Extra credit.”



“Ah. Jeon Jeongguk. Always the overachiever.”



Jeongguk flips through the manga without looking and watches the puddle forming at the base of the tub. Listens to Namjoon snore.



“How was he today?”



Yoongi picks up a red truck, fills it with water, and carefully pours it down Jinhyung’s back. Jinhyung does that thing where he pretends to be the Energizer Bunny or a navi, vibrates so hard his little shoulders quake.



“He’s been fine with me, but I think he gave Namjoon a hard time.” He throws Namjoon’s sleeping form a glare without heat, too much softness in his eyes. “He was supposed to be helping with bath time.”



Namjoon yawns and his jaw cracks, the weight of his head making the toilet cover creak.



“Namjoon-hyung works hard. Let him sleep. He’s gonna be mad you let him get all toilet germy though.”



Yoongi scoffs, tries to calm a fussing Jinhyung by offering his rubber panda as a peace offering. “He’s already mad at me.” At Jeongguk’s raised eyebrows, he adds, “I have to go to Seoul next week.”



Jeongguk blinks. “Again?”



“Yeah.”

“But that’s a good thing, right? It means the songs are doing well.”



“If you’re a normal person like you and me, then yes, it’s great. But to Mr. Marxist Manifesto over there, I’m a rung below corporate hack. Out of the two of us, I was supposed to be the communist, but still. He doesn’t have to throw a pissy tantrum considering he hit the jackpot and gets to work from home.”



“Just because hyung believes in socialism doesn’t make him a communist. His wardrobe does.”



Yoongi grins, shaded and mocking, the array of Namjoon’s ethically hand-woven cardigans surely flashing before his eyes the way they are Jeongguk’s, and it’s startling how much he and Yoongi look alike when they smile like this, that jagged edge of mean, but Yoongi’s is a pillow cloud. Candy shaped. There’s no bite to it, no actual mockery. Just that faraway look. Those dreamy eyes people get when they think about someone, honey warm and endeared and in love. 



Jeongguk’s smile just looks jagged edged, endeared but mostly mean. 

 

“What can I say? Jeon’s like their money.”

 

Jeongguk’s eyes become slits. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

 

Yoongi stares at him and there’s that look, the one that ages him like he’s lived a thousand years instead of thirty, the one that reminds Jeongguk he’s barely lived twenty-two. He opens his mouth and Jeongguk braces for it, but Jinhyung has ultimately had enough of not getting what he wants, and Yoongi barely has the chance to get a word out when his fists come down, Yoongi’s shirt re-drenched. 

 

“Jeeze, kid,” Yoongi says, yanking the sopping collar from his neck. 

 

Jinhyung just sprays more water, frustrated little noises coming from his mouth. He doesn’t care for Yoongi’s shirt, Namjoon’s sleeping form, eyes latched onto Jeongguk. 

 

All of Jeongguk melts. He’s defenseless, crumbles like a paper house against wind. Jinhyung is his defenses, the walls keeping his roof intact. The soft bath mat is squishy under his toes as he folds at the edge of the tub. Yoongi makes space for him, reads the back cover of the manga after Jeongguk drops it between them.

 

“This really for school?” Yoongi asks, skeptical. 

 

Jeongguk nods. He nuzzles his nose against Jinhyung’s, lets him put his chubby wet palms all over his face, washes the remaining tear-free shampoo out of his hair. Jinhyung’s eyelids start to droop and Jeongguk reaches for his towel, the hood with the fuzzy bear ears.

 

Yoongi is closer. He picks it up and says, “Let me-”

 

Jeongguk lifts Jinhyung out of the tub, water dripping on his sweatpants. “I’ve got him.”

 

“I know, but-”

 

“Hyung.” 

 

Yoongi doesn’t startle at Jeongguk’s sharpness. He doesn’t narrow his eyes. He just looks at Jeongguk like he’s lived an entire lifetime without him and is wiser in ways Jeongguk will never catch up to. 

 

There are stones in Jeongguk’s throat. Voice quiet, he says, “I’ve got him.”



“I know. I know you do, Jeongguk,” Yoongi says and his words are crumpled, dust. 

 

He steps back. 

 

Jeongguk gets the hood over Jinhyung’s head, rubs the towel against his arms. Jinhyung fusses slightly, hums at Jeongguk’s gentle hums, curls into his chest. 

 

Softer, he says, “Besides, you’ve got your own baby to deal with.”

Namjoon takes this moment to snore and Jeongguk feels bad for joking about Namjoon being the kind of person who cares, tries to live by his morals as much as he can. He does so much for them, for Jinhyung, and never asks for a thank you, anything.

 

But Yoongi smiles. “Guess I do.”

 

Jinhyung is well on his way to sleep, like he’s gotten what he’s wanted and is good to tap out. 

 

Yoongi crouches over Namjoon trying to rouse him, careful to keep his wet shirt away. 

 

Jeongguk watches them for a second. Softly calls, “Hyung?”

 

Just as soft, Yoongi says, “Mhhm?”

 

“Thanks for giving him a bath.” The words sound hollow. Jeongguk wonders if all his words sound like that now, trapped echoes. 

 

Yoongi is quiet for a long moment. When he speaks it’s weighted and Jeongguk has never felt all the years between them more, 

 

“Any time, little brother.”




---


 

He finds the manga on his nightstand later, cover curled and damp. 

 

Jinhyung snores in his crib, Jeongguk’s favorite lullaby though he’s too old for those now. 

 

Bedroom lights dim, Jeongguk lies on his back and flips to the first page. He has five econ chapters to finish and management operation strategies to figure out and he needs to write five-hundred words for his business communication class. He has sleep to catch up on, a dream to dream if he can fit it in. Wake up, do it all over. 

 

He falls asleep with the manga fallen on his face, his economics textbook fallen over the side of the bed.




---


 

“I need to talk to you.”

 

“Kim,” a lump of fabric says. It’s toppled over the cleanest desk in the office, not a book in sight. “It sounds angry. It’s for you.”

 

The lump of fabric points with a manicured finger, sparkly red pointed at another desk. 

 

Wheels squeak and a tuft of hair appears from behind a wall of books. 

 

“Oh. Jeongguk.”

 

Jeongguk tenses, shoulders up to his ears. Embarrassment colors him hotly at being caught talking so casually to his TA but the mountain of sweaters just burrows further into its desk, pays Jeongguk’s frazzled state no mind.

 

Taehyung stands. He looks less like an upperclassman than last time, would probably get mistaken for Professor Zhang himself with his sweater vest and neat tie. Gesturing to the chair in front of the book wall, he says, “Please. Sit.”

 

“No thank you,” Jeongguk replies, shoulders still high, arms crossing, defensive. 

 

Taehyung nods like this is perfectly reasonable. “Outside?” he asks, but he’s already leading Jeongguk through the threshold to the hallway and the alcove between Zhang’s office and the next. He mimics Jeongguk’s pose but is far more casual about it, makes it look friendly and open instead of what it is, angry and a plea at making the body small. He smiles. “You were saying?”

 

Jeongguk blinks. “I,” and his voice is stuffed up, frail, and Taehyung’s face is patient, kind, and Jeongguk remembers why he’s here in the first place, his runny nose and aching eyes, the nights he’s spent up aided by muted study light while his kid dreamed safe asleep. “My extra credit. The manga. How could you make students read that?”

 

“Well-”

 

“And that movie was-”

 

“I have to say, Casablanca gets less pearl clutching than most of what I assign. Personally, I think people are missing it. Have they seen Bogie’s smoulder? I mean, really-”

 

“It’s not the sex!”

 

Two students choose this exact moment to walk by, varying expressions of delighted horror on their faces. 

 

Taehyung greets them pleasantly like some seasoned shop girl greeter, like he’s used to students yelling the word sex at him in hallways in the middle of the afternoon. What does Jeongguk know? Maybe he is. 

 

Sighing in defeat, Jeongguk deflates against the wall. Waits for the students to meander further away. He closes his eyes. The hallway smells like leather shoe shine, oily and aged. “It wasn’t- It was just so...sad. It was so sad. Why would you want to make us sad?”

 

He is painfully childish. Rude and disrespectful too, but he hasn’t been able to think of much else since he put the paperback down, since the final credits rolled. And isn’t this what college is for anyway? Questioning? Demanding answers and getting them? He doubts he’d ask any other lecturer this question, not just because Taehyung is young, not an actual professor yet, but because he put the question in Jeongguk’s head in the first place. To question. 

 

“Is that what you think?”

 

He opens his eyes and Taehyung hasn’t moved, somehow even more relaxed looking, fingers tapping a rhythm along his upper arms. He causes the impression that he doesn’t think before he acts, Taehyung just is. 

 

“That I just wanted to make you sad?”

 

Jeongguk blinks at his question being taken seriously. He shrugs. 

 

Taehyung purses his lips like he’s sucking a sourless lemon. “Are you afraid of being sad?”

 

Anger fills Jeongguk’s insides. He lets it roil, lets it simmer. Hotly, he says, “No.”

 

Taehyung nods. “So, don’t you think that experiencing sadness, things that make us sad, is just part of the human experience? Part of the stories we tell ourselves?” When Jeongguk stays silent, just stares at Taehyung keyed up, he says, “You wrote the paper.”

 

“Yes,” Jeongguk admits.  

 

“You got an A+.”

 

Jeongguk stares. Says again, “Yes.” 

 

“Best paper I’ve read all semester.” When that gets him more of the same, Taehyung’s smile is a little more teeth. “Did you write such a good paper just to spite me?”

 

Jeongguk considers nodding again. He stares at him instead. Says, “No. I just wrote what I thought. But I still don’t get it.”

 

“Get what?”

 

“Stories. Or I mean, what do stories have to do with linguistics.”

 

Seconds tick by. Taehyung’s stare isn’t just a stare. It feels like Jeongguk is being put under a microscope powered by a prism, light splicing through him, heat making all his colors come alive. Jeongguk tries not to fidget, tries not to feel like splayed color. “Because stories are linguistics. They’re the reason linguistics is . Everything is a story.” 

 

“Everything?”

 

Taehyung nods, just shy of eager. “Everything we say. Everything we read. Everything we are. Whenever we use language, it’s a story.”   

 

Jeongguk frowns, can think of all the ways life is not a story. “What about politicians?”

 

Taehyung grins sharply, but his eyes look joyful. If he ever looks mean, Jeongguk wonders if this is the extent of it. “Politicians are the biggest storytellers of all.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

There was supposed to be a sir tacked onto that but Jeongguk guesses it wouldn’t have made a difference, his tone too casual, disbelieving. 

 

Taehyung tilts his head, all amusement, and maybe he is used to this. The angry ones, as the pile of sweaters said. Jeongguk wonders if it’s just part of his lesson plan, his charm, that he gets his students angry, sad, desolate, makes them feel all those negative emotions stories make people feel, yet it keeps them coming, gets them singing his praises so he’s still the most in demand course lecturer next semester. 

 

“We’re in a bit of a disagreement though, you and I.”

 

Jeongguk tries to not show interest. He tugs on his shirt sleeves. Taehyung looks like he’s settling in, practically sprawled against the wall, and Jeongguk doesn’t have time to settle in, has a class soon and work after and home after that. He finally asks, “About that?”

 

“I don’t think those are sad stories.”

 

“How is that...how?”

 

“The way I see it,” Taehyung says, still leaving space for Jeongguk to hold onto it. The sadness. His hurt. “Koume and Keisuke grow up. They discover themselves through each other. And Ilsa makes it to safety. Rick finally takes a stand in the war. Decides to stand for something.”

 

“But,” Jeongguk argues and he doesn’t know why. This wasn’t the point of the assignment, isn’t the point of the class, of the stories anyway. “They don’t end up together.”

 

Taehyung shrugs. He doesn’t have his glasses on today so he blinks his lashes in the sunlit hallway too fast, like he needs eye drops. His tie is a little crooked. There are tiny magnifying glasses on it. “Why should that matter? Romantic love, being in love- well, it’s beautiful and fills a deep role in our lives, but why does them not ending up together make it not love? Koume learns to love herself. Rick gains himself. A friend. That’s love too.”

 

Jeongguk stares for too long.That’s not what he meant but he just stares, stands there and tries not to feel like spread color, like the bits of him aren’t being burned under a hot microscope. 

 

“I guess,” he says eventually, voice too soft for the already quiet hallway. 

 

In a sudden movement, Taehyung stands to his full height. He presses with his index finger up his nose bridge, realizes there’s nothing to push back too late. Jeongguk bites back a smile. “Yes. Well,” Taehyung says. He clears his throat. Straightens the cuffs of his button down. It’s endearing almost, his whole nerdy almost-professor thing. “If you have discussion questions, I’d love to discuss them, but I can’t negotiate your grade. Unless you’d like a point decrease. A++’s don’t exist. Trust me, I’ve been asked.” 

 

“Nope. That’s- nope,” Jeongguk hurries to come away from the wall, arms back crossed below his chest. It’s a hard habit to break. One he’s been trying to all his life. Now it just feels like there’s something missing when they’re empty, something he should be holding. “I- Sorry, about all...this." 

 

Taehyung smiles. It’s friendlier than his last one, almost aggressively so. “No need to be sorry. Just keep writing good papers. Keep writing what you think. What you really think.”

 

Jeongguk nods. He adjusts his backpack, takes a step. “I should,” points toward the hallway. 

 

Taehyung makes a funny little gesture, open palms, like he’s setting him free, washing his hands of him. 

 

“Thank you. I mean it. Most lecturers wouldn’t, so, thank you.”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“No, but really. I mean it. Really mean it-”

 

“Jeongguk-ssi?”

 

It’s too quiet in the hallway for how quiet his voice is. It’s too quiet in Jeongguk’s mind for how softly it hits him, his name as a word, his name as what it is. 

 

Taehyung says, “ Thank you for your hard work. You did well .”




---


 

People prefer the treadmills. 

 

Buzzwords like thick and squat tutorials and protein enhancement recipes litter Jeongguk’s social media, but the treadmills and stationary bikes are always full of students and tired business executives alike. Like they prefer running in place, running nowhere. 

 

Jeongguk is more of the resistance type. If he’s going to run, he wants to be going somewhere. 

 

A waif of a boy steps off a bike, a woman with the blondest ponytail ever taking his place, not even bothering to wipe it down first or ask an employee to. 

 

Jeongguk makes a face but he’s just the front desk attendant. The juice station boy. Mostly he cleans the machines after closing. He’s not that good at resisting himself anyway. 

 

“Hi. I think there’s something wrong with- oh. Jeongguk?”

 

Leaned on the counter, Jeongguk catches himself from gaping just in time. There is nothing noteworthy or miraculous about this. Plenty of people use the gym, work at the gym. Some people just happen to be college-sort-of-professors, college students. It’s happenstance, really, but it still feels like something out of the dozen or so works he had to watch or read last term, a poetry in the moment itself.    

 

“Taehyung-ssi.”

 

Taehyung tilts his head. He looks unassuming in sweats and an old oversized t-shirt. He does not look like he holds the precious fate of young minds in his hands every day, like those same hands handle tiny things with uncontainable care, like his brain probably can’t contain his mind with ideas too big for a lecture hall. 

 

“Taehyung is fine. Or hyung if you’re into that though I’m not.”

 

Jeongguk frowns, offended. Machinery clanks, some pop-tune loud over the gym speakers.

 

Taehyung slides his hands in his sweatpant pockets. “No offense to the motherland, of course, but I’m not really one for tradition. In case that wasn’t obvious,” he adds, arching his brows funnily though the headband holding his hair back ruins the effect. Jeongguk has a hard time imagining Taehyung ever looks truly funny. 

 

Jeongguk blinks harshly. He straightens his work issued polo. He’s supposed to be selling some exclusive fit fantasy and he guesses the way the shirt cuffs his biceps to a t is meant to help. When he looks back up, Taehyung is still staring at him, brows frozen in their comical arch, and okay, maybe he does have the capacity to look giggle inducing. 

 

He nods, says, “Taehyung.”

 

That seems to be the magic word. Taehyung relaxes, and really, Jeongguk doesn’t think he’s ever seen anyone look so chill at the gym. Or in their own body. Or anywhere. 

 

“How have you be-”

 

“You said you needed-”

 

The resulting silence is awkward and Jeongguk, who has always had an irrational fear of teachers, wishes he were back in middle school getting scolded for not paying attention again. 

 

Taehyung asks, “How have you been since the semester ended?”

 

Jeongguk fiddles with the cup holder full of pens bearing the gym’s logo on the desk. “I still have my scholarship so, fine, I guess. Yes. Um. Yeah. How are you? Been, you know?”

 

The side of Taehyung’s mouth twitches, an almost full body flex with just that one muscle, but his eyes make Jeongguk think of peach jellies, fond almost. “You deserved that A.”

 

“A-,” Jeongguk mumbles. 

 

The smile takes over Taehyung’s mouth. He laughs. “Are you always such a perfectionist?”

 

It catches him off guard. The word perfect and the implication of Jeongguk in the same sentence. He thinks about the hours he used to spend on the level of a game, the lengths at which he’s gone to keep his scholarship, the pride he felt when Jinhyung started to crawl before he was supposed to. “Yes.”

 

Still smiling, Taehyung leans against the desk, looks like he’s settling in, the whole purpose of why he’s here in some temporary recess of his mind. It makes Jeongguk want to lean away. It makes him want to stay exactly where he is. He thinks about resistance, a body in suspension. “I’ve been fine too. Good, really. I’m teaching less sections this term.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I’m working on a book.” 

 

“Oh. My brother in law’s a writer too. And a music producer. Bunch of other stuff too,” he adds, realizes he’s babbling before he lists all the other things Namjoon is. Uncredited philosopher. Freelance accountant. Connoisseur of take out menus. At home caretaker. Professional Jeon boy wrangler.  

 

“Sounds like an interesting guy.” 

 

Jeongguk shrugs. Both Namjoon and Yoongi are interesting guys, interesting grown ups. In comparison, Jeongguk isn’t much. 

 

Like he can sense Jeongguk’s thoughts, Taehyung says, “It’s thanks to you, you know. Working on my book again. Well, Jinhyung, really.”

 

Something sour brims in Jeongguk. It bubbles against a twinge of curiosity, furious in his belly.  “What?”

 

“Not like- I didn’t mean- It’s just, spending time with someone who can’t speak. My book, it’s about why we speak and nothing can get you thinking about that then someone who can’t.” 

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, his insides settling. “That makes sense,” he finishes but it lingers like a question. 

 

Taehyung still looks fussed about it and it’s nice, seeing his cool composure melt. “I can promise to give you a cut of the profit, but I have to warn you, this isn’t the kind of book that makes money.”

 

“I wouldn’t think you were doing it for the money.”

 

His headband has gone lopsided, half of Taehyung’s hair tumbling over his brow as he studies Jeongguk. It reminds him of Jinhyung a bit, when he looks at Jeongguk like he’s being silly but doesn’t have the words to tell him. Taehyung has the words. If anything, he seems to have too many of them. 

 

“Though I wouldn’t say no to a donation to Jinhyung’s trust fund,” he adds because if there’s anything Jeongguk is good at is lopsided humor, humor to defuse the tension, humor to create it.  

 

It works because Taehyung grins. “I wouldn’t mind being contributed to that,” he says and it’s weirdly sweet and weirdly out of place, but that just seems to be how Taehyung is, out of place without overstepping, overly sweet without the saccharine. Then he says, “How is the little guy? Hopefully still revealing Pinker for the quack he is.”

Jeongguk laughs. “He’s a little busy learning to crawl, sorry. I think he’s left the theorizing to just you.”

 

“Damn,” Taehyung whistles. “Crawling already?”

 

Jeongguk nods. Laughs again, this time a little choked in his throat. “I was so proud when he started crawling early, but now I’m realizing it means walking isn’t too far away and I wish instead of learning finance I was learning how to make time stop. How to keep him a baby forever. Or just until he’s thirty, at least. That’s terrible, isn’t it? Sorry,” he finishes, because he’s said it all before he could think it, raw in his overshare. He doesn’t do it often and when he does it spills out of him. 

 

“No,” Taehyung says, voice soft. He’s got the fond look in his eyes again and Jeongguk wonders if he looks at all his students, all his ex-students, this way. “It’s perfectly normal. You want to keep him yours forever. I understand how you feel.”

 

Jeongguk goes to say something, but then he remembers Taehyung being the oldest of five brothers. He wonders what their ages are, if they look like Taehyung, if they love stories and words too. He brushes the thought away, slaps on some of that fit gym professionalism he’s supposed to have. “You said you were having trouble with something?”

 

Taehyung stares at him for a few seconds, seems to flounder, like half his body has been shoved to one side. He pulls himself up from the desk. Makes to fix the chaos that is his hair, but only makes it more chaotic. He nods. “Yes. There’s this machine I can’t… get to work.” His cheeks flush and the veneer at professionalism Jeongguk is forcing feels like it’s in chaos too. 

 

He nods quickly to shove down the laugh he feels and walks around the desk, follows Taehyung through the gym, relief blooming in his chest when Taehyung bypasses the treadmills and stops at the weights. It’s a standard pull-down machine, a towel covering the seat. 

 

It takes Jeongguk half a second to realize the problem and he tries. He tries, but he ends up biting his lower lip, laughing high and a lot. 

 

Taehyung narrows his eyes, but there’s a laugh there too. “I’m about to feel silly, aren’t I?”

 

“Well,” Jeongguk says, voice shaky. He bends at the waist, skims his fingers down the stack of weights keeping the pull bar in place. He pulls out the metal piece and the machine clicks. “It helps if you put some weight on it.” He sets it at a reasonable weight, less than what he uses for himself, more than he recommends for the retirees who love to pinch his cheeks and try to leave him tips though he never takes them. “So hopefully very silly.” 

 

When he turns, Taehyung’s embarrassment has seemingly evaporated, a peculiar smile on his face as he stands there looking more like some off duty model than a PhD student, gangly and well-dressed in scrappy clothes and causing the impression that he’s taller than he is. “I’ve never had a problem learning from a student, so not silly at all, sorry.”

 

Jeongguk bites back an eye roll. “Not your student anymore.”

 

Taehyung’s expression is unchanged, but there’s something about it, like he’s trying too hard to keep the smile on his face, not bothering to at all after a moment. Maybe it’s the fluorescents, the mix of disinfectant and sweat finally getting to Jeongguk’s head. “No. I guess you’re not.”

 

Then his smile comes back full force, friendly like Jeongguk is an eight month old, the neighborhood cat. Still his prickly not-a-freshman student. He sits at the machine, swings the towel around his neck. 

 

“You know how to use this thing?” Jeongguk asks because he feels weirdly responsible if Taehyung pulls a muscle or breaks his neck for bearing too much weight. He wonders if this is how Taehyung felt handling Jeongguk’s mind for five months. 

 

Taehyung pulls the bar down in a swift motion. His arms at rest don’t show much definition, but the muscles curve in motion, veins pushing towards the surface of his skin at an alarming suddenness. “If I need you, I know where to find you,” he says, reassuring. 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t feel reassured. He goes back to his desk anyway. Fills his time organizing the flyers in their display. Tries to do his homework. Helps an old lady calibrate her bike because she’s not trying to win the Tour De France she just wants to not get so winded taking the subway station’s stairs. 

 

When Taehyung leaves, it’s with a casual wave and not another word. 

 

Jeongguk stares after him and then he finally finishes his homework. 




---






Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---

 

 

“I’m supposed to drink it in one go? All of it?”

 

“You don’t have to, but that’s what the nutritionist guidelines says.”

 

“Hm.”

 

“Gets you all your vitamins quicker.”

 

Taehyung squints. Asks, “What’s in it, again?”

 

“Rocket arugula. Cucumber. Ginger. Lemon.” Jeongguk sniffs the leftover juice in the blender. Scrunches his nose. “Wheatgrass. You asked for wheatgrass, right?”

 

“I did. Don’t know why now, though,” Taehyung sighs, morosely staring at his glass of green. Jeongguk is mildly offended. It’s a perfect blend job, smooth pretty green, you can’t even see a stem or ginger skin. Taehyung sighs, seems to steel his resolve and clutches the shot. 

 

Jeongguk’s offense melts a little at the indolent pout Taehyung’s mouth makes as he contemplates to drink or not. He pours coconut water into the leftover juice, divides it into glass bottles and sets them in the fridge for other gym goers to purchase. “The juice version goes down easier.”

 

“Yes, but the concentrated stuff is probably more effective. Less is more, yes?”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. He soaks the blender in the sink and starts wiping the counter down, finds the motion relaxing. He doesn’t mind working the juice station though he prefers the front desk, can squeeze in more study time there, but the acquired blending skill has come in handy when it comes down to making at home baby food puree so Jeongguk takes it as a positive. 

 

Taehyung takes a deep breath. He salutes and throws the shot back. The glass smacks the counter and Taehyung’s face itself goes green. 

 

“Oh- fuck , that’s terrible. Horrible. I think I burned my tongue off.”

 

“Maybe you should have gone with spinach,” Jeongguk says, feeling bad, wants to reach out and help somehow. “The spiciness probably makes it worse. Want some milk? All we have is almond I don’t if that works like regular milk.”

 

“No, I think the spiciness is helping. Possibly. Maybe.”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t agree, but he only watches Taehyung struggle, his throat bobbing as he swallows air. “Don’t take this the wrong way but…”

 

Taehyung gestures for him to go on when he trails off, head hung but inclined towards Jeongguk to show he’s listening. 

 

“Why are you doing this? The gym and the juices. It doesn’t seem like you.”

 

Taehyung looks up and arches one imperial eyebrow and Jeongguk’s face goes blotchy, stammering,

 

“Not that you’re out of shape! You look gr- fine. Completely adequate for your age. Any age!”

 

The other eyebrow comes up. Jeongguk sighs, short and pitchy, unused to being out of his depth verbally. He usually stays quiet to save himself the trouble. 

 

“Last week you tried to use the leg press to work out your arms. And you look like you’re dying over some water vegetables. So… yeah.” 

 

Taehyung’s face does something hilarious. He gives a decisive nod after, drinks the inch or so left of juice in his glass at a more sedate pace. “Fair. But is trying to be healthy something that you’re either good at or not? It’s a competition so why bother?”

 

Jeongguk frowns, shoulders dropping. “I didn’t mean it like-” he starts but, hadn't he? 

 

Taehyung shakes his head, unbothered. His face is still a bit green. “It’s fine. Really. I know I’m not up for any Men’s Fitness covers any time soon, but I just realized I’ve spent so much time taking care of this,” he touches his temple with an index, “and not really taking care of any of this.” He motions his hand in a circle over his chest, palm wide. “Having one healthy without the other is pointless in the long run. And I’m not going to be twenty-six forever.”

 

Jeongguk nods. He’s doing the open mouth gaping thing Jinhyung probably wishes he could tell him looks very silly. He counts the years between them, all four of them, and they feel like so many more, so much less. “That’s smart of you. Thinking ahead like that.”

 

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. He rolls the now empty glass between his palms, stares at the green clinging to it. “My dad just had a heart attack so there’s that too.”

 

Oh ,” Jeongguk says except it’s all sound, just breath. “Taehyung, I’m so sorry.”

 

“It’s fine. He’s fine. The doctor said it was minor, but it’s still his heart. I looked up the statistics for men and heart issues. I knew a bit but reading about it contextualized, personalized, like that was terrifying. It’s almost funny in a twisted way. Men and their weak hearts.”

 

A knot tying itself into his chest, Jeongguk thinks about his own father, the distance between them, physical and not. He thinks of Jinhyung down for his nap right now unaware he’s cradling something between his tiny palms, Jeongguk’s heart, too big and beating just for him. 

 

Taehyung sets the glass down, looks tiredly at Jeongguk. His headband is actually doing its job for once and even the harsh fluorescents can’t dull how intense his eyes are. “My dad is still such a dad. If it was just me, it would be okay in a way. I’m grown. I need him, I’m always going to of course, but I don’t need him in the same way my brothers do. Seokie’s barely seven.”

 

The knot tightens. Jeongguk is wordless and helpless with what to say, how to comfort. He’s better at silence so he does that, touches the back of Taehyung’s hand lightly. His fingers are cold, his own warm. 

 

Taehyung looks up, down at their hands, and Jeongguk thinks he should have touched his arm, his shoulder, the usual places people go to offer solace, but he doesn’t take his hand away and Taehyung doesn’t either. 

 

Something poppy blares throughout the gym. It kills the zen-ish vibe they try to maintain but not this moment, this slow quiet between them. This should feel weird, out of place, but Taehyung has already held the most important, most intimate part of Jeongguk, and Jeongguk has trusted him to, so what’s a hand touching another?

 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. He smiles, gives a small nod and moves his hand away. Jeongguk’s hand feels less warm now. “I didn’t mean to dump all this on you. It’s really okay. My dad is okay. I’m just… you know when you try to be rational about something and your mind says fuck that ? Not with the words but you just can’t do it?” 

 

Jeongguk nods. “All the time.” 

 

“Right,” Taehyung says, voice hoarse like his throat is back from vegetable juice hell but is still recovering. “It’s fucked up really. We try to apply human language to the mind, to the brain, to conscious, and all three of them tell us to go fuck ourselves. The true holy trinity.”

 

A helpless giggle makes its way past Jeongguk’s lips and it makes Taehyung’s smile grow, the polite veneer giving way to something genuinely felt. Without thinking he says, “You have a very interesting brain, Kim Taehyung.”

 

The edges of Taehyung’s lips quirk. “That’s the sweetest way anyone’s ever said that to me.”

 

Something unfurls in Jeongguk’s belly, tucked right under his ribs. “I’ve been told I’m a very sweet person.”

 

“I bet,” Taehyung says, vowels rounded strangely, wistful. He pushes away from the counter, takes a step back. His next words are careful, serious. “Again, I’m so-”

 

“It’s fine. I don’t feel dumped on. Besides,” and Jeongguk lingers, on his words, on keeping Taehyung here, because it’s nice almost, nice really, to share space with someone who doesn’t have to share it with you, to share that you’re fucked too. “You already know what’s keeping my brain fucked. It feels, not good, but do you get what I mean? That you shared why yours is with me?”

 

“Is that how you see yourself? Fucked?”

 

“No,” Jeongguk says. “But you have a kid and rationality goes out the window. There’s no space for it. There’s just space for him.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t say anything. He isn’t a loud thinker, but it’s in his pauses before he speaks. How he doesn’t seem to speak until he’s ready, until he has something to say. “That’s a lot of space for someone so tiny to fill all on his own.”

 

“He’s a tiny person but his heart sure isn’t.”

 

“No, I can’t imagine it is.” Taehyung smiles, wistful still but less melancholic. “I should-”

 

“Wait!” Jeongguk looks around the counter, spots the menu. “Here,” he says, pointing halfway down the list. “Order this next time. Has all the nutrients but less spicy. It’s sweet actually. You could make it at home even. And it’s got spinach. It’s good for the heart.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.” They both look at the menu. Then Jeongguk looks up, finds Taehyung already looking. He doesn’t shy at being caught, grin widening. “I really admire you, you know. I’ve been meaning to say that. Being a dad and going to school and doing as well as you seem to, working this job. It’s really admirable. In case it’s been a while since someone’s told you that.”

 

Jeongguk’s voice doesn’t tremble, but it’s too quiet, when he asks, “Do you know- do you think your dad ever feels sorry or, do you think it’s normal, to feel sorry for loving your kid too much? Do you think that’s even possible? To love them too much?”

 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says honestly, and Jeongguk’s shoulders sink and he feels terrible about it. 

 

Hair falling over his eyes, Jeongguk folds the menu in half, fingers crushing the paper dejectedly. He doesn’t even know why he asked, why he thought it’s the kind of thing that has an answer, has words.

 

He feels a touch at his hand. Taehyung brushes at his knuckles, pulls away. His hand is warm now. 

 

“But love means not being afraid to say you’re sorry. Jinhyung wouldn’t understand it if you said it anyway, not yet, but it means not being afraid to feel it either. Being sorry. Or love.”




---




That night, he lays out Jinhyung’s favorite blanket on the floor of his rom and lets him crawl to his heart’s content, has him practice standing by clinging to Jeongguk’s hands, laughs when Jinhyung falls against his chest and coos happily into Jeongguk’s neck. 

 

He tucks him into his footy pajamas, the feet those of a penguin’s, and they read what Jeongguk has come to think of as Jinhyung’s favorite story, his eyes latched onto Jeongguk’s face as much as the colorful pictures. Then his voice is a song, Jinhyung’s eyes blinking up sleepily from his crib and Jeongguk’s vocal cords protest whenever he presses them together like this now, makes them stretch and bend in melody, in harmony, but it’s worth it with how it luls Jinhyung to sleep, his little mouth opening and closing like he wants to sing too. The hurt isn’t in Jeongguk’s throat anyway, it’s in his mind, and Jeongguk is used to it, burying the hurt in there until he can almost forget it. 

 

Curled up in his bed with his laptop, the room is dark, a thin light slipping in through the curtains. Jinhyung sleeps soundlessly despite the faint noise. The city beyond the window, the muted tones of Namjoon and Yoongi’s conversation in the kitchen. It sounds like it might be an hushed argument but if love means never being afraid to be sorry, never being afraid of love, then Jeongguk guesses it also has to mean not being afraid to be angry. 

 

Graphs fill half his screen and an unfinished essay takes up another window, but he finds himself with a folded paperback held to the light, a book Taehyung recommended almost as an afterthought, his face rouged from working the free weights, how he reread it recently and thought it might be something Jeongguk would like. Sleep calls him, responsibility does too, but he has about a quarter of the book left and he finds himself reading until dawn and manages to finish his essay and fit in an hour of rest too. 




---




“What can I get you?” 

 

“I’ll have the-”

 

“Can I get a- oh, sorry, I didn’t- oh . Hi.”

 

This coffee shop is always working through the same folktronica playlist. It gives Jeongguk a headache sometimes but the coffee is decent and they have healthy snack options which is a main priority in Jeongguk’s life now. 

 

“I should have known that was you,” Taehyung says. It’s become so familiar over the last few months, the ever present stretch of his lips. It surprises Jeongguk they’ve never run into each other here before. Taehyung seems the type to like esoteric electronic folk, to not mind confusing ordering queues. “The baby was a dead give away, but the suit threw me off I have to say.” 

 

Jeongguk tries to shrink under the observation, arms around his middle but he just ends holding Jinhyung closer. Jinhyung flutters at the attention, batting his long lashes at Taehyung, a tiny fist thrown his way in greeting. 

 

Taehyung gives him his own and his knuckles dwarfing Jinhyung’s is like something from a photobook, a quaint gallery. He looks up at Jeongguk after, that same gentleness on his mouth.

 

Jeongguk swallows. He looks back at the cashier who’s been watching them with the kind of patience only those who live on minimum wage can muster. 

 

“Sorry,” he says, gesturing for Taehyung to go first. 

 

“No, it’s fine,” Taehyung says, but he orders his own drink, flips through his wallet. “And whatever they’re having,” 

 

Jeongguk stammers, “Y-you don’t have to do that.” 

 

Taehyung ignores him, fishing for bills, pulls out a debit card, puts it back in its slot. He points to the display case next to the register. “And one of those squeezy apple things- Does he like apples? I just assume all babies like apples, but you never know.” He doesn’t give Jeongguk time to answer before he decides, “You know what? Let’s do the berry too. Just in case.” 

 

“Taehyung-”

 

“Consider it a thank you for last time,” Taehyung says even though it’s been a few times since that last time. When that doesn’t motivate Jeongguk, he smiles amicably. “We’re holding up the line.” 

 

There’s only a few people, but if there’s one thing Jeongguk hates it’s being a public nuisance, having too much attention on him. He’s been itching to sit since they arrived, Jinhyung heavy in his arms and refusing to go in his sling for once, clingy in a way he usually only gets before bed. 

 

He sighs. Orders his drink. Taehyung declines a paper receipt, tosses his change into a tip jar sitting by the pre-packaged granola bars and cookie tins. 

 

They wander over to the pick-up counter, Jinhyung making gurgling noises and reaching over Jeongguk’s shoulder to paw at Taehyung’s eyeglasses’ cords. They must make a weird pair, Jeongguk in crisp slacks and a fitted dress shirt holding a baby, Taehyung in matching grey sweats and a big rain coat thrown over top, his fashionable nerd glasses now adorned by the silver chains calling Jinhyung’s attention. 

 

“Sorry about him. He’s been restless since I picked him up.” 

 

“He’s fine. Where’d you pick him up from? Sorry if that’s not my place to ask. You don’t have to answer just- the suit.” 

 

“No. It’s fine,” Jeongguk says. He touches the collar of his shirt, wonders if it’s a suit without the blazer. He wonders if it makes him look older or not, like he’s playing dress up in his older brother’s clothes, his life. Except not his brother’s because they wouldn’t fit. Namjoon’s. Basically the same thing. “Um. I had to pick him up from my brother in law’s workplace. He works from home so he watches Jinhyung a lot but sometimes has to go in for meetings and we got our schedules crossed today. His job is pretty flexible. Mine isn’t. My second one I mean. Not that the gym is, but that’s why, uh, the suit.” 

 

“You work two jobs?” 

 

“Doesn’t everyone?” Jeongguk asks, bouncing Jinhyung against his hip along to the rhythm playing over the speakers. Jinhyung shrieks in delight, wiggles his toes to the music. 

 

Taehyung’s expression is hard to decipher. Contrite but softer. “Everyone isn’t in school. Or has a kid to take care of.”

 

“I get a lot of help.”

 

“Maybe. But I’ve seen him. And I’ve seen you. He’s all you.” At Jeongguk’s silence, Taehyung’s grin goes a bit sheepish but he carries on, “What I mean is you clearly spend enough time with him for him to be like you.”

 

That thing tucked inside Jeongguk unfurls, echoes in the space under his ribs, and the words send a panic through him, make wretched pride swell in his heart. His arms are starting to hurt. “I-”

 

“Chai for Tie ...uhh...Tay-hung !?” 

 

Jeongguk chokes. 

 

Taehyung, ever so graceful, laughs. “That’d be me.”

 

The barista looks at the cup in his hand. Looks at Taehyung. He turns an impressive shade of pink. “That’s not how your name is spelled, is it?”

 

“Not legally.”

 

Jinhyung, who as a baby operates under unpredictability at the best of times, chooses this exact moment to let out an ear piercing yell. What would usually redden Jeongguk’s neck in embarrassment now covers his hysterical chuckles, Jinhyung’s neck the perfect place for his gasping laughs. 

 

Mouth curled, Taehyung nods towards the tables, says, “Why don’t you guys grab a seat? I’ll wait for this.” 

 

There’s a protest on Jeongguk’s lips because Taehyung doesn’t have to wait for anything, already has his drink and Jeongguk wasn’t planning on staying, but his arms really are starting to hurt and maybe it’d be nice to just sit for a while. To just stay. 

 

Sunlight spills over the table by the window and Jinhyung gets a kick out of pressing his palms to the glass, watchful eyes following the people walking by. Jeongguk doesn’t think about all the germs covering his fingers now but that’s how kids build an immune system anyway, soul first in the dirt. 

 

Taehyung appears after a while of people watching. He sets Jeongguk’s cup on the table and reaches into one of the big pockets of his coat for the applesauce pouches. Jinhyung, balanced on Jeongguk’s thighs with his face practically smushed to the window as he watches a puppy sprint by, ignores the snacks. 

 

“They’re so curious at this age. Makes you wish they’d stay like that forever.”

 

Jeongguk sighs. “Yeah.” 

 

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, companionable say and everything. Then he says, “Well. I should go but it was nice seeing y-”

 

“You’re not gonna sit?”  

 

Taehyung freezes. His face looks puffy even though it’s mid-afternoon. “I don’t want to intrude-”

 

“You’re not,” Jeongguk says, taken aback by Taehyung’s sudden hesitance. He doesn’t question if he’s being pushy, if Taehyung’s kind gesture was just that. When Taehyung just stands there for a beat too long, he flushes, curls his hands around Jinhyung’s shins. “I mean, you don’t have to, I just thought. If you have somewhere to be-”

 

“I don’t.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Okay.”

 

It’s veering on too-awkward when Jinhyung takes matters into his own chubby fists. He pivots in Jeongguk’s hold and sways his body to the opposite side over Jeongguk’s lap towards Taehyung. The panic on Taehyung’s face is almost comical but Jeongguk is too busy impressed at his reflexes to laugh or panic himself, drink placed on the table before his hands come out to catch Jinhyung’s, a secure crash pad for Jinhyung to land. 

 

“Whoa, little man. Trying to give me a heart attack there?”

 

Jinhyung shrieks a laugh. He slaps his palms against Taehyung’s and goes, “Ba-ba-ba- ba !”

 

Taehyung’s eyes are literal hearts and it should be too much or embarrassing, but that’s Jeongguk’s kid. Jeongguk has been in perpetual heart eyes mode for months. “Yeah, this whole balance thing is a bust, eh? I’m still trying to figure it out.”

 

Warmth floods Jeongguk’s insides, soft like a flush. It’s just refreshing watching another adult not speak to Jinhyung like he’s dumb because he’s a baby, but like he’s a person. A person meeting a person. A tiny person, but a person all the same. 

 

Taehyung directs his gaze at Jeongguk. Less heart eyes. Still heart shaped, in the vicinity of it , reminiscent of the heart. “Guess I have to stay now, huh?”

 

“You try saying no to him. I’ve been trying since he was born.”

 

Taehyung laughs. It’s an easy push-pull, Jeongguk holding Jinhyung, Taehyung stepping sideways carefully, his hands being the last ones to slip away before he sits, Jinhyung already distracted by the squeezable pouches of mashed fruit on the table. 

 

“You don’t seem as soft as all that.”

 

“How do you mean?”

 

“Like a pushover parentally.”

 

“I seem strict?”

 

“Not necessarily. Or really. I meant you seem like you’ll know when to be what. Soft or firm. Let him do his own thing or keep him safeguarded. You look like you already do.”

 

Jeongguk relaxes his arms around Jinhyung, helps him squeeze the pouch to get more of the apple mush into his mouth. His coffee is going cold and he feels flayed open when Taehyung talks like this, not under the working of a brutal knife but like his skin is coming apart at the gentle words and all his vulnerable bits are exposed. It’s just obvious, he guesses, when the vulnerable thing is in his arms. 

 

“I feel like everyday I have to figure it all out again,” he admits quietly, holding the pouch up. Jinhyung makes a soft noise, smacks his lips. “ I wake up and I don’t know if anything I do for him is right or wrong. I feel...like I- like I’m doing it all wrong.”

 

“You don’t have to know how to do something to do it. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but it’s like swimming. Or talking, even,” Taehyung points out, eyes lighting up at the connection. “There’s a lot you can do to be good, a lot you can learn, and there are levels of proficiency, but I think you just know too.” 

 

“So it’s the instinct thing?”

 

“The wha- Oh . Yes. The instinct thing.”

 

“So it is all instinct?”

 

“If you finished my class and you still have to ask that, I don’t know if you deserved that A- after all.”

 

Jeongguk tries to frown, to be offended, but Taehyung’s smile is so easy, teasing, that it’s hard to do anything but smile back and avoid getting apple sauce all over his slacks. 

 

Taehyung plays with the sleeve of his take-out cup and raps his fingers against the side. Smile muted like it’s a permanent part of his face, he says, “I have to warn you, I’m probably going to be a terrible table partner. I have a ton of papers to correct. S’why I have this bad boy with me.” He tugs at the satchel strap he has crossed over his chest, the leather frayed and grainy.  

 

“We really can’t stay long. Naptime’s soon. I just,” Jeongguk starts. He bites his lip, watches Jinhyung mash the apple mush that’s made its way to the napkin Jeongguk had preemptively laid out. If there’s one thing Jinhyung doesn’t seem to have inherited from him it’s his staunch obsessiveness with order and cleanliness as Yoongi calls it. Jeongguk just likes knowing where things go. Putting and keeping them there. “Sorry. Just thought it would be nice to talk with someone about normal stuff and not spread sheets or diapers once today. Or with someone who can talk back. For a little while at least.”  

 

Sunlight slices through the window and it puts Taehyung’s face in contrast, makes his eyes impossibly lighter, endless and deep, like something from a story told long ago. “I’m pretty good at talking back. But you’re gonna have to tell me about the suit.” 

 

“Okay,” Jeongguk readily agrees before he says, “But then you’re gonna have to tell me about the book.”

 

Taehyung sits up, at attention like the prospect of talking about something he’s creating from his mind is exciting and not terrifying, like finding out why Jeongguk is dressed like a business casual ad is fascinating and not what it actually is. “Deal.”

 

It hits Jeongguk that he has to actually tell the story of the suit, and telling that story involves another story, a few other smaller stories, and it’s endlessly circular and not at all, why Jeongguk is in a suit, how Jeongguk ended up with a mini-human in his lap. He shifts in his seat, Taehyung’s expression patient and open, and Jeongguk wonders at his own constant desire to make himself smaller. His inability to do it now that there’s something tiny never too far from his arms he has to make himself bigger for. His inability to do it in Taehyung’s presence, under such sun-like warmth. 

 

“Okay. Um. It’s not anything interesting or- I don’t know why I. Anyway. Uh. I was in my first year when I met, um, Jinhyung’s mom. When she got pregnant my second year, I dropped out. Got a job. It felt like the thing to do. Get a job, make money. Babies are expensive. So I took a position at an investment firm through my brother’s connections. Just as a coffee boy, but still.”

 

He takes a sip of his own lukewarm coffee, It’s milky sweet the way he likes it but it tastes like rancid oranges in his mouth, all acid without the sweetness. Taehyung’s expression is fixed, hard to read. He nods that he’s listening though, so Jeongguk says, 

 

“I’ve always been terrible at numbers but investment isn’t really that. It is, but it’s more about risk. Or being able to predict it? Anyway. I suck at math but I guess I’m good at figuring out systems and risk. Someone said I must have a sharp gut, which, I guess? And yeah. So they took me on as an intern and then a junior junior analyst that was basically still an intern, but then they said they would pay for my schooling if I went back to college and getting to go to college for free is the dream so… they cut my hours down to twice a week so I got the job at the gym to make up the money and go to school the rest of the time.”

 

He takes another mouthful from his cup, but it’s like the more he drinks the drier his throat gets. His larynx feels like it’s both crumbling apart and sticking together. It’s not the words he’s saying. It’s the story within the story. 

 

Jinhyung half twists towards him and brings his sticky hands to Jeongguk’s jaw, gnaws at his chin and coos when Jeongguk leans closer so he can press his apple kissed fingers to Jeongguk’s face. He’s the only time Jeongguk doesn’t care about messes, about where and how things go. 

 

It’s sticky and more than a little gross, but Jeongguk smiles. It’s pulled from his mouth. From his heart. “And then I get to go home and play with the love of my life so I can’t really complain.” 

 

Taehyung is silent. His brows pulled forward into the slightest furrow are the only tell he’s been listening. Sometimes, Jeongguk thinks he looks like he’s made out of stone and someone forgot to carve him out, and then he does something so utterly human, so painfully alive, it strikes him how silly the thought is. 

 

The first question people ask, would ask if Jeongguk told this story often enough, is the obvious one. 

 

“What was your first major?”

 

Jeongguk squeezes the second pouch so hard it squirts all over the napkins. Jinhyung crows happily, digs his fingers in. “W-what?”

 

“When you went to university the first time. What did you major in?”

 

Jeongguk uses the dirty napkins to clean up the mess, fruit goop seeping into the table’s wooden grooves. His hands smell like a crushed orchard. His throat feels like a rotten grove. There’s a pack of wet wipes in his bag. He starts cleaning Jinhyung’s face with too much care. Says, “I was undecided.”

 

Taehyung makes a noise of acknowledgement, more murmur than anything. Jeongguk thinks of the moment before his vocal chords came together to make the sound. If it was through destiny or through some sixth sense of where they needed to be. 

 

The minute I laid eyes on you, I knew you had what it took .” 

 

“What?”. 

 

“It’s from Wall Street . The movie.”

 

Jeongguk wrinkles his nose. “You do know it’s annoying when you do that out of context, right?”

 

“Oh, but there’s plenty of context. You’re a future Wall Street boy. Context ,” Taehyung says the way some people say jazz hands .  

 

“Not all investing is done through Wall Street. And there’s a serious movement now towards ethical investment and financial practices, and sure, that’s oxymoronic when it comes to capitalism. Which is dying, by the way, in case you haven’t heard, and I’ve been looking at budget analysis anyhow, which sounds boring, but so many companies need help with that, especially NGOs so maybe… what.”

 

The stone of Taehyung’s face melts under the sunlight, his stare so intense, so present. so here, Jeongguk wonders if he’s ever seen anything more human. “ The moment I laid eyes on you, I knew you were too good,” he says. Lets it hang between them. He takes a large gulp from his cup before he cracks his jaw, makes it look like a nervous habit without any of the nerves. “ Wall Street , again. I’m freestyling. That’s really beautiful that you see it that way. I hope you get to do all that. See the death of capitalism. Save an NGO. Do something good.”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. He hasn’t talked to anyone about any of this. It feels too far away, too out of the realm of possibility. It’s easier, safer, to say he just wants a paycheck. He just wants a secure place to set his feet, a plot of earth to plow a road forward. Not for himself, but for someone else. “They’re just thoughts. It’s not anything- They’re just thoughts.” 

 

Taehyung’s eyes sparkle . “Ah, but a thought is the mother of everything.” 

 

Jeongguk snorts. “Where’s that from?” 

 

“That one’s all me,” Taehyung says, self satisfied. 

 

Even his smugness is gentle, like he wouldn’t know a self-glorifying thought even if it got on its knees for him. 

 

The afternoon unwinds and a cloud shifts and casts the shop in greyish shadow. As if lulled by the sudden darkness, Jinhyung yawns, his shoulders heaving up into Jeongguk’s chest, head lolling like he could sleep right here. 

 

It spurs Jeongguk into action. He cleans up the apple mess, downs the rest of his drink, tries to calculate if it’s time for a diaper change, gives up halfway and goes by smell because that’s the only real way to tell. 

 

“Sorry that turned into me dumping myself all over you . I don’t know where that came from. You didn’t ask for that and now we have to go and you were so nice to get him that applesauce he ate, like, none of-”

 

“Hey. I’d buy this kid all the apple sauces he wants to play with. He’s my favorite colleague,” Taehyung says exchanging a fistbump with Jinhyung that’s really Taehyung offering his curled hand to Jinhyung who pats it with his grubby fingers and goes “Pu-pu -pu! ”  

 

“Still-”

 

“Okay, maybe not all. PhD stipends leave a lot to be desired.”

 

“Oh! Um. Let me- I have some, uh, cash, jus-”

 

“Jeongguk.” Taehyung smiles, indulgent. “I was kidding,” he says even though he most definitely wasn’t. “And I don’t feel dumped on. At all. And...”

 

It’s unnatural almost the way Taehyung wears hesitance. Grey light reflects on his glasses, all of him colored grey, and he wears it like confidence, like it’s the strength that makes him carry on. “It’s okay if you want to complain sometimes. I don’t think anyone would fault you.”

 

“I know,” Jeongguk says, voice too breathy, and he feels too exposed, too seen. He’d like to make himself the tiniest thing ever. Jinhyung nuzzles his face in his neck, wriggles in his arms to settle in for the trip home, and reminds him why he can’t. Why he doesn’t really want to. “I just never want to.”

 

Taehyung nods slowly. He’s got one hand on the strap of his satchel, an afterthought, and Jeongguk basically has one foot out the door, table free of his presence, a baby to put to rest, a suit to tear off, homework to do and readings to catch up on, but he stays, for a moment, to say, 

 

“I never asked about your book.”

 

Taehyung’s smile is just as slow. As just a timidly confident thing. “I’m not sure you’ll like it.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, it’s about language.” 

 

Jeongguk holds back a smirk. It would be too soft on his mouth anyway. “I figured as much.”

 

“And it’s about talking and why we talk, and, well,”

 

And Jeongguk doesn’t get why Taehyung thinks he wouldn’t like it, why that would even be a thought, only gets it a little when Taehyung says, 

 

“It’s about- well, an idea, really. It’s about stories and how they might be the reason we even want to talk in the first place at all.” 

 



---




“I’m sorry, but I think I need to drop out of college again?”

 

The mountain of sweaters at the desk closest to the door moves. “Sorry, but, what the fuck? Oh . Casablanca boy. Kim isn’t here right now.”

 

Jeongguk deflates. “Oh.”

 

“Relax, freshy. He stepped out to commune with a tree. Or a piss or whatever he does when he gets keyed up on those tea drinks he’s obsessed with. That guy and caffeine do not mix well.” An actual person emerges from all the fabric this time, sharp eyes and dark lips. She looks like the cover of a magazine but the stack of books at her elbow says she could verbally eviscerate Jeongguk without smearing her lipstick. She frowns. “Is that a baby ?”

 

“Yes,” Jeongguk bites out. His arms curl protectively around Jinhyung in his sling. Jinhyung doesn’t take the judgement to heart, his own mouth pouted in the baby equivalent of disdain. 

 

“Hmm. Well, he should be back soon, so you can,” she gestures to the chair in front of Taehyung’s desk, covered in even more books than the last time Jeongguk was here. 

 

Shaking his head, Jeongguk steps back. He feels like his windpipe is crushing his esophagus, like it’s not just food and water being kept from his lungs, but air itself. “No, that’s fine. I’m sorry for interrupting yo-”

 

Her face morphs, concern painting between her brows. “Hey. Are you o-”

 

“Can you believe the vending machine ran out of starburst again? I had to go all the way to the Law School and you won’t believe the dog I ran into- Jeongguk? Hey. What are you guys doing here?”

 

Jeongguk winces. The pressure at the backs of his eyes pounds and the overwhelming urge to cry he’s been fighting for the last hour comes back with a vengeance. He tuns, mouth already babbling, “We were just leaving. It’s nothing. We’re actually going to be late, ha ha, so-”

 

“Hey.”

 

It crushes Jeongguk’s soul the way Taehyung does that. Makes such a tiny insignificant word, a sound, weigh so much. He does the same thing with Jeongguk’s name. With a lot of what he says. Maybe that’s why Taehyung thinks language is the center of everything. Because his voice just gives words that power, that weight. 

 

Jeongguk opens his mouth to dismiss Taehyung’s worry and his next breath shudders. 

 

There’s this horrifying moment where no one says anything, Jinhyung soundlessly making a spit bubble and oblivious to the drop inside the chest holding him up. 

 

Hinges squeak and the desk is evacuated, a flurry of papers ruffling and sleeves spilling everywhere. “I’m just gonna- not be here,” she says, not unkindly. She’s startling short when she inches past Jeongguk, a less startling pitiful look on her face when her eyes land on Jinhyung. 

 

He thinks he hears Taehyung mutter, “Thanks, Joohyun,” but it’s like his ears are blocked off too, the sound muddled and ugly, and he’s ushered into a chair before he knows it, the straps of his backpack cuffing around his biceps. 

 

“I really can’t stay,” Jeongguk says, but he makes no move to leave. He isn’t making a move to breathe either, just letting his body do what it wants, letting the animal of his body survive as it needs. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t respond, fiddling with something on a high table kitty cornered near the window.   

 

Minutes pass. Jinhyung kicks his feet against Jeongguk’s thighs, his soft soled shoes thudding, vocalizing every so often but mostly quiet like he can sense the overall feeling in the room, in Jeongguk. Jeongguk closes his eyes. His head sings. 

 

Fingers brush his shoulder. It’s a ghost of a touch and Jeongguk opens his eyes slowly, coaxed out of his thoughts. There’s a mug in front of him, steam rising in swirls. With his elbow patches and huge glasses, it’s all so sweetly old school, the way Taehyung thinks to take care of someone, to nurture, and it’s the thing that makes the frustrated tears wet Jeongguk’s eyes. 

 

“My mom used to make me tea when I would get anxious. Just to give me something to focus on. I had a lot of nervous energy as a kid. Still do.” 

 

Jeongguk touches the edge of the mug. His gaze catches on the candy sticking out of the pocket of Taehyung’s sweatshirt. He should look silly, an old corduroy blazer with a sweatshirt and some kiddie candy, but he just looks comforting. Kind. “You dress like a student a lot for faculty. And you shouldn’t be eating that.”

 

Taehyung shrugs, but his neck flushes. “Bad habit. I drank my green juice this morning, though. In solid form since the electric got caught off. And I am a student too, you know.”

 

“Right,” Jeongguk says. His fingers feel warm against ceramic. The rest of him feels like ice, frozen. “Right. Does your street get a lot of outages?”

 

“No. I rent a room from the world’s laziest sublessor.” 

 

“Oh. Right.”

 

Chatter from the hall sweeps through the door and a bird chirps near the window, normalcy bleeding through the haze of chaos in Jeongguk’s brain. Taehyung steeps his own tea, dragging the tea bag around the mug by its string. 

 

“My mom hasn’t talked to me in almost a year and I have a test I’m going to fail because I don’t have anyone to watch Jinhyung. I don’t have- anyone.”

 

He feels sick as soon as he says the last part because it’s not true but in the moment it is. He doesn’t have anyone to turn to, to reach out to, to lean on, and Jeonguk is so tired of it. Not being able to stand on his own when he should, when he has to. 

 

Taehyung sets his mug down. He crouches by Jeongguk’s chair, a fair distance between them. “I thought your brother-in-law…”

 

“They’re gone for the night. Just for the night, but they planned it weeks ago. I convinced them. They’ve been fighting a lot. They think I don’t notice. I just wanted them to think of themselves for once. They do so much for me, for him. I just- wanted them to think of them. They deserve that little.”

 

Taehyung nods, solemn. He raises a hand but stops midway, curling his fingers around the edge of the desk almost like an afterthought. Carefully, he says, “I’m sorry about your mom. Was it...” His eyes drop to Jinhyung.

 

Under the attention, Jinhyung curls into Jeongguk’s body shyly, but he giggles, foot kicking out in Taehyung’s direction. 

 

Taehyung plays along, lets out an oof ! and grips his foot gently, gets Jinhyung giggling for real, and the pure joy on Jinhyung’s face, the complete selflessness on Taehyung’s, makes Jeongguk feel a little less frozen, like everything is less muddled and hopeless because in the end this is all that matters, the smile on his kid’s face, that joyous sound from his mouth. 

 

Then Taehyung is looking at Jeongguk with that same kind of selflessness like he doesn’t have student’s papers to grade or research to do or a manuscript to work on or his own time to worry about, and Jeongguk swallows thickly. Says,  

 

“She didn’t want me to keep him. Neither did my dad. They didn’t understand why I even wanted to when- They told me I was ruining my life if I kept him. I told them I’d ruin my life forever if I didn’t.” 

 

The sadness drenches Taehyung’s face, but there’s a fierceness there, an anger on Jeongguk’s behalf, and Jeongguk wonders how he can ever think Taehyung is made out of stone, isn’t always gut-wrenchingly alive. 

 

“It’s. It’s not okay but it is what it is. I’ve learned to accept it. We all have. Yoongi- my brother. He doesn’t talk to them either but that’s-”

 

He cuts himself off, feels like he’s said too much, said things that aren’t his. 

 

Taehyung inches the mug closer to Jeongguk, Jinhyung’s foot still in his other hand. He waits until Jeongguk takes a sip before he steers the conversation away with, “Tell me about your test.”

 

Anxiety cripples Jeongguk’s stomach, a different sort of agitation curdling his voice now. “It’s for my Data Analytics course. We get two hours. I thought it was tomorrow but I realized I got it wrong yesterday but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want Yoongi and Namjoon to cancel because they would have. They would have. I just thought- I don’t know what I thought because there’s no way I can take him into a test and there’s no sitter or a daycare that would take him now even if they would because it’s not even the day anymore, and they’re so expensive, and I don’t trust them anyway, but I don’t even have a neighbor who could watch him for a few hours or anything and-”

 

“I’ll watch him.”

 

“-nd none of this matters because I’ll fail this test anyway and- what?” 

 

“I’ll watch him. It’s no big deal,” Taehyung adds and Jeongguk gapes. 

 

“What. No. I can’t ask you to. No.”

 

“Yes, you can,” Taehyung says, like it’s that easy, like he has nothing else of interest going on this afternoon except to take on someone else’s responsibility, Jeongguk’s responsibility. 

 

He shakes his head rapidly. The soothing tea tastes acrid, threatens to shoot back up his throat. “I really can’t. It’s not-”

 

“It’s just two hours.” After that gets him Jeongguk stuttering indecisively, he continues, “I’ll sit outside the exam room if that will make you feel more comfortable.”

 

“No. It’s not that,” Jeongguk says, but it sort of is. How can he ever know to trust anyone with himself, let alone the most important part of him. The one that can’t defend itself, can’t stand up for itself, still needs Jeongguk’s everything to do most of anything. 

 

But the clock is ticking and Jeongguk can’t fail this test. He has a plan and a set of directions to follow, a path to go down, and it all might hinge on this one test, on these next few hours. 

 

Jinhyung lets out a sudden laugh, unprompted and loud. He knocks his head back against Jeongguk’s chest, beams up at him, goes, “Ba- ba -ba-ba!” and wiggles his foot in Taehyung’s hold. 

 

Jeongguk’s heart kicks, like that beam has landed right in his chest. He takes a deep breath. Meets Taehyung’s eye. “It’s only two hours?”

 

Taehyung confirms, “Two hours. You can trust me with him, I promise.” 

 

And Jeongguk knows that, Taehyung’s resume of experience with tiny humans is vast, deeper than Jeongguk’s in many ways, but it feels like the most horrible thing anyone has ever asked of Jeongguk, to trust them with the only thing he’s pretty sure he cares about anymore. 

 

He nods. With shaking hands, he tugs at his backpack and starts pulling items out, “He’ll need a feeding at 5:30. He drinks out of this sippy cup but if he gets difficult you can give him the bottle. There’s some banana mush and some spinach and peas. He loves peas- god, that’s weird, right? Loving peas? I have a weird baby. There’s some cereal in there too. It’s soft but you have to snap it into tiny pieces to get him to eat it, but- And he might need a change. I just changed him so he should be good, but there’s diapers and stuff. Oh! I have a first aid kit and- I should probably just give you my bag, I forgot the baby bag toda-”

 

Taehyung’s hand is warm on his arm. Jeongguk can feel it through the layer of his sweater. He wonders if it’s been that long since someone he wasn’t related to touched him or if Taehyung just has warmer hands than normal. Taehyung’s eyes are warm too and he wonders if it’s just Taehyung. 

 

“It’s going to be okay. It’s just two hours. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I can’t. But I’ve got this. I do. Okay?”

 

“Okay. God, and I’m just- imposing this on you. I really didn’t- I’m sorry. Are you sure-”

 

“Can’t impose anything on me if I’m offering,” Taehyung says like that’s that. And it is because he stands and grabs a scrap of paper from his desk, jots something down quickly. “That’s my number. Just in case. You should leave yours too. Then you should finish that tea and go eat something. Nothing heavy but you should eat. And then you should go take that test and make Python your bitch.” When Jeongguk just stares at him, Taehyung says, “Okay?”

 

After a few seconds, Jeongguk says, “Okay.” He takes the last item out of his bag and holds it out. “Okay, but this is Mr. Gong Yoo the Penguin. When he throws a tantrum it’s the only thing that gets him to stop.”

 

Gong Yoo ? Like the actor?”

 

“Jinhyung might be a baby, but he already has great taste in men. And he loves penguins because they do tummy time too,” Jeongguk explains. Then his face must sort of give up because his eyelashes feel wet. 

 

“Jeongguk-”

 

“I’m fine,” Jeongguk is quick to say. Quick to feel. To feel like he feels fine. He stands and starts undoing the baby sling, holding Jinhyung against his body carefully, and he’s done this so many times now, but it strikes him for the first time how one day he won’t have to, Jinhyung will be too big for baby slings, for carriers, will be able to handle his weight just fine, and the wetness he’s somehow keeping off his face is a little harder to maintain. He does it though, because if there’s one thing Jeongguk is good at, it isn’t intervals, but being what he needs to be when he needs to be it. 

 

Then Jeongguk’s arms are empty and Taehyung’s aren’t. Jinhyung doesn’t seem worse for wear, perfectly content in Taehyung’s hold, but Jeongguk still wants to ask if they can switch, if Taehyung can deal with the intervals and Jeongguk will deal with the bratty freshman instead. Look up why some languages make more use of guttural sounds than others. How that affects the stories they tell. Take care of the baby.   

 

He sticks the paper with Taehyung’s number in his pocket, scribbles his own and his exam room number and building on the edge of a flyer for a student theater production printed on pink paper next to a battered copy of Walden

 

“Okay. Uh. I guess I’ll go make Python my bitch now?”

 

Taehyung gives him an encouraging smile, Jinhyung in one arm, Mr. Gong Yoo in the other. The pack of starburst is still sticking out of his pocket, their university’s emblem stretched over his chest. 

 

“Here,” Jeongguk says, pulling a pressed fruit snack-bar out of his bag. He sets it next to the flyer. “You should eat that instead of the candy. All the fruit flavor with the actual fruit.”

 

Taehyung’s smile grows. “I’ll do that.” Then, “Good luck, Jeongguk.” 

 

And Jeongguk doesn’t know if what he needs is luck or something else entirely, but he’ll take what he can get. 

 

Jinhyung watches him from Taehyung’s arms, cocks his head in a gesture that’s eerily reminiscent of Jeongguk, and lets out a soft, “ Ba ?”

 

The look on his face must be clear as day because Taehyung shakes his head minutely, says, “Go. I got him.”

 

Jeongguk takes a step back and regrets it immediately, heart twinging, and he turns, quickly drops a kiss on Jinhyung’s head and high tails it out of the room before he can’t move, Jinhyung’s slowly ascending ba ’s following him out the door. 

 

He only stops in the middle of the hallway once. 




---




He scarfs down half a meal from the Mathematics Department canteen, goes to the bathroom three times, and sits on the cold floor outside the exam room for minutes debating if it isn’t too late to run back to Taehyung’s office before his exam proctor appears and unlocks the room. 

 

Jeongguk counts to five. Follows the rest of the students in. 




---




“And the cow goes?”

 

Ba !” 

 

“Ohh, close. It’s mooo .”

 

Maa !”

 

“Very good! And the cat goes?”

 

Ba !” 

 

“Almost. Meow . Eh. Maybe that’s a little too advanced-”

 

“Muuuu- wu !”

 

“Amazing! And the rooster goes?”

 

Ba !” 

 

“Only a little off there, buddy. It’s ki-ki-ri-kiiii!”

 

Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaaaaa !”

 

Shrieking laughs follows, a mellow deep laughter underneath it. Jeongguk rounds the corner and he knows what’s waiting for him, but it’s still so unexpected he halts in his steps, something settling in the back of his mind, like a misplaced piece found and being tugged into place. 

 

It’s a little past seven. The lobby of the computer sciences department should be empty, soundless, but Taehyung doesn’t look out of place sitting on a bench and Jinhyung’s giggles don’t sound out of beat, the picture they make doesn’t seem warped, like it was developed wrong, out of focus, but right, completely centered. 

 

“He’s too young for that. Words. To talk.”

 

He realizes how stupid it is after he says it, cheeks coloring at how silly it is to say to Taehyung of all people.”  

 

Taehyung looks up. His hands flex around Jinhyung’s back, settle once he sees it’s Jeongguk. “I know,” he says and there’s I know and I know. Taehyung’s is the latter, affable smile, kinder words. “But they’re never too young to hear them. Words. Talking. Understanding starts as early as the adults in his life make it something of value. Plus, onomatopoeia are just fun.” 

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, more sound than word. 

 

Jinhyung perks up at it rather than Jeongguk speaking. He twists, head flung over his shoulder, an arm extended in Jeongguk’s direction. “Ba -ba !”

 

Jeongguk smiles. The whole day melts off of him like ice runoff into a sea of the things that don’t matter.

 

He walks over. It’s a seamless exchange, Taehyung already lifting Jinhyung, Jeongguk picking him up out of his arms and into his own. 

 

Jinhyung settled against his chest, he asks, “So were you going over the entire animal kingdom or just the sidelined characters in Zootopia ?”

 

“Well, we started with the tundra animals because, you know, penguins.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Though that’s a misconception because most penguins don’t actually live in the tundra.”  

 

Right .”

 

“So then we hit some subtropical rainforest animals because it felt a little redundant to go through the taiga and temperate species at that point.” 

 

“Of course.”

 

“And then we did farm animals.”

 

“Cats are farm animals?”

 

“Jeon Jeongguk, have you never been on a farm?”

 

He’s too distracted by the sound of his name in that order, in that voice, to take full stock of his mouth, the smile on it. “You have?”

 

“Born and reared on one. There were many cats. And sheep.” He adds this last bit to Jinhyung who coos into Jeongguk’s neck with a soft “ Ba-ba ”.  

 

“He’s very good at sheep,” Taehyung says and Jeongguk has to agree. Jinhyung knows his sheep sounds. 

 

Jeongguk combs through his hair gently. He tilts his head at Taehyung. “I wasn’t picturing you being from a farm.”

 

“What were you picturing?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says after a moment. Most of the lights are dimmed in the building, lamplight pouring into the front room through the big front window. A slow feeling spreads over Jeongguk. Jinhyung’s eyelashes brush against his skin. “A city. A townhouse, maybe.” 

 

“No. Just a farm in Daegu, Gyeosang-do. Then another farm upstate. Now, a subpar room in a subpar high-rise. A townhouse sounds nice, though.” 

 

“It does,” Jeongguk says because sure it does. Lots of things sound nice. “That’s not what it’s called anymore, isn’t it? Gyeosang-do .” 

 

“I know.” Taehyung’s smile is wide, a little like he’s not fully aware of it too. “But I’ve been reading a lot of Joseon era poetry. Sounds more poetic, don’t you think?”

 

Jeongguk gives a little shrug. The slow feeling is muddling his brain again, but different than the heaviness from earlier, that suffocating in his throat. Now it feels like his lungs have expanded, like he’s taken enough deep breaths he doesn’t have to think about it. “Maybe. I don’t know a lot about poetry. Old or otherwise.”

 

“Now that is a travesty. Everyone deserves a little poetry.” 

 

“Maybe,” Jeongguk says, a half-agreement. 

 

Taehyung just grins, something slow and sleepy about it too. His hair is messier than earlier, windswept. Like he’s spent some time worrying through it. More likely, like Jinhyung has been tugging at it. Jeongguk thinks about patting it down. It’s probably his responsibility if his kid was the one to mess it up and that’s his job as his parent. For now. For a long now. For forever in the back of his mind even when years down the line, he’ll do nothing. Let Jinhyung fix his messes all on his own. 

 

“How was your test?”

 

Jeongguk blinks harshly. His raised hand curls in midair. He cups the back of Jinhyung’s neck with it. He burrows closer, eyelids drooping. 

 

He says, “It was fine. I think. I didn’t fail. I don’t think.” 

 

“What’s that thing they say? If you feel like you passed, you did?”

 

“Pretty sure it’s the opposite. If you feel like you failed, you passed.” 

 

“And if you know you failed, then you definitely did. But anyway. Superstitions are bullshit.”

 

“Speaking of anyway,” Jeongguk says. He meets Taehyung’s eye, has been but it’s more purposeful now and he feels a sudden shyness he can’t exactly place why. “Thank you. For watching him. For bringing him here. You didn’t have to do that.”

 

Taehyung rises from the bench, a reusable grocery bag in his hand, his satchel slung over a shoulder. “I figured the compsci building would be closer to however you head home. And I didn’t want you guys walking in the dark.”

 

“Oh. Thank you. My car’s in the economics building’s lot. Not mine. My brother’s, but it’s just next door. But I meant-”

 

“Good. I’ll walk you guys over-”

 

“No,” he says, too sharp. He tries again, softer, “Sorry. But it’s okay. Thank you, though.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I really am-”

 

“It’s on-”

 

“I’ve taken way too much of your time, Taehyung.”

 

“-my way...Okay,” Taehyung finishes after a lengthy pause. The smile is gone, but the sleepy slow thing is still there, like it doesn’t really weigh on him, whether Jeongguk accepts his offer or not. “Okay. Well. This is yours, then. You can keep the bag so don’t worry about returning it.” 

 

“Oh. Okay.”

 

“It’s Joohyun’s, though, so maybe don’t carry it around campus.” 

 

A laugh escapes Jeongguk, small huff of breath. There’s a buffalo on the front of it, some kind of snake like creature wrapped around its horns. The handles are glittery pink. Jinhyug kicks at it with his tiny boot clad foot. He thinks of the short walk that awaits them now, the campus lampposts as their only friends, and he feels foolishly young with an immediateness that pains him. The way he’s been through the one thing that should make him an adult, but he still acts with his ego, his pride, how he denies himself kindness. “I’ll feel bad if I keep it.”

 

“Don’t. She has another twenty of them. She won’t miss it. It makes an excellent baby supplies transporter.” 

 

Jeongguk smiles. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

Taehyung smiles back. He exchanges the gentlest fistbump Jeongguk has ever seen with a barely lucid Jinhyung. Then he gives Jeongguk a nod. Heads out. 

 

“Taehyung?”

 

Door open, Taehyung stops. Looks back. 

 

Jeongguk stutters soundlessly, wonders why the slow feeling feels so full, like he’s being flooded, the ocean runoff is all warmth. “Thank you. I mean it. I owe you, like, a thousand one’s.”

 

Fluorescents pour over Taehyung’s face, the edges of it the warmest ice. “Just remind me to eat a real fruit next time you see me. Something green. Goodnight, Jeongguk.”

 

Jeongguk’s shoulders rise with his next word. It pinches at him, somewhere, too close to his windpipe. He sighs. Hugs Jinhyung a little closer and balances the bag on his other arm. “Goodnight, Taehyung-hyung.”

 

Taehyung grins, the gentlest thing Jeongguk has seen all day. Second gentlest. 

 

Then, the door shuts behind him with a swish. Jeongguk’s shoulders slump, but only for a second, a few. He can’t afford it. To not stand still. To not stand tall and high. He has a weight he has to anchor, a heart he has to protect with his own. He tucks Jinhyung’s jacket higher around his neck, pulls the mint colored crochet beanie Taehyung thought to fit him with further down his brow. Then, he braces for the cool night, the almost alone walk in the almost dark. 




---




The candle smoke is still wafting in the air when Yoongi says, 

 

“I handed in my notice yesterday.”

 

Jeongguk pauses from where he’s cutting a slice of cake into micro-bite-sized pieces. The metal cutlery scrapes against the plate and he grimaces. 

 

Namjoon lifts his head from his sprawl on the livingroom floor, Jinhyung alternating from crawling all over him to standing on his chest with the aid of Namjoon’s hands. He lifts onto his elbows, Jinhyung caught between his knees, the birthday hat on his head nestled at his temple. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. His face is saying it all. 

 

Yoongi eats a forkful of cake. He takes his time chewing, carefully wiping frosting from the corner of his lip after he swallows with a penguin patterned napkin. 

 

“I have the standard two weeks, but it’s a done deal. I go to Seoul next week for five days and then I come back and I’m done.”

 

Jeongguk clears his throat. He glances at Namjoon’s face. Looks back at his brother. “What- what will you do now?”

 

Yoongi smiles in his direction. It’s thankful but it doesn’t reach his eyes. He takes another bite of cake. “I’m going back to producing full time. Independently. I’ve been thinking about it for a long while and it feels like the right time.” 

 

Jeongguk grins, feels like his heart might burst. “Hyung! That’s- wow. I’m so happy for you. I didn’t know you’d been thinking about it seriously again.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Yoongi says, and he doesn’t look at Namjoon, but it’s there, the pause where he would. “It seemed like conversation non grata .”

 

Jeongguk frowns. “Wha-”

 

Namjoon scoffs shakes his head. He sits up slowly, Jinhyung cradled to his chest. Jinhyung slumps in his hold. Namjoon kisses the side of his head, sets him up on the rug with his newest toy, a plastic blue and pink that dog sings the alphabet. 

 

Bypassing the dining room table, he heads for the hallway. “Gonna get his other present,” he says at Jeongguk’s concerned face, but a few moments later the bedroom door shuts, lock clicking into place. 

 

Jinhyung makes the puppy sing. He claps along excitedly, filling the silence with chaos and joy. 

 

Yoongi eats more cake. 

 

“Hyung-”

 

“Don’t take it personally, Jeonggukie,” Yoongi says, his fork dragging against the plate. It scratches eerily, uncaring that it’s the nice ceramic. “Namjoon’s just a little high strung because of a deadline.” 

 

“That’s not what it-” 

 

There’s a tug at his pants and Jeongguk looks down to find that Jinhyung has crawled towards him, hands wrapped around the fabric of his jeans. Jeongguk sighs. He bends forward to pick him up. Jinhyung whines, struggles out of his hold, but doesn’t let his pants go. 

 

Jeongguk frowns again. “What? What is it?”

 

Jinhyung whines some more, yanks. 

 

“What’s wrong? Do you want me to get on the floor too-”

 

With a last strong tug, maybe too strong considering he just turned eleven months today, Jinhyung pulls himself up, stands on shaky feet with his hands planted firmly on Jeongguk’s knees. 

 

Yoongi chuckles, brushes Jinhyung’s hair off his forehead with a gentle hand. “Whoa. Check the kid out.” 

 

“Yep. He’s getting very good at standing. Almost as good as he is at ba ’s, huh?” Jeongguk asks, smile wide, pride bleeding from his voice. 

 

Jinhyung scrunches his little face. Grunts “ Ba !” and twists almost like he’s shaking his head. 

 

“Looks like we’ve got two temper tantrums to deal with now.”

 

“Hyung!”

 

Yoongi looks only a little chastised. There’s an unhappy tug at the corner of his mouth as he stares at his frosting covered fork and Jeongguk’s stomach twists, an ache in his heart at whatever is going on he doesn’t have the full picture of, but then Jinhyung stops using Jeongguk as a perching tower, lets himself nose dive face first on the floor. 

 

“Jinhyung!”

 

“Jesus christ, kid-”

 

Hands reach out, but they’re not Jeongguk’s or Yoongi’s, Jinhyung’s tiny fists catching his fall, an almost purposefulness to the way his knees bend to support his weight. 

 

“Good job, Jinhyung!”

 

“Thank fuck.”


Before Jeongguk can make up his mind about whether or not he’s mad about Yoongi cursing around his kid, again ; he’s too young to understand the meaning let alone the context of those words, yet those are words people say, Jinhyung grunts again, this one longer, and pushes into his palms, the force bringing his spine up, back held straight as his knees slowly unbend. 

 

Then, he lifts his left leg, plants his foot an inch or so in front of himself. 

 

Jeongguk sucks in a breath. 

 

Jinhyung lifts his other leg. 

 

Face comically pale, Yoongi yells, “Namjoon! Namjoon, get in here!”

 

There’s a bump from down the hall. 

 

Jinhyung places his right foot a few paces ahead of the other one. His arms flail, keep him steady. 

 

“Namjoon-ah, for fucking sake’s, get your ass in here!”

 

And whatever previous considerations Jeongguk had about swear words are gone, his smile cracking his face open, as wide as his heart. “Hyung! Namjoon-hyung!”

 

Ignoring the ruckus, Jinhyung takes one shaky step after the other, walking in a mostly straight zigzagging line parallel with the dining table. 

 

Wood bangs against wood, and steps, louder but not necessarily stronger than Jinhyung’s, amble down the hallway. 

 

“The fu-frack is it, damn it, Yoong-”

 

Jinhyung lets out a cry of “ Baaaaaaa !” and rams himself into Namjoon’s knees. 

 

Namjoon freezes, looks down, stays motionless. He looks up at Yoongi. Finds Jeongguk’s eyes, after. 

 

Jeongguk watches the moment, feels like he’s outside of it, heart in his throat, how despite this being the tallest he’s ever been, Jinhyung has never looked this tiny even as he’s in all his upright glory next to Namjoon’s staggering almost six feet. 

 

Namjoon looks back down. Meets Jinhyung’s giggling eyes peering up at him from where he’s still standing, hands loosely fisted around the fabric covering his legs. 

 

And then Namjoon bursts into tears. 

 

Jinhyung . Jinhyunie-yah you’re walking. You walked. All on your own! I can’t believe it. Look at you!”

 

There’s a hollow sound, the suspicious sound of a sniffle, and Yoongi’s quiet voice, “Knew he’d walk before he turned one. Kid’s a genius,” but his voice is as sweet soft as the overly whipped frosting. 

 

When Jeongguk looks over, his brother’s eyes are wet too. 

 

Namjoon must hear it, the sweetness, because he smiles. Or maybe it’s just the moment, this moment, and nothing could keep the smile off Namjoon’s face. “What do you say, kiddo? Wanna show your uncle what a genius you are?”

 

There’s a gentleness as Namjoon guides Jinhyung to turn and walk in Yoongi’s direction. A hovering too, but a confident one, like Namjoon has been there from the moment Jinhyung took his first vulnerable breath, through every stage since, has watched him grow from barely being able to crawl to this moment now, and knows that Jinhyung can do it, the next step, the next phase in his growth. Namjoon has been there, here, more than maybe anyone. 

 

Jeongguk smiles through the heart in his throat feeling, watches Jinhyung stumble up to Yoongi, babbling at his knees and almost losing his balance. 

 

“Yeah, kid. You sure showed me,” Yoongi says, like he doesn’t mind at all, getting shown up by an eleven month old. He pokes one of Jinhyung’s chubby cheeks. Rests the same hand on Namjoon’s hip, a quiet, seeking touch. 

 

Namjoon leans into it, ruffles Jinhyung’s hair, all of the tension from earlier leached out of his body. 

 

From the other end of the table, Jeongguk watches them, his brother who he loves and his brother in law who he loves and his kid who he loves more than anyone, than he ever thought himself capable of, Jeon Jeongguk and the love he has to give, and they’re a perfect picture, three bodies in a frame, almost like there isn’t space for anyone else, like it isn’t necessary. 

 

The cake sours in Jeongguk’s stomach. Feels heavy. The wet in his eyes feels different. 

 

“Ba- ba !” 

 

Huge eyes in what would be narrowed in an older face, Jinhyung twists away from Yoongi, seeks out Jeongguk until he finds him. He lets out a cooing screech, takes a hurried step, little body moving too fast for his newly found footing to catch up. 

 

Yoongi and Namjoon reach out just in time to steady him, Yoongi crouching down from his chair to support his weight. “Careful there, kid. You gotta walk before you can run.”

 

Jinhyung struggles, grunts. 

 

“Okay, okay. I get it. You want your dad. Go get him! Get him. Get your dad,” Yoongi encourages, tickles Jinhyung’s sides who shrieks in laughter before he does just that, steps less hurried but just as determined. 

 

Jeongguk’s knees hit the ground in seconds, heart hammering in his throat, and he thinks he might be sick, too much cake and too much love, but it doesn’t matter because he’d be sick twenty times over, all for this moment, his kid looking ready to conquer the world, like he could walk anywhere, towards anyone, and he’s walking towards him instead, like he’s following a beacon, like he can sense where safety, where home is. 

 

It feels like an eternity though it’s just seconds and in them Jeongguk thinks of cutting the distance, of making it easier, holding Jinhyung’s hands. 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t move a muscle. For those seconds, he barely breathes. 

 

When Jinhyung tumbles into his arms, his giggles like a war cry of victory and it feels like Jeongguk is the one who’s followed the beacon, the one who’s found home. 

 

He scoops Jinhyung up, stands and gives him a spin. “You did so good, Jinhyung-ah. So good. The smartest best baby in the world. I love you so much. I’m so proud!”

 

There’s frosting in Jinhyung’s hair and he smells like sugar and that perfect baby smell, and then Namjoon and Yoongi are surrounding them, echoing Jeongguk’s words, their hands strong and sure on Jeongguk’s shoulders. 

 

Yoongi says, “Like I said. Kid’s a genius.”

 

And Jeongguk feels so light. Feels home. 




---




“-should’ve done tha-”

 

“-meant to act li-”

 

“-elt so guilt-”

 

“-ink about Jeongg-”

 

“-do anything to hur-” 

 

“-nt you to talk to m-”

 

“-couldn’t-”

 

The kitchen floods with light. Jeongguk squints, turns away from the open kitchen drawer he’s been staring into to see his brother leaned against the wall next to the fridge, arms crossed, face wane with lack of sleep. 

 

“Sorry. Did we wake you?”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head. He closes the drawer quietly, hands behind his back. “Couldn’t sleep. Too much sugar.”

 

“Hmm,” Yoongi says. “Have I ever told you what a nightmare you used to be to put to sleep?”

 

“Once or twice.”

 

“Mom would try everything. Douse you in lavender. Sing songs ‘till she lost her voice. Warm honey milk. Have dad sit in the car with you.”

 

“And all it took was my big bro sleeping on the floor next to me.”

 

“Who’d have thought you just didn’t want to be alone.”

 

“Doesn’t everyone?” Jeongguk asks with a shrug. He reaches for his abandoned glass of water, drinks even though he isn’t thirsty. 

 

Yoongi is quiet. He fixes his own glass, water filter whirring in the silence. 

 

“I wish you’d told me. That your job was making you unhappy. That you’re unhappy.”

 

Yoongi frowns. “I’m not unhappy-”

 

“You and Namjoon have been fighting a lot lately. He was so upset today-”

 

Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Namjoon and I have been fighting since second grade and it pissed me off he was such a show off brainiac show-off. That’s who we are. If we don’t butt heads, we don’t know what to do with ourselves.”

 

“But you quit your job without telling him. And you’ve been stressed and I know that Jinhyung and I moving in has been a burden for you guys. And it sounds like-”

 

“Kid.” 

 

Something in Jeongguk bristles. He bites it back. The arching of his spine, his pride, like a wet angry cat. 

 

Yoongi’s face is tired, wearier than he should be at thirty, and it doesn’t really matter how old Jeongguk is, how much life he’s lived. He’ll be fifty and Yoongi will look at him this same way, will always look at Jeongguk and go kid

 

“I’m going to say this once and I really want you to listen, okay?”

 

Jeongguk presses his fingers to his glass. Nods. 

 

“I love you, but my relationship with Namjoon is not your responsibility. It’s not yours to concern yourself with or feel like you put any pressure on it.”

 

“Bu-”

 

“You,” Yoongi says, voice a warning, the way he used to sound when he had to deal with one of Jeongguk’s tantrums, “are not a burden to us. That kid sleeping in his crib right now sure as fuck isn’t. I brought you into my house, my home, Jeongguk, because how the hell couldn’t I? You’re my brother. My baby brother. I’d take a life for you. A bullet for you.” 

 

Jeongguk takes a breath. He feels like his throat is still cake logged, like the sugar really is what’s kept him up tonight. 

 

“I wouldn’t change anything about this last year. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I wouldn’t want it to be different.”

 

“Yoongi-hyung-”

 

“Not a single thing. Not a one.” Yoongi’s tone is muted, the kitchen quiet, but he might as well be in Jeongguk’s head, in his mind, yelling the words, pressing them into the crevices of Jeongguk’s brain. “Do you understand me?”

 

“You shouldn’t have had to put your life on hold for us.”

 

Yoongi snorts, his stance easing, glass half empty. “You may be taller than me and be a dad and have that fancy finance scholarship now, but you really still are my dumb little brother.”

 

Jeongguk frowns, genuine offense smarting his insides. “Hey.”

 

“Hey, you.” Yoongi drains his glass, sets it down in the sink. “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be okay. The job thing. The money thing. I’ll figure it out. I always do, don’t I?”

 

Height might not be Yoongi’s forte, but figuring things out has always been. Where the secret candy stash in the back of the pantry was. How to find the trail back when they got lost trekking in the woods behind their house. How to avoid Jeongguk failing out of the third grade. He’s the first person Jeongguk told when he got his first heartbreak. He’s the only one who had a solution when Jeongguk had made what he thought at the time was the worst mistake of his life, and yeah, if anyone can figure it out it’s Yoongi. 

 

“You shouldn’t always have to. You should let other people take care of you sometimes, hyung.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. Just.” Yoongi shrugs. He rinses his glass in the sink, sets it in the drying rack with a quiet thunk. He smiles at Jeongguk. “You’re not as little as I still think of you sometimes. Definitely not as dumb,” but as he pats Jeongguk’s shoulder as he passes him on his way back to the hall, he says, “Go to sleep, kid.”

 

Yoongi reaches for the lightswitch and it’s a funny sort of irony, how Jeongguk shot up in height, but Yoongi’s hands are still bigger, his shoulders broader, wide enough to carry the world, all of Jeongguk’s at least. 

 

“Hyung?”

 

Yoongi’s eyes are caught in shadow, a brightness there, like Yoongi was just dehydrated, like all he needed was words from someone who loved him, and Jeongguk wants to say them, words, but he wonders if being from the same place means you don’t need them. If there’s a lack of space for them when you’re cut from the same flesh, born from the same home. 

 

He says, “Goodnight, hyung.”




---




He’s trying to get Jinhyung to eat this new vitamin fortified cereal- it’s shaped like giraffes and colored with 100% real fruit extracts -while trying to feed himself breakfast before class, when a stack of papers is dropped by his plate. 

 

Jeongguk blinks upward, spoon in the corner of his mouth, Jinhyung gnawing on his thumb instead of the tiny oat savannah animals. 

 

Yoongi makes for the coffee pot. Serves himself a generous mug. He dignifies Jeongguk with a look. “Oh. We’re renting out the loft upstairs.”

 

Jeongguk blanches. “Namjoon-hyung’s studio?!”

 

“Yep,” Namjoon says cheerfully. He stirs a pot at the stove, sniffs at a jar of spices. “I’ve decided to take over the other spare room. And don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s a bad example for Jinhyung.”

 

Jeongguk’s thumb is still clamped between Jinhyung’s non-threatening teeth. He smacks his hands on his highchair tray. The giraffes go aerial. “Ba!”  

 

Jeongguk pulls the spoon out of his mouth. Takes his thumb out of Jinhyung’s and hands him a cereal piece. Jinhyung accepts the exchange begrudgingly. He stuffs egg noodles into his own face. Swallows and asks, “What.”

 

“With your brother ditching the corporate noose, we need the extra income. We thought about renting short-term, but Airbnb is a fu- ducking joke.” Plucking a few leaves from the lone herb plant hanging in the window-sill above the sink, Namjoon bites his cooking chopsticks between his front teeth, shreds the green into small pieces over the simmering pot. Garbled, he says, “Plus, the acoustics are better here on the second floor.”

 

Snide, Jeongguk says, “Don’t talk with things in your mouth.” 

 

Namjoon rolls his eyes.

 

Yoongi slides past the stove with two mugs, leaves one on the counter next to the stove. He plucks the chopsticks from Namjoon’s mouth, then steals one of the hardboiled eggs Namjoon had painstakingly sliced on a cutting board and sets it on a plate. “Quit bickering you two or Jinhyung will give you a time out.”

 

Jinhyung goes, “Ba!”

 

Jeongguk tries to feed him some more cereal. All it gets him is soggy baby slobbered giraffes on his sweatpants. 

 

Yoongi sits on Jinhyung’s other side, across from Jeongguk. He cuts the egg into tinier pieces. 

 

“Eggs have cholesterol,” Jeongguk reminds Yoongi, trying to keep the bite out of his voice. 

 

The look Yoongi sends him says he was only half successful. 

 

“Yes, but they also have important proteins. The wholesomebaby blog says it’s among the best first real-foods to feed a kid.”

 

Ignoring the fact that his brother reads a blog whose url includes the domain momtastic , nevermind Jeongguk knows this because he also reads said blog, Jeongguk sighs. 

 

Yoongi stops cutting the egg, apprehension mired on his face. “Sor-”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head. He reaches for a piece, the yolk dry and chalky, and places it on an oat giraffe. Jinhyung squeals, entranced by the yellow. He plays more than he eats the egg or the cereal, but some of it makes it into his mouth so Jeongguk considers it a win. 

 

A thermos appears next to the stack of papers. Namjoon squeezes Jeongguk’s shoulder, the touch warm, familiar. Jeongguk sighs again, longer. 

 

“Don’t worry so much, Gukkie,” Namjoon says, like he can read Jeongguk like a book he’s read a thousand and one times, a story he knows well, something he could recite from memory, from the heart. He’s known Jeongguk since he was born. He’s been there even when he hasn’t been, when he didn’t have to be. “That’s our job.”

 

“But-”

 

“Besides. Guess who’ll be doing most of the pack mule work?”

 

Jeongguk makes a face. “Let me guess. I’ll also be the one putting these flyers up,” he says reading the first one over, the tacky bright color and font. “Which, really, hyung, flyers? I know there’s a generation gap between us, but you have heard of this thing called the internet, right?”

 

Yoongi grins into his mug. “And he got it in one! Guess it isn’t such a mystery where Jinhyung got his genius.” He pushes the egg plate closer to Jeongguk. The plate is pink and its littered with penguins in different modes of action from the famed belly flopping to executing a plié. 

 

Jinhyung taps his shoulder, points to his mouth with a chubby finger. 

 

“And don’t worry, the ads are online, but college students are the true untapped sublease market potential, and what d'ya know? We know someone who knows a lot of college students.”

 

Jeongguk sighs. His stomach still feels soured, his brain still worried, but he doesn’t have the words to voice it, for the feeling, for the voice in his head. 

 

“Lucky you,” he says. 

 

He feeds Jinhyung more cereal-egg and doesn't say anything else. 





---




 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---




The bulletin boards are overrun with flyers. Neon cardstock. Flashy fonts. Adverts for tutors and department mixers. Jeongguk looks at the similarly colorful flyers in the crook of his elbow, looks up, wonders at the paper waste.

 

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent .” 

 

Keeping very still, Jeongguk doesn’t lift his eyes from the flyer and asks, “What’s that from?”

 

“Assimov. Not his best if you ask me, but a lot of truth to it.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Then again, Sometimes you have to pick up the gun to put the Gun down .”

 

Over his shoulder, Jeongguk turns to look at him. Taehyung is staring at the same flyer he was, hands laced at his back as he reads. The blazer he’s wearing is tight on his shoulders, bright yellow sunflowers all over it. 

 

“Malcolm X. All truth to that one.” 

 

“So you’re saying you’re not a pacifist?”

 

“I’m saying that with humanity as it is, as it has been, violence might have its place. And violence isn’t always physical.” 

 

Jeongguk thinks of the ear piercing cry-fest Jinhyung had three nights ago. The way their father used to eviscerate Yoongi with a single stare. Of the sound of her voice the last time he heard it, how soundless it was, how it ripped into his heart like her teeth were knives, a cannibalistic wound. He turns back to the flyer. “I guess.”

 

“I have a hard time imagining it, though. You being violent.”

 

Jeongguk blinks. “I’m a black belt in taekwondo. I used to compete nationally. And I spent most of middle-school getting into fights. I got sent home a bit.”

 

Taehyung consider this. He stares at the flyer in question, the university’s Taekwondo Association looking for recruits. When he looks at Jeongguk it’s with smiling eyes, easily mistaken for mirth. “Physicality isn’t always violence.”

 

“Did you stop going to the gym?”

 

Taehyung startles, brows arching. “I-”

 

“I mean,” Jeongguk hurriedly says, face hot. It isn’t an out of place thing to ask, to get used to seeing someone, and then wonder when they’re no longer there to see. Besides, Taehyung is a hard person to miss. “I haven’t seen you there in a while. And I was just…”

 

Taehyung comes to rest on the wall, cork creaking and the edge of a push-pin digging into his blazer. He faces Jeongguk fully like he wasn’t looking for anything in the announcements to begin with. “I’ve been going early. Really early.” At Jeongguk’s silence, he fiddles with his blazer cuffs. The design on the sweatshirt he’s wearing stretches with his movement, a caricature of The Thinker with a speech bubble floating above its head. He seems to be doing that thing he’s so fond of, undecided of how serious he wants to be seen as, taken for, the professor he only technically isn’t, the student he very much is. “It’s like they say: Do the difficult thing first.”

 

“Who said that?”

 

Taehyung shakes his head, but his smile finally stretches across his face fully, wholeheartedly, toothy and too big for his face. Jeongguk looks back to the flyers, words unfocused. “I don’t know. Moms? Life coaches? You really think I just talk in quote all the time, don’t you?”

 

“Can you blame me?”

 

“I guess not.” There’s intention in his tone when he says, “I’ve been regretting it lately. And not just because it requires getting up when the sun barely is.” 

 

Oh ,” Jeongguk says. “Yeah?”

 

“Oh, yeah. None of the other gym attendants are as understanding of my natural talent for tangling the handlebars of the weight machines.” 

 

“I’ve told you to stick with the pull-bars.” 

 

“You have. But you’re always the nicest when I don’t listen anyway.”

 

Jeongguk looks down, hand clasping around the strap of his backpack. His cheeks feel decidedly warmer, the first rush of sun when you step outside. “I’m always nice,” he mumbles because he tries to be and if there’s one thing fatherhood is constantly teaching him, it’s that sometimes the trying is what counts. 

 

“It’s nice to see you now, though,” Taehyung says, so sincere Jeongguk can’t not look to see if the expression matches his voice. “How’ve you been?”

 

“I-, good. Um. You know. You look, uh. Too. Your shoulders- I mean. They look like they’re coming along nice. Nicely? I don’t- Is that a new blazer?”

 

Taehyung watches him with a tilted head, smile gone funny like he means to be doing something else with his mouth. “It’s actually decrepitly old. Both in my possession and generally speaking. Pretty sure it belonged to someone’s grandpa in the 70’s. Offended you haven’t noticed, but in your defense the shoulders are a lot tighter than they used to be.”

 

Jeongguk laughs like Taehyung made a joke in there somewhere, high and too breathy. “That’s- aha. It. Uh. I’m good. School. Work. More work. Stuff.”

 

“Well. That’s g-”

 

“Jinhyung’s good,” he interjects, and it isn’t that Jeongguk doesn’t get nervous but he doesn’t tend to give into his nerves. He can’t really afford that anymore. “Great, really. But he’s one now so if he weren’t that would really suck.”

 

“That’s great. Love that kid,” Taehyung says, spread lips full of a fondness that looks ready to melt off his face. He says it so easily, the way some people just love all babies, the way others love their best friend’s dog or that one cousin twice-removed who always brings dessert to family gatherings. 

 

“He just walked for the first time on his own the day he turned eleven months old. It was- do you wanna see-”

 

“Hell yeah I want to see,” Taehyung is quick to say, sounds so young and boyish, and it’s strange because he is both still, young, boyish, despite his vintage nerd glasses, the academic cadence to his usual speech. 

 

Jeongguk smiles, phone out as he scrolls through his gallery. He feels like every proud parent ever showing their kid off like they’ve cured cancer or saved the earth from a climate meltdown or created a new economic system that actually works or won gold, instead of everyday banalities like a first word or a first laugh or a first bike ride. It’s important in a different way. Your first walk, first word, first anything. There have been an infinite number of firsts but your firsts are yours. In that way, they only ever happen once. 

 

“Look at him go.” Taehyung’s voice is awed and Jinhyung might as well be first place at the Grand-Prix. 

 

“It’s his second walk, but we were too distracted the first time.”

 

“I bet. Looks like that was some party too. Is eleven months a big deal in your family?”

 

“Yes. Or. No.” Jeongguk shakes his head. Laughs a little. He clicks the side of the phone and the screen goes dark. It looped through five times and Taehyung didn’t seem to mind, but unlike most parents, Jeongguk knows when the fascination he holds for his kid can’t be met by anyone else. He looks up and realizes how much closer they’re standing, his own arm crushing a half fallen ad for a Sigma-Pi bake sale. He shakes his head again. “We’ve been celebrating all his month birthdays. My brother’s idea.” 

 

“That’s sweet.”

 

“Yeah. I’m afraid it’ll make him spoiled or a complete brat that he gets celebrated so much.”

 

“I wouldn’t worry about that. It sounds like he has a good support system to keep him grounded. Plus, you could always get him a dog. Pets are a great way to instill responsibility and keep young egos in check.”

 

“At this age, it’d be more my pet than his and, trust me, I don’t need more responsibility right now.”

 

“You sound like my uncle right before he retired. He was an accountant, by the way.” 

 

“Good for him?”

 

Taehyung smiles, again like he’s trying not to or maybe like he doesn’t want it misinterpreted. “I meant you’re too young to sound like that. I mean, you still make time for fun, right? For yourself?”

 

Jeongguk bites back a scoff, the kind of eyeroll that’ll make him regret his own bratiness during Jinhyung’s teenage years. “Sure. I’ll just fit that in between working thirty-some hour weeks and not flunking out of college.”

 

Taehyung’s expression drops. Not the cold faced seriousness that catches Jeongguk off guard but more like it’s frozen in the sudden shift of Jeongguk’s emotions. 

 

He goes on, “That and making sure my kid is prepared for adulthood some day. So my fun quota is pretty full until I hit thirty-nine at least. Maybe forty-one if we go more the Korean than the American way of child rearing.”

 

The sounds from the hallway peeter back into Jeongguk’s consciousness. Sneakers on floorboards. The beep of a text. Someone calling their friend’s name. He shuffles a foot backwards, a move to join the chaos around them, out of this cocooned warmth he and Taehyung are enveloped in. 

 

Taehyung opens his mouth. His lower lip juts and then he takes a breath. His brows furrow as he visibly rethinks whatever he was about to say. Jeongguk takes the half step back, finds himself wishing Taehyung wasn’t so careful with words as he seems to be, that he’d just shove them in Jeongguk’s face. He guesses that’s wishful thinking with someone who’s made it their life mission to figure words out, where and when they should be said and how and with who. 

 

“You’re still your own person, you know.” Against all the noise, Taehyung’s voice should get drowned out. Jeongguk feels frozen in place. It’s the only thing he can hear. “I know that’s- what do I know? But it doesn’t make you less of a parent to think about yourself too. Not just for your own sake but for his.”

 

Taehyung’s voice is like sticky molasses seeping down Jeongguk’s throat. The words fill up his brain, unclog a place buried under his ribs he’s forgotten in the autopilot he’s been living life in since his life stopped being about him.

 

“You still deserve your own life, Jeongguk. Has anyone told you that since he was born?”

 

It almost angers Jeongguk, the easy way Taehyung says that, except there’s nothing easy about the earnestness in Taehyung’s voice, the hard knot of his brows, the painful sympathy on his face. It borders on empathy, like Taehyung understands it, forgetting it, denying to be your own person. 

 

Jeongguk swallows the thickness in his throat. Meets Taehyung’s gaze when he says, “No.”

 

“Well, I understand why they don’t, but someone really should.”

 

“You just did.”

 

Tentative, Taehyung smiles. 

 

After a second, the confusion of swirling feelings inside of him forgotten, Jeongguk smiles back. 

 

“So,” Taehyung says, a downward flick of his chin. “Announcing a bake sale?”

 

Jeongguk looks at the flyers in his own hand. “Oh. No .” He rolls his eyes, openly petulant. “Do I look like I bake?” 

 

“I would not be surprised if confectionery is one of the many talents you possess.” 

 

“And make time for?” Jeongguk jokes lightly, a part of him smarting at the exchange, another ashamed at the truth of Taehyung’s words. He’ll think about it later. When he has time for it. Some time before he’s thirty-nine. 

 

Taehyung cocks a brow. 

 

Jeongguk clears his throat. He shimmies from one foot to the other, restless energy wracking through him. “My brother is subletting my brother-in-law’s studio. It’s the loft in our apartment. I’m canvassing the uni. Doing him a favor.”

 

Taehyung catches onto his tone. “So you’re real happy about it, I take it?”

 

“It’s not- I mean, it’s his- or really, their call, but- I don’t like change. Or the idea of some random idiot college douche I don’t know living so close to my kid.”

 

“No, that’s… yeah. I can see that.”

 

“Can you? Sometimes.” Jeongguk pauses. He bites his lip, tears the edge of a purple flyer accidentally. Something about the Chemistry Department’s annual luncheon. He pins the ripped edge with a stray thumbtack. “I feel like I want to protect him so much from the whole world but then I watch him, I see who he’s becoming, and I think it won’t matter, and he’ll be the kind of person who throws himself at the world teeth first anyway.”

 

“That doesn’t matter.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It doesn’t matter. Or,” Taehyung corrects, brows slanting thickly. For a moment Jeongguk wonders what it’s like inside his mind, if it’s a constant flood of words he navigates through, redirects like traversing rivers. “I don’t think it should take away from you wanting to protect him or needing to.”

 

“Do you really think that?”

 

“Sure. Parents need their kids as much as their kids need them. It’s just a different kind of need.”

 

Somewhere a door slams but the hallway is a lot quieter now. It must be closer to the hour than Jeongguk needs it to be, his next class two levels above them. 

 

He stares at Taehyung for a beat. Taehyung lets him. He’s comfortable with it, his words scrutinized, the length of time they take to settle. 

 

“I’ve never thought about it that way,” he eventually says. 

 

Taehyung shrugs and it really is a nice blazer. Jeongguk thinks about his own gym routine, how we went a little too easy on himself on his last arms day. “Just one way to think about it. One of many.”

 

“How is it that you’re the only professor I’ve had who’s ever admitted that?”

 

“Easy,” Taehyung says, lips wide, and Jeongguk wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the kind of person who goes at life teeth first too. “I’m not a professor.”

 

“In name. Legally or something. You’re the most professor-ly professor I’ve had so far.”

 

Something shifts on Taehyung’s face, but his teeth are still a grin, warm like a sunburn. “Am I.” He pushes away from the wall. Nods at the papers in Jeongguk’s hand. “Well, I’ll leave you to that. Good luck to you guys finding someone. I don’t wish the renters’ market hell on anyone.” 

 

“My brother said that. Something like it. About the market being hell.”

 

“Smart man your brother,” Taehyung says. He starts moving, heads backwards up the hall, graceful and unconscious about it, the kind of self possession Jeongguk used to dream about, the kind he doesn’t have the time to care for anymore. He tosses Jeongguk a half wave, the first three fingers of his left hand wiggling. “See you.” And with that he turns, the slope of his shoulders wide and the color of the sun right before it dips into the ocean. 

 

“See you,” Jeongguk says back, but Taehyung is already disappeared around the corner. 

 

He stares for another second. Then he turns toward the board, pins up one of Yoongi’s flyers, covers the Taekwondo Associations’ recruitment pleas. 





---




“-nd that’s why I couldn’t finish my e-”

 

“You should do it!”

 

“-ssay. Uhhhhhh? I still have five minutes of office time left. That guy has to wait, right?”

 

“Yes, Kyle, you still have time. Sorry, Jeongguk, could you...”

 

There’s a pause where everyone looks at Jeongguk, wide eyed and out of breath at the office door. There’s another pause where Joohyun, for once not half asleep at her desk but instead standing over an alarming stack of documents, a paper shredder whirring away, cuts Jeongguk with a stinging arch of her brow. Another pause where the aforementioned Kyle squints at Jeongguk, disgruntled at being interrupted during his bullshit excuse. There’s a last longer one where Taehyung stares at Jeongguk, concern a half ripe peach on the harshness of his face. 

 

And Jeongguk knows that he’s supposed to say, “Of course. Sorry!” back out into the hall and run all the way out of campus in mortification, but he says, “Yes, but you should do it. You should move in with us.” 

 

Taehyung goes bug eyed, mouth open. 

 

Jeongguk stands his ground as tempting as the hallway, as running is. He’s already here. He’s already said the words. 

 

The shredder makes a clunking sound. Joohyun tugs on the paper jam, gives up after 0.02 seconds. She picks up a folder from her desk and gestures at Kyle with a finger. “Come on, freshy. Let’s go get a coffee.”

 

“But I need to get an extension for my essay!”

 

“That was never going to happen. Kim is a hardass. Out.”

 

Kyle is up faster than the paper jam was declared a lost cause. He throws Jeongguk a glare that would be menacing but screw Kyle because the time for ‘my dog ate my homework’ excuses ended the minute he graduated middle-school. 

 

“You know,” Joohyun says as she clasps a hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder, eerily reminiscent of Taehyung, all sharp and older and attractive, just female and tiny. “When they told me I’d be sharing an office with Kim I thought I’d have to deal with herds of very pretty and very dumb underclass-women taking over our office. But his worse repeat offender is you! And you’re not even his student anymore! So thanks for restoring my faith in the next generation of women.” After a last condescending pat, she’s gone.

 

Arms crossed, Jeongguk asks, “Okay what’s her problem?”

 

“The earth is being murdered. The patriarchy is still in charge. Bad break-up. Take your pick.”

 

“That sentence wasn’t very feminist of you.”

 

“On the contrary. I was being genuine in acknowledging her pain at the end of her relationship. Besides, love is the most feminist thing there is. And before you ask, no, that’s not a quote.”

 

Thoroughly chastised, Jeongguk hunches his shoulders. “I wasn’t going to.”

 

Taehyung watches him through the silence. He’s seated at his desk, hands flat on the wood. Impossibly, there are even more books than last time, a bright green plant on his desk a notable addition. He clears his throat, the sun pouring in through the window catching on his cheek. “Jeongguk-”

 

“I know bursting in here was rude. I feel horrible and embarrassed and I will apologize to Kyle if I ever see him again though he really should’ve just done his homework like the rest of us-”

 

Taehyung’s eyes remain impassive but the right corner of his mouth ticks. 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t waste time preening though the satisfaction at making Taehyung almost laugh makes him feel stupid and smug and good. “But unless your situation has changed, you still live in that craphole apartment and have to deal with your shithead lazy landlord. Meanwhile, my brother is going through his I’m thirty years old now crisis and reinventing his life. Which I’m happy about for him, I am, but I rather he not bring some frat-bro-douche-type or trombone player to live in our house with my baby.”

 

Taehyung remains silent. 

 

His stomach swoops nervously. He licks the inside of his cheek, mouth dry. “And maybe I don’t know you that well, but I’m pretty sure you’re not a douche or the kind of person who practices brass instruments at all hours because they’re an artiste and don’t understand the concept of naptime. And I,” he stares at the mole on Taehyung’s nose as he gathers his breath before he looks him in the eye to say, “I trust you with my kid. Maybe that’s… I don’t know. But I do. And I can’t say that for most people. He trusts you too and he has crazy good instincts for a barely one year old.”

 

“Jeongguk.” Taehyung sighs. There’s a tiny pinch between his brows, face soft in thought. “I can’t- It would be inappropriate. You’re a student-”

 

“But-”

 

“You’re no longer my student, but you’re a student at the university I teach at. I can’t live with you- live where you live. Rent from you. I just- It’s inappropriate.”

 

The room feels tilted, like the world has gone off its axis at Taehyung’s tripped tongue, his unsure words. 

 

“Why?”

 

Taehyung stares, mouth agape. He peers at Jeongguk, disbelieved. “Why.” 

 

“Yeah. Why.” Jeongguk shrugs, slips his hands in his pockets in a false show at confidence. “Is it in the university handbook or something? I seriously doubt it. You said it yourself. I’m not your student anymore and I’ll never take a class with you again because I’m in a completely different department. Plus, I’m on the fast track to graduate early so I won’t be a student much longer. You’d be renting from my brother and my brother-in-law, not me. My name isn’t anywhere on the lease. I’m just a freeloader. And besides, you’re a student too. There can’t be a rule against students living together, even if one of them is a PhD and the other’s former TA.”

 

“I seriously doubt that.”

 

“What?”

 

“You being a freeloader.”

 

Jeongguk lifts a shoulder carelessly. “Look, it’s a great studio. Close to the university and the train and 15th where all those hipster bookstores are-”

 

“I’m not a hips-”

 

“It has its own private entrance. A real nice view too if that matters to you.”

 

The plant on Taehyung’s desk faces the window at an angle and Jeongguk can see the panel where Namjoon currently has his switchboard full of leaves, tendrils of green reaching for the sun. 

 

Taehyung stands, chair wheels squeaking. He paces along his desk for a minute or so, maybe less, maybe more. 

 

Jeongguk waits with something like bated breath, heavy and thick in his chest. 

 

Perching on the edge of his desk, Taehyung stops. There are twin lucky clovers on the tops of his brown loafers. He mouths silently, gestures with his hands for a moment. Then he pushes his glasses up his forehead, looks at Jeongguk with something close to frustration. Something close to awe. 

 

“Why are you so set on this?”

 

With a start, Jeongguk realizes he is. He knew that the moment he bullied Kyle out of this office and twisted Taehyung’s arm into this conversation aided by Joohyun’s shredder betrayal and need for caffeine. It’s with a start he realizes he’s made it so obvious. With an even bigger one, he realizes he doesn’t care. 

 

“I already told you. I’m helping my brother out. You need a new apartment-”

 

“It’s not a craphole.”

 

“Hyung. You had to go on a raw diet because your landlord didn’t deposit your electric bill payment. It’s worked out great for your deltoids but not your tastebuds I’m guessing.” 

 

Taehyung raises his brows. With his glasses pushing his hair back and out of his face, angles on display, Jeongguk can see why Joohyun was worried about impressionable female freshmen, an entire generation of women. 

 

Flush hot on his face, Jeongguk powers through with, “And I know your commute is really long. You compared it to that Greek god’s from that travel poem in class once. For an entire class.”

 

“You mean Odysseus? The king of Ithaca? From the Odyssey? One of the world’s oldest works of literature?”

 

“I’m a twenty-two year old finance major with a baby. This Odysseus guy is lucky I even know he existed.”

 

“There was a point to that comparison, by the way. About the language of travel. The words we use to describe the distance we cross shapes how we feel about that distance-”

 

“Taehyung-hyung.” 

 

“Yes?”

 

“That’s really beautiful, but wasn’t the whole point that Odysseus just wanted to get back to his wife? To go home again? I’m pretty sure you’d like to get home sooner too.”

 

Taehyung openly stares at him. Then he shakes his head slowly, like he’s trying to clear out of a fog, sharpen an image into focus. 

 

“What? Why are you shaking your head?”

 

“Because all those months ago you told me you were terrible at people but I haven’t seen that at all.”

 

“Did I?” He’s pretty sure his wording might have been different, skill level versus outcome, but Jeongguk thinks it’s all the same. “Does that mean-”

 

“That means I’ll think about it,” Taehyung is quick to say, dampening the tinge of victory Jeongguk can almost taste. “Possibly. If you go through this and show me there isn’t anything against it in there.” 

 

This being the book he picks up from his desk and tosses at Jeongguk, who catches it almost too easily. 

 

Jeongguk flips through the first pages and makes a face. He deadpans, “The university rule book. You keep a copy of this on your desk? You do know there’s an online version, right? That I already went through?”

 

“Yes,” Taehyung says, just as dry. “It comes in handy when dealing with the Kyle’s of the world.”

 

Shutting the book firmly, Jeongguk grins. “Admit it. You’re glad I got rid of Kyle.”

 

“Don’t you have a class to get to?” Taehyung asks, a clear dismissal, but a smile makes its way to his voice. 

 

“How’d you know?”

 

“It’s 2pm on Wednesday. Everyone has class. Including me soon, so.”

 

Jeongguk might not get old epic poems or most basic human relationships, but he knows when not to overstay his welcome. He shoulders his bag a little higher, takes in the considerate set of Taehyung’s face. He half turns and his gut curls in on itself. He lingers, sheepishly says, “I am sorry for being rude earlier-”

 

“You weren’t r-”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head. “I was. But I thought of it, you, and it made sense. I trust you. And I get it. Our… acquaintanceship is weird? We’re not friends, but we’re friendly. You’re not like most of the lecturers I’ve had, empty blob people. No offense to them, but you’re like an actual person. I don’t think anyone else would have let me stay in class that day or would have treated Jinhyung the way you did.” 

 

Carefully, Taehyung says, “That’s not really fair to them, is it?”

 

“Maybe. Maybe I’m the weird one.”

 

“Maybe,” Taehyung says. He picks up the dog eared well loved book next to his hip, opens it to a seemingly random page that probably isn’t random at all. “But haven’t you heard? The only interesting people are the mad ones .”  




---




On Friday, Professor Zhang’s office is closed. 

 

Jeongguk stares at the wood grain for a moment and walks away. 

 

He comes back with a roll of tape, some paper and a pen. 

 

He leaves the rule book duct-taped to the door, a note peeking between its pages. 

 

Halfway down the hall, he digs in his backpack for something, and leaves the item taped over the book. 




---




“So what was I right about, exactly?”

 

Jeongguk looks up from his laptop, words and numbers melting together in his retinas. Taehyung stands at his table, students milling about the dining court. “Huh?”

 

You were right ,” Taehyung reads off the slip of paper between his fingers, voice lightened in a lilt meant to imitate Jeongguk’s and failing. “Words I don’t mind but you didn’t give me context.”

 

Oh . Sorry. Post-Keynesian theory is doing my head in.” He lowers the lid of his computer, eyes the coffee-cups Taehyung places on his table. “You really like context, huh?”

 

Taehyung slides one of the cups towards Jeongguk. “Context is everything.” 

 

Jeongguk takes a sip. The coffee is hot enough and smooth, sweet and milky on his tongue. “You were right about the violence thing. About me. It wasn’t really about the violence. My favorite part of taekwondo was the aerials. And the only reason I started fighting was because I was sad my brother had moved halfway across the world and I felt abandoned because he was my only real friend a lot of the time. How’d you know my coffee order?”

 

“We’ve gotten coffee together. Paying attention to details is another thing I like. Thanks for the fruit bar, by the way, I hadn’t had lunch.”

 

“A fruit bar is not lu-”

 

“I had a wrap too. Promise,” Taehyung says, teasing. There’s that easy smile on his face. He transmits it with his words even if they’re anything but. “I take it that was the only thing I was right about?”

 

“You didn’t say I’d find anything.”

 

“Yes, but I didn’t say you wouldn’t either.”

 

“Did you want me to?”

 

Taehyung’s coffee has sat at the lip of the table untouched. He twists the lid, plays with the carton sleeve. He takes a long drink, then directs a very peculiar look at Jeongguk, particular in the way his eyes glide around his face. It’s like sun skittering through clouds, illuminating parts of a landscape, keeping others in darkness. 

 

“So where is this place?”

 

Jeongguk smiles, feels like a tiny sun is beaming in him. 




---




“-the stairs lead back to the first level, but like you saw there’s the street entrance through the alley. You’re more than welcome to use this entrance as well, though. And the kitchen of course like we said. Studio has a kitchenette but it’s not fully functional. I mostly just recorded in there and starved until Yoongi reminded me food or death . We understand it might be a deal-breaker.”

 

“Oh. It’s not a deal-breaker. That’s generous of you, really. My current landlord’s idea of a kitchen is a portable stove and an outpost sink. The design really is beautiful. Is this the original brick? Limestone, yes?”

 

“Great eye! And yes, it’s dated from the 19th century. Pure Bedford.” 

 

“You know, excavations in areas where the Mississippian Culture lived have uncovered some really fascinating uses for limestone. They made pipes with it.”

 

“It’s funny you say that because-”

 

“Where’d you say you found this guy again?”

 

Jeongguk blinks away from the baby monitor app on his phone, Jinhyung snoozing with his left leg kicked up on the bars of his crib in HD. “You know. Around.”

 

If deadpanning via facial expression were an artform, Yoongi would be a regular Botticelli. 

 

Jeongguk sighs. He clicks out of the app, figures he’s watched his kid, who’s but meters away, sleep long enough. Maybe technology has made obsessive parenting worse, but Jeongguk personally thinks it’s nice that he can verify that, no, Jinhyung isn’t spontaneously choking in his sleep with a swipe of his finger. “I already told you. He’s a grad student at the university. He was a TA for one of my classes last year.”

 

“Isn’t it, like, inappropriate if he lives with us? A violation of the university’s moral code of conduct?”

 

“He won’t be living with us. He’ll be renting the studio. You didn’t seem to care about any of that when I first mentioned him to you. Like, you didn’t care at all.” At Yoongi’s souring face, he says, “You said he sounded nice.”

 

“Sure he sounded nice, Jeongguk . But, I don’t know, Jeongguk . You bring some hot guy into my house, Jeongguk . My house where my husband lives and he’s having intellectually stimulating conversation with my husband and you know how I get around other men who can intellectually stimulate my husband, Jeongguk .”

 

“Okay. Okay, wow. Please stop saying my name like that.”

 

Yoongi grunts. He has that scrunchy look on his face, the one he got the first time he realized Jeongguk would be taller than him. 

 

“They’re talking about building materials,” Jeongguk points out. 

 

“Intellectually stim-”

 

“And should you really be referring to Namjoon-hyung as your husband so many times in a row? Isn’t that heteronormative and gross?”

 

“The fuck are you-”

 

And - you think he’s hot?”

 

After an entire minute of silence is filled with the soft clacking of Jeongguk starting on this morning’s breakfast dishes and the conversation coming from the landing above their foyer, Yoongi snorts. 

 

“I’m petty and jealous, kid. I’m not fucking blind. Guy looks like he’d be first pick at that Celine casting call we walked past on the way to the farmer’s market last weekend instead of teaching you quantum finance or whatever.”

 

“I really wish we’d gotten that hand-grown honey from Portland. And he’s a linguistics PhD.”

 

“I told you to get it. And, yep, that made me feel better.”

 

“Hyung, it was $22! And hand- grown honey? Bees don’t have ha-”

 

A phone pings and then there’s a loud cry echoing through the apartment. 

 

Jeongguk’s grip on the plate in his hands slips. Before he can move, Namjoon calls, 

 

“I’ve got him!”

 

Footsteps clatter down the stairs. Namjoon comes into view, Taehyung trailing behind him. “Oh! You should see Jeongguk’s room actually. It has the original wainscoting.”

 

“Ah, no, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to impose-” 

 

Jeongguk waves a sudsy hand at him. Jinhyung is already awake so he guesses a half stranger-half familiar face ogling the paneling in his room won’t matter to him. 

 

The cries get louder, Namjoon’s cooing voice soothing as he presumably picks Jinhyung up, the edge of Taehyung’s shoulder visible as he holds his place from walking too far into the room. 

 

They have a perfectly good drying rack but Yoongi is drying the plates.

 

Jeongguk sumburges his hands in the dishwater, fingers jolting at the cold. “Hyung.”

 

“You’ve been using that word a lot lately. Hyung .”

 

“...yeah?”

 

Yoongi’s tongue pokes out as he works at a spot on a glass. “No, nothing. It’s just when you moved here you said We’re in America now, Yoongi-yah. The rules from back home don’t apply. Same thing you said when I called you out on it the first time you refused to say it over the phone when you turned fifteen. Except then it was I was in America.”

 

Jeongguk watches the soapy water, the ripples in the sink making his fingers look like they’re under a two way mirror. He says, “I was a brat when I was fifteen. Was an even bigger brat when I came here.”

 

“Now look at you.” The smile in Yoongi’s voice makes him look up, and it’s like he’s looking at Yoongi through a two way mirror too, an optical illusion in how he has to aim his eyes down to meet Yoongi’s eye, but whenever he looks at Yoongi, he’s always looking up. “A job secured once you graduate. Pay your share of the bills. A kid. Meanwhile, I’m still figuring out my tit from my ass and getting jealous over Namjoon like he’s still my boyfriend and not the guy I file my taxes with. Wouldn’t surprise me if people think you’re the hyung.” 

 

Jeongguk lets out a choked laugh. It sounds like a cry to his own ears. “Yoongi-hyung, that’s-”

 

“-usually this fussy. He has the internal clock of a sixty year-old. Isn’t that right, Jinhyungie? What’s up, bub? Your diaper’s fine. Do you want down?”

 

Ba .”

 

Jeongguk’s frail heart reacts to that pitifully easy. Jinhyung’s voice is muffled into Namjoon’s shoulder, face swollen with sleep as he squirms in Namjoon’s arms while latching onto his elbows refusing to let go. Jeongguk starts tugging the cloth out of Yoongi’s grip to dry his hands, but in the time it takes him to work it out from between Yoongi’s fingers, Jinhyung is leaning forward, away from Namjoon’s chest and towards Taehyung’s. 

 

Ba !”

 

Namjoon’s face goes through about six different emotions while Taehyung stands motionless, arms held out in case Jinhyung successfully catapults himself out of Namjoon’s hold. 

 

“Uh-”

 

“Sorry, do you mind-”

 

It’s either taken out of their hands or quietly agreed upon because a few seconds later, Taehyung has an armful of a pouting but much less fussy Jinhyung while Namjoon holds his hands in front of himself and looks for the first time like maybe Taehyung isn’t god’s gift to tenants after all. 

 

Neck decidedly in the pink hue family, Taehyung shrugs, sheepish, holds Jinhyung secured to his chest. “I’m good with kids o so I’m told.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Well, all four of my little brothers made it to elementary school so there’s that.”

 

Namjoon’s eyes widen. “Four brother-”

 

Jeongguk’s hands get yanked. 

 

Yoongi turns back to the drying rack with the towel and starts drying the silverware to an almost polish. “Okay. He can have the studio. But if he wrecks anything or throws a party with his other smart hot friends, he’s not getting his deposit back.”




---




Taehyung does not, in fact, throw parties with his hot smart friends. He is apparently though, more in fact, every renter’s dream because Jeongguk virtually forgets he even moved into the studio in the first place. Little reminders trickle in every so often however. The pair of unfamiliar shoes by the front door. The new plate set drying on the rack. The peace lily Taehyung gifted them with the promise that it would help remove city toxins from the air. 

 

He checks the pot, leaves cool against his palm. The apartment is quiet, well after midnight, and the kettle is on. He stifles a yawn as he reaches for the water can hanging above the sink, the soil darkening eagerly under the streetlight spilling through the window. 

 

The lillies haven’t bloomed yet. It’s a growth of green, another bit of color in their monochrome kitchen with the perilla herb Namjoon painstakingly watches over. He touches a when there’s a sudden noise like a throat clearing. 

 

He looks over his shoulder and jumps at the figure standing by the fridge. The watering can clangs as he drops it, metal ringing. 

 

Taehyung winces. “I’m so-”

 

“Shh,” Jeongguk pleads, a finger held to his lips, scooping up the watering can and death gripping it. He points to the hallway, eyes closed as he begs for Jinhyung not to have heard the noise and is still soundly asleep. 

 

When no cry or ear-piercing wail sounds, Jeongguk opens his eyes and lets out a breath, feels a ten ton weight melt off his shoulders. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says after another few seconds, almost soundless. “I was trying not to startle you by making noise but I ended up doing it anyway.”

 

“It’s okay. Just didn’t want Jinhyung to wake up.” 

 

Taehyung nods. He looks far more alert than Jeongguk feels, eyes clear behind his glasses, but his hair is ruffled, finger swept, frustrated. 

 

“Allnighter?”

 

“Just one of those nights.”

 

“Yeah. I still have an essay to finish. I didn’t think grad students were subjected to that too.”

 

“We’re human just like the rest of you.”

 

Jeongguk thinks on that and yes Taehyung is very human. He notices Taehyung’s hands, loaded with a pan and a bowl. “Oh- here, let me-”

 

Taehyung refuses, polite but firm, so Jeongguk gives him space at the sink, sets the watering can down carefully. 

 

The kettle clicks, steam pouring out the spout. Jeongguk grabs a mug, hesitates for a second before grabbing another. “Would you like some?”

 

Taehyung is already nodding. The cookware looks clean but Taehyung takes the sponge to it. He smiles at Jeongguk, the first tinge of sleepiness softening his mouth. “Anything except chamomile please.”  

 

While the tea steeps, Jeongguk leans against the counter, watches the faint light illuminate Taehyung’s naked arms, nowhere near Jeongguk’s size, but noticeably sculpted. He remembers Yoongi comparing him to a runway model, looks away. “Is it too hot?”

 

“Hmm?” 

 

“The apartment? It’s um- you’re not wearing a shirt.”

 

Taehyung glances at his chest like he’s forgotten. He shrugs as he dries the bowl he just washed. It’s his own, as is the pan, and probably the chopsticks and fork too. “The apartment’s fine. I tend to run hot.” At Jeongguk’s stare, he asks, “Is it not okay or…”

 

“No. No, it’s fine. I do it too. So does Jinhyung, except he’s one so he could go naked and that’d be fine. Perks of being a baby. But, yeah, go shirtless. I do it too. Perks of not having boobs.” Jeongguk’s face heats, the perfect way to end his ramble. 

 

Taehyung gives him an odd look but he smiles, says, “Don’t get me started on the sexualization of female nipples. I’ve had my ear chomped off for that one.” 

 

Jeongguk tosses the tea leaves into the trash, hands Taehyung his mug. Taehyung nods his thanks. “Honey?”

 

“I prefer honeybear, but honey’s fine. Sweetie too. Babe’s a little highschool but it gets me good.”

 

Jeongguk blinks, honey jar in hand. 

 

Taehyung rummages through the kitchen drawers, grins. “I’m messing with you. My parents used to call me honeybear. They called all of us that when we were little.”

 

“Oh. I don’t have a nickname like that for Jinhyung. Jinnie, sometimes. Namjoon calls him bub.”

 

“He looks like a bub. He’s a great kid, you know. Total cutie.”

 

Jeongguk smiles, groans. “Tell me about it. And he knows it. Something tells me he’s going to be a real heart-breaker.”

 

“Just like his dad?” Taehyung asks as he finds the spoons and takes two. He closes the drawer. He hovers his hand over the one next to it left open, and pauses for a moment, before closing that one too. 

 

Jeongguk stirs his tea slowly. He smiles. It feels wooden on his face. “Haven’t had a lot of chances for heartbreak.”

 

Taehyung makes a noise of assent, face a little somber. It goes silent between them. Then, “What’s your essay about?”

 

“Oh. It’s for World Markets. We’re looking at Asian markets which is funny for a lot of reasons other than,” he gestures to himself with his mug filled hand. “Asian.”

 

“Right.”

 

“That’s why-” He pauses to take a sip, gather his words. “That essay I wrote for your class. The introductory one? Where I wrote about the 97’ crash. I don’t know if you-”

 

“I remember.”

 

“Yeah, uh, that one. My dad lost his business in the crash. He sold recording equipment to independent studios. He was in a folk band in college and he really wanted to help independent artists. That’s how my brother got into music.”

 

“Just your brother?”

 

Jeongguk touches the peace lily again, curls a leaf around his finger. “My brother’s the musical genius, not me.” 

 

“So what happened after?”

 

“We struggled for a while, but then dad got into the shipping business. He said he didn’t know why he didn’t think of it before being from Busan. It’s how Yoongi and I got to go to international schools. Learn English. My dad stopped playing records in the house, forgot about music. Yoongi didn’t.”

 

Taehyung scoops honey, lets it drizzle into his tea. “Some of that in your essay would have gotten you that A.”

 

“Yeah, well . It’s like I told you,” Jeongguk says, “I’m not good with people. With words either.”

 

“And it’s like I told you . You’re better than you think. Everyone is.” 

 

“Maybe.”

 

Taehyung’s smile doesn’t let up, and it should be strange to be standing in his kitchen at 1 a.m. with him considering who he is, who Jeongguk is, but all he feels is quiet, quieted inside, like for once time doesn’t really matter, like Jeongguk might have all of it. 

 

“Hey. So I have a book that might help with your essay.” 

 

“Oh. Um.”

 

“It’s short I promise, but it has this part about Confucianism and economics you just reminded me of. You can borrow it.”

 

“Okay. Thanks.”

 

“Cool. Come upstairs. It might take me a second to find it.”

 

“That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

 

“Please. I’m constantly intruding on you guys. Won’t be too long.”

 

And that’s not true but he says, “Uh. Sure.”

 

He files up the stairs behind Taehyung, past the living room and Yoongi and Namjoon’s bedroom on the second level, Namjoon’s new studio on the half level between. Taehyung left the stairs pulled down, light falling from the attic-turned recording studio-turned loft bedroom. The steps shake with their weight, but before Jeongguk can worry about either of them tumbling to their death, he reaches the top and sucks in a surprised breath. 

 

Oh .”

 

When the studio was that, a recording studio, Jeongguk never came up here much. It was Namjoon’s sanctuary. Jeongguk forgot about it most of the time, the walls padded to keep in the sound, the notion of life being audified over and over again, of music, a few meters above Jeongguk’s head. It doesn’t look that much different except where it does. Where once there was sound equipment are now books lining the shelves Namjoon used to keep his speakers, stacked up in towers where a few guitars and a piano rested. The light is warm now, a golden yellow, where Namjoon preferred glossy white. 

 

And almost like Jeongguk manifested it himself, green everywhere. It hangs from the walls and the ceiling, fills the desk Taehyung must have lugged up from the street in parts and put back together, the lone potted aloe on Taehyung’s desk multiplied by a good few dozen. 

 

“You like plants, huh?”

 

Taehyung pokes his head out from one of the book shelves, glasses tilted. “Got a bit of a green thumb. Reminds me of home. Farm kid.”

 

Jeongguk picks up an academic journal from the nightstand. Taehyung’s bed is sparsely made, the top blanket heaped in the middle. There’s a manga shoved under a pillow and Jeongguk smiles, mouth curling, endeared. 

 

“Makes sense. Plants and babies and words. Do dogs like you too?”

 

“Dogs love me,” Taehyung says. “I’m a huge hit with the puppy crowd especially.”

 

Jeongguk laughs. He drops the journal, follows a crawling ivy along the wall up to the wide window, red brick on either side and wrought in iron. It’s not a skyscraper view by any means, but the building behind theirs is a two-story so there’s an impression of space in the city and what seems like a forever of lights. 

 

“You weren’t kidding about the view.” 

 

Taehyung is a warm presence at his side like he really does run hot. He hands Jeongguk a book then turns to watch the view, lights reflecting off his glasses. 

 

“Surprised you guys aren’t charging me an arm and a leg for this place just based on that alone.”

 

“My brother was sort of desperate to rent it even if he won’t admit it. Plus, there’s the fact that it has no real kitchen. So you’re not intruding at all. Just wanted to say that.”

 

“Okay,” Taehyung says. “Well, thanks for saying it.” He coughs when Jeongguk doesn’t say anything and goes on, “Still. Surprised Namjoon would even want to let it go. Sometimes I just stare out the window for what feels like hours.” 

 

Jeongguk looks at him, thinks he’d do the same if he lived up here. “He actually had the windows blacked out. For the sound,” he explains at Taehyung’s horrified face. “And, anyway, Namjoon doesn’t spend a lot of time looking up when he’s working.”

 

Taehyung hums, thoughtful. “So he and Yoongi are adopting? They’re in their 30’s already, right?”

 

For long seconds, Jeongguk says nothing. He looks back at the window and the lights blur before his eyes, smudged drops of time. 

 

Taehyung says, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry, but I saw the pamphlet and the drawer was open-”

 

“No. It’s fine. It’s,” Jeongguk says after he’s strung his vocal chords back together. He swallows, sighs. “Yoongi turns 31 this year, yeah. Namjoon right behind him. I just know about it as much as you do. They haven’t said anything.”

 

Taehyung wears that face Jeongguk has seen more times than he’d like, the world’s least condescending pitying expression. “I’m sure they’ll tell you when they’re ready. It’s a big decision.”

 

“Sure they will.” Because it is a big decision. The biggest. It’s a big decision and it doesn’t have anything to do with Jeongguk like a lot of the big decisions they didn’t tell Jeongguk about until after. When they fell in love, when they moved halfway across the world just so they could be together, when they got married and bought this apartment. Growing up, Jeongguk always saw them as a trio even though he was so much tinier than them, the Three Musketeers, Jeongguk and his brother who protected him from everything and Namjoon who was even more of a brother than Yoongi sometimes. In the end Jeongguk was more D’Artagnan than Porthos, always a little too young, a kid instead of an equal. “They will.”

 

Taehyung furrows his brows in sympathy, and Jeongguk almost can’t stand it, the earnestness of his face, how much it makes his own want to crumble. A flash of silver catches his eye partially hidden by a stack of records. 

 

“Oh. Did Namjoon forget that?” he asks even though he’s pretty sure Namjoon has never touched a woodwind instrument in his life other than to poke his eye out. 

 

“Hmm? Ah,” Taehyung says, looks over where Jeongguk is. There’s an edge to his smile when he faces Jeongguk again, maybe not the kind that’ll make him the poster boy for a high fashion brand, but the kind that’ll make his brother think about getting back on the corporate rat race treadmill so they don’t need the extra income after all. The kind that’ll make Jeongguk think about things he doesn’t have the time for. “It’s mine. I was in the orchestra all through high school.”

 

Jeongguk blanches. “You were?”

 

“Yeah. Moved to jazz band during my undergrad. I suck now though I made it to second chair my junior year.” 

 

“Fascinating.”

 

“I still play a little. Get together with some guys from the music department. We play shows sometimes. You should come to one.” 

 

“Sure, I’ll just bring my baby with me.”

 

“They’re never too young to discover the joys of smooth jazz.” Taehyung’s smile now is a mirror of Jeongguk’s except Taehyung doesn’t fight his, lets it reign free across his mouth. “Do you really never go out? With friends? Make time for yourself? For you? I know of other young parents who do. Even college aged ones.”

 

The late hour hums and the studio is so warm with its faint glow that Jeongguk feels open to the question, the simple curiosity in Taehyung’s voice. He watches the lines of nearby buildings through the window, the edge of someone’s rooftop party, fairy lights twinkling like tiny stars. “It’s just me. I know I have Yoongi-hyung and Joon-hyung, and I couldn’t do this without them, but, all he has is me. At the end of the day, I’m the one who’s responsible for him. And it doesn’t feel right if he would need me and I’m somewhere out there, doing something that isn’t for him. I know,” he says when Taehyung looks ready to speak, and it isn’t that he doesn’t want to hear Taehyung, but he’s never really said this, barely let himself think it, “what you said about parents being their own people. I know that’s probably true. But when he was born I wasn’t thinking about giving him the life he deserved. Honestly,” and his voice is so faint and it feels like the biggest betrayal to say this out loud but it’s out before he can stop it, before he wants to, “I wasn’t thinking about him at all.” 

 

He looks at Taehyung expecting to find judgement, disgust, but all he finds is Taehyung’s eyes, the inscrutable kindness of them. 

 

“And I think, before I can really think about me again, I have to think about him first. Always.”

 

It’s quiet for what feels like a long time. It doesn’t feel horrible, oppressive. Maybe Jeongguk isn’t the monster he makes himself out to be. Maybe he’s just a person. 

 

Taehyung says, “Well. Maybe when he’s older then.”

 

It’s late but with all the lights around him, the window reflecting it back at them, Taehyung looks like he’s poured in sun. 

 

“Let’s say five is a more appropriate age to understand the ins and outs of counterpoints and tresillos.”

 

There’s a hopefulness in Taehyung’s voice, a lightness, that Jeongguk just says, “I don’t know about that. Even twenty-two might be a little young.”

 

“When Jinhyung is five, you won’t be twenty-two. Plenty of time to catch up.”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head, but he laughs, real in his throat. The saxophone perches in its case, the reed wrapped in a piece of cloth. “Have you really been playing that in here?”

 

“Yep,” Taehyung says, speech going casual, losing its usual careful composure. 

 

He smiles, metal edged and like the face of a brand campaign, and Jeongguk tries not to think about all the things he’s not supposed to be thinking about yet. 

 

“Not surprised you haven’t heard it seeing as the studio is soundproofed.”




---




They’re out on a grocery run, Jinhyung kicking his legs in the seat of the cart to the song playing on the soundsystem, when they pass the garden section. Pre-made arrangements stocked in fridges, single bunches of all types on gondolas, bundles of big green leaves. 

 

Jinhyung reaches out, bats at a sunflower, plucks a lily and presses it lovingly to Jeongguk’s face. Lilies can be overwhelming to Jeongguk’s nose but this one has a mild and pleasant scent, softly rich like the one Taehyung gifted them, the same white-lilac petals. Jeongguk looks at the price tag, Jinhyung’s handy work, the wide smile on his face. 

 

Back at the apartment, groceries put away and Jinhyung down for his nap, Jeongguk treks up the stairs. He stops to throw a quilt over his slumbering brother after pulling his big headphones off his ears, his laptop screen with his production software glowing over his eyelids, before making the climb all the way to the top. 

 

He places the lilies under the pulldown stairs. 

 

Namjoon is in the kitchen making dinner. The article he’s writing for a music magazine is on his tablet and the album he’s been mixing for a few weeks now plays softly. He sends Jeongguk off with a dimpled, “Have a good shift, kid,” and leftovers, and it’s funny how Namjoon has flourished in the meal making department when he used to convince Yoongi to get the saltiest fattiest best tasting stuff at convenience stores, used to stuff Jeongguk’s pockets with yogurt jelly and fried seaweed, buy him hotteok and red bean buns and soondae at the street markets by the sea. 

 

It makes it easier, if just a tiny bit, to go to work. To leave his heart behind and know that Namjoon’s learned grown-up hands will keep it safe while he’s gone. 




---




‘I’m so sorry-’

 

“It’s o-”

 

‘No. It’s not. I’m sorry. They pushed the date up without telling me and now-’

 

“It’s really f-”

 

‘I’m sorry, Ggukie-yah. Hyung fucked up.’

 

Jeongguk closes his eyes. “Hyung. It’s not your fault.” He takes a breath, tries to suck all the air in the hallway into his lungs. 

 

His tone must be convincing because when Namjoon speaks next he sounds less anguished. ‘It won’t take me too long. I just have to get across town, to Jersey almost, but-’

 

“You don’t have to explain. It’s your job. I get it. Is he really okay with it?”

 

‘He’s the one who offered. Probably in an attempt to get me not to cry.’

 

He hears a tapping on glass and opens his eyes, his team lead on the other side pointing to the chrome silver watch on his wrist, Swiss and pristine. 

 

Jeongguk makes an abortive hand gesture, stomach sinking. Says, “Hyung, I have to go. Put him on.”

 

Namjoon pauses. ‘Which one?’

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. He pulls on his tie and wonders when it’ll stop feeling like a noose. “The one who can talk back in words other than ba .”

 

‘Right. Okay, here. I’m sorry. I’ll get back as soon as I can. Love you, kiddo.’

 

There’s emptiness for a long second, followed by a commotion and muttered voices, and then Taehyung is saying, ‘Hey.’

 

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, feels his stomach do something similar to sink except it feels too much like floating to call it that. “I’m sorry. Thank you. I’m going to try to get back earlier, but they’re really strict about that here and-”

 

Taehyung clicks his tongue, makes a soothing noise like a hum. ‘Hey,’ he says again, softer and the distress in Jeongguk’s voice must come clear through the line, a bullet in Taehyung’s ear. He tries to breathe again, tells himself to calm down. ‘Slow down. It’s okay. Take your time.’

 

“I’m really sorry. I’m hijacking your whole afternoon. You shouldn’t have to-”

 

‘Hey.’ It’s the same letters, but the way Taehyung says them mutates them, the lines of the word hard, full of conviction. ‘I wasn’t doing anything. I told Namjoon I didn’t mind. I’m telling you that now. You know I don’t.’ 

 

And what does Jeongguk know? He’s just a kid. A stupid kid playing dress up, playing adult. He’s a kid with a kid and he doesn’t know anything. He’s scared he’s never going to get to.

“But-”

 

‘I mean it, Jeongguk. It’s okay to take it when someone offers it, you know.’

 

“What?”

 

‘Help.’

 

Jeongguk’s chest heaves and it feels like there’s too much air, like it could all balloon inside of Jeongguk, make him float, again the floating feeling. He’s never been afraid of heights, but all of a sudden he’s terrified. There’s a reason why it’s so easy to trust Yoongi, to trust Namjoon, blood and family and the familiar and knowing can go a long way, the longest. 

 

He told Taehyung he trusted him and he does, but it’s the fact that he wants to that he doesn’t know what to do with. 

 

His lead makes another round, concerned face this time, and Jeongguk says, “Okay. I- Okay.”

 

‘If you want me to take him to your work or close by, I will. Or to a park or somewhere-’

 

“No. It’s, um, no. It’s fine. If you want to take him to the park that would be fine, but he can get moody in unfamiliar places and I don’t want him to throw a tantrum with you in public. If he gets fussy, Mr. Gong Yoo usually calms him down or watching painting videos on youtube. But only fifteen minutes of screen time, including Peppa no matter if he insists. He knows how to use a phone better than I do. His favorite bubba is the pink one, but the green one is usually okay. That’s his pacifier and. And…”

 

He blanks on what else he should tell Taehyung because it’s so much, the do’s and don'ts of his kid, and it’s crazy that for such a tiny human, Jinhyung’s list is so long. He wonders what’s on his own list, the do’s and don'ts of Jeon Jeongguk. 

 

‘...Jeongguk?’

 

The clock on the wall glares at him, digital numbers sleek and imposing. “I have to go. This sucks. I have to go.”

 

‘I know. It’s going to be okay.’

 

“Okay,” Jeongguk says like if the word gets said enough, it’ll be true. It has to be. “Call me for anything.  I mean it, Taehyung.”

 

‘I know,’ Taehyung says, stays on the line until Jeongguk hangs up first. 

 

He enters the room, dark and cold, keyboards clacking, monitors pinging. He slides into his seat. His deskmate to his right, Soohyun with the sweatpants and the imported krating daeng , kicks his chair lightly, says, “You almost missed it, asshole.”

 

Jeongguk grunts. He wakes his computer up. A flood of numbers runs across the screen, the clock at the front of the room counting down the seconds. 

 

He straightens his tie. 

 

Then the markets go live and Jeongguk plays adult. 




---



  

On Friday he ate through five oranges - want to count them?”

 

“Ba!”

 

“One, two, th-”

 

“Ba, ba, ba !”

 

“Good job! Prime counting there, buddy. Okay, where were we? Ah. - but he was still hungry . Probably should’ve had a burger or something instead of just oranges, huh?”

 

“Ba.”

 

Listlessly, Jeongguk sheds his jacket. He hangs his bag on the coat rack and toes his shoes off, quietly pads through the apartment until he can see them sitting on the couch, Jinhyung sat up eagerly, patting at the pages of the book Taehyung holds between their laps, cooing at Taehyung’s every other word. 

 

Jeongguk places his keys on the stand Yoongi made during his ceramics phase. An ashtray Jeongguk has no use for on his bedside table, a bowl Namjoon tosses the occasional salad in. It alerts them to his presence, Jinhyung’s eyes going wide, elated. 

 

“Ba- ba !”

 

He tumbles off the couch with Taehyung’s help, little legs pumping once he hits the ground, body vibrating as he careens into Jeongguk. 

 

Jeongguk lifts him up easily, heart soaring at how perfectly he fits in his arms, how holding him melts most of the gross grimy day in a second. 

 

Jinhyung laughs when Jeongguk blows a raspberry on his neck, nuzzles his hair. “Ba!”

 

“Ba,” Jeongguk mutters back, arms thankful of his weight. He’s getting heavier every day, limbs longer, and sooner than Jeongguk will realize, he won’t be able to carry him, won’t have to, and the thought, the reality of Jinghyung being able to handle his own weight is both terrifying and so beautiful Jeongguk could weep. He pulls back to look Jinhyung in the eye, his eyes an almost mirror of his own. “How’s my boy? Were you good for Taehyung-hyung?”

 

Jinhyung hums and pets Jeongguk’s tie, chubby fingers fascinated by the satiny fabric. 

 

“He was perfect. Got a little upset when we had to cut a Peppa Pig episode short so I may have caved and let him watch an extra two minutes. It seemed cruel to make him wait until tomorrow to find out if George eventually comes ‘round to vegetables or not.”

 

Jeongguk would’ve been fine if he’d let him watch an extra ten or gone as far as planning an impromptu trip to the Peppa Pig World theme park, achingly grateful as he is to him. 

 

Jinhyung sags in his arms and Jeongguk looks at Taehyung over his head, presses a kiss to Jinhyung’s temple. “Did he eat?”

 

Taehyung nods. He closes the book, gathers Mr. Gong Yoo, his bill flapping, and Jinhyung’s favorite blanket. “Ate all his veggies unlike George. Who’s a terrible influence, by the way, but I admire his rebel streak living in a Tory household.”

 

Jeongguk smiles, tired but real. “I’m gonna give him a bath and put him to bed.” He bites his lip, dares to ask, “Will you-”

 

“I’ll be here,” Taehyung says and passes the items over, careful not to jostle Jinhyung. 

 

Jinhyung lifts a sleepy hand to pet Taehyung’s face in goodbye, a habit Jeongguk doesn’t know where he picked up from and one he probably shouldn’t let him get too used to. Taehyung offers himself up gladly, pretends to bite his thumb and earns himself a few yawning giggles. 

 

One very wet Jeongguk, three pajama changes, two whole bedtime songs, and a half sippy cup later, he emerges from the bedroom in his own pajamas, an old pair of ratty sweats and a too big t-shirt. Taehyung isn’t where he left him but at the dining table going at a stapled pack of papers with a pen, a plate of cut up fruit by his elbow. He smiles up at Jeongguk, “There’s leftovers if you’re hungry. I’m a passable cook but I didn’t want to risk it so I got take out from that health food place around the corner- Mother Gaia ? Mána Earth ? Anyway. He got a real kick out of the pea shoots.”

 

Jeongguk can’t tell if he’s hungry, but he knows he needs food and heats up a plate, noodles and vegetables, mung beans with sauce. The kitchen is clean, the whole apartment is, even smells like Taehyung may have gotten into the febreeze a bit. 

 

“Namjoon’s back,” Taehyung says after a few minutes of Jeongguk’s chewing, pen scratching paper, “He was pretty beat so I told him I’d watch Jinhyung for a few more hours. He really is a good baby. My brothers are terrors in comparison.”

 

“They can’t have been that bad.”

 

“Trust me, they were. They still are. The youngest especially. But they’ve got me wrapped around their pinkies so I’m not really complaining.”

 

It’s such an easy image to see, Taehyung the doting big brother, the tough lines of his face hiding how soft he really is, his warm sun of a heart. Jeongguk picks at a bean sprout. His neck is tieless, the collar of his shirt loose and draping near his collarbones, but he still feels constrained like he’s having a hard time swallowing. “I used to drive Yoongi crazy. He was so much older than me, a pre-teen by the time I was old enough to tag along with him and his friends. Friend, really. It was just him and Namjoon growing up. But he never sent me home. Always brought me everywhere even when he shouldn’t have. He’s the reason I came to America to study. I always wanted to be just like him.”

 

“And now?”

 

There’s no giveaway on Taehyung’s face. Pen poised over a page, he isn’t wearing his glasses. Jeongguk wonders how well he can see without them, if he’s wearing contacts, if Jeongguk is just an out of focus blob of a boy right now. “I barely know what it means to be me.”

 

Something flickers across Taehyung’s face and quickly, Jeongguk asks, 

 

“What are you working on? Your book?”

 

Taehyung leans back in his chair, and in the same way he put his face at the mercy of Jinhyung’s hands, he lets Jeongguk get away with diverting the conversation. “No, actually. Had to put the book on hold. I’m proofreading a manuscript for my publishing house. I do copy-editing for them a lot.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why did I put the book on hold or why do I copy-edit?”

 

“Both.”

 

“Seeing as I’d like to finish my doctorate before I die or turn thirty-five, whichever comes first, I have to… choose my priorities. And I realized I don’t know enough yet to write it the way I want to. I’m still doing research for it, but I’m not writing right now. And I don’t mind doing copy-edit. Proofreading. It helps me, really. Seeing how others think to arrange their words. And, hey, it pays the bills. I’m in way less debt than most people in my program.”

 

Jeongguk pulls on his shirt, puffs a breath through curled lips. “Tell me about it.”

 

Taehyung frowns. “I thought the investment firm was paying for your studies?”

 

“They are, but I’m still carrying debt from my first degree. Originally, I wasn’t supposed to have to worry about it, but my parents- my dad, he.” He pauses to force a few noodles in his mouth. “They’re not involved anymore so it’s my responsibility now.”

 

The edges of Taehyung’s face go sharp, eyes tinged hot and striking. Jeongguk looks on, confused as Taehyung goes to speak, bites his tongue at the last second and tightens his grip on his pen, his other hand forming a fist. 

 

“...What? Did I do something…”

 

Taehyung scoffs, but when he looks at Jeongguk his gaze is too soft for it to be aimed at him. “No. Why would y- no.” He shakes his head and he looks so sad all of a sudden, ire still bleeding through. “I just had some choice words about your father, but then I remembered he’s still your father. Even if he doesn’t deserve that title.”

 

Jeongguk’s frown deepens. It seems like the kind of thing one should get angry at, offended on his dad’s behalf, but all he feels is too tired. “Why? He took care of me when he had to. I’m an adult now. I made my choices. He made his.”

 

When Taehyung stays silent, the tension from his body almost tangible, Jeongguk shrugs, swallows his next bite of food just fine. 

 

“Most people’s parents can’t help them with their debt. Why should I be any different?”

 

“Because he promised you he would. Because you have way more on your plate than a lot of people. Because good fathers keep the promises they make whenever they can. Good men, good people, do.”

 

The passion in Taehyung’s voice is as physical as his body’s tension, but all Jeongguk can muster is another shrug. “Being a father doesn’t make you a good man. It just makes you a father.”

 

“It made you.” 

 

Jeongguk’s next heartbeat is loud in his ears, painful in his throat. 

 

“I didn’t know you before so maybe you’ve always been… you. But you’re a good man. A good person. And you’re even better when you’re with Jinhyung. I feel like- like I’ve told you this before, but there it is. Some people should have never been parents but other people are just- they just know. And maybe it happened before you were ready, but you’re a good father, and it kind of pisses me off you don’t see it, but it more pisses me off that your dad refuses to be around to see it, but really? It just makes me sad for him.”

 

For seconds, Jeongguk stares. He swallows and it’s fine, then he swallows until it isn’t and he’s tucking his wobbling chin into his chest, shoulders trembling weakly as his eyes grow wet, the air in his throat overwhelming, expanding until it feels like it might burst, the feelings he’s been dragging around for the last year since his parents turned away from him, left him to learn how to be a parent without his own. He bends over his knees and then he’s quietly sobbing into the fabric of his sweats, his shoulder bumping into the edge of the table painfully. 

 

He doesn’t hear Taehyung move, doesn’t realize he’s close until he feels the warmth from his arm, not touching Jeongguk but near enough to place his hand on his chair. 

 

Taehyung lets him get it out, waits until the quake in Jeongguk’s body quiets, his breathing soundless, to say, 

 

“It’s okay to be angry at him.”

 

“I don’t want to be,” Jeongguk says, muffled into his legs. He straightens slowly, rubbing at his cheeks, aggressive. He feels a sense of deja vu when he finds Taehyung crouched next to him, and it’s a toss up if it’s more inappropriate to do this in Taehyung’s office than in the kitchen they now share. “I don’t want to because it’ll make me bitter and I don’t want Jinhyung growing up with that. A dad like that or around that. I rather he grow up not knowing what a grandparent even is than with a parent who’s angry at one.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t look like he thinks it’s inappropriate. Didn’t then, doesn’t now. “Anger is just as much an emotion as any other. We deserve to feel it as all the other ones. Being angry isn’t bad.”

 

“Maybe,” Jeongguk says. He looks at Taehyung’s hand on the back of his chair, remembers him placing it on his shoulder as they stood by his desk. He imagines the ghost heat of it on his back now. “But I just want to be good.”

 

He wants to be all the good things, only good ones. The world will teach Jinhyung all the bad ones. Jeongguk wants to prepare him for them but not by being the thing Jinhyung will point at and say, there, him, father, the first time I saw anger, fear, sadness, every terrible thing a person can feel and be.

In the resulting silence, Taehyung looks at him, the mess Jeongguk’s hair must be, swollen-eyed and puffy cheeked, his nose snotty red, and it’s okay if Taehyung sees it all pixelated at the moment. It’s okay to be a bunch of pixels under his careful gaze. His face feels hot, embarrassed yet completely not, It’s silly to call eyes warm, to think he can feel it, warmth, but Taehyung’s really are, like they’re the thing that keeps the world warm when it closes its eyes and goes to sleep, even if all it feels is cold. 

 

The left side of Taehyung’s mouth curves, tiny but meant. “Well. Lucky you. The rest of us are still trying to figure out how to be.” 




---




Namjoon makes up for shifting his kid watching duties onto Taehyung by meeting all of Jinhyung’s needs before he even needs them for the next few weeks, Jeongguk’s as well and sometimes Taehyung’s too. It’s a little, a lot, obnoxious and too much, a flashing HYUNG sign dangling over everything Namjoon does, responsible and dependable, hyung without the usual delegation that comes with it, strong arming the youngest to do the things you don’t want. 

 

Jeongguk flits through annoyance, gratitude, guilt. It isn’t actually Namjoon’s responsibility, it isn’t truly his guilt. 

 

It comes to a head when he finds Namjoon in the laundry, one of Jeongguk’s work shirts on the steamer rack, a familiar tie with titles of Jane Austen novels all over it on the ironing board. 

 

Jeongguk sighs. “Hyung, you need to stop.”

 

“I’m almost done. Don’t worry. I have the brisket on a timer.”

 

“The bri-” Resting his head on the wall, Jeongguk watches the steam cloud in their little laundry room. It’s a luxury here in the city and Jeongguk has gone from the always too-busy coin machines at his dorm to the laundromat a few blocks from the tiny apartment, to this, like he’s come full circle. “You don’t have to do everyone’s laundry, hyung. How’d you even get into Taehyung’s stuff?”

 

“Went to the loft to get a mic I left in storage. Taehyung said he was cool with it. And shouldn’t you be calling him hyung?”

 

To be contrarian he says, “Hyung said I didn’t have to.” He follows the traces Namjoon makes with the iron over Taehyung’s tie, more careful than Jeongguk has seen him handle almost anything. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for, Hyung-ah. You don’t have to make up for anything.” 

 

“But I do,” Namjoon says, not looking up from his work. 

 

“Everything worked out. Jinhyung-ie was fine. Nothing bad happened.”

 

“But I broke a promise to you. And to him. I told you, when we first took you guys in, you could always depend on us, but on me especially. And I haven’t always been able to keep that.”

 

His conversation with Taehyung rings in Jeongguk’s head, his last conversation with his father. Are all broken promises the same? Do they weigh differently on the tongue, the conscious, the heart, if the person breaking it tries everything in their power not to? Carries the weight of its shards with them? He wants to say something, anything that will forgive Namjoon of his misplaced guilt, but it dies in his throat because it feels like it will only make it obvious. The only one who has anything to be guilty about between them isn’t Namjoon. 

 

He tries anyway, a desperate, “Hyung,” leaving his mouth but Namjoon sets the iron down, threads the tie on a hanger. 

 

With a smile and clear eyes he says, “We should order a pizza. That brisket is gonna take hours. Whatever toppings you want. Hyung’s buying.”

 

The dryer pings. 




---




Jeongguk’s arms break out in goosebumps, naked and exposed to the air. He stands in the alley for long moments, ignores the hazards of living in a big city, and blinks up at the sky, thinks about the end of winter, the start of spring. 

 

There’s a thump behind him. Something clangs metal, loud and sharp. 

 

He turns and says, “Fuck.,” Jeongguk breathes out. “You scared the shit out of me.”

 

Taehyung throws him a wave, hand raised and tilted outward, fingers fanning one by one outward from his palm. Jeongguk finds it oddly charming. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear. Hello, by the way.”

 

Jeongguk can’t say the same for Taehyung, still remembers the half hour of class he dedicated to the evolution of profanity. “Hello,” he says, a little put out. His heart thuds in leftover fear. “What are you doing?”

 

Taehyung’s lips quirk, amused, but there’s a tiredness there. Like he’s waiting for spring too. “Coming home. I’d ask what you’re doing, but it’s quite clear.”

 

Jeongguk frowns. 

 

“No one wants to get mugged, so it’s the second option. Waiting for alien abduction.” 

 

Rolling his eyes Jeongguk says, “Just getting some air. Took the trash out.”

 

“Hmm,” Taehyung says. Sometimes he makes it so obvious he finds Jeongguk hilarious, it would be infuriating if Taehyung weren’t also unfalteringly kind. “There’s a trash-bag stuck to your shoe.”

 

So maybe not so kind. It’s in his half dance half jump to get the bag dislodged that Jeongguk notices the totes at Taehyung’s feet, a box full of soil and greenery. 

 

“Are you bringing that upstairs?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Jeongguk looks up at the fire escape, the ladder looking suddenly frail. 

 

“You can bring it through the apartment-”

 

“No, it’s okay-”

 

“Seriously, Taehyung-hyung, don’t be an idiot.”

 

Taehyung smiles, his tired face brightening like being called an idiot has been the highlight of his day. It’s weird to think that Taehyung, who brims with passion and joy for what he does, can have the kinds of days Jeongguk has more often than he’d like. “Jinhyung is down for the night isn’t he? I didn’t want to risk waking him.”

 

“...Oh.” Jeongguk nods. He looks out at the alley, then up at the fire escape. “Okay. Here, let me-”

 

Taehyung motions to stop him, “You don’t-”

 

Jeongguk is already loading up his arms, the reusable bags of a local grocery-mart heavy but settling evenly on his shoulders. “It’s the least I can do. I owe you, remember? You’ve been so nice with Jinhyung and then with me that night-”

 

“I’m not nice to you because I want something back. Is helping someone even nice? It’s just.”

 

“It is to me,” Jeongguk says softly, trying to calculate how he can get the box in his arms and pull himself up the ladder at the same time. “You’ve taken care of my kid last minute twice now. Not counting all the times in class. I thought about offering to pay you, but-”

 

“Finish that sentence and I’ll really make you reevaluate the concept of nice,” Taehyung says. He looks frazzled, a little like he’s going to yank his bags off Jeongguk’s shoulders and frogmarch Jeongguk back to the apartment. The tip of his nose is flushed, the chill getting him even in his coat. 

 

Jeongguk stands his ground, grips the bag handles. 

 

Taehyung eyes the way he shivers when a breeze blows through and sighs. “At least make two trips.”

 

“Nope. Gonna do it in one. I’ll go first and then you pass me up the box?”

 

“I’m not letting you take the box up too.” The ladder is pulled halfway. Taehyung brings it the rest of the way down, climbs to the first ledge, and accepts the box when Jeongguk lifts it upward. “Now, move before you freeze. Jesus .”

 

“Jesus is still a swear word,” Jeongguk says through a smile he tries to repress. His horrid stubbornness is one horrible thing he hopes Jinhyung does inherit. “To Americans.”

 

“Good thing there aren’t any Americans here then. Watch your step. That middle rung is slippery.”

 

Jeongguk does, pulls himself up the ladder with far more ease than he should with the extra weight. Taehyung watches his assent closely anyway, his frame outlined in the lights against the dark. “Jinhyung is. He’s American.”

 

“I mean technically I am too, but what’s nationality anyway? A contract between some government and the idea of your identity.” 

 

“I guess,” Jeongguk says when he reaches the first flight of the fire escape. The ledge groans with their weight but neither moves. “It makes it final though. Being here.”

 

“It wasn’t?”

 

“No. I didn’t think it would be.” But now…” He gives a helpless wiggle of his shoulders, feels the cold and the total absence of it under Taehyung’s eyes all at once. “This is where I am.”

 

Taehyung finally starts climbing the rest of the way up. He says, “People move back. Even people with babies.”

 

Jeongguk follows after a beat, blinks out of his momentary stupor. Metal trembles beneath their feet. “Sure. But my life’s here now. My brother. My future job... Is this legal? I thought you weren’t supposed to stand on fire escapes unnecessarily.”

 

“Yep.” Taehyung throws him a smile over his shoulder. “It’s illegal. Incredibly so. Say hi to our neighbors!”

 

Jeongguk laughs, airy and too loud. It’s in moments like these where the distance feels less between them, when Taehyung is young and silly, almost just another college kid Jeongguk knows he happens to coexist in the same apartment as. 

 

They reach the loft and Taehyung unlocks the latch on the big window. He slides it up and ducks under, places the box down before unloading Jeongguk’s arms and making space for Jeongguk to climb inside first. “I thought that was gonna be a two-and-a-half trip. Yoongi was right. You make a great pack mule.”

 

“You’re talking to Yoongi?” Jeongguk asks, rubbing his arms, the sudden warmth of the loft making him conscious of how cold it was outside. 

 

“We share a kitchen. We’ve been bonding, your brother and I.”

 

Jeongguk makes a face, doesn’t know how he feels about that. He watches Taehyung turn on the lights, the room flooded in brightness. Taehyung keeps his coat on but dumps things out of its big pockets onto his desk, his phone and keys, some pens, his wallet and a post-it flag highlighter. He starts misting the potted plants on his desk next and Jeongguk watches, tugs at the little hairs on his jaw, adjusts his too big t-shirt. 

 

“Okay. Um. I should let you-”

 

Taehyung doesn’t glance up from the fern he’s watering, fingers poised as he pushes back the leaves. “Do you want a beer?”

 

Oh . I-”

 

“You can say no. I don’t know where on the appropriate ex-student slash ex-TA with a little too much grading power relationship spectrum that would fall. We live together so we sort of went off the spectrum already I think. But you look like you could use a beer and I know you wouldn’t say yes to going to the bar a few blocks away.” 

 

Jeongguk thinks about it for roughly three seconds. “Okay. Yeah. Thanks.”

 

They sit on the fire escape, a bottle each, the little heater Taehyung pulls out from under his bed whistling softly between them. 

 

The foam is pleasant in Jeongguk’s mouth, fizzy. “Now, this is illegal.” 

 

“Oh, very,” says Taehyung. “But people don’t really use fire escapes to escape fires anymore. They’re old relics now. Part of that coveted brick brownstone aesthetic. The dream of the idea of the dream life.”

 

“You’re never going to get over the fact that I actually live in a townhouse, are you?” 

 

“Probably not.”

 

“It’s just because my brother-”

 

“That’s not it,” Taehyung interjects softly. He hasn’t touched his beer much and doesn’t seem to be suffering the chill, the heater angled in Jeongguk’s direction, coat collar tucked close. “It’s like a perfect metaphor. A simile, maybe. You in this perfect little dream house.”

 

Embarrassment strikes Jeongguk, hot, like he’s been exposed, seen. He’d lower the heat, but another shiver racks him, and Taehyung’s ears look faintly red. He clears his throat. “I was going to say it was always Namjoon’s dream to live in a place like this. Townhouse in the city. Yoongi made it his mission to make it a reality.”

 

“So what’s your dream?”

 

“I,” Jeongguk starts, caught off guard. “What?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. He sips from his beer, the bottle dark against the night. “Your dream. I already know the dream job and you have the dream kid, so dream house. Dream place. Dream world. Dream partner. Dream life.”

 

For a moment it almost makes sense. That Jeongguk dreamt Jinhyung up, pulled him out from the deepest recess of his own desires he didn’t know he had into the real world. 

 

The heaviness of the day, how much it’s felt like he’s had to carry the last sixteen hours or so around with every muscle in his body, cloaks his shoulders. He drinks, the glass almost unbearably cold. “I mean, you already know. All my dreams are for him now. Is that terrible?”

 

He doesn’t expect an answer, knows what Taehyung thinks, but in an act of kindness, a try at understanding maybe, Taehyung says, “No, it isn’t. Not at all.”

 

Jeongguk sets his bottle down, pulls his knees to his chest and follows the rise of the buildings around them, brick and metal and newer cheaper building materials, idyllic dream lives regardless. “It’s her birthday today. Jinhyung’s mom’s.” 

 

Taehyung’s next breath is different. Slower where anyone else’s would quicken, sharper. 

 

He’s quiet for so long Jeongguk says, “She’s not dead or anything. Sorry, if it sounded like that. We’re just not together anymore and she’s not in the picture. Obviously.” 

 

“What would she have wanted to do?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“If you were still together and you were spending her birthday with her. What would she do?”

 

Jeongguk scratches under his nose, skin winter dry. The next silence is his, not because he has to think about it for long, but because he doesn’t. “We used to go to the bowling alley on 37th. With the bar and the disco lights? One of her cousins worked there and he’d get us alcohol. She’s the only person I’ve met who liked bowling as much as I did. It was one of her favorite places in the city.”

 

When he looks, Taehyung is looking back, face void of judgement, a faint smile in his eyes like he thinks it’s sweet. 

 

Angling his chin down, Jeongguk draws an aimless pattern over his knee. “How come you’ve never asked about her?”

 

The shrug is all in Taehyung’s voice. “You’ve never talked about her.”

 

Jeongguk blows out a breath. The truth is Jeongguk has compartmentalized her, built a room for her in his mind. Sometimes that room feels like a shrine. He thinks of all her goodness and potential, how beautiful she was, the way she had made Jeongguk feel known . Other times it’s a confessional or a cell, Jeongguk both the priest and the prisoner, the sinner and the sin. 

 

“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to anymore- talk about her. Or feel about her. It’s easier, I guess, to not even think about her.”

 

He presses his knees closer to his chest, and he wonders if if he presses hard enough would his chest cave in, would all of him? 

 

“She was so scared when we got pregnant. I know saying we is- whatever, but that’s how it felt even though we’d only been together a year. It felt like we. Like I loved her and everything would be okay. So I dropped out and got a job even though she begged me not to, because that’s what you do, right? And then we got married because… because I’d been thinking I’d marry her someday since I met her anyway, and you’re supposed to do that too. But I didn’t see how terrified she was. And then her parents found out.”

 

The apartment across the way lights up. A cat jumps up to the windowsill, paws at the glass until someone opens the window. It curls up right where it sits, a content look on its face at the cold Jeongguk can’t relate to. 

 

“She’d never really wanted to keep him. I told her I’d do whatever she wanted, support whatever decision she made. But she said adoption felt too cold and she’d never seen herself having an abortion. Not for any moral reason or because she thought it was wrong but, um, yeah. So being a family made sense. She said she felt like she could do it if I was with her. If we were together, she could try.”

 

He almost asks Taehyung about the origin of the word, family , how and why it came to be, the first time someone looked at the people around them, the people they came from and the ones who came from them, and made a sound to describe them.

 

“Someone told her parents. I didn’t really get why she was hiding it. We were married, we were doing the right thing. It didn’t matter. Her parents didn’t care. All they cared about was that their daughter had gotten pregnant before marriage.” It isn’t a lump, but it feels like there’s something stuck in his throat, thick and ugly. He touches his bottle and he feels so cold, like all of him is, deep in his heart. “We’d signed annulment papers by the end of the week. An adoption agency was found, new parents, and I was okay with it. I just didn’t want to hurt her or make it worse for her.”

 

It sounds so selfless when he lays it out like this, a nice little story for Taehyug, but all he sees are the parts where he was selfish, a rotten greedy little kid, all he wanted was love for himself, to give his love to someone. 

 

“Then she gave birth and then her parents took her back to Korea and I haven’t heard from her since.”

 

“How did you end up keeping him?”

 

He doesn’t have to force himself to look at Taehyung. He does it before he realizes, natural, an instinct. 

 

Taehyung’s face is devoid of any clear emotion, the slant of his brows neutral, his mouth curious, and Jeongguk would be offended at Taehyung’s seeming disntress, his casualness, except there’s nothing disinterested about Taehyung, ever. He’s here, he’s asking, and the curve of his body, his careful hands moving the heater fully towards Jeongguk’s cold struck body is anything but casual.

 

Jeongguk says, “I went to the nursery ward. I just wanted to see what he looked like, without all the blood and placenta and screaming bloody murder.” His voice grows faint and he remembers that day better than any other. In a way, no other day existed before it. He looks at Taehyung, shrugs, and says, “And then a nurse asked me if I wanted to hold him.”

 

The heater clicks. 

 

“What’s her name?”

 

There’s this quality to the way Taehyung asks certain questions, says certain things, ones that don’t seem delicate but could be ticking time bombs. It’s like he’s both asking about the weather and questioning the very thing that causes weather at all. 

 

“Jisun. I wanted him to have some part of her even if it’s just her name. Part of it. But I don’t know how I’m supposed to talk to him about her. That she didn’t want him but wanted to try to want him? That it’s not her fault she’s not here?”

 

“I don’t think- sorry, that was a rhetorical question, wasn’t it?”

 

“No,” Jeongguk says. He shakes his head. “Yes. But I want to hear what you think anyway.”

 

Taehyung flicks a foam bubble from his beer. He pouts his lower lip out in thought, head tilted back so it touches the window. His face is all angles like this, the street lights dripping down the arch of his nose. “I don’t think you’re supposed to anything. There won’t be a right or best way to talk to him about her. Any of it. I think the only thing you can do is try to make sure he never doubts that the only person who isn’t at fault in any way is him.” 

 

The thing in Jeongguk’s throat turns into a lump, but it’s cathartic, the wetness burning behind his eyes. In the end it’s the only thing that matters. Jinhyung is the only thing that matters anymore. “How do you always say the perfect thing?”

 

 “Oh,” Taehyung says, face scrunching in that way Jeongguk finds delightful, the utter ruin of his enviable face, how enviable it still is. “I definitely don’t. Especially not with you. In fact, I just thought of a not perfect question. But I think spending too much time thinking about words might give me a leg up on most people.”

 

Jeongguk looks at him, waiting. 

 

Taehyung shakes his head, drinks from his bottle, but he gives in eventually under Jeongguk’s insistent stare. 

 

“Do you still love her?”

 

“No,” Jeongguk says. “I think that might make it worse. I used to not think so, but I don’t think you can love someone you don’t know anymore.”

 

Taehyung frowns at that, eyes skyward. Jeongguk blows over his hands and Taehyung angles the heater once more, wraps his coat tighter around himself. 

 

“Sorry. I’ve been dumping my sob stories all over you lately.” 

 

“I don’t mind. In case you haven’t noticed, I like sob stories. They have some of the best words.”

 

A smile is pulled from Jeongguk, and the courage to ask, “A sob for a sob?”

 

Taehyung thinks about it for a long second. Or maybe he thought of it immediately and he likes this as much as Jeongguk does, the way silences glide between them, words that aren’t words.

 

“Once, I loved a boy very very much. So much I thought I couldn’t live without him.”

 

Jeongguk’s next inhale is too sharp. His voice is small when he asks, “What happened?”

 

“Nothing,” says Taehyung. He looks at Jeongguk and the smile is there, in his voice, as he says, “It turns out I could. So everything happened, really.” 

 

Where Jeongguk would’ve let out an I’m sorry sits another smile instead, a feeling of warmth fighting against the cold, the hopefulness in Taehyung’s words. 

 

The night is cold and dark and tomorrow promises to be much the same as today, a heavy weight on Jeongguk’s shoulders, but he finds himself moving so the heater lands on Taehyung too, his knees tucked safely against his chest, his shoulder almost brushing Taehyung’s. He no longer feels like caving is inevitable or if it is like it’s impossible to keep going after, to learn to live with the caved feeling. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t move. He watches Jeongguk openly and in the hushed city lights it’s not so difficult to make out the gentleness in his eyes, and it’s not so terrible, this feeling of collapse. 

 

With a smile, Taehyung nods with his bottle towards Jeongguk’s chest, says, “I did not take you for a Doggy Dog fan.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Your shirt.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, looking down at the print on his shirt, in stylized letters The Doggfather. “My brother’s idea of a birthday gift.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“He got it for me this last one even though it makes no sense. Jinhyung doesn’t have a godfather,” he says, a little nonsensically. Even more nonsensically at the resulting silence, the slowness in the way Taehyung is looking at him, the slow silence inside of himself, he adds, “I’m twenty-three now.”

 

“Well,” Taehyung says, and when he salutes Jeongguk with his bottle, the lights knock off it look like tiny suns. “It’s still your birthday year. You can cry whenever you want to .” 

 



---

 



 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---

 



Jinhyung is throwing his spoon on the floor when Taehyung walks into the kitchen. He seems delighted to have an audience who isn’t his dad and claps his sticky hands with gusto, waving them in Taehyung’s direction. 

 

“Busy morning?” Taehyung asks, eyeing the collection of spoons in the sink. 

 

Jeongguk grunts. The newest spoon is sparkly pink, an eyesore but Jinhyung’s favorite. He’s started feeding himself, mostly by the fistful, but he’s fussy this morning so Jeongguk scoops rice onto the spoon and Jinhyung eats some of it, most of it ending up on his cheeks.

 

The kettle goes off. Oil sizzles in a pan, ginger scents the kitchen, and the slowly blooming lilies in the windowsill really do make the air more breathable to Jeongguk, purer. 

 

Jeongguk gets some broccoli on the spoon. Jinhyung pokes his tongue out, goes cross eyed examining it. Jeongguk laughs, but Jinhyung scrunches his mouth closed, whimpering with a resounding, “Ba- ba !” 

 

Jeongguk sighs. 

 

Jinhyung pouts, tucks his face into his shoulder when Jeongguk tries to feed him. “ Ba .”

 

“Hey,” says Taehyung, smiling when Jeongguk looks up at his too-awake face. “So, it’s Saturday. We should go to the park.”

 

Jeongguk glances at his untouched breakfast, his kid’s barely eaten. The sun stretches across the kitchen, bounces off the metal sink, the bright countertops and mismatched tiled floor, Taehyung’s eyes.

 

Jinhyung knocks the spoon out of his hand. 

 

“Yeah, okay.”




---




“I thought it was the terrible-twos not the terrible one and a half’s. That’s what American TV says, anyway.”

 

“That’s a generalization. Some babies start the terrible-twos at birth. Others never have them.” 

 

Sitting on a bench, they watch Jinhyung toddle on an obstacle course littered with different sized geometric shapes. He’s probably too young for it but Jeongguk grew up with woods as his backyard, stretches of beach with coves and caves, learned safety by being in some not so safe places. This is about as not-safe Jinhyung will get to be in a city like this. 

 

Jeongguk bites into his bagel, sesame seeds clinging to his teeth. He’s not the biggest fan, but Taehyung was pleased when they’d spotted the cart outside the park and while Jeongguk doesn’t always understand America’s fascination with bread even a few years in, some days he just wants to stuff his face with as much refined white flour as possible. 

 

“He’s spoiled me. He’s been perfect since he was born and now he’s going into his rebellious phase and I won’t know how to deal with it. My baby has spoiled me. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?”

 

Taehyung licks cream cheese off his thumb, brows thoughtful. “Is it? Someone who unconditionally and immediately loves you? Who doesn’t judge or know all the terrible things about you? Doesn’t care to. Not yet anyway. I think parents are just as spoiled.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that a child’s love is unconditional.”

 

“Even if your kid says they hate you, they still love you. And even if they grow up to genuinely hate you, it’s because they’re angry you didn’t love them the way they needed you to.”

 

Jinhyung trips with the edge of a triangle. He lands hands first, his jacket cushioning him. Jeongguk watches, heart hammering as Jinhyung pops up with a loud laugh, shakes out his hands and makes a break for it around a rectangle. 

 

Jeongguk slumps against the bench. 

 

Taehyung smiles, knowing in one corner, jelly in the other. “You’re a good dad.”

 

“You say that a lot,” Jeongguk grumbles. 

 

Unfazed, Taehyung says, “You just look like you need to hear it a lot.”

 

Jeongguk watches him, how at peace he looks in the chilled spring sun. “What were you like? As a baby? A kid? A baby-kid? The venerated first born?”

 

“I don’t know about venerated-

 

“The way you talk about your family I can’t see how they wouldn’t see you the same. You talk about them like they’re yours.”

 

A group of girls well into their toddler years challenge each other to climb to the top of a square, green plastic the color of the first blooming leaves. Jinhyung watches, entranced. 

 

“I guess because it feels like it,” Taehyung says, voice more wondrous than Jeongguk has heard it. “There’s five of us, but the age gap between me and my eldest - Taesoo- is pretty wide. He just started college. Helping raise them felt natural. A responsibility, but a privilege too, to get to be a part of shaping who they are.”

 

“Do you-”

 

Ba !”

 

There’s a loud cry followed by shouting, the calm peace of the park doused in chaos. 

 

Jinhyung stands at the center of it all, face scrunched up and head tilted back as he wails, hands shoved in the pockets of his rain jacket. Three of the girls are looming over him, only looking so because they’re so much taller than him. 

 

Jeongguk drops his bagel on the bench and races to crouch next to his kid, sneakers squishing in the soft wet grass. He doesn’t look hurt though his face is red, eyes teary as he breathes hard.

 

“Hey. What’s wrong? What happened?” Jeongguk asks, looking at Jinhyung, but directing the question to the group. 

 

Baaaaa .”

 

“He took my race car!”

 

“Yeah! He ate it first!”

 

“An’ he pushed me! Bu’ it didn’ work ‘cause he’s too little.”

 

“Jinhyung. Jinhyung-ah is that true?” 

 

Jinhyung wimpers, eyes closed tight. 

 

The tallest girl, two pigtails and a front tooth missing, glares. She looks at Jeongguk, face softening, like she’s dealt with this kind of thing before. Maybe she has a younger sibling. “He t’ied to climb with us big kids. So I said he could play with my wace-ca’ ‘cause he’s too little. But not foweve’! We climbed and then we did’n wanna climb no mo’ so I t’ied to get my wace-ca’ back. That’s when he ated it. That’s no good ‘cause of gewms and stuffs. So Nina t’ied to help. But he pushed! And Nina got angwy but didn’ push back because mommy says to neve’ push back and he’s a baby so he could’a gotten hu’t wose’. So we didn’t do ‘nothin and he put my wace-ca’ in his jack-jack. And that’s no good ‘cause i’s mine.”

 

By the end of the story, Jeongguk doesn’t know whether to laugh, die of mortification, or cry right along with Jinhyung. 

 

Seeing as he isn’t too little, he reigns himself in, says in as calm a voice as he can manage, “Thank you for not pushing him. Your mom is right. And he’s very sorry and he’s going to give the car back. Right, Jinhyung?” he asks, palm held out toward Jinhyung’s pocket.

 

Jinhyung shakes his head. He takes a step back, looks ready to run for it. 

 

Jeongguk steadies himself, gets ready to run after him. 

 

Grass crunches and Taehyung, who’s been standing by the nearest circle, attentive but giving them wide berth, tilts his chin toward Jinhyung, painfully open in his distress. 

 

Jeongguk nods. 

 

“Hey, buddy. What’s wrong?”

 

Jinhyung makes a hiccuping noise. He turns in Taehyung’s direction, his next breath a little calmer. “ Ba .”

 

“That sounds tough. I know how that is.”

 

“Baaaaa.”

 

“Oh, man. No wonder you’re all upset,” Taehyung says seriously. He’s knelt next to Jinhyung at a distance, but angled so Jinhyung would knock into him if he does race off. “I get it. Really. But just because we’re upset doesn’t mean we can make others upset. These nice girls let you play with their toy car and did you say hi? Tell them your name?”

 

Jinhyung fusses with his pockets, stares at Taehyung’s shoes. 

 

Taehyung looks at the trio, smiles, “Well, hi. I’m Taehyung. That other big guy is Jeongguk and the little guy you guys were so nice to is Jinhyung.”

 

The girls look at him strangely, but the tallest girl says, “Mommy says talking to stwange’s is bad. But we know Jiniehung so I’m Lisa. And it’s a wace’ca not a toy-ca’.” 

 

“Ah, of course. My bad I’m sorry.”

 

“I’m Nina!”

 

“I’m Tina!”

 

Jeongguk swallows down a laugh, a little dismayed at how easily stranger danger is forgotten when object permanence is still a new concept. 

 

A girl looks over, no older than sixteen, phone in one hand, bagel in the other. She looks concerned, but only barely, eyes squinting in the brightness. 

 

“That’s ou’ babysitte’,” Lisa? Tina? says. They all look alike, honey yellow hair almost white. “She’s ‘upposed to watch us, but she’s always on hew phone,” she adds with an eye roll she seems too young for. 

 

Jeongguk waves at her. 

 

Confused, she waves back. 

 

Taehyung is saying, “and we can’t keep what isn’t ours, can we? It isn’t ours.”

 

Jinhyung keeps his hands in his pockets, stubborn in a way only Jeongguk’s offspring could be. He considers just reaching for the thing himself, but holds back, doesn’t want to make Jinhyung even more upset or teach him that the only way to do the right thing is when someone else forces you to. 

 

Tina? or Nina? sighs and Jeongguk’s hand flexes, ready to cross the distance for Jinhyung’s pocket anyway, when Taehyung shuffles a little closer, says, 

 

“What if someone took Mr. Gong Yoo?”

 

“Ba?”

 

“Yeah. That’d make you real sad, huh? And I’m sure you’d want the person to give it back. They probably couldn’t take care of him the way you can.”

 

Jinhyung’s lower lip trembles. With a slowness that would be comical under different circumstances, he pulls his hand from his pocket, the little blue car peeking between his fingers. 

 

Definitely Nina takes it. “Thank you for giving it back. Even though you should have in the firstist place.”

 

Gentle, Taehyung asks, “Can you say sorry, bud?” 

 

And it’s Taehyung who gets Jinhyung to say, “Bawaaa,” but it’s Jeongguk he falls into, burying his wet grimmy face into his neck and dampening his t-shirt as he tears up again. 

 

“‘ts okay! Don’t cwy. Here,” Nina says, digging into probably Lisa’s pocket. “Have a sucky-suck. Oh.” She looks at Jeongguk, uncertain. “Can he? It’s a gummy. And real melony!”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know what that means, but nods, will check it for choking hazards before he lets Jinhyung eat it. 

 

Arms wrapped around him, Jeongguk pulls Jinhyung back a little, buzzes a kiss into his hair. “You want a lolly? That sounds good. Yeah?”

 

Jinhyung plays with the zipper teeth of Jeongguk’s hoodie, nods. 

 

“Go on.”

 

Jinhyung hesitates. He takes the candy with unsure fingers. “Ba-ba- ba .”

 

Nina smiles while Tina tries to show Jinhyung how to open the wrapper, and Lisa says, “‘Kay, we gots to go.”

 

“Okay, bye!”

 

“Bye, Jinny! Bye, Taehoon. Bye, Johncook!”

 

They run off toward their babysitter whose phone is nowhere to be seen while her bagel still very much is. 

 

Jeongguk stands, Jinhyung on his hip with one hand fisted in the collar of Jeongguk’s shirt, the other holding the lollipop. 

 

Jinhyung hums and shows Taehyung the treat. 

 

Taehyung raises his brows at Jeongguk who squishes the soft texture between his fingers, inspects the label. He nods. 

 

Taehyung off rips the paper wrapper. “100% real melon! From Georgia! And look at that; no pesticides. That’s important, huh? Pesticides are fun-icidies.” He pokes Jinhyung in the belly, earns himself a giggle as he hands the candy over. 

 

Jinhyung munches happily, mostly just slobbers all over the pop, and Jeongguk wipes his cheeks, equally enamored and morose. “I’m not sure if I should be rewarding him so soon after a tantrum.”

 

“I’m sorry. If I overstepped,” Taehyung adds at Jeongguk’s furrowed brows. “I wasn’t sure if I should, but you seemed… overwhelmed.” 

 

On the course, a boy treks up a climbing platform. He places his feet with confidence, wobbling and adjusting his steps and grip as he goes. 

 

Jinhyung offers the melon gummy to Jeongguk, the same mouth that was drenched in sorrow only minutes ago now stretched in happiness. Jeongguk takes a bite, baby slobber and all. It’s his baby. 

 

“You didn’t overstep,” Jeongguk says. “You stepped just enough. Thank you.”

 

Taehyung smiles, relieved and unashamed of it. Jeongguk looks down at Jinhyung’s rain boots, over at their bench. His abandoned bagel is being attacked by a menacing group of pigeons, the lox fancier fare than what they usually find, Jeongguk is sure. 

 

Tugging on the zipper of his hood, he says, “Sorry about the bagels.”

 

“Oh, I totally ate mine while you were holding down the fort. Sorry about yours.”

 

“Oh, well , then I’m not sorry. You got to enjoy your cliche bagel moment.”

 

“You know me. I love love stories so I really like my cliches.”

 

Jinhyung giggles. 




---




His gown is the wrong size. 

 

It itches, the material scratching at his elbows and he’s picked the worst time to realize this, standing in line, waiting to get to his seat. 

 

Sweat dots his brow. His slacks and button down are starting to stick to his body and it’s scorching for May. The sun is a bright never ending spot in the sky. 

 

He looks over his shoulder at the crowd seated beyond the students milling about, and spots them in the thick of it. Yoongi is already teary, cheeks streaked and ruddy. Namjoon’s smile is impossible to miss. He’s almost as bright as the sky, brighter still with Jinhyung up on his shoulders, the tiny mock graduation cap perched on his tinier head. 

 

The ceremony is a buzz in Jeongguk’s ears. One moment he’s sitting, the next they’re being called to stand. One moment his hands are empty, the next he’s throwing his cap into the air with everyone else, a perfect square of white spinning against blue before gravity pulls it back.

He exchanges congratulations with people from his course, promises to keep in touch and to network in a way that feels hollow, classmates he barely knows. 

 

He cries when Yoongi hugs him with the kind of strength his brother belies, when he presses his wet cheek to Jeongguk’s and says, “I’m so fucking proud of you, Ggukie-ah.” 

 

He puffs up when Namjoon ruffles his hair, kisses the top of his head where his cap got knocked off and calls him the most genius brother-in-law he could have asked for, the best he could have asked for, the one he did ask for. 

 

He turns into just his heartbeat when Jinhyung wears his sash as a hat, his baby graduation cap stowed in the diaper bag Yoongi is carrying, and his heart bursts as Jinhyung spins and spins until he’s dizzy and giggling on the perfectly mowed grass and asking to be picked up. 

 

Saying goodbye to one of his professors, the lecturer of his six student section of International Asset Management, which sounds as boring as it wasn’t, he spots a familiar face. 

 

“Hi,” Jeongguk says when they come face to face. 

 

“Hello,” says Taehyung, not hiding the fact that he was trying to catch Jeongguk’s eye. 

 

“Surprised to see you here. I thought you weren’t due another one of these for another ten years.”

 

Taehyung rolls his eyes. He laughs in the next second and it feels like a small victory, warm in Jeongguk’s belly, though it shouldn’t be. Taehyung is very easy to make laugh. “I’m here as faculty.”

“Really?”

 

Taehyung nods. He looks very business casual today, slacks and a nice dress shirt, like a lot of the men Jeongguk will be dealing with very soon will look like. Jeongguk pulls at his graduation gown, the itch to take it off growing. He hopes Yoongi comes back from changing Jinhyung soon so they can finish with pictures already. “Faculty duties.”

 

“Even though this isn’t your faculty?”

 

“True. But business is just as human as any humanity. Or science of the social persuasion. Maybe more so. We’re all trying to sell each other things, even if they’re just ideas.”

 

Jeongguk almost asks if he’s really no longer writing his book with how it always sounds like he is. “Mhhhm.”

 

“Plus. Joohyun’s sister graduated today too. Accounting. Just look for the intimidating Korean girl who can do your taxes better than H&R Block.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Plus plus ,” Taehyung says, elongating the vowel for so long it reminds Jeongguk of Jinhyung and his never ending baaaaa ’s. “Someone else was graduating today. My sort of landlord’s kid brother. He’s not actually a kid, though. But, anyway. I couldn’t miss that.”

 

Oh . Okay,” Jeongguk says and it’s the same word but it’s so much softer, like cotton candy on Jeongguk’s tongue, dissolving gently when it hits the air. 

 

Taehyung smiles and maybe it’s the goldeness of him, the goodness of him, that makes Jeongguk always think of the sun. “Congratulations. You did well.”

 

“Thank you.” A small smile curves Jeongguk’s mouth. “It doesn’t really feel real yet. Is that what it’s felt like for you?”

 

“All five times.”

 

Jeongguk laughs. He shakes his hair out. Pushes his sleeves up his elbows. He chuckles when they fall down, and it’s fine, this giddy happiness, the empty feeling of what college years are supposed to be versus what they were for him. The sun is warming his insides. Right now, everything is okay. “I guess it just doesn’t feel like I’m done. Graduated. Like it’s mine.”  

 

“Well, believe it,” Taehyung tells him, makes it sounds like you deserve it, and the sounds of the end of the last five years of Jeongguk’s life rush around them, but it’s Taehyung’s voice, and the way he says, 

 

Here’s looking at you, kid .”




---




He gets up at five to soak up the two odd hours he gets to spend being a dad. Breakfast ready, he soothes a cooing Jinhyung with cuddles as he wakes, practices words with him while they eat and squeezes in ten minutes of playtime once he’s dressed and already supposed to be out the door.  

 

The morning is consumed in data. Figures and numbers and health scores, and it’s funny, how he has to care for the market’s health as much as his own, his kid’s. He spends his lunch hour at the gym, gets made fun for it by Soohyun because nobody can see all those abs under your suits, Jeon . Jeongguk turns his nose up at the plethora of energy drinks littering his workmate’s desk, eats his packed lunch. He sits in on client meetings, today a trio of women in impeccable business attire. It’s the third client meeting he’s asked to join, and it’s supposed to be a reward of some kind, a mark of what could be to come, the level he could reach, but he just watches the sun streak across the wide glass windows and tries to figure out if it’s numbers or letters time, if it’s the kind of day that required an extra snack. The late afternoon rolls around and the big screens flash in green and it’s the almost adrenaline rush, that part where his intuition and gut are supposed to pay off and make up for all the places he lacks. Most days it doesn’t even seem to matter much at all. People lose money, make even more. Jeongguk is just a placeholder, a symbol, eyes to watch the numbers dip, rise. 

 

It’s humid on the subway home. He grips the handrail and sways as the cart rocks on its track, headphones muffling the sounds around him. The light cuts in and out the deeper into the tunnel they go and he watches an older man count the beads on a rosary and Jeongguk hopes he’s praying the power doesn’t go out again tonight. There’s an old song playing in his ears, familiar and well loved, and he wonders if everyone else goes into this same sort of blank state of mind so as to not count down the seconds until the train stops. 

 

Then Jeongguk gets home and it isn’t until his kid runs face first into his knees that it finally feels like the day starts. 




---




“I spoke to dad the other day.”

 

Jeongguk pauses mid bite. He’s taking his actual lunch, had an early workout for once. It was surprising yet not to spot Taehyung on a cross-trainer at the gym this morning, hair flopped over with sleep, headphones snug in his ears playing some smooth jazz or something else floaty and romantic like that. 

 

He looks at his brother. Says, “Okay.”

 

Yoongi sets his chopsticks down, ceramic clinking against glass. The entire restaurant is like this, hard edge against harder surface, imposing in its delicateness. It doesn’t seem like Yoongi’s kind of place except in how it very much does. “He called me.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“It was from an unknown number. I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t been Korean. In case something had happened to mom-”

 

“Hyung.” His hand is cold over his brother’s warm one. He should have ordered the hot japache instead. Outside, rain pelts the sidewalk, douses the waning summer soon to be fall day in grey. “It’s okay.”

 

There’s a shop not far from the gym that sells soy milk and egg bing. They’d stood under the awning of a nearby print shop and split rice rolls and turnip cakes between them, sheets of rain shielding the rest of the world as water drops rolled off Taehyung’s nose, wet the sleeve of Jeongguk’s shirt, his smile as he listened to a story about Taehyung’s latest freshman class.

 

Yoongi sighs. He slumps against his chair, the sleeves of his hoodie rucked up by the arms. He’s the most underdressed person here, skinny jeans and converse, but the maître d’ had led them to what seemed to be a regular table. Jeongguk didn’t say that this would have been the kind of place that would have made Yoongi sick a few years ago. Maybe sick with envy. 

 

“He asked about Jinhyung. About you.”

 

Jeongguk picks up a cucumber slice. Lays it over the edge of his bowl. “Okay.”

 

“I told him to fuck off.”

 

Jeongguk knocks into his bowl. The cucumber falls off. 

 

“Then I told him I was still a music producer and still married to a guy so he could double fuck off.”

 

“Hyung!” A horrible laugh tumbles out of his mouth and it feels equal parts terrible and good. He asks, “You didn’t really say that, did you?”

 

“No,” Yoongi admits. A smile, equally good and terrible in parts, brightens his mouth. “Not in those words anyway. It was a very short conversation.”

 

“So why tell me?”

 

“It felt wrong to keep it from you.”

 

Jeongguk looks down. He separates another cucumber from his noodles. His chopsticks click. “And we don’t keep things from each other?”

 

The rain picks up. The trek back to his office will be wet and cold. Yoongi’s sneakers will get drenched on his walk back to the recording studio he’s been holed up in with some up and coming rapper for the past few weeks. 

 

Yoongi picks up his chopsticks. He eats the little stack of cucumber from Jeongguk’s bowl. Drops a piece of beef in it in exchange. “Not when they matter.”

 

He wonders if that’s the best they can hope for. Brothers with so much distance, in age, in growth. Brothers who are different, unalike in a way only brothers can be. 

 

Jeongguk watches the rain fall outside and imagines Jinhyung pressed up to the glass in amazement, falling asleep to the white noise. He thinks about Namjoon tucking him in his crib, warm and safe. Thinks about the drawer in their kitchen, the one with all the papers, the one Yoongi doesn’t know Jeongguk knows about. “You know… You can talk to me about anything. You can tell me anything, hyung. You know that, right?”

 

The station had been as full as ever but their subway-car was strangely empty. They’d held onto the same handrail anyway, Taehyung’s gym bag heavy on his shoulder, Jeongguk’s sleek leather one hiding his gym things bumping against a pole every so often. Taehyung got off first, almost late, but he stood on the platform, the door closing between them, and he looked like he wanted to say something and Jeongguk thought of all the things he could say, but Taehyung had eventually just smiled, the electronic voice overhead announcing the next stop, and Jeongguk doesn’t have to wonder if he stayed to watch the train pull away.

 

Yoongi smiles and places another piece of beef, his last one, in Jeongguk’s bowl. “I know. Now finish your food, kid. Hyung’s paying so eat well.”

 

When they matter. Yoongi says things when they matter. That’s just how his brother is. They’re more alike than either of them realizes. 

 

The ceramic clinks. 




---




He can hear it from the stoop. 

 

The sidewalk is quiet at this hour. Jeongguk hesitates, wonders if he should go in at all.  

 

Quietly, he unlocks the front door, leaves his things in the foyer, wishes he could leave the heaviness of the day there too. He makes it all the way to the living room unnoticed and then he leans on the wall next to the living room, watches, quiet, unnoticed. 

 

It’s a rush of sound. Namjoon with his favorite guitar, still in the same shirt he has been for the last four days. Yoongi on the couch hitting beats at random, colors from his midi pad lighting up beneath his fingers. There’s a deep dissonant sound and that’s Taehyung, and even with the mouthpiece of the saxophone pressed to his mouth his smile is obvious. 

 

And at the center of it all is Jinhyung, toy guitar courtesy of Taehyung on his just passed second birthday, the strap a bright purple hue, his smile brighter than anyone else’s as he smacks the plastic strings and dances. They’re all dancing, even Yoongi, wiggling his sock clad toes to the beat. 

 

It’s nothing short of awful. The most mismatched messy musical composition Jeongguk has ever heard. 

 

It’s terrible and yet he stands there and hopes they don’t notice him for a few more minutes, for an hour, for forever maybe, just so he can have an unfiltered look at what he’s missing everyday when he leaves to make sure his kid can grow up to become the person he’s becoming. 

 

Taehyung spots him first and their eyes meet just as he’s pulling a hilarious sax-version of bass face, but Taehyung just smiles, guileless, cheeks full with it. He spins Jinhyung around so he can see him with careful hands and laughs kindly when Jinhyung squeals, jumps in place in excitement before breaking out in a run.

 

Jeongguk kneels to meet him halfway, softens the burnt of his impact. Jinhyung babbles at him, the guitar bumping against Jeongguk’s side. 

 

“Hey! Get back here, Jinhyung. Song’s not over!”

 

“Yeah. We’re missing our lead guitarist, kid!”

 

Jinhyung tugs on Jeongguk’s hand to pull him into the chaos and noise, and Jeongguk almost digs his heels in, resists, but the idea of resisting in the face of Jinhyung’s gleaming teeth is laughable, futile. 

 

Yoongi sits up, starts playing a new pattern on his drum pad. “Now that Gguk’s here, we got a singer.”

 

Jeongguk throws his brother a glare that goes right over his head, bent over his midi as he is.

 

Jinhyung stops in the middle of the carpet like he knows he’s the star of the show and Jeongguk ignores Namjoon’s hopeful face. “How about I start dinner while you guys… do whatever this is.”

 

“Dinner’s ready and done. Leftovers are in the fridge for you,” Yoongi says, not even bothering looking up. 

 

Jeongguk thinks of another excuse, and really how Namjoon thinks puppy dog eyes still work at thirty-one is his brother’s fault, but Jinhyung is pulling on his hand, wiggling along to the syncopated beat from the three clashing instruments and using Jeongguk’s unmoving body as an anchor. 

 

His resolve crumbles. Jinhyung dimples at him, his chubby legs holding him far more steadily than Jeongguk could have imagined just a few months ago. 

 

“You have to dance at least. That’s the rule.”

 

He looks at Taehyung betrayed for no real reason and Namjoon rifs a little too hard for an acoustic, gestures at Taehyung with his elbow. “You heard the professor. Shake your booty, daddy!”

 

“Please never call me-”

 

“-my brother that ever again.”

 

Namjoon just grins, swaying his own hips. “Move. You too, asshole. Toes don’t count.”

 

“Of course toes count!”

 

The music starts up again in full, Taehyung’s saxophone flush underneath, and Jeongguk’s knees hurt from sitting all day and his shoulders burn from going too hard at the gym, but Namjoon starts playing his favorite song and Yoongi’s shoulders are shimmying, and Taehyung’s smile is the easiest gentlest thing Jepngguk has seen all day and maybe it’s okay if Jeongguk misses a lot, as long as there are people, these people, to soak up all the moments he can’t. 

 

So he gives in and he picks up his kid and for the first time in a long time, he dances to the music. 




---




“Your tie’s on backwards.”

 

“Sh-cra-poo.” Jeongguk yanks at the knot, sighs. “Fuck it. Namjoon and Yoongi already swear around him anyway.”

 

“He internalizes-”

 

“-everything he hears. I know. I’ll cry about it the whole way to work,” Jeongguk says, trying to brush his hair and get something edible into his mouth at the same time. “Time?”

 

“Fifteen ‘till.”

 

“Shit. Why did I oversleep this morning?”

 

“Because you’re human,” Taehyung says, flipping a page on the manuscript he’s working on. It’s a thick volume, as tall as his mug. Jinhyung is playing on a mat on the kitchen floor. His keyboard alphabet is singing at him while he finger paints. The paints are washable which Jeongguk quadruple checked and the mat has penguins on it. Purple penguins.which are shaped to look like the letters of the Korean alphabet. Another gift from Taehyung and at this point Jeongguk doesn’t question Taehyung’s ability to acquire niche baby items. “Swallow before you choke.”

 

Jeongguk makes a face. “That’s what he said.”

 

E for elephant! J for joy! T for tooth!”

 

Taehyung sips from his mug. Checks something on his laptop and frowns. Midterms are soon, the prime suspect for the little squiggle that’s been a permanent wrinkle between his brows. “Did you just that’s what he said me in front of your child?”

 

Jeongguk makes another face. “Shut up. I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

 

“Isn’t that phrase a little before your time, anyway? I mean, really, Jeongguk-”

 

“Meme culture is a thing- and shut up.” He disappears down the hall to re-brush his teeth, change his shirt because he suddenly hates it, and put on socks that actually match. 

 

Back in the kitchen, Taehyung is rubbing at his eyes, glasses pushed up on the top of his head. His hair looks like it hasn’t seen a comb in weeks, forget this morning, and Jeongguk remembers that it’s not just his students’ assignments he has to work through but his own, how he has three articles up for publication soon and he’s hitting the midway stride in his program this year, and Jeongguk still only has vague ideas about his research except that Namjoon is always entranced by it and Yoongi is more than begrudgingly impressed, and he wonders if maybe they should make a nice dinner some night, if being officially halfway into a Ph.D. is something worth celebrating and Jeongguk thinks it should be if isn’t. And it’s a lot, everything Taehyung has on his plate and the way he handles it like it isn’t. 

 

Taehyung lets out a slow breath. He rubs at his face, like he could swipe the exhaustion away, and the guilt that blankets Jeongguk is tactile, the place he could pinpoint it to in his heart so exact.   

 

He picks up Taehyung’s empty plate from the table, Jinhyung’s, the pan Yoongi left out on the stove. “What time is your class?”

 

“1:30.”

 

“And Namjoon will be back by?”

 

“10:00- Leave the dishes.”

 

“And Yoongi’s at-”

 

“That crappy studio less than five blocks away. Seriously, I can water the plant, you have to g-”

 

But it’s become a ritual for Jeongguk, one of the best parts of his morning routine besides eating breakfast with Jinhyung, fitting in a few minutes of peek-a-boo or reading a passage or two from a book. Taking care of the apartment the few ways he can. He sets the watering can down on the counter, presses his fingertips to the lillie's soil to make sure its watered enough. 

 

Ba ,” Jinhyung mumbles. He places his paintbrush on the mat and tugs on Taehyung’s pant-leg, letting out a small whine. 

 

Jeongguk squeezes a leaf too hard. The flowers came in nicely in April, spring good to it in a way Jeongguk thought was just a saying and he wonders if he could get away with taking Jinhyung to the office for once. Taehyung doesn’t have to watch him too often but it makes the guilt string up Jeongguk’s heart, even if each time it’s a little less, a little more loose. 

 

Taehyung drops his hand to Jinhyung’s head. He brushes his hair back gently. “Yeah? What’s up buddy? You want up?” he asks when Jinhyung stands, sleepy legs not holding him up for long. Taehyung settles him in his lap, picks up his wind-up penguin and hands it to Jinhyung who holds it against his chest, turns the knobs quietly while Taehyung goes back to his work. 

 

Jeongguk loses time for how long he stands there looking at them, the guilt settling strangely under his ribs, into something else, thick and so warm it almost burns, hooked into the bottom of his ribcage. 

 

“Five ‘till.”

 

“Fuck!”

 

He grabs his wallet and keys, checks he has his subway pass, trips over a toy, and ducks down to leave a kiss on Jinhyung’s forehead. All around him is baby shampoo and the bits of fishcake Jinhyung had with his breakfast, but this close he can smell the ginger from Taehyung’s tea, the scent of whatever shower gel he must use, like a woods by the ocean, like oak and salt. It reminds Jeongguk of Busan. It reminds him that this is the closest he’s ever been to Taehyung and how strange and not that it’s only happening because he’s trying to get to his kid. 

 

Jinhyung gives him a kiss back on his nose as Jeongguk says, “Be good for hyung, okay?”

 

“Ba- ba !”

 

Jeongguk pulls away. 

 

There’s a strange look on Taehyung’s face. He grins, slides his glasses back down his face. “You’re so late it’s not even funny.”

 

Sun trickles in from the window and it glances off Taehyung’s lenses’ and Jeongguk stares at himself in their reflection and he wonders why Taehyung is smiling then at the same time he realizes he’s just been staring at himself in Taehyung’s eyes. 

 

At the door, he grabs his bag when he brushes against his trousers. His hand comes away damp, water from when he must have pressed the watering can to his thigh. “Shit. I’m wet.”

 

From the kitchen Taehyung says, deadpan but clear, “That’s what she said.”

 

He smiles the entire subway ride. It’s the nicest commute he’s had in a while.  




---




“If you had to choose between destroying my home planet and saving me, which would you choose?”

 

“We’re from the same home planet.”

 

“But if we weren’t. And your intergalactic space overlords assigned you to. Punishable by death.”

 

“If we’re talking death-”

 

“Love or intergalactic shame? Choose wisely.”

 

Ba .”

 

“Very wisely.”

 

The living room is washed in soft light. Jeongguk squints whenever he looks up from his phone, a loud bang or sudden alien screech calling his attention. Jinhyung had been firm at his choice, pointing at the movie cover with a little too much eagerness for Yoongi’s phone’s liking, but he keeps getting distracted by trying to eat his own sock, asking for a third snack, and dragging his potty training toilet to the middle of the living room. 

 

He’s sagged against Jeongguk’s side now, lashes fluttering slowly. It might be time to cut the movie short, call it a night. 

 

The stairs creak. Taehyung throws them a greeting as he passes on his way to the kitchen. He’s carrying a chopping knife and the fancy lemon peeler Yoongi insisted on buying and had to practically shove in Taehyung’s hands earlier. Jeongguk almost goes to show him where the knife covers are, images of Taehyung’s overworked sleepy mind and fingers handling sharp edges in his brain, but the thought of moving his kid right now is impossible. 

 

Namjoon perks up, pushes his toes under Yoongi’s thigh. “Hey! You wanna join? We can start it over for you.”

 

“Or we could play something adult appropriate seeing as the kid is out.”

 

“Ah, man. I’d love to but can I take a rain-check? I’m actually going out.”

 

And it’s obvious he is. With Taehyung it’s hard to tell sometimes but he’s wearing a nice pair of jeans and a sweater that looks like it cost half of his monthly stipend but knowing Taehyung set him back fifteen bucks max. 

 

Jeongguk pokes at a hole in his hoodie, adjusts the glasses he only uses when he runs out of contact solution. 

 

Namjoon nods in understanding.

 

Yoongi says, “You should take Jeongguk with you.” 

 

He says it all nonchalant while stuffing his face with chips, the chips Jeongguk bought, and this is the thanks Jeongguk gets for spending his hard earned money on movie night snacks, brotherly embarrassment, brotherly betrayal. 

 

“Um. What.”

 

“Yes, please,” Namjoon chimes in. “I think it’s a swell idea.”

 

Swell ? What the f-”

 

“It’s a Friday night and you’re home cooped up with us and a two year old. You should be out. Painting the town. Doing crime. Whatever it is the youth do.”

 

Jeongguk blinks at his brother. 

 

“Come on, Jeonggukie. When’s the last time you actually left the house after dark that wasn’t to go to the gym? Or to work. At the gym.”

 

“I-”

 

“Besides, we want to spend some quality personal time with the kid. Uncles and nephew bonding time.” 

 

“I can’t abandon my kid,” Jeongguk says at the exact moment Jinhyung lists to the opposite side of the couch and cuddles into a throw pillow and Mr. Gong Yoo, his wings strangled in his sleepy hold.

 

“Looks like the kid’s abandoning you,” Yoongi says smiles pleasantly. 

 

Hissing like Taehyung isn’t two feet away and being exposed to all of this against his will, Jeongguk says, “I really doubt Taehyung wants to-”

 

“It’s going to be low key. Just a few friends at this little place on 12th,” Taehyung says as if he needs to convince or sell it to Jeongguk and he isn’t having his night hijacked by Jeongguk’s annoying brother and equally annoying brother-in-law and by Jeongguk himself. “You’d like it, I think. You should come.”

 

For a moment, Jeongguk thinks he’s being ambushed but Taehyung doesn’t seem the type. Conniving, a schemer who plans. 

 

“I’d like it if you came.”

 

Jeongguk stares at him, Taehyung in his nice put together outfit, Jeongguk looking like every weekender dad who’s given up except those dads are well into their forties while Jeongguk is decidedly not.

 

“You heard the man. Come on, I’ll pick out your outfit.” There’s a hand on Jeongguk’s arm and then a yank with so much force Jeongguk is surprised the thing doesn’t fly out of its socket. Jeongguk curses under his breath as he stumbles off the couch. Yoongi pulls him toward his room and Jeongguk might have gained various inches and muscle mass on him, but Yoongi will always have this mystifying force, the ability to one up his little brother. 

 

The door to the bedroom closes. 

 

Jeongguk says, “What are you doing.”

 

Yoongi is already rummaging in his closet. “What’s it look like? Now, what are we feeling- black black or really black?”

 

“Yoongi-”

 

“You could go white, but that might be too virginal-”

 

“What the fuck, hyung.”

 

“Maybe grey- no wait, that’s light black. The fuck. For someone who’s so militant about his laundry, you really need to learn to take care of your darks, kid-”

 

“Hyung.”

 

Yoongi hangs his head, sighs. “Please leave the house so I can have sex with my husband.”

 

“...Oh my god,” Jeongguk says, after about five seconds of really wishing he were not a thing. “Oh my god.”

 

“Full disclosure, the sex won’t happen until well into the night. Probably not until way after you’re back, so it is mostly about hanging with the kid. But even more mostly-”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know what to do with sincerity in his brother’s words, the clumsy too muchness of them. Yoongi is all about the just enough, just right. 

 

“You haven’t had a night to yourself in almost three years, Jeongguk. Single moms in their thirties don’t have the kind of dedication you do to that kid.”

 

Yoongi holds a shirt up to the light, the static fuzz on the sleeves illuminated. After a moment, he hangs it back up. 

 

“And it doesn’t have to be with Taehyung, and I can’t force you to go, but you should go. Some Friday. Or Sunday morning. Or any day. You should have some time for you.”

 

The annoyance softens, melts under the cracked edges of his pride. Voice soft, Jeongguk asks, “Did you put him up to it?”

 

Yoongi shakes his head. He makes a questionable face at one of Jeongguk’s sweatpants. It has zippers. “No. He’s just obnoxiously nice. And he likes you so there’s that.”

 

Jeongguk isn’t a blusher the way he was when he was a kid, chest and ears and cheeks, but he feels it now, a faint warmth, cheeks and ears and chest. “Um. What?”

 

“Yeah, you know. He wants to be bros. I can tell. That bro bonding thing.”

 

“O-oh,” Jeongguk says, nodding. Nods some more. “Right. That. Yeah.”

 

“You two make sense. He’s young. You’re young. You’re just-” and Yoongi looks at Jeongguk, and he says, “You’re so young, Gguk-ah. You should get to act like it.”

 

Warm for a completely different reason, Jeongguk says, “You speak like you’re on your deathbed, hyung. You and Namjoon are young too.”

 

“Yeah and Namjoon and I still go out. I know it’s different. I know- I know, okay? But I think you should do this. If it sucks or you get separation anxiety, come home. No shame. But put yourself out there, kiddo. I don’t want you to look back on these years and regret.”

 

He can already feel the separation, the impending anxiety, the desire to come home. But Yoongi is looking at him with that face, that startling vulnerability he exposes deceptively easily, and his brother is all softness really, teeth at the world, heart everywhere else. 

 

Jeongguk sighs. There’s a tethering in his insides, a release and pull of tension. “If it sucks, I’m never listening to you again.”

 

Yoongi smiles, fuzzy and full of light. “Whatever you say, little brother. Now, help me find your fuckboy clothes from first year. I know you still have them somewhere.”

 

“Please never say the word fuckboy at me again.”




---




The smile on Jeongguk’s mouth tastes like honey. 

 

Conversation hums in the air, warm and thick. Even the music is sweet, this old brassy tune with just enough of a croon. 

 

He takes the last sip from his bottle, the glass rim clicking against his sticky teeth, and his throat fills with more sweetness, edge not just taken off but sawed down to the squishy bone beneath. 

 

“...so I told my boss those numbers are impossible. And he said make them possible.”

 

Jeongguk snorts. His empty beer hits the table with a thud, but the wood is scratched to hell so he figures it’s okay. Grappled together leather covers the chairs, peeling mahogany everywhere else, faded black and white photographs of famous silhouettes on the walls. That’s Thelonious Monk’s shoulder , Taehyung had said when they’d walked in, pointing to the frame closest to the door. It seemed like a gimmick, a little too hipstery even for this neighborhood, but it works somehow. The warmth of the bar, the muted yellow of the light fixtures drizzling all the wood in this timeless quality, viscous and slowed. “Asshole.”

 

“I know,” she says, smile companionable like finally someone gets it. The angles of her face are high, brows arched with a confidence Jeongguk envies easily loose limbed as he is. She taps pastel pink nails on her glass, greenish-white liquid sparkling in the light. “What’s your firm like?”

 

Jeongguk scratches under his chin. He pulls up the collar of his shirt, wishes he could remember her name and laughs, not in self consciousness. It’s the sweet feeling, kind of floaty. “It’s fine. For a hedge fund.” 

 

“For a money sucking, soul depleting, vicious generator of empty intangible wealth?” gets asked from across the table. A real mountain of a guy, large in all ways, the beard to go with it. 

 

There’s no hostility in his voice, but she says, “Sorry, we’re not all heirs to a wildlife conservation fund, Pablo.”

 

“You know I’m just joking, Trin, man, come o-”

 

“How did your family earn their money?”

 

They both look at him. Jeongguk pulls up his collar again. 

 

“A lot of conservation funds are started by people with some form of wealth. The money has to come from somewhere. And it looks good on tax deductions.” He touches at the hinge of his jaw, shrugs. “Just a guess, though.”

 

“...they own a cattle ranch north of Buenos Aires.”

 

“Aren’t cows destroying the ozone layer?”

 

Trin laughs, a crack of sound. 

 

Chair legs scrape against the floor. Glasses fill the table, the number of bodies increase along with the heat. 

 

Jeongguk’s empty bottle is replaced with a full one. A hand brushes against his bicep, a light, barely there touch. 

 

“I like you,” Trin says. She looks beyond Jeongguk’s shoulder, asks, “Why’ve you never brought him around before, Tae?”

 

Taehyung sits, pushing his wallet into his back pocket. The sleeves of his nice sweater are bunched up, the tan of his forearms looking more sunkissed than usual in the golden-ish glow. “Getting this one out of the house can be a little tough. What’d I miss?” 

 

Jeongguk sticks his tongue out at him and another voice answers, “He just destroyed Pablo’s ego in one fell swoop.”

 

Taehyung turns to him. He offers a hand, and voice serious, he says, “Thank you for your service.” 

 

Laughing, Jeongguk shakes his hand, cold from handling the drinks but Taehyung’s skin is soft, palm wide with the impression of heat. It’s a safe hand. Taehyung grips his hand like he’s handling ivy, a well read book, something that deserves care. 

 

“So how did you two meet, again?”

 

They let go a beat off from each other, Taehyung’s thumb dragging against the meaty inside of Jeongguk’s palm. Something kicks at his ribs, a little shiver tip-toeing up his spine. There’s that strange look on Taehyng’s face again, all over Jeongguk’s face and further down, and maybe it’s only strange because Jeongguk doesn’t know what it means. 

 

“Uhhhh-”

 

“I studied at the university as well. I just graduated,” Jeongguk says, brow wrinkling at Taehyung’s hesitation. “He rents from my brother now.”

 

“Oh! What grad department were you in? I only did a two year econ master’s, but I would have seen you I think.”

 

“No. Noooo. I just finished my bachelor’s.” 

 

From the other half of the table, shot glasses smack the wood, mouths wet. This doesn’t seem the type of bar for fast liquor, a shallow drop that feels like a high, but maybe all bars are that kind of bar. Joohyun’s glass is lined in red, her lipstick smudged. She and Jeongguk exchanged only short hey ’s and nothing more since he got here, but now she gives him a friendly smile from across the table. Jeongguk smiles back. 

 

“Oh,” Trin says. 

 

“Wait.” Pablo holds a hand up, pausing his current conversation partner, this short guy named Jaejin who graduated from the linguistics department with Taehyung but ended up veering into urbanized agriculture somehow, to level Jeongguk with a look. “You just graduated? Are you even old enough to be here?”

 

Sober Jeongguk would turn his nose up. Get annoyed at the implication. But he’s on his fifth-fourth honey beer so he’s tipsy Jeongguk so all he does is blush. “I’m twenty-two! Almost twenty-three! I’m twice over old enough to be in this bar. Any bar! Back home it’d be trice ! Thrice!” 

 

He turns to Taehyung for backup, but there’s a particular look on Taehyung’s face, like his drink is too sour. Jeongguk is pretty sure that’s just fruit juice and club soda in his glass. 

 

“Wait,” Pablo says again, like being the descendant of livestock slaughterers who grew a conscious has gotten a lot of people to wait for him throughout his life. “Did you take one of Taehyung’s classes? Were you his student?”

 

Jeongguk wrinkles his mouth, taken aback by his insistent tone. He looks over and Taehyung doesn’t seem to share his annoyance. He’s knuckle fisting his drink, mouth grim. 

 

“I mean. Yeah?”

 

Trin’s arched brows flex, a micro expression of something, but it’s drowned out by Pablo’s guffaw, the lascivious grin he throws Taehyung’s way.   

 

“Oh, shit! Hold on. Don’t tell me you finally became a cliché and turned your life into the plot of The Graduate ?” 

 

The sour thing turns into disbelief on Taehyung’s face. “That reference doesn’t even make any sense.”

 

Pablo waves a hand, dismissive. “Whatever, Rushmore. Except you’re Rushmore not the teacher.”

 

Jaejin smacks Pablo’s hand when it gets too close to his face. It makes a dull noise, a lot of strength packed into his thin wrist. Jeongguk wonders who would win in a wrestling match between him and Yoongi. “Literally, shut up. Taehyung isn’t like that. And the main character of Rushmore isn’t even named Rushmore, doofus.”

 

“Doofus? Really? How are you a father of two, again?”

 

“Well, you see, Pablito , when a man loves a woman-”

 

Jeongguk lights up and he’s about to interject with the second part of his defense - he’s not only old enough to be in this bar, but he’s a father of one! At twenty-two! - when his phone vibrates, pulling his attention away. 

 

He beams at the screen, the warmth from all around him washing over him like the thickest blanket in winter. 

 

(21:35) if there was ever a doubt he’s your kid 

 

It’s the third message from Yoongi. The picture attached is of Jinhyung asleep in his crib, foot resting on one of the support beams, fist curled by his mouth. 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (21:36) don’t even joke about that 

 

(21: 36) a lab couldn’t have made a more convincing mini-you but okay

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                 (21:38) shouldn’t you be banging your husband?

                                                                                                                                                                                                 (21:39) instead of stalking your nephew?

 

(21:42) never say the word banging at me again

 

“Please tell me this entire conversation has gone over your head.”

 

Jeongguk looks up. The expression on Taehyung’s face has transformed once more, apprehension dark in the honey lights. “I don’t know what any of these references mean. Or are.” 

 

Taehyung grins but the furrow between his brows holds, tiny wrinkles cutting into his skin. “I absolutely love that for you, but your complete lack of a movie education breaks my heart a little.”

 

Jeongguk squints at Taehyung’s brows. “So teach me,” he points out easily because it is easy, it’s so easy to say things right now Jeongguk wonders why he doesn’t say things all the time. “And I love this beer,” he adds and then, “And quit frowning. It makes your brows look sad,” he says and presses his index finger to the middle of Taehyung’s brow bone, smoothes out his eyebrows with a careful press, because he does that to his brother and to Namjoon and to Jinhyung, used to do it all the time to his best friend in high school Park Jimin, used to do it to Jisun when she got frustrated or sad or angry, or any time really, just to touch her. It just gets to Jeongguk if the people in his life are upset or sad or mad, the people he cares about. If there’s anything he can do, even a tiny thing, to make it better. In Jeongguk’s experience, tiny things have the power to make everything better, take the meaningless battered remains of your life and make them mean everything. 

 

Taehyung goes cross eyed trying to follow Jeongguk’s finger on his forehead. Jeongguk laughs, loud and open mouthed, and Taehyung smiles like he’s achieved something grand, finally finished his degree or handed in the manuscript for his book. 

 

He shakes his head, but the smile seems permanently fixed on his face now. “You’re so drunk right now.”

“Noooope,” Jeongguk says. He pulls his finger back and gulps from his beer. “I’m in tipsy territory right now. You though,” he adds, nose scrunched at Taehyung’s bubbly juice. 

 

Taehyung flicks at an errant bottle cap on the table. Tilts his head. “I told you I don’t drink much. Don’t like the taste. The drinking culture back home would’ve ended me.”

 

“How old were you when you moved?”

 

“Twelve. Old enough to remember, young enough to forget. My English was rough when we got here. Some of the kids were pretty vicious.”

 

“Kids can be dicks.”

 

“Not just kids. They put me in Special Education because of it.”

 

Oh , Taehyung-”

 

“It’s fine,” he says, steady like he’s trying to reassure Jeongguk, like he already reassured himself a long time ago. “It wasn’t then, obviously. But it was a really small rural town upstate and we were the only Asian family. They didn’t know what to do with me.” He rests his elbows on the table and lowers his voice. Jeongguk leans in and they don’t touch anywhere, but it makes sense, a hushness in a bar like this, the idea of closeness. “It made me feel very stupid for a very long time. I hated speaking that whole first year and it made me hate words themselves because I was so bad at it. I couldn’t get the people I needed to to understand me. And all through it was my dad- my mom too, of course - but my dad was really there, sitting with me through my school work even though he’d never done that back home, had a farm to run, a business to get off the ground. He said, ‘ The last thing you’ll ever be is stupid, Taehyung. English just makes no logical sense unlike Korean. It’s the Korean in you blocking the illogicalness of English. But people the world round speak it. We can too.’ By the end of the next year I was out of Special Education and skipping a grade and my dad was speaking English better than other immigrants his age who’d been here for years. I started volunteering with them when I was a sophomore. They’d had become my friends and I’d realized they just learned differently but they could learn. The adults in their lives just don’t always know how.”

 

He’s casual as he says it, like he’s talking about the history of limestone, the etymology of the concept of han, the fact that he remembered to eat his recommended serving of vegetables today. 

 

Jeongguk stares at him. The condensation from his beer rolls in droplets over his knuckles. He shivers, the vulnerable thin skin stretched over his collarbone exposed. “And now you love words.”

 

Taehyung’s mouth curves and it’s startling and funny, the kind of romantic notion from a movie Taehyung would put on his syllabus, how the room is doused in yellow and he’s the only thing that makes Jeongguk think of the sun. “And now I love words.”

 

“You’re really strong, you know,” Jeongguk says. 

 

Taehyung smiles wider. “I’ll take that from you. You’re the strongest person I know.”

 

Jeongguk feels the warmth in his cheeks, different from alcohol flush, than his staunch defense at being thought too young. He doesn’t feel very strong. He feels like he wants to be, like he could be, when Taehyung calls him so, says the words like that. Still, he counters with, “I don’t know about that. Isn’t Katya over there a marine?”

 

“Ex-marine. She’s a pacifist now. And anyway, violence, no matter the cause, isn’t what makes someone strong.”

 

“You should put that in your book.”

 

“What?”

 

“Your book. Or the next one if it doesn’t fit the theme.”

 

The record playing skips. It’s one of those places. Jeongguk doesn’t mind it. His mouth tastes like honey and he likes it, this floaty feeling. 

 

Taehyung fits the floaty feeling, the honey. “Aren’t you going to ask me where it’s from? What book or old movie I’m referencing?”

 

Jeongguk grins. The record skips again, lands on the next groove with a little more care, a little more love, like it’s learned from the trip, the fall. 

 

“No. I think I’m starting to learn when it’s you. When it sounds like you.”




---




They get him with IU. 

 

It starts with the sake bar. Then it was hookah because of course it was, a trip to another bar, then a pit stop at a hamburger place that looked like a mistake and was a mistake for almost everyone except Taehyung by product of being the only non drunk idiot and Jeongguk who was gifted with a stomach of steel at birth. The soju bar followed because it was deemed unfair and morally and politically corrupt to visit a sake bar and not a soju bar as well. 

 

So then of course. The noraebang. 

 

The colored lights swirl and shimmer. They spray like glitter on elbows and faces, the edge’s of everyone’s eyes dotted in fairy dust. There’s even more alcohol and the price of a ten person room is stupid, but Jeongguk is content to claim a corner of the couch, ignore the goading encouragement that he has to sing, he needs to, he paid two drinks worth to, but Jeongguk ignores it all, sinks into the pleather cushions and bask in the lulling feeling of the night, the obvious winding down despite the pulsing beats and shouted lyrics, the lights swirling around him. 

 

All the classics are hit upon, quite a few non-classics too, and the soju flows, and Jeongguk thinks that maybe it’s okay if he has more nights like these, just a few, that it doesn’t make him terrible and selfish if he doesn’t wait until he’s thirty-nine to have a bit of his own life again.  

 

Joohyun has her phone plugged up to the system because this is the kind of modern noraebang where you can sing virtually everything, none of the clumsy old school remotes with song catalogs a select few can understand. She’s typing on the screen, blue and purple glittering across her lashes. “Okay Ending Scene next. Who wants to sing it?” 

 

Her eyes land on Jeongguk and there’s no way she knows , but it’s like she does anyway and can see the soft eggshell of his heart, every poster and signed album Jeongguk had growing up, every tear he pressed to his pillowcase Jeongguk didn’t understand, because he didn’t understand it, why it hurt so much to listen to her, to hear her words when he didn’t understand them, not really, not when he’d never been in love. 

 

Or maybe she glances his way because Taehyung is next to him, their knees almost touching, exactly where he’s been since he and Pablo sang a hilarious yet oddly serious duet of You Give Love A Bad Name Jeongguk made sure he had enough space on his phone to record in its entirety. 

 

“I don’t know the words to that one,” Pablo protests like he’s the one being stared down. 

 

Katya rolls her eyes, nurses a peach soju. “That’s what the lyrics monitor is for. Seriously, money is wasted on the rich, I swear-”

 

Taehyung shifts and slouches further into the couch. His clothes are a little rumpled, hair sticking up in the back. Careless with his appearance, like he’s too confident to care, the smile he wears softening him. 

 

Jeongguk reaches for a bottle. He doesn’t drink. He stares at the cushion, Taehyung’s knuckles an explosion of glitter. There’s exactly enough space for one and a half of Jeongguk’s hands between them, one and a little less of Taehyung’s. 

 

The music from the other private rooms makes the walls shake. It makes Jeongguk’s heart shake, the idea of anyone else singing that song, and at this point in the night he’s way past tipsy Jeongguk, way past the Jeongguk who cares. 

 

He stumbles off the couch, feels the ghost of a hand going to steady him. But Jeongguk is steady, so steady in this moment, liquid courage a balm for his shaky heart. 

 

Joohyun hands him the mic with a grin and it can’t be that she knows that he once thought he would make a life out of this, music and singing and a stage, his melodies under someone’s else’s fingers, their words in his mouth, but maybe she can just tell the tender hearted thing he is, through stories Taehyung might have told her or the few times she’s seen him with his kid. Maybe people look at Jeongguk and just know, there he goes, tender hearted boy.  

 

The light machine flickers and the glittering lights start to blink. He meets eyes with Taehyung, taking up exactly the same amount of space, and he looks like something out of a fairytale, the little sparks of shimmery color spiraling on his hair and cheekbones, all around him too, an old folk tale he might read to Jinhyung, an elven king covered in magic dust. Except Taehyung isn’t magic. Taehyung is very real, the very realest thing Jeongguk has known in a while. 

 

The music starts.

 

Jeongguk closes his eyes without thinking, sways. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t scare him, to stand in front of a crowd as small as it is, to puncture an old severed wound, gather enough air in his lungs, the lights warm and making him glitter too, and he wonders why he ever resisted in the first place. 

 

Hello, it’s been a while 

 

It’s been a while. Jeongguk knows these words well. He wants to be strong, to live up to those words. 

 

It doesn’t hurt after all. To bleed.

 

Hello, it’s been a while.

 

A hush falls over the room. The walls tremble. Jeongguk’s heart trembles. 

 

He sings. 




---




“If I ask you something will you get upset.”

 

The street is deserted. It’s quiet with that weird time between early morning and late night. 

 

Jeongguk’s spine is wobbly. His tongue tastes like honey, but now it’s sour and spiced and smoked out and too sweet too. He focuses on placing one foot in front of the other, the sidewalk catching him each time he steps too hard, almost trips. 

 

“Huh? Did you know that being tipsy makes you feel like you’re floating?”

 

He can’t see Taehyung’s smile, but he can hear it, like a change in the atmosphere, like a disturbance in the universe, the good kind, a sign that hope is coming. “No, I can’t say it’s felt like that for me. Usually it makes me sad. Think too much. Or get really giggly.”

 

Jeongguk stops, feet stacked. His balance trembles, but he sticks the landing to frown at Taehyung. “Then you shouldn't drink ever again. Don’t be sad. Ever.”

 

There’s a gust of breath, the corners of Taehyung’s mouth lifting. “Yes, sir . Are you ignoring my question?”

 

“Really? That easy?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. “Easy enough.”

 

Jeongguk nods his agreement. He takes a step, underestimates his own brute force. Taehyung catches him in time, his hand aiming for his elbow, fingers ending up wrapped up around Jeongguk’s ribcage. A breath bursts out of Jeongguk’s lungs. He laughs and right his swaying body in Taehyung’s steady grip. “Oops. Thank you. You’ve got safety hands.”

 

Taehyung looks at him funny, gives another breathy laugh. This close, Jeongguk can feel it against his face, the way the laughter thrums through Taehyung’s hands, lands in Jeongguk’s ribs. “I’ve got what?”

 

“Safe. I meant safe,” Jeongguk says. He blinks too many times too fast, feels dizzy for the first time all night. All the glitter lights are gone and Taehyung’s eyes are too sun-like, as if all the light has been absorbed inside them. “Sorry, it’s just my waist feels naked with your hand touching me like that.”

 

Taehyung lets him go like he’s been burned. He takes a step back. Clears his throat. “Sorry.”

 

Jeongguk stares at him sideways. He wonders what he’s apologizing about. If he’d put his hand back if Jeongguk asked. 

 

He blinks once, long and slow. He wonders how tipsy he still is. Says, “It wasn’t a question.”

 

“What?”

 

“What you said. Wasn’t a question. It sounded like you were talking to yourself or thinking out loud.”

 

Taehyung bites his lower lip, eyebrows flat, and Jeongguk is endlessly fascinated by it, the moments when he shows he’s thinking the words through, looking for the right ones. Knowing what he does about him now it’s all sorts of amazing, the strength of the human brain, of a human person. “Maybe I was,” he says, evasive in that way only he can pull off, infuriating on anyone else. “Can I ask?”

 

Jeongguk thinks he’d let Taehyung ask him anything. Taehyung has taken care of the most important thing in Jeongguk’s life a few times over. It’s the least Jeongguk can give him in turn. He nods. 

 

“Back when- when we were first starting to know each other you said your brother was the only musical genius between you. That wasn’t true, was it?”

 

For a second too long, Jeongguk is quiet. He wonders why he feels naked everywhere now. Maybe that’s just the way Taehyung looks at people, like they’re all bare bones, transparent minds, hearts unmasked. Maybe Jeongguk just hasn’t noticed. “What makes you think that?”

 

For a second too long, Taehyung looks speechless. He looks like it’s so obvious and it’s in his voice when he says, “The way you sang tonight,” like that says it all. 

 

It must because Jeongguk winds his arms around himself, suddenly shivery and cold. “Hyung’s the one with the music degree. The big shot producer. You know they call him the golden ticket for idol groups? He has the most first time wins for a single producer. It’s a record. One of the OST’s he wrote three years ago is still charting on weekly charts. He’s handled publishing deals for groups here in the U.S.. And now he’s just producing full time. Doing the thing he loves. I’m not,” he stops and he’s talked a lot. It feels like a lot. It feels like the words are making him dizzy. He looks up and finds Taehyung watching him, nothing on his face, and Jeongguk feels both dizzier and not. “I’m not jealous or anything like that. Or… I’m proud of him. I’m so proud to call him my hyung.”

 

“I know,” Taehyung says, voice low, something appeasing about it.

 

“It’s just… I came here to sing. To America, I mean. I thought about joining an idol group back home even though dad gave hyung hell when he told him he was going to be a producer. I think by the time it was my turn for college, dad was tired… of life, of being a dad, maybe? I don’t know. But he was okay with me studying music by then. Said he was proud I’d gotten into an American university.” 

 

“And your mom? What did she think?”

 

Jeongguk gives a small smile and it feels jagged on his mouth, cruel. “Mom has always gone along with whatever dad decided.” Taehyung doesn’t say anything so he holds himself tighter and says, “But I really just wanted to come here because of Yoongi-hyung. I always wanted to be just like him when I was little. Even if things would be harder here. Being Asian and a singer in the industry is still so tough like that here, you know? But I thought, I’ll study. Get a good degree. Go home after. But then…”

 

“... but then,” Taehyung echoes and it seems like that will be that, his curiosity or whatever it is satiated and Jeongguk can go back to the floaty feeling for the next few minutes he’ll be okay with feeling it. He starts walking again, one foot in front of the other on the edge of the sidewalk, arms extending to keep his balance and he thinks he loves the floaty feeling and like maybe it wouldn’t be wrong to feel it every so often, some Friday nights, some Sunday mornings. 

 

“I’ve never seen you look that way.”

 

Jeongguk looks over his shoulder. Taehyung is right where he left him, standing in the space between the curb and the asphalt, and the look on his face is one Jeongguk doesn’t think he’s seen before, on Taehyung or anyone else. 

 

Lowering his arms, he asks, “What?”

 

“At the noraebang. When you were singing. Not just your face but everything about you. I’m pressed to think of anyone else who’s looked the way you did then.”

 

“What way’s that?”

 

“You just looked… so wholly and unequivocally and completely yourself.”

 

Something freezes inside of Jeongguk, his entire body. He finds it hard to move, to breathe, the way it feels like Taehyung has shoved his hands inside his ribcage, right between the bones and like he’s dug into Jeongguk’s softest most vulnerable bits. 

 

Taehyung’s brow pinches, but only for a second. “And you just told me that story like you’re over it, but- and I’m sorry if I’m overstepping but- it doesn’t sound like you are.”

 

Horribly, Jeongguk’s throat constricts but it’s not tears. Childishly, he glares at Taehyung, and it feels so horrible, to be angry but at him specifically. “Not everything is some story, you know? Sometimes it’s just someone’s life.”

 

“I know,” Taehyung says, and he smiles sadly, so gently there isn’t anything pitying about it, and the anger bubbling inside of Jeongguk turns into how he could have ever thought he was stupid, how could anyone have made him feel like he was for even a second, “We just have a tendency to turn our lives into them.”

 

And with that the anger pops like a balloon. It deflates inside of Jeongguk and it feels less like Taehyung has sunk vicious claws into him and more like he’s carefully wrapped his hands around Jeongguk’s ribs, readjusted them where they’re supposed to be and this doesn’t feel horrible, makes a lot more sense to Jeongguk. He doesn’t think Taehyung could be vicious even if he tried. Voice small, childish in a different way, he asks, “Does it even matter anymore if I’m not? Over it?”

 

“Of course it matters. It can always matter.”

 

Jeongguk’s phone pings. He groans when he sees the messages, a few newer ones the bluish light from his screen hurting his eyes. 

 

(02:35) if you’re not coming home send a poop emoji twice    

            remember 

            no glove no love

 

(02:49) joon stole my phone

            but were my initial slightly jealous instincts right? tae didn’t murder you did he?

 

Jeongguk sends a blurry selfie and an approximate arrival time as a response and puts his phone on silent. 

 

“Yoongi,” he says at Taehyung’s questioning glance. “Wondering when I’ll be back.”

 

“Oh. Guess I better hurry up and get you home then.”

 

“I thought you already were.”

 

“Sure, but at the pace were going, we’re not really trying to get home. It’s just the place we’ll end up. We’d have to put some juice in it, a pep in our step. But I think if we did that, you’d fall over and I cannot have that.”

 

“Why? Can’t stand to see me hurt?” Jeongguk asks, going for cheeky, trying to lighten the mood because Taehyung obviously is. He aims a bro-y elbow at Taehyung’s side, ends up sounding cocky and losing his balance. 

 

Taehyung steadies him by the elbow. “Of course. But I also don’t know if I’d be able to pick you back up.”

 

Jeongguk finds his center in Taehyung’s hold, the grounding weight of it. “Think you’d manage it okay.” 

 

Taehyung hums. Their soles echo as they start walking again. “He worries about you a lot.”

 

“Yeah. He always has. Hyung, you know ? I used to not get it. You get it, of course. But now, you know.”

 

“Now you get it more than anyone?”

 

“Now I get it more than I ever thought I would. He kept sending me updates all night. Pictures of Jinhyung.” 

 

“Yeah?” Taehyung asks, encouraging. 

 

Jeongguk feels a little dizzy again despite the sobering conversation. He’ll give into the floaty feeling for now. He’s glad Taehyung’s fingers are still wrapped around his elbow, the lightest of pressure. 

 

“Yeah.” He doesn’t ask if Taehyung wants to see, takes out his phone and scrolls through the pictures, the five second video of Jinhyung dancing to The X-Files theme song, wearing the empty bowl of chips like a hat, holding his bubble bath covered rubber penguin to a surprised Namjoon’s mouth. He’s already seen them, but the sweetest warmth floods his insides. Like fairy dust is real. Like he could float himself home. 

 

“He is criminally adorable,” Taehyung says, face sweet. “How long before he realizes he has everyone wrapped around his pinky?”

 

“Oh, he knows. He knows .”

 

Taehyung laughs. “That was nice of Yoongi. Keeping you updated like that.”

 

“Mhmmm,” Jeongguk hums, content. 

 

“He and Namjoon will make really great parents some day.”

 

“Yeah.” Jeongguk steps too quickly, regains his own balance this time. Taehyung’s already slack grip gentles. Jeongguk hums some more, the song Trin had sung, some 70’s ballad Jeongguk hadn’t heard before. “They were going to adopt him.”

 

The street they walk along is dotted by trees. Residential, the noise from the bars blocks away. Dozens of perfect little townhouses, quiet tiny lives rested for sleep. 

 

“Yoongi and Namjoon,” he says when the silence stretches for another block, falls into the cracks between.

 

Taehyung’s breaths are audible, deep. They fill the quiet. He doesn’t say anything, gives Jeongguk’s arm the gentlest squeeze, thumb pressed where it’s softest, right over a vein. 

 

“Jisun’s parents didn’t know. They didn’t care what happened to the baby, just for it to have nothing to do with their daughter. Yoongi-hyung and Namjoon-hyung had started talking about raising a family, having a baby. They’d been married already for so long, together for longer. Adoption was always going to be easier here than back home. It’s legal, for one. All the ones. But it was still really hard for them despite the money and the apartment and jobs. So it all lined up in a messed up way. Us having a baby neither of us were ready for or wanted. It was perfect. Giving something that meant so much to my brother. Providing for him the way he always had for me, in a different way. Being the older brother for once almost. Like I was finally going to know what it felt like.”

 

The houses are starting to look familiar. They pass the coffee cart by the park Jeongguk has never stopped at. 

 

Taehyung remains quiet and Jeongguk feels his hand on his elbow like a stone, swallows loudly. His mouth feels stale now, dry. He might not be cut out for many nights like this one. Maybe a few, maybe just this one. This one he won’t regret, the lights and the laughs and the words, the different ways people say things, ones Jeongguk thought he’d forgotten and weren’t for him anymore. 

 

“But then… you know but then,” he says, because Taehyung does know the rest of it, possibly already knew this other part too, pieced it together himself. “When I went to tell them, hyung said he already knew. He said he knew from the moment he saw me look at him. He knew before I did.” 

 

Their building is in view now, the light next to the front door on, vapory light coming from the first floor, the second story window lit up too. It really is the perfect little dream home as Taehyung once put it, like something from a story, a fairy tale. 

 

“We haven’t mentioned it since. He just moved on. Like it was never a possibility. And some days I feel so guilty I can’t look at him. Or at Namjoon-hyung. But most days, I just want to live up to him. The kind of dad he would have been. The kind of dad I know he’ll be.” 

 

It’s another half block before Taehyung speaks and Jeongguk can’t tell if he’s still tipsy or drunk, if he’s totally sober, but it doesn’t bother him. He finds it comforting, warm. Maybe that’s Taehyung’s calming breath, his fingers careful but there on Jeongguk’s arm just in case he really is drunk, if the floaty feeling turns out to be too much. 

 

“What’d I tell you,” Taehyung says as they reach the apartment and he isn’t perfect, no one is, his words aren’t either, but they feel that way, he feels that way, when he tells Jeongguk, “Strongest person I know.”

 

And maybe Taehyung is a little magic and maybe Jeongguk really is floating after all. 




---

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---



“Can you say water?”

 

Ba-wa ?”

 

“Wwwwa-ter. Water. Like wuuu. Water.”

 

Ba-ta ?”

 

The line inches forward and Jinhyung moves first, his hand in Jeongguk’s. The shop is busy for an early Sunday but Jinhyung had been enthralled by the colors when they walked by the window, sleepy eyes suddenly curious and alight.  

 

Jeongguk swings their hands, asks. “What about mul ? Can you say mul ?”

 

Buuuu !”

 

Jinhyung drags the toe of his toddler sneakers against the laminate floor as he jumps in place. He staggers and Jeongguk grabs his other hand, twirls him in place. Jinhyung bursts into laughter, chanting ba! ba! ba! and the set of Jeongguk’s shoulders eases, the too familiar sound music to his ears.  

 

The trio of women behind him make noises of adoration and the older couple at a side table smile with fondness. Jinhyung doesn’t mind the attention, becomes fascinated with a dangling strap from Jeongguk’s backpack, the shop’s different textures of green flooring, a girl running with her dog along the sidewalk. 

 

The dog ends up being the catalyst, and one second Jeongguk has his right hand gripped, the next he’s grasping at air. Jinhyung races for the open door of the shop as a few people walk in, the perfect getaway. 

 

“Jinhyung-ah!”

 

It shouldn’t be so terrifying to Jeongguk’s sleep addled brain, his kid running off. He can’t go far, his legs aren’t quite there yet. But the traffic is loud outside, cars flowing, flooring it the second they get the chance, and Jeongguk’s heart trips out of his mouth, bottoms his stomach out. 

 

“Oh, shit!”

 

“Hey, close the door!”

 

“Watch for the kid!”

 

Someone says, “Oh, hey,” and then Jinhyung is off the ground, swung up into strong arms sideways, head dangling downward. 

 

Thankful somewhere in the back of his mind, Jeongguk sees red, his kid being manhandled like that, and he’s striding forward, ready to tell the guy off, when he says, 

 

“Where do you think you’re going, buddy?”

 

Jinhyung’s giggles are like bubbles, light and airy. He kicks his feet happily and says, “Btae-btae- btae !” 

 

Jeongguk slumps, red giving way to yellow. Says, “Hey.”

 

The door swings shut. 

 

“Hey,” says Taehyung. “Looks like we got a runner.” He rights Jinhyung in his arms, passes him over when Jeongguk is close enough. 

 

Jeongguk sets him down, Jinhyung’s sneakers squeaking. Voice firm, he squats and makes sure Jinhyung is looking at him as he says, “You can’t run from appa . No running unless appa says so, okay?”

 

Jinhyung nods at him but he’s reaching behind himself and patting at Taehyung’s knee, pulling on the fabric of his joggers like he’s asking for back-up. 

 

Jeongguk sighs, figures that’s good enough. He looks up at Taehyung, asks, “Are you just getting back from the gym?” It’s obvious he is, dressed in sweatpants and a windbreaker, the light sheen of sweat the cold weather hasn’t fully dried. 

 

Taehyung nods, lets Jinhyung yank on his pants, grapple at his fingers. He keeps reaching up for Taehyung’s wrist, bending back the leather flat of Taehyung’s watch. Taehyung lets him, ruffles his hair. “Yeah. I was heading back to the apartment when I saw this place. Never noticed it before. I’ve finally accepted I’m not a juicing person, but these bowls sure look pretty.”

 

Jeongguk bites back a smile. “Funny. Jinhyung thought the same.”

 

“Man of good taste, your kid. Life is really all about the aesthetics.” He nods at the line. “You want to-”

 

The trio of women he was in front of let them reclaim Jeongguk’s spot. Jeongguk tries refusing it but in the end he has a volatile two year old with a craving for green fruit schmoop and a long week ahead so he doesn’t refuse too long. The line has moved by two people in the commotion, but the group doesn’t seem to mind, seems to mind it less when Taehyung smiles his thanks. 

 

The three of them forming their own little trio, Jinhyung wandering off to inspect the flooring again, Jeongguk bopping his head to the lofi jangling through the speakers, Taehyung keeping the silence. 

 

He breaks it to say, “You guys look like you’re all geared up for an adventure.” 

 

Jeongguk pulls the zipper of his tracksuit down. Zips it back up. “We’re going on a hike. They opened up that new trail off the green line.”

 

“Ah. Nice. Have you taken him out before?”

 

“A few times. Not as many as I’d like. I spent so much time outside as a kid. Even when I was his age. He doesn’t really get to do that here. I want that for him too, you know?”

 

Taehyung gestures toward himself. The strap of his watch has slipped from its fastening. It’s all bent out of shape, the weak leather victim to Jinhyung’s tugging. “Farm kid. I get it.”

 

“Is that why- I mean, all the plants?”

 

“Sure. Subconsciously.”

 

The line inches forward. 

 

“And consciously?” Jeongguk asks. 

 

“I just like plants. They’re very aesthetic. Great air purifiers but you already know that.”

 

Jeongguk laughs and Taehyung raises his brows, a half smile morphing his face, unsure. He feels nervous, tense. He can’t shake the feeling lately with Taehyung even though nothing about Taehyung is nerve inducing, he usually evaporates the tension in a room instead of causing it. 

 

Absently, he looks down and toes the floor with his heel, tugs on the zipper at his chest again, fingers jittery. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t say anything either. 

 

They move up the line again, one person off from ordering. 

 

Jinhyung waddles back. He stops in front of Taehyung, arms extended to make his demand clear. Taehyung shoots him a quick glance, but Jeongguk just nods, watches Taehyung adjust Jinhyung on his hip, mindful of the extra weight on his shoulder with the bag he uses for the gym. Jinhyung sighs, rests his cheek against Taehyung’s opposite shoulder. 

 

Jeongguk uses the opportunity to wipe Jinhyung’s hands. He’ll get another sudden burst of energy soon, hopefully for when they eat, probably to touch the floor all over again before then, but he looks tuckered out for now. He looks safe, comforted in Taehyung’s arms, and the little green monster Jeongguk keeps expecting to feel at how eased his kid looks in someone else’s arms never comes.  


He places the used wipes in the pocket of his bag. “Do you have something to do now?”

 

Taehyung’s mouth quirks. “Consciously? My workload says yes.”

 

“Oh. Ok-”

 

“Subconsciously, though,” Taehyung says and pauses. Jinhyung stirs in his hold, mumbles, Ba-ba ? and reaches for Jeongguk. Jeongguk reaches for him, the side of his body brushing Taehyung’s, and it’s easy too, the full feeling that unfurls under his ribs, sweet and hot and honeyed too. Taehyung adjusts the set of Jeongguk’s backpack strap, smooths down the tuft of hair at the back of Jinhyung’s head. “It’s Sunday so my coursework can have a Freudian slip.”

 

“Oh. Okay,” Jeongguk says. He presses his cheek to Jinhyung’s temple and asks, “Wanna come on an adventure with us?”

 

The mid-morning sun beams through the window, 

 

Taehyung says, “Yes.”   




---




The canopy above them is green and endless. Beyond it, the city is almost silent, forgotten, a relic of the present. 

 

Jeongguk watches little feet press into the mud and crunch leaves, little hands touching every leaf within reach, the bark of an aging sycamore, scooping water from a small lake, big eyes watch a squirrel race up a tree, a red winged bird take flight, the sun hide among the branches. 

 

“He’s a natural at shinrin-yoku .” 

 

They’re stooped over a fallen log, Taehyung peering inside it to make sure an animal isn’t sleeping inside, Jinhyung turning this way and that between his arms to watch a beetle crawl in loop-de-loops along the grain. He pets at the wood and at Taehyung’s arm to make sure he’s watching, gasping whenever the beetle changes course, looks to fall off but never does. 

 

Frowning, Jeongguk asks, “Shinrin?”

 

“Yoku,” Taehyung says. He extends his hand so the beetle walks onto his finger, lets it zig-zag across his palm while Jinhyung looks on, eyes round. “Forest bathing literally but it means to take in the forest, or nature, with all the senses. Sight, smell, touch, sound, taste. Some people believe we have more than five.”

 

Jeongguk watches the beetle traverse the length of Taehyung’s wrist, watches Jinhyung curiously lift a finger to Taehyung’s pinky, dwarfing his tiny finger. “Hmm. I don’t know about a sixth sense but he did try to eat a cherry tree leaf earlier.”

 

Over Jinhyung’s head, Taehyung grins at him and JInhyung coos when the beetle stops in Taehyung’s cupped palm, its bright blue shell almost glowing in the shaded light. 

 

“Ba-ba-ba!”

 

“Yeah, it’s a bug. Can you say bug?” 

 

“B-b-bu!”

 

Jeongguk sighs but smiles, pokes his finger lightly into Jinhyung’s dimple, laughs gently as he squirms, pushes into Taehyung’s chest to get away. He gives a little sigh, points to his mouth then to Jeongguk’s backpack. 

 

Taehyung laughs lowly, takes Jinhyung’s weight without protest. He puts his hand to the log and the beetle crawls onto it, goes right back to his loop-de-loops. “Guess it’s nap time? Or snack time? Or both?”

 

They walk the path back and the leaves seem greener, the sound of water flowing louder, the light warmer, the cherry sweeter this time. Jinhyung’s hand is muddy in his, the sounds of the city flowing in the closer they get to the entrance of the trail, and he wonders if it’s possible to bathe in a city, if it’s something anyone should want to do. 

 

“Thanks for coming with us,” he says at a crosswalk, the light flashing red. 

 

Taehyung smiles, doesn’t seem to mind Jinhyung clinging to his pant-leg with his other hand, the grey washed in brown. “Thanks for inviting me. Sorry if I crashed father-son bonding time.”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head but before he can wave the apology away he finds himself saying, “I’m sorry. About things lately. I know it’s been… or I’ve been awkward.”

 

“Have you?” Taehyung asks, an easy out. 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t take it. “You know I’ve been.”

 

The flow of cars stops, the crosswalk signaling pedestrians can walk. Taehyung waits until they cross and another half block to say, “That night was a lot. Maybe you were right. Maybe you weren’t ready for it. You drank a lot but you seemed happy. Free, maybe. Perhaps I should have stopped you but it didn’t seem my place. You’re an adult. You know your limits, but if you said anything to me you regret or wish I didn’t now know-”

 

“I didn’t.” When Taehyung stares at him, his hands full of the collection of leaves and rocks Jinhyung had picked up off the trail-forest floor, Jeongguk adds, “I don’t. I just feel…” He feels cut open, flayed, like all his insides are out on display all the time now. “I mean, you don’t see me differently now?” he asks and he means the kind of person who gives up on dreams, lives with carefully disguised resentments and jealousies, selfish kid who doesn’t like to share, someone capable of some terrible ugly things. 

 

“Sure,” Taehyung says, transferring the berry twigs and acorn halves to the flap of his gym bag so Jinhyung, who without letting go of Jeongguk’s fingers has been reaching for Taehyung’s, can hold his hand at the next crosswalk, “But different doesn’t mean bad. I feel like I know you better now. Besides, don’t you see me differently too?”

 

Jeongguk sees the canopies of green. The taste or tart cherries. The drone of the city. The dirt caked between his fingers and the fingers of his heart, those tinier fingers against his. He sees someone who faces life’s challenges with heart, teeth first, not out of viciousness, but because that’s the way you get to savor as much as you can of it. 

 

The crosswalk changes again and the trees of the city are less canopy-like, but just as green. 

 

 

 

---



“I need a favor,” Yoongi says. 

 

Jeongguk isn’t work- working. He isn’t becoming one of those people. The morning had been the opposite of lazy, Jinhyung refusing to touch his breakfast then getting upset when Jeongguk had stopped trying to coax him to eat. He’d eaten almost begrudgingly, then made an uncharacteristic mess of his toys in the living room before tearing up in exhaustion despite the full night sleep he’d woken up from a few hours ago. 

 

Now, the house is quiet, a lazy afternoon on the couch with not -work- work . Typing, he says, “Sure, what’s up?”

 

“Where’s Namjoon?”

 

“He took Jinhyung to the museum.”

 

“Was that a good idea? He was in a mood this morning.”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. “It’s the children science museum so it should be okay.” He swipes to a different screen, a different set of numbers. “Taehyung went with them.”

 

“Oh. Good.”

 

He looks up. Raises a brow at his brother. 

 

Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Quit being so stuck up. I like the guy.”

 

“I’m not stuck u-”

 

“You like him too.”

 

Scratching at his jaw, Jeongguk focuses back on his screen. “I’ve always liked him,” he says. His face feels warm. The heating in the house is old, the way it tends to be with places like this, old limestone and wood, time. “Didn’t you have a favor to beg for?” 

 

Yoongi doesn’t rise to the bait. “I need you to guide.”

 

It takes Jeongguk three seconds shorter than it should to realize what Yoongi means. “...hyung.”

 

“I know.” Yoongi’s expression is resolute despite the hesitance in his voice, the sorriness of him right now. “I know. But I’ve been breaking my head for weeks on this. I’d do it but it’s way out of my range and taking it down makes it sound off.”

 

Jeongguk says nothing, watches the strain on his brother’s face, the endlessly tired eyes. He always looks so tired now, looks like he never sleeps, but he can’t remember the last time he saw Yoongi so happy with it, the lack of rest, a fullness to the way he carries himself. 

 

“It’s very high. I’ve tried other singers for the demo but no one sounds right and I thought of you and just- it sounds like it should be you.” 

 

The heating kicks on, the radiator clanking. This winter has been a long one. Just when it seems like the cold front is gone, they get another day like this one. 

 

“You can say no,” Yoongi says, and Jeongguk doesn’t doubt it. He could say no and Yoongi say another word. Would accept it with grace. What’s Jeongguk’s is Jeongguk’s. His time. His voice. His kid. 

 

“Okay,” he says.

 

“Really? You sure?” Yoongi asks, and disbelief colors his voice, shock and guilt and all the other hundreds of emotions that can exist between brothers. “Because-”

 

“Hyung.” He shuts his laptop closed, unwinds himself from his blanket cocoon. “I’ll do it. It’s okay.”

 

It’s enough for Yoongi. He fetches their coats and they step into their boots, walk the five blocks to the studio he rents. He and Namjoon share the home studio they built in one of the spare rooms now but Yoongi works here more often than not. It’s good for him and Namjoon to have their own space, he’d said when Jeongguk had asked why spend the money on rent, and he thinks he’d never leave the house if he worked from home. Namjoon with his love of walks and bikes and parks and little coffee shops doesn’t have to worry about finding an excuse to leave the house. 

 

The recording studio is kept cool, the basement of a mid-century industrial building that’s been converted into an office share space, a cycling studio, a pop up gallery for rotating exhibitions. 

 

Jeongguk sits where Yoongi tells him to. He holds the headphones Yoongi hands him a little too tightly and blinks at the bright white lights above him, a bluish undertone to the halogen bulbs. 

 

Yoongi hits a few keys on his computer, his recording software filling the screen in electronic bars and sections, the vocals, the base, the drums, the melody. His setup is simple. The sound board. Desk stocked with his midi’s, enough canned coffee to drink anyone into a caffeine comma, and tubs of brightly colored cereal. Jeongguk spots an unopened pack of diapers on a low shelf, a pink sippy cup, and the chances of Jinhyung ever being here are nill, but something warm thrums through Jeongguk at his brother’s preparedness. 

 

He looks at his brother with soft eyes. “What’s the song about?” Jeongguk finally asks. He studies the criss cross mesh covering the microphone and it’s so far away yet familiar, the cold metal press of its warmth against his mouth, his voice. 

 

The wheels on Yoongi’s chair roll, get stuck on a carpet edge. He hands Jeongguk his phone, a note page with words in neat rows. 

 

“It’s about growing up,” he says. He hits another few buttons, adjusts the mic. “We’re just gonna do a run through first. Get your voice synched up. Don’t focus so much on singing but listening. You ready?”

 

He hasn’t sung, not for real, not on purpose, with a purpose, for a very long time. 

 

He’s been trying to grow up for what feels like even longer. 

 

He doesn’t think he’s any closer, or further, from either of them. 

 

“No,” Jeongguk says honestly, ignores the look on his brother’s face and reaches forward, skirts over his brother's hand, and presses play. 




---




Three weeks after Jinhyung’s third birthday someone says, “Oh. And he’s not talking yet?”

 

Yoongi’s face goes sour fast so Jeongguk pastes a smile on his own. There’s no ill intent in the question, he doesn’t think, just that open curiosity older folk no longer seem the need to hold back. He’s been a serviceable waiter, didn’t fuss at Jinhyung’s wandering hands trying to reach for his shiny pocket watch, showed him how it worked instead, smiled endeared at Jinhyung awing in delight at every mechanical click. “Not yet. He vocalizes a lot, though.”

 

Jinhyung reinforces this by yelling “ Bam-pay!” from where he’s sitting on Taehyung’s lap, patiently waiting while Jeongguk cuts his pancakes into the appropriate bite-sized pieces. The highchair they requested has been sitting empty for most of brunch, Jinhyung playing musical chairs with everyone’s laps instead. 

 

The waiter gives a nod, thoughtful. He refills Namjoon’s glass. “I’m sure it’ll come along soon. He’ll be talking your ears off before you know it,” he says with a kind smile before heading to another table. 

 

“He kind of brings up a good point,” Namjoon says after a bout of silence. He’s been nursing a bloody mary for the last half hour, the scent of over ripened tomatoes and vodka washing over the table. Jeongguk has been repressing the urge to puke. “He should be saying at least some words by now.”

 

Yoongi stabs at his omelette. “Kid’ll talk when he’s ready. What’s the fucking rush?”

 

“There are developmental milestones he should be hitting is all I’m saying.”

 

Joon .”

 

The pancake is now more than bite sized. Jeongguk keeps cutting, silverware scratching the plate. Tension leaks from the other side of the table, a silent exchange he isn’t a part of despite the conversation topic. 

 

Taehyung turns up the volume on his phone. He’s playing another video from the Freeschool channel, this time about the history of Stonehenge. Jinhyung picked it himself and even though it’s meant for older kids he seems to follow along somewhat, pausing the video to count the number of stones whenever the aerial shots change.  

 

He does so now, counting, “ Ba, ba, ba, ba .” He looks back up at Taehyung, grabs Taehyung’s free hand on the table and guides it to the screen with his own. 

 

“You wanna count together? ‘kay,” Taehyung says, voice as deep and alert as usual. The older Jinhyung gets the less inclined he is to baby-talk him which seems to be the inverse of most people. 

 

Namjoon is saying, “I just mean because he’s been hitting so many others. He obviously wants to talk.”

 

“Then he’ll make sense to us idiots whenever he wants to then.” 

 

Jinhyung unpauses the video. He keeps Taehyung’s hand in his hold, pulls at the loose strap of his watch and kicks his feet softly against Taehyung’s knees. 

 

Jeongguk sets the knife and fork down. He makes a show of showing off the plate, saying, “Ready to eat, Jinhyung-ah?”

 

Jinhyung turns to him immediately, mouth wide, hands clapping in excitement. Jeongguk reaches over to pluck him out of Taehyung’s lap and Jinhyung stops, fingers shooting backward to grab at Taehyung’s shirt and shaking his head. 

 

“What. You were hungry two seconds ago. Don’t you wanna come eat? Food? Hungry?” Jeongguk asks, hands held out. 

 

Jinhyung seems to think it over. He shakes his head again. 

 

Jeongguk sighs. “You have to eat, baby.”

 

B-tae .” 

 

“Yeah, I got that, but Taehyung has to eat too,” he says, eyeing Taehyung’s untouched burger, the egg on top running yolk all over the plate. “You either come back to appa or sit in your chair again.” He points to the side of the plastic booster seat for emphasis. 

 

Jinhyung doubles down, fingers wrinkling the fabric of Taehyung’s t-shirt. “ Bo ba-ba ! B-tae !”

 

“Hey,” Taehyung says, a gentle chide in his tone. He lets Jinhyung tug at his shirt, but says, “Don’t you wanna eat, bud? You have to listen to your dad.”

 

The look of utter betrayal on Jinhyung’s face is so heartbreaking Jeongguk almost gives in, lets Taehyung feed him because of course Taehyung wouldn’t mind. It’s there in his careful hand at Jinhyung’s side, his soft voice. It’s there in the fact that it’s Taehyung. 

 

But Jinhyung already had a meltdown this morning over which velcro strapped shoes he would wear and he’s been pushing the limits lately, seeing how far Jeongguk’s give goes, and it’s fine and it’s normal per all the baby blogs and vlogs Jeongguk has been reading and watching, but he has to put limits somewhere, show him where the line is. 

 

“Listen. You wanna go for a walk around the restaurant? Look at the fish in the big tank again?” Taehyung asks, and he’s looking at Jinhyung, that calming hand on his side, but he’s talking to Jeongguk, an offer in his voice. 

 

Apprehension wars with frustration, his own hunger, and short of being a total pushover or ripping his kid from Taehyung’s arms, he’s at the end of his rope. 

 

Visibly anxious, Jinhyung stares at his own shoes and nods. He peeks at Jeongguk out the corner of his eye, big eyes blinking nervously. 

 

After a second, Jeongguk meets Taehyung’s eye, finds him already staring. He looks like he’s holding a hand out, a white flag in a war that isn’t his. It’s very Switzerland of him. Very Taehyung. 

 

Jeongguk nods. 

 

Taehyung pushes back from the table, sets Jinhyung down before standing and offering his hand. “Come on, bud. Maybe after counting all the purple fish you’ll be open to listening to your daddy,” he says, giving Jeongguk’s shoulder a gentle squeeze as they pass. “Who knows, maybe you’ll even be hungry again!” 

 

Jinhyung babbles something back, the cacophony of brunch goers around them swallowing the soft lilt of his voice. 

 

He’s about a third of the way through his plate when he looks up again, the other side of the table too quiet. 

 

“What?” he asks, muffled. 

 

Namjoon hands him a napkin. “He’s grown really attached to Tae, hasn’t he? More than usual.”

 

“I guess.” Jeongguk dabs at his mouth. Shovels more potato in his mouth. 

 

“That’s unusual for him. The kid, I mean.” 

 

Jeongguk frowns at his brother. “What are you-” he starts to say, stops when he spots a waiter and calls them over. “Sorry, um. Could we get this reheated? Sorry, he’s just… baby dealing.”

 

She takes Taehyung’s plate, the egg yolk gelatinous and slimy. “Honey, if I told you the number of meals I let grow cold dealing with my kids, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ll bring it back when he’s ready,” she says with cheer, a pro to the Saturday rush. 

 

He’s met with more gawked silence. Setting his fork down, he stares at their expressions, the shared look, and his heart sinks. “You think it’s a bad thi-”

 

“No!”

 

“It’s a good thing, Gguk,” Yoongi says, glancing at Namjoon again, and it’s obvious that whatever tension or upset from earlier is gone, at the least forgotten for now. “We’ve been noticing it for a while now but it’s just out of the norm. This is the same kid who screams bloody murder through every doctor examination unless you hold him.”

 

“He’s not as bad anymore.”

 

Yoongi sips at Namjoon’s drink, looks like he half regrets it, places the glass down closer to Namjoon’s plate. “Never said it was. Kid has the bullshit meter of a veteran CIA agent.”

 

“A retired veteran CIA agent.”

 

“Guys-”

 

Namjoon cuts the last of his brioche-croissant-bagel Frankenstein experiment in half and drops the bigger portion next to Yoongi’s omelet. “All we’re saying,” he says. They share a third look and it’s a miracle they aren’t the same person sometimes for how different they are. “Is that it’s good that Jinhyung has another person he trusts. And that it’s someone you can trust him with. Even about the talking thing, he said-”

 

“You’ve talked about this with Taehyung?” Jeongguk asks, arms coming up to cross at his chest.

 

“Yeah,” Namjoon says, even. He spreads nutella over his bread monster. “He lives with us. And this is the sort of stuff he knows about. Was,” he stops, wincing, knife dripping nutella on his sleeve. “Was that not okay?”

 

“I-” Jeongguk starts. There’s an achy feeling in his chest. These aren’t the kinds of conversations he should be left out of, not around for, but he’s not the only one who cares, he isn’t around as much as he wants to be. He breathes out. Picks at his plate. “Yes. I mean, no, it’s okay. What did Taehyung say?”

 

Namjoon sighs, jerks his chin at Yoongi. “Same thing this one said. About there. He’ll talk when he’s ready. But some kids do need a push.” Hazelnut mix coats Namjoon’s chin, his eyes widening in worry like the bloody mary is hitting him differently now. “I wasn’t trying to say- I love him, I just want what’s best for him, you know? I’d never imply-”

 

“Hyung-”

 

“He’s so smart, it’s obvious, but I’d never put pressure on him to- anything. I just-”

 

“We know, Joon-ah,” Yoongi says, voice softer than earlier, the nickname he saves for very early mornings in the kitchen, when half asleep and cranky on the couch and doesn’t care who is around. “Right?”

 

Jeongguk nods, goes to reassure Namjoon, but his attention is pulled up by the sound of light pattering feet, animated chatter. 

 

Jinhyung is charging with Taehyung in tow who is stagger-walking like Jinhyung really is that strong, enough power to pull along a twenty-something year old man at his whim. 

 

When Jinhyung reaches the table, he lets go, and clambers for Jeongguk’s lap, going, “ Ba ! Ba !”

 

Jeongguk picks him up in less of a heartbeat. He watches his son nuzzle into his chest like they’ve been parted for a day and not five minutes, and any stung or inexplicable happy-sad feelings from earlier seem weightless, forgotten. “Did you have a nice walk? Count the fish?”

 

Bi-bi-ssssi .”

 

“Fishie, mhhhm,” Jeongguk says back, pressing a kiss to his hair. “You hungry now? Pancake?”

 

Jinhyung nods against his front, head bobbing. He turns, readily accepts the fork Jeongguk hands him, takes to the task of feeding himself seriously. 

 

Taehyung is back in his own seat, doesn’t seem to notice his food has gone missing until the waitress from earlier returns, smoke wafting from his plate again. “Here you go, sugar. I freshened up the bun and got the boys in the back to cook you a new egg.”

 

“Oh, wow. Thank you.”

 

“Mhhm. You two take care of that beautiful little boy, you hear?” she says, switching out Namjoon’s empty glass for a fresh one, celery stick a shock of green against red. 

 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Taehyung tells him after he’s eaten half the burger, most of his fries and the remaining part of Namjoon’s uneaten croissant from bakery hell. 

 

Jeongguk could say the same thing. Jinhyung’s feet knock against his knees as he eats, proudly showing Jeongguk each bite he takes. Jeongguk acts the right amount of impressed, gross pancake mush and all. He says, “Your face says otherwise.”

 

“Well, you know what they say about faces.”

 

“And what’s that?”

 

“Well, you know. They say it all.”

 

Yoongi and Namjoon share another look, more of that disgusting Bloody Mary, and Jeongguk wonders what his own face says at this very moment. He wonders if Taehyung can see it too. 




---




“What if there really is something wrong?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“If there’s a reason he won’t talk. What if there’s something… wrong?”

 

Shrieks break out across the park. Water shoots up from timed nozzles in the ground, catch awaiting faces in surprise, shouts of glee ringing loud and high. Spring has been cooler than any of the previous ones Jeongguk has lived through here but the heat of summer stains the air, a promise. The eagerness to say goodbye to the cold is an action of force of will and the clothes for warmer months have been broken out, exposed calves and arms and bright colors, patterns that remind Jeongguk of tropical places, the sea lapping at his ankles. 

 

Taehyung scratches at his bicep, the curve of it sculpted and lithe. He no longer goes to the gym Jeongguk used to work at, has found a home at a different one closer to the university and kept up his routine, first thing in the morning, something green, a call to his father to check in how his own routine is going, exchange stats and heart rates. 

 

Despite the slow-change weather, he’s taken eagerly to the newfound sun, shorts cut off at the knees, arms quickly tanning to a deeper bronze. It’s soft lilac and navy board shorts today as he sprawls on the bench next to Jeongguk, air-drying from his own joyous dash through the splash pad. “If you’re really worried there are different things you can do. Speech therapy. Just to rule stuff out. He’s old enough for Pre-k; daycare. He probably just needs to interact with other kids on a regular basis but,” he says and nothing else. Clicks his tongue. 

 

“But?” Jeongguk pushes. The sun dips over Taehyung’s nose bridge and Jeongguk feels its heat on his nape. He yanks at the top of his tank top, the material swooping low across his chest. He makes a mental note to stock up on baby sunscreen for the coming months. 

 

Head angled, Taehyung skims his gaze across their periphery to look at him. His eyes drop to Jeongguk’s chest, come back up slow. 

 

Kids run all around them, the faint sounds of city traffic from the avenue hidden by the tall line of trees, and Jeongguk wonders how long it takes temperature to drop, for it to rise, for it to burrow under the skin, light up the long hidden forgotten parts of his body. 

 

Taehyung asks, “What are you worried about exactly?”

 

“The same thing I’m always worried about,” Jeongguk says. He looks out at the fountain, the place he’s had at least half an eye on when he hasn’t been in the thick of it himself. Jinhyung is easy to find in his matching teal t-shirt and shorts, the purple floaties he’d insisted on wearing with the penguins on them. He’s crouching over a nozzle, the colored pebbles embedded in the ground calling his curiosity every few seconds, and he roars in laughter when he finally gets sprayed. Some of the other kids his size break out in tears or upset, but he laughs every single time, goes back for more, crows in victory when the sprays are extra big. 

 

He comes up to them after a while, a torrent of sound pouring out of his mouth, overexcited and too fast for Jeongguk to make out. He’s hyper but agreeable as Jeongguk dries him off, wiggles to help shake off the water, makes both Jeongguk and Taehyung laugh and Jeongguk’s heart blooms so full he’s surprised it doesn’t balloon right out of his chest. 

 

“You hungry?” he asks, pulling some snack packs out of his backpack. “Yum yum?”

 

Bum - bum ! Bum - bum !” 

 

“Yeah? Berry? Or Apple?” 

 

Jinhyung taps his index against his lip as he considers. Jeongguk holds back a smile, knows the seriousness of snack picking. 

 

Taehyung lends his support, drums his hands against his thighs, and crows, “And the winner issssss?”

 

Like Jeongguk is going to fake him out, Jinhyung makes his choice, plucks the berry pack from his fingers quickly. He hands it to Taehyung to open it but he clings to Jeongguk’s legs, smiling as he balances on his knees, his floaties puffed up anchors. Taehyung dutifully rips the bag open and offers it back, saying, “Solid choice, bud. Berries are always the way to go.”

 

“Be- bie !”

 

He sits between them as he eats, lays the pack on Jeongguk’s lap and picks the little pieces of fruit at his leisure, pointing at a bird pecking at some scraps as he eats, laughing at nothing, at everything. 

 

Jeongguk holds up the apple pack. Taehyung’s nose wrinkles, sun kissed. Jeongguk shakes his head but he’s smiling, drops it back in his bag and pulls out a berry bar, nothing but fruit. 

 

Taehyung grins, makes grabby hands. Jeongguk laughs and tosses it at him. He catches it easily, ripping into it with the same glee the kids let themselves get sprayed with. “You are really something, anyone ever tell you that?”

 

All the time, Jeongguk thinks. Taehyung offers half the bar. Jeongguk takes it and their fingers brush, the touch nowhere near as hot as the sun but the feel of it seeping under his skin just as brightly. 




---




“How’s your dad?”

 

The late afternoon has taken its time growing dark, sun peeking around the buildings. After the water park it was the city sponsored recycled materials jungle gym, the butterfly garden, a trip to the food carts in and around 16th street. 

 

“He’s great,” Taehyung says with a smile. Jinhyung is asleep on his shoulder, arms secured around his neck. He’s still wearing the floaties. They make these funny squeaking sounds with Taehyung’s steps. “Taking his meds, eating his spinach. They got a new oat hulling machine.” 

 

“Who knew your dad would’ve predicted the oat milk craze?”

 

“He’s a resourceful man, my dad. Guess that happens with five kids. Keeps you on your toes.”

 

“Five boys ,” Jeongguk says, amazed. His backpack is deceptively light on his back and his arms are empty but not hollow, and it feels good, to know he can give his arms a rest, that there are people in his life who don’t mind holding his weight for a bit. His person. “Is that what you want? A big family like that?”

 

Taehyung adjusts Jinhyung in his hold. Jinhyung sniffles into his shirt, lets out a slow deep breath. “I don’t know. Used to.” There’s something strange in Taehyung’s voice. A shyness that doesn’t sound shy, more in the pauses between his syllables. “Now I think the number doesn’t matter. What matters is that I love my kid and take care of them. That the person I love does too.” He looks at Jeongguk, asks, “What about you? You ever think about having more?”

 

Jeongguk lets out a laugh, more awkward than shy. “Yeah, I think I’m good with just the one.”

 

“Not now. But someday. With the… if you meet another right person.”

 

“I-” He grips onto his backpack straps. The spring sun is long and muddled like his thoughts. “I always imagined it all traditional. That I would have kids when I was young but not too young. Stable job and marriage. Two, maybe three. But now that it happened when I was too young I just want to focus on him. I don’t want to divide myself up between multiple siblings and a partner who might love him differently than kids that were biologically ours or that we chose to have together.”

 

Across the street, a group of boys play some kind of card game, screaming at rules broken and foul plays.   

 

“Does that make me selfish? Reverse selfish?” he asks as the silence between them persists, the look on Taehyung’s face hard to decipher. 

 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says eventually. His jaw is set but it isn’t anger. It’s the careful consideration of words held in his mouth, and it strikes Jeongguk with a misplaced suddenness, that he’s known Taehyung for years, almost as long as Jinhyung has been alive and he can differentiate these little quirks about him, his tells. “Does it make you selfish to not have other kids because you’re not sure you can give yourself equally to more than one? Does it make you selfish to deny a partner kids of their own because love is never equal? Does it make you selfish to deny yourself love at all because it won’t live up to the ideal in your head? Does it make you the opposite?” 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t say anything. The yells ring in his ears, his next breath harsh and shamefully fast. 

 

The tension in Taehyung’s jaw eases, his words with it. “I’m not saying you are. I’m not saying you aren’t. I’m saying I don’t know. It depends on what you even think selfish to be. It’s not as black and white as you’re saying it is. I think you make it too complicated sometimes.”

 

“Make what complicated?” Jeongguk asks, trying to keep the bite in his voice down. It comes out hushed anyway, aware of his sleeping baby, of the man who’s never treated him anything except gently. 

 

“Life.”

 

He scoffs. “You’re saying it isn’t?”

 

“Oh, no. It is. I just think that’s reason to not over-complicate it. To just let it be.” When Jeongguk remains silent Taehyung’s eyebrows finally show an emotion, scrunching inward, worried. “What? Am I out of line?”

 

“No,” Jeongguk says. He feels tired all of a sudden, suddenly too soft. “Was just waiting for you to start quoting songs at me or something.”

 

Taehyung laughs, surprised and airy. He looks at Jeongguk over purple plastic, mirth jelly-like in his eyes. “What made you think about my dad?”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. “I always think about your dad. Not always, but, how he’s doing, if he’s okay. You were talking about him this morning, so.” He shrugs again, lifts an arm to press down on the velcro strap on Jinhyung’s shoe. “And when I think about good dads, I think about your’s.”

 

“Did I show you the pictures he sent?” Taehyung asks after a few beats. 

 

“No.”

 

Taehyung fishes his phone out of his side pocket, soothes Jinhyung with quiet murmurs when he stirs. 

 

The first picture is of the new calf they rescued from a nearby dairy farm that closed, her coloring half mixed chocolate milk, her eyes dark and sweet. The second is all metal, machinery and smoke and steam. The last is a sturdy background of green and the old farmhouse, Taehyung’s father at the center with a weathered version of Taehyung’s smile, square and all teeth. His mother stands next to him, face smudged in earth, dandelion florets dotting her hair. And all around them are Taehyung’s brothers, all of them with his same features, like someone captured Taehyung at different stages of life and edited them into the same picture. 

 

“Daesung's getting so tall,” Jeongguk says, smiling. He smiles harder when he sees the messages. 

 

아빠

new machine is great!

the cows miss you honeybear 

us too!

but the cows

 

“Going to be taller than me,” says Taehyung like it’s a point of pride. His little brother, shooting up to the sky. 

 

Jeongguk stares at the picture for a moment longer and it makes so much sense, that image of Taehyung, of family. He looks at Jinhyung, this tiny singular thing against Taehyung’s shoulder. He clears his throat, smiles. Says, “Your mom is so beautiful.”

 

Taehyung clicks his tongue, pockets his phone. “You say that every time. I’m starting to think you have a thing for my mom.”

 

“I do like them older.”

 

Taehyung raises his brows. 

 

Jeongguk looks down, the falling sun’s heat touching his cheeks. “Jinhyung’s mom was older. She was a junior when I was a freshman. Didn’t I tell you that?” 

 

“Hmmm.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Nothing. Hmmm means hmmm.” Taehyung laughs when Jeongguk frowns. “It’s just a sound. Not everything has to have meaning.”

 

“Doesn’t it? Isn’t that what your entire PhD is based on? Sounds and their meaning.”

 

Taehyung hums again, this time in thought and not to infuriate Jeongguk. Probably. “Maybe,” he says. He sweeps Jinhyung’s hair off his forehead with gentle fingers. Plastic squeaks. “So older women, huh?”

 

“Sure,” Jeongguk says with a shrug. He keeps telling himself he’ll offer to take Jinhyung back every other block but he doesn’t want to risk waking him, risk this precarious balance they’re all caught up in. “Older men. It’s a Jeon thing, I think. My mom is older than my dad too. Same thing with my grandparents. Hyung’s the weird one, married to someone his same age.”

 

“Must have caused a stir back in the day.”

 

“Yeah, but us Jeons are real rule breakers. Hyung too.”

 

“That I don’t doubt. This one here is going to be the best of them all,” Taehyung says, Jinhyung asleep in his arms, that same pride from earlier in his voice, as heartfelt. 




---




The apartment is quiet and dimmed, the low light the only source of brightness. 

 

He directs Taehyung to his own bed instead of Jinhyung’s, figures it’ll be easier when he wakes up for dinner and his bath. 

 

For someone who doesn’t have his own kid, Taehyung is very good at the transport while asleep maneuver, nestles Jinhyung among Jeongguk’s sheets without waking him, Jeongguk making a pillow fort around him in case he rolls around. 

 

Jinhyung smacks his lips wetly, curls his arms around the nearest pillow, face soft in sleep. 

 

“I get why you don’t think about having another one,” Taehyung whispers. The sun is setting in tones of purple, the faintest of blues. It filters into the room through the half open blinds, Taehyung’s face caught up in it. He’s mostly shadow to Jeongguk, purple-blue, his face almost vulnerably open for once. “You got it perfect on the first try.”

 

“What if it’s my fault? The reason he’s not talking. Something I did or didn’t do?” 

 

It takes Taehyung so long to answer, Jeongguk thinks he’s not going to, didn’t hear him, his voice lost in the streaky light, swallowed by the sun. 

 

“Are you willing to do anything to help him? Would you be willing to, so he can express himself in whatever way he can?”

 

And maybe it’s because it’s Taehyung, Taehyung who values words so much, saying they don’t matter, not in the way people think they do, that makes Jeongguk’s heart thump against his rib-cage, a hard knock, once, like a reminder. 

 

He stares at his kid, knows he’d exchange their vocal chords, voice boxes, the synapse thing that happens in the brain to make language real, in a heartbeat. 

 

“Do you really have to ask me that?”

 

“No,” Taehyung says, voice that same whisper, un-paused this time, all rising sun. “So you already know the answer too.”




---




The office is lined with art that looks made by young hands. Jeongguk keeps reminding himself not to wring his own. Hands touch his and he startles. Jinhyung blinks up at him, traces his fingers along the metal links wrapped around Jeongguk’s wrist. 

 

“Mr. Jeon?”

 

She has a kind smile. Her teeth are like the office walls, very white. Jeongguk curls his lips and wills the beating of his heart to quiet. “Sorry. Jeongguk is fine. Mr. Jeon is my father. Or my brother.”

 

“Of course. Jeongguk .” She laces her hands on top of her desk. Picture frames gather in one corner, a little girl, an older boy. It comforts Jeongguk somewhat that she knows what it must feel like, that she gets it, the feeling of caring unquantifiable amounts for a tiny person. “After our preliminary meeting today, I feel confident saying that Jinhyung is a very special boy.”

 

Jeongguk’s heart plummets. The shame he feels in the seconds after is devastating, cuts him to the bone. 

 

“I don’t- I mean.” He stops and nods rapidly. He gathers his breath, the words lodged in his throat. He wraps his hands around Jinhyung’s, and they feel so tiny, so fragile. His own feel as tiny, as fragile. Licking his lips, he tries again, pushing as if the words are trapped. “What does that mean for him? What’s the next step?”

 

She doesn’t frown but her brows flatten on her forehead, give her the image of a concerned mother. When she speaks next it is slower like she’s taken full account of his name, his eye shape, the hint of a lisp on certain words, the musical lilt to the way he speaks, for the first time. “He is very bright. Curious. He recognizes numbers and patterns well beyond his age group. Your son is very smart.”

 

“...I don’t understand.”

 

It isn’t often Jeongguk has witnessed professionals, doctors and lawyers, people aged and experienced beyond him, speechless. She isn’t used to it either, grappling at her own hands. “Uh-”

 

“I understand the words,” Jeongguk says, not unkindly. Jinhyung hooks his index finger in a link on Jeongguk’s bracelet. He’s been very good about not kicking his feet, sitting still. Jeongguk deflates, shoulders sagging. “But he doesn’t talk?”

 

Understanding floods her features, a careful set to her mouth. “Yes, that is a concern of course. But he very clearly verbalizes and knows how words should sound. He talks, so to say, he just doesn’t do it in a way we can understand. Some children are late bloomers. It happens.” At Jeongguk’s silence, she questions, “Has his pediatrician said it is cause to be alarmed? He sees Dr-” she pauses to read from her computer. “-Phan, Sinai Medical, yes?”

 

“No. I mean yes. She said it might be something to look into but she didn’t say anything like that.”

 

“Right,” she says. She looks at Jinhyung and her face softens. It seems to be automatic, all these grown people around him going tender and weak hearted for such a tiny strong thing. “Jeongguk. I’m not going to tell you not to worry. That’s impossible. But he’s really on the right track. He’s on a track, one I’d like to help him with, both of you. It’s going to take a lot of help and work from you too. But in all the ways that matter, he’s fine. Even if he weren’t the textbook definition of fine, treatments and our understanding of speech has advanced tremendously, but- he’s really on the cusp of where he has to be. He’s fine. You’re doing the right things.”

 

After more silence and dozens of questions, she walks them out into the reception. Jinhyung is flipping through the little book of letters she gave him, an animal per letter. He presses on their bellies and they light up, his laugh infectious as he babbles, “ Bu-by. Bat ! Biiiiooon !.”   

 

“Thank you for seeing us on such short notice.” 

 

“Of course. When Taehyung called, an opening had just opened up, but I’m glad to help. I owed him a favor or two to say the least.”

 

“Oh?” Jeongguk asks, leaning down as Jinhyung reaches up. 

 

“He was one of my research assistants years ago now. Of the best ones I ever had. Saved me a data set one time too many. He had a very sweet heart back then. I’m glad to see that’s still the case.” 

 

Jinhyung slumps his head into his neck. Jeongguk resists the urge to sigh into his hair. “Me too,” he says. Thanks her again, exits the reception and starts the trek back home. 

 

He makes it all the way through the walk to the subway, goes through each animal and its name and sound on the ride underground, through the walk back above and the few short blocks to the townhouse. 

 

He makes it through dinner and play time, through one and a quarter episodes of Peppa Pig and bath-time, through their nightly story and song, this week’s favorite being the old ballad Namjoon keeps playing around the house in a deep fit of homesickness, something about it recognizable to Jinhyung, maybe, hopefully, that this language is home. 

 

He waits until his own bath, the shower scalding and loud, the water blurring his face until he can’t tell what’s coming from the shower head and his teary eyes. He tries to wash it all away, his shame, his relief. He thinks of all the parents who don’t get to experience the relief part and drowns himself in gratitude instead. 




---




“Up?”

 

Buhb !”

 

“Down?”

 

Ow-mmmm !”

 

“In?”

 

B-ihn!

 

“Out? Ttttt .”

 

B-ow ! Tu-tu-tu-uh !”

 

“Yes! There’s that t sound. Nice front teeth work there, buddy. Great letter, excellent choice. The T .”

 

“You’re so full of yourself.”

 

Arms still raised in triumph, Taehyung throws him a sideways glance. 

 

“The T ?” Jeongguk mimics from his sprawl on the living room floor. He started as Taehyung is now, cross legged in his work clothes but tapped out halfway, changed into his baggiest sweats and joined Jinhyung in his belly flopping. Jinhyung has moved on to sitting up so Jeongguk is making an attempt at alertness, on his side and scrolling through the presentation Taehyung has on his laptop. “Why not a word with a j ?”

 

Taehyung drops his arms. He stretches, bones cracking, the seams of his pressed Oxford shifting as his muscles move. “There are no baby-useful location prepositions that have a j . When we move onto verbs we’ll spend extra time on jump, I promise.”

 

Jeongguk drags his eyes away from Taehyung’s shoulders. He jumps to the next page, reads over the tips and steps and word enriching environment alternatives he’s read hundreds of times. “Uh huh. My child’s already obsessed with you. The last thing I need is that his first b-less word is your name,” he says though he doesn’t really mean it, the sentiment, the words themselves. 

 

“That was level 4 on the cranky-baby-needs-a-nap-o-meter,” Taehyung observes. He leans over Jeongguk to look at the screen, but he’s really just looming over him teasingly, a wide grin on his face. “What’s wrong? You need a whisky to wash away the day at corporate work? A foot rub?”

 

“Shut up,” Jeongguk mumbles, blushing up to his temples. “And it was barely level 3.”

 

“Really. I don’t mind. What’s a foot rub between roommates?”

 

“Would you rub Namjoon-hyung’s feet?”

 

“Yes,” Taehyung says immediately. He should look silly like this, cheese packed on his smile, slacks wrinkled, glasses tilted on the back of his head. The blush works itself deep into Jeongguk’s cheeks and he’s the one who feels silly. “But your brother would kill me.”

 

“What makes you think he wouldn’t kill you for touching my feet?”

 

“Good point. I’d risk it for you, though.”

 

Jeongguk groans, tries to hide his face on the keyboard. “ Stop . I’m kicking you out.”  

 

“Sorry. You have less authority in this house than Jinhyung does. You’re going to have to take it up with our landlord. Isn’t that right, Jinhyung-ah?” 

 

B-yah !”

 

“This isn’t fair, it’s two against one,” Jeongguk complains but he laughs, chin hitting the spacebar. The screen changes and a word processor appears, paragraphs and quotations, italics. Jeongguk reads a few lines and his fingers stammer as he exits out. “Uh. So-”

 

“We’re not against you if we want the same thing,” says Taehyung. He isn’t minding the screen, keeps up his looming and it’s playful, he is, and it’s very Taehyung, making play out of even what isn’t. Teaching his students. Taking it upon himself to get Jinhyung to speak. Letting Namjoon use him as a soundboard, Yoongi occasionally. Even purifying their apartment, the collection of plants throughout the apartment- the first peace lily he gifted them overflowing in its bloom -the afternoon he took Jeongguk and Jinhyung to his favorite nursery after what’s become one of their semi-traditional Sunday morning hikes. 

 

“And what’s that?”

 

“Embracing how amazing the T is.”

 

Jeongguk scoffs, turns over onto his back. Jinhyung crawls toward them and cuddles into his side, babbling, and Jeongguk can almost make them out, the words, and he feels like he’s at the top of a precipice, right as the world is about to change, open itself up. “Is that what you think of us as?” he asks Taehyung, teasing, as he tucks Jinhyung close, nuzzles his temple. “Just roommates?”

 

Taehyung pulls back some, arms caged around both of them now. His face is soft with a full day, lectures given and a meeting with his advisor, another meeting with a newly minted PhD candidate in his department, a late lunch with the head of the Sociology School. And yet he still didn’t hesitate to drop onto the rug with Jinhyung as soon as he came home, help him build aerodynamically inclined buildings with his favorite blocks and then coax him to sit down and go over the most baby useful pronouns together, first in Korean, then in English. 

 

There is no terror like that of being known .”

 

“Where’s that from?”

 

Taehyung smiles strangely, in his eyes, absent from his mouth. “It’s from one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s diaries. Supposedly he was talking about Mary Fuller and how she understood him better than anyone but, really, he was talking about how some relationships, of any kind between two people, are impossible to describe. Especially when the person has gotten to some truth about you. Who you really are.” 

 

Jeongguk strokes his hand up and down Jinhyung’s back. Voice quiet, he asks, “So what happened to them?”

 

“Life happened,” Taehyung says. He shrugs. “He loved her but he didn’t know what to do with it. It scared him, being known that way. Same old story.”

 

Frowning, Jeongguk says, “But love isn’t something to do something with. If you love someone you just- you know, love them.”

 

“Sure. But you choose it too. Love is something you make. Not physically in the way we think about it, but in the way we act every day toward that person -friend, family, partner, mentor, whoever it is- in whatever way we love them. And there’s love but then there’s love , you know? The kind that changes you.” Taehyung sits up, his body no longer obscuring the leftover sun coming through the windows, is the sun in its place. He smooths down an errant curl at the back of Jinhyung’s head and says, 

 

“I mean, you know that better than anyone.” 




---




Taehyung pulls out a bottle and Jeongguk asks, “Why do I feel like you’re always trying to get me wasted?”

 

Rolling his eyes, Taehyung tuts, rummages through a drawer for the corkscrew. “I’ve offered you alcohol at most five times. Anyway, wine isn’t to get wasted. It’s classy and refined. And-”

 

Jeongguk quirks a brow as he loads the dishwasher, ceramic clinking against sparkly pink and purple plastic . 

 

“The only way to get through the end of grad school is to drink every so often.”

 

“You said you didn’t have much of a taste for alcohol when you first moved in.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t at the end of my PhD then.”

 

Jeongguk makes a noise to show he’s listening more than anything, scrapes at a stubborn food particle on one of Jinhyung’s bowls.

 

Taehyung swishes the contents of the wine inside its bottle and there’s a smile on his face but it’s neither demanding nor pushy, a little coaxing. “You can say no. But you’re the father to a three year old and you should be allowed to have at least a glass of wine once a week. Plus, it makes me feel useful to offer. You made dinner.”

 

“It was just bibimbap.”

 

“Yes but you made the vegetables look like flowers! Cucumber roses. You’re bento box dad goals.”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head but the corner of his mouth ticks. He gives the wine bottle a long look, tilts his chin. Taehyung grins and fills the other mug in his hand. The classiness only goes so far. 

 

“So, you know,” Taehyung says as Jeongguk takes his first sip, the dishwasher chugging away. “The repressed Korean in me is very pleased right now.”

 

“You don’t seem very repressed. You seem very… expressed.”

 

“Sure, but the more time passes, the further away from it I get. The homeland. That sense of belonging in that same way. I imagine it’s different for you. You were older when you left. More fully you.”   

 

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. Your Korean’s better than mine,” Jeongguk says not entirely joking. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t deny this. “Again. Sure. But language is only part of it. I deal in language more than the average person. Thinking about it, anyway. Specifically Korean. Specifically English. But at this point in my life I’ve spent more time here than there and it’s not a black and white thing. We don’t all interact with or measure our culture in the same way. I mean, really, who gets to decide who’s enough of what? Korean enough. American enough. Where’s the line?”

 

Tipping forward, Jeongguk peers at the translucent liquid inside Taehyung’s mug, the words PH.D: TAKING YOUR B.S. TO A NEW LEVEL printed in sloping script on the ceramic. Joohyun gifted him that one. Of the many in his collection it’s Jeongguk’s favorite along with the one that says PROFESSOR because BADASS isn’t an official title, because Taehyung really sort of is. “How many of those have you had?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t move back, seems comfortable with Jeongguk invading his space. “It’s adorable when you try to be funny.”

 

“I don’t try. I am,” Jeongguk says ignoring the thump of his heart, the sincerity in Taehyung’s voice, how his own body reacts to the lack of space between them, not comfortable but not in a bad way. 

 

“I worry about it a lot,” he says, later, when he and Taehyung are seated at the round kitchen table, Taehyung working at his laptop, a book at his elbow, himself going over some projections but really just wasting time on his phone. Yoongi and Namjoon haven’t come home yet, leftovers in the fridge, and it’s nice, his kid fast asleep in his bed, safe and warm, and the companionable stillness of another person, belly full, mouth warm, the silence warm too. 

 

Taehyung looks up, lashes elongated behind his glasses. 

 

“The language thing with Jinhyung. Not just that he’ll talk but that he’ll learn Korean. How hard it’ll be for him to pick it up, if we’re speaking it enough around him. Or too much and it’ll affect his English, if he’ll have a funny accent because I do.”

 

“Your accent isn’t funny.”

 

“Different, then. Obviously other .”

 

Taehyung is quiet for several moments. “Aren’t we all other? Different? To someone?”

 

“I guess.” Jeongguk hums, mind flicking back to the opposite, the terror of being known. He sips from his mug, the wine lukewarm, and says, “You didn’t tell me you were writing again. I didn’t mean to see it on your laptop but I did.”

 

“In my defense, I’m always writing. Hazard of being a perpetual student.”

 

“Now who’s trying to be funny?” Jeongguk asks. Before Taehyung can answer, he adds, “Really. Why?”

 

Taehyung sighs. He removes his glasses, uses the end of his shirt to clean invisible lint off of them. “Truthfully?” He waits for Jeongguk to nod to say, “I wasn’t sure what you’d think.”

 

“Because it’s about my kid.”

 

“Because it’s about your kid,” Taehyung nods . He purses his lower lip in thought, studying Jeongguk’s expression longer than Jeongguk would think necessary. “In a way. It’s not about learning to talk or the way children speak or learn. It’s not really even about talking per say at all. But these past few years, being around him, living with him, watching you and Yoongi and Namjoon try to communicate with him. Watching myself do it. He’s the catalyst for why I’ve tried to write the book after giving up. Twice now. And I didn’t want you to think…”

 

“... that you were using him?”

 

Taehyung nods once more. 

 

“Taehyung. You’re one of the university’s most well funded research students, not to mention of their best professors who isn’t even a full on professor yet-”

 

“How does that still upset you more than it does me? Which isn’t much, so you know. I’m paying my dues-”

 

“Because the academic world is corrupt and doesn’t value true education. And you’re too nice so nothing upsets you. It’d be obnoxious on anyone else but you-”

 

“That’s not entirely tru-”

 

“And you care about him,” Jeongguk interjects, leaning over to retrieve Taehyung’s empty mug. “I don’t need a bunch of fancy degrees to tell me that.”

 

“Researches take advantage of subjects all the time. Human or not. And professors abuse their power even more so. It can be a very cut throat ugly world.”

 

Sure ,” Jeongguk agrees, wondering if it makes him sound as wise as when Taehyung says it, bordering but not ever really know-it-all. He turns the faucet on, snips a dead leaf on the peace lily on the sill. The weather has been drier than normal. “And there are investment firms that refuse to work with companies that don’t follow ESG criteria. There’s evil and good everywhere.”

 

Rushing water hits the metal basin. Laptop keys click, the murmur of traffic through the window, the static from Jinhyung’s baby monitor. Jeongguk digs his fingers into the soil of one of the aloes, tips the watering can into the pot. He does the same to the other plants lined up against the glass. 

 

“You should sing to him.”

 

“What?”

 

“To Jinhyung. A lot of studies say that melody is one of the most significant aides in language acquisition.”

 

“And studies are always right?” Jeongguk asks, voice flat. The Journal of Pediatrics can’t seem to figure out how important to development breastfeeding is. Parenting blogs are always citing conflicting studies and alll the mommy youtubers treat their kids like test tubes. 

 

“It’s not about being right ,” Taehyung says, a tinge of exasperation in his voice, “Science is about getting as close to a truth as possible through-”

 

“-repeatability. I know, you’ve told me. Please don’t professor at me. We’re way beyond that.”

 

For a long moment, Taehyung is quiet. 

 

Jeongguk mists the herbs in the hanging planter, their perilla plant joined now by buchu and coriander, their scent filling his lungs every time he breathes in. 

 

“Can I show you something?”

 

Jeongguk stares at him at the abrupt subject change, the lack of response. He feels wrongfooted for a reason he can’t place. Setting the watering can down, he says, “Okay.”

 

Up in the loft, the night twinkles in through the window, casts the walls in faint yellow. It bounces off all the leaves and makes them look alive in such a way that when Jeongguk brushes his fingers against an ivy he expects a spark to go off. 

 

Taehyung fiddles with things for a few minutes and then music starts and they lie on the loft’s old shaggy carpet. Namjoon never had the heart or energy to rip it out when they bought the apartment. It’s a terrible orange and terribly soft and Jeongguk is thankful for it now as he nestles the back of his head in its fibers, the old smell of cedar trapped in the fabric comforting. 

 

“Who is this?” he asks, recognizing the language as his own but not the words or the voice. 

 

The record crackles. Like popcorn popping in an old foreign movie. 

 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says. His voice is low, close, swept under the staticky guitars, the rhymes of an old folk tale. “I was in Tokyo for a conference a few years ago and I spent a day in Osaka. Found it in a record shop there. The name was whited out. Even on the record itself, no inner sleeve either. I picked it out because I liked the artwork so I didn’t know it was Korean until I listened to it on the shop’s player.” 

 

Jeongguk turns his head to find Taehyung with his eyes closed, face tilted at the ceiling.

 

“It was recorded in ‘65. In Tokyo. And I mean there’s more than one reason why someone would do that but history being what it is, it just made me think that someone would think to preserve the record that way. Or at all, when the easier thing to do would have been to destroy it. It made me think there’s bad and good everywhere. It doesn’t undo the bad, but neither does it the good.”

 

“Isn’t that gray morality or whatever?” Jeongguk asks. Namjoon and Yoongi love to fight about it when they drink, the absolute versus the relative, whether the whole of Korean art house cinema is a case for amorality or the criticism of it, whether they can apply the same kind of thinking to if it’s okay for them to still love Kanye West or not. 

 

“Sure.”

 

“Isn’t college supposed to beat that out of you?”

 

Taehyung smiles, face soft in the light. “Again. Sure. But that’s what all your old stuffy professors wanted you to think. Really, the world is grey.”

 

“You didn’t. Want me- us, your students, to think that.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t really your professor.”

 

There’s a lot of grey in that sentence. Some grey in this too, the two of them in this apartment, lying here together, listening to an album that was once contraband in a country far away, in the way the brightness touches the bridge of Taehyung’s nose. 

 

Jeongguk says, “I do sing to Jinhyung. When I tuck him in at night. He refuses to go to sleep without at least two songs sometimes.”

 

Taehyung opens his eyes. He doesn’t seem surprised to be met with Jeongguk’s on him already. He asks, “What do you sing to him?”

 

“Anything. Whatever he wants.”

 

Taehyung smiles, looks back to the ceiling and, really, the last thing Jeongguk can think of the world as is grey. 

 

The needle trips on a groove, keeps spinning. 




---




Jinhyung sees him and Jeongguk is hit with a torrential of babbling. It’s not the words the way everyone else knows them but it’s there, the almostness of it, the sounds. Jeongguk crouches to his level and smiles, making sure to keep his voice sweet but its normal timber, the way he’d talk to older kids and adults. 

 

“He did well today.”

 

“Thank you Dr.” Jeongguk says. He stands, hand held in Jinhyung’s. 

 

There’s a boy in the waiting room, kicking his feet against the plastic chair he sits on. He can’t be much older than Jinhyung, long limbed and chubby cheeked. Smiling, he points to the little raptorsaurus clipped to Jinhyung’s jacket. Stilted he says, “D-dino go b-boom.”

 

Jinhyung, who still sleeps with Mr. Gong Yoo every night but is going through a dinosaur phase sparked by many readings of How to Be a T. Rex and a maybe too early introduction to Jurassic Park , pats at the plastic dinosaur. He nods and presses on the button on the side of the raptor’s body, its nose flashing colored lights. He says, “B-red. B-blueoooo.”

 

“I think it’ll be soon.”

 

“Really?”

 

“He’s been making very fast strides. The b sound he attaches to words is a vocal comfort. A bit like the way we use uh or um. It’s filler not an actual speech impediment. I’m not entirely sure why he developed it but the more he talks the more confident he’ll feel, the quicker he’ll let go of the need to rely on it.”

 

Jinhyung lets go of his hand and Jeongguk watches as he walks closer to the other boy. He keeps his distance, standing two chairs away and presses on the button some more, the colors flashing from blue to green to red and back. The other boy oohs and ahhs , kicks his feet and smiles wider. 

 

“How is it going at home?”

 

“Oh. Good, I think, um,” Jeongguk says, smiling, sheepish, “We’ve been making a point to talk to him a lot, talk around him. Read to him.”

 

“I can tell.” She smiles. She has such a kind face, makes Jeongguk think again of the way mothers are supposed to look. “That’s why he’s improving so much. Home is most important for how we learn to speak before we really interact with the outside world on our own.”

 

“Yes. Taehyung has been very hands on with him. Reads all sorts of books to him. He even sits him down for little study sessions, goes over words with him. And Jinhyung actually sits for them. He likes them.” It pulls a grin to his lips, last Sunday with the two of them in the kitchen, Jeongguk and Yoongi making lunch, Namjoon flipping through a conference paper Taehyung had just finished, Jinhyung clapping each time he got a word. “I don’t know where he got that from. I couldn’t sit for longer than two minutes at his age.”

 

Her brows angle and then her smile softens, like something has just clicked into place in her mind. “Children can surprise us that way. They come from us but they’re their own little person.”

 

Jinhyung walks back to them then. He clasps Jeongguk’s fingers. Says, “B-appal. B-grween,” and points to his mouth. 

 

Jeongguk nods. “Okay. Want to go to the park and eat?”

 

“B-mhmm! B-mhhm!”

 

“Sorry. It’s snack time,” he says. 

 

“No, of course.”. She smiles at Jinhyung. He tilts his head, smiles back less shy than he would have weeks ago. To Jeongguk she says, “You’re doing very well too.”

 

Jeongguk nods, eased by her words. He’s doing well. Jinhyung is as well. He wonders how many parents need to hear that more than their kids. 

 

“I’ll see you both next week,” she says. “And say hello to Taehyung for me!”

 

Jeongguk promises he will and he and Jinhyung walk out of the office. 

 

The little boy waves goodbye. Jinhyung waves back. 




---




That night after he’s tucked in bed and they’ve read Goodnight Moon for the hundredth time, after two songs and a half sippy cup of soy milk and a last walk around the living room and a careful pat to each plant, Jinhyung says, “B-oomag. B-b- eumag ,” and presses his fingers up to Jeongguk neck, the base where it touches his throat like he knows that this is where the sound comes from. 

 

“Hmm,” Jeongguk entones, making his voice extra rumbly so Jinhyung will laugh. Smiles when he does. “What should we sing this time? How about the Plum Blossoms song? Maehwa ?”

 

Jinhyung nods, burrows close so he can nestle into Jeongguk’s neck, close to the sound. 

 

And Jeongguk sings, voice low like a whisper, and it doesn’t hurt, and Jinhyung moves his lips along to the words, follows the vibrations in Jeongguk’s neck, and he latches onto certain sounds, makes his own, and it makes it hurt less, how someday it’ll be Jinhyung’s voice singing this song, his own tones, make the words his own. 



---




“Okay, buddy. It’s time for the moment of truth. We did well with Jurassic Park -”

 

“I still think he was too young for that.”

 

“I plead complete innocence for that one. It was uncles’ jurisdiction. I was just an innocent film aficionado bystander.”

 

“Who just happened to be in the living room?”

 

“Yes. Innocently. Very so.”

 

Jeongguk squints at Taehyung’s hands, guilelessly held up at chest level, the picture of innocence. He sighs, sinks further into his corner of the couch. “ Sure . Whatever. Just play the movie.”

 

Jinhyung, who’s been sitting on the carpet and playing with the toy car he got from a happy meal last week -a momentary weakness on Jeongguk’s part aided by the fact that the Hot Wheels Ad on the storefront was pink, the fact that he can count on one hand the amount of times Jinhhyung has eaten fast food, convinced Jinhyung to eat the low-sugar yogurt and forget about his outburst over the lack of fries and, more than anything, the fact that Namjoon was with them-, pats at Taehyung’s shin gently. “ B-tae! B-bbb. B- gyoooo .”

 

Taehyung drops his hands. He plucks Mr. Gong Yoo from the cushion between him and Jeongguk, offers him to Jinhyung while ticking his cheek with the stuffed toy’s beak. Jinhyung laughs boisterously, wraps his arms around the penguin and mumbles, “B- ank b- oo ,” and plops down on the carpet again.

 

Angling a look at Jeongguk, Taehyung says, “Are you mad I didn’t want to watch Iron Man for the millionth time?”

 

Jeongguk puts his gooey melted heart back into his chest long enough to protest, “We’ve watched it, at most, twice together. You were correcting papers for one of those times.”

 

“Yes, you and I have watched it twice. You though-”

 

“I’m sorry that you don’t actually know cinematic greatness the way you’ve convinced yourself and every student you’ve had ever.”

 

“Look. I’m not saying Iron Man isn’t great. It is. His entire arc in the Marvel cinematic universe is actually a fascinating look at the struggle between narcissism and altruism -don’t look at me like that, wow , your love for Tony Stark is depressing- but this movie. This movie changes a boy’s life.”

 

Jeongguk looks at the screen, the movie queued up and paused. Black background and the impression of twinkling stars, yellow font in the foreground. “If my kid ends up a nerd I’m blaming you.”

 

“He’s out of luck on that one already,” Taehyung says with a shrug. “What with his daddy being an investment genius-”

 

Jeongguk frowns. “I’m not a g-”

 

And a whiz in the kitchen. The embodiment of why kinesiology is a thing. A master of finding lost stuffed penguins. Voice of an angel too.”

 

“Taehyung-”

 

“Plus, he’s got two musical genius uncles, and Namjoon can write an article about anything and have you seeing your own bias by the end of it, so he’ll probably be a nerd of everything. Very on trend for this next generation.”

 

“Why this movie? How did it change you?” Jeongguk asks because all of a sudden he has to know this about Taehyung. His heart feels gooey all over again, this soft supple thing that’s seeping through his rib cage. 

 

Taehyung smiles. It widens as he watches Jinhyung balance Mr. Gong Yoo on the little pink car, one foot on the top like he’s skating. “Oh, man. How didn’t it change me,” he says, the inflection of his words softened, casual, and it’s a wonder when he’s less careful with them, his words, when he’s exhausted in the late hours, when he and Namjoon are at the tail end of some long debate, in the honey edged comfort of home. It’s a wonder that Jeongguk gets to see it, hear it now, when at first he just knew him as rigid ties with loud prints, an elegant set to a mouth that spouted words that constantly whizzed around Jeongguk’s head. “I still remember the first time my dad and I watched it. I was thirteen. He brought it home from the rental store. Was real excited about it. It was subtitled so he thought it would be a good way to practice our English. It’s not really about the story for me. The intergalactic civil war and the special effects and all that, though teenage me loved all that stuff. It was Luke. I just really saw myself in him. Not physically obviously; I don’t exactly have the blond hair blue eyed thing going on. But this dumpy farm kid being the one person who could save the universe? Symbolically, that you could be a dumpy farm kid and be anything because it’s within you? The potential for- anything. Greatness. Anythingness .” Taehyung laughs lightly, shakes his head. His cheeks look pinkish in the light. He gives a little shrug, boyish even though he’s closer to thirty than when Jeongguk first met him. “Yeah, I really connected to that. I saw him. I saw me . For the first time since we’d moved here.”

 

When Jeongguk finds his voice, he says, “You can play the movie now.”

 

Taehyung nods, and to Jinhyung he says, “All right, bud. Are you ready to commence the next stage of your life? Get your toddler atoms rearranged? This is it. There’s life before the force and life after it.”

 

Jinhyung nods, face hilariously serious. He gives Mr. Gong Yoo back to Taehyung and hands off the toy car to Jeongguk. Then he climbs onto the couch, left leg kicking to give himself momentum. Jeongguk extends an arm but lets him do it on his own, just in case he falls, Taehyung watchful from his other side. He plunkers down and pulls on Jeongguk’s shirt to make him sit closer. Jeongguk slides over so Jinhyung can lean against his chest, legs over Taehyung’s lap. Once he’s settled, he sighs like he really is ready to be this brand new boy, the kind that could believe he has the ability to save the universe, humanity, one human, himself. Taehyung has Mr. Gong Yoo tucked against his side, toggles with the screen cast from his phone one handed. 

 

The movie goes by and then they play the next one because Taehyung insists you have to watch all three in trilogy together or else it won’t make sense and at some point Jeongguk must falls asleep because he blinks awake and maybe the workdays have been longer lately or maybe being a single dad to the world’s best three year old is harder than Jeongguk allows himself to admit it is. 

 

Through semi closed eyes he sees Jinhyung is back to lying on his front on the carpet, a plate of snacks he’s feeding himself and Mr. Gong Yoo. 

 

“He shouldn’t be eating on his tummy,” Jeongguk mumbles, mouth brushing against fabric. 

 

“It’s just mushy banana and tteokbokki. I cut it really small. Promise.”

 

“Hmm,” Jeongguk hums, eyes falling shut again. He breathes in and smells the ocean, the forests in the northern part of the state during winter, crisp and cleaner than clean. “Sorry I fell asleep.”

 

“S’okay. You woke up for Empire.”

 

He can feel it when Taehyung speaks. Every one of his inhales moves under Jeongguk’s cheek, the hint of the point of his chin brushing against Jeongguk’s head, his wide chest pressed to his temple. 

 

Jeongguk peeks out one eye. Jinhyung looks hypnotized, close but not too close to the screen, eyes following every movement, every piece of the action. 

 

Sighing, he whispers, “He really loves it, huh.”

 

He can’t feel Taehyung smile but he can hear it. “Yeah, huh.”

 

“Hmmm.” There’s a manuscript half on Taehyung’s thigh, a pen abandoned on the couch cushion. Jeongguk tries to figure out where Taehyung’s other arm is but he feels too heavy, too warm. He feels so settled to where he is, like he’s figured out exactly where the sun is enough to warm him without burning him in summer. “He’s gonna be the best little nerd ever.”

 

Taehyung laughs quietly, deep in his chest. It knocks against Jeongguk’s ear. In his sleepy state, Jeongguk wonders if he could follow the sound, if it would lead him across the expanse of Taehyung’s lungs to his heart. 

 

“Plus he lives with the king of words so he’ll be a nerd at those too.”

 

“Who’s that?” 

 

Jeongguk thinks about pinching him. He decides the bodily effort to figure out where his own hands are is too much and softly headbutts him instead and closes both eyes again. 

 

Something big must happen because Jinhyung gasps, blabbers at the screen. 

 

Taehyung says, “I know, bud. That part got me too. How do you think he’s gonna get out of that?”

 

Jinhyung replies, voice growing in excitement. Jeongguk can almost make it out, what he’s saying, what he means. 

 

“Oh, wow, that’d be cool. You think he’s gonna do it?”

 

More words, almost words, the heaviness of Jeongguk’s mind reaching out to decipher them, to understand. 

 

“I think so too. Solid plan, bud.”

 

The action dies down. There’s a block of dialogue, something about storm-troopers or the ewoks, or maybe the ewoks haven’t shown up yet so it’s almost definitely about the Death Star, so Jeongguk presses closer, rubs his cheek into the softness, and asks, “What’s wrong with Tony?”

 

He can feel Taehyung’s smile this time, the impression of it on the top of his head. Ocean pine fills his nose again and he breathes it in and Jeongguk really does feel so settled here, the heavy sleepy warmth filling his heart with sea water, healing and blessed by the sun. 

 

“Nothing,” says Taehyung, and his words are closer too, like if Jeongguk tilted his head just so they’d land in his hair, kiss his forehead. “He’s a little bit of a jerk is all. A big little.”

 

Jeongguk yaws, snaps his jaw a few times. “But he just wanted to save the universe. He did save it. He’s like Luke. He’s just the rich genius version of him. With a way way cooler outfit.”

 

“Hmm. Maybe. But you deserve better than a jerk. A not-jerk.”

 

There’s an itchy spot near Jeongguk’s chin, something tickling at his brow. He nuzzles his jaw into Taehyung’s shirt, and huh that’s Taehyung’s shirt, and asks, “So what? I deserve Luke?”

 

Taehyung’s next breath is longer, slower, as if it’s slipping out of his lungs, curling around each bone in his rib cage, and sliding back inside before escaping through his mouth. “Nah. Luke can be kind of a jerk too.”

 

“So-”

 

Taehyung shushes him, the gentlest thing. Fingers brush at Jeongguk’s forehead, make the tickly feeling disappear. Taehyung says, “Sorry. It’s just this is one of the best parts.”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t mind but he makes a noise of annoyance, flutters his eyes to see what all the fuss is about, check on Jinhyung while he’s at it. 

 

Jinhyung is sitting up now. He’s using Mr. GongYoo as an armrest and it’s so cute Jeongguk might explode. 

 

On the screen it’s Leia and Han, a room full of smoke. She’s saying something, something important, and Han has that smug look on his face but it’s softer than normal Jeongguk will maybe give him that but he lets his eyes drift closed, wonders how that can be a best part when Han is the biggest jerk of them all.

 

The next time Jeongguk wakes up, the empire has long struck back. 




---



 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---



 

“This one?”

 

“No, over-ripe. You have to check the root. See? Here.”

 

“...this one?”

 

“Let me- mhhm. Yeah. That one.”

 

Yoongi grunts his assent. He tosses the squash into a reusable bag and pays the guy manning the stall, his farmer’s tan complimented by his plaid shirt, the smell of earth drifting from the crates of hand picked greens, bright pink-red radishes. 

 

Jeongguk inspects a radish, sets it back. The farmers market is bustling as usual on Saturday and the beginning of next week feels forever and not hours away, like all Jeongguk has on his agenda is picking the right apples and cabbages, the extra crunchy sprouts Jinhyung loves, some of that dark blend Yoongi likes that’s roasted fresh upstate. 

 

Jinhyung toddles by Yoongi’s side, hands gripped. He waves goodbye to the vendor, pets a big pumpkin on the display table. “Bai- bai !”

 

They walk past a couple of stands, different scents weaving together. Baked pears and spicy chai, oils extracted from lavender and pennyroyal leaves. 

 

“You’re getting good at this,” Yoongi says. He bites into a bean curd bun, the red filling staining the soft dough. 

 

“At what?” 

 

Yoongi breaks off a bite-sized piece of the bun and gives it to Jinhyung. “This. Being an adult. You have opinions on vegetables now.”

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, crunches on his own treat, the hodugjawa nutty and salty sweet. They’re covered in chocolate for some reason and he doesn’t know how he feels about it, how it tastes like the home of his memories while decidedly not. 

 

“I mean it. You’ve taken over in the kitchen, the house in general.”

 

Shrugging, Jeongguk watches Jinhyung poke at the red bean paste, mouth pouted adorably in a very familiar way. “Namjoon-hyung’s busier lately. You both are. It’s not your guys’ responsibility to cook for everyone.”

 

“Neither is it yours,” Yoongi points out. “It’s not just that. The laundry. If anything gets broken you try to fix it first. You almost fixed the sink last week-”

 

“I did fix it, hyung just rebroke it-”

 

“You did my taxes this year. Joon’s too.”

 

“Those accounting requirements for my major had to count for something.”

 

“You always make sure you’re the one to take the trash out. You ripped it out of my hands on Tuesday. Literally. We had to get another bag. It was disgusting.”

 

Jeongguk sighs, wishes he’d worn a thinner t-shirt today, the summer sun sticking to his back. “Is there a point to all this, hyung?”  

 

Jinhyung licks the paste with caution and scrunches his nose, shaking his head. Jeongguk smiles, tries not to laugh. He offers him the blueberry juice they bought him earlier and Jinhyung happily drinks, mouth coming away outlined in purplish blue. 

 

“I’m saying you’re all grown-up. You already were but now- You’re really not a little kid anymore.”

 

They stop by some baskets overflowing with an assortment of peppers, biting reds and hot blacks, sweeter yellows. Jinhyung zigzags through them, naming the colors as best he can, his hair flying in the summer breeze. It’s getting a little too long but Jeongguk can’t bear to cut it even if it falls into his eyes too often, fascinated by the way the soft waves bounce. 

 

“Hyung? Why are saying all this now?”

 

He watches Yoongi watch Jinhyung run, and the look on his face is so raw, almost as raw as the unabashed joy on Jinhyung’s, Jeongguk wants to look away. Can’t bear to. 

 

“I’m saying it because growing up passes you by. Especially when you’re already grown,” Yoongi says, looking squarely at Jinhyung when he says it, the proof of Jeongguk being grown. “And I don’t want you to miss out on certain parts of it or things or people because they didn’t happen when you thought they should. Or the way they should have.” 

 

They’re standing by the flower sellers now, pots of pink and orange and blue, green everywhere. Jinhyung’s eyes widen in excitement when he spots this one plant in particular, green and heart shaped but with longer ends. They look like triceratops a little and Jinhyung must think so too because he goes “ B-rawwr ! Ba-ba ! B-grween ! B-sshorok !””

 

There’s a lump in Jeongguk’s throat though he can’t place why, some weird sense of deja vu at Yoongi’s words, like he’s heard them before and not listened, already grown and let all those things, parts, people pass him by. Like he’s letting them pass him by now. 

 

His knee gets bumped and Jinhyung beams up at him, purple-blue mouth grinning. Pushing Jinhyung’s curls off his forehead, Jeongguk swallows the lump. Asks, “Yeah, you’re right. They do look rawwr . What do you think? Wanna bring it home?”

 

Jinhyung nods, clapping excitedly as Jeongguk carefully lifts it from the hook. The vendor, an older lady with an accent like his own, the kind that sings, that says there’s another language living on her tongue, a whole different world spinning inside of her, and he asks her the best way to keep the plant happy indoors, how much light and shade it’ll need. He’ll ask Taehyung too when he gets home from the university today. He’s been spending more Saturdays there lately despite it being summer, hazards of his job, of the end of his degree, but he’ll still take the time to point out the best place to hang the new plant, to read Jinhyung the next chapter in the story they’ve been reading together, this fable about a princess and an emperor and a rabbit on the moon. 

 

Jeongguk sets the pot in his own canvas shopping bag, careful not to crush the leaves. He reaches for Jinhyung’s hand and finds it already reaching for his. 

 

He looks back at his brother. “Come on, hyung. Let’s get your coffee. One of those beeswax-less candles for hyung too.”

 

The expression on Yoongi’s face is a little resigned but fond too, like he’s about to say that thing older people say, that Jeongguk will understand when he’s older. 

 

Yoongi is quiet as he joins them and Jinhyung lifts his other hand, grabs onto Yoongi’s fingers. Yoongi grabs his back. 



 

---



 

Namjoon lights the candle as soon as he comes home from his recording session at another musician’s studio. He stretches out on the couch with Jinhyung, My Neighbor Totoro playing on the screen. Yoongi is on the other end of the couch, Namjoon’s feet and his laptop pillowed on his lap as he edits something, one ear of his headphones lifted to his temple. Jeongguk’s favorite scene is playing, Mei in the forest at the foot of the camphora tree, the green vibrant and so alive, but he has to keep an eye on dinner, go over some numbers for Monday and he and Jinhyung have already seen this movie maybe a dozen times together. He keeps half an eye on the living room anyway as Jinhyung perks up on Namjoon’s chest when Mei falls into the tree’s hollow, gasps as she tumbles, eyes wide when she lands on the soft forest floor. 

 

When Taehyung comes home from the university, the movie is paused so Jinhyung can babble at him for ten minutes about everything he saw at the market, about the pigeons he chased in the park and the rawr and b-grween

 

They play the movie again, Yoongi muttering about the mix, and Taehyung hangs the plant in the kitchen, away from direct sunlight but close enough. 

 

He comes to stand next to Jeongguk at the stove. Swipes a radish from the kimchi bowl and peeks at the stocks report on Jeongguk’s laptop screen. “Smells good.”

 

“Watch out for peels,” Jeongguk warns. He stirs the stew bubbling on the burner, half an eye on the trends report outlines, the possible outcomes, both ears on the rain pattering as Totoro learns how to use an umbrella for the first time. “Jinhyung helped me mix it.”

 

Taehyung snaps his teeth around the radish. “Extra crunchy. Kid’s a culinary innovator.” 

 

Jeongguk laughs. Taehyung’s shoulder brushes his and he doesn’t move, adds the mung beans to the pot. 

 

“So,” Taehyung says, nodding to the screen. His hair’s getting a little too long too, falling over his eyebrows, the back touching past his nape, the harshness of his face softened. Jeongguk thinks he shouldn’t cut it either but he doesn’t have a say in this the way he does with Jinhyung. He doesn’t truly with Jinhyung either, would take him to get it trimmed the moment he shows discomfort. “We gonna be rich?”

 

“Someone will be,” Jeongguk says with a snort. 

 

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants . Epictetus,” he adds at Jeongguk’s cocked brow. “Sorry. Still in professor mode. It’s been a long day.”

 

“Oh. You should go watch the movie. Sit for a bit. Pretty sure Jinhyung’s gonna burst in here demanding your attention again soon enough.”

 

Taehyung smiles, elbows leaned on the counter. “I would but I’ve been sitting all day. University hasn’t caught onto the standing desk movement. Besides, I like keeping you company while you,” and he gestures to the kitchen, the wafting smoke and low lights, the scent of home that is different to each of them- Busan, Daegu, seaside forest, the valleys of a farm -but home all the same, “And sometimes I need the quiet that isn’t quiet after coming home. A sort of quiet at the end of a long day.” He tilts his head and Jeongguk wants to push his hair back out of his face, tuck it back behind his ear, and it’s different, the want to do it, than the way he does it for Jinhyung, would for Yoongi or Namjoon. “Does that make sense?”

 

The warmth in the kitchen is murkier than the summer heat outside. It knocks against the cooling a/c throughout the apartment and Jeongguk feels it wrapping around him, sticking to him the way the sort of quiet between Taehyung and him does, the murmur from the movie and the occasional commentary from Namjoon or Jinhyung, the slight vibration from whatever song Yoongi is working on and the traffic outside a hum, the soft world in the background. 

 

Like his head is underwater, Jeongguk nods. He reaches out, and something flickers in Taehyung’s eyes, the deep wide depths of them and it’s like being sunken in an ocean of sun, if the sun were an ocean, being around Taehyung, standing close to him, looking at him, and knowing that the sun is right over the horizon if he can just keep reaching for it, the surface, if Jeongguk could just push himself up, not be so afraid to stand in its warmth. 

 

He drops his hand at the last second, brushes some lint that isn’t there near Taehyung’s sleeve. He turns back to the pot, checks that the vegetables are just tender. “Wanna help? The rice needs stirring.”

 

“Whatever I can do to earn my keep,” Taehyung says after a moment of stillness, voice light, and he does, kneels over the rice cooker connected to the outlet next to the sink, chases all the excess moisture out with even-handed motions of the rice scoop. He finds the leftover hogugwaja after, marvels at the chocolate, eases Jeongguk’s concerns over the excess sugar and fat with, “Don’t worry. I haven’t skipped a gym day all week. I mean, have you seen these guns?” he asks, flexing ridiculously, his cuffed t-shirt proudly stating Grammar is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit , and it is so ridiculous because Jeongguk has noticed, and it is ridiculous how he tries not to laugh because it’s always a lost cause when Taehyung is aiming for to pull that particular sound from Jeongguk’s mouth. “Plus, you put too many vegetables in the jjigae . I think my heart can take a little sweetness,” Taehyung says, letting his arms drop, mouth curved sweetly. 

 

And rain patters from the tv and Jeongguk feels slow and warm, sweet. 




---




Goyangi . Can you say goyangi ?”

 

B-bo-bo .”

 

Go-yan-gi .”

 

Ba-ban-bgi .”

 

Yes, gggo-yiiian - and now we’re watching it from the beginning again,” Jeongguk says as Jinhyung drags his finger across the screen, back to the start of the video with the animated dinosaurs explaining the vocabulary lesson for today, non-dinosaur animals. It’s the fifth time he’s done it and at first Jeongguk thought it was adorable because of Jinhyung’s obvious fascination with all things mesozoic is growing, but he’s starting to feel the day’s exhaustion a little too heavily. 

 

Head knocking back on Jeongguk’s chest, Jinhyung points at the screen and claps, excitedly saying, “ B-onyon !” 

 

Jeongguk sighs, presses a kiss to his forehead, “Mhhm. Gonglyong .”

 

The eighth time Jinhyung skips back, Jeongguk is a little at the end of his rope. 

 

“How about we watch it all the way through this time, hmm?” Jeongguk asks, trying to keep his voice soft but not allowing the space to argue. 

 

Jinhyung shakes his head, gently stops Jeongguk’s hand by holding it and Jeongguk’s heart goes gooey despite the frustration because his kid is still the gentlest little thing even when he won’t listen. 

 

Holding the tablet firmly, Jeongguk says, “We have to finish the lesson, Jinhyung.”

 

A little whine builds in Jinhyung’s throat, a droning hum of b-b-b-ba , and Jeongguk thinks he might finally lose it, his temper, his sanity, something. 

 

“Don’t you want to see what comes after cat, bud?”

 

Jinhyung’s whines decrease but they’re still present. “ Ba-tae-tae .”

 

“It’s probably dog. Or ohhh maybe duck,” Taehyung says, enticing, but Jinhhyung shakes his head at him, hiding his face in Jeongguk’s hand. Concerned eyes, Taehyung looks at Jeongguk, says, “Is he tired? He had his nap today.”

 

Jeongguk sighs, represses the urge to scrub at his face. “Maybe he needs another one,” he says, only half means it. They’d been having a nice late afternoon, Jinhyung waking up soft and happy from his nap and they’d made dinner together, cheesy potatoes with gochujang , and Jinhyung had babbled about his latest favorite dinosaur with the biggest wings in fossilized history, and it made it okay that Jeongguk was still in his work clothes, that he had a softly aching headache, sitting on a blanket in the kitchen with Jinhyung in his lap, the scent of mint steeping, the clicks from Taehyung’s keyboard in the background. 

 

He should call it quits, let Jinhyung just loop the video over and over forever if that’s what he wants, take a nap himself. 

 

The keyboard quiets. “Hey, how about I take him for a bit?”

 

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

 

“I don’t mind,” Taehyung says, and maybe Jeongguk really does need that nap, because it makes him weirdly angry, something curl almost savagely in his belly. 

 

“I-”

 

“You could take a shower, relax a little,” and there’s a coaxing in Taehyung’s voice, fully turned in his chair towards them now, a practicalness when he adds, “You still have wood-chips in your hair from when you were fixing the wobbly bit in Namjoon’s chair.”

 

It’s the Taehyung-patented delivery of it, how enviably casual he looks in a t-shirt and board-shorts- In summer, the song sings itself , was all he said at Jeongguk questioning the reasoning of wearing them not anywhere near a pool -the satiny blue kimono style bathrobe he’s taken to wearing lately like an auntie and her favorite housecoat, the concern that isn’t overbearing, not because he doesn’t think Jeongguk can’t handle it. So it’s not even that it’s easy, it’s more instinct, for the rising emotion in Jeongguk to filter out, his shoulders to sag, his body almost cave over Jinhyung and say, “Okay.”

 

Getting Jinhyung is harder than either of them expect and he keeps clinging to Jeongguk while reaching for the sash on Taehyung’s robe at the same time, ba-ba and ba-tae equally mixing in his mouth, and Jeongguk considers taking Jinhyung into the shower with him despite him already having his bath because he actually really does want to shower now, and he feels a little desperate, a little strung out for it, until he finally looks at Taehyung and without thinking asks, “Will you come into the bathroom with us?” and instead of looking at him like he’s crazy, Taehyung just says, “Okay.”

 

“You know, there’s probably a movie like this.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“This. Guy holds other guy’s baby while he showers. It’s probably a gangster movie.”

 

Jeongguk pokes his head out of the shower, the curtain getting the rug damp, and Taehyung is standing with his back to him, staring out the little window on top of the toilet, Jinhyung held to his chest and playing with the sash, shiny blue curling over his fingers. “You can set him down if he gets too heavy,” Jeongguk tells him.

 

“I know,” Taehyung says, shifting from foot to foot, a gentle rock to his motions. Jeongguk can’t see them, but he knows it looks extra silly with the board-shorts, pink and grey, except he’s not sure he’d find it silly, the image of it now making him smile genuinely, nothing cynical about it. He ducks back under the spray, the curtain falling closed soundly. 

 

“So what happens next?”

 

“What?”

 

“In the movie. The gangsters with the baby.”

 

“Oh. Right.” Taehyung pauses. “Well, I decided they’re not gangsters. It’s too cliché. So the baby is a gangster’s baby and these two guys just end up having to take care of it while on the run from a rival gang. Different kind of cliché.”

 

“Hmm. And these two guys… what are they?”

 

“Uh. They’re in a band. A really crappy sludge punk band.”

 

“No, like, I mean to each other,” Jeongguk says, hands full of soap.

 

There’s nothing but falling water and then Taehyung says, “Oh. You know, well, they’re bandmates. Friends. Yeah, friends.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“What?”

 

“What what?”

 

“That hmmm,” Taehyung says, and he sounds closer, like he’s turned a little, just the corner of his jaw. “It sounded unconvinced.”

 

Sudsy palms against his armpits, Jeongguk shrugs even though Taehyung can’t see it. He wonders if Taehyung can guess it, imagine him doing it, not like this now, naked and wet and soapy, but in general, if Taehyung fills in Jeongguk’s reactions when he isn’t looking at him the way Jeongguk does with him, those specific types of non-verbal words, and the only weird thing about Jeongguk thinking about that is the same thing that’s weird about Taehyung standing in the bathroom holding his kid while Jeongguk showers, how it’s not weird at all, how it feels like something that’s always happened, someone’s voice through the vapor water after a long day, companionable silence, anecdotes exchanged while Jeongguk held a tinier Jinhyung to his chest under the water, that voice on the other side of the shower curtain, on the other side of the shower head. 

 

He rinses off, says, “I guess it sounds like they’re more than that. Friends.”

 

It sounds off, when Taehyung replies, “You got that from just that?”

 

“Sure,” Jeongguk says, in that way Taehyung always says it, agreeing but more to say, not really sure at all but charming about it nonetheless. He shuts the water off, opens the curtain wide enough to stick his head out again. “Sometimes that’s all you need. Hand me my towel, please?” he asks, realizing he left it on the hook on the door, maybe knowing someone else was within reach.

 

“Sure, sure, sure.” It takes him a second to move and it could be easily blamed on Jinhyung except he’s being perfectly pleasant now, arms thrown around Taehyung’s neck and babbling softly at him. Taehyung hands Jeongguk the towel without turning around, careful steps, mindful of the weight in his arms. 

 

“Sorry, and my sweats.”

 

“Sure, sure, sure.” 

 

Jeongguk bites back a laugh, dresses, and when he’s towel drying his hair off, all the wood chips worked out, he says, voice teasing and soft, “You can turn around. You’re not going to burst into flames if you look at me.” 

 

It’s a joke except there’s nothing all that funny when Taehyung does turn around, Jinhyung lying in his arms like when he was tinier than he is now, still little hands playing with the lapel of his robe, and there’s a startling honesty in Taehyung’s face, in his voice, when he says, “I don’t know. Still feels like I might.”

 

Jinhyung picks that exact moment to mumble, “ Ba-ba ,” arms extending for Jeongguk, and he springs into action, forgets the momentary bath warmth and other types of warmth to pluck his kid gently out of Taehyung’s arms, satiny silk brushing against his cotton t-shirt, and maybe it is what makes Taehyung himself feel so warm now. Maybe it’s just him. 

 

He looks up to find the tender look in Taehyung’s eyes, on Jinhyung, and it makes him ask, “Want to do story time with us?”

 

And Taehyung smiles at him, a different kind of tender, and says, “Sure. Stories are my favorite .”




---




“How come you never said anything about Jinhyung not talking?”

 

The park on 8th by the bridge has the best shaved ice, all real fruit juice and just ice, no syrup or added sugar. Jeongguk’s tongue has been turning redder as the minutes have passed under the sweltering heat, against the laughter of summer. 

 

Taehyung angles his head in his direction. His mouth outlined in orange, the air around him spiked with mangoes. 

 

Jeongguk says, “You talked to Namjoon about it. Or he talked to you. He told me.”

 

“Truthfully?”

 

Jeongguk nods. He watches Jinhyung watch some bigger kids swing off some monkey bars. Every so often he’ll come back towards them for a scoop of shaved ice or to tell them about a bird he saw and then he’s off, playing in the sand pit, jumping in the shallow fountain full of warm weather spun kids. 

 

“I was being selfish,” Taehyung says, elbows on his knees, the only thing of him in Jeongguk’s line of sight is the breadth of his shoulder, the soft wave of his hair. “I didn’t want to think anything was wrong. I didn’t want you to think I thought there was. I’m sorry.”

 

Heart thudding, Jeongguk leans forward. He wants to reach out, say the right thing, the perfect thing like Taehyung always does. “I’m not bringing it up because I want an apology, Taehyung. I just wanted to know.”

 

Orange ice water is dripping over Taehyung’s sandals, fraying and rough leather, but he doesn’t seem to notice or mind. 

 

Jeongguk reaches out, tips the cup of melting shaved ice up. 

 

It gets Taehyung to look at him, gets him to say, “I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to be the one to say it. I couldn’t do that. Be that person to him. I guess that makes me weak. I wanted to help him but- and I really do think we learn at different paces. Life makes us all differently, it comes at us differently too.”

 

“You’re not weak,” Jeongguk says, because he’d never think of Taehyung as that, but because as hard as it’s been in a very singular way for Jeongguk, this has been hard for Taehyung too, Taehyung who used to be a little boy who struggled with a certain set of words to watch another little boy struggle with all of them. 

 

“It’s okay if you think I am,” Taehyung says, coming out of his slump like there’s a strength in that, recognizing your own weakness. 

 

“Okay. But I don’t. You’re the second strongest person you know, remember?”

 

Jinhyung makes his way back to them then, hands curled close to his chest. He stops right at Jeongguk’s knees and holds something up, fluffy and the color of Taehyung’s shaved ice but earthier. “ B-yoyangi !”

 

They’re late to dinner, Namjoon’s hybrid frittata-miso-ramen, and Taehyung gets a bad scratch from a branch from when they found the rest of the kittens and the surprisingly docile mother cat from under the bush Jinhyung had found the first kitten rolling around near, and Jinhyung beams at the animal sanctuary praising him for rescuing the family and what a smart brave boy he is, and later Jeongguk will have to teach him that some stray animals can be feral, that he has to be careful, but for now his kid is brave and smart and strong. Talking isn’t everything anyway. 




---




“Here.”

 

A wrapped package bounces off Jeongguk’s chest. It lands on his thighs, a strip of lettuce falling on his work trousers. “What the f-”

 

“I know you have a Tide pen in your bag, don’t cry.” Soohyun’s chair squeaks as he sits, wheels rolling over the office’s sleek carpet. “It’s called a lunch break for a reason.”

 

Jeongguk eyes the proffered food with distrust, whatever it is warm in his hand. It also smells delicious and his stomach protests, mouth watering. He went a little hard on his workout this morning, is all. 

 

Soohyun wakes his computer up, keyboard keys clicking noisily. The office is filling up again, people back lunch-break, talking amongst themselves. Jeongguk can’t remember the last time he’s moved in the last few hours. Once to go to the bathroom. He does hourly chair exercises to keep his blood flowing, his muscles from atrophying, but he knows it’s not enough. He’s upped his gym time in the last year but he wonders about asking the office manager what she thinks of standing desks. 

 

Bringing the wrap closer, paper crinkling, he says, “I already ate.”

 

“I know. Those perfect little rolled egg omelettes. What, you live with Korean Martha Stewart?”

 

“What makes you think I’m not Korean Martha Stewart?”

 

“Touché. I can see you in an apron. The insider trading… eh not so much.”

 

“I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or not.” 

 

“Believe me, it is. Most of us who work here just want that green flushed life. The Wall Street Dream. You’re solid gold but not that way.”

 

Brows furrowed, Jeongguk rips at the paper, the smell of cooked spices hitting him fully in the face. “What makes you say that?”

 

“You’re glued to your desk and work harder than almost anyone else at this office but you don’t play the corporate game. Don’t suck up to the bosses or go out for drinks and I don’t think you’ve done a single hour of overtime you didn’t have to just so you can be home at a reasonable time. I’d think you were the world’s least Korean Korean but I know you’ve got the little man at home.”  

 

Taking a bite, Jeongguk looks at the picture frame on his desk. Yoongi got it for him on Jinhyung’s last birthday, his reasoning for getting Jeongguk a present being your kid’s birthday is your celebration too, isn’t it? and it’s one of those digital ones where the screen morphs into a different picture every few seconds. Jinhyung surrounded by trees, his sneakers matching Jeongguk’s. At three months, cheeks dimpled with his favorite blanket. Trying out his tricycle for the first time on their block, an out of focus Namjoon in the foreground. Only a few weeks old and asleep in Yoongi’s arms. Perched up high on Taehyung’s shoulders at the Museum of Natural History, reaching up for the T. rex skeleton  above them, his smile as wide as Taehyung’s.

 

“Isn’t that a stereotype?”

 

“Yeah. Then again, OECD lists don’t lie.” Kicking open the cooler he keeps under his desk, Soohyun pulls out a can, pressure hissing as he opens the energy drink. “And, you know, all Korean kids are aspiring doctors and eat perfectly steamed rice they make themselves with each meal.”

 

Jeongguk cocks his head. 

 

Soohyun snorts. Says, “The sight of blood makes me faint and my rice is basically paste, man. I’m a real disappointment to my parents.”

 

Jeongguk grins, the bitterness he doesn’t feel as often anymore trying to overtake his stomach. “Aren’t we all?”

 

Soohyun nods, empties half his drink, the brightness from the screen ricocheting off the metal. “ Parents . They want the world for you but they never stop to think maybe you don’t want the world.” 

 

The next picture is a recent one. Jeongguk’s face is puffy with sleep, bed-head and his oldest pajamas on a Sunday morning with Jinhyung on his hip, batter on both their noses. He looks disgruntled, clearly trying to be annoyed at the person taking the picture and failing, and Jinhyung is holding onto him so sweetly, entranced by the way air bubbles appear on the round little cakes’ surface, the oil crackling in the pan. 

 

“Especially us immigrant kids. Sorta kids. That’s why we gotta stick together. Now eat your falafel, man. And get out of your desk at some point this week other than for the gym, yeah?”

 

The bitterness stays quiet. Jeongguk fills his stomach with the warm fried chickpeas instead. “Does this mean you’ll finally share your energy drinks with me?”

 

“No way, man. I’m glad you’re my desk mate, but I’m not that thankful you’re the reason I’m not desk-mates with Trevor.”

 

“You mean the guy who only talks about how he played water polo all through college?” 

 

“You know what? Maybe I am that thankful. Fuck that guy. Drinks on me.”

  



---




“So I told him where he could shove his notes.”

 

“Which was...?”

 

“The trash folder of her gmail account.”

 

“... and where did you actually want to tell him to shove them?”

 

“Her ass.”

 

“Right. Of course.”

 

“Should you be talking about your dissertation advisor like that?”

 

Taehyung looks at him first, easing into a smile, but Joohyun is the one who says, “Shouldn’t you be imitating Leonardo Dicaprio in his overacted Scorsese money-is-evil-but-evil-people-always-win movie?”

 

“I don’t think that was the point of The Wolf of W-

 

Jeongguk folds his arms across his chest, his tie wrinkled by his forearms. “It’s nice to see you, Joohyun.”

 

“Likewise,” she says smiling like it genuinely is. 

 

“Actually, a lot of Scorsese’s movies deal with the pitfalls of our obsession with money-”

 

Joohyung springs out of her leather, dark leather that fits with the rest of the earthy tones of Taehyung’s office, the ferns on the corners of his desk, the bookshelf and the window. It’s small but sunlit, cozy. “I’m going to go before he gets into how Catholic guilt is the underlying theme in the philosophy of all Italian gangster movies.”

 

“But that’s because it is-”

 

“It was fascinating the first time I heard it, Taehyung. The tenth time, not so much. I’ll let you two get to what I’m sure will be an adorable lunch date.”

 

Taehyung makes the strangest expression Jeongguk has seen him make maybe ever, face blank but jaw tensing like he’s clenching his teeth hard enough to crack but trying to hide it. “Yes, I think it’s best if you fuc-”

 

“Uh,” Jeongguk cuts in, shaking a paper bag in Taehyung’s direction. “She’s not wrong. Not about the adorable part, but, the uh lunch part. If you have time. If you want to,” he adds when Taehyung just stares at him, his face holding onto its harshness despite how soft his eyes look behind his glasses, how not intimidating he looks in his sweater with the purple pterodactyl on the front. “It’s nice out and I thought- that little pond by the science building is still there, right?”

 

Taehyung gives the slightest shake of his head, face losing its intensity. “Yes. That sounds nice. I have time. Yes.”

 

“Wonderful,” Joohyun says with a clap of her hands. She skirts past Jeongguk in what is eerily reminiscent of the first time they met, another office, smaller and with less light, all of them younger, Jeongguk unbearably so. “Taehyung, think about what I said. Oh, and Jeongguk? Check your email. A friend out in Chicago thinks they’ve made a breakthrough on whether or not you should feed kids only organic food until the age of five. I sent you the abstract.”

 

There’s a resigned fondness on Taehyung’s face when he calls after her, “Be nice to your advisor, Joohyun-ah. She’s only trying to help.”

 

Not bothering to turn around, she flips Taehyung off. “I’ll see you when you’re in postdoc hell!”

 

Jeongguk waits until she’s gone to ask, “Should she be flipping off other faculty members on campus grounds?”

 

Taehyung laughs. He slaps his palms against his desk cheerfully, like he’s never known harshness or looked it, and stands. “So. Lunch?”




---

  



“What are you supposed to think about?”

 

“Hmm? Seriously, how’d you come up with these?” Taehyung asks, scarfing down another egg. There’s tteokbokki sauce on his cheek and the summer sun plays with his hair, fills the overworked lines of his face with light. 

 

“YouTube. Um-”

 

“You even rolled up the rice in cucumber. Seriously . Jinhyung’s going to be the lunchbox envy of the pree-school. All the PTA parents will hate you.”

 

Jeongguk tries to focus on the heat caused by Taehyung’s praise than the thought of Jinhyung starting school. “That was Yoongi’s idea. It’s just because Joohyun said- to think about it? Sorry, I don’t want to be nosy. You don’t have to-”

 

“It’s fine,” Taehyung assures him. He finishes the last of the rice roll and sighs in satisfaction, watches the water sprouting from the fountain in the middle of the pond, this old statue covered in mossy green. “We were just talking about the future. My future. I already submitted my dissertation so if I wasn’t thinking about it before, I really have to now.”

 

“You’ll be a professor, right? Tenure track?”

 

“Sure. Sure , that’s the plan but it’s not just about what my plan is. There are only so many vacancies and it’s crazy competitive. And I love to teach but it’s not what I always want. Or what I want to do for always.”

 

“What else do you want?”

 

“Doing research, for one. That’s why I got into all this,” Taehyung says, index circling to encompass all the buildings around them, these supposedly hallowed halls of learning. “And sometimes I wonder if I even still want this specifically. Academia and all the politicking bullshit that comes with it. And in the end it’ll be less about what I want for me and my career and more about whether or not I’m what they want. If I fit in the ideals they have.” 

 

Jeongguk’s silence is heavy, palpable. Taehyung eventually turns to look at him, a wry smile on his face. 

 

“Sorry. I’m talking too much. Don’t mean to be a downer.”

 

Jeongguk picks at a rice roll, the thin cucumber giving under his fingers. He’s been getting up an hour earlier to make Jinhyung’s lunch everyday, one thing less for Namjoon to do the hours he juggles his work and watching him on the weekdays. It’s bled into making dinner most days and breakfast on the weekends, making sure they’re all fed, that they’re not all stuffing themselves with the processed food they do when time is constrained, when what they put into their bodies seems like the least important thing as long as it’s something. It makes sense that it would extend to Taehyung, because of course it would. 

 

Shaking his head, he says, “No. It’s fine. I’m sorry. I’ve just never heard you talk like that.”

 

“How do I usually talk?”

 

“Secure in yourself.” Jeongguk shrugs, put on the spot. “You always talk like you’re choosing to say exactly what you mean. You act like it too. Like you know exactly what you’re doing all the time. What you’ll be doing at any time.”

 

Running water babbles. The pond is in a secluded area behind the building. Jeongguk can’t remember how he found it, just that he liked coming here as a student, the not quite quiet quietness. The almost loneliness. 

 

He looks back at Taehyung to find him already staring. He doesn’t look ashamed to be caught out, eyes backlit by the sun as he says, “You’d be surprised.”

 

Something kicks underneath Jeongguk’s ribs. He wants to look away but finds he can’t. 

 

Taehyung smiles then and it isn’t fake but there’s something impenetrable about it, something unreachable about his face. “Imposter syndrome is a very real thing. It hits the worst of us. Especially the best of us. You didn’t feel that a bit when you graduated? Like the university had made a mistake and you fooled everyone into thinking you knew enough to deserve that little piece of paper saying you knew enough.” 

 

“I guess,” Jeongguk says eventually and it doesn’t make sense that Jeongguk is already graduated and done and Taehyung is still going through his academic process despite the years between them, the wisdom, how Taehyung feels so much older, not in years but in experiences, life.

 

“Hey.” 

 

Jeongguk looks up and Taehyung’s face is as gentle as his voice, and it’s a wonder how he can ever look anything but. 

 

“I’m really fine. It’s just end of the line blues. You work on something for so long and it ends and it’s hard, I think, to make peace that it’s not really an end at all. Just another step in a long line of steps.” Taehyung’s brows slant, his hand coming up to touch Jeongguk’s arm and he doesn’t hesitate when he brushes over the knob of his shoulder. “Come on, don’t make that face.”

 

“What face?” Jeongguk asks quietly. It all feels so quiet here, but it always does, between them. 

 

“Like I’m making you sad and you’re worried. You don’t have to worry about everyone all the time, Jeongguk.”

 

“I can’t help it,” Jeongguk says. It sweeps out of him like a sigh because it’s easy to admit it when he’s been caught out so easily. By someone who’s come to know him with ease. “I always worry about the people I care about.”

 

“That’s admirable. Sweet, really. But you can let others worry instead. Take care of you sometimes.”

 

He wants to pull away, recoil into himself from Taehyung’s words, his touch, the inofensive earnestness of his face. He shakes his head, blinks at the water flowing over the pond’s rocky edges. “I let others worry. I let- Namjoon and Yoongi have been taking care of me for years. I don’t know what would have happened to us if it weren’t for them. My parents before them took care of me. I’ve always- I’ve never depended just on myself.”

 

Taehyung’s face is caught in the shade of the tree looming behind them, swaths of sun bursting through, and he looks as aged as the trunk twinning in on itself, as young as a kitten lazing in the morning light. He pulls his hand away from Jeongguk’s shoulder not finger by finger, but a slowness to how he does it, the pause he takes right as he lifts his palm. “Right.”

 

“What?” Jeongguk asks. He means to sound hard but it just sounds meek. The egg feels sour in his stomach. 

 

“No. You’re right. But you also don’t see yourself the way you are.”

 

“And how is that?”

 

“The way everyone else does.”

 

“And we are how everyone else sees us?”

 

“Half of ourselves.” Taehyung shrugs. The air still feels heavy. It makes Jeongguk want to fidget. Want to something. Crack Taehyung’s head open, just a little, gently so there’s no damage, just to see what goes on inside of it, what he thinks before deciding what he’ll say. “Still an important half.”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know if he agrees with that or what to make of it. That everyone is just a half and another. That every time he turns away from the mirror the person people see is different. 

 

Taehyung tilts his head. His stance is relaxed now, open and friendly. He smiles, even friendlier. “Thank you for lunch. And for getting me out of the office. I didn’t realize how much I needed it until now.”

 

“It was pointed out to me recently I needed it too. My deskmate, actually.”

 

“Well, thank him for me too.”

 

“I will.”

 

“Good,” Taehyung says. He reaches for the last cucumber roll, asks, “Want to share?”

 

Jeongguk isn’t very hungry anymore but he says, “Sure. You can have the bigger half.”

 

Taehyung nods and they eat the pulled apart roll, cucumber seeds and rice spilling everywhere, and it’s a little too quiet, a silence that feels off, the humming of the water louder than before.

 

It isn’t until they’ve packed up, made the walk up the path leading back towards Taehyung’s office and Jeongguk has set off for his own that he realizes Taehyung gave him the bigger half anyway.



---




“Did you pack his sippy cup? The pink one wi-”

 

“The T. rex’s. His favorite. Yep. Got it.”

 

“Oh! And his fruit bars. The blue-”

 

“Berry ones. He’s really into blueberries now. They’re in Joon’s bag.”

 

“Good. Okay. Good. And did you-”

 

“Ggukie.”

 

Jeongguk peers up from searching Jinhyung’s bag. He must look like a deer caught in the headlights, some other frazzled animal, because Yoongi sighs and says, “We have everything. We’ve spent plenty of nights with the kid. We’ve got this. You can trust us with him.”

 

“I know that, hyung. Of course I do,” he says, Mr. Gong Yoo clutched in his fists. As much as his love of dinosaurs has grown, Jinhyung refuses to sleep without him, his once bright white belly a little dull no matter how many times Jeongguk washes him in the gentle cycle, the shininess of its plastic eyes dimmed. “He’s never spent the night away.” 

 

Yoongi raises a brow. “We’re going to be twenty minutes away.”

 

“Away is still away,” Jeongguk argues. At Yoongi’s eye roll he adds, “Why does Namjoon even get to go to the magazine’s staff activities? He’s freelance.”

 

“You didn’t say any of that when we planned all this. You were supposed to be coming with us if you remember. And, what, you gonna break Jinhyung’s heart and say he can’t go now?”

 

Jeongguk makes a face, his sharp retort saved by Namjoon stepping into the living room, bag packed and strapped to his shoulders. “Gguk would never do that. And I get to go to all staff activities because I’m the best writer they have. And they love me.”

 

Yoongi snorts, a smile tugging at his eyes. “Modest as always.”

 

“It’s why you married me,” Namjoon says. He stuffs a water bottle into the side pocket of Yoongi’s bag and kisses the side of his head, half on his hair and like an afterthought. They’re wearing identical pajamas, sweats and oversized t-shirts, the only difference being where Yoongi’s shirt reps Biggie, Namjoon’s says Trust Nobody with Tupac giving middle fingers below. Their slippers match, glaringly red and glaringly ugly.

 

Jeongguk frowns. “I hate everything you two choose to be.”

 

Yoongi rolls his eyes again. “Yeah, yeah. Where’s the kid?”

 

“Wait until you see him,” Namjoon says, smiling wide. He cups his hands around his mouth. “What do you mean not all the dinosaurs went extinct?!”

 

There’s a thump from the hallway. “Bbbb- rawwwr !”

 

Jinhyung appears and Jeongguk has to resist the urge to coo. Or cry. He manages the latter better. 

 

His onesie has a tail . The T. rex head is a little too big for him and it wobbles with every pounce Jinhyung gives and it’s equal parts hilarious and adorable and Jeongguk is allowed to get emotional that his kid is the cutest thing ever. 

 

To Namjoon and Yoongi he says, “He’s not gonna last all night in that.”

 

Namjoon nods. “I give it two hours tops.”

 

“We packed actual pajamas,” Yoongi says and of course they did, of course they thought of that, of everything, and all of Jeongguk’s worrying is for nothing. 

 

Neither of them say this, just watch him take Jinhyung into his arms and the gratitude Jeongguk feels is almost nauseating. 

 

He perches Jinhyung on his hip and tucks his curling hair under the onesie’s hood. “Who’s this ferocious dinosaur?”

 

Jinhyung shakes his fist in excitement. “B! B-rex! B-rawwr!”

 

“Where’s Jinhyungie? Did you eat him? Did you?” Jeongguk asks and makes an eating motion, pokes at Jinhyung’s belly. 

 

Jinhyung shakes his head fast, smiling. He gestures for Jeongguk to come closer, whispers. “Ba- ba .” He points to himself, words garbled as he says, “B-jinhuuuun.”

 

Jeongguk’s heart soars. “Nope. I think you ate him. I think Jinhyung is right here,” he says and ducks his head to blow raspberries on Jinhyung’s belly through the onesie and he barely makes contact but Jinhyung is already erupting in laughter, wriggling and swearing his identity. 

 

They leave it to the last possible moment and then they have to go, after Jinhyung has gone to the bathroom once more, run around the living room twice, demanded Taehyung’s wearabouts three times, and Jeongguk has rechecked Yoongi’s bag a final time. 

 

“You be good for uncle Namjoon and uncle Yoongi, hmm?” Jeongguk asks, kneeling and fixing the dinosaur hood. It lops to one side, makes Jinhyung look heartbreakingly adorable. 

 

Jinhyung nods. He pulls at the ends of his onesie’s sleeves. “B- tae ?”

 

“You’ll see him tomorrow,” Jeongguk reminds him, doesn’t bring up that he won’t see Jeongguk either until tomorrow in case Jinhyung decides to focus on that. The jealousy he still expects to feel sometimes never comes. It gives his heart that same light feeling, like flying, that Jinhyung has more people he wants to see than before, more people who want to see him. 

 

“That reminds me,” Namjoon says, fussing with a strap on his bag. He gestures to the coffee table, the low wooden piece Yoongi brought back on one of his trips back to Seoul. “Can you give Taehyung that book when he gets home? Finally finished it.”

 

Jeongguk nods, stilted. “If I see him, yeah.”

 

Yoongi curls a hand around Jinhyung’s shoulder. “Come on, kid. We’ve got a night with the stars to get to!”

 

Jeongguk smiles at the excitement in Yoongi’s voice, how fake it sounds, how real he knows it actually is. 

 

They head for the door, Jinhyung’s hand in one of Yoongi’s and Namjoon’s each and it hits Jeongguk harder than it ever has, that this is how it always could have been, and tonight it hits him like this is how it maybe should have been, how at place Jinhyung looks between them, like there isn’t anyone else’s hand he holds onto. 

 

Jinhyung looks over his shoulder and Jeongguk holds his smile, waves even though his arms feel like lead, unbearably heavy with their emptiness, and then Jinhyung is running back towards him, and Jeongguk barely has a second to get his bearings before he slams into him, hugging his knees so hard Jeongguk almost stumbles. 

 

Chin on Jeongguk’s knee, Jinhyung blinks up at him sweetly. He says, “Ba- ba ,” and it sounds like he’s saying something else, like he’s saying three words Jinhyung has heard every single day of his life and hasn’t had the chance, the words, to say it back in the way everyone else understands.

 

“I love you, Jinhyung-ah.” He brushes Jinhyung’s hair back, bangs curled from the humid summer heat. “Count all the stars for appa , okay?”




---




“Hey.”

 

The living room is streaked in darkness, the black and white colors of the screen filtering over the furniture and walls, Taehyung’s face. Jeongguk props himself up on the arm of the couch and yawns, pauses the movie. “Hey.”

 

“What are you doing here? Weren’t you guys going to the planetarium tonight?”

 

“Work thing. I actually have to go in on a Saturday for once. Couldn’t get out of it and it starts at eight.”

 

Taehyung nods, wincing sympathetically. 

 

Jeongguk scratches at his nose. The time on his phone says it’s a little after nine. He wonders how long they’ll keep the kids up with the bright blinking lights overhead, if Jinhyung’s body has already given in and he’s sacked out in Namjoon’s arms. “You’re home late. Than usual, I mean.”

 

“I had a couple of meetings. Going over courses for next semester and I had to finalize a few things for the conference with the rest of the committee.”

 

“You leave the week of the 7th, right?” Taehyung nods and he asks, “For how long?”

 

“A week. Then another to explore a bit. Might as well, huh?”

 

“Are you excited?”

 

Taehyung smiles. Then he shrugs. He stands tall but there’s a slight slump to his shoulders like the day has been exceptionally too long to him too. “Yes and no. I love meeting other students from all over the world and seeing what their doing in the field. But academics… we’re not always good at making our study areas exciting. Once you’ve been to one conference you’ve been to all them sort of. But hey. I get an all expenses paid trip to Europe so I can’t really complain. And I’ve never been to Denmark. That’ll be exciting.”

 

“That’s good. I’m happy for you.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Jeongguk picks at a piece of lint on his shirt and tries to think of something else to say, something to fill how stilted the silence feels. 

 

Taehyung says, “I love that scene.”

 

Blinking, Jeongguk asks, “Really?” He looks over his shoulder at the screen, the tense faces of a conversation at pause, one set of eyes imploring and wet, the other cold and detached. “I hate it. It almost made me stop watching the first time.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because he’s so ugly to her. He doesn’t have all the facts or know the whole story and when she tries to tell him, he pushes her away. He’s being unfair.”

 

“But that’s why I love it. Because he’s being ugly. We tell ourselves and others to be nice, that it’s the easy decent thing to do and maybe it is. Maybe it’s a lot easier than we give it credit. Or maybe the point is that niceness is supposed to be hard. But so many of us are ugly to each other. To ourselves. He’s hurt and trying to hurt her in that moment and he knows it. It’s why he breaks down as soon as she leaves. It’s so human. Being ugly is incredibly human. We’re all ugly at times.”

 

“I don’t buy that.”

 

“What?”

 

“You being ugly. You being anything except nice.”

 

Taehyung’s expression flickers, something nameless in his gaze flitting between the eyes on screen and Jeongguk’s, and for a moment, Jeongguk wonders if he even knows Taehyung at all. 

 

“There are lots of ways to be ugly. And I’m not always nice. I’m human too,” Taehyung says and if it doesn’t sound bitter or mean it’s because Taehyung really is too nice. 

 

“I didn’t mean that you aren’t.”

 

“I know. Guess I’m not that nice after all.”

 

Jeongguk stares at him, silent. He looks back at the movie, notices the book Namjoon gave him earlier on the low table. 

 

“Here,” he says. He retrieves the book, a thin volume. The cover looks old, leather, the edges of the pages a deep yellow. He holds it out to Taehyung as his phone pings on the couch. “Hyung said to give this back to you.”

 

“Oh.” Their fingers touch and Jeongguk barely thinks about it. They’ve touched plenty of times. Exchanging plates of food at the dining table and handing over a bottle of water during a hike or a cup of tea in the morning. Every time Jinhyung goes from Taehyung’s arms to Jeongguk’s and back. Ghost touches too. The first time Jeongguk thought of brushing the hair out of Taehyung’s eyes, the first time it felt like Taehyung’s hand on him might linger. Real touches. Taehyung squeezing his shoulder in comfort, friendly and professional; Jeongguk taking his first essay back, the ink spread across Taehyung’s knuckles. “Thank you.” Taehyung clears his throat, remorse in the slant of his brows. “Look-”

 

“Shit. Sorry,” Jeongguk says looking up from his phone. His message app is flooded with messages, all from coworkers he didn’t even have the contact info for until this week. “Work thing has now turned into out of town work thing.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“In Miami.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I didn’t even want to go tomorrow. It was just a mixer with investors but now I guess they’re all going to Miami, I don’t- what do you even wear to Miami?”

 

“Tropical prints. A speedo.”

 

“I don’t own any of those.”

 

“I can definitely help with the former. Probably the latter too if I’m honest.”

 

Jeongguk laughs. It sounds trill and thin and he sighs, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes. “Shit. I cancelled on Jinhyung last minute. He was so excited.”

 

“Hey. Namjoon and Yoongi took him. He’s fine.”

 

“I know,” Jeongguk says and there’s a lump in his throat now, a pressure in his eyes. They’re not tears or the moment before he gets choked up and yet it could come at any moment, this frustrating feeling made physical. “But I promised him. I don’t want to be that dad. The dad who doesn’t keep his promises.”

 

“Can I tell you something?”

 

Folding his knees against his chest, Jeongguk bites his lower lip. He nods, once and heavy, and it’s with the carefulness he always that Taehyung says, blunt, 

 

“You are going to be that dad. Sometimes.”

 

“I thought you said good fathers didn’t break their promises.” 

 

Taehyung’s face goes slack in thought, mouth dipping in an almost pout. “Did I? I’m pretty sure that’s not what I meant or not just that. I do think that’s true but it’s really that good parents will try to.” Quiet, he says, “You won’t be able to keep all the promises you want to. No parent can. It doesn’t make you less of a dad or less of a good one.”

 

“It just makes me human?” he asks, not fully at ease or any less guilty but something softening the worry of his heart, the worrying thing his soul seems to be. 

 

The corner of Taehyung’s mouth tugs upward. “Yeah. Something like that.”

 

Jeongguk groans, letting his side hit the couch’s armrest. He looks up at Taehyung and all of the strange tension no longer matters, just that Taehyung is here, that Jeongguk has someone here, that that someone is Taehyung. “Did you eat? We could make something quick. Or order in. Watch the rest of the movie? We can start it over if you want. I don’t think I’ll make it through the whole thing without falling asleep but I don’t mind.”

 

“That sounds really… nice. Lovely, actually. I’d love that.” 

 

Jeongguk smiles and he feels warmth all over, pressure escaping from under his ribs. It should be silly, how happy he feels at Taehyung’s words, the idea of his quiet being shared, his breathing as the movie plays, the silence of just one person in the house becoming two. He thinks feeling this way might make him human too. 

 

“But I can’t.”

 

Oh .”

 

“I want to. It’s just-”

 

“It’s fine,” Jeongguk insists, tries to play casual but he feels small, silly, embarrassment trekking up his belly. “You don’t have to-”

 

“I have a gig tonight,” Taehyung says. His voice is even where anyone else would sound hysterical, frustrated, but he just laughs, runs fingers through his hair. Jeongguk watches him, wide eyed, that pressure under his ribs back, startled at the off tempo beat of his heart. “It’s why I came down. I left my sax here yesterday. Namjoon wanted to hear how brass would fit on a track and see if it would work.”

 

“Did it?”

 

“What?”

 

“Did it work? On the track.”

 

“No. It was a train-wreck but I think it helped him figure out what was missing.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk says like it’s the one sound he can make. 

 

Taehyung holds his eye for a moment. Then his lips curl inward, mouth flat like his brows, and his face gets this decisive look about it, angled and stubborn and like little will change his mind. “You should come with me.”

 

“I can’t,” Jeongguk says. It’s a knee jerk reaction but it’s also the truth. 

 

“Why? You don’t have anywhere else to be tonight. Or tomorrow for that matter.”

 

“I bailed on my kid for a work thing. I can’t just turn around now and have bailed on him to go out with-” he puffs his lower lip out, eyes skidding over the screen, the shape Taehyung makes in the reflection of black and white light. He says, “To go out. What kind of dad would that make me?”

 

“One who isn’t so hard on himself?”

 

Breath short, Jeongguk swears his ribs are about to pop into his ribcage. It feels like he’s naked and Taehyung is the only one who can see it not because they’re the only ones in the room right now, but because he’s the only one who can always see it. 

 

“Look.” There’s this way Taehyung has of looking at people sometimes. It’s the way when Jinhyung reaches specifically for him and when he and Namjoon can commiserate over some abstract thought or obscure fact. It’s the same one whenever he manages to get Yoongi to laugh or tells a story about one of his students or his favorite professor or Joohyun. Jeongguk wants to call it protective, vulnerably so, like Taehyung wants to keep the person safe, exactly as they are in that moment. He wonders how many times Taehyung has looked at him this way and missed it. “If you want a night to yourself, I get it. Do that. Enjoy it. And I’m not saying this is going to be the best night of your life or all that exciting. It’s actually going to be quiet shit probably considering how terrible we play. But it’s a night with some real people and I know you’re not thirty-nine yet, but I figured you’ve made an exception once before for me, so why not again?”

 

And it sort of strikes Jeongguk then that when Jinhyung this father he’ll be pointing at Jeongguk. He doesn’t want Jinhyung to ever think Jeongguk is selfish but he doesn’t want Jinhyung to grow up thinking Jeongguk’s version of parenthood is the only one, that one day he’ll have to stop being the bright beautiful person he is, the one Jinhyung is growing up to be. 

 

There’s this way Taehyung has of looking at people sometimes, different than the way he looks at Jeongguk, and maybe the off thing about their silences lately is that they aren’t silent at all. 

 

Jeongguk looks back at the movie and the eyes that had seemed so cold and detached have a different hue to them now. 

 

He says, “Okay.”

 

There’s a sadness in those eyes, a fear, and a little more human than he originally thought. 

 

He looks at Taehyung and thinks he might be too. 




---

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---

 



Nightlife hasn’t changed much from the last time Jeongguk immersed himself in it. 

 

“I feel like you don’t know what the word shit means. Or terrible.”  

 

The voice from the stage is singing about dreams. The bar is familiar, some of the people too. It’s like everything freezes in places like this, young and dizzy with drink, with the lights. 

 

“And you know all the words so I’m a little worried you don’t know those.”

 

Flush with the resounding buzz of his performance and his second beer, Taehyung smiles, bashful. It makes him look younger than he is. It makes Jeongguk feel younger being able to make him look like that, makes him feel drunk on youth instead of alcohol, like he has forever. 

 

“How many of those had you had?” Taehyung asks. He taps the side of Jeongguk’s bottle. 

 

“Three. Nnnno. Four? I’m fine.”

 

“Never said you weren’t,” Taehyung says. 

 

“I’m good,” Jeongguk insists needlessly. It’s quiet on this side of the bar, less congested. The right end of the stage is in view, the feedback of the crooning vocals reverberating like waves. “I feel good,” he says. He brings his arms up to his chest, crosses them close, not because he feels shy or is trying to make himself small to hide. There’s a warmth in Taehyung’s eyes like he wants to tease Jeongguk but won’t, and it’s a different kind of shy. He’s hyper conscious of his body, the distance between it and Taehyung’s, how much smaller it could be. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Will you be honest?”

 

Taehyung raises his brows. “Am I ever not?”

 

It gives Jeongguk pause. He starts thinking how can he ever really know that and ends up thinking about the soft brown hue to Taehyung’s eyes in this lighting. He shakes his head, asks, “Did you want to bring me here tonight because you knew it was open mic night after your set?”

 

“Yes,” Taehyung says without hesitation. “And no.”

 

Jeongguk leans back on the bartop. He lifts the lip of his bottle to his mouth, the glass cool. He stares at Taehyung, silent. 

 

“I thought- maybe. I’ve watched you sing before and I told you, didn’t? How it made me feel. You were so alive. And Yoongi showed me that demo he had you sing on- don’t be mad at him,” Taehyung adds at the expression that must flicker across Jeongguk’s face. “He was showing me something else and then it started playing and I just- knew it was you. I asked him to keep playing it. If it’s not my place, so please tell me to fuck off whenever you want, but I just thought maybe. If you were here and you wanted to.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why?” Taehyung repeats, a rise of surprise to his voice. “Because it’s still a part of you,” he says, eyes widened, voice convicted, and he has to be the most passionate person Jeongguk has ever known. It flows through him, he is it, in everything he says, everything he does, everything he speaks. “Even if it’s not something you pursued academically or professionally. If it’s not a career. It still matters. It’s still you.”

 

A pang floats through Jeongguk but he doesn’t feel it. There’s a certain pain that is hard to name, to place where it happens in the body. He thinks it’s called being seen. 

 

“And the no?” he asks, tucking his arms in closer. He isn’t protecting himself from Taehyung but from this moment, this feeling, the soft way it doesn’t actually hurt. 

 

“The no is because I brought you here tonight because I wanted to be with you. And this is where I was going to be tonight.”

 

The voice on stage is singing about lingering and sunbeams now, still about dreams, and Jeongguk doesn’t feel like he’s in a dream but like he could be, young and dizzy as he is. 

 

He turns toward the bar, careful not to give Taehyung his back, to close him off, and says, “Come and drink with me. Shot for shot.”

 

Taehyung laughs, bright like the seaside Jeongguk grew up by, like a sudden clearing in the middle of the forest he could get lost in. “I don’t think I can manage that. Pretty sure you have me beat.”

 

“Better toughen up then, hyung. Make our people proud.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head, calls the bartender over, and the plea for a dream turns into the promise of one, to dream of someone, to dream of dreams. 




---




The lights are brighter up here.

 

He always used to forget that the times he did this as a child, barely up to his father’s chest and already a force to be reckoned with a microphone in his hand. Used to forget it too at eighteen, during his first year when he was so young and so in love, the warmth bleeding all over his cheeks, from his voice, as he thought it, as he sang it, this is it, this is me, this is mine. 

 

The flooring of the stage is smooth, same flat wooden paneling in the rest of the bar. He can hear Yoongi going off about acoustics, hear the way it echoes into their father’s voice. 

 

Everything echoes. The murmuring conversation all around him. Metal strings suspended on a note. His thoughts. 

 

He doesn’t know what he’s doing up here. 

 

Through the blurring lights he can see Joohyun’s face, brows wrinkled, and he remembers her talking about something, something important he’s sure, but the song being sung had been ending, the kid on stage so young, his eyes shaking as much as his voice, and he’d been singing this old song that reminded Jeongguk of being young, and the next thing he knows it’s him up on stage, not quite as young. 

 

“What’ll it be, man? You singing or what?”

 

The mic chord is a heaped coil at his feet and he stumbles his balance, sways to keep it. It’s just a man with a guitar and whatever voice wants to splay itself open next. It must seem so quiet after the harsh brass, the imposing high strung metals and pounding drums. 

 

He blearily makes out the faces of the small crowd, eyes dimmed in the light, doesn’t seek out Taehyung’s. He’s blinded by brightness. He wouldn’t be able to see the sun anyway. 

 

He doesn’t remember why he wanted to come up here, why he ever wanted to come up here in the first place, why it felt like this was it, this was him, this was love, at all. 

 

He says the name of a song, mouth away from the mic, asks the guy, “Do you know it?”

 

He nods. He seems to know them all, him and his guitar. He seems the type to never wonder what he’s doing up here, if this is it, if this is him, if this is love. 

 

Jeongguk almost asks but there’s finally sound, the flat of a palm against the guitar’s body, and then the strings ring together and he has to sing. 

 

He doesn’t think about it, about himself, about love. 

 

He sings it. 




---




“Did you know?”

 

“Know?”

 

“The song you sang. It’s one of my favorites.”

 

The night is warm with summer. not the wet stickiness of Jeongguk’s childhood but muggier, thicker. 

 

Taehyung looks at home in it, sleeves shoved up to his elbows, hair feathering over his forehead. Facing forward as he walks, he’s careful to keep his gait slow. “Namjoon and I have talked about it a bit. I thought…”

 

Jeongguk takes another step. Arms extended, he places one foot in front of the other on the elevation running along the fountain, the water’s surface rippled by LED lights. The park is virtually empty at this hour, a few people sleeping on benches, a group of men huddled under an archway with smoke billowing around them. The dizzy feeling he’s been carrying for hours worsens, weighs on his shoulders differently, threatens to toss him sideways into the water. There are so many lives he never thinks about, has been sheltered from, shelters the ones he loves from. 

 

He looks at Taehyung while minding his balance. Thinks about the places he’s grown up in, little farm in Daegu, little farm upstate, the big city man he is now. He says, “My dad played that record a lot when we were younger. That’s the song I remember most.”

 

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

 

“Sorry? Why?” 

 

“If it reminded you of him.”

 

“It didn’t. I don’t think he even liked it that much. He just liked the way it sounded. The recording itself.” He steps too lightly and his feet knock together. Taehyung reaches out but Jeongguk catches himself, their fingers barely brushing. Jeongguk laughs, head thrown back as he almost loses his balance again. 

 

Taehyung stands there and watches him, arms frozen in this half held position like he’s ready to catch Jeongguk if he stumbles, if he falls, worry on his face but mouth curled sweetly like he thinks it’s funny too.

 

Arms tipping one way and the other, Jeongguk starts walking again, waits for Taehyung to catch up, “Why do you love it? That song.”

 

“I didn’t say I love it. I said it’s a favorite.”

 

“Isn’t that the same thing? Like with people. They’re your favorites so you love them. You’re my favorite so I love you.”

 

“Now you sound like you’re the one speaking in quotes.”

 

Jeongguk laughs again. He feels so airy, so dizzy, so light. Maybe he has been depriving himself of something essential, the night, the fizzy sourness on his tongue, the company of someone else’s laughter just for the sake of their laugh, whatever keeps the young young. “Maybe. Will you tell me?”

 

Taehyung is silent for a while, the sound of water falling mixing with their breathing. His tone is quiet when he says, “I like how simple it is. It’s to the point. It’s obvious and true and there isn’t anything shameful about it even if when he sang it he sounded ashamed.”

 

“Is that how I sounded? Ashamed?”

 

“No,” Taehyung says, and he sounds not surprised, not awed. Jeongguk can’t name it. He doesn’t know that word. “You sounded like it was something to be proud of. I fall in love too easily. You made it sound like it’s something beautiful.”

 

Jeongguk reaches the end of the ledge, concrete giving way to the small hop to flat ground, red brick dark in the night. He faces Taehyung, the line of his nose both sharp and soft in the moonlight. “Will you play it for me when we get back?”

 

Taehyung turns so they’re no longer perpendicular, two points crossing, but two lines meeting, coming to a halt before they collide. He says, “Yes. Just as soon as I get you sober.” Then he offers Jeongguk a hand, palm flat, fingers staggered to take weight. 

 

Jeongguk looks at it, the way it catches the weak moonlight, the harsh city lights. He doesn’t need it, the hand, the help. He can’t feel the alcohol anymore but he never does need it. Jeongguk can carry the weight. His own, the one of the people he loves, his favorites, the world’s if he needs to. 

 

Truthfully, Jeongguk can carry it all. 

 

He places his hand in Taehyung’s warm one, and jumps. 




---




.




“It’s true, you know.”

 

“What is?”

 

It’s warm under the neons. They’re everywhere, spiraling from the ceiling, along the windows, glance off the napkin dispenser. Taehyung looks warm under them, the futuristic pinks and vapoury purples. They fill the angles of his face, the spaces between his eyelashes. 

 

Jeongguk holds a chilli fry to the lights, dips it in the queso when Taehyung gestures at it with his chin, pushes the bowl closer to Jeongguk. It looks blue from where he’s sitting. “ I fall in love too easily ,” he says, scrunching his shoulders and chewing. “It’s true. Or it used to be.”

 

“How easy we talking?”

 

“Hmmmm. Easy easy,” he says, ends the word on a little giggle. He isn’t drunk anymore if he ever even was, and especially not now after the deep fried grilled cheese and the deep fried ice cream, the chilli fries and the queso, but it floats out of his mouth, trilling and happy sounding. He’s so happy right now, here. How strange. “With everyone and everything. Movie stars and drama characters. The ocean. The pretty girls at hagwon. My best friend in high-school.”

 

“Did she feel the same?”

 

“He. And um...no. I never told him. I don’t think he knew. But if he did he was always sweet to me so that’s all that matters,” he says, glances down at the blue tinted bowl. “It was all in my head a lot. Making up fantasies. Love stories.”

 

“You made up love stories about you and the ocean?”

 

Jeongguk gives a little shrug, the smile on his mouth embarrassed but it doesn’t feel bad. Sticky like fresh nectar on his tongue, sea taffy stuck to his teeth. “I’d fall in love with a mermaid or sail the open seas to some fairy land. Or, you know how the ocean is so deep we don’t know most of it yet? The ocean is so big and never ending, I thought it must have enough love for everyone. At least a little.” He looks up at Taehyung, doesn’t hide his smile. “Will you tell me about him? The boy you loved?”

 

“Love.”

 

“But I thought you said you didn’t love him anymore?”

 

Surprise flits across Taehyung’s face, the lines in his forehead filling with dreamy pink. He blinks once, long and hard. Jeongguk wants to press his fingers to the little squiggles between his brows. Taehyung smiles, one corner higher, wiggly on his mouth and it’s weird and strange and terrible and beautiful, and Jeongguk wants to press his fingers to it too. His happy mouth. “Right. Him. Loved. What do you want to know?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says because he doesn’t. He feels weird and strange and terrible too. “Whatever you would want to tell me. Why you loved him, I guess.”

 

“But there's no why, is there? Why you love someone. You can come up with all the reasons you want, of course, but in the end none of that actually matters. You just love someone or you don’t.”

 

For a suspended moment Jeongguk just looks at him. He almost forgets what they’re talking about, held in the harsh pastel blues and purples. There are other late night stragglers in this diner, the line cook and the few waiters, the cashier boy, but the air moves between them like no one else is here. “Huh. Why are we talking about this?”

 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says, and his smile goes even funnier despite the way that it isn’t funny, how it feels like it’s pressed to Jeongguk’s rib-cage, warm and soft and there. “You asked me.”

 

“Oh. I’m changing my question,” he announces, dips another fry in the queso. “Tell me something about you. Something I don’t know yet.”

 

“Something no one else knows?”

 

The question is weighted, heavy. Jeongguk is lush under it, and he can take it is the thing, all sorts of weight, heaviness. “If you want to. If you trust me like that.”

 

“My first year in America I tried to run away,” Taehyung says. He gazes out the window right before he says it, looks back at Jeongguk as he utters the first word. “Everything felt so monumental. This new country and its language I couldn’t speak. English isn’t even the official language here. There is none which is sort of ironic or there has to be some sense of irony in that. But anyway, it was a lot for me and I felt like I was this big disappointment to everyone. A shameful first son even though no one who actually mattered made me feel that way. I felt that way to me. I bought a ticket and everything, made it all the way to the bus station but I couldn’t get on. My mom was pregnant with Daehwa by then and Taesoo was still so little. I was still so little. I couldn’t leave them. It felt like trying to leave myself.” It’s the tone of Taehyung’s voice, what it’s like to love someone that much. So much that they’re you. The words sound sung from his own throat and in the silence that follows, the second Taehyung takes to push air from his lungs, Jeongguk knows he’s never understood someone this much, has never felt quite so seen. Tilting his head, Taehyung’s hair sweeps down his forehead and for the first time Jeongguk realizes he isn’t wearing his glasses and that’s why his eyes are so clear. “So I went back. I held tears all the way home and when I got there- my dad was waiting for me. He was just sitting on the porch brushing one of the lambs that’d just been born. He knew the whole time but he said he didn’t try to stop me because he knew I’d come back. That I could never really leave. Then he asked me if I wanted to help groom the lamb and I started bawling.”

 

A pang goes through Jeongguk, sharp and aching. His protective instinct rises, burns ferociously, the want to comfort that younger version of Taehyung, console him, dry his face, hurt anyone who tries to hurt him, who made him feel less than. 

 

“I did a terrible grooming job. Snot everywhere, tears in the lamb’s fur. But that moment, that day, really, was a moment. The moment. The ones you point back to and can say there, that changed everything . Even if it’s just the story we tell ourselves. That was that moment for me. It made me want to overcome everything. Made me believe I could. I started learning English seriously. I worked harder on the farm before and after school. Looked over my brothers, my mom, my dad. I wanted to be the sort of person people could depend on even if I didn’t know it back then. I wanted to be the sort of person I could depend on.”

 

Words stick to the roof of Jeongguk’s mouth. He wonders if you can ever be conscious of those moments while you’re in them. He wonders if people get more than one. He wonders if he’s in one now. Voice quiet, he asks, “And your dad wasn’t scared that something could have happened to you? I mean, you said it. You were so little.”

 

“I asked him that a few years later.” Taehyung smiles, drinks from his melted ice cream float. There’s a cherry perched on the rim of the glass and it looks like metallic sky against the gas spun light. “He told me he’d followed me in his car to the station.”

 

Jeongguk laughs, short but full, meant. “That was nice of him. To let you think you’d gotten away with it.” He fiddles with the napkin next to Taehyung’s cup. “So I guess you only trust me so much,” he says, a teasing tone, flicks the stem on the cherry.

 

Taehyung rests his head on the back of his booth, watches him for very a long second, a moment of time in suspension. The air sticks in Jeongguk’s throat, fills his belly. He says, “I’ve told that story before. People know that story. They tell it, even. But I’ve never told anyone the way it made me feel. How I think it changed me.” He reaches across the table, picks up a chilli-less fry, and scoops a bit of milkshake with it. 

 

Jeongguk makes a disgusted face, the movement in his rib-cage fierce and quick, and does the same with his next fry. He doesn’t think, just says, “I miss both my parents everyday but if my dad never talked to me again I think I’d be okay. He was already so… becoming the caricature of the strict distant father.” He curls a fist, dismissive, wants to feel so. “Maybe that’s not fair but my mom is, was I mean, so my mom. I miss her more. I’m angry at her more. I’m hurt about her more. And sometimes I think Jinhyung will grow up and who he’ll really need is his mom,” he admits and can pure sound be ugly? Can words turn a songstress’ voice hideous?

 

“I wouldn’t worry about that.”

 

Hiding his face, Jeongguk sniffles into his shoulder even though his face is dry. Throat full of this thick feeling, he asks, “Why?”

 

“Because. Mom. Dad. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that does is that you parent him. You are a parent to him. The parent. Sure, he’ll grow up and probably want to know about the other person who made him,” and Taehyung says that easily, but not lightly, like he knows how it weighs on Jeongguk, that not so distant nebulous future where Jeongguk will have to face his son, his kid, the best little thing he’s ever done. He shrugs, dips into his milkshake again, “but I just can’t imagine a world where he’ll not know that who he is is so much because of you.”

 

“You know,” Jeongguk says and he’s thought every word he’s about to say before, and he wonders if the moment is just something you choose, or something that is chosen as it is made, “Sometimes I think I’ve started to depend on you more than on anyone else. Than even hyung or Namjoon-hyung. Depend on you in a different way. Is that- that’s like a little insane, isn’t it?”

 

“Maybe,” Taehyung says and Jeongguk has never seen it before, the thing Taehyung’s face is doing right now, this breathless expression of bravery almost, fearlessness through fear and what could someone like Taehyung be afraid of, “But you’re the first person I want to see when I wake up and your kid’s a close second so I don’t think I’m the right person to ask about that.”

 

The breathless thing is everywhere now, filling the spaces between Jeongguk’s ribs, hooking around the bones. He wonders what he looks like to Taehyung under the neons, if he looks as dreamy, as slow, as he feels. 

 

He touches the cherry stem again and after Taehyung nods his okay, he bites into the fruit and Taehyung’s eyes fall to his mouth and he doesn’t know if this is a moment but he thinks he’d like it to be one.




---




The record loops twice before Jeongguk says, “That was the first time I thought about him tonight.”

 

Silence rings as Taehyung changes the record. It crackles inside Jeongguk’s head, like the soft lights bouncing off green leaves, like all of this is just in Jeongguk’s mind. 

 

The needle drops on the new record’s groove. Taehyung looks at him, cheekbones painted golden-green. 

 

Jeongguk swallows. Says, “Jinhyung. At the diner. I mean, I thought about him or he was a thought in my head, like in the background, but that was the first time I really thought about him.”

 

Taehyung sits and his futon sinks under their combined weight. He doesn’t say anything, only watches Jeongguk’s face. 

 

Something nervous climbs up Jeongguk’s stomach, makes its way up his spine and back down from where it’s been living for a while now. About as long as he’s known Taehyung. He smiles, nervous too. “Isn’t this the part where you tell me I shouldn’t worry or that it’s not a bad thing? Some Kim Taehyung certified wisdom nugget?”

 

Grinning, Taehyung makes a helpless gesture, hands half open. He’s sitting wedged into the corner of the futon like he’s trying to put as much space between them in the lack of it as he can. “If you want me to. However you feel about it is okay. Good. If you just want me to listen, I’ll listen.”

 

Jeongguk nods slowly. Then he laughs, thin and fidgety sounding. Delicate like blue neon. He shakes his head, moves his knee closer to Taehyung’s. “Sorry. I’m probably driving you crazy with all of this.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t move. There’s a hot line from his knee to his ankle and it touches Jeongguk’s and he’s so far away and he’s so close and it’s just their ankles, just their knees, but it feels like they’re touching everywhere, like the only thing he’s weighted by is Teahyung. He says, “I mean, you’re kind of driving me crazy but not about that. Never about that.”

 

It’s like he’s shoved his hands inside of Jeongguk’s rib-cage again. Something blooms in the pit of Jeongguk’s belly, makes his lungs feel like they’re full of honey. 

 

“Taehyung-”

 

“Look, I-” Taehyung starts to say but he never gets to finish the words because then it’s not just their knees and ankles touching, but everything, everywhere, or at least it feels that way as Jeongguk moves in so Taehyung ends up mumbling the words into his mouth. 

 

It isn’t much of a kiss, just the warm impression of Taehyung’s mouth, or Jeongguk doesn’t let it be before he’s pulling back, face feeling as hot as his mouth, his heart. He peers at Taehyung’s expression and it would be hilarious in any other situation, the stunned expression, almost fish-like. “Sorry,” he says, biting down on his lower lip, and his voice sounds so fragile, so neon blue. “I’m sorry if that was wrong or terrible. I just, um. Never thought I’d actually do it.”

 

Taehyung is all movement then, rushing to close the space between them, a careful hand on Jeongguk’s face, thumb on his cheekbone, and it makes sense that if he always knows what to say, he’d know where Jeongguk would like to be touched too. “No. No,” Taehyung says and he’s shaking his head, and is his voice always this low, always this careful-sweet, “it’s just I’d convinced myself I never would,” he finishes, gaze falling on Jeongguk’s mouth over and over.

 

Jeongguk frowns, something painful striking him in the chest. Whatever it is must show something awful on his face because Taehyung strokes over his cheek once, his eyes going meltingly tender, before he leans in, seals their mouths together. 

 

Seal isn’t really the word with Jeongguk’s lips open so the kiss lands somewhere in between, a little on his teeth but Taehyung moves his mouth so his next kiss is on Jeongguk’s bottom lip, soft and full, and the next is on one corner of his mouth, the other, his cupid's bow, the freckle on his chin, until he comes back to where he started. A restless feeling works itself up Jeongguk’s body and he makes this terrible little noise, whiny and breathy and embarrassing, and he knots his fingers in Taehyung’s hair, one of his fingers catching on Taehyung’s ear and he starts mumbling apologies but it makes their tongues touch, Taehyung’s hand tightening on his jaw lightly, this winded sound flowing from Taehyung’s chest into his own, and before he knows it he has a leg thrown over Taehyung’s lap, a big warm hand under his shirt at the cut of his waist, the blooming thing in his belly kicking, his knees making the dilapidated futon creak loudly, both of his thighs now hiking up over Taehyung’s hips, his fingers pressing into Taehyung’s back, too fast, too everything, but he feels like he’s been almost kissing for so long now, it can’t be bad, to be this achy with need, to want to immediately give Taehyung all of him, starting with his mouth. And Taehyung makes this terribly wonderful noise, his chest pushing up against Jeongguk’s like there’s a hook between them, his tongue curling behind Jeongguk’s teeth in this way that makes Jeongguk feel weightless, lovingly filthy in the gentlest way. 

 

He pulls away and breathes out, presses kisses along the line of Taehyung’s jaw, inhales the oceany-pine scent of him before he can help it, something citrusy on top of it tonight, and Jeongguk wonders if his bed smells like this too. He flushes hotly at the thought and he sits up, the action making his thighs spread, his own hips settling over Taehyung’s. He’s only half thinking about it, how full the moment already feels, how full he feels with it. “Sorry,” he says and his voice sounds ruined already, He feels ruined already, and not for the reason he’s been thinking of himself as. “Am I going too fast?”

 

Taehyung blinks up at him, eyes huge, lips slick looking in the light, and Kim Taehyung is nowhere near in the realm of stupid, but he looks stupified, like the world has just flipped over and everyone forgot to tell him. He’s got one hand flexed over Jeongguk’s waist, the other almost white knuckling on his hip. His fingers are trembling. Jeongguk can feel them against his skin, the erratic shaking between his lungs, the heat in his hips. “Uhhh….”

 

Jeongguk wants his mouth again. He wants his fingers to press, in. He wants his jeans off. He wants the warmth of Taehyung’s hands to burn. Smiling, he skims his fingers up Taehyung’s nape, back down. “So not wrong or terrible?”

 

With a laugh, Taehyung throws his head back. He moves his head side to side, the red velvet fluffing up his hair, and even just the sight of his teeth is beautiful, makes Jeongguk feel filthy in a slightly less gentle way. “Couldn’t be wrong or terrible if you tried,” Taehyung says, the hand at Jeongguk’s hip coming up to his mouth, the words rough sounding, and if that’s what he sounds like from just a few kisses, from Jeongguk’s weight, then Jeongguk is in worse trouble than he thought. 

 

He lets Taehyung touch his face, the curve of his cheek, press at the corner of his mouth, drag his lower lip down a little, the inside of his mouth wetting the skin of Taehyung’s thumb. Heat melts between Jeongguk’s legs, in his chest, the places between. He digs his teeth into the meat of Taehyung’s thumb a little, satisfaction clawing at him when Taehyung hisses, eyes on his mouth like someone’s going to have to rip them away.  “ Fuck . You’re so- how are you so,” he says more, voice rambly, and that’s enough to have Jeongguk feeling lightheaded, that Taehyung, connoisseur of words, knower of their souls, is tripped up by them, tongue too full, overflowing. Gets even more dizzy when Taehyung leans forward, kisses all over his neck, his adam’s apple, the little divot at the bottom of his throat, asks, “What’d you want? Look at you, fuck. Wanna give it to you- tell me what you want.”

 

A gasp kicks out of Jeongguk’s mouth and he acts on instinct, shoves Taehyung’s shoulder back, and rips Taehyung’s hand away from his face, bring it under his shirt with the other one, before reaching for the hem, tugging it off so fast the collar yanks on his nose. 

 

He gets out of it and tosses it somewhere on the floor. The cool air hits him first, Taehyung’s reaction second, his hands framing his waist, the muttered fuck as he looks to the left side of Jeongguk’s navel. Thumbs cupping the area above his hip, Taehyung gazes up at him, eyes dark and golden. “How did I not know you had this?”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. He feels on display, a little worked open. He looks down at Taehyung’s fingers, the stretch of black ink almost protected by them. “You didn’t know me during my semester-long rebellious phase. Plus, you had a chance to look at it when I was in the shower but decided to act like we were in some fifteenth century courtship story.”

 

Taehyung groans, morose, grumbles something about worst decision ever, chivalry’s dead anyway, goes back to studying the tattoo, his touch featherlight, worse than if he’d just force the full weight of himself against Jeongguk. 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know where to touch him meanwhile, where to start, begins with the sides of Taehyung’s neck lightly, the swell of his shoulders, sinks his fingers into his hair, tugs a little so Taehyung looks him in the eye again. Taehyung does, his chin digging into the dip between Jeongguk’s chest, and he leans sideways to press a kiss to the side of Jeongguk’s pec, the skin right above his ribcage. “You’re so beautiful,” he says, like he’s breathing the words into Jeongguk’s chest, that little-big spot between his ribs 

 

“That’s rich coming from you. Looked in a mirror lately?”

 

“No.”

 

The seriousness in Taehyung’s voice has Jeongguk sobering, the smile held off balance on his mouth. He chuckles a little, runs his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, soft, a little summer frizzy. “No? What do you mean? There’s a mirror right next to your bed if you want to now.”

 

“No, I mean, you’re the most beautiful person I know.”

 

Jeongguk’s laugh comes from the same place the urge to make himself take up less space does. Small and contained, tiny. “That’s not possible.”

 

“It is,” Taehyung states, matter of fact. His hands soothe up Jeongguk’s sides, the skin goose-bumping in his wake, “I don’t mean- I don’t mean physically,” Taehyng says, eyes not shying away, on Jeongguk, his touch feeling more permanent than the literal brand on Jeongguk’s skin, “though you are. Beautiful. But you’ve got this soul about you. This soulfulness. You’re all that good stuff everyone’s always talking about in all the books and movies and everywhere else.” 

 

The record skips and Jeongguk remembers there’s music playing. He’s never heard this one before. It’s moodier, softer, slower, than the record they came up here to listen to, like someone recorded it out in a field, in the ocean. 

 

Taehyung brushes over the tattoo gently. Every hair on Jeongguk’s body stands at attention, responds to it, to him, Taehyung’s touch, his attention. “It’s as if when they were coming up with all the good words, all the words about goodness, they didn’t know it yet, but they were talking about you.”

 

Jeongguk is used to feeling without words, not having them, but he feels actually speech ridden for the first time. What are words except things that can end him, disarm him, leave him in ruins. His heart shivers under the warmth of Taehyung’s gaze, the unashamedness of him while Jeongguk feels like he’s caught in the middle of a sun flare, like he’s waiting to burn. 

 

The music grows moodier, slower and Jeongguk shifts in Taehyung’s lap, wants to get away, wants to get even closer, and he keeps a hand on Taehyung to show he’s still here, still in it, but looks away. Down at himself, then at the loft’s kitchen nook right next to them, the practical gas stove and little fridge, all the herbs and terracotta jars. 

 

Taehyung’s mugs sit on a shelf and Princess Leia stares at Jeongguk, the width of the ceramic wrapped by her judgemental gaze and he feels so small, so not enough, and he wonders how Han eventually had the balls to fall in love with her, the courage to think he was enough. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t rush him. Doesn’t fidget or touch Jeongguk too much while he takes his time. It makes Jeongguk want to rush, breath stuck in his throat, and when he looks back at Taehyung, Taehyung’s face isn’t judgmental. He smiles faintly, slow coming in his eyes, and embarrassment racks at Jeongguk’s heart looking at him, at the mug, his own thoughts. 

 

His eyes meet Taehyung’s and he goes to thread his other hand in Taehyung’s hair again but he watches the way his chest sinks and rises, his next breath heavy and long. They’re close enough that it warms Jeongguk’s face and he has the very funny thought that he’d like to watch Taehyung breathe for a very long time, the laxness of his cheeks when he’s relaxed, the tense set of his brows when he isn’t. Taehyung doesn’t move except to sink further into the futon, rub comfortingly at Jeongguk’s thigh, his expression caught between the comfort of being exactly where he wants to be and the urge to bolt, and Jeongguk’s heart flutters, but instead of laugh at the cliché he gives into it, changes course at the last second and settles his hand on top of Taehyung’s chest.

 

Taehyung is very still, all of him is, except the rapid beat at the tips of Jeongguk’s fingers, so fast he wonders if it hurts. 

 

And what does Jeongguk know. Perhaps love isn’t about courage or clichés. It isn’t a word or something anyone can name. Maybe it isn’t actually real, moldable with hands, with lives, but a feeling, a choice, but Jeongguk is too slow to think about it, too busy curling his fingers around the collar of Taehyung’s shirt and pulling him forward, sighing at the immediate way their mouths come together.  

 

It should seem like a cliché, something ripped straight out of the many stories Taehyung loves, the fact that Taehyung just knows how to kiss him, slow and drawn out but with this determination beneath it. Taehyung’s lips are so soft and his mouth is so wet when he lets Jeongguk inside of it. But it’s all less of a cliché than Jeongguk first thinks, their breaths too loud and hot on each other’s faces, teeth snagging harshly on skin, the way Taehyung’s jaw tenses when Jeongguk cups it with both hands, the harsh lines twitching in his palms. An itch starts in the back of Jeongguk’s mind, in the place above his ribs, in the base of his spine, the low sweltering heat working itself between his hips, his hardening cock, the way he can feel himself harden in Taehyung’s lap and Taehyung too, the places he wants Taehyung- his hands, his mouth, more of his kisses, all of them, all of him, everything. It makes noise build in Jeongguk’s throat again, humming and low, makes his hold on Taehyung’s face gentle, his thumb swiping over the hinge of his jaw, the arch of his cheekbones. Taehyung tenses further for a second before he lets it go, really touches Jeongguk instead of just holding him, and Jeongguk hadn’t even noticed, what that itch was, realizes it fully as Taehyung’s hands tug on his waist and Jeongguk’s instinct is to shove himself into Taehyung’s hold, to melt under it, his own hands sliding into Taehyung’s hair. 

 

There isn’t anything slow about their kisses then, the way they touch, Taehyung smooths over his abs and kisses at his neck, hooks his hands under Jeongguk’s knees until his legs are half curled around his waist, his mouth impatient, his fingers greedy at Jeongguk’s skin. Jeongguk isn’t any better, working Taehyung’s zipper open, loosening his belt, his own pants already pulled down his hips, the front of his dark boxers sticky and wet. 

 

“Look at you,” Taehyung says again even though Jeongguk isn’t really doing anything except trying to get his dick out of his pants. He’s got his hands all over Jeongguk’s thighs, cupping him over his boxers, the softest parts at the back where his legs give to his ass, fills his hands with that too. Jeongguk’s stomach clenches at the touch, cock leaking in his underwear. He feels too hot too fast, too shivery, like it’s been so long since another person has touched him and he wonders if almost anything would get him off. “How are you so- Are you always so- naturally and over-zealously good at everything?”

 

Peeling the sides of Taehyung’s jeans open, Jeongguk catches the hesitation, the question. He raises a brow, feels the other tug up less than it used to. Maybe he’s grown up a little. “Thought we weren’t doing the exe’s thing tonight,” he says, remembers the smooth way Taehyung dodged it earlier. 

 

Taehyung flushes all over his face and Jeongguk feels a different kind of shivery, wants to taste the heat right off his cheeks, their soft warmth. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant- fuck this sounds so slimy you don’t have to answer but I just want to know- I want to know how you- or what you, I mean- have you ever-”

 

Jeongguk presses a finger to Taehyung’s lips. He looks down at himself in Taehyung’s lap, at Taehyung’s crotch. His boxers have a fountain pen print all over them. It should make his bulge look hilarious except it doesn’t, something almost majestic, poetic even, the way it’s surrounded, crowned by Jeongguk’s naked thighs. Jeongguk smiles, says, “That semester-long rebellious phase was very rebellious. And, you know, it turns out gym pornos are true.”

 

Oh , fuck-”

 

Their next kiss is mean. Not in the sense of hurt feelings or cruelty. It’s the opposite, but it’s almost mean for Taehyung to kiss him like this, like he already has Jeongguk flushed and naked and spread out on his bed, like no one would be able to tell where Jeongguk ends and he begins. Just shy of selfish, how giving the kiss is, how giving Taehyung’s mouth is, his hands everywhere on Jeongguk’s body, the muscles in his shoulders, the cuff of his bicep, his waist, his cock. It turns Jeongguk out, down for the count, and Taehyung kisses him like breathing isn’t a thing or like where it actually lives is here, inside of a kiss, in Jeongguk’s mouth, and maybe there is something selfish in it, close to ruinous, that the thought of Jeongguk on his knees for someone other guy in a gym shower stall gets Taehyung to kiss him like this. The first time was terrible, the others varying degrees of not, but it’s always left Jeongguk feeling ashamed, not because what he was doing was shameful, or because of the thing dangling between the other guy’s legs, but because it was like another point in his list about what kind of father he was, afraid of love but not of the baser things. He knows Taehyung would tell him neither is shameful, anything to fear, that it was okay if Jeongguk felt either anyway. Knows it as Taehyung’s kiss goes almost tender, brushing the hair that’s feathered across Jeongguk’s face back, curled it between his fingers so good it curls Jeongguk’s toes, and maybe it’s okay, if a kiss is a little mean, if it’s from someone like Taehyung. 

 

With a wet sound their mouths come apart, Taehyung gripping his sides. He makes a face like he’s trying to breathe. “Hmmmh. I don’t know how to say this.”

 

“Just say it.” He scrunches his shoulders in that way he’s been told is cute, tries to look like some pretty inoffensive thing in Taehyung’s lap, instead of all bulging muscles and intimidation, the chip permanently attached to his shoulder. This would be easy if Taehyung had just picked him up in some bar, after some class, but maybe then, it wouldn’t be happening at all. “You can tell me anything, Taehyung.”

 

“Don’t know how to say it without scaring you.”

 

“So scare me,” Jeongguk says, aims for joking. The hazy lights in the loft don’t hide anything. “Nothing you say can actually scare me,” he tries again even though they both know that’s not true. Anyone can be freaked, spooked, want to make themselves small, especially someone like Jeongguk. 

 

Taehyung must know that because he looks scared himself, hidden behind the smile on his face, and Jeongguk wonders if all it took was a kiss, to see more, to get to peer inside Taehyung’s mind a little and the thought hits him as terrible and wonderful and sad and not. “It’s just,” Taehyung starts, licks his lips, and he looks so warm in the light, confident and vulnerable, every word Jeongguk has ever known, all the ones he’s yet to discover. “I want you. I want you -”

 

“I know. Taehyung, I know,” he says, or maybe he doesn’t and that gets lost between their mouths too, in the way they sink further into the creaky futon, Taehyung with his pants down to his knees, Jeongguk working one of his legs out of his, and this dizzy shivery feeling is so good, and it settles in Jeongguk’s mind, in all the places between his ribs. “I want you too.”

 

It’s in the way Taehyung kisses under his jaw, nuzzles at his chin until Jeongguk laughs, and asks, “What do you want? Whatever you want, however-”

 

It’s in the way Jeongguk says back, breathy and barely a word, this, just this, just you, and it’s the hot press of their cocks, knuckles bumping, boxers shoved out of the way, their mouths barely moving away from each other except for the hilarious three minute expedition for Taehyung’s lube -located under a pile of linguistic journals and volume three of One Punch Man - and the few seconds that Taehyung takes to just look at him when he finds it, and he learns all of these little things about Taehyung in a very short time. 

 

Things like he likes it when Jeongguk bites at his collarbones or that his cock points a little to the left. He’s ticklish right under his armpits and he’s hairier than Jeongguk expects. He has a mole on his neck exactly where Jeongguk does. His voice sounds like it’s getting punched out of him when Jeongguk gets a hand around him, low and from the bottom of his stomach. He seems fascinated by the fact that Jeongguk has the same twin set of beauty marks that he has on his bicep on his left thigh. He keeps touching him there, grazing it with his thumb, gripping so hard his fingers dig into the thick of Jeongguk’s leg. And they get off like that, hot and nasty and would be clinical about it except Taehyung keeps thrusting up against him, into Jeongguk’s fist, the head of his dick finding the slick groove of Jeongguk’s hip every other thrust, and the hand he doesn’t have on Jeongguk’s cock is at the small of his back, supporting his weight, his own kind of heavy and warm. And Jeongguk keeps rolling his hips down onto him, thighs spreading and closing as he moves, and Taehyung’s hand is just big enough, just rough enough, moves over his wet cock just right, gets rougher when he asks for it, his thumb stroking over the space right behind his balls when he doesn’t, when he silently begs for it, thighs clenching and hips slapping hard and wet it’s the only sound in Jeongguk’s pinked up ears. 

 

It’s in the way the shitty futon knocks into the wall hard enough to make the shelves shake and the way Jeongguk sucks down on Taehyung’s lower lip as he comes, dripping all over Taehyung’s knuckles, making the slide even smoother for Taehyung’s cock fucking up into his fist. It’s in the way Taehyung goes kind of boneless after Jeongguk comes, like he’s already has his too, and when he does come it’s with a grunt, lips pressed to the hair near Jeongguk’s temple, his hand over Jeongguk’s sticky one on his cock, the other wrapped around his waist keeping his overly sensitive body close, turns them on their sides a bit so Jeongguk isn’t forcing all his weight on his knees and comes between Jeongguk’s tight shivery thighs. 

 

They lie like that for minutes, Taehyung’s thumb making these swirly patterns along Jeongguk’s hip bone. It makes Jeongguk feel swirly, dizzy, and he stares at Taehyung’s face, the cooling cum on his belly, his cock. He studies Taehyung’s fingers, then his own, and maybe he is a little drunk after all because he realizes that’s Taehyung’s cum on his hand and there’s not much thought process between that and sticking one of his fingers in his mouth. 

 

Taehyung makes a dying adjacent noise. “ Fucking fuck .”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. He feels Taehyung’s cock twitch against his sweaty thigh, feels a hot pang in his own, and pops his finger out clean. “Cum eating was a part of the rebellious phase too,” he says because it’s just cum, sticky, kind of nasty and good, less in how it tastes, more in how it makes Jeongguk feel. The person looking at him do it. 

 

Laughing, Taehyung pinches his knee. He tucks his head into the back of the futon and the lights make him look misty, like he feels buzzy too. “Does that mean I’m part of the rebellious phase too?”

 

Heart dizzy, Jeongguk shakes his head. Softly says, “No,” and whatever Taehyung meant to tell him must have been terrifying, because he swears he can feel it, the phantom of fear, when Taehyung leans in and kisses him, more gently than he can remember ever being kissed.   

 

For a while, it’s their loud breaths, the unobtrusive brush of Taehyung’s hand down the side of his body. Jeongguk doesn’t mind it, his leg still thrown across him, his toes brushing the armrest. The velvety material is starting to feel sticky on Jeongguk’s skin, he can’t imagine Taehyung’s back right now. 

 

Taehyung moves first, just barely, gripping the collar of his shirt to pull it over his head. He cleans up the cum on Jeongguk’s belly first, his thighs, his cock, his hands, does his own after. 

 

“Very practical,” Jeongguk says and his voice is still a little shaky. 

 

“Yeah. Well.” Taehyung balls the shirt up, shoots for his laundry basket next to his bed, and misses. He pouts. Scratches at his head. “I’m pretty sure you’d make fun of me for being an old man if I got up now and my knees gave in.”

 

“I wouldn’t,” Jeongguk protests seriously. “I don’t care that you’re older than me. It’s barely anyway. And more, anyway, I’m into that in case it wasn’t obvious.”

 

“How into it though?”

 

Jeongguk just wiggles his eyebrows at him. Gets his other knee pinched. 

 

The silence after they settle makes him realize the music has stopped, the record still spinning. They’re going to have to get up eventually. Something on the carpet catches his once around the room, eyes widening. 

 

“Oh, fuck,” he swears. Says, “Sorry,” when Taehyung looks too, the cracked white next to the futon, Leia’s face split down the right cheek. 

 

Taehyung clicks his tongue. “That was a favorite mug too,” he says, sights wistfully. He shrugs after, with his chin more than anything else. “Well, at least it didn’t land on your head.”

 

“Just my head because it can’t afford more damage?”

 

“Exactly.” That earns Taehyung his first knee pinch. 

 

Then Taehyung says to him, all golden and dizzy inducing, taps his finger against the mole on Jeongguk’s chin, “What’d I tell you? Driving me crazy enough that disturbances in the force don’t matter.”

 

Looking at him, Jeongguk feels like he’s not just caught in the sunflare, is the epicenter of it. “You don’t mean that.”

 

Taehyung smiles, and he finally has the words for it, this certain stretch of Taehyung’s mouth, the way it makes his face look like a heart. “‘Course I do. And, you kiss like cherries too so, really, can you blame a guy?”




---




It’s hard to see, thin light trickling in through the canvas covering the windows. Jeongguk squints. He’s used to it. Seeing in the dark, working through it. 

 

“Hey.”

 

Jeongguk jumps a bit, disturbs the potted fern next to him. He cups his hands around the ceramic he’s holding, sighs. Sheepish, he says, “Sorry. Did I wake you?”

 

“No,” Taehyung mumbles from where his head is buried in his pillow. He’s twisted up in the blankets since Jeongguk left him a few minutes ago, the comforter tangled at his feet. His hair is sticking up in directionless tufts and he looks all soft and sleepy, bleary eyed in the weak light.  “What’re you doing?”

 

Jeongguk sets his work down. He scrapes at glue off his fingers, fights a flush at the way Taehyung is looking at him. Sleepy, soft. “Saving Princess Leia. She’s all good to defend the universe and fight the Dark Lord again. The Evil Eye. The Silmarillion . Whoever. The- you know. Bad guys.”

 

His one visible eyebrow twitches and whatever face he’s making Jeongguk can’t see, but it’s in Taehyung’s voice, in his words. “Your total disregard for the science fiction and fantasy canon should be off putting, but you’re so fucking cute I don’t even care.”

 

Flushing, Jeongguk grins, helpless, giddy. The dizziness is gone but he’s loose-limbed and achy in the best way, like he really just might float away. He rights the fern on its perch, stands tall, chest puffed out cockily. “So what do I get for saving the universe?”

 

Taehyung untangles the blankets, lifts them up in invitation. “Come here and find out, jedi.”

 

Jeongguk loses the crazy-glue on his way back to the bed. He nudges Taehyung to lie on his back, starts to crawl over him, but Taehyung stops him with a hand on his side. He runs it up his waist, bunching up the fabric there. “This is my robe?”

 

“Yes,” Jeongguk says, unsure at his tone. “I had to go downstairs and I couldn’t find my boxers…” The neckline pools open in his tipped over position, the silky material almost neonish in the dark. “Sorry if that was weird. I’ll take it o-”

 

“No,” Taehyung says, almost too fast, “No, it’s fine.” And Jeongguk doesn’t believe him at first, but Taehyung tips him the rest of the way, lets Jeongguk all over him, his hands sweeping up his hips and flank hotly, like he’s trying to feel Jeongguk’s skin through the satin, coalesce them together. He does the same thing with their mouths and his kisses are sleepy and soft and Jeongguk really believes him then. 

 

He sits himself in Taehyung’s lap, thighs protesting satisfying, sweet. “What’ll it be, professor?” he asks with a little smirk as he drags his lips up Taehyung’s throat. He smells sleepy and soft too, especially here, still a little like oranges, a lot like seabreeze, like the pinecones Jeongguk foraged as a kid. 

 

The hand Taehyung has on his back tightens, the rest of his body freezing. 

 

Jeongguk frowns, raising up on his knees a bit to see his face. “Taehyung?”

 

Taehyung’s expression is one big wrinkle, like the world’s sourest lemon is stuck between his teeth. “Please don’t.”

 

“What?” Jeongguk searches his eyes, takes his next breath too fast when it clicks home. “ Oh . I wasn’t-”

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Jeongguk says, chastised. He feels awkward sitting on Taehyung like this, but the hands on his back have started moving again in slow circles so Taehyung can’t be too put out. Desperate, he stammers, “I thought it was a role play thing!”

 

Taehyung’s brows go slack. “Role play?”

 

“Yeah. Like a sexy Star Wars role play. Like jedi and professor jedi!”

 

“Oh,” Taehyung says, looking distinctly less lemony. “No.”

 

“Oh. Okay.”

 

Taehyung gapes at him for a long second. Then he says, “Just to clarify, there are no professor jedis. There are jedi masters . And most Star Wars role play involves some form of Leia buns.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, wrinkling his nose. “Well, I don’t know what those are and I’m not doing that.”

 

The muscles in Taehyung’s cheeks tick, humor dancing in his eyes despite the residual upset bled through. “That’s okay, I wasn’t asking you to.”

 

“Good.” Jeongguk nods, decisive. It feels decided, whatever it is. “Besides, you’re the one with the buns in this equation.”

 

Taehyung laughs so hard he almost knocks Jeongguk off his lap, the only thing keeping him seated being his knees clamping onto Taehyung’s sides, Taehyung’s hands wide and secure on his back. 

 

Teeth on full display, Taehyung touches Jeonguk’s cheek, the hinge of his jaw, his earlobe. “You really are the best thing I’ve ever seen on a good day.”

 

Jeongguk’s pulse jumps. It beats like a boom in his temples and in his belly, against the long forgotten parts of his mind. He finds Taehyung’s hand on his face, presses his thumb to his wrist, the sharp contrast between the delicate wrist and his broad palm. “Where’s that from?” he asks, playing dumb. He feels dumb, young and foolish, and how strange that it’s with the person who usually makes him feel anything but. 

 

Taehyung shakes his head, still smiling. “Nowhere. What do you want?”

 

Right. Jeongguk was supposed to get something. A reward for saving the universe or whatever. He hasn’t really saved anything, finds he doesn’t really want anything except Taehyung touching him the way he is now, careful and like a caress, soft like silk. He tries to make out Taehyung’s expression in the dark, asks, “Did you really never think about it? Us or, I don’t know, me, back when…”

 

“No,” Taehyung says, voice immediate, shy of harsh, and Jeongguk doesn’t doubt him but it makes his own feelings and thoughts take on a different light, not holding up to scrutiny. He’s been comparing Taehyung to the sun for as long as he’s known him, since the first day he walked into his classroom only to later realize the beautiful boy sitting in the back wasn’t a fellow student but the lecturer, one of the many university keepers of Jeongguk’s future, his hands capable and trustworthy in a singular way. 

 

He gets the urge to hide himself for the first time all night, red chested, something ugly and rotten slicing at his ribs and the lay of Taehyung’s naked body beneath him looks different now, as if the fact of it was something Jeongguk planned, something he manipulated Taehyung into. It’s not that he wanted Taehyung to think about him then necessarily, but he doesn’t know what it means that he didn’t. 

 

Something dejected in his heart, he rises further, goes to climb off of him. 

 

“Hey.” With a gripping hand on his thigh, Taehyung stops him. He tips Jeongguk’s chin up, thumb swiping across his skin gently until Jeongguk looks at him. “I’m not gonna sit- or lie as it be -here and lie to you. You’re gorgeous and I knew that the second I looked at you. You have the kind of face that could make men far stronger than I cry. And your body is criminal, to say the least. Seriously, I am so happy I go to the gym now and not just for the health benefits and bonding with my dad.” 

 

Jeongguk flickers between pride and misplaced sadness, lower lip curving out. “Taehyung-”

 

“Male ego body envy is a thing. Even around the other men you’re attracted to. Especially then. That’s not my point.”

 

“What is your point?”

 

“My point,” Taehyung intones slowly, tugging at Jeongguk’s lower lip now, “is that you are incredibly attractive. But you’re also smart and driven and unafraid to state your opinions when you have them. And you’re insanely sweet. But it wasn’t then. It was tonight when you agreed to come with me, and it was that morning Jinhyung knocked pancake batter all over you and you just laughed, and the time you watched Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy and then fell asleep for half of it, and it was that day we ran into each other in that coffee shop, and the day you brought me lunch to my office, and when you cried about your dad in that ugly Snoop Dog t-shirt, and when I found you putting up flyers looking for a sub-letter for your brother even though it was the last thing you wanted.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk says and it’s completely inadequate and yet the only word that feels like enough. 

 

“And both times you’ve sung in front of me.” Taehyung smiles, and in the dark of midnight it’s the only thing Jeongguk can really see, and is it a wonder, really, that Jeongguk looks at him and thinks of nothing but sun. “But, really, it was that morning you were late for work and you made that that’s what she said joke.”

 

Jeongguk groans, embarrassed whines pouring out of his throat. He smushes his face into the pillow next to Taehyung, only a little mollified by the hand sliding up and down his spine in comfort. His heartbeat is everywhere, his body is one big pulse, a beat. He turns his face, stares at the arch of Taehyung’s perfect nose. “Why do you remember all that?”

 

Taehyung shrugs, a tiny movement under Jeongguk’s weight. “‘Cause I remember you.”

 

There’s something about that, something that maybe has to do with the sun and comparing someone to it, but all Jeongguk can think about is all the times Taehyung has thought about him and them and all the times Jeongguk has thought about them and him. 

 

He slides over and dips down on Taehyung then, the golden spread of him, and slots their noses next to one another, mouths fastened. It leaves him breathless in seconds but he can’t find the mechanics to pull away. He’s too sleepy, too soft. So he breathes it all out of Taehyung’s lungs, lets him breathe into him back. 

 

It’s the kind of thing that involves a lot of talk and not. Jeongguk’s hands on Taehyung’s body. He rolls them over so Taehyung pushes him into the bed, the silk robe crushed between them, and he cages Taehyung between his legs, and it shoots a thrill up his body, the aching pulse of him, his cock quickly filling, too hot. Taehyung might have a gym toned body now, the shoulders and the neck and the calves, the most important part, the healthier heart, but Jeongguk is still stronger than him, could do whatever he wanted to him, and it makes the tender thing in Jeongguk melt, his hips go pliant, how much it makes him want Taehyung to do whatever he wants with him even more. 

 

He learns this about Taehyung too. He gets slower after midnight, after the third go around. They fooled around a little before falling asleep, just wandering hands, a greedy mouth, blissfully rough hands, lazy and not really trying to get off, doing so anyway. He’s focused now, lethargic about it, letting Jeongguk tongue into his mouth as he unhooks the knot on his robe, hands going for skin immediately but unhurried, wanton but not overcompensating like he has something to prove. It’s already been proven, the sweet putty-like thing Jeongguk wants to be in his hands. The sweet putty-like thing Taehyun is in his.  

 

The robe opens with a light swish. It feels like a river is around him, ocean blue. 

 

Taehyung kisses up his stomach, wet and sloppy with just a little bit of teeth, presses words against his skin. Runs his tongue along Jeongguk’s tattoo, laughs when Jeongguk’s abs flex, his hips kick, kisses it with something close to devotion like the wound is still healing. He rests his cheek on Jeongguk’s belly button, his eyes dark. “When did you get it?” he asks, thumb moving over it softly. 

 

Chest heaving already, Jeongguk spreads a leg out, gives Taehyung space as he keeps him close, head on the pillow. “When Jisun got pregnant.”

 

The movement over his abdomen stops. Starts again somehow even softer. 

 

“I was trying to say goodbye to it, I guess,” he says, voice like it’s coming out of somewhere other than inside him. He drops his hand down near Taehyung’s, skirts over the hard ridges of his belly, the flat surface next to it where he’s inked. It’s a mess of a design. He’d wanted too many things, had been saving up to get a big piece on his back when they found out. Decided on this instead, all the way from the edge of his hipbone to halfway up his ribs. A mouth outlined like a voice box, swirls of sound looped like never-ending waves, musical notes lined up in a refrain from the last composition Jeongguk had been working on, the last song he ever wrote. He stares up at the ceiling, can see where one of Taehyung’s ivies has started growing towards the ledge. “Immortalize the memory of it. That way I wouldn’t have to think about it. What could have been.”

 

“How’s that worked out for you?”

 

He follows the ivy until it reaches the floor, watches Taehyung watch him, and it’s the dark, and it’s the fact that it’s Taehyung, the only person who never seems afraid of hurting him, and in that, the one who never does. 

 

Lips curving, breath deceptively light, he says, “Depends on the day,” and his own eyes feel dark and heavy, so he curls a hand under Taehyung’s shoulder, tugs him up until he’s right where Jeongguk wants him, his breath warm and wanted, right against his mouth. 

 

And he learns this about Taehyung too. He snorts when Jeongguk tries to kiss the little mole on his lash line. He doesn't mind it when Jeongguk digs his nails into his scalp, likes it if the way his cock kicks against Jeongguk’s sells him out. He has his own tattoo, a lost drunken bet, tiny lettering on the inside of his thigh, not the location but the words of his own choosing he who can, does. he who cannot, teaches

 

It’s not just his kisses that can be mean. He gets downright obscene about Jeongguk’s thighs, makes him sigh and tremble and shake, opens him up careful and messy and too much, has Jeongguk choking on his moans long before he gets a second wetter finger in him, draws it out until Jeongguk can’t stand it, heels kicking at his shoulders, but Taehyung just grins, bites down on the inside of his right thigh, spreads Jeongguk open further, paints him cherry red with his mouth, takes the impatience of Jeongguk’s heels because his shoulders are good enough for it, wide enough, strong. Jeongguk hasn’t taken a cock since he was eighteen, not like this, despite Taehyung saying anything, whatever you want , but Jeongguk wanted this, wants a lot, anything, whatever Taehyung wants, but he’s gotten himself lonely and wet in the shower thinking about this , this in the context of Taehyung the sole moments he’s allowed the thought in the solitude of steam, and Taehyung takes to it like it’s his responsibility, Jeongguk’s pleasure, his and his alone. 

 

He works Jeongguk through one orgasm and into the build up of another, fingers thick and there inside of his hole, pressure just enough, and Jeongguk’s eyes are wet, mouth open as he makes too much noise and then none at all, abs and hips messy with it, cock red and too hot, and Taehyung kisses all these silly places on his body; his knee and his shins and the sensitive spot under his ear, the little freckle on his chin, the inside of his elbow when Jeongguk grabs a fistfull of his hair, pulls hard enough to make Taehyung groan, devastating self satisfied smile and all. 

 

And when he sinks inside of Jeongguk it’s so slow and careful, testing the give of Jeongguk’s body, asking are you okay, is that okay, tell me when you, keeps asking and kissing Jeongguk’s cheeks despite his slow slurred out responses, feet kicking at the bed when Taehyung moves just like that , and it’s so much and he wants more, and it’s like Taehyung hasn’t fucked in years either, his shoulders shaking, sweat tearing at his temples, like it’s leaving him yanked open, beautifully unbearable and too inside his own body too. 

 

Taehyung fucks him almost gently, if fucking can be gentle at all, and it must be because Jeongguk’s already come but he feels like he hasn’t stopped, like he’s waiting on his next breath. It’s dumb and it’s just a cock but Jeongguk can’t stop moving against it every time Taehyung fills him, hips hard but slow, stays and rocks right where it gets Jeongguk sighing, whining if he angles just right, that buzz of sparking pleasure making him cry out, get his own kind of mean, fingers scratching up Taehyung’s back, his hips, the soft places the gym hasn’t touched his belly. 

 

It’s dumb but Taehyung’s next thrust has him biting his tongue so hard he accidentally draws blood, hole fluttering like a pulse around Taehyung’s cock and body going so tight Taehyung can’t move. 

 

Jeongguk widens his eyes, this punchy breath thick in his chest, and before he knows it, Taehyung has him scooped up in his lap, ass spread for his cock, Jeongguk’s legs around his waist as he uses his knees to drive himself right there, over and over again, his body curving over Jeongguk’s, a hand cradling his head like he’s trying to protect him from smacking into a headboard, the other curled around his hip, pinky on the edge of his tattoo. And he fucks Jeongguk like that, and it’s almost suffocating except it isn’t, to be surrounded by him, Jeongguk breathless but it’s so mindlessly good to be. He threads strong fingers through Taehyung’s hair, arches into it, hips rolling down onto Taehyung’s cock, his own kicking against his tummy, the muscles in his thighs quaking. And he lets himself be greedy for the first time in a long time, and his greediness only has to do a little with himself, everything with Taehyung’s mouth. 

 

They end up with one of Jeongguk’s legs open towards his chest, knee over Taehyung’s shoulder, and he can’t stop shaking as he comes, begging for Taehyung to come inside of him, mouth sloppy about it all over Taehyung’s lips and cheeks, his neck and the giggle inducing spot on his clavicle, and it’s dumb and selfish and greedy, and Taehyung is saying all of these things, has been saying them, none of it mumbled or slurred but voice clear, low and gruff and spine tingling, and you’re so beautiful and tell me what you like and so gorgeous and like that? and so pretty and tell me if and so tight can’t believe i’m inside you could be inside you forever love being inside of you love...

 

It’s too much then, and it’s just like Jeongguk, to put his body through it, put himself through it, but he scratches at Taehyung’s hips, encourages him to work himself inside of Jeongguk until he comes, and for the first time Taehyung is a little selfish about it, body curving further so his knees are pressed to Jeongguk’s ass, hips thudding Jeongguk knows there will be little red marks later. And it feels like Taehyung is trying to get all of himself inside of Jeongguk, hands gripping the fabric still clinging to Jeongguk’s shoulders with enough force thread rips, chest pressed together. It’s short of a jackhammer, hips still considerate where they could be punishing, because Taehyung isn’t like Jeongguk, could never be that selfish, and he goes quiet as his body gives a last push and stills, cock pressing so deep inside Jeongguk, it makes him shove his knees into Taehyung’s sides hard enough it must hurt, and Taehyung bites down onto his shoulder with a grunt, breathy and the noise deep from his chest, and it’s dumb but Jeongguk feels like he’s overflowing with it, the soft unwinding of Taehyung’s body, cock still twitching in the aftershocks, his cum, wet in a way Jeongguk wants to laze in, relish about.

 

After, they sit by the loft’s big window, curtain pushed back so the last of the street light glows in the room. Jeongguk divides up the leftover diner fries between them. They’re cold and terrible but Taehyung’s stomach had gurgled loudly, and through Jeongguk’s laughs, sleep had seemed elusive, an impermanent thing. 

 

“Sorry about,” Jeongguk says, disturbing the content quiet they’ve been sitting in. He tugs on a panel of the robe. Keeps meaning to take it off but hasn’t. It’s not doing much to keep him warm but it’s summer and the cool fabric feels good on his skin, molding to his body. 

 

“‘s fine,” Taehyung says, mouth full of fries. He’s wrapped up in his blanket like it’s a big fluffy towel and there’s something about him right now, the way the lights bounce off his food filled cheeks, the way he is right now, always, that makes Jeongguk want to hide his face in his hands and cry. “I’ve got like five of them. I’m the one who did it anyway.” He looks at Jeongguk’s leg, bent and knee pressed to the window, and leans down, kisses a bite mark, angry and red in the shape of Taehyung’s teeth. “We should have talked about that before. I’m sorry. I lost my head there for a bit.”

 

Jeongguk represses a squirm, the wet feeling still between his thighs like a late-night memory. “I’m the one who asked you to do it.”

 

Smile a little twisted, Taehyung shakes his head. He’s really going to town on his half of the fries, like he hasn’t eaten in days. “Doesn’t matter. I’m the one who did it.”

 

“I haven’t- I haven’t been with anyone like that in a long time if that’s what you’re worried about.” Out of his depth, Jeongguk wrings his hands around the robe’s belt, feels the youngest and dumbest he has all night. “I mean, the last time I was with someone like that she was pregnant and I’m pretty sure we don’t have to worry about that.”

 

His joke falls flat, total wipeout if Taehyung’s face says anything. He soothes over Jeongguk’s knee, mouth somber. “I’m not worried about you.” His motions falter, brows scrunching. “You don’t have to worry either. I’m always careful. I haven’t fucked someone like that in a while.”

 

“I’m not worried,” Jeongguk says sincerely. Then, “I trust you.”

 

Taehyung is quiet. He looks out the window, the twist of his face deep enough to contain the full force of a sun. 

 

Jeongguk dumps the rest of his fries into Taehyung’s pile. Says, “I’m sorry. Did I-” and then not much else because Taehyung turns back to him, kisses him, close lipped but warm and there, leaves Jeongguk short of breath like he’d opened his mouth, given him everything instead.

 

The lights start to change. Taehyung eats more fries. Sleep morphs Jeongguk’s tired body but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t want this to end, the comfortable silence, this warmth that doesn’t burn, and if it does, between his thighs, the slope of his ribs, it doesn’t hurt. 

 

He says, “So was the last time the elusive ex or,” because the way Taehyung is smiling at him now sort of does hurt a little. His tone is light but he is thinking about it, how the one thing Jisun always said she actively disliked about Jeongguk was how jealous he was. Not because he was angry or violent even though he looked like he could be, but because he got prickly, moody and forlong, when he had no reason to be. When she loved him. When she looked at him like there was never anyone else in the room with them. It didn’t matter. Other people were looking at her. People looked at Jeongguk too but that mattered even less. She was the only person in any room Jeongguk was in the entire time he knew her. 

 

Until one day, she wasn’t. 

 

Taehyung laughs, lashes low. He looks at Jeongguk, smiling wry. “You’re really fixed on that, huh?”

 

Curling under his gaze, Jeongguk pokes at a fry. “I’m just curious. I just… want to know you. Things about you. You don’t have to tell me, obviously, I know that, but you know all about my ex. Everything important at least,” he says, not the entire truth, but the most important thing about her is sleeping in a museum a few kilometers away, safe and protected with two of the three people Jeongguk trusts more than himself. 

 

“It’s not that interesting,” Taehyung says in that way that means it very much is. “We met during our senior year of high school at some interstate honors society event. Then again freshman year of college and were together until a little after graduation.” Taehyung shrugs, eats a fry even though it fell on Jeongguk’s ankle moments ago when they both reached for the take out plate at the same time. “And we were too young and too intense and too fast and didn’t realize it until we’d hurt each other too much.”

 

“Hurt each other how?”

 

Splitting a fry in half, Taehyung presses the longer half to Jeongguk’s mouth. Jeongguk chews. “Fighting mostly. I think when you’re in love like that so young it overwhelms you. Some people get it right but some of us get almost angry at it. That another person can just consume us like that. I’d get possessive and he’d get petty and mean, and we never figured out what to do with it. Us.”

 

“I can’t picture you like that,” Jeongguk says, and he’s never noticed the way other people look at Taehyung in a room, because Taehyung never acts like there is anyone there except the one little person who is in every room Jeongguk is in, even when he’s not there. “The jealous type.”

 

Taehyung sighs, grin sardonically inward. “You didn’t know nineteen-year-old Taehyung. That kid could be a real asshole sometimes. Bit of a douchebag honestly. Got into a fight about it once.”

 

It makes Jeongguk smile even though he knows it shouldn’t. The image of Taehyung’s cool composure frayed. It’s just so young and dumb, so reckless in a way Taehyung doesn’t seem to allow himself to be. “You punched some guy for macking on your sweetheart?”

 

Taehyung’s laugh is big, his smile going sweet, cheeks stained like cherries. “Try his lab partner who was painfully straight as it turned out. Which he’d already told me.”

 

“Ohhh.”

 

“Ohhh is right. I had the dumbest bruise on my knuckles for weeks. And that wasn’t the last time something like that happened and that cycle went on longer than it should have.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, as terrible as it sounds, the make-up sex mostly. It’s a gross cliché but it was downright filthy.”

 

Jeongguk chokes. 

 

Red cheeks in his hands, Taehyung collapses against the window, laughs soundless and hiccupy. He calms down, says. “Sorry. T.M.I?”

 

Wiping a stray tear from his eye, Jeongguk nods. “Yes but if it was anything like what we just did I think I understand.”

 

Taehyung chuckles, head shaking, and the smile on his face now makes Jeongguk want to cry for a different reason. 

 

And maybe he does get it, how jealousy can make you possessive, a little crazy and narrow eyed, and it’s ugly and unattractive, but it gets some people’s baser instincts going, and for the first time he wonders what it would have been like if he’d met Taehyung when he was eighteen instead, if he would have gotten petty and mean and violent too, if he would have melted under Taehyung’s hands because of it, if they would have ruined each other.

 

He belatedly realizes what that would have meant, the four years between them feeling like ten, how different Jeongguk’s life would be. How his heart would probably still be his and the self-loathing he feels is the kind he hasn’t been capable of since he was a teenager. 

 

Forcing a smile, he looks at Taehyung and says, “So young and dumb and in love, then?”

 

Taehyung gets quiet again. Traces a stray of light reflected on the window. Voice lullaby shaped, he says, “If you want to look at it that way. We have this tendency to look on our past loves with shame. Shame them and ourselves. Say it wasn’t love at all, really. And some things really aren’t love. But I think love is learning. It’s growth. And the more you love, the more you allow it to grow with you, the less ashamed you feel about how you acted when you didn’t know any better.” 

 

When Taehyung had stopped moving inside of him, it had been like strings cut, Jeongguk’s ribs turned inside out. He’d fussed over Jeongguk’s ass more than he’d ever thought an ass would need, careful fingers, hissing in sympathy whenever Jeongguk did, had fussed over the deep teeth marks on the insides of his thighs too. And Jeongguk hadn’t stopped touching him, his sweaty face and sweatier hair, his body more than a little ruined, and Taehyung had asked him what he kept smiling about so much and Jeongguk hadn’t said anything, just let Taehyung do his thing, ass and thighs slowly becoming wetter as he was cleaned, then dried, teeth dumb and on display. 

 

“Or when you knew better and got in your own way anyway,” Taehyung says, offers Jeongguk the last fry. Eats it after Jeongguk shakes his head. “We’re impossibly demanding, even mean about it, of our younger selves. I think we’d be better off if we cut the kids we were some slack.”

 

When it’s hard to keep their eyes from blinking themselves dry, they make their way back to the bed and Taehyung starts falling asleep with his head on Jeongguk’s chest, stroking over his tattoo again like he can’t help it, like he’s not even thinking about it, and he says, “You’re really easy to talk to, you know. I thought I’d have to earn it, earn you.”

 

Maybe he’s only like that with Taehyung, Jeongguk thinks. The truth is Taehyung has already earned him, and it’s so dumb and this is so dumb, because Jeongguk is still so young, doesn’t really know any better than if he’d let a twenty-two year old Taehyung hook into his ribs and never pull out, scorched him from the inside and swallowed him whole in that way only a sun a can. 

 

So he waits until Taehyung is snoring, snuffling against his neck, ticklish and so soft, to kiss his forehead, curl into him, and try to find sleep. 




---




In the morning, he rolls over in bed.

 

“Ow.”

 

Jeongguk inhales hard, opens his eyes. His elbow is throbbing and Taehyung is next to him, turned away towards the other side of the bed, holding his face.

 

“Oh fuck.” He’s a flurry of movement, trying to see but not hurt Taehyung further. “I’m sorry! Oh no, let me see.”

 

“It’s fine. I’m fine. Just shocked.” 

 

Taehyung won’t look at him though, voice muffled by his palms, and Jeongguk coaxes them away gently, examines the faint redness on his cheek, presses barely there fingers against it. 

 

“I’m so sorry.” He swipes over Taehyung’s cheekbone, trying to tell if it’s too tender or hurt. “I’m not used to another adult sized body in bed.” He’s used to jiggly knees and tiny fists, short little legs and puffy cheeks trying to climb into his bed after a bad dream. He’s used to being a calming presence, security. He isn’t used to a naked body, another man’s body. Had no real idea how it felt to sleep next to one and despite the rude awakening, he feels so at ease, baby slept soft. 

 

“I’m really fine,” Taehyung says, assuring, letting Jeongguk touch at him. “It really was the shock. I was having a very nice dream.”

 

“Yeah? About what?”

 

Taehyung’s smile goes lecherous, something out of those cliched stories he likes so much. He fondles Jeongguk’s waist, the shimmery blue over it. “You in this robe.”

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, kisses Taehyung’s face in apology anyway. 

 

It’s supposed to be a kiss, just a kiss and a kiss and a kiss, but he nuzzles at Taehyung’s cheek and hands climb up his spine, and their hips end up rutting together anyway, and it would make Jeongguk stop, think, that they are just being you and dumb, that this is just sex, frustration spilling over, except Taehyung doesn’t stop looking at his face, his eyes, and the hand he pins above Jeongguk’s hand isn’t a show of control or male ego. It’s the hand he laces his own fingers through, their palms warm, as their bodies move, still sleepy and heated and sloppy in a way that feels very young, very not dumb. 

 

When the morning fully comes it’s with a vengeance almost, bright and blinding with every bit Taehyung pushes the curtain back. And it’s dumb how Taehyung makes him coffee with the little kettle set up in his kitchenette, and its dumb how Jeongguk brings him some of the lavender chai Namjoon hides in the back of their pantry downstairs after watering the plants hanging in the kitchen, giving speacial attention to the almost wildly now bloomed peace lily, and it’s dumb how simple this is, how it isn’t any harder to talk to Taehyung now, sitting on his bed and laughing as Taehyung tells him about the latest dispute Joonhyun had with her thesis advisor, the mishap his second youngest brother Taesol had last week with one of their oldest crankiest goats, and its easy and it’s dumb until Jeongguk’s phone buzzes with a message. 

 

He doesn’t move at first. It’s like reality tugging him back, a red sheened fever dream. 

 

The mug Taehyung gave him was from a student last semester, a gag end of the year gift. The words are black and interspersed through a star like design, and Jeongguk thinks they’re so true, I’M A PROFESSOR. JUST LIKE A NORMAL PERSON EXCEPT MUCH COOLER AND HOTTER. Jeongguk’s coffee is basically perfect, just dark enough, sweet like he likes it and he wonders if he’s going to get through this morning without finally giving in and weeping, just a little. 

 

He checks the message. 

 

Says, “Hyung wants to go to brunch.”

 

Taehyung sips his tea. He smiles, easy as anything, beautiful as anything, and says, “Wanna go get dressed? Shower? I’ll meet you downstairs.”

 

Jeongguk looks at him. His heart feels like a pulse, like a beat. It feels safe here, now. “Taehyung.”

 

He looks down and his eyes feel so heavy, like they could fall into his coffee mug and he’d never have enough strength, strong as he is, to lift them back up. He doesn’t know why this is so hard, why with all that he’s loved, as much as he’s loved, more than he thought a stupid kid of ninenteen, and then a stupider kid of twenty-one, was capable of, this feels the same way Taehyung’s face has felt. Impossible, out of Jeongguk’s reach. 

 

A finger brushes his wrist, and then Taehyung’s hand covers his, and Jeongguk just has to look at him. Can’t help it. 

 

Touching the mole on the bend of his palm, Taehyung says, “If this is the part where you tell me I need to turn back into a pumpkin, I understand.”

 

Something must snap in Jeongguk’s ribs. This wounded sensation fills him, hurt and wretched. “Taehyung-”

 

“Maybe I shouldn’t, but I understand that you have a need for what your life has to look like. And I can’t begin to understand everything that goes into that. I’m not a parent. But I know your kid. So I understand wanting to give him everything. Wanting to do right by him the best way you know how. And if that can’t include this, then,” Taehyung pauses, and by this doesn’t he just mean himself, and it’s dumb then, because it already does include Taehyung. It’s been including him for a while now, was going to always, even if their mouths had never touched. “I get it.” Taehyung looks at him then, something singular and focused about his eyes, and Jeongguk gets it a little more now. Why people tell stories. Why he used to write songs. “But I have feelings for you. Real big feelings. That’s obvious now and I think it’s been obvious for a while. And I want you, but more than that, I like you. You as your own person, and I respect whatever you want from me. Whatever you need from me. I’m here. If that’s just as your friend, I’m here.”

 

“I don’t,” Jeongguk starts, but he does know. It’s so easy, really, to say it as he thinks it. As he feels it. 

 

Maybe it is just because it is Taehyung. Maybe Jeongguk really is better at it than he thinks, like Taehyung says he is. 

 

Voice breaking, his whole face scrunches painfully, and it’s like the words are ripped out of him, “I just never thought I’d get to have this again. I didn’t think I deserved it. I don’t think I know how to do this anymore, Taehyung.”

 

For the first time, Taehyung looks at him pitying. Jeongguk doesn’t hate it as much as he thought he would. “You think anyone does? Everyone’s just learning as they go. Some people are just less scared of the chopping block.” Their mugs have gone cool but the way Taehyung holds his hand is so sweet, makes it hurt a little less. “Some people have good reason to be scared.”

 

Jeongguk says, “I like you. A lot. I don’t know what to do with it all.”

 

And it sounds so dumb and too young coming from him, but Taehyung smiles at him like it’s a line from his favorite movie, like it’s poetry, and what do you know, Jeongguk used to sort of write that. “Then we go slow. Or don’t go at all. We figure it out.” Taehyung shrugs, brows squiggling funnily. “We know where the other lives.”

 

Jeongguk laughs, light and airy. And it really must just be Taehyung, how light Jeongguk feels, not because Taehyung says perfect things, but the ones he feels, ones that seem so real Jeongguk just has to believe them. 

 

And this is dumb, it has to be, but maybe Jeongguk isn’t as heavy as he fears he is. 

 

“Okay,” he says and it’s maybe the dumbest thing he’s said yet. For now, he thinks he’ll cut the young thing he is some slack. 

 

Taehyung grins, and it’s so obvious now, his hand touching Jeongguk, the almost besotted look in his eyes, and Jeongguk doesn’t have to wonder how obvious he’s being back. 

 

“So,” Taehyung says, his sigh a little dramatic. Theatrical, and Jeongguk doesn’t feel the desire to roll his eyes, be petty. 

 

Taehyung is just that grown, that learned, just that beautiful, inside and out, down to his damn teeth. 

 

“How slow do you think is showering together?”




---


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

***




Jinhyung sees them first. 

 

In the warmth of too many families scarfing down two-for-one mimosas and runny eggs benedict, he sits up in his booster chair, prattling on about something that Namjoon looks enraptured by. Yoongi is  snoozing into a latte the size of a tiny human, head bobbing to show he’s listening, chin smushed against Namjoon’s bicep. Jeongguk gets caught in the freeze frame of it, wants to pull out his phone, but he doesn’t think an image other than the one in his head would do it justice. 

 

Then, like disturbances in the force are real and there is such a thing as some magical transcendent field of energy, Jinhyung spots him like a speed scanner, face brightening, almost topples his booster over.

 

“Ba- pa !”

 

Jeongguk has him in his arms before he’s made it three steps, face buried in his neck like it’s been a year’s long separation instead of a bit over twelve hours. Jinhyung coos, hair brushing his cheek, half words about stars and so big and the potty only had big boy to-tes , his hands waving at Taehyung behind Jeongguk’s back. 

 

They sit, Namjoon offering from his carafe, informing Taehyung the matcha here is good and launching into a story about Jinhyung offering a little girl his 3-D glasses last night during the star show after her’s broke. Yoongi rouses to show them enough pictures of Jinhyung ohhhing and ahhhhing over Andromeda and the Cepheus constellation to make Jeongguk a puddle of goo. 

 

“You need to send me all of these,” Jeongguk says. He should be glancing at the menu, hunger a hole in his stomach, the waitress circling near their table like a polite vulture, but he could subsist on this, the overflow of love he feels for his kid. For a few more seconds, at least. 

 

“Already on it.” Yoongi looks sleepier than usual but not exhausted, cheeks marshmallowed, and Jeongguk feels regret like a physical thing, missing it when he could have been there, that all he gets are stories and pictures. 

 

Jinhyung says, “B-tae, b-tae, btae!” Leans from Jeongguk’s lap into Taehyung’s chest, buzzing about dinos came from stars and moons and big big bang !

 

Taehyung accepts his sudden weight without complaint, laughs honeyed. “That sounds so cool, bud. Did you see Cassiopeia? Yeah? Which one was your favorite?”

 

His leg keeps bumping Jeongguk’s under the table. Not a constant pressure, just an occasional touch, just enough, and summer means Taehyung's calves are exposed more often than not, and has Jeongguk always found knees so attractive?

 

¨...Gguk?¨

 

Jeongguk jolts, slamming his thigh into the bottom of the table. He bites down on a fuck , because it would serve him right if Jinhyung´s first word is a swear. ¨Huh? Sorry, what?¨

 

Namjoon´s making that face at him, the one where he looks like he wants to laugh but thinks it's rude, might crush Jeongguk´s confidence. He looked at him like that when they were little, when Jeongguk’s first instances of confidence came from Namjoon himself. ¨You okay? Yoon was asking if you'd get in trouble for not going to your work thing?¨

 

With a grimace Jeongguk presses into his thigh, and yep, that's going to bruise. ¨Oh, I mean, maybe. Yeah. I don´t know. They know I have a kid. I can't take off for Miami just like that.¨

 

¨Who turns Saturday work into a weekend in South Beach anyway? And what is this? 2002?¨

 

¨High Rollers that's who. Ggukkie’s on his way to Wall Street tycoon status.¨

 

Jinhyung takes this moment to drop his fork, a speared banana slice on the end from his fruit bowl, the only item of solid food that’s made its way to the table so far. The waitress has deemed them a lost cause for now and Jeongguk’s stomach protests at his earlier carelessness. 

 

Oh oh . Fruit-salad emergency,” Taehyung exclaims, makes a show of reaching under the table for the fallen silverware while Jinhyung laughs, clapping him on. He comes up with the retrieved fork in one hand, the other staying hidden by the table cloth. Jeongguk feels it on his leg, shy of his bruise. 

 

He freezes, the muscles in his thigh, in his face, squeezed tight. Taehyung’s hand is warm, pinky and thumb spanning the top of his leg, and he doesn’t do much, just a careful thumb swiping over where Jeongguk’s skin feels tender through his jeans. 

 

The fork gets wrapped in a napkin and Jinhyung is content with hand feeding himself, then offering a blueberry to Jeongguk, a peach chunk to Taehyung.  

 

Taehyung takes it with his teeth, and a “Thanks, bud. Yummy.” He digs into Jeongguk’s thigh a little, his touch making Jeongguk relax minutely as no one seems to notice what’s, mostly innocently, happening under the table. 

 

“B-ummy! B-yommy!”

 

“Oh, little man, that is it! Yu-mmy. Fruit salad! Yummy-yummy!”

 

“...are you singing the fu-reaking Wiggles right now?”

 

Nodding happily, Taehyung refuses the next piece gently, encourages Jinhyung to eat it, this time a strawberry. “Those freaky gentlemen taught me my English fruits. Colors too. Plus, my little brothers loved them.” He pokes Jinhyung’s side softly, sing-says, “Fruit salad?”

 

Jinhyung’s face explodes in a smile, little seeds stuck to his teeth. “B-yommy! B-yommy!” He feeds Namjoon and Yoongi next and by the end of another round, Yoongi is not-so begrudgingly-at-all singing along. 

 

Taehyung smooths over Jeongguk’s thigh one last time, subtle as he shifts to sit straight and pull away, but Jeongguk catches his hand at the last second. He squeezes Taehyung’s fingers, a silent thank you. Taehyung doesn’t look at him, but his smile grows as he lets Jinhyung play with his golden eyeglass chains, the cuff of his watch, the slightly raised university logo in glitter of his t-shirt, and he silently runs his index along Jeongguk’s wrist back, the action sending Jeongguk’s pulse singing sweetly. 

 

Eventually Jinhyung is fascinated enough with Taehyung’s sparkliness, turns to Jeongguk with arms out, and, “B- uhotty b-pleas, b-ba-ba.”

 

Jeongguk picks him up, gives a quick glance to the menu as they stand, “Order him the scrambled eggs if the waitress comes back? And the omelette for me. But hold the-”

 

“Parsley. And with rye toast.”

 

Adjusting Jinhyung in his arms, Jeongguk stops. He feels seen, taken care of in his very tiny, almost unimportant way. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

 

Taehyung grins at him, shorts ridden up from his ridiculous but not obnoxious at all manspread, and damn do some universities make ugly t-shirts, but damn does the man not have a nice pair of knees on him. A smile too. “We’ve only had breakfast over hundreds of times together. Your weird thing about parsley is endearing, by the way.”

 

“So is yours at being a know-it-all,” he says back with an eye roll, but he presses Jinhyung to his chest, and there’s a softness that comes out naturally in his voice when he tells Taehyung, “Thank you.”

 

“‘Course,” Taehyung says like it’s nothing, the tiny insignificantly significant things you notice about a person. He tightens the dangling loose lace on Jinhyung’s sneaker, says, “Good luck in there, soldier. Godspeed.”

 

“B- odspeeeeee !”

 

Jeongguk makes for the restroom, lips tugging, only then notices Yoongi is back to communing with his latte but he pauses anyway, is suddenly nakedly conscious of whatever is bleeding through in this moment from his smiling mouth because Namjoon is looking at him and he’s making that face again, except this time the smile is there, a little startled yet not at all, in his eyes. 

 

And then Jinhyung protests, “Ba- ba ?” and Jeongguk will think about that look, about all of this, later. 




***

 



Sometimes b words are the hardest. 

 

“B-b-buh-buh-a.”

 

“Bab.”

 

Ba !”

 

There’s an irony in that, some other literary device Taehyung would know well. 

 

Jinhyung’s little face pinches in frustration, tugging at the laces of his house booties, his favorites, the bright magenta ones with purple accents, and Jeongguk is full of so much love for him he thinks he might finally burst with it.

 

“Hey.” He gentles the grip of Jinhyung’s hands, says, “Let’s take a break. Want to paint? Chagsaeg ?”

 

Jinhyng nods, then shakes his head. He makes a tiny questioning sound, then reaches up for Jeongguk’s throat. “B-nol. B-nolaey. B-song, ba-ba.”

 

“You wanna sing? Yeah? What should we sing?”

 

They curl up on the big blanket in the living room, Jinhyung tucking himself into his side. There’s music playing in the apartment, Namjoon in his room studio, and Jeongguk breaks into an old favorite of his mother’s without much thought, a song about a girl and a small fishing village and a ghost. Or maybe it was a mermaid. Maybe Jeongguk is remembering it wrong. 

 

Jinhyung is quiet but sometimes he hums along, and he places his palm against Jeongguk’s singing throat, picks up Jeongguk’s fingers to feel his humming one, and this summer is setting out to be the laziest and longest of Jeongguk’s life, but Jinhyung will never be this small again so Jeongguk isn’t in any rush. It’ll come when it comes. The words. The song. 

 

The ghosted memory of his mother is a strange one. He hasn’t thought of her in a long time. He thinks of her now. He’s been feeling that a lot lately. Things haven’t happened to him in a while, and then they happen all of a sudden. They’re happening now. 

 

Song ended, the parts Jeongguk remembers, they do the numbers song next, and the Peppa Pig theme song even though it’s mostly just snorting and Jinhyung doesn’t watch it as much anymore, has moved onto things with spaceships and dinosaurs and witch princesses, but he blows raspberries against Jinhyung’s neck, snorts into his belly, and Jinhyung laughs, any tiny lines of frustration obliterated, sings along as much as he can, his snorting oinks loud and full of youth, of summer. 

 

Jeongguk will never be this young again. Everything else can wait. 




***




“I’m only asking because I need a yes or no.”

 

Jeongguk should have known the moment they stepped in here. 

 

The chandeliers are lit up with real candles, wicks flicking in the darkened light. The waiters are wearing gloves. He’s pretty sure there’s a duchesse or an influencer posing as one being served in the private room. Ostentatiousness pours from everything and it isn’t that his brother is a manipulator, it’s rather that he knows his little brother, his sense of proprietary, of not causing a scene, making himself bigger than he has to be.

 

He stares at his soup, the kind that’s cold and fruity and actually called gazpacho, a little spicy. He’d like it to be ten times spicier. With some voda. 

 

“Gguk.”

 

Yoongi’s eyes don’t say anything. He sits with his arms outstretched, the opulent fabric of his chair comical in comparison, and he no longer dresses like he belongs in places like these but he acts like it, not like he owns the place, but like he doesn’t care that he doesn’t. 

 

“Hyung-”

 

“You can say no,” Yoongi says when Jeongguk cuts himself off. He shrugs like this conversation isn’t a big deal, like it’s not cutting Jeongguk just a little open. “It’s your vocals. Your voice. You get a say. It’s your decision.”

 

And that seems to be the theme of Jeongguk’s life now. He gets to make all these big decisions when a part of him wishes someone would make them all for him even though he knows he’d never stand for that anyway. He’s not controlling but Jeongguk knows what he wants, who he is. Doesn’t mean he’ll get it, give him to himself.

 

It’s just weight but he caves under it, shoulders shoved down. “But I don’t get it. It was just a demo. Don’t they redo the vocals?”

 

Yoongi cuts into his meal, something smoked and french sounding, and how is it they’re from the same house, can trace their lineage back to the exact same place, and yet they couldn’t look more different, they couldn’t be stranger from the other some days. “Mostly. But sometimes they keep parts they like. Your backing vocals are one of those things. Loved them, actually. He said it’s rare to find a male voice like yours. That falsetto, that sweetness, but still masculine.”

 

Jeongguk stirs his bowl. It’s more red than orange. Red like cherries. 

 

“He said it obviously took a lot of hardwork and talent. A voice like that. Like yours.”

 

The sound of metal scraping china is too harsh for such a pristine place. An ugly note. Jeongguk sets his spoon down, elbows on the table, an ugly gesture in his tailored suit. “But re-recording the vocals? That’s not what we talked about, hyung.”

 

Yoongi shrugs and the neck of his hoodie creases and he looks like a millionaire hip-hop mogul who can’t be bothered, a start-up prince who can afford not to care. “When does life stick to what was agreed on? You know that better than anyone, Ggukie-yah.”

 

That’s a low blow, but before Jeongguk can properly assess it, throw something back in that way Yoongi only had to deal with over the phone when Jeongguk was a teenager, Yoongi says, 

 

“It’s not a duet or anything. It’s just back vocal work. You could do that in your sleep. Forty-five seconds of song time. Tops.”

 

Jeongguk arches a brow. “But hours of work?”

 

Another shrug. Yoongi bites into perfectly tender vegetables and surface level none of this affects him but if you know where to look, the grimace at his mouth, the tightness around his eyes, it’s all there, and what’s really strange is how despite all their differences, sometimes looking at him is a mirror for Jeongguk. 

 

“You know all about that too, hyung.”




***




“This was a terrible idea.”

 

Jeongguk grunts, every muscle in his body tremoring. Rivers of sweat travel down his body, but he pushes through, just one more second, a bit more weight. His hair dangles in his eyes, the image of himself blurred out, smudged in his reflection. “What did I say about you and the word terrible? And stop trying to distract me. The only thing I want to see bulging out of you is those biceps not words.”

 

There’s a snort and then Taehyung’s eyes meet his in the mirror, and Jeongguk had forgotten this part, what it’s like to be in a room with someone you’ve touched, who has touched you, and only the two of you know how. His body is instantly warmer, breath hard to swallow around. It’s the sweetest thrum, a secret thrill. “There’s not a whole lot to bulge,” Taehyung argues, wrist twisting the weight in his hand instead of exercising it. “Not there anyway.” He smiles all smug, and it shouldn’t be so charming, really. “Only distracting thing here is you.”

 

That’s hardly true. Plenty of distracting things in a gym. The gaudy motivational quotes on the walls. Certain people’s choice in spandex. The dance-pop pulsing through the airwaves. Half naked bodies. Half naked foreheads. Eyebrows. 

 

“Quit trying to be cute,” he says, hands curling, grip slippery. He forgot his gloves today and is starting to regret it. “Focus.”

 

Taehyung cocks a fully displayed brow, hair pulled back, his headband the ugliest shade of pink Jeongguk has been subjected to. Jinhyung tends to pick the perfect hues of the color, soft pastels or rich textures. Maybe he should bring Taehyung along the next time Jinhyung needs something. “No trying about it,” he states proudly, finally pays attention to his own workout and does a half-hearted bicep curl. “I’m not the one doing squats with a two-hundred pound barbell-”

 

“It’s not two-hundred pounds, hyun-”

 

“In those shorts. With that face.”

 

Jeongguk’s bottom lip juts out as he breathes slowly, lowers himself again, comes back up, arms shaking. “What’s wrong with my shorts?” So they shrunk a little in the dryer. He hasn’t had time to update his gym wardrobe in a while.

 

“Nothing. That’s the problem.”

 

“And my face?” So he sweats like a workhorse and his face blooms like a primrose when he exercises? He’s a real living breathing man. 

 

“Again, nothing,” Taehying says and he lounges on his bench with his elbow on his knee like a douchey pretty boy, the sweet earnestness of his voice anything but. Still pretty. “That’s the problem. Ask any guy in this gym. You know, all the ones trying not to look at you and failing.”

 

Heat fills Jeongguk’s already flushed face. He tries to blow his bangs out of his eyes and they flop back as soon as he moves again. Maybe Taehyung and Jinhyung aren’t the only ones in need of haircuts. “ Stop . How do you know they’re not looking at you?”

 

“Trust me. I know when men are looking at me. They’re not. It’s you.”

 

The flush has reached his vocals chords. He sounds it when he says, “I wouldn’t know. I’m looking at you.”

 

And then they just sort of look at each other, grinning foolishly, foolishly in something, and maybe Taehyung is right and working out together, now that they know what it’s like to touching each other, how the other likes to be touched, is a terrible idea, is dumb. 

 

They somehow make it through a few more circuits, so much so that even Taehyung starts to sweat. Cool down is on the treadmills because as much as Jeongguk doesn’t like running in place, it’s a good way to come down. Plus, heart health, cardio goodness, he could use some of that too. 

 

“Are you considering it?”

 

Telling Taehyung about Yoongi’s proposal was easy. A no brainer. Telling Taehyung anything, as Jeongguk is coming to learn of all the things he is about Taehyung, is easy. He’d think it’s because Taehyung is an easy person, has a lot of give to him, less layered onion, more peach you could swallow whole before you realize you’re choking. Jeongguk doesn’t think that’s it, the right words to frame it in. 

 

He ups the ante on his machine, brisk jog a little brisker. “Maybe? It feels… pointless. Like, why would anyone want my voice in their song?”

 

“You already know what I think.” Taehyung jogs at a more leisurely pace, an actual cool down. He’s using the pink headband as a dymb hair tie now and the only dumb thing about this is that it’s been more than an hour since Jeongguk last kissed his face off, hidden between two rows of gym lockers, the way he smelled like freshly pressed paper from a manuscript he picked up this morning and tasted like honeysuckle tea. 

 

“So you’re saying I should do it?”

 

“I’m saying you should do whatever you want, but don’t not do it because you’re scared of what it means. Or what it doesn’t mean. It can just be a thing you do. A thing you can say you did.”

 

It strikes Jeongguk as funny that Taehyung of all people would say that. Every word, every sound has a meaning.Taehyung knows that better than anyone. “So.... you’re saying I should do it.”

 

Taehyung barks out a laugh, a few heads turning at the boom of sound, and the summer is slow but an hour is too long, forever-like. “Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to your brother. Listen to this,” he reaches for Jeongguk’s temple, thumb sticky and gentle sliding against his skin. “And this,” his index to Jeongguk’s heart, and Jeongguk goes thump-thump , “You’re as tried and true as they come, kid.” 

 

Jeongguk swallows the sound of his heart in his ears, and later he’ll press Taehyung to the wall outside the gym and it’ll feel like the silly kissing he didn’t get until he was almost out of teens, sillier, honey full and sweet, but for now he realizes it’s never bothered him when Taehyung calls him kid. It means something different, sounds in a way he thinks only Taehyung could make it sound. 




***




The markets are going to shit. 

 

Ice clinks in thin glass, pastries perfectly braided, and the markets are tumbling in a slow-crawl-fall but it doesn’t matter. If you pull out at the right second, divest from this corner of the world and into this one, you’ll end up richer. It’s about the game. The gamble. It’s about having the right feeling, knowing your gut, when your gut should listen to numbers, algorithms, predictable unpredictability. 

 

“Jeongguk?”

 

He looks away from the window to find everyone in the room staring at him. The markets are fucked and he was thinking about Jinhyung turning four, whether he should get Namjoon a new set of bonsai clippers for his birthday, if Yoongi would want to pick up a pizza from the place near his studio for dinner tonight- whole grain, extra artichokes. 

 

“I was telling the board you were taking the lead on this one.” It’s his team leader, not much older than Jeongguk. Ivy leaguer, a mean lacrosse arm, starched oxford-shirt, his wilder days behind him if he ever had them. He pronounces Jeongguk’s name better than the other ones, more Juengkooc less Johncook . “You okay?” he asks, like he actually cares, vowels melded in concern. 

 

They’ve moved Jeongguk into more of an analyst position lately, less time on the floor, more gauging if the bets are actually being placed well, what it might mean if this goes up and that goes down, how likely he’ll stick the landing. It’s more money, strangely less use of his brain. He wonders if this is how his dad felt when he left his little music shop for a high rise overlooking the harbor, if Yoongi’s mind is on overload now that he never has to look at another spreadsheet again. 

 

The markets are fucked but he was thinking about the soft way Taehyung kissed him last night on the staircase, the way he distracted Jinhyung while Jeongguk got his shoes on before they went to the park on Sunday, the thorough way he tongued into Jeongguk’s mouth this morning by the door, almost too much and the pit of Jeongguk’s stomach bottomless for it in want. 

 

The markets are fucked but Jeongguk is good at this. Knowing what he’s good at, what he’s supposed to do, how to make it sound like it’s exactly where he meant to be all along. 

 

He pulls his mouth into a smile, winningly but just enough, taps on the screen in front of him to his prepared report. “Right. Yes. Sorry. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m sure some of you know the trails of a toddler at home.” Pause for a few laughs and they’re so predictable, these veins full of more money than blood, and Jeongguk has spent most of his life being one of them, if at a much smaller scale, and he wonders if hating them is a different form of self loathing. “If you’ll all turn to page 1A in your tablets-”




***




“- had to watch out for this meat-eater was the mamenchisaurus - can you say that? Sounds like a flower genus. Or a Mexican slang word. Mamenchi?”

 

“I don’t think-”

 

“B -menchi !”

 

“Saurus?”

 

“B- baurus !”

 

“Mamenchisaurus?”

 

“B -mmmenshiiiisaurs !”

 

Taehyung crows happily, exchanges the cutest fistbump in history with Jinhyung, smiles at Jeongguk over his head. “That was so good, bud. Excellent, really. Should call up the Academy of Sciences and tell them to update their spelling.”

 

Jinhyung spins his upper body to look at Jeongguk, cheeks deep set with his beam. “B- bsaurus , ba-ba!”

 

“Saurus, baby,” Jeongguk says back, proud, heart full, watches Jinhyung turn back to the book, pat at the page and say, “B-more b- plea s, B-Tae-tae.”

 

Springing back into action, Taehyung adjusts Jinhyung in his lap, holds the book upright again. “Right, yep. More coming up! Where were we? Aha, here- which you can see on page 111. Ah, so convenient, let’s check that out next. Aha. Hmm- The two dinosaurs lived…

 

The words wash over Jeongguk as he works at the table, such and such dinosaur lived here, this other one’s teeth were this big. Jinhyung follows along, repeats certain words, the sounds of them, and his confidence has been surging, overflowing, and Jeongguk aches for him to never lose that, the comfort of trying, stumbling, picking himself back up again without doubting he deserves to. Jeongguk participates every so often, asks Taehyung to repeat a passage or follows up with a question, to see a picture from their perch against the couch as the last of the afternoon sun skirts over Jeongguk’s knuckles, a small screwdriver in one hand, a pair of eyeglasses in the other. 

 

When he finishes, he throws himself onto the couch, cushions bouncing. The living room smells like sandalwood, the new diffuser Namjoon has been trying out. It’s earthy, pleasant to Jeongguk’s nose. He dangles the glasses in front of Taehyung’s face, Jinhyung distracted by a terrifying picture of a Mapusaurus roseae. “All good.”

 

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, voice sincere. He tilts his head back and reaches for Jeongguk, but doesn’t grab the glasses, holds his hand against his cheek. “You didn’t have to fix them, you’re the best.”

 

Jeongguk tightens his hold, fingers curled. Taehyung’s cheeks get round when he smiles like this, full and squishy. It makes Jeongguk think of fresh baked bread, a simmering fire, home. “It was nothing. Besides, you were doing words’ time.”

 

“You know I don’t mind. Plus today it was National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs,” he states proudly, and adds, “‘Sides,” an uncharacteristic slouch to his words. He’s been spending most mornings at the library when he isn’t teaching his two summer sections, buried in research, co-writing a paper with a student from the neurosciences department, the connection between stories and synapses, words and the gooey malleable parts of the brain. He moves and his lips open against Jeongguk’s hand, breath warm, mouth soft. “You were doing me a favor. Least I could do.”

 

Heat blooms in Jeongguk’s tummy, but it’s not arousal, sweet in a different way. The apartment is empty except them and Jinhyung, Namjoon and Yoongi at some fancy gala dinner that’s not really fancy and only barely dinner per Yoongi’s starved texts. So he’s not thinking about explanations he has to give or decisions he has to make but how nice it is to feel Taehyung’s warmth, how secure and happy in that oblivious way only kids can be Jinhyung looks being held by him, how secure and happy Jeongguk himself feels. 

 

He touches the frames Taehyung is currently wearing, thick and black. “I kind of like these, though. Very Superman.”

 

“Don’t you mean Clark Kent?”

 

“Sure,” Jeongguk says absently and the heat in his belly tightens, scorches a little, when Taehyung plucks the glasses from his hold and drops them on the couch, doesn’t let up on his grip on Jeongguk’s hand and kisses it, soft and dizzying in the center of his palm. 

 

And it is arousal, a little bit, but that’s normal, this is fine. Couples deal with this all the time, how to juggle the abstracts and logistics of desire while parenting, Yoongi relaying horror stories of him walking in on their parents being intimate while an unsuspecting newborn Jeongguk lay in his bassinet at the foot of their bed, but Jeongguk doesn’t find it so terrifying now that their parents loved each other even then, even if it was just in that way. 

 

Taehyung looks up at him, upside down and funny as it is there's happiness in his eyes too, smile obscured by Jeongguk’s hand, the kisses making their way to his fingers now and Jeongguk doesn’t look at everything he’s thinking about, what the lay of those words in his head means, focuses on the happy melty secure feeling, how it’s so closely tied to Taehyung’s mouth, his hands, his eyes, his everything. . 

 

He leans forward without thinking, settles his weight harder, and he’s about to gently rip his hand from Taehyung’s mouth, give it his own mouth instead.

 

“Ba- ba ?”

 

Jeongguk’s breath stumbles. He almost topples off the couch but stops himself by countering his inertia, Taehyung’s hand shifting from Jeongguk’s to grip his waist, helping him upright. His other hand has been busy this whole time, letting Jinhyung drag it against pages, using it to point at all the dinosaurs, not missing a step between the two. 

 

Jinhyung blinks up at him, the poster boy for patience except for how he wiggles Taehyung’s hand impatiently. Jeongguk will call him out on that in a second except Taehyung doesn’t seem to mind, ruffles his hair sweetly, all the melty feelings from before centering in Jeongguk’s heart. “Ba-ba, b- pleaseuh . B- baegobun .”

 

And right. Dinner time. Jeongguk rattles off possible dinner options. Jinhyung nods to all of them so he turns to Taehyung who shrugs, his hand falling naturally from Jeongguk’s waist to his hip, then above his knee and squeezing, thumb stroking like an afterthought, not to elicit heat, does it anyway. 

 

“Whatever’s fine. Or I could make dinner if you wanted to give him a bath. My skills have improved living with you guys. My rice is just the right amount of sticky now!”

 

It’s a wonderful offer and Taehyung speaks so sincerely, when does he not, and his skills really have improved, if a little, and Jeongguk’s work day had been long and hard and longer and he could use the break. But he finds his time in the kitchen therapeutic, healing in a way he can’t explain but he understands now why Namjoon was drawn to cooking even if all his first meals were burnt, overly salted, why he stuck with it. Any reservations are further gone as he glances at the stack of books at Taehyung’s side, his idling laptop, and says, “Nope. You said you wanted to get through the next chapter of your dissertation by tonight and you’ve still got pages left.”

 

Taehyung makes a noise that could rival Jinhyung’s whiniest tantrum. 

 

Like recognizing an equal, Jinhyung pats his chest, consoling sounds and words puttering from his mouth. 

 

“See? He gets it!” He scoops Jinhyung up against his chest, brandishes him to Jeongguk like some sort of point has been made. “I’m re-revising. I’m just being an overachieving perfectionist. It’s my worst trait.”

 

Jeongguk lifts a brow, unimpressed. “Oh, that’s the worst one?”

 

“Ha. Thinks because he’s cute it means he’s got jokes,” Taehyung says, close to Jinhyung’s ear like it’s a secret despite his voice being a wave of sound, deep sun-like, bright like the rise of morning. He touches Jeongguk’s calf this time, a half hidden caress. Jeongguk wants to touch him back, as soft, as carefully careless. “Regular comedian your dad.”

 

Jinhyung bats his feet against the carpet, smiles wide as he proclaims, “B-omediamm. Ba- ba !”

 

Jeongguk bends down to pick Jinhyung up, who goes happily, chirping about b-mbugolgi and eggs and do ba-ba and b-taetae go poopy like me too ? “Do your work,” he says to Taehyung. He smiles at Jinhyung, “Wanna help appa make dinner? We can name all the ingredients and food stuff. Food?”

 

“B- foooooooduh !”

 

“Can’t I at least help cut an onion?”

 

It’s such an obvious pathetic last ditch effort and Taehyung’s eyes go puppy dog-ish, mouth pouted boyishly, voice tilted like he’s not being uncharacteristically college grad instead of the beacon of responsibility he usually is, like he really does just want to help, that Jeongguk partly gives in, “No. But you can sit at the table and read it out loud as you work.”

 

Taehyung grins, his aim clear, already jamming his things in his arms. He grabs Mr. Gong Yoo even though Jinhyung is depending on him less and less. Sometimes he’ll leave him in the other room and minutes later will remember he left him behind. It hurts Jeongguk’s heart a little but he guesses that’s growing up. “I will take that. Sir, yes, sir.”

 

“You’re going to make a brat out of Jinhyung.”

 

“What,” Taehyung gasps, Mr. Gong Yoo held dramatically to his chest like one of the leading ladies in the Victorian novel he’s having his students read passages from in his class. Jeongguk remembers summer sessions, doesn’t wish them on anyone. “How?”

 

Jeongguk’s mouth quirks. “By letting him think being cute gets you whatever you want.”

 

Taehyung stands, smooth and slow and far more graceful than he looks like he’s going to be after you get to know him, really know him, the initial sheen of him wiped away by the dorky glasses, the goofy heart-wrenching smiles, the endearing way he goes on when he really loves something, the steadfast way he commits to himself, to life. Jinhyung between them, he stands close, looks at Jeongguk’s mouth, up at his eyes. “Isn’t he already learning that from you?” 

 

He can see it then. The moment they kiss. Except they’re not standing, a baby held between them. They’re lying on a bed he’s never seen before, on their sides as their mouths touch, their hands everywhere else, and the baby is in its crib at the end of the bed, oblivious in its sleep, within a foot-rocking distance in case it gets fussy, wonders were its parents went while in dreamland. 

 

Heart thundering against his ribs, Jeongguk blinks out of it, the picture movie that just played in his head taking him a second to realize is not real. Taehyung is still smiling at him, kind as ever, so Jeongguk doesn’t give into the instinct to stutter away, shove distance between them. He hikes Jinhyung higher up his hip, the weight of him comforting, and reaches up to push the hair out of Taehyung’s eyes, watches his smile grow, feels the one on his face pulled wider like it’s returning a call. “Go sit. I’ll put the kettle on for some tea too.” 

 

From behind him, Taehyung’s footsteps are loud and sure. “What’d I tell you? The best.”

 

Dinner is made in stages. Steam pours from the stovetop, the smell of garlic and ginger and the pickled mushrooms Yoongi made in a fit of homesickness. Jinhyung wants to taste everything, pronouncing ingredient names with confidence regardless if it’s spot on or gibberish. Evening is slow to come, darkening through the windows, and Taehyung reads from his dissertation, asks Jinhyung and Mr. Gong Yoo specifically for feedback, concepts that fly over Jeongguk’s head, some landing, but it never bothers him, to not know, to get it when Taehyung makes a paused commentary, marks where he wants to rewrite a sentence of five. He walks around the kitchen with Jinhyung when he gets fussy, taking a break from dense academic words to read lines picked off from a well loved paperback, verses Jeongguk is unfamiliar with but their cadence welcomed like a love song he’s never heard but recognizes all the same. 

 

Bellies full and warm, they build a fort in the living room, sheets draped over the couch, an old movie playing low. Jinhyung lounges between them, eyes trained on the film but lashes  fluttering. He’s curled around Mr. Gong Yoo, the penguin stood up against Taehyung’s side, using him as a backrest. 

 

Jeongguk props another pillow behind his head, finds his sight attracted to the side. The light from Taehyung’s laptop bounces off his glasses, reflecting in a lit up feedback against the screen. He finished his work right before they ate but he keeps fixating on a certain sentence, mouse hovering. 

 

“Hey.”

 

Taehyung says, “Mhhm?” He doesn’t look at him but he angles his head towards Jeongguk’s voice, chin tilted. 

 

“So do you think you finally did it?”

 

“Did what?” Taehyng asks. A furrow appears between his brows, his face a bluish-white. 

 

He doesn’t sound annoyed at the interruption. He’s broken out of his reverie every so often to ask Jinhyung what he thinks about a scene, make his own commentaries. He just sounds distracted, so Jeongguk asks, “Your theory. To prove that the reason we learn to talk is so we can tell stories.”

 

Taehyung finally looks at him. The wrinkle between his brows flattens, surprise marred on his face. When he speaks his voice is low, conscious of the movie, of Jinhyung’s sudden and then dissipating snores. “It’s not really about proving that it’s true or not. That it’s real. A real possibility. It’s about the possibility. Most academic theories either aren’t ever actually proved or can’t be. I had someone tell me the other day that what I really should have done is go into anthropology. Study small indigenous cultures in remote places who still regard storytelling as an art form, a main mode of transmitting information. There’s this tribe on an island in the Pacific they did this study with where they had them exchange tokens for rice among them; some they could freely give away to whichever villagers they chose. And they found a correlation between those that received the most rice and being known as a good storyteller. It was a margin of less than three percent but it was still something. But it could just be that. Correlation. Maybe those storytellers were more attractive or outgoing or likeable. Maybe those are just things that make a good oral storyteller. You’d have to replicate that over populations, over years. Decades. Generations. And that’s all fine and good. That can be important necessary work. Of course. But…”

 

He trails off, then like he’s been invigorated with sudden energy, sudden words, lowers the lid of his laptop and sets it on the floor. He rolls onto his side with care, stacks the stuffed penguin against his chest, and there’s a baby between them, happy and safe and secure, and Jeongguk wants to kiss Taehyung something silly. He watches Taehyung, something delicate both cracking and settling inside himself somewhere. He reaches out for Jinhyung’s back and strokes it gently when he sighs, points at the screen with a sleepy smile, a commisrated glance at Jeongguk because this is one of their favorite parts. 

 

“It’s not about some singular thing that will prove its validity. The thing that I’m trying to show is that it’s there. It’s there in the way we talk about our days and how we grew up and about the ones we love. It’s in places we don’t even see stories like science texts and hardware manuals. There’s an order, a progression in how we put together. The universe started with a bang before you can ever hope to understand a quark. The shelf we put together started with slot A into slot B. We’ve been telling stories as long as we’ve been able to. Longer.” His face takes on a look of wonder, voice hushed, “The cave paintings in Chauvet . All of Lascaux . I spent a summer in an archeology dig in the south of France trying to find other caves like it. Other paintings. I was trying to understand why they seemed to matter so much, these millenia old drawings of animals and hunters. The most basic of stories, information transmission in the simplest sense. And I realized we were telling stories, not before the written word was a thing, but before words themselves were. It comes from inside of us. There’s something in us that just needs to communicate it outward, we can’t keep it inside ourselves. Not just words, not just images or retellings, but the way we tell it. We need it out there. Whether it’s for a utilitarian need or an emotional one or everything in between. On some cave wall. On a yellowing piece of paper. On a blogpost no one will ever read. To the person or persons we love. Stories aren’t something we do. It’s, really, I think, who we are.” 

 

The movie is winding down, or up depending on how you look at it, how you think the story is being told. Jeongguk has watched this one dozens of times, has watched it with Jinhyug three and he’d requested it himself tonight, a group of boys and an underground world, magic and wonder and a pirate ship, but if he looked at the screen now he’s not sure he’d be able to guess what was happening, if they’ve just found the treasure or are getting ready to walk the ship’s plank. 

 

Taehyung’s eyelids flicker and a slow smile grows in his eyes, all over his face. “But you weren’t really asking. You were just trying to distract me by asking.”

 

Caught, Jeongguk shifts, looks at his hand sweeping across Jinhyung’s tiny back. The gaze on him is heavy but he doesn’t feel like he’ll collapse under it. He thinks he can carry it well. “You looked stressed, and I know you have all this work and you obviously know what you should and shouldn’t do or stress about but you’ve been staring at the same sentence the whole movie even though you’re way ahead schedule on your dissertation work. Which I know because you put it on the fridge and I was just-”

 

“You were just being yourself. Sweet and considerate and trying to take care of everyone.”

 

“Funny,” Jeongguk says, and this part of the movie he remembers, the part where they go home, safe and happy and secure. “Thought that was you.” His words get a little drowned out as Jinhyung lets out a snore and Jeongguk’s heart fills, and he looks at Taehyung, asks, “Help me put him to bed?”

 

Surprise touches Taehyung’s face again but he nods. “Yeah. Of course.”

 

It isn’t until he’s being tucked in bed that Jinhyung stirs, hands reaching out. He dozed through his bath and changed into his pajamas but rouses to ask for water and one story. Taehyung gets the water, Jeongguk the book, and they meet up on either side of the bed. The sippy cup Taehyung brings back is purple and sparkly, the cover in Jeongguk’s hands tough paperboard, the edges only a bit bent with age. 

 

“B- two . Ba-ba b- an B-taetae,” Jinhyung says when asked who he’d like to read to him so they take turns, switching off every other sentence but he’s asleep at four pages in, making sure Mr. Gong Yoo is comfortable and belly flopped too before closing his eyes for the night. 

 

Jeongguk turns the light out as he and Taehyung leave, makes sure the nightlight and baby monitor are on, the door closing soundlessly behind them. 

 

He sighs, sleepy himself but he doesn’t feel tired or exhausted. He feels settled, warm. He crosses his arms loosely and smiles, says, “You know, my mom read that story to me when I was little but it’s more violent than I remember. I mean the tiger was going to eat the ox.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Taehyung agrees, eyes on Jeongguk. His eyes. His mouth. There’s a beat and then he leans in, crashes their mouths together. 

 

It’s less of a crash and more of a wave, one that’s been slow-building for leagues, for hours. Taehyung’s hands on his face are full of it, Jeongguk’s backpressed to the wall. Jeongguk isn’t knocked over but it’s a near thing, chest tight and mouth open, his own hands wandering everywhere on Taehyung’s back, and there’s weight, and then there’s weight, the sort that ground you, the sort that makes the body sing. 

 

With a low breath, Taehyung pulls away, kisses falling on Jeongguk’s neck, the slide of his throat. “Sorry. I was listening. I promise. Sorry. The ox and the tiger and- holy shit you smell good -we never got to the persimmons. That’s the lesson part. Sorry, I’ve been thinking about kissing you all-”

 

Jeongguk shuts him up with another kiss, smacking and loud, their teeth bumping. Taehyung wrinkles his nose, cheeks rounding so cutely Jeongguk thinks about the peach, the ease of him. 

 

“Me too,” Jeongguk says, meets Taehyung halfway this time. Their mouths barely brush when there’s a click, the sound of voices. They don’t spring apart but it’s a purposeful undoing. Taehyung sighs and with a last touch to his waist, and Jeongguk didn’t even notice his hands there, steps away. 

 

Namjoon doesn’t notice them at first. It’s Yoongi, who is both being held by but trying to prop Namjoon up as well, who does, pointing over his shoulder with big eyes, and, “Hey! I know you!”

 

With a grimace, Namjoon tries to stop the hand that is valiantly trying to grope his ass. He shoots them a pained smile. “Someone made very good friends with the bar guy tonight.”

 

“Great friends! His name was Greg. Is. It still is now, right? Hey. Is Greg Greek? Greek. Greg. Gre. Gre. I didn’t ask him.”

 

Taehyung snorts, shares an elated grin with Jeongguk, and Jeongguk smiles back, but tries to find something in his face. Discomfort, annoyance. He wasn’t thinking about Namjoon and Yoongi’s reactions, having to explain, why they’d need to pull away in the first place. 

 

Desperately, Yoongi clings to Namjoon’s arms, Namjoon wincing at the force behind it. “Joon-ah. I forgot to ask! Wait. Great. Gre! Am I speaking Greek right now? Namjoon, do you understand what I’m saying?!”

“Want me to put on some coffee to sober him up?” Taehyung asks, curled lips trying not to chortle. Jeongguk elbows him gently and sound escapes from his mouth, muffled. 

 

“Oh, no. This one’s going to bed.” Namjoon tries to push Yoongi up the stairs. It should be easy seeing as he’s got both weight and height on him, but if there’s one thing Jeon boys have always had in more spades than they should, it is stubbornness, resilience, and Yoongi throws his weight around, death gripping the banister. “Sleep and water is all he’s getting- Yoongi don’t bite me, you fuck.”

 

“Oh, no,” Yoongi says, tone somber. He cradles Namjoon’s elbow, more lovingly than he should be able to so drunk, pressing his cheek to the bite marks he was trying to indent in Namjoon’s skin. “I’m sorry. Your little elbow. Oh, no, it’s all sad now. I’m sorry, baby. Baby . Yeobo.”

 

Namjoon’s face takes on the look of someone who wants to be not alive but he finally manages to get Yoongi moving upwards. “It’s okay, Yoongi-yah. Let’s go sleep.”

 

“Sleep. Sleeeeep. Right.” Yoongi nods, steps overzealous and cautious on the stairs. He doesn’t look but points in the general vicinity of where Taehyung and Jeongguk are still standing. “Don’t have sex so loud, you guys. Namjoon needs sleep, I’ll kill you!”

 

“Yoongi! Jesus . Fucking shut up.” An apologetic look is thrown their way, Namjoon’s face bright red. “Sorry. Goodnight, guys.”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t react, just watches his brother get carted up the stairs. 

 

“But the pope is so loud during sex, Joon. And Jinhyung’s sleeping. Wait! I didn’t say goodnight to Jinhyung. What if he’s missing me?”

 

“You’ll see him tomorrow. He’s sleeping, remember? You don’t want to wake him up, right?”

 

“Riiiiiiight. Do you think he’s missing me? I miss him.”

 

“I’m sure he is, baby.”

 

“Baby. Baaaaaby. I want a baby. Hey! I told Greg about how tall you are but he promised he wouldn’t tell anyone. Do you think he will?”

 

“I’m sure he won’t.”

 

“Good. If he does, I’ll kill him and I wouldn't want to. He’s my friend. My Greek friend. I’ve never had one of those before. Hey! Do you remember that time I said I lost your Yu-Gi-Oh! card? That was a lie. I traded it for Lee Kisung’s headphones.” 

 

“Okay.”

 

“The headphones were bass-boosted! I’m sorry! Don’t hate me.”

 

“Yoongi, shh , it’s fine. We were seven.”

 

“I swear I’ll make it up to you. I was jealous and thought you liked Yu-Gi-Oh! more than me. Hey! Do you remember the time-”

 

Their voices swirl up the stairs until they’re muffled, the apartment quiet once more. 

 

“So that’s your brother.”

 

“So that’s my brother.”

 

And then Jeonguk’s shoulders shake, and then Taehyung’s do too, and they laugh about it for a good minute, shushing each other so they don’t disturb Yoongi and Namjoon upstairs, so they don’t wake the baby sleeping only a few meters away. 

 

Taehyung leans against the wall, hair messily splayed on his forehead, smile full of laughter. Quietly, he says, “Guess we should go to bed too.” 

 

And Jeongguk can see it. The quiet room. Taehyung’s sleep-addled face in the dark. The baby at the foot of the bed. 

 

He watches Taehyung gather his laptop, his books, the pen with the little saxophone clipped to it Namjoon gifted him from a pen raid of the headquarters of the magazine he writes for most often. “Guess so.”

 

By the couch, Taehyung says, “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“You know where I live,” Jeongguk says, pitches his voice cheeky but it comes out too dry.

 

The washed out walls of the living room look warmer than ever, more like home than Jeongguk ever thought they could when he first moved here, a frightened kid with a kid who wouldn’t know to be frightened until he’s much older. Never, if Jeongguk has any say in it. Taehyung smiles, makes it warmer. “Yeah. The pretty boy downstairs.”

 

“Does that make you the pretty boy upstairs?”

 

With a shrug, Taehyung smiles, gives him a little wave, makes for the stairs. 

 

“Hey,” Jeongguk says before he gets too far and Taehyung waits him out, lets Jeongguk get close enough so they’re standing toe to toe. The lone light still on in the foyer hangs above them, and it paints shadows across Taehyung’s face, makes him look like standing in the last dredges of a falling sun. “What was that poem you read earlier? The one about dreams and longing or something?”

 

Taehyung clicks his tongue in thought, hums like an out of tune harpsichord. “Was it I longed, and my longing became a dream ?” 

 

Jeongguk isn’t sure if that was it but he nods, tilts his face towards Taehyung’s. . 

 

“Li Po. Li Bai depending on the text. He revolutionized Chinese poetry a good couple hundred years ago. Total rockstar.”

 

“What do you think he was talking about? What can make someone want for something like that, that it becomes something to dream about?”

 

In the light, Taehyung’s eyes take on a glazed hue, and he looks very dreamlike himself. He follows the line of Jeongguk’s angled face, tucks the hair falling over Jeongguk’s cheek behind his ear, his touch lingering. “I can think of a few things,” he says, and he doesn’t kiss Jeongguk’s mouth again, but he lingers at Jeongguk’s nose, his cheek. Against his forehead he says, “Sweet dreams, Gguk-ah.”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t need the well wishes, knows what he’s dreaming about tonight, and it should terrify him but that’s just Jeongguk’s life now. He’s always terrified. He takes it as being a parent and he wonders if his parents are terrified, even now. 

 

“Sweet dreams, Tae-hyung.”




***




“I want to die.”

 

Jeongguk chuckles into his cereal. Jinhyung throws his arms up into the air, a slice of honeydew flapping in his hand. “B- dieh !”

 

Yoongi frowns but there’s nothing menacing about it. He pokes Jinhyung’s belly, giggles erupting. “Don’t be smug, kid. Wait ‘till your my age.”


Smoothing a hand over Jinghyung’s sleep-messed hair, Jeongguk says, “I’ve never seen you this hungover. Thought you said real men don’t get hangovers.”

 

“That’s if it’s whiskey,” Namjoon whispers loudly and places a mug next to Yoongi’s plate, every attempt he’s made to eat resulting in a green tinge to his face. “This was vodka.”

 

Yoongi ignores the dig, sighs into his coffee. He looks up at Namjoon, headbutss his side softly. “Mmmm. This is the best thing that’s ever been in my mouth.”

 

Jeongguk makes a gagging noise. 

 

Yoongi ignores that too, says to Namjoon, “I love you. You’re so tall but you let me spoon you anyway. And you make the carrots curly for my bibimbap. We should totally be married, man.”

 

Namjoon rolls his eyes, but he ruffles his hair, lets Yoongi sag against him. “We already are, doofus.”

 

“I know,” Yoongi beams up at him, and Jeongguk would think he was still drunk, but it’s too sincere, too belly soft, “Isn’t it great?”

 

Making a noncommittal sound, Namjoon pushes his head away and goes to stand at the stove. He’s smiling, though, big and deep set in his cheeks. He fixes his own coffee, a bowl of yesterday’s lunch leftovers, and leaves the kitchen with, “Don’t let him just caffeinate as breakfast, Ggukie. Food, Yoongi. Food!”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Yoongi waves him off, watches him go. He laughs, sips from his mug, notices Jeongguk watching him. “You okay, kid?”

 

“Mhhhm.” Jeongguk nods. Tries to feed Jinhyung more melon, a little of his cereal, some of the guksu left over. 

 

“You sure? I didn’t say anything dumb last night, did I?”

 

Jinhyung spits back a piece of enoki into Jeongguk’s hand, grabs Jeongguk’s wrist and guides it away from his mouth gently like Jeongguk’s bones are made of glass. “B-no b- bankyu , ba-ba.”

 

Dumping the half chewed mushroom on a napkin, Jeongguk rummages through the fridge, looks for a knife to cut from some walnut loaf since Jinhyung has seemed to like it so far. “Nothing dumber than usual, hyung.”

 

“I feel like there’s something I wanted to tell you.”

 

He slices a piece for himself, crumbs sticking to the knife and he considers the silverware drawer, getting a fresh spoon because sometimes Jinhyung likes food that is scooped more than speared on a fork. He touches the drawer next to it. They keep junk mail they still get delivered no matter how many times they unsubscribe, choose the paperless billing options, in it. He thinks about the neatly folded stacks at the bottom, the sunny pictured couple and small toddler, the adoption agency’s name proudly letter headed at the top in professional font. 

 

At the table, he rips the bread into smaller pieces, lets Jinhyung feed himself which he does with gusto. He spoons cereal into his own mouth, says, “I don’t know. Is there something you want to tell me, hyung?”

 

Yoongi touches his food, potato bread dipped and rolled in eggs and gochujang and spring onions, some half-brained concoction between the food of their childhood home and the one Yoongi’s been trying to make since he was eighteen. Soon it’ll be half his life since he came here and one day he’ll have lived in Korean less than half of it, and the years will make that time smaller and smaller, more distant. Jeongguk is a ways off from that but he can see how they’re clinging to it, home. He wonders if they always will. 

 

The sound of Yoongi chewing is loud. He breathes after and drinks more coffee. Takes another bite, the green of the spring onion bright in the morning. It reminds Jeongguk to check the peace lily, the new spider plant Taehyung brought back from the nursery for them at the end of April. “Have you thought about it? Re-recording your vocals for the song?”

 

Jinhyung offers Jeongguk some walnut bread, grinning wide, eyes almost closed from how high his cheeks are. “ Ba !”

 

Jeongguk lets himself be fed, says, “Yes.”

 

Yoongi raises his brows. 

 

Jeongguk says, “I’m still thinking about it.”

 

Yoongi stares at him. Then he nods and that’s that. If it’s one thing Jeon boys know about each other, it’s that silence is sometimes all that needs to be said. He asks, “Where’s Taehyung today?”

 

There isn’t anything in Yoongi’s tone. Still, Jeongguk waits a moment to answer, “At the university. He had a seminar and a meeting with his advisor.”

 

Yoongi hums. Nods some more. He cleans his plate, drains his mug, and his face clears with a smile. “I was thinking we could go to the Rose Center today. Get some pizza at that place on 88th. Just you, the kid and me. Namjoon’s got a couple of articles to write. We could bring him and Tae some slices home after.”

 

Silence can grow. All the things left unsaid filling until it bursts. Amass enough and you could make a whole house, an ocean, not a song but symphonies worth, silence. 

 

Jeongguk drinks the last of his cereal milk, the color golden pink thanks to honey and dried cranberries, and what’s one more day, of all the things left unsaid. 

 

“That’s a great idea, hyung. Jinhyung will love that. He’ll like all the fossils.”

 

“B- ossilsss !”

 

Yoongi nods. 

 

Jeongguk checks the spider plant, the peace lily. 




***




B - b -dino b -ogo boom! B- an b-t heeee n b - crasss ! Bam! Bah!”

 

The story is told with the appropriate effects, Jinhyung’s voice rising and falling, loud for the explosion, hissing for the residual nothingness, arms akimbo and hands spread like a conductor’s, the director of the happenings of the universe and all of its whims. It elicits the appropriate reaction from the little boy he’s telling it to, sat on the plastic office chair with his mouth open, eyes big in fascinated shock. 

 

“Any day now.”

 

Jeongguk signs today’s release form, screen smudged where he started to write 전. Years on, he still reaches for hangul first.

 

“You think so?”

 

She nods. There is a calmness to her that Jeongguk finds comforting, serene. The way she treats words and speaking like she finds comfort in them. The sureness of never truly knowing them and being fascinated by them anyway. “He’s gained confidence. His sentences, while short, are there. Structured. He’s identifying patterns in the way people talk.”

 

Jinhyung brings his hands together, makes fists. He knocks them together and pushes them up into an arc, fingers splayed as they come down again. It’s debris raining down, the ashes of an asteroid, of the end of everything and the beginning of something else. “ B -stars! B -dino b -ggo bye bye! Bbbb -we,” Jinhyung says. He points to himself, to the other little boy, to everyone in the waiting-room. “ B -ssay b - heeeello !”

 

“He’s still relying on the b sound as a crutch but it no longer substitutes actual words. Yes, I think it’ll be soon.” She smiles, sounds sure. It doesn’t seem self satisfied at doing her job, filling a purpose. She looks joyed, pleased at guiding someone towards speech, not giving them a voice but showing them how to find their own. “He’s turning four soon?”

 

“Yes. In a few weeks.” Jeongguk is desperately trying not to think about it, how soon Jinhyung will be talking too fast for Jeongguk to keep up, about things he won’t be able to understand in that way his parents couldn’t keep up with him, grow taller and bigger so he won’t need Jeongguk to hold him anymore. He’s dreading it but he also can’t wait for it. To watch Jinhyung be more and more of his own person, to be witness to it. 

 

“Are you thinking about school yet?” At Jeongguk’s expression she smiles demurely. “Four is a great time to start preschool. Many children start at three which I think is too early. In Jinhyung’s case, I think the socialization of school might be the push he needs. There are programs that do preschool at half days. They’re very immersive. Small classrooms that are very hands on.”

 

“But he’s so little,” Jeongguk says. It sounds too naked but there’s no point in a stoic facade, like the big milestone of school, everything it represents, doesn’t tear him up inside. He didn’t start school until he was six and he watched a documentary recently with Taehyung about how Finnish children don’t begin schooling until they’re seven and how that’s the secret to their education success, still tiny but so much bigger than Jinhyung is now. 

 

There’s no judgement when she says, “Jinhyung is very intelligent. There are lots of ways to nurture that. This is just one.” 

 

She pulls something up on the reception desktop, a website to an academy that doesn’t look fancy, quite holistic, but is probably all the more fancy for it. 

 

“I don’t mean this to sound crass,” she starts carefully, “but I’d highly suggest something private or a preschool at one of the specialized schools. Once he’s up and talking fully, public school may end up a good fit for him. But for now, he needs a certain type of attention that, very unfortunately, the school he’s district is in, may not have. If money is a delicate matter, there are scholarshi-”

 

“It’s not.” Jeongguk feels his face heat, but it’s the truth. He’s almost paid off his university debt as early as he could despite differing advice floating around him. He didn’t want to carry that sort of weight around. He’s already invested and turned around more money than he ever gave a second thought to before. Before when all he wanted was a song, a voice, words of his own. 

 

She nods. Clears her throat. “I can send you a few links. Most places will still have spots. September is still a ways away.”

 

And Jeongguk isn’t sure, doesn’t feel very convinced, and September feels forever and tomorrow away, but he agrees anyway because it can’t hurt to look, to think about it. 

 

They turn back to Jinhyung describing how some animals today came from the dinos , how the shape of bird’s wings tell this, but how it’s just a b-teory! so big people are still figuring it out.  

 

“A natural storyteller.” She smiles. “Does he get it from you?”

 

“No,” Jeongguk says, mouth curving when Jinhyung looks back and beams to find him already watching, big eyes full of a wonder Jeongguk never wants to see darkened. 

 

He makes it worth it. Every decision Jeongguk makes, the ones he feels forced to, has to, has had to. He’ll always make it worth it. 

 

“No. I’ve never been one much for stories.”




***




“This one?”

 

“Mhhm.”

 

“What? Too flashy? Not flashy enough?”

 

“Uhh...both?” Jeongguk tries again, half-watching Taehyung consider the garishly orange windbreaker for another moment, half-distracted by the Space Adventure Cobra t-shirt in his hands, the cartoon print faded artfully. “As long as it repels rain that’s what’s important, right? I don’t think the color matters much.”

 

Taehyung holds the jacket up to his chest, tongues at his lower lip in thought, and puts it back on the rack. Dozens of coats hang by it, the little shop bursting with used t-shirts, worn boots, scarves and gloves from decades ago, select pieces of run down furniture and old records in the back. Jinhyung toddels between them, grasping at every pretty bright piece of fabric, an oversized chunky knit scarf looped around his upper half like a shawl. Taehyung presents him with another option, this one a snake-print yellow and Jinhyung scrunches his face, shakes his head. He laughs, sticks that one back on the rack too. “Theoretically, sure. Doesn’t matter. But it’s Danish rain. Specifically, Coppenhagen rain and they rarely get rain during this time which may mean hot temperatures and very rainy, well, rain. The choice in outerwear will determine if my trip is going to be a slightly damp yet pleasant one or monsoon reminiscent.”

 

“...the orange is fine,” Jeongguk eventually says. 

 

Taehyung looks at him, smile concerned.

 

Jeongguk’s shoulders slump and he wrings the shirt in his hands. He can’t tell if it’s too small, if Jinhyung will outgrow it quicker than he can blink. “I’m sorry. My head’s all over the place today. It’s not you. I’m sorry.” He reaches out, touches Taehyung’s waist faintly, a slow hand he hopes makes his words land a little more sincerely. 

 

Taehyung lets him, moves closer. The shop has that purposely authentic feel. Dust lingers and the small motes in the air float around him like he’s a thing preserved in time too, a still from an Alain Delon feature, something out of Ha Giljong movie. “Are you okay? You’ve been mhhhm’ing a lot.”

 

“I have?”

 

“Mhhhm. I asked you if you wanted to hook up in the dressing room and you just went mhhm .”

 

Jeongguk throws Jinhyung, who is running his hands over a stack neatly folded band t-shirts, a look. “You did not.”

 

“I didn’t,” Taehyung says on a grin, clearly pleased with himself at the shrill tone of Jeongguk’s voice. “Jinhyung’s here, for one.”

 

“And we’re in public?”

 

With a shrug, Taehyung skims across the rack again, pulls out a red and black rain jacket, very 80’s trans continental autobahn or so the few German movies Taehyung has subjected him to would lead Jeongguk to believe. “Gotta say, that part doesn’t bother me as much.” 

 

Jeongguk scoffs. Faces a rack of corduroy pants and who knew so much corduroy from the 90’s had survived to the present day. “Aren’t you too old to still be saying hook-up?”

 

“Mhhhm,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t step away when Taehyung presses to his side, the warmth of him making something in Jeongguk’s belly flip. “Would you rather I said I wouldn’t be opposed to making love to you in a dressing room?”

 

It’s so ridiculous that Jeongguk’s tongue sharpens but Taehyung’s delivery is full on earnest, not a hint of irony in his eyes, like he really means it, that love is something to be made, is something to be made between them, so the biting rebuttal dies against Jeongguk’s teeth, heart kicking sweetly.

 

He’s saved from stammering through a response by Jinhyung tugging on Taehyung’s pants leg, arms extended in clear request. 

 

Taehyung smiles, automatically bends to swoop him up, hikes him high on his hip so Jinhyung laughs, the portion of the scarf around his head slipping and covering his eyes. Taehyung pulls it back, his hand looking so big next to Jinghyung’s small ones but gentler, and he smooths out his fluffed up hair with care. “Oh man, am I gonna miss you next week, bud.”

 

“B- miss b-Tae-tae?”

 

“Yep. But I’ll be back in two weeks, remember? I expect you at arrivals with a big welcome home sign then, mister,” Taehyung demands teasingly, fingers digging into his ribs softly. 

 

“B-woo b-weeks! B-woo b-weeeeeeks!”

 

When Taehyung looks back at Jeongguk, Jinhyung follows, and there must be something terrible about Jeongguk’s expression because Taehyung’s eyes soften. He touches the side of Jeongguk’s face, smooths his hair back too. Jinhyung whines a little and reaches for Jeongguk’s shoulders, cuddles up close when Jeongguk takes him into his arms, Taehyung rubbing his back encouragingly. “What’d you say we get lunch? I think we’ve had enough shopping for one day. Besides,” and he shakes out the wind breaker, thick lines of red and black, the fingers of his other hand giving Jeongguk’s nape an affectionate squeeze, “I think I’ve got my clear winner.”




***




They stop at a truck that serves noodles and veggie bowls, the smell of spices wafting in the air. Jinhyung eats all of Jeongguk’s mushrooms and Jeongguk will never understand the quickly changing food tolerance of tiny human beings. 

 

“Is it the school thing?”

 

The heat isn’t too bad for summer, a light breeze working its way through Jeongguk’s hair, where yesterday it was scorching, sweat inducing enough for Jeongguk to beg off his workout for once and he guesses it isn’t too strange that next month is expected to be rainy in Copenhagen for once. The market’s are tumbling and rising and the weather is even harder to predict lately. He thinks about it the way he thinks about most things, what it means for Jinhyung’s future, the world he’ll one day inherit, Jeongguk’s part in shaping it. 

 

Sauce streaks Taehyung’s cheek, golden and curved down to his jaw. It’s wider than when Jeongguk first met him, everything about him is, but it’s even more stark now with the way the summer months have touched him, bronzed him further. Summer is always good to Taehyung, but this one even more so. If Jinhyung is almost four, Taehyung is almost thirty. Everyone in Jeongguk’s life is growing, quicker than he can catch his breath. 

 

Jeongguk hands him a napkin. Says, “Yes. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I don’t feel like he’s ready for school even if it is just a few hours a day.”

 

“If you think he’s not ready, then he’s not ready,” Taehyung says, dabs at his cheek, misses a big spot. “Doctors can advise you, but it’s your call.”

 

“But doctors know more than us. They’re supposed to.”

 

“True. The supposed to part. But everyone makes whatever choices are best for them. There are no guarantees on the results ever. If you want to wait until he’s older, that’s your choice. It doesn’t mean it’ll have been the wrong one.”

 

“So you think it’s okay to wait?”

 

“If that’s what you think is best.”

 

“That’s not what I’m asking, Taehyung.” His voice must come out harsher than he means it to because Taehyung jerks his head to look at him, away from where Jinhyung is playing with a couple of other kids at a nearby fountain, birds flying from spout to spout and making the water spray in arches. Jeongguk sighs. He cleans Taehyung’s cheek himself, thumb sweeping beneath his cheekbone. “I meant I’m asking what you think. I want to know what you would do. What you think I should. I trust you.”

 

Taehyung turns so his face falls into Jeongguk’s palm, and his spine curls as he splays out, his empty food bowl bumping his hip. Their knees brush and Jeongguk already aches for when it’s autumn, when it’ll be too cold for shorts, and is it possible to love someone so much you’d make it with them anywhere, even a dusty dressing room, love them so much you’re even in love with their knees? “I don’t want to cross some line or have you think I’m trying to parent him. Tell you how to parent him. I don’t want to overstep.”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head. He’s still holding Taehyung’s face and he doesn’t say that it might be too late for that. Not because Taehyung has crossed some boundary he shouldn’t have, but because to Jeongguk he hasn’t crossed anything Jeongguk hasn’t fully wanted him to. Taehyung wouldn’t dare to anyway, that’s just who he is. “That’s not possible,” he says. Strokes Taehyung’s cheek even though there’s nothing but summer sun on it. “I want you to be able to tell me whatever you’re thinking. I trust you,” he repeats, means it the way some people trust blind faith. 

 

“I think school might be good for him. In a small controlled environment is a great suggestion. Somewhere he can both interact with kids his own age and have a teacher who isn’t overwhelmed by two or three dozen kids. I think- yeah. I think it could be good. But.” He leans into Jeongguk’s palm, presses his lips to the soft skin there. “Waiting until he’s five or six isn’t a bad idea either. He’s improved tremendously in the last year alone. He’ll be talking so much before we know it we won’t be able to keep up.”

 

The spot Taehyung kissed feels tingly, like it’s winter and he’s just received a burst of June solstice sun. He smiles, drops his hand from Taehyung’s cheek to his lap, lets it lie there on his thigh just because. “I like it when you say words like that. Tremendously . Makes you sound like the oldie you are.”

 

Taehyung guffaws, chest heaving with his laugh. He mutters under his breath, something about impossible and twenty-six isn’t that much younger , and he looks out at the kids, looks back at Jeongguk. Curls their fingers together on his lap. 

 

Jeongguk says, “I’m nervous about your trip.”

 

Brows furrowing, Taehyung asks, “Why? You know statistically you’re more likely to get in an accident on the way to the airport than in a plane?”

 

“It’s not that,” he says, nothing else. Taehyung drags his thumb across his skin in a gentle motion. Jeongguk looks down at their hands, says, “It’s not that. I’m scared, I guess. It’s two weeks and we’ve been taking it slow and I’m afraid you’ll come back and feel differently. You won’t want this- want me, how complicated I’m making it.”

 

The birds chirp loudly and the kids’ voices ring above it. Jeongguk doesn’t spend time in this neighborhood much but you can barely hear any traffic, and the air smells so clean it’s almost fairytale-like for a city, idyllic.

 

Taehyung is quiet for so long Jeongguk almost wishes he’d bit his tongue, something ugly and heady burning under his ribs. He doesn’t let go of his hand, though, doesn’t stop brushing over Jeongguk’s index bone, and it gives Jeongguk the patience to wait, to hear it when Taehyung says, 

 

“You’re not making it complicated. It is complicated. This,” Taehyung says, and he gestures with his hands at both of them, but it encompasses so much more, not just them. “It’s always complicated. At least a little. Even without Jinhyung, we’ve been friends for a while now. We live together. Adding this whole new element to it takes adjusting. It’s figuring each other out all over again. You’re right to feel nervous.” Taehyung’s brows take a turn for the worse, almost indistinguishable on his forehead. “I’m sorry if you felt like you couldn’t talk to me about it.”

 

“No, Taehyung-”

 

Taehyung shuts him up with another quick kiss, this time on the back of his hand, and Jeongguk can’t even think about how it will look to Jinhyung, how it might confuse him or not, and later he’ll berate himself for being a careless father but that’s for later. “You know, I’ve spent most of my adult life thinking about words but I don’t think that’s made me any better at them. I still fail at them, a lot. But I want to be good at them for you. For me, but for you too. Complicated doesn’t mean impossible or not worth it.”

 

“I think you are. If that’s worth anything.”

 

“I think it is. Everything, if you ask me.” The lines in Taehyung’s face smooth out, flow a little less tightly. He stares down at their hands as he says, “I’m sorry if I took the slow thing too literally. I just- didn’t want to pressure you. Scare you.”

 

“No. You’ve been perfect. The perfect amount of slow,” Jeongguk says, and he’s never noticed it before, how soft his voice can get. “I’m going to miss you.” It slips out and it sounds so clingy, desperate for how slow they’ve been, but they’ve been slow for years now. He should have said it sooner. 

 

Taehyung grins, and the summer has been good to him but especially here, now. “If I left for a month, for the whole summer, for a year, I’d still want you as much as I do right now at this very instant. More, probably.” His mouth stretches and Jeongguk hopes it doesn’t rain a drop while he’s gone, that he comes back looking like he spent half a month in Greece, the south of Italy. “Unless I meet a Danish princess or something.”

 

Jeongguk laughs, kicks at Taehyung’s ankle. “Oh, I’d understand. I could never compete with a princess.” He squeezes Taehyung’s hand. 

 

“Could compete with a king,” Taehyung says. Squeezes his hand back. 

 

Jinhyung is running up them then, hair flying, cheeks dimpled, already breathlessly babbling, and fear is just something Jeongguk has to live with now, has been living with, will maybe forever. He lets go of Taehyung’s hand finger by finger, the tips feathering over his palm making Taehyung’s skin pebble. Quietly, even though it’s still just them, he says, “Thank you.”

 

Summer has been good to them. This will be too.

 

And Taehyung knows, of course he does, and it’s in his smile, in his eyes, in his voice, when regardless he asks, “For what?”




***




 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---




“When was this?”

 

“Summer of ‘99. Sprained my ankle racing the biggest kid on the block. Sungdeuk.”

 

“You remember his name?”

 

“Of course. I won.”

 

“What about this one?”

 

“That was-ah! Right after I got my braces off. Hated that first retainer. Hurt like hell and Taesoo kept trying to grab my teeth. Are you done now?”

 

“Nope,” Jeongguk says. He flips another page, photo album firm in his grasp and out of Taehyung’s reach. Not that he’s trying. Splayed out with a lazy foot propped up on the bed, he’s been snoozing for the last half hour while Jeongguk riffles through the physicality of his memories, picture after picture, infinite summers.  

 

Taehyung makes a noise. He bumps Jeongguk’s shoulder with his knee. Sways away. Comes back. 

 

Jeongguk bats it away. Says, “Stop,” when that doesn’t work, then hooks his arm around Taehyung’s leg so its trapped by his side and his chest, smiling but tone serious when he repeats, “Stop. I’ve almost figured out how to tell your brothers apart.”

 

“I already told you not to bother. Our own dad mixes us up all the time. Except me but that’s only because I’ve always been marginally taller than the rest.”

 

“Don’t believe that at all. Your dad sounds perfect.”

 

Taehyung moves, but it’s only to shift further into Jeongguk’s body, his sleepy sigh loud in the quiet. Mid summer has been hot, damp with salt. Thick air. Taehyung’s skin is sticky with heat. Jeongguk’s is too, the curve of his arm tacky against the hinge of Taehyung’s knee but Jeongguk doesn’t mind it. Taehyung sighs again, longer, fingers stretched to brush along the small of Jeongguk’s back, makes him shiver. “Sure, was the one time he mixed up Taesoo and Chanhyung when he was coming off anesthesia? Sure. Should my dad be sainted for raising five boys with minimal trauma and toxic masculinity in a macho obsessed Christian yet heavily sexualized Euro-Western culture? Sure. But perfect? The man himself would deny it.”

 

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk argues. Voice a bit of a song. Flips again. Taehyung’s mother, younger than she is now. Still aged, not any less beautiful with her dark hair and darker eyes, a baby cradled in her arms and that must be Namseol, the gap between his milk teeth giving him away. “He raised you and you’re perfect.”

 

The thumb stroking the little dimple in Jeongguk’s back from where his shirt has pulled up stops. Starts back up again. Wet summer heat stirs in Jeongguk’s belly and he wants to ask Taehyung not to start so he doesn’t get distracted, wants to beg him to never stop. “Perfect, huh?”

 

Jeongguk hums, lets the sound hang. He flips again, this time to five boys in different stages of boyhood. “Okay. I think I’ve got it.” He lies next to Taehyung and it’s too hot but he lines up their sides together and he knows it eventually goes away, wanting the sticky-everything-closeness of another person, this person, but right now he wants it so much, all the time, doesn’t understand how it could feel. To not want it, not want him. 

 

Taehyung wiggles his freed leg happily, drops it over Jeongguk’s, hooks their ankles together. Jeongguk wonders if this is the one he injured. Racing and fearless, tiny but roaring and ready to go. 

 

He holds the album up over the faces. Points. “Taesoo, Namseol, Chanhyung, Daehyung.”

 

“Aaaaand?”

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, points to the last little boy in the grassy field, a little less little than the rest, a calf between his arms, its eyes as wide as his. “You.”

 

“Not bad. Four out of five.”

 

“What! Who did I get wrong?” Jeongguk demands, frowning at the time washed photograph. He’s sure that’s Chanhyung with the mole on his cheekbone and Daehyung is the one with the slightly crooked nose, a character building nose, like Jeongguk’s, but maybe-

 

Taehyung swipes the album out of his hands. 

 

“Hey! I wasn’t finished!”

 

“Oh, yes you are,” Taehyung says, chucking the photo book on the floor carefully. He wraps an arm around Jeongguk’s waist so he’d have to both climb over Taehyung to get to it and wrestle out of his hold. All insultingly easy for Jeongguk no matter how tightly Taehyung is holding onto him, except now their chests are touching, Taehyung’s warm and firm under his. His forearm feels almost dizzyingly good around the slope of his back, fingers spread out across the firm cut of his belly, and it’s just a forearm, just fingers, just skin, just suffocating body heat, but Jeongguk really does feel lightheaded already, like he might be dreaming, like he wants to be swathed in it, protected in it, the sticky-everything-heat of it.

 

Taehyung kicks at his ankle insistently, but even in this he’s gentle. As if he presses too hard Jeongguk’s bones would shatter. “Pay attention to me,” he says, petering off into a whine. Milks it with jutted lips, half lid eyes in the afternoon summer sun. 

 

Jeongguk laughs, breathy, disbelieved. “Are you jealous of your family photo book?”

 

Taehyung shrugs, shameless. He slides a hand up the back of Jeongguk’s t-shirt, frayed and thin. Perfect for summer. He might as well not be wearing anything. It feels like he isn’t. “This’s the first time we’ve been alone all week.”

 

“We had lunch on Wednes-”

 

Alone alone.”

 

His retort dies on Jeongguk’s tongue. He smiles, props his chin in his palm, elbow balanced on Taehyung’s collarbone. “We had sex in your shower on Monday.” It was all timing. Yoongi wanting to take Jinhyung to an early-kid-bird special at a diner a few blocks away, Jinhyung actually being up for it and more amicable about it than an almost four year old had any right to be, Namjoon asleep from an all nighter. Just them alone in the kitchen. A well timed look. A passing touch. It was the first time Jeongguk was late to work and he’d carried it with him all day, the weight of Taehyung’s hands, of his body, every kiss like it was the last, the first. 

 

“I don’t mean like that,” Taehyung says, but a flush breaks out over his cheeks and his other hand fills itself with Jeongguk’s skin too, curling over his hip, reaching under his shorts to touch his thighs, hot and greedy. He says, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

 

“I know,” Jeongguk says, breathy in a different way. “I’m driving you to the airport.”

 

Taehyung squeezes his hips, almost loving in the way he does it. He tilts his head, hair falling in his face. He stares at Jeongguk the same way he’s touching him, and he looks so much like his father but he has his mother’s eyes, dark, endless. Jeongguk feels swallowed by it, this is where he ends. “You don’t have to.”

 

“I know. I want to,” he says. Pushes his hair out of his face and kisses Taehyung the same way he’s touching Jeongguk, looking at him. 

 

“Jus’ wanna kiss you,” Taehyung mumbles, lips nuzzling Jeongguk’s chin and his mouth makes it so worth it, the heat, the too much of it. The right side of wet, languid and soft, the red-hot curl of his tongue in Jeongguk’s mouth. He makes it worth it, the way he kisses Jeongguk, dirty like he has his face shoved between his legs, careful and sweet like he has his mouth pressed to the left side of his ribcage. “Jus’ touch you a little.”

 

Jeongguk says, already panting, “Let’s have sex.”

 

Taehyung grins, dopey and toothy, and no one this near to thirty has any business being this cute. Send Jeongguk’s heart racing like he’s eighteen, like this is all that matters. Someone else’s touch. The way they kiss him. How cute they are. Taehyung yanks his thighs so Jeongguk is on top of him, hands hot, Jeongguk’s belly swooping in want. He kisses Jeongguk with his smiling mouth, says, “Sir, yes, sir.”

 

They kiss a little more, a lot more. There’s some rolling all over the bed despite Taehyung’s single-sized mattress, but it makes Taehyung laugh when Jeongguk clings to him whenever they’re about to fall off, his hands feeling up Jeongguk’s bunched up muscles, giggles squashed between their mouths.

 

“You know, this is like deployment sex,” Taehyung says when he finally gets Jeongguk out of his shirt. He’s already naked because Jeongguk is efficient like that and he’s all sun blotted skin, impossibly tough and soft depending on where he looks, where he touches, and it shudders over Jeongguk, this unfamiliar but known want.

 

Jeongguk blinks down at him, legs caging his waist. “Like what?”

 

“You know,” Taehyung repeats uselessly. Less useless are his hands tugging at Jeongguk’s shorts, his quickly filling cock against the back of Jeongguk’s thigh. “The last hurrah before a tragic separation. One lover’s voyage to a faraway land on a dangerous quest. To represent his nation. The other staying home. Bravely doing his part in the homeland. Classic war love story.”

 

The sweet thing in Jeongguk’s ribs sings. He shifts his weight over Taehyung’s hips, sweeps his hands up his sides, watches the way he tenses and releases as Jeongguk touches him, throat bobbing when he swallows as he watches Jeongguk back. “Academia isn’t war, Taehyung.”

 

“Oh, baby,” Taehyung says like he’s quoting something but Jeongguk knows he isn’t, and the sweet thing is in his belly now, in his cock, a full on opera house, a yodeling contest, a trot showdown, “If only you knew.”

 

Jeongguk’s heart twists at the blasé of his honesty. He wonders if it’s misplaced. Hands at Taehyung’s shoulders, he swipes over his deltoids, the muscles overworked from his last four workouts after skipping all last week. “Is it really that bad?”

 

“Sure. Sometimes,” Taehyung adds, distracted. He’s contented himself with fondling Jeongguk’s ass instead of the full removal of his clothes, the band of his shorts cutting below his hipbones, digging into his skin. Jeongguk feels strug out like this, open with it, messy. “But that’s love, no? It coexists with the displeasurable bits. The underbelly of it. It’s not as beautiful as we thought it’d be all the time.”

 

“Oh.” Jeongguk bites his tongue. Then he doesn’t. “Is that how you feel about love?”

 

Taehyung shifts and his eyes are less endless darkness but the light at the end of it. He climbs up Jeongguk’s body with his hands, grabs Jeongguk’s and holds them in his, takes Jeongguk’s weight easily when he isn’t ready for the change in balance. “About this specific love. The love of a career. Of our dreams. It’s this particular type of love. Love’s always different. It has its own definitions and limits.” He turns one of Jeongguk’s hands towards his face, palm up, kisses it, lingering and sweet. 

 

“Still,” Jeongguk says, trails off. He presses his thumbs to Taehyung, to his cheek, the other against Taehyung’s own thumb. “A conference is less bloody than war. And you’re taking a whole week vacation after. How many soldiers can say that?”

 

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t have booked the extra week if I knew this- us -would be a thing.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung admits. He lines up their hands,palms flat fingers overlapping. They watched Tarzan a few days ago and Jinhyung has been measuring his hand against everyone’s since. His tiny fingers to Jeongguk’s, his fascinated eyes, the pure wonderment at how some things can be so small, some so big, how they can be the same. “But I would have asked you to come with me.”

 

Jeongguk recoils. Not physically, but something inside of him. 

 

Taehyung locks their fingers, an absentminded slant to his brows. “I know he’s not big enough for most of the rides, but they have kiddie ones. And at night with all the lights? He’d totally get a kick out of Tivoli. The dragon boats! Lego House? They let you build your own stuff. Twenty-five million legos. All in one place. They have lego dinosaurs. Lego T-Rex! The aquarium too. They don’t have penguins but they do have sea lions and that’s basically the same thing, right? Cousin things. I mean, Jinhyung will think it’s cool the sea lions have definitely met a penguin. At least one of them.” Another kiss to Jeongguk’s palm, right in the center. “And there’s Strøget, of course. All the viking museums. Plus, Denmark is really making a turn with veggie food so it’s a good place for an animal product conscious kid and- what? Why are you shaking your head? I know you don’t want him eating red meat and yesterday he asked if chickens choose to be food at that place in K-Town. Great wings, bad decor. Rooster heads on the walls? Who do they think are? Longhorn Steakhou-”

 

He’s shaking his head but Jenongguk can’t stop smiling. He feels like the same ruddy color as Taehyung’s blush, frail like a paper heart. Still a heart. He presses his index to Taehyung’s lips, says, “Stop talking,” and shuts Taehyung up with his mouth. 

 

In the mess of their kisses, their wandering hands, Taehyung manages to get 

out, “yes, sir, please do whatever you want with my mouth, fuck ,” impatiently pulling at his shorts before he gives up, and shoves both hands inside Jeongguk’s pants. He cups Jeongguk’s cock. Slides between his legs and strokes purposelessly in a way that riles Jeongguk up. His hips settle heavy over Taehyung’s, thighs trembling and he can’t decide which hand to move harder over, ends up rocking between both, his own hands slapping down on the pillow under Taehyung’s head, then yanking at his hair because he loves it, because Taehyung loves it too, touching Jeongguk deeper, his own cock kicking against their bellies. 

 

He gets up on his knees for it when Taehyung starts kissing his jaw, his cheek, asks, how do you want it, what’d you want, so good Jeongguk, wanna give it to you, gets Jeongguk strung out enough on his fingers it’s not just lube wetting everything, his cock against the ridge of his abs obscene with it, and it isn’t that Taehyung is perfect, that he makes Jeongguk want to lie with his chest flat on the bed and ass up because he is, obscene about it, it’s that he’s so unabashedly unafraid to not be perfect, to ask, to question, to know.

 

Taehyung tilts Jeongguk’s hips further, slopes his back a little more, and Jeongguk moans and arches into it, spine melting when Taehyung’s fingers reach so deep he shoves his face in Taehyung’s sheets, bites down, body already full. His chest is heavy, warm, and he leans down to kiss Jeongguk’s shoulder, tug him close. “Condom?”

 

Jeongguk spits out cotton, spine rigid. Breath ragged, asks, “Do we need one?”

 

“No,” he replies, voice smooth and calm, but he lets the word breathe, kisses down Jeongguk’s spine until it gives, goes syrupy under his mouth, before he scrapes his teeth along Jeongguk’s nape, sends the heat in Jeongguk’s hips sparking, seeking his own out, “But in case you didn’t want to get, you know, messy.”

 

The heat sparks a little more, feels like Jeongguk’s bones are melting, all of him is, and he reaches back to grab at Taehyung’s hip, his ass, the hand he has splayed low on Jeongguk’s belly. “I’m already messy. Want you messy.”

 

Taehyung makes a noise like he’s taken an elbow to the gut, pitched out of his throat and breathy. His arm tightens around Jeongguk’s waist and pulls their hips close, and the sound of his hand stroking over his own cock before he nudges it between Jeongguk’s cheeks is wet and loud. Jeongguk’s ears pink up, and he takes an open mouthed breath at the blunt pressure at his rim, lets it go when Taehyung sinks all the way in, fucking glides right in there or something from how wet and open Jeongguk is. 

 

Knees twinging, Jeonguk sinks into it and he’s almost embarrassed how good it already is, how loose he feels, in his body, in his chest, but how can he be when Taehyung so clearly isn’t, fingers digging into Jeongguk’s skin, like touching him is too much, not enough, voice a babbling stream of nonsense buried into the side of Jeongguk’s neck, hips slapping wetly against Jeongguk’s, cock kicking inside of him like he’s already about to come, messy and selfish. 

 

“Jeeze, fuck, look at- so gorgeous, your ass is like a poem-”

 

Jeongguk wheezes, hard enough to dislodge Taehyung’s face from his neck. He reaches back to prod at his cheek, ignores Taehyung’s complaints once he realizes he’s fine, and extends his arms towards the edge of the mattress to push back against him, fucking himself on Taehyung’s cock since Taehyung is too busy rhapsodizing about his ass to do it. He gasps when he gets Taehyung just so, rolls his hips, toes curling when Taehyung groans like he’s being punished and rocks inside of him, slow but hard enough to get Jeongguk whining. 

 

Taehyung grumbles, both arms around Jeongguk’s waist now and the feeling of his reluctant laugh working through Jeongguk’s body, his chest to Jeongguk’s back, his grin kissed to his shoulder, makes Jeongguk feel floaty and weighted, like his body doesn’t know if it’s water or air, if it’s both. With a grunt, Taehyung pulls out, fucks back in with a hand sliding around to spread him even more open, Jeongguk’s moans ripped out of him and lost in the sheets. “This ass is a poem, Gguk. Mean it. The institution of poetry itself. You’re like something someone wrote up. Can’t believe you-” 

 

“Taehyung!” Another forward and back, Taehyung pressing all the way inside of him and grinding his cock there , Jeongguk’s hole fluttering around him, his hips feeling like collapse. Sound is wrenched out of him and he grapples at Taehyung’s forearm, his fingers spread not possessively on his belly but giving Jeongguk an anchor, something to ground him. 

 

Taehyung works a hand in his hair, doesn’t wrench Jeongguk’s head backwards roughly but coaxes him to lie with his head to the side, cheek pressed to the damp sheets. “Wanna see you, wanna hear you, Gguk, baby , fuck-”

 

Something like a cry bleeds itself out of Jeongguk’s chest, and it sounds like Taehyung’s name, feels like it on his tongue, and he groans when Taehyung fucks him hard and deep but doesn’t let him tumble over, shove his face in the mattress and make him take it, but cranes his neck to kiss him dirty and sweet, lets Jeongguk twist in his arms and grab onto the hand he still has over Jeongguk’s abdomen hard enough the bones cringe, all the sound- Taehyung’s heavy breath, the smack of his heart against Jeongguk’s back, his words, baby -blurring out sweetly and red in his ears and-

 

And his phone goes off. 

 

Jeongguk knows it’s his because it isn’t the generic ringtone everyone has but this twinkling chime Jinhyung set months ago and Jeongguk never changed. 

 

Like a flick of a switch, he raises up on his left hand and knees, Taehyung moving with him, and one part of his brain acknowledges that, fuck, that feels mindnumbling good, and the other just- needs to answer his phone. He strokes Taehyung's knuckles on his belly, says, “Sorry. It might be. I have to-” but Taehyung is already pulling out of him and Jeongguk bites down on a wretched sound as he goes, his hands a steadying weight, the emptiness a sudden shock. 

 

He finds his phone on Taehyung’s nightstand and it’s Namjoon. Legs curled towards his chest, he accepts the call because as horrifying as talking to his brother-in-law with an erection, the myriad of reasons Namjoon could be calling are even more so, the kind of horrors Jeongguk invents when he can’t sleep and his whole world is safe and sound asleep in his tiny bed next to him. 

 

“Hey, hyung. Is he okay?”

 

Noise filters in. Then Namjoon’s voice, ‘Hey! What? Yeah, he’s fine. Killed it at constellation acrylics! I’m fine too by the way.’

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, heart rate slowing. “Sorry, hyung. I’m glad.”

 

The bed shifts like Taehyung is getting up. A sinking feeling blooms in Jeongguk’s belly, under his ribs. His body is out of bounds. He isn’t sure where his heart fits in it anymore. 

 

‘You sound out of breath. You okay?’

 

Face hot, Jeongguk wonders if Namjoon can tell. “Yeah. Just was helping Taehyung-hyung with his bag,” he says, a half-lie, the reason he came up here was so Taehyung could show him which plants to water how, roped him into letting Jeongguk help him pack because folding isn’t exactly Taehyung’s forte. 

 

There’s a rustle and then the sheet is covering Jeongguk’s lap. Taehyung lounges back down on the bed in his boxers like this is all fine and normal, his sex gets interrupted all the time. Jeongguk mouths sorry but Taehyung smiles and shakes his head, places a little kiss on Jeongguk’s hip through the fabric. It’s a tiny thing, barely a kiss, but Jeongguk shudders like it’s mid autumn, curls his fingers in Taehyung’s summer long hair and wants to kiss him for real more than almost anything. 

 

‘-ood, good. Hey! We’re getting dinner at the spiky noodle place so don’t eat. Tell Taehyung. Yoongi’s on his way home with beer but we’ll be there in like half an hour. But I called because kid wants to talk to you.’

 

“Put him on,” Jeongguk says because he always wants to talk to his kid. Even now. It’s the one thing Jeongguk has wanted more than anything since he was born. To talk to his kid. This tiny thing who is so like him, who is so unlike anything Jeongguk could ever hope to be. 

 

‘B-baba. B-hi!’

 

Jeongguk’s ribs settle. The disjointed thing his body is. “Hi, baby. Did you have a good time with Namjoon-hyung?”

 

Jinhyung talks about paints and how dinosaurs came from stars, the snacks the class shared, the cat in the art studio, and Jeongguk’s heart feels awash with love and he watches the fall of Taehyung’s eyelashes, the way he’s half curled around Jeongguk’s body but giving him space, and can everything fit inside any one body? All the things it is, wants, needs? 

 

“Yes, Tae-tae will be here when you get home. And yes, I’ll be here too,” Jeongguk smiles, the call winding down, but not before Namjoon is back once more, tone hushed, sheepish,

 

‘Hey. Thanks for letting me hang out with him today.’

 

“Of course-”

 

“I know your weekends with him are really important but he really loved the night at the museum with the stargazing I thought-”

 

“Hyung.” Surprise rounds Jeongguk’s voice. He wonders if it ever fits inside anyone. He reaches out. Taehyung’s hair is very soft. “Uncle-nephew bonding time is important, right? Thank you for being the kind of uncle who wants to spend time with him. Don’t thank me, hyung.”

 

“Okay. Thanks. Okay. See you soon,” Namjoon says, voice like the words are heavy. The phone beeps and the call ends. 

 

He slides his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, pushes the messy curls out of his eyes, “They’re coming back with food. Noodles.”

 

Taehyung hums. Then his eyes widen and he shifts closer. Presses his cheek to Jeongguk’s leg. “Spiky ones?” Spiky as Jinhyung calls them and the only spicy food Taehyung’s palette tolerates. 

 

Jeongguk smiles. “Yeah. The spikey ones.” He runs a slow finger over Taehyung’s right brow, the arch of his cheekbone. Taehyung kisses his knee, drags his nose up the inside of Jeongguk’s thigh where the sheet is open, and breath rushes out of Jeongguk, and just like that, his body feels whole, Taehyung’s. “My brother’s on his way too. Beer run.”

 

Taehyung freezes, sighs. Lets out a laugh. He leaves another kiss near Jeongguk’s knee, rolls onto his back. “Shot my shot twice. Outta’ luck. Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

 

And he’s right, but Jeongguk still tries, enticing, “We could still finish. You can come in five minutes, right?”

 

“I mean,” Taehyung trails off, tilts his head, sizes Jeongguk up. His hair is curled with sweat, sticky summer breeze through the loft’s big window, and his mouth looks kissed up from Jeongguk’s. swollen and red. “Have you seen you? Yeah, I can. But I rather not risk your brother’s wrath.”

 

Deflating, Jeongguk says, “Right. I’m sorry. I know I’m being annoying. I don’t want to hide us or anything I just- I have to think about Jinhyung and I have to be sure and I’m not saying I’m not but-”

 

“Not because he doesn’t know about us,” Taehyung says. He cups Jeongguk’s knee, squeezes where there’s give. “Even if he did, he gives off crazy overprotective vibes. He’s tiny but I bet he’s got a vicious right hook if you make him mad enough.”

 

Jeongguk looks at him, this beautiful man with his sci-fi memorabilia and his magical green thumb and his eyebrows that make Jeongguk want to open up his body for him. His magical heart. “You’re so understanding. You’re so sweet to me. I feel like I don’t deserve it.”

 

For a long moment, Taehyung looks at him back. Then he shrugs, punches the pillow behind him up against the headboard and props himself up on it. “It’s not about deserving anything. I want to understand you. I want to be sweet to you,” he says, and how does this fit, the sincerity in Taehyung’s voice, his words that don’t sound rehearsed but chosen with care. “Want to just cuddle you for now. Until everyone comes home. Want that more than anything.”

 

“Really?” Jeongguk asks, laugh struck sweet, how very sweet Taehyung is. 

 

“Oh, baby , you have no idea.” Taehyung smiles, illuminated. “Put your clothes back on, though. If I cuddle you naked I really might come in less than five minutes.”

 

Jeongguk’s shorts are ripped, but in this moment, to be held, to hold someone, this someone, is the one thing Jeongguk wants. 

 

He puts his pants on. 




---




Stories say airports are romantic but Jeongguk can’t stand the fumes. 

 

Car idling in park, they stand on the curbside drop off, Jeongguk in sleep soft sweats, Taehyung in suspenders and cuffed jeans, hair pulled back by flashy sunglasses, all symmetrical contradictions. 

 

Jeongguk tugs on one of the straps. Wants to tug Taehyung forward, suddenly doesn’t know how. “What’s with the suspenders? The 50’s called. They want their wardrobe back.”

 

Taehyung follows the tug, so easy about it, “Oh, these pants don’t fit but I bought them this one time I was in Sweden so I felt like they fit the theme. Not very practical of me, but when am I anyway?”

 

“You can be,” Jeongguk says, defensive, silly. “You figured out how to get Jinhyung to eat mushrooms by telling him they share an ancestor  with stars.”

 

“Sure, but that was pure logic. Everything comes from a star.” He smiles, easy about this too. “Hey. Give him a bunch of hugs from me today? It sucks my flight was so early I couldn’t say goodbye again this morning.”

 

Jeongguk nods. He nods some more and then some more until his chin feels wobbly, like it might detach from his jaw. 

 

He’s not crying but Taehyung raises his brows like he is, something horribly fond about his face. “Hey. Hey, come here.” He does what Jeongguk wanted to, wraps his arms around him in the kind of hug that makes your gut swoop, eyes feel funny. He rocks them side to side a little, makes soothing sounds into Jeongguk’s hair, and Jeongguk feels so safe here. He wonders if Taehyung feels safe too. 

 

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says into Taehyung’s shoulder, feeling ten times worse but a hundred times better. “I’m being weird. It’s only two weeks. I don’t mean to be gross and clingy. It’s not even-”

 

“Are you kidding? I love gross and clingy. Especially when it comes from cute and muscular.”

 

Jeongguk laughs, weak. He feels weak. Silly. The last time he was this close to a terminal, his parents never spoke to him again. It isn’t a trauma thing. He’s picked Namjoon and Yoongi up since, dropped them off at departures, but this feels different. Like Jeongguk is different. Weaker. Sillier. Has allowed himself to be for the first time in forever. 

 

“I feel guilty,” Jeongguk admits to Taehyung’s shirtsleeve. He plays with the silver plate on one of his suspender straps, lulled and warm. “We can’t even have sex like normal couples-”

 

“You don’t owe me sex-”

 

“I know. But I want to have sex with you. I want to be with you. And this feels like it’s so easy between us, but it’s hard, because I have a kid and I have to think about how this might affect him. Not now but one day. And I wish I could not worry and I wish I could just jump in with both feet but that’s now how I am. I can’t not worry. I have to put him first. And I know you said it’s not about deserve, but you deserve someone who can put you first too.”

 

“Do you want,” Taehyung hesitates, sounds deep in thought. He smooths calming hands down Jeongguk’s biceps like he wants to fix this whatever it is. “If you want, we could not talk while I’m gone. You could take these two weeks. Take care of Jinhyung. Of yourself. Live your life. We’ll see where we’re at when I come back. I could send you letters instead though they’d probably not get here ‘till I get back. Very deployed war-torn lovers- hey! More concurrent themes.”

 

“No, I- no, I don’t think I could go that long not talking to you. It's always one of my favorite parts of the day.”

 

Taehyung smiles. Quietly says, “Mine too.”

 

“We could call. It doesn’t have to be every day. Whenever one of us wants to talk. Every few days. If you want to.”

 

“I want to.”

 

“It’s only six hours ahead so it works.”

 

“It works.”

 

Taehyung finally lets him go and Jeongguk already misses him though he’s standing right in front of him and how worse will it be when he’s gone? He hasn’t missed anyone like this ever, knowing they’ll come back. It aches, but it’s nice, a soft weight on his shoulders. 

 

Taehyung checks his phone, looks up at him wistfully. “I set an alarm in case I got distracted by the magazine stands again.”

 

“Oh, shit. You have to go,” Jeongguk says, and oh right, that’s why they’re at the airport. 

 

Taehyung laughs, pulls him close. “I have to go.” But he stays, kisses Jeongguk, breath warm, mouth full of want, shaky hands in his hair. Jeongguk has his eyes fluttered closed when he pulls away, says, “You’re the moon, Jeon Jeongguk. There’s going to be an ocean between us. Don’t pull the tides too high while I’m gone.”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head but his lips won’t stop tugging upwards, like they know, that’s where the sun is. “Should think about writing a book of cheesy poetry.”

 

“Don’t think so,” Taehyung says. He shoulders his bag, takes a step toward the revolving doors leading to the checkpoints. “Rather give all my cheesy poetry to you.”

 

“Go,” Jeongguk urges though he wishes he were saying, hi, welcome home, baby . “You’ll miss your plane.” 

 

“I’m going. I’m going.” With a sigh, Taehyung half-turns, half keeps looking back at him, and the only thing keeping him upright must be that it’s the Earth that revolves around the Sun, never the other way around. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

 

Jeongguk watches him go until he has to turn away, the tell-tale sign of a security guard rearing its ugly baseball cap wearing head. 

 

His phone buzzes and he fumbles to answer when he sees it’s Taehyung. “Tae? Did you forget something?”

 

“You said to call whenever one of us wanted to talk.”

 

“Taehyung-”

 

“Turn around.”

 

Confused, Jeongguk does, his ribs floating up to his chest when he sees Taehyung just pass the doors, nose pressed to the glass. He smiles, helpless, tries not to and laughs. “You’re gonna miss your flight.”

 

“I’m not,” Taehyung says, like he already knows it’s true. Feels it or something. 

 

Shyness overtakes him but Jeongguk doesn’t try to make himself small. It’s pointless with Taehyung anyway. “What did you want to talk about?”

 

Taehyung says, “Nothing. I just wanted to take another look at you .”




---




That night, tucked in his small bed, Mr. Gong Yoo by his feet and his new favorite velociraptor blanket rolled up near his face, Jinhyung asks, “B-baba?”

 

Jeongguk straightens his blankets, makes sure his sippy cup is in reach. 

 

“B-were’s B-Taetae?”

 

“He’s on his trip. Remember? He’ll be back in two weeks. That’s two whole new episodes of Dinos. Or Peppa.”

 

“B-b-two?” Jinhyung’s eyebrows scrunch, lashes blinking slow. 

 

“Yes. Two.”

 

Jinhyung pats his chest, rubs at the blanket, tiny wrinkly between his brows. It’s his own quirk, different from Jeongguk who frowns with his brows aiming downward like the annoyance or anger will collapse his entire forehead. “B-but B-Taetae mmmmmb-com b-back?”

 

And oh. It’s the hazards of being little, memory a new and fresh thing. A constant reminder. It’s not an omen or a foreshadowing if Jeongguk doesn’t let it be. 

 

Jinhyung’s hair curls past his chin now, wild and the softest thing Jeongguk has ever touched. He doesn’t get that from Jeongguk either. Jisun’s mother’s hair had a curl to it. It was summer when Jeongguk first met her and it had this wildness, contained ferociousness. It’s the only nice thing Jeongguk can think about her. 

 

He curls his fingers through it gently. Jinhyung leans into his palm and Jeongguk rubs at his scalp the way his mother did when he was tinier than Jinhyung. “Yeah, he’s coming back. He said if you’re extra good while he’s gone, he’ll bring you back a surprise.”

 

“B-uprise?!”

 

“Mhhhm. So the faster you go to sleep every night, the faster he’ll come back.”

 

Jinhyung gasps in alarm. He closes his eyes tight, breaths falling like he can will sleep to come. “B-oonigh’ b-baba.”

 

Jeongguk laughs quietly, heart swelling. He strokes his hair until Jinhyung’s chest takes on a slow rise and fall. His knees ache from kneeling for so long but he doesn’t feel the pain at all. “Goodnight, Jinhyungie. Appa loves you.”

 

Tiny, more yawn the word, he hears back, “B-lwove b-iou.”

 

Jeongguk’s heart is full. He’s so full of love. For the first time, he wonders if it’s fair to expect such a tiny person to contain it all, and before he tucks himself in for bed, the last text he sent to Taehyung unanswered because he must have gotten to the hotel and fallen right asleep, he realizes that Jinhyung might have his eyes, might have his grandmother’s hair, but he frowns exactly like Taehyung.




---




The third week of separation in a long distance relationship is when it starts to kick in. Distance. Loneliness. The un-physicality of love. 

 

Jeongguk learns this on a break during work. The office abuzz. Crack barrelled monetary opportunity. A new round of angel investors. Smell of blood, sharks in the water. 

 

It’s between reading Best Sneakers for Toddlers and The Next LeBron: Untap your Child’s Athletic Prowess . It’s not week three or week two. It’s halfway into week one and he’s been subsisting off of phone-calls. The one picture Taehyung sent after Jeongguk asked for it, sloping staircase of The Rundetaarn , light slicing through arched windows, Taehyung beaming with his tongue hanging out, the spread of the city visible. 

 

It’s barely week one. He’s not even in a long distance relationship and he’s been missing Taehyung since before he left. He lays in bed at night and misses Taehyung like he’s been sleeping curled around Jeongguk for months, years, a baby in the bassinet at the foot of their bed. His search history makes his face redden, things that feel too intense to feel, too sudden, too much. That’s how Jeongguk has always been. Too sudden, too much. 

 

He thinks about love as being putting someone first. Doesn’t look that up. Goes back to work.




---




“How did you know you loved Yoongi-hyung?”

 

“-think I mastered the art of comet tails…”

 

He feels Namjoon’s puzzled stare on his face and redips his brush in the paint tray, lets the excess drip off before sweeping it over the wall with brisk strokes. 

 

“Sorry. Nevermind. That’s not what I mean to ask.”

 

“You’ve already asked me that.”

 

Frowning, Jeongguk looks over. Sees Namjoon with his own brush poised over the drop cloth on the floor, the comet’s tail he’s been painting silvered against the blue walls. “I have?”

 

“Yeah.” Namjoon nods. He wets his brush, moves his wrist in quick dabs. There’s a whole splay of stars, exploding supernovas, spiraling galaxies. Beneath it, Jeongguk has given life to every dinosaur he can think of, more than a few he had to look up, all free hand and generous artistic liberty applied. “You were eleven. That summer you were made at him for moving away for college. Didn’t get mad at me even though I was the reason he left in the first place.”

 

Jeongguk juts his chin, notices a stray spot of paint on the wall. “I always liked you more than hyung. You let me follow you guys everywhere even when hyung didn’t want me there.”

 

Namjoon chuckles. “Your brother loves you. He’d take any pain so you wouldn’t have to.”

 

“I know,” Jeongguk says. He extends the dot into a base for a trunk. He’ll paint some ginkgo. The living fossil trees, dated all the way back to before there were dinosaurs. “He’d take a bullet for me. Doesn’t mean he always wants- wanted me around.”

 

Namjoon exhales sharply. “Gguk- shit!” Paint spills over, Namjoon righting the container before it starts to pool, checks that it hasn’t seeped through to the wood beneath. He grunts, rests his back against a blank space of wall. “Maybe Yoongi was right and we should have gotten a professional to paint in here.”

 

Wiping his forehead with his shoulder sleeve, Jeongguk studies the almost finished mural. The little details of it, Jinhyung’s favorite constellations, Ursa Major and Perseus, how they look like dinosaurs who’ve lost a limb, got misshapen when they exploded and went back to where they came from. “Maybe. But I think it’s better this way. It means more, doesn’t it?” He looks at Namjoon, the proud set of his shoulders as he seems to re-examine his own work and feels the trepidation that had first set in when Namjoon came to him with the idea refill his heart. “Hyung. Are you sure about this? Giving up your studio again?”

 

Namjoon rubs at the paint streaked over his jaw. “There isn’t anything to give up. It wasn’t much of a studio. I’m writing more now anyway and it’s time for Jinhyung to have his own space. His own room. It’s time. For you too.”

 

“For me too what?”

 

“Your own room. Your own space. It’s time.”

 

Jeongguk’s mouth tugs downward at the thought, unsettled. It isn’t that he doesn’t agree but that he hadn’t thought of it and how he can be so unaware of the timing of his own life. 

 

“Is that really not the question you wanted to ask?”

 

A sloping feel swoops through Jeongguk’s stomach. Like the spiral levels in The Round Tower. Taehyung had said they hold a unicycle race there annually. The record for fastest time being a minute and forty seconds.If you tumble from the highest part, going down in dizzy circles instead of a straight fall down. Does it hurt less? Does it hurt in a different way? Does it not hurt at all?

 

He’s finished the top branches of the gingko. They didn’t look like this when dinosaurs were alive but that’s okay. Jinhyung loves gingkos. Jeongguk think that matters more. 

 

“How did you know hyung was right for you? That he’d fit in your life?”

 

“I didn’t. He doesn’t,” Namjoon says at Jeongguk’s dropped opened mouth, the shock in his heart leaking onto his face. “If I think about it rationally, Yoongi’s the last person I would have thought myself ending up with. He’s got an attitude. And a temper. He used to be so bad at talking about his feelings I thought it might be easier to love a brick.” 

 

“Hyung!”

 

“But.” 

 

Namjoon holds his hands up like he knows that at the end of the day, as much as Jeongguk has loved Namjoon in the very specific way he does, the first person who loved Jeongguk not because they had to, but because they just did, Yoongi is his brother. Jeongguk would take a bullet for him too. Would withstand any kind of pain. He almost did. The worst kind. The kind that would have left Jeongguk ripped open forever, an insurmountable tiny-human sized wound in the thing his ribs are always so busy trying to keep safe. 

 

“I’ve got an attitude and a really bad temper. But I think we fought enough when we were kids that we figured out how to fight without trying to hurt each other. If we fit together? I don’t know. But I don’t care if we do. At the end of the day, we make space for each other. I think that’s what love is. That’s how you know. Am I willing to make space for this person despite all the other stuff?” Namjoon muses, almost to himself. He looks at Jeongguk, his dimples full of paint. “I know that’s not what you asked but I think. Yeah. I think that’s how you know.” 




---




He takes care of his kid. He takes care of himself. Tries to live his life. Tries to take care of everyone else he loves. He checks the weather app everyday, sees how rainy it is in Copenhagen, hopes Taehyung hasn’t lost his rain jacket in some lecture hall or whimsical Danish castle. 

 

He lives his life. He misses Taehyung. He’s been falling for a while, in slow motion, a spiral of a fall, long and winding and dizzying, he’s forgotten what ground even is. If it hurts, he doesn’t think he can feel it anymore. 




---




At 4pm, Jinhyung asks, “B- whers B-Taetae?”

 

He asks at 5pm. At 6pm. At 6:30pm. He pauses story time three times, stops in the middle of hugging the big potted dracaena in the living room, almost poops on the toilet instead of in it when he stands and suddenly remembers that Taehyung is usually around somewhere in the house when he’s taking his last bathroom trip of the night. 

 

By bedtime, he’s not asking anymore. 

 

Jeongguk closes the door, leans back on it, eyes shut just for a second. He’ll go back in for a second. 

 

“Shit, kid has a set of pipes on him.”

 

Heart lurching, Jeongguk opens his eyes. He heaves a breath, shoots a concerned look at his brother standing against the opposite wall. “I thought you went upstairs. I told you I can handle it. Sleep hyung.”

 

“I know,” Yoongi says, stuffs his hands in his armpits. “Felt bad. I’ve never heard him this upset.”

 

In perfect timing, Jinhyung lets out another wail, desperate and so sad Jeongguk’s knees threaten to buckle, the weight of the world just a little too heavy tonight.  

 

But he can’t cave under it. Jeongguk isn’t built that way. If here were, if he ever was, he can’t anymore. “I know,” Jeongguk echoes. He sighs, the sound like wind in a hurricane, howling and shaky. He picks his shoulders up. Throws his brother as convincing a nod as he can muster. “I should-”

 

“Call him.”

 

Hand on the doorknob, Jeongguk doesn’t bother turning around. “I can’t call him. It’s past 2am over there.”

 

“So? He won’t care. Kid obviously just needs to hear his voice or something.”

 

“Jinhyung heard his voice yesterday. He kept him on the phone for over an hour and he’s on his fuck- he’s on vacation after going to conferences all last week. I can’t take more of his time today.” His voice is sharp. Jinhyung’s cries are loud. He tries again, softer, “He said he was traveling today anyway. He’s definitely asleep.”

 

“So? Wake him up. He won’t care.”

 

“You don’t know that.”

 

“Uh. Yeah, actually. I do.”

 

“How?”

 

“Because it’s you.”

 

Jeongguk turns and Yoongi doesn’t look as annoyed at Jeongguk’s stubbornness as he sounds. Arms still folded, he looks smaller than ever, but there’s something about the way Yoongi holds himself, product of being a hyung, of knowing his place in the world, Jeongguk will always look smaller when he does that despite the fact that he’s towered over Yoongi since the day he turned seventeen. 

 

“It’s Jinhyung. It’s you. Taehyung would drop anything for you two. Quit being obtuse about it.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“I don’t know. How about what it sounds like, kid?”

 

The smugness almost gets to him. The urge to lash out. He stamps it down the way he used to stamp his foot when he didn’t get his way as a child. Jeon Jeongguk. He’s the moon apparently except he doesn’t just want to control the tides. Wants the whole world. He used to. He’s been trying to work on being the kind of adult who can content themselves with his little piece of it. Leave the kid he was behind. He turns the door knob, fingers trembling. “I need to go, hyung-”

 

“So you’re going just to let him cry it out? You know there isn’t any real evidence that backs that theory up, right? Fuck knows mom and dad used to let us cry until we were red in the fa-”

 

“I don’t know!” He isn’t screaming but it feels like his throat is. His voice isn’t a part of his body. It has a mind of its own. Maybe this is what happens when you go from singing any chance you can to only singing when you absolutely have to, locked up, that use of vocal cords going rusty, hoarse. Eventually, your voice box rebels against you. Wants out any way it can. “I don’t know, okay? I don’t know what I’m going to do but I’ll figure it out because last time I checked, he’s my kid not yours.”

 

Jinhyung’s cries are loud but Jeongguk hears everything dead silent. Before words were made. All he knows is the look on Yoongi’s face, the wailing in his ears, his own heart. 

 

He rushes forward, chokes out, “I’m sorry. Hyung. Hyung? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it like- I’m sorry, hyung-”

 

Yoongi looks very tired. Just tired. Maybe more tired than he should at only thirty-four. “Kid-”

 

“I’m sorry, hyung-nim,” Jeongguk sobs out, and is he crying? He can’t tell. Maybe he has no control over his eyes either. His body is a stranger’s. Maybe in trying to leave the kid he was behind, Jeongguk has left some other parts behind too. Something precious he can’t get back. Whatever it is, his body bends into a natural bow, low enough that his waist hurts and if he tried hard enough, his hair would touch Yoongi’s pristinely kept floors. 

 

“Jesus christ, kid. Get up. Get up, Jeongguk. Kid. Get up. Jeongguk? It’s okay-”

 

“Hyung. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, hyung, he was supposed to be yours-”

 

“Don’t.”

 

Yoongi yanks on his arms so hard some distant part of Jeongguk’s brain he registers the hurt, but it’s like a ghost. Like the memory of his parents protecting him from the world. Like the impression of soft small hands running through his hair. But he feels it. But it’s there. “Hyung-”

 

“Don’t say that,” Yoongi says again. He wipes at Jeongguk’s face with rough hands, like that’ll stop the tears quicker, if Yoongi tries hard enough. “Don’t fucking say that. He’s yours, Jeongguk. He’s always been yours. It’s okay. You have nothing to be sorry for. Okay?”

 

Jeongguk looks down, hair shielding in his eyes. He really needs that haircut. They all do. Maybe they can go when Taehyung comes back. Get a 3for1 deal. 

 

Yoongi presses, “Okay?”

 

Jeongguk nods, says, “Okay.”

 

A cry pierces through the door, a muffled bbbb-baba

 

Grimacing, Yoongi drags his hoodie sleeve across Jeongguk’s cheeks one last time. “Okay. Now go in there and hug your kid.”

 

And okay. Jeongguk can do that. Jeongguk can at least do that.

 

“Gukkie?”

 

Jeongguk stops. In the small space of the hallway, Yoongi looks the way he did when Jeongguk was smaller than him, a towering force, larger than life itself. Jeongguk never resented having to look up at him. Even now, it’s his first instinct to. Always. “Hyung?”

 

“He’s going to be okay. You’ll be okay too. It’s okay. Hyung promises.”

 

Inside the room, Jinhyung is sprawled on the bed miserably, hands formed into little fists as he cries. Mr. Gong Yoo is slumped over on his pillow, his newly acquired stuffed pterodactyl knocked off the foot of the bed.   

 

Jeongguk kneels, the soft carpet brittle to his knees. “Hey, Jinhyung-ah,” he says, voice as gentle as he can keep it. He places his hands on Jinhyung’s side, rubs softly at his back and chest. “It’s okay, baby. Appa’s here.”

 

Jinhyung doesn’t reject his touch, rolls toward it and the relief Jeongguk is immediate, nauseating but in a way he understands, welcomes. With a frustrated sound, Jinhyung sniffles. His mouth trembles as he tightens a fist in Jeongguk’s shirt. He mumbles something incoherent, his tears wetting his neckline. 

 

“Hmm? What is it? What’s wrong?” Jeongguk asks even though he knows what it is, has been getting the same answer every time he asks, wondering if he should call the pediatrician again, take Jinhyung down to the clinic just in case. 

 

“B-Tae tae .”

 

Jeongguk bites down on a sigh. “Taehyung-hyung is still on his trip, remember? He’ll be back Monday. Right after Sunday. You like Sundays, remember?”

 

Jinhyung nods meekley. “B-baba b-ply b-te b-day b-wit b-wme.”

 

Kissing the top of his head, Jeongguk hides his face in Jinhyung’s hair, feels his heart being torn to shreds, the jagged little pieces crushed in his kid’s fists. “Uh huh. We’ll play all day together. I’m sure if he has time, Taetae-hyung will play with you next Sunday,” he says trying to word it so it’s not a promise he might break, something he can’t keep. 

 

It seems to not be the right combination of words because Jinhyung’s eyes water all over again, his cheeks scrunching as he grimaces, a whimper falling from his mouth. 

 

“Jinhyung-ie, what’s-”

 

“B- Tae .”

 

Heart pulled thin, Jeongguk tries to reason, “He’s not here. He’ll be back soon. Okay? I promise. Do you want another snack? Want to watch some Peppa-”

 

Jinhyung isn’t having it though, head knocking back into Mr. Gong Yoo as he kicks against the bed, tearily demands, “B-Tae-tae!”

 

Hands as carefully as if he were handling the fragilest glass, Jeongguk secures Jinhyung’s arms against his torso, keeps the tremor out of his voice when he says, gentle but firm, “Jinhyung. You have to stop. Taehyung isn’t here and you have to go to bed. And we don’t throw ourselves around like that. You hurt Mr. Gong Yoo and you almost hurt appa . Worse, you hurt yourself.”

 

Jinhyung stares at him wide eyed as he pants, little chest pumping up and down at an alarming pace. He seems locked up, frozen in place as he takes stock of what’s happened, what’s happening. He cranes his neck like he’s trying to look at Mr. Gong Yoo behind him, scans his eyes along Jeongguk’s body where his feet could have hit. He meets Jeongguk’s eyes with huge teary ones before his face crumbles. 

 

“B-uh! B- baba . B-bb bapa !”

 

Jeongguk springs from the floor in the next second, phone pressed to his ear and ringing. It rings six times and he’s about to hang up, when, 

 

“‘lo?”

 

Jeongguk exhales, breath knocking. There’s a lump in his throat, heart shaped, as big as the sun. 

 

The voice comes back tired and soft. “Gguk-ah? You there?”

 

Jeonggguk sniffs quietly, rubs the back of his wrist against his drying cheek. “Hey. Yeah, Hey. I’m sorry it’s so late. Fuck I-”

 

“Hey. It’s okay. Shhh. It’s fine. Is everyone okay? Is Jinhyung okay?”

 

“Yes. Everyone’s fine. He’s fine. We’re fine. It’s just he won’t stop crying and he keeps- he keeps asking for you and I’m sorry I woke you up and that I called but nothing calms him down and I don’t know-”

 

Taehyung breaks in gently, voice rumbling softly, more alert like he’s awake. “Slow down, Jeongguk. You wanna take a breath for me? Nice and slow- there you go. Okay. You good? You’re okay?”

 

Jeongguk nods, then, “Yeah. I’m okay.”

 

“Okay,” says Taehyung and his voice sounds so warm and Jeongguk wants him here, but he’s not going to cry about it. He isn’t three. He’d never get away with it. “I’m going to hang up and video-call back, okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

The call comes in and it’s Taehyung’s sleep-puffed eyes, soft light. “Hey,” and such a tiny word sets Jeongguk’s heart at ease, “he there?”

 

Jinhyung is cooing to himself, self-soothing, nuzzling under Jeongguk’s palm. Jeongguk nods, tilts the phone in Jinghyung’s direction. “Jinhyung-ah. Look who it is.”

 

Jinhyung blinks sleepily at the screen, makes a confused little sound. 

 

Taehyung’s voice when it comes is tiny and low, vibration more than anything in its gentleness. “Jinhyung-ie, you still up, bud? Isn’t it past your bedtime or did you grow all up while I’ve been gone?”

 

Jinhyung’s eyes grow big, red tear stained cheeks round. “B-b! B-Taetae!”

 

“Hey, buddy,” Taehyung says and something must happen to vocal chords when an adult speaks to something soft and small, animals and babies and the people they love. Even if they aren’t very soft or small at all. Love can make the biggest things seem tiny. “Your dad says you can’t sleep. Tough day, kiddo?”

 

Sniffling, Jinhyung rubs his face against his pillow. He holds the phone with both hands, his little fingers stubby but strong. Jungkook lets him take it, props it up from behind. “B-miss B-Taetae. B-I b-and b-wazz b-bad. B-I b-yell b-at B- oogi b- an’ b-hurted B-baba.”

 

Jeongguk’s heart sinks. “Jinghyung. Baby, no-”

 

Taehyung asks, “You wanna tell me what happened, bud?” He’s so pragmatic and logical about it, it isn’t surprising Taehyung is the almost-college-professor while Jeongguk is the one with the rowdy almost-four-year-old. 

 

Jinhyung hides his face shyly, stumbles over certain words, repeats others. Taehyung makes noises of understanding and sympathy, and Jeongguk can’t see him but he knows every face he makes, the set of his eyes, the compassion of him. 

 

Taehyung lets Jinhyung tell the whole story, and then he says, “That does sound like a tough day. You’re probably really tired now, huh?”

 

Jinhyung peeks at Jeongguk with one eye, looks back at Taehyung. He shrugs a little. Nods. “B-miss b-baba b-bed. B-new b-oom b-skary.”

 

And Jeongguk’s heart isn’t going to repair itself tonight. “Jinhyung-ah. Why didn’t you tell me, baby?”

 

Another shrug. He rubs at his eyes with his fists, then latches onto Jeongguk’s shirt, the phone toppling sideways. “B-baba b-said b-b-Im b-ig b-boy b-now.”

 

Jeongguk presses him to his chest, and it’s so obvious now, and if parenting is a skill, it’s the sort that’s impossible to master. One tiny confession, one tear, and it masters you. “Oh, honey.” He lifts him up, the phone too, and he moves them into his room, and Jinhyung immediately sags against him, grabby hands tight around Mr. Gong Yoo. He settles instantly, uses Jeongguk as a pillow, phone cradled. 

 

Taehyung is saying, “Being a big boy doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. Big boys get scared.”

 

“B-Taetae b-skared?”

 

“All the time, buddy. But hey. I want you to listen. This is important, bud, so you gotta listen well. Okay?”

 

Jinhyung nods, surely this time. Jeongguk holds his breath like whatever Taehyung is about to say is for him too, something he should listen to well. 

 

“You might behave badly sometimes or do bad things one day, but you are not bad. You’re never bad, Jinhyung-ah. You’re learning and you’re growing up. You’re just a little guy in a big world, bud. You’re not bad. You’re good. Okay?”

 

The words aren’t for Jeongguk. They can’t be. He’s all grown up. He’s not little. He’s a big guy in a bigger world, he’s done plenty of bad things, been plenty bad, but his pulse slows, heart warm like it’s wrapped in the warmest hands.  

 

Jinhyung nods once more but Taehyung comes closer to the screen. “You have to say it with me. So I know you believe it. Okay, Jinhyung-ah?”

 

“B-oka! B-okay-byyyy,” Jinhyung shouts. Then quieter, “B-oh. b-kay.” He pats at the screen like he’s trying to reach Taehyung’s face. He yawns, fist clenching in Jeongguk’s shirt. 

 

Jeongguk nuzzles his hair, kisses his head. He mouths thank you at the screen, says, “I’m sorry, Jinhyung. Appa is sorry. I love you.”

 

JInhyung burrows closer, eyes closing, Mr. Gong Yoo flopped on Jeongguk’s belly. “B-orry. B-lwove b-ou b-baba. B-wove b-ou, B-Taetae.”

 

Taehyung’s eyes widen. He looks so awake now, stunned, and then his face just gives, like he’s just seen his first sunset, like he isn’t the sun itself. He looks at Jeongguk, looks at Jinhyung, the tinier version of him, all of Jeongguk’s love. “Oh, bud. I love you too.” 




---




“He asleep?”

 

Jeongguk hums, glides his fingers down Jinhyung’s back. “I’m such an idiot. I should have known he wouldn’t be used to sleeping on his own. Even Namjoon said we should ease him into it.”

 

“It was just a lot of changes at once. Kids like routines. Your intentions were good.”

 

“What do intentions matter if I screw up my kid? And I’m sorry I had to call you. I should have been able to calm him myself. And I was so mean to hyung and he was just trying to help and-”

 

Your children are not your children.” 

 

Jeongguk frowns, finally feeling his own tired. They’ve switched back onto a call and the phone is hot against his ear. He wishes he could see Taehyung’s expression. “What?”

 

“It’s a quote. Khalil Gibran. He was a philosopher but a poet as well and he was talking about not forming attachments to the idea of who our children should be. They’re their own person and they’re going to be who they are. But there’s this part where he says that they’re the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. And I’ve always taken that to mean that we’re all life’s children. We’re all each other’s parent and child in a way. My parents have never apologized to me for the fact that I had to help raise my brothers. My brothers raised me too. We raised each other. Nobody ever does it alone. Whatever you said to your brother, just talk to him. And you know I don’t mind. We said we’d call whenever one wanted to talk. That goes for needing it too.”

 

“I know,” Jeongguk says and it should be terrifying to admit. That not only does he want Taehyung, he needs him too, but it just feels like he’s staring at all the things he’s been avoiding, and he’s found they’re not so scary after all. Being weak doesn’t make him bad. Maybe in weakness, some people find strength. Taehyung yawns, big and tiny, and Jeongguk smiles, says, “I know. I should let you go. Let you sleep.”

 

But Taehyung says, “I’m actually wide awake now. My sleep schedule has been all over the place. We could talk for a little longer. Unless you’re tired.”

 

“No, I’m- No.” He sinks deeper into his bed, holds his kid close, and whispers, “I can talk.”

 

The smile is wide in Taehyung’s voice. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

 

Everything. Jeongguk says, “Tell me about Norway. Have you had any better luck finding a viking?”

 

“Well. It’s a lot warmer than I thought it’d be. No luck on the viking front yet but I’ll keep you posted. But, hey. I forgot to tell you. About that Danish princess-”




---




In the morning, Jinhyung eats his pancakes without a fuss and insists on helping clean up, little fists bobbing in the dishwater, feet wiggling on the step ladder by the sink.

 

Namjoon clears out for the living room as soon as he’s done, laptop tucked under his arm, a smacking kiss to Jinhyung’s head at what a good job he’s doing and what a good boy he is for helping his dad. 

 

A soap bubble lands on Jeongguk’s nose. Jinhyung pops it with a giggle. Plants a tiny kiss on Jeongguk’s nose, and Jeongguk has the best kid ever. Couldn’t screw him up if he tried.

 

“Do you think you can take off a couple days in August?”

 

Jeongguk soaps up Jinhyung’s plate, hands it to him so he can rinse it. Jinhyung accepts it like it’s made of fine glass instead of kid-resistant plastic. Yoongi serves himself another cup of coffee, brewed dark the way he likes it.

 

“Yeah. I have vacation days. Why?”

 

“Joon and I were thinking about taking a trip. Few days. Four max.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongguk scrubs the batter bowl, looks at his brother softly. “That sounds nice, hyung. Where are you thinking of going?”

 

“Iowa.”

 

Jeongguk drops the wash cloth. They’d stopped buying sponges because the microfibers end up in the ocean, inside fishes, affecting the corals. It’s the little things sometimes, all one can do. “Iowa?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Iowa? As in Iowa? As in nothing for miles but corn Iowa?”

 

“Yep.”

 

He stares at his brother blankly. “...why?”

 

“Joon got an invite to give a seminar at a writing workshop at a university there in the fall. That famous one? Something about intersections of non-fiction and creative-fiction and digitalism in the 21st century.” Yoongi takes a long sip of coffee, shifts his gaze toward the lily in the window sill above the sink. “Or something like that.”

 

There are probably a lot of things Jeongguk doesn’t know about his brother. A lot he’ll never know. But he knows what the redirection of his eyes mean, the slight tightening of his jaw, the little tick in his cheek. 

 

He hands Jinhyung the big spoon they used to mix, wipes a dried streak of syrup off his cheek. Kisses it after, loud and smacking so it makes him laugh. “Okay, yeah. Sure, hyung. I can take a few days off. Of course.”

 

They finish the dishes. Yoongi empties the coffee-pot. Jeongguk  tends to the plants they’ve accumulated in the kitchen, the herbs, the hanging ivy by the fridge. Jinhyung paints on the floor. He’s making his own interpretation of the mural in his room, triceratops with stars for eyes, allosaurus with asteroids coming out of its claws. 

 

Clipping a dried leaf on one of the ferns, Jeongguk looks up, watches his brother spritz Namjoon’s bonsai on the counter, doesn’t mess with it otherwise. Namjoon seems to have a green thumb just for them. Even Taehyung has trouble keeping them flourished, doesn’t gravitate to them much. 

 

“Hyung?”

 

“Mhhm?”

 

“You were right. About Taehyung,” he says when Yoongi just stares. “You were right. And I knew that. I’m sorry about what I said. I just… I feel like I should be able to do it on my own. Take care of him.”

 

Yoongi pokes at a pebble in the soil. “You’re not alone, kid. You don’t need to do it all yourself. It doesn’t make you less of his dad. Don’t know how many times you need to hear that.”

 

“I know. I...I know. I- Yoongi? Taehyung and I we’re um.” He gathers his breath and it should feel like some big confession but it feels like the easiest thing he’s ever said, “We’re together. Is that why you knew he… Did you know? Could you tell?”

 

On his playmat, Jinhyung talks to himself softly, paint on his knuckles. There’s a rhythm to his words, a song. 

 

“Honestly,” Yoongi says. It’s not shock on his face but something close. He tilts his head like he’s accepted it, clicks his tongue like he should have thought of it himself. “I thought Taehyung was gone for you and you’d never give him the time of day. Not because you didn’t want to but because you’ve been acting like that part of you died when Jinhyung was born.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yeah. But it makes sense. You two.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Did- I mean, when you were his student-”

 

“No. Uhh. No.” Jeongguk shakes his head, curls the dead leaf in his hands. “Taehyung would never. He’s not like that.”

 

Yoongi makes an awkward face but nods.  

 

He goes back to arranging the pebbles in the pot. 

 

Jeongguk watches him for another moment. Maybe he doesn’t know everything about his brother, but his brother seems to know him. Product of being a hyung. He’ll let Yoongi have his mostly truths, his sort of secrets. Jeongguk is done keeping his. 

 

He cuts more leaves, used to think it counterintuitive to cut the growth if it was already dead. It probably meant the plant was done for anyway. He’s watched the opposite happen. How the shedding of weight can make flourishing things come alive again.

 

“Aren’t you going to ask if it’s serious?”

 

Yoongi looks at him, confusion clears. He looks at Jinhyung. Back at Jeongguk, like this part is obvious.

 

“I’d like to think I know my little brother. You wouldn’t tell me otherwise. Pretty sure you wouldn’t be with him if it weren’t.”




---




He drops his keys in the entryway bowl. The house smells like holly, the farmer’s markets during holidays. “I’m home,” he calls out, undoing his tie. 

 

“Shhhh.” Namjoon sticks his head over the banister. 

 

Jeongguk reaches the second level, the little den they barely use, sun pushing through the windows. “What are you-” He gets shushed again, Yoongi this time, but Jeongguk is already hushed, heart speeding then slowing, like it’s coming into place. He stands next to his brother, quietly says, “He wasn’t supposed to be back until after midnight.”

 

“Got an earlier flight. Didn’t call or anything. Took the subway,” Yoongi says, just as quiet. “We would’ve picked him up. For such a smart guy he can be a real idiot.”

 

Jeongguk huffs softly, “He probably didn’t want to be any trouble. You know how he is.”

 

“S’no trouble,” Namjoon says. 

 

Jeongguk silently agrees. He would have left work early if only Taehyung had asked, but he can’t think about it, how wonderfully brilliant Taehyung is contrasted by how he sometimes wears his socks inside out or brushes his teeth with his face cleanser or stays up reading too late. 

 

He can’t really think about it, eyes glued to the couch, how the sun makes it look like something from a painting, an old picture, a poem. 

 

Taehyung snores, mouth open like he was midword before succumbing to exhaustion. His glasses are crooked on his face and there’s strawberry smeared on his cheek, hair flat, bags under his eyes. Curled on his chest is Jinhyung, snoozing with his fists to his cheeks, tiny chest following the rhythm of Taehyung’s. A book sits wedged between them and the couch, Taehyung’s arms around Jinhyung keeping him safe and secure. Jeongguk wonders if he’s dreaming. Both of them. 

 

“They read together?”

 

“Yeah. Jinhyung latched onto him the second he walked in like a cute barnacle. Taehyung brought him back that book. Danish fairytales. Got Joon this pinecone candle that smells kickass.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Got me this vintage watch. Kinda kitschy. Very Nordic. He definitely got you something too.”

 

That’s sweet and definitely true but Jeongguk doesn’t need souvenirs, things. He’s been wanting Taehyung. Wanting him home. “So you guys have been staring at them creepily while they nap?”

 

Namjoon twists his ear, rubs it at Jeongguk’s whines in protest. “We were taking pictures for you, brat.”

 

Yoongi grunts, hooks an arm around Namjoon’s neck, gravity yanking him down. Namjoon goes like Yoongi is gravity, all almost six foot of him tucking himself under Yoongi’s arm. “Come on. Let’s go make dinner.”

 

“Ow. By make dinner do you mean order? Because I could really go for some pho- Ow! Watch my shoulder, Yoon, fuckj-”

 

“I mean make dinner or you forget who taught you how to survive on more than packaged food in the first place? If it weren’t for me, we’d be starved Kim Namjoon.”

 

Their voices grow muffled and Jeongguk sits on the edge of the coffee table. He doesn’t do much. Finishes taking his tie off. Tucks one of Jinhyung’s curls behind his ear. Adjusts Taehyung’s glasses, lifts them off his face, fingers getting caught on the bristly hairs across Taehyung’s jaw, hazards of traveling or a conscious choice. Could go either way with Taehyung.

 

He pulls the book from behind Taehyung’s shoulder, movements slow. The pages are gold-lined, binding leather and solid. Something out of a fairytale. He reads the title The Tale of Honeybear and Other Fairytales and he feels something soft in his ribs. Something like home. Gravity not pulling him down but showing him. Here. Home. 

 

The couch shifts and he looks up in time to watch Taehyung sleepily stretch, body extending but mindful of the weight on his chest, hands protective on Jinhyung’s sides, and Jeongguk is so held by gravity. So full of love. 

 

Taehyung opens his eyes, mouth coming up in a smile, gentle and slow. Like the first touch of summer. Like the slow bloom of love. “Hi.”

 

The room is full of sun and Jeongguk thinks, hi, welcome home, baby . He grins. “Hi.”




---




The loft is dark. 

 

Light floods the bed and Taehyung isn’t startled to see Jeongguk, standing at the top of the stairs, the door keeping the quiet house out. He drops the book he’s reading against his chest, pushes his comforter open so Jeongguk can climb in, their feet brushing, knees bumping.

 

They look at each other in the softened light and their breaths are too loud, too much. It’s the only sound Jeongguk wants to hear right now. 

 

Taehyung touches his face, his waist, his hands already everywhere. He smiles. “You didn’t kill my plants.”

 

Jeongguk chuckles, touches him back, everywhere. “You asked me not to.”

 

When they kiss it isn’t like coming home. It isn’t perfect. It’s the weight of Taehyung in his mouth, over his body, hot and sweet and good. It feels like Jeongguk wants to make space for him, like Taehyung has carved out a place for him too. 

 

Jeongguk kicks his sweats off, tugs at Taehyung’s pajama pants, and Taehyung makes it harder, makes it easier, kisses his belly and his knees, his hips and the tip of his cock, his tattoo, all the places on his body he can reach. “You sure?” he asks, voice ragged, and the fact that he’d ask, what makes Jeongguk so sure he doesn’t have to think about it, being sure if they fit. 

 

He nods. Presses his mouth to Taehyung’s cheek, his forehead. Looks at him carefully, says, “I told hyung about us. Namjoon knows too,” because if Yoongi knows, Namjoon does. 

 

Taehyung’s eyes are hard to make out, but his voice says it all, smiling and soft. “Kind of wish you’d told me that before my dick was hard.”

 

Jeongguk pinches his nipple, laughs when Taehyung yelps, breath punched out of him when he sucks bite marks into his chest. The sweetest revenge. “I just- ah , wanted you to know. Taehyung? Wanted you to know I-”

 

And Taehyung coaxes him on his back easily, and it’s so easy between them, and Jeongguk has been so afraid, but even here in the dark with him, he knows he’s safe. Taehyung kisses his mouth, says, “ I know .”

 

Their bodies move, inelegant and desperate and hot, less than easy until it is, until Jeongguk says, “I have the baby monitor on,” and he’s about to ask if that’s okay, and maybe other couples have it easier, but this is how it is for them. 

 

But Taehyung just pushes the hair out of his face, their breaths touching, and he says, “Okay,” then he slides inside of him like he’s coming home, and maybe, Jeongguk doesn’t have to carry the whole world alone.  



 

---

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

---




The morning of his fourth birthday, Jinhyung crawls into Jeongguk’s bed at dawn. Hushes Jeongguk’s tired groans with sleepy chatter and mischievous smiles like he knows that four years ago today, the world didn’t exist. The world didn’t matter. 

 

Later, the kitchen doesn’t smell like the beach the way his memory insists it does. Dried seaweed doesn’t have a distinct scent. More a taste; briney, salty. Those are Jeongguk’s memories as he stirs, ocean and salt and waves, waking up on his birthday to his parents soaking seaweed in the kitchen, birthday soup for breakfast, the same soup his mother would have when she was pregnant with him, with Yoongi. 

 

He can’t remember if Jisun ever had it when she was pregnant. 

 

He watches the soaked sheets of miyeok expand now, mix in the broth until it’s a milky green color and Jinhyung mutters sleepy and happy in his arms as Jeongguk goes through the steps, lets him stir the pot with careful guiding hands. 

 

They sit at the breakfast table and sing happy birthday the way it was first sung to them, Yoongi ladling soup, Namjoon passing around tiny bowls of kimchi and jeotgal. Taehyung’s voice thrums like an operatic baritone and Jinhyung laughs and laughs. And later there will be cake and stars and a hike and a little party with the friend Jinhyung made at speech therapy and the three friends from his painting class and it isn’t the number of people in a life but how they love, how they care, the expansion of a tiny universe. 

 

Soup finished, the mussels shells are opalescent. They do this every birthday, every year. An attempt to cling to home. Maybe one birthday they’ll finally find a pearl. 

 

“Bday wisdom for you, bud,” Taehyung says, Jinhyung on his lap, twin birthday hats tipped over their unbrushed hair, and Jeongguk wants to take a million pictures but he can’t look away long enough to find his phone. “ The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything . Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” 

 

He smiles at Jeongguk over Jinhyung’s head, Jinhyung babbling his agreement as he plays with his soup spoon, Namjoon and Yoongi stacking bowls, and the world exists. It matters. 

 

He smiles back and they don’t need pearls, maybe. 




---




“Honey, I’m home!”

 

The peace lily is dying. 

 

“In here,” Jeongguk calls out, knuckle deep in beetroot. The color runs, fills the cracks and lines in his fingers deep red, almost purple. 

 

“Where’s here?” Taehyung calls back but he’s popping into the kitchen a moment later, tie discarded and shirt open to his chest. He crouches by Jinhyung painting on the floor, tablet displaying game graphics discarded at his side. Ruffle to his hair, a sweet and soft hey, bud, you have a good day? Gets a finger shaped yellow smudge on his nose for his trouble, cooed laughter, babbled words that aren’t all that babbled anymore. “Look at those teeth! What’s this guy’s name?”

 

“B-sino...b-spi...nosauuuurus!”

 

“Oh, wow! Spinosaurus ! Good job,” he exclaims, prompts Jinhyung to meet his fist with his, crows at a successful fist bump while Jinhyung pumps his arms in excitement, legs kicking on his playmat. 

 

Jeongguk laughs at the display, gets beet juice all over the counter. 

 

Taehyung saunters over. He rolls his sleeves up, uncaring of wrinkles. It’s the end of the day. Perfect for unkempt hair, bare feet, wrinkles. He peers at the peace lily, sticks his hand under its leaves to check the soil. “Still sad, huh?”

 

Jeongguk grunts, squeezes the beets. “I overwatered her. It’s been so hot.”

 

“Hmm,” Taehyung says, pilfers a bamboo shoot from the skillet on the stove and yelps when he’s burned. Chews and blows on his pink fingers at the same time.

 

“Probably killed her.”

 

“Nah.” With a smile, Taehyung takes the wet rag Jeongguk tosses him, doesn’t mind the beet juice dripping too close to his shirt. “She knows autumn’s coming. Time for sleep and renewal.”

 

“Isn’t that winter?”

 

“Sure, but autumn is the preparation for it. That slow sleep.”

 

Jeongguk hums, unhappy. Taehyung’s chest brushes his side, his back. A hand touches his bicep, his waist, and he sucks in a breath, not because it makes him tense but the opposite, his shoulders sinking, the fist of unease in his stomach unclenching.

 

Taehyung says again, “Honey, I’m home.” Quiter, more sincere maybe. 

 

“That wasn’t funny the first three times you tried it,” Jeongguk says but he humors him anyway. “How was your day, dear?”

 

Taehyung knocks his grin into his shoulder. “Just fine, darling. And of course it’s funny. It makes you laugh. Plus, it’s factual. You’re sweet like honey and I’m home.”

 

Jeongguk snorts. He elbows Taehyung, right in his softest bits. “Ass,” he laughs as Taehyung chortles and slides to rest on the counter, sticks his hand in the pan again. Jinhyung is playing a song from the ipad, something scratchy and oldschool. Each day they stray further from Peppa teaching him how rainbows work toward audiophile elitism but it’s hardly a surprise considering who his uncles are. “How was it, really?”

 

“It was good. Same old same. Dean deaning.” He puts on a voice, stuffy and pompous, like the parents of the kids Jeongguk went to university with who grew up in the northern part of the east coast, “ The university is so pleased with your work, Mr. Kim. The university found your conference work astounding, Mr. Kim. The university would love to have you back in a few years after you’ve sowed your academic oats, Mr. Kim. The university thinks you should think of Amherst, Mr. Kim. Cambridge University!, even, Mr. Kim .”

 

Wiping his hands, Jeongguk checks the stir-fry. Lowers the flame. “They won’t offer you a position once your done next year?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. He pulls a cupboard open, starts grabbing bowls. “It’s not kosher in the academy . I mean, the ivies can get a little self-fellating, to be crass, but they like you to leave the nest. Spread your newly minted knowledgeable wings. Get other universities under your teaching belt.”

 

“So you do have other universities in mind?”

 

“Sure. But I don’t have to think about it for a few more months.”

 

“Right. But you are, right? Thinking about it.”

 

“Sure. These beets for dinner?”

 

“But- no, they’re for tomorrow. Get the radishes. The other container- yeah. Um. But, uh, Amherst. That’s all the way in Massachusetts, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“So that’s not like Jersey would be. It’s not a commute… right?”

 

“Right. But like I said, I don’t have to think about it yet. I’ll want to stay local anyway.”

 

“But Cambridge definitely isn’t a commute. It’s Cambridge. It’s in- it’s in Cambridge. And if you have the chance to go teach at those kinds of places, which you obviously do, you should at least consider them, right?”

 

“...sure. But I mean- do we need spoons?”

 

“But- yeah. The stirfry came out saucy. Chopsticks too.”

 

“‘kay- and I was saying, I don’t have plans to work outside of the city.”

 

“And I’m not saying you have to, but if your research would benefit from it or you’d have the chance to teach at a top university, that’s an important thing, right?”

 

“...sure,” Taehyung says, utensils clinking. He leans against the counter and he looks at Jeongguk, face squiggly, brows scrunched. “Are we fighting right now?”

 

“What? No! No,” Jeongguk repeats, softer. 

 

Jinhyung ambles up then, tugs on Taehyung’s shirt tails. Jeongguk is about to scoop him up seeing as Taehyung’s hands are busy, but Taehyung easily maneuvers it all into one hand, picks Jinhyung up and settles him on his hip with an exaggerated groan. Extending an arm, Jinhyung points to the stove, then to his mouth. “B-food, b-lease.”

 

The tension doesn’t evaporate but Taehyung’s mouth curves and Jeongguk smiles, tugs on Jinhyung’s ear lightly. “Yeah, you’re right. We should eat, huh?”

 

Jinhyung nods, insists on carrying his own utensils to the table. 

 

When they’ve cleared half their plates in mostly silence, Jeongguk says, “I wasn’t trying to fight.” 

 

He’s got Jinhyung in his lap, feeding himself and trying to sing the alphabet between bites. The parenting grapevine stokes the fears of overprotecting, helicopter-parenting, but one day Jinhyung won’t fit on Jeongguk’s lap, let alone will want to be held this way, so he thinks it’s okay to enjoy this, the closeness and warmth, for the short time it will last. 

 

He refills Taehyung’s glass, this fizzy tea drink Jinhyung loves to watch be poured but not drink himself. “I just know how hard you’ve worked and how much you could do. Obviously you know what’s best for you and you’ll make your own decisions, but I don’t want you to not make those decisions because of anyone except you. Deep down. Where it counts.” 

 

Jinhyung watches the bubbles hiss in Taehyung’s glass, oohing and ahhing and b-bubbles b-Taetae

 

Jeongguk smooths his hair down, looks at Taehyung, careful and earnest. “But I have decisions to make too.” 

 

Even sitting and blazer-less, sauce on his chin, Taehyung cuts a figure in his suit, houndstooth and grey slate, the scruff on his jaw he hasn’t shaved since he got back not much more than that. He’s nothing like Jeongguk ever imagined for himself. He comes home and the first thing he does is say hi to Jeongguk’s kid. He calls Jeongguk honey as a joke that isn’t a joke. He calls Jeongguk’s house home. He’s everything Jeongguk didn’t think he could have. “What are you trying to say?”

 

“I’m saying reach for the stars.” He gives a little shrug, shovels stir-fry in his mouth. Lets his kid set his own pace. “Just don’t underestimate me. I’ll meet you up there.”

 

Taehyung’s smile is radiant, very sun-like. “Guess I’m not the only poet in this relationship.”

 

Jeongguk guesses he isn’t. Songs are poems too. There’s more to say, what he actually wants to say, but his phone goes off with a text, kicks the words to the back of his throat.

 

Taehyung is closer so he passes it over. “It’s your brother. Sorry. Didn’t mean to look.”

 

“It’s fine,” he says, opening the message. Taehyung knows all his secrets so he’s not concerned about him looking at his phone. It’s mostly daddy and me outfits anyway.

 

It’s a picture of what Jeongguk guesses is a corn field. He doesn’t know if Iowa grows anything else. Below it, a phone number and a text that reads in case you lost it though there’s no way Jeongguk could, the same number dropped previously in their text conversation. 

 

“More corn?”

 

He smiles up at Taehyung. “More corn.”

 

“B-or b-corm!”

 

Jeongguk considers not saying anything back, passively liking the text. 

 

“Forgot to ask, sweetheart, how was your day?”

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, but his smile feels sun touched too. 

 

He texts Yoongi back thanks. hope you’re enjoying the corn! tell hyung we miss him and sets the phone down, makes sure Jinhyung isn’t eating only mung beans. “It was fine. Jogged a 5k with Jinhyung strapped to my back. Oh, and I found this article about the mediterranean diet and heart health. I’ll send it to you so you can send it to your dad. There’s an interesting tangent about goat milk and you said he was thinking about getting another goat, right?”

 

Taehyung makes a soft noise. Says, “

 

“Made some old rich fart a cool five mill richer from the couch so my boss will be happy to know the office is irrelevant.”

 

Taehyung laughs, mouth wide. Jeongguk wonders if he tastes like soy sauce, like the fizzy tea. Knows he’ll find out later.

 

“Well, it’s nice to know if all else fails, I can stay at home. I’d make a great house husband,” Taehyung says and he reaches out to wipe Jeongguk’s cheek and maybe he knows exactly what Jeongguk was trying to say, the decisions they’ll have to make together, the ones Jeongguk wants to make only with him. “But I gotta reach for those stars ‘cause, baby, you’re already up there.”




---




“And then after that battle, there’s more talking, and then another battle and mphhh -”

 

Shhh . Go to sleep.”

 

“You said you wanted a bedtime story,” Taehyung argues, muffled into Jeongguk’s palm. He licks, gets Jeongguk’s skin sticky and not in the sexy way. 

 

Jeongguk grimaces, eyes closed. The sheets are cool and he’s got the humidifier going, lavender and ylang-ylang. He doesn’t need a bedtime story. Taehyung is holding him just right, the perfect kind of warmth. He’ll fall right asleep. He rubs his damn palm on Taehyung’s shoulder. “I was kidding.”

 

Taehyung protests, wiggles deeper into the blankets, his arms around Jeongguk making him wiggle too. They almost fall off the bed, end up with Jeongguk toppled over his chest, legs tangled. Taehyung grumbles some more, makes a deeply content noise when Jeongguk nuzzles into his neck. “ Mhhpm . You’re lucky it was the very abridged version of Ran and not a Herzog movie. Or the Toy Story saga.”

 

The humidifier sputters and Jeongguk breathes in. Taehyung smells like lavender too now. Good. Like comfort.

“You sniffing me?”

 

“Mhhhm.”

 

Taehyung chuckles, rubs his hands up and down Jeongguk’s back. They fooled around after he put Jinhyung to bed, Taehyung working on a paper he’s co-publishing at the kitchen table, the dishes clean and put away, and he feels supple and easy from it, tired but like he could go again if Taehyng keeps touching him like this. “Kinda cute when you’re creepy.”

 

“Shut up,” Jeongguk bites, no heat. He twists the closest bit of skin, Taehyung’s nipple, laughs as he whines. He smushes his cheek against Taehyung’s peck, kisses him to soothe the sting, draws his toe over his shin slowly. “You smell oceany. Forest ocean. Like home. Homely.”

 

Taehyung hums, doesn’t say anything. Presses his palms into the sides of Jeongguk’s spine, strokes back up slower, smoother. “They’re coming back tomorrow, right? Yoongi and Joon?”

 

“Mhhm.”

 

“M’gonna miss this.”

 

Jeongguk stills. He breathes in when Taehyung’s hands reach his shoulders, lets it out when they slide back down. Last night, Taehyung gave Jinhyung a bath while Jeongguk finished some work. They climbed into bed together naked just because, made-out like teenagers who’d just discovered kissing until they fell asleep. Did some version of the same the night before that. He kisses Taehyung’s chest again, the smooth skin between his pecs. “You don’t have to.”

 

Taehyung crawls his fingers along Jeongguk’s hips, drags his thumb along the place where his tattoo edges where his waist meets his back. “Have a room I’m paying for I’ve barely seen in four days. My snake plants miss me. They told me so when I watered them today.”

 

“Keep paying for the room. Use it as an office. Sleep here. Your snake plants could sleep with us too.”

 

“I love sleeping with you but all my plants wouldn’t fit in here,” Taehyung says, something consoling about it at whatever is in Jeongguk’s voice, his words sighed and close. 

 

“Just the snake plants then,” Jeongguk jokes. He’s just gotten used to it is all. Taehyung and him and sleep. Four nights will do that to you. When Taehyung laughs, he says, “I don’t mind snakes,” fits a leg between Taehyung’s, presses upward making Taehyug’s breath stumble. “You know that.”

 

“Gguk!” 

 

Taehyung rolls them on their sides, swathes them in the blankets. It’s on the border of too warm and tight but it smells like lavender here between them. Forest. Ocean. 

 

It’s quiet. Jeongguk almost falls asleep.

“You’d get tired of me,”. Taehyung says when Jeongguk thinks he’s fallen asleep. “Taking up your bed.”

 

“Nuh uh,” Jeongguk insists, voice a yawn. 

 

“You would. My- what was it- aggressive cuddling? And, you know, there’s that thing people say. The longer you look at something, the more you see it. This swollen face every morning? You’d get sick of me eventually.”

 

Jeongguk tries to argue, cottony mouth forming words, but it’s hard. He’s so tired. Running after a four year old for days straight. He owes Namjoon a lifetime of a lot of things for running after Jinhyung when he was tinier. But four years. Almost as long as he’s known Taehyung. He’s been looking at Taehyung that long. He loves his face, swollen and all. He loves the way Taehyung holds him when they’re asleep, like it wouldn’t ever occur to him to let go. 

 

It’s a joke, but Taehyung is his sweetheart. The sweetest heart he’s known. He hopes he’s Taehyung’s, but he thinks he knows. 

 

He’ll get sick of some things but not him, knows Taehyung will too.

 

 He inhales to speak but he can only breathe. Forest. Ocean. Lavender. 

 

He’ll tell Taehyung in the morning. 




---




The hotdogs from the blue truck on 15th are the best. You can choose as many condiments as you want and the guy who takes orders never judges. He doesn’t care about your topping desires, life choices. He’s just the hotdog guy. 

 

“-nd there was this town off the interstate that had the weirdest pony show. All the ponies were dressed as leprechauns, and-”

 

“Hyung?”

 

“-this one pony ate the whole pie and- Hm? What.”

 

“Hyung. Just tell me.”

 

At first it doesn’t seem like Yoongi’s heard him as he keeps his eyes on the street, watching cars stream by. He pulls down an edge of the foil wrapped around his hotdog, sauerkraut and red hot chilis and aioli. Jeongguk would gag but his own isn’t any prettier. 

 

When Yoongi looks at him, he still says nothing, but his face. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen his brother look this scared. It’s easy to miss but it’s there, eyes blank and pale jaw, words frozen on his mouth.  

 

Jeongguk watches steam rise from the truck, exhaust leaking cars in the street. The day is hot but September is right around the corner. One morning he’ll wake up and the air will smell like snow. “You went there to see about a baby.”

 

“How’d you know,” Yoongi croaks out and he sounds so scared and did Jeongguk do that? Put fear in his brother?

 

He shrugs. Bites down, soft bun and mustard and jalapeños. “Going somewhere a whole year in advance just because Namjoon-hyung had a seminar sounded off.” He wipes his mouth with a napkin, chews on a chile seed. “And the adoption agency brochures in the kitchen drawer. They’ve been in there for years, hyung. Is that… were you trying to tell me? Were you waiting for me to say something?”

 

Yoongi tilts a shoulder, eyes toward the ground. 

 

Jeongguk’s stomach swarms. Congealed meat was probably a bad idea for this conversation. 

 

“Why?” he asks, his own voice shattered. Hollowed out. “Did you think- I would have been happy for you. I would have. I am happy for you. Hyung -”

 

“I didn’t,” Yoongi stops. Swallows. Every word seems to weigh him down. Like it’s been weighing him down. “I didn’t want you to feel guilty or something. I thought- I don’t know what I thought. Everything was already so hard for you. You’re so hard on yourself, I didn’t want to add more if- if… and Jinhyung was so small. It felt like a lot. For you. But for us too.”

 

“Hyung, I’m so so-”

 

“Don’t, Jeonggu-”

 

“No, wait, hyung. Hyung? I have to say this. Just let me- Last time you didn’t want to hear it but I need to say this to you. I’ve been needing to say this to you because I’ve been so sorry. So sorry. You don’t even- I just need to say it, okay?”

 

His voice is desperate, throat raw, and it’s like something is clawing its way up Jeongguk’s body, bloodied and aching. 

 

Face hard, Yoongi nods and it’s so silly. Two brothers in front of a hotdog truck in the city of dreams. All they need is a baseball game in the background and it’s some twisted version of the American Dream. Less Hollywood-perfect, more $5 bin at a defunct video store, shitty quality and bad subtitles, but something real about it, too close to home. 

 

“When Jisun got pregnant it was like my life stopped. And it was, I guess. The life I knew. But nothing else mattered except that she was okay. When her parents got involved… it made sense to have you guys adopt Jinhyung. You’d been thinking about a baby. You were both older. Had good jobs. A house. I was just some stupid kid. I couldn’t take care of a baby. I hadn’t even been able to take care of her and- I didn’t want to. I didn’t want a baby. I didn’t want him.”

 

It’s not a confessional, to say it out loud. He’s said some version of these words before and as terrible as it felt saying them to Taehyung, as cathartic to wait for judgement that never came, the person he should have been saying them to all along is sitting next to him and it makes sense to do it here. He came to this city because of Yoongi. His older brother, the one who taught him it was okay to still love music even if their father, out of his own hurt bitterness, had tried to teach them to hate it. 

 

The hotdog truck. The baseball game. The upside down American Dream.

 

“I didn’t even want to hold him. It just felt- Jisun hadn’t. The nurses told her not to. Said it would have hurt too much. To hold him and then have to let go or to hold him and not- not feel anything. And I thought it would be different for me. I didn’t- you know, how they say it’s different for the mother. Carrying the baby? Like it makes the father detached or something. And I figured, if you and Namjoon were going to be his. His d-dads, it wasn’t like I’d never see him again. So I thought it wouldn’t hurt. I felt like one of his parents should hold him after he was born at least. I’ve always told myself it was that. The holding him was what made me… but it wasn’t. All the time before he was born, I never- I never- that thing you always see dads in movies do where they talk to the belly? I never did that. I didn’t think about doing it, even. The first time he kicked and I felt it, I freaked out. I was- we were- it was during sex, and I thought ‘This is so weird. It’s wrong. Babies shouldn’t be around for this. For their parents...’” He shakes his head, embarrassment filling the weight in his throat but Yoongi is looking at him and the fear is so sad now, and is this what happens when you grow up? You get your dreams or not, you get to know sadness the way kids never can. “It was like he wasn’t real, before. And then he was born, and I didn’t even really know it at the time, but all of a sudden, it was like he was the only thing that was.”

 

Maybe he was trying to fill some hole inside himself. Maybe in seeing Jinhyung was real, Jeongguk was trying to prove to himself he still was.  

 

“I’m not sorry for owning up and being his dad. But I am sorry for what it did to you and Namjoon-hyung. I’d promised you something and I went back on it. I don’t think I can ever forgive myself for that. And then you took us in and you’ve done so much for us and I don’t think- I know I wouldn’t be where I am without you. Jinhyung wouldn’t be. I can never repay that.”

 

Yoongi is quiet for so long, Jeongguk swears he can hear it. The baseball game. 

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

He turns to his brother, gasping, “What? Hyung, no. That’s not-”

 

“I’m sorry,” Yoongi repeats, and it sounds so different. Less like an apology, more like the offering of one. “For not wanting to talk about it. I just thought it’d be better to put it behind us. It never felt right. Us adopting him. I never said anything but it wasn’t a surrogate situation or a normal adoption. It was your kid. My little brother’s kid. My nephew. But, and you said it was like your life stopped, but Gguk, when Jisun got pregnant…” Yoongi stops, shakes his head. Looks at Jeongguk when he says, “It was like you’d died.” 

 

Something curdles in Jeongguk’s stomach. Maybe it dies. Maybe it’s whatever part of him is still dead. 

 

“A part of you did. You quit school. Got that job at the firm. You stopped singing. You’d always been this happy kid. You weren’t like me, that way. Unsatisfied. Sad. But you were so sad then. Like a light had been turned off. I think it broke you a little. Maybe it made you grow up, I don’t know.” 

 

Is he grown up? Jeongguk isn’t sure. Maybe no one ever is. 

 

“But when you said you wanted to keep him, and I need you to hear this, Jeongguk. Listen to hyung, okay?” Yoongi asks, and his voice is fierce now, sure, and Jeongguk could have grown to be two feet taller than him. Been the tallest man on Earth. 

 

He would have always looked up and expected to see Yoongi there, begrudgingly leading Jeongguk along sand hills and under swooping branches, along city streets, showing him how to make his own way. 

 

“The only thing I felt was proud. I knew you were just trying to do the right thing. I was proud when you thought giving him up would be the best thing for him. I was proud when you decided to raise him as yours. I’ve only ever been proud of you, kid.” 

 

They finish their hotdogs, soggy and maybe tear wet, and it’s not an instantaneous thing, like the idea of holding your kid for the first time and falling in love. But it weighs a little less on Jeongguk. The city actually seems a little like dreams are still worth dreaming. 

 

“I wish you would have talked to me,” he says as they chuck their garbage, pigeons pecking at fallen over coffee cups and falafel containers. “About adopting. You and Namjoon-hyung. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been. Especially if it’s taken so long.”

 

“I’m talking to you now,” Yoongi says, and some wounds take time to heal. Sometimes you realize they weren’t wounds at all. 

 

He used to wonder what it would be like, almost wish, Jisun was lying beside him, their baby at the end of the bed, alone and hurt from it. 

 

He daydreams now about Taehyung in their bed, their baby at the end of it, and it’s so real, sometimes he wakes up and wonders why he isn’t in bed with him, where’s the crib gone. 

 

He isn’t alone anymore but still hurt and time is a slow fix. Isn’t really a fix at all. It’s just time. 

 

“Yeah, hyung. You are. So tell me.”




---




Namjoon is at the sink that night when Jeongguk comes up behind him. Jeongguk is still shorter than him so it feels like it did when they were little, Jeongguk rushing at him on unsteady feet and wrapping his arms around whatever bit of Namjoon he could reach and still come up short. 

 

“Whoa,” Namjoon laughs, raises his arms as Jeongguk wraps around his middle, hands soapy “Is this a Jeon Jeongguk Certified Hug ? What’d I do to deserve this? It’s not my birthday and I haven’t been that good lately.”

 

Jeongguk shrugs, presses his forehead against Namjoon’s shoulder. Squeezes him and it’s nice, all the ways you can hug the people you love, the different ways you love them. How it doesn’t mean any less. To hold them. 

 

“Seriously, Gukkie, I ate all your choco bars- please don’t hurt me.”

 

“You’re gonna be a really great dad, hyung.”

 

Jeongguk had said the same thing to Yoongi as they’d parted ways to go back to their respective works, but it feels different now saying it to Namjoon. He likes to think he’d love him anyway, but he loves Yoongi because he’s his brother. He loves Namjoon because he chose to be. 

 

Water overflows on the mini tower of plates in the sink. Namjoon turns the faucet off, hand shaky.

 

The movie playing in the living room grows louder. Something exciting must have happened, Yoongi booing while Taehyung and Jinhyung crow in victory.

 

Voice tiny, Jeongguk says, “To me, you already are. You always have been.”

 

Namjoon’s hand comes up, wet and pruny over Jeongguk’s, and holds on. 

 

They stay like that until Namjoon pats his hand, says, “Let’s go watch the movie, kid,” and healing hurts but it doesn’t always have to. 




---




He’s struggling to get his suit jacket on when he knocks into the entryway table. He swears, picks up mail and a hardcopy of a book Taehyung is proofreading, the latest edition The Times . His fingers catch on a thick envelope, cardstock heavy. He stares, traces his thumb along the edge. 

 

He wrinkles his brow and tilts his head. He calls out for Yoongi who’s upstairs, Namjoon and Jinhyung waiting outside.  They’re going to be late. 

 

There’s no return address. 

 

Yoongi thunders down the stairs, saying, “Okay let’s haul ass. You good?”

 

Jeongguk stuffs the letter in his back pocket. Tries to compose his face. Smiles. “Yeah. Let’s go?”

 

Yoongi doesn’t look like he believes him but he follows Jeongguk out the door, locks after it slams closed. 

 

On the envelope is Jeongguk’s name, their address, and the postage, all in Korean.  




---




“This is picturesque as fuck, I’m gonna barf.”

 

“Shut up. Don’t ruin this for me.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, is it your first day of-”

 

“Hey! Did I miss it? Did he go in?”

 

Ivy crawls down the brick building, secluded from the main hub of traffic. A stone fountain babbles, a statue of Athena spouting water in arches. Yoongi’s right. The place is picturesque as fuck.

 

Taehyung comes up next to them, doding various tiny sized people and eliciting more than a few double takes from various women and one vaguely terrifyingly huge guy with what looks like twins hanging off his arms. 

 

“No,” Yoongi says, gesturing with his chin, squinting in the early sun. “Namjoon took him to the pond down the street to look at the ducks.” 

 

“He was nervous,” Jeongguk explains, his own fingers jittery, pulse fidgety. He’s the pinnacle of flight or fight and it’s not even his big day. 

 

Taehyung brushes his shoulder with his, places a casual hand on his side, steady fingers coaxing. “He’s going to be fine. He’s ready. It’s okay to be nervous. Today’s a big day for him. And for you.”

 

Jeongguk stares at him. He slumps, his chin bumping Taehyung’s shoulder in defeat. “You need to stop doing that.”

 

“Doing what?”

 

“Knowing everything all the time.”

 

The hand starts sliding across his back, comforting. Jeongguk could melt on the spot. “Ah, there’s tons of stuff I don’t know. Nuclear Thermal Propulsion, for one. How to calculate tips with mental math. Whatever the hell Dostoevsky was talking about most of the time. And, I’m sorry, but no matter how many times you explain it to me, mutual funds? Sounds like bullshit. How is it mutual if the corporate fucks make more money than me?”

 

“It’s about alleviating risk across a group of investors, I’ve explained it so many ti-”

 

“Can you two kiss already?” At their bewildered looks, Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Or whatever. Perform your weird little non-bickering mating dance. But I’m not gonna go amish on your asses if you, you know, act like a couple in front of me. I’m not precious about Gugkk’s virtue. That was long ago exposed. The product of it ran around my living room yesterday in his underwear pretending he was a velociraptor.”

 

“That was so cute,” Jeongguk fonds. “And I hate you.”

 

Yoongi shrugs but he’s grinning, takes a step back. “Yeah, yeah.”

 

“Where’re you going?”

 

“Coffee cart across the street. Taehyung, you want something?”

 

“Don’t get him anything,” Jeongguk is quick to say from his Taehyung enveloped cocoon. He’s so chill right now he doesn’t even totally care his brother is bullshiting about his virtue. “He’s already had like three today and it’s not even nine. I can smell the tea leaves on him.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you had one kid, not two.”

 

“Fuck yo-”

 

“It was two. And they were herbal,” Taehyung pouts. He covers Jeongguk’s ears like that’ll do anything, barely flinches as Jeongguk twists to try and bite his wrists. “A chai if they have it. Whatever black tea they have if not. You’re a prince, Jeon Yoongi. No. A king.”

 

You’re a prince Jeon Yoongi ,” Jeongguk mimics over his brother’s decreasing footsteps. “Nice sucking up to my hyung.”

 

Taehyung sighs, rubs long fingers over Jeongguk’s ears. September has been unusually warm some days but close to freezing others. Winter will be a long one this year. “Well, he is my landlord. And your brother, but- oh, wait. Are you jealous of your own brother? Aww, that's so creepy, babe.”

 

“Quit calling me creepy. I’ll get a complex.”

 

Laughter buried in his hair, Taehyung kisses Jeongguk’s head sweetly, arms curling around his back, and he has such nice summer hands, even in autumn. “You did do that weird thing to my knees the other night-”

 

“You said it wasn’t weird!”

 

“It’s okay. I liked it! Your thigh muscles have muscles. It was very sexy, baby, promise.”

 

Jeongguk barks out a laugh, elicits a few stares but it’s easy to ignore them. He tilts his chin up, kisses Taehyung’s jaw. Smiles when Taehyung looks at him, surprised but pleased. “Thank you for coming today. You didn’t have to. I know you’re busy.”

 

“You kidding? Wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Taehyung says, like the very notion, of Jeongguk even saying it, is ridiculous. 

 

Jeongguk sobers, the weight of the letter in his pocket nudging at him. “Hey. Do you have some time after this? Late breakfast? Was thinking about taking work off and pleading mental health day because today is setting out to be incredibly emotionally taxing. There’s totally a diner bathroom blow job in it for you, if you’re interested?”

 

“Look who’s spoiled from working a few days from home,” Taehyung grins before he bites his lip, the slant of his brows apologetic. “That sounds really nice but I have a meeting with my advisors at nine. I could squeeze in lunch if-”

 

“No, that’s okay.”

 

“You sure? It’s really-”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head. “It’s fine. Really. You’ve got a lot going on. Don’t worry about it.”

 

Taehyung hums, kisses him again, his temple this time. “You say that and it makes me worry.”

 

“Well-”

 

“B-Tae!”

 

Light footsteps are loud, purple sneakers slapping on concrete. Jinhyung makes for their knees, Namjoon trotting behind him. His words are a mile a minute recounting everything that happened between the walk to and from the pond. Jeongguk grins, combs his hair back, freshly cut but already growing. 

 

“Hey, bud. Did you count all the ducks? Yeah? How many?”

 

“B-five!”

 

Taehyung makes an impressed face. “Wow. That’s a lot of ducks! You count them all yourself?”

 

Jinhyung grins, points to himself. Behind him, Namjoon gives a thumbs up.

 

Taehyung smiles. He offers Jinhyung his hand, fingers held in a loose fist. “Good job. You ready to go in now?”

 

Jinhyung makes a circle with his shoe shyly. He holds Taehyung’s hand instead of bumping it, his fingers impossibly tiny over Taehyung’s. He shrugs.

 

Taehyung gives Jeongguk a look and Jeongguk crouches, work slacks wrinkling. Like this, Jinhyung and him are close in height but he looks new-born fragile, and maybe it is too soon, maybe he isn’t ready.

 

Jinhyung blinks big eyes at him and there’s all this noise, cars and adults and children, a siren in the distance, Namjoon and Taehyung’s hushed conversation, Yoongi back from the coffee cart, but the world narrows down to this, Jeongguk and his kid, and Jeongguk isn’t ready, he’ll never be ready. 

 

He shifts to kneel, dirty city sidewalk on his nice pants not even a thought. “It’s okay to be scared, Jinhyung-ah. Appa gets scared too.”

 

Pouting- and does he get that from Taehyung too -Jinhyung touches Jeongguk’s shoulder, pats over his chest like that’s where the scared lives. “B-baba b-scar’d?”

 

“Yeah. But you just have to try. If you try, it’s less scary. And if you don’t like it, we’ll try again. You liked registration yesterday, right?”

 

Jinhyung nods, tilts his head in a move that is so much like Jeongguk, his breath shorts out. He’ll never get over it. He helped make this tiny beautiful person. He watches Jinhyung play with the hem of his t-shirt, purple as his sneakers, neon lilac, T. rex on the front, unsure but trying to push his shoulders back, stand taller. Yoongi found an online shop that custom made it. They don’t sell purple T. rex shirts in stores. Jeongguk thinks it’s stupid. T. rex should come in all colors. 

 

Then Jinhyung looks at Taehyung like he wants a second opinion but he keeps petting at Jeongguk’s heart, like he’s trying to fix the scared, and he can have all the second opinions he wants. 

 

“Your dad’s right, bud,” Taehyung says, coming into an easy squat, shoulder brushing Jeongguk’s. “Everyone gets scared. T. rex got scared too.”

 

Jinhyung gasps, takes his hand off Jeongguk to touch the cartoon dinosaur on his own chest. “B-even b-rex?”

 

Taehyung nods. He pokes Jinhyung’s belly, earns himself the sweetest giggle. “Even rex. And he was still really brave, right? The bravest?”

 

“B-uhuh! B-roawr! B-rex b-brave! B-right b-abba?”

 

Jeongguk roars right back and Jinhyung shrieks in laughter, smiles at Jeongguk with all his teeth and looking at Jinhyung isn’t like looking at himself at all. Jinhyung is the best parts of him, the best thing Jeongguk has ever done. Watching him is watching this whole new little world unfold. He’s so lucky he gets to watch it happen. 

 

Jeongguk grins at him, feels it all the way to his heart. “So you’re brave too, baby. The bravest.”

 

Jinhyung agrees to take his backpack from Jeongguk then, beams as Jeongguk adjusts the straps. He hugs the four of them, practices his and Namjoon’s newly minted handshake that Jeongguk only half understands, almost knocks the drinks carrier out of Yoongi’s hand from the force he hugs him with.

 

One of the teachers is waiting for the last of the students and Jeongguk steels himself with a breath, nerves swirling but he feels steady in them. Brave almost. 

 

The teacher smiles kindly at them, offers Jinhyung a hand and without hesitation Jinhyung takes it, waves at Yoongi and makes quacking sounds at Namjoon who laughs and quacks back. 

 

Jeongguk stays as he is, heart thudding, and this is it. The moment his kid starts to grow up. He’ll never be this tiny again. The whole world will open up for him now. How lovely, that Jeongguk gets to be a part of it, and maybe he was just a stupid kid when Jinhyung was born, but he knew, even back then, even if he dind’t realize it. Jeongguk knows it now for the both of them.

 

He lets his head fall against Taehyung’s shoulder, says, “Thank you.”

 

“Anytime,” Taehyung says and it sounds like something else, stretches across more words than just one, and maybe Jeongguk can be more than almost brave. 

 

APPA !”

 

By the time Jeongguk looks up, his eyes are watering. 

 

Jinhyung shouts, “B-bbbb Appa! Rrrrr-rex!”

 

It doesn’t matter that Jinhyung is pointing at Jeongguk’s pocket where the little plastic t-rex has been all morning or that Jeongguk is going to be late for work or that he doesn’t know how brave he can be or that he’s crying and smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. 

 

Namjoon whoops loudly and Yoongi laughs, “That’s my genius kid!” and Taehyung is ready with a fistbump when Jinhyung races back to them, their knuckles knocking before he’s politely taking the little dinosaur from Jeongguk’s hands, hugging Jeongguk so hard his lungs squeeze, nodding as he’s instructed not to play with it during class, promises he won’t because it’s for luck, to keep him brave when he can’t be. 

 

And Jeongguk hopes he can be brave.




---




He’s almost asleep when the mattress dips, cold air scurrying under the blanket. Where he expects small hands, a tiny chest seeking warmth at his back, everything’s bigger, enveloping him so the cold is a memory, everything is warm. 

 

He rubs his face against his pillow. “Thought you said you missed your bed again. Your plants.”

 

There’s a puff of air on his nape. A slow kiss at the top of his spine. “Missed your creepy cold toes more.”

 

Jeongguk groans, kicks back. Hits Taehyung’s knee. His funny bone. . 

 

Taehyung laughs and sticks himself to his back, knees fitting behind Jeongguk’s like puzzle pieces, hands stacked over his ribs. 

 

Jeongguk sighs, reaches back to smack at Taehyung’s face, ends up brushing over his cheeks with his knuckles softly, fingers tangling in his hair. “Time’s it? You just get home?”

 

“Like an hour ago. They had to kick me out of the library. It’s eleven.” Taehyung yawns, left palm drawing wide arcs across Jeongguk’s belly. There’s a smile in his voice when he says, “Ran into Jinhyung when he was coming out of the bathroom. Gave me a full play by play of his day and then he wanted to go upstairs because he forgot to say goodnight to the azalea.”

 

“He’s so cute it makes me want to cry. It does make me cry.”

 

“Gets it from his appa.”

 

“Hmm,” Jeongguk hums, arm flapped back across Taehyung’s back. He should roll over before it starts to hurt, cradle Taehyung’s arms against him instead, but he can reach that weird itchy spot on Taehyung’s waist like this so it’s fine for now. “He’s really liking school so far. He’s always so excited. I was never that excited about school.”

 

Taehyung stretches, the motion realigning Jeongguk’s body too, and they should really just move Taehyung’s stuff down here, reconvert the loft into a three person apartment maybe. Taehyung clicks teeth, asks, “Did Jisun like school?”

 

Jeongguk scratches at his hip, slow and thoughtful. Taehyung makes a happy noise, noses at his shoulder as he waits. “She was good at it. Got by. But she wasn’t...she thought the world was a better classroom than a four walled room.”

 

“The world as a classroom. I like that.”

 

“She used to, uh, just drop whatever and philosophize about anything to anyone who would listen. Art theory or how fast food could be revolutionary or valley girl accents. Some people thought she was crazy but she didn’t care. She was like that. Had a big personality.”

 

“Sounds like she was my kind of girl,” Taehyung says. His breath catches lightly. “Sorry. Is. I didn’t mean-”

 

Jeongguk squeezes his hip comfortingly. “It’s fine. I know what you meant.”

 

“Have you really never- sorry. Nevermind.”

 

“No, what? You can ask, Taehyung,” he says at Taehyung’s silence. 

 

There’s a moment where they’re just touching each other and it seems like they’ll fall asleep, that familiar sticky comfort of your favorite person at the end of a long day. 

 

“You’ve never tried to find her after? Some form of contact?” 

 

“No,” Jeongguk says, eyes open. The room is dark, a sliver of light skirting through the curtains. He thinks he gets it now, why some people find it easier to share things in the dark. Even people in love. “I thought about it, sometimes, but I wouldn’t have known where to start. The more time passed, the more it felt like this was just the way things were supposed to be and…” He lets go of Taehyung’s hip. Taehyung holds him closer, not by tightening his arms around him but in how he doesn’t pull away and Jeongguk’s ribs could fit both of Taehyung’s hands, all of him. “If she’d wanted to be here, with him, with me, I think she would have been. Maybe that’s not fair, but finding her felt unfair too.”

 

It’s not the whole of it but it feels like more than he’s ever said about it to anyone, to himself even. You love someone and you lose them and you spend years of your life unpacking it. Throw a kid in the middle and it might be your whole life. 

 

Taehyung’s sigh is heavy on his nape. He says, “Thank you. For telling me that. Talking about her. It’s okay, you know?”

 

“What is?”

 

“If it still hurts.”

 

Jeongguk rolls onto his other side, fits them together this way. He looks for Taehyung’s eyes in the dark and he can’t be sure, but he feels like he finds them. 

 

He says, “I got a letter the other day. There’s no return sender, but it’s from back home. I haven’t opened it. I don’t want to. Does that make me terrible?”

 

“No. But it’s okay, remember?” Taehyung combs his hair back, slides his palm down his spine, holds Jeongguk in the quiet familiar dark, and there’s no baby at the end of the bed but it’s not hard to picture one. “To be scared. Fear is how you get to the other side.”

 

“Of?”

 

“You. Yourself. Life, you know?”




---




At the tail end of lunchbreak, Soohyung asks, “You ever just want to fuck the fuck right off?”

 

“Can’t. Jinhyung gets out of painting at four.”

 

“Shit. Already got him on the extra-curricular college track? Got him playing football Americano too?”

 

Jeongguk snorts, does a messy job of cleaning barbeque sauce from his hands with wet wipes. “He loves it. It’s his favorite thing now. And I’m letting him pick his own sport though if it is football he’s wearing three helmets and a bodysuit. I’ve seen the brain scans.”

 

“Nice. But I meant,” Soohyung says and he points upward to the towering buildings, glass and metal. It’s not a strange sight but there’s so little variety in this part of the city, rarely a tree or a brick in sight. Like there isn’t much space for the tangible here. Debt as a main currency, money that only exists on an interface, some non-corporeal cloud. The real world doesn’t fit. “What’s your five year plan, man? I know you, you’re not staying here forever.”

 

“Still have a couple of years in my contract.” Jeongguk shrugs. A smidge of sauce on his shirt cuff won’t come off. He makes a mental note to pick up some stain removal on his way to get Jinhyung. Yoongi and Namjoon had an incident with chocolate sauce Jeongguk did not ask questions about and they’re all out. “After? I don’t know.”

 

He used to have dreams. Wide eyed ideals about how he could take this, money and the know of what to do with it, and turn it into something good. He hasn’t thought about how in a long time. 

 

There’s barbecue sauce on Soohyung’s chin. He drinks up to a dozen Red-Bulls to get through most days but he looks like he still dreams. “You’re still young, Jeon. And you got a few years. Plenty of time to figure it out.”




---




“-so then Joohyun was like, no, I don’t see what mitosis has to do with eugenics, asshol-”

 

“Appa?”

 

“Sorry, baby, dinner’s almost done. So what did he say?”

 

“Well, he said-”

 

“Appa, bbb snack, pleah?”

 

“Hey, could you-”

 

“On it,” Taehyung says, plucking a clementine from the fruit bowl and peeling it. The kitchen fills with the smell of citrus, sharp and sweet, and Taehyung leaves some of the peel on so Jinhyung can work on it with his fingers, rub it between palms. 

 

Jinhyung gnaws on the segmented fruit, mumbles, “hank you, appa,” and goes back to the ipad where he’s been alternating between a cartoon rendition of Newton explaining gravity and a cat trying to chase a komodo dragon. 

 

From the stove, Jeongguk does a double take but Taehyung is back to squinting at his laptop, a heavily marked essay on the screen. He feeds himself a clementine segment, leans down and hands the next one to Jinhyung who has his play-mat set up next to his feet.  

 

Jeongguk starts, “Hey-”

 

“God, the stuff freshman think they can get away with. Sorry, but I’m just really- this state’s public education is a sham. You were right to put Jinhyung in private school, holy shi -”

 

“It’s only preschool,” Jeongguk says, looks at Jinhyung’s happy oblivious munching and shrugs. “Are you going to subject me to an education rant after the genetics via Joohyun one? Will you do economic reform next to complete the trifecta?”

 

Taehyung stabs at his keyboard, a look of horror through the thin smoke wafting from the stove, timer almost up. “Trifecta of what?” 

 

“Political grandstanding.”

 

That earns him a sardonic laugh, but on his next clementine round Taehyung skips himself, places a slice of fruit between Jeongguk’s lips, watches him bite down with smiling eyes, wipes the juice that drips down Jeongguk’s chin with his thumb. 

 

Taehyung sucks his thumb, hums like he’s just licked a plate clean. “Who knew they made this brand of good tasting brat?”

 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, gives the frypan one last shake, turns off the burner. 

 

“Adorable too,” Taehyung continues. Wipes his thumb on his t-shirt grossly and hands Jinhyung the last of the clementine. “Smart. Funny. Handsome as hell. Can lift 205 American lbs.”

 

“It’s 230 now-”

 

“Jeez-”

 

“Can you please get the big bowls? Try not to get drool on them.”

 

“Sir, yes sir.” Bowls stacked, Taehyung swings the cupboard closed, opens it again, questions, “Namjoon and Yoongi coming?”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head, carries the big pot to the table. It’s not exactly kimchi jjiggae, or at all since they’re out of kimchi, but if he can toss a bunch of stuff in a pot and call it a balanced meal after a long day at work, he’ll take it. They’re having cheese broccoli as a side anyhow. “Yoongi’s got a late recording session so they went out. They’re supposed to get a call from the adoption agency too.”

 

“So it’s really happening, huh? A baby?”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. Not because he doesn’t care. It feels too precious to talk about it. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t mind his silence anyway. He turns to Jinhyung, asks, “What do you think about that?” Ruffles his hair, tickling his cheeks when Jinhyung puts his face in his hands. “Are you ready for another baby around here? You’d get to be a big cousin. Show the little guy the ropes.”

 

“Cousin!”

 

“Yep, cousin. Bud, you are so good at c words. Good job! Gimme some knuckle action.” 

 

“B-nuckle! Big bbb ropezzss?”

 

Taehyung laughs, gives his hair a last fluff, “The biggest.”

 

Jeongguk means to call them for dinner, hopes the clementine wasn’t enough to ruin Jinhyung’s appetite, and he will, just as soon as his heart stops fluttering because fuck they’re cute together. It’s been four years and Jinhyung is so much better at people now, will be better at them than Jeongguk has ever figured out to be, but he’ll never get over it. The way Jinhyung took to Taehyung like newborns do to water, the way certain flowers do to sun.

 

Jinhyung offers Taehyung the tablet, points to the upper corner where the battery level is. “Appa. Appa, pad bb go bye-bye.”

 

“Oh, man. We better charge it then.”

 

“Appa.”

 

“You wanna go to the table? Ready to eat?”

 

“Ap bbb appa?”

 

“Hey, Gguk, he wants you-”

 

“Taehyung-”

 

Jinhyung tugs on Taehyung’s pants leg gently, summer shorts long gone. He holds up the ipad in one hand and asks to be picked up with the other, looks up at Taehyung and says, “Appa. Bad, b-lease. Foo, b-lease, appa.”

 

For a long second, no one moves. 

 

Nothing in Jeongguk moves. 

 

Taehyung’s face moves first and it’s, well, it’s a poem or something, which is fitting because it’s Taehyung. He turns sharply to look at Jeongguk, expression startled, happy eyes now heavy and alarmed. He looks terrified, terrified of Jeongguk, and is this what Jeongguk does to the people he loves? Is this who he is to the people who actually know him? A thing to be feared, terrible and weak, reality is something he can’t handle?

 

Lowering on his knees, Taehyung takes the ipad carefully. Keeps his voice low and soothing when he says, “Jinhyung. I’m Tae-tae. Remember?” He points to himself. “Tae-tae, yeah?”

 

Jinhyung tilts his head, hair flopping over his eyes, looks at Taehyung like he’s being very silly. 

 

“That’s appa,” Taehyung says, pointing to Jeongguk by the table. Back to himself. “Tae-tae.” To Jeongguk, “Appa.” He asks, “Who’s appa?”

 

Jinhyung blinks for a moment. Points to Jeongguk. “Appa.”

 

“And who’s Tae-tae?”

 

Jinhyung places his hand over Taehyung’s on his chest, smiles cutely. “Bbb b-y b-oo! B-Tae-tae!”

 

The relief on Taehyung’s face is another type of poem. The way Pak Tujin’s poetry or that one poem about a blue funeral Taehyung has recited to him late in bed when the last of the golden light is gone, something about being someone’s north, their everything, hits Jeongguk. It doesn’t hit him until later. How sad it makes him feel. 

 

Jeongguk’s expression is neutral when Taehyung looks at him, a hastiness to his voice as he explains, “Sometimes kids do this when they finally grasp a new word. Namseol once called everyone unkla for weeks. Uncle. Even mom. It was funny except sometimes it made her cry.” 

 

“Mhhm.”

 

Taehyung’s face falls a little. “Has he been calling Namjoon or Yoongi appa too?”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. Shakes his head. 

 

“Is Yoongi appa?” Taehyung asks, turning back to Jinhyung, tone still that casual thing. “Is Namjoon appa?”

 

Jinhyung plays with his fingers, runs his hands along Taehyung’s sleeves. “Yoogi bbb i’ Yoobi.”

 

“And Namjoon?”

 

He shrugs. “Joonie Joonie.”

 

“I don’t thi-”

 

“Appa,” Jinhyung says, impatient this time, arms reaching for Taehyung’s shoulders, twisting and pointing to the table. 

 

Taehyung looks like he’s about to cry. Pass out, maybe. “Okay. Okay, come on. Shit. Sorry. Shit.”

 

Bbb shitzz!”

 

“Oh god-”

 

In an impressive maneuver, Taehyung seats Jinhyung to the table, places the bowls without dropping them, and gets the ipad charging, before Jeongguk blink. He drops down in his chair, looks at Jeongguk, apprehensively. Emotions swirling, muddled. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s fine,” Jeongguk says. He ladles some stew for Jinhyung, spoons some pickled radish on top. He’s still too little to eat straight out of the pot, has been known to almost knock it over in his enthusiasm to fish for tofu. “With Yoongi, we’re lucky his first word wasn’t f-u-c-k.”

 

“That’s not what I meant.”

 

Jeongguk taps his cup with his utensils. Taehyung hasn’t touched his. They stare at each other, silent only in words, and Jeongguk feels so still. “I-”

 

“Efff yooooooo seeee-”

 

The silence holds, and then they’re both laughing, Jinhyung joining in and climbing into Jeongguk’s lap, asking, appa dooo gravetee tuuu? and moh’ cab-cab b-lease, appa , and Jeongguk lets the back of his knuckles brush Taehyung’s, and Taehyung smiles, a little tight but there, and he touches Jeongguk’s hand, grabs his chopsticks, finally digs in. 

 

After dinner, they set Jinhyung up on the couch with Empire Strikes Back at his own request and Taehyung looks both enamored and stricken, like he’s being tortured but lovingly so. 

 

“You don’t have to do that,” Jeongguk says for the second time. There’s a lot of piew! piew! piew! ’ing from the tv, but he keeps his voice low, gentle. 

 

Taehyung frowns at the dish in his hand. There’s soap everywhere and he’s wearing the gloves none of them ever use and he keeps turning the faucet on and off in an attempt to conserve water. “You made dinner. Least I can do is- do the dishes.”

 

“It can wait for later. Leave it.” When he gets more silence, he sighs, heads to the fridge and pulls out a beer. They’re Yoongi’s but he knows his brother won’t care, as he’s always told Jeongguk, if there’s anyone that deserves to drink it’s adults with children. “You want a beer?”

 

“I want you to let me do the dishes,” Taehyung huffs out. He drops his shoulders in the next second, looks at Jeongguk, apologetic. “Why aren’t you freaking out about this?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says, honestly. He’s never said words to Taehyung he doesn’t mean. Why would he start now? He pops the cap off his beer, leans against the fridge. “But I’m not. Why are you?”

 

From the living room, there’s a loud explosion. A galaxy is saved, put in peril. Jeongguk can’t ever remember this one. All he remembers is that Han Solo is a dick but Leia loves him anyway. Maybe Leia’s a dick too. 

 

“I’m freaking out because I expected you to. Your non freak out is freaking me out.”

 

“It’s just a word, Taehyung.”

 

Taehyung scoffs, uses the grimmy gloves to scratch at his forehead. “Can you honestly tell me you really mean that?” he asks, and he isn’t sharp, isn’t hostile, but he searches Jeongguk’s face, his eyes, like he’ll find something his words won’t say. 

 

Tapping the rim of the bottle against his lower lip, Jeongguk looks at Taehyung, doesn’t hide himself. He feels calm. He feels like of course . Like he’s been waiting for this moment. Of course. “Anyone else? I probably wouldn’t. As ugly as it is, I don’t know how I’ll react if he calls Yoongi appa too. But I can’t be jealous of you, Taehyung. Of course he sees you as a father. How can I be upset at that? I’m the reason he sees you that way.”

 

Like he’s about to protest, Taehyung opens his mouth but he only gapes at him. Then he slouches like the breath is being knocked out of him. He doesn’t move when Jeongguk stands next to him, an asking in his body Taehyung doesn’t reject when he presses their sides together, takes the offered bottle with soapy hands after Jeongguk nudges him with it. 

 

“I’m sorry,” he says after a long swallow. Jeongguk doesn’t mind it. The pauses. The silence. He can be patient. Taehyung has always been so patient with him, it’s the least Jeongguk can do. “I was freaking out for me too. I always thought I’d be forty or something by the time I got called dad.”

 

Jeongguk raises his brows. “Forty? Not that you couldn’t work the grandpa-dad thing, but really?”

 

Taehyung laughs. A little humorless, but his shoulder is soft when he knocks it against Jeongguk’s. “I spent most of my teens parenting my younger brothers. My twenties studying. I figured my thirties could be the fun decade. Settle down- fatherhood, partnership, that stuff and -all that, after.”

 

He almost tells Taehyung about his dream. The bed, the baby, them. He watches the conflicted set to Taehyung’s eyes, says, “I’m not asking you to be his dad. Or do more than you want. I know it’s a lot. We’re a lot but-”

 

“That was before I met you,” Taehyung interjects gently, and it isn’t that he blindly believes whatever Taehyung says to him, but he’s never given Jeongguk reason not to. “I’ve been all in since you kissed me. Before then if we’re being completely honest. I know what it meant.”

 

Jeongguk isn’t sure he did. He knows now. 

 

“Taehyung-”

 

“Appa! B-aceshihhh!”

 

Taehyung laughs, like he means it this time. He knocks their bottles together, lets their hands touch. 

 

“Come on,” Jeongguk says. “Lets go watch the spaceship. This one’s your favorite, right?”

 

“They’re all my favorite, but yes,” Taehyung says. He peels the gloves off, hangs them on the little hook near the window sill above the sink. He lifts one of the peace lily leaves, not fully flourished but better than she was looking at the end of summer. “See? What’d I tell you? She’ll make it through winter just fine.” He lifts Jeongguk’s free hand, holds up his thumb. “We’ll make this guy green yet.”

 

They finish their beers and leave the dishes to soak, and they’re still holding hands when they leave the kitchen, lights out, but for a moment, Jeongguk pulls him back, and when Taehyung looks at him he says, 

 

“I’m all in too. In case it wasn’t clear. I’m sorry if it hasn’t been, but I think we’re done going slow, right? Have been for a while if we’re being honest about it.”

 

In the low light Taehyung smiles, and is it fair? To compare a person to the sun, the thing that keeps it all spinning? “ May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children . ” Jeongguk frowns and Taehyung says, “Rilke. You just made me think- the things we do with purpose matter, but the ones that feel natural, they say something different about us.”

 

“What are you saying?”

 

“Not much, really. Or maybe a lot. I’m probably romanticizing it, but it’s like Can you honestly love a dishonest thing ? You can call it whatever you want, but it’s either there or it isn’t. We can call it going slow, but doesn’t it matter more that we’re going at all?”

 

They walk into the living room and Jinhyung has built a little blanket fort around himself. On the screen, Han is about to be crypto-frozen or something. There’s a lot of fog. Jeongguk knows this scene but it’s foggy in his brain. He only really remembers the dialogue. 

 

Leia tells him she loves him. Han says he knows. 

 

Maybe that’s not what he’s actually saying at all. 




---

 



Tonight, Jinhyung wants to sing the boom-boom song. 

 

It’s not an actual song. Or it’s not any one song. It’s whatever Jeongguk is singing and Jinhyung has a hand on his throat where his vocal cords are, his ear listening to Jeongguk’s pulse. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t always stay for this part, but tonight he does, and it isn’t the first time he hears Jeongguk sing, not the first time he sings to Jinhyung in front of him, but it’s different. Maybe because he realizes it always has been with him. 

 

So Jeongguk sings, curled up on the bed with Jinhyung tucked in, and it hurts now sometimes to sing with him. Jinhyung eagerly sings along, trips and tumbles with his tongue but doesn’t care, babbles when he doesn’t know a word or three, and he loves it so much, music, singing, the way Jinhyung still loves everything. Untouched. Unhurt. With so much love because he loves it, of course it deserves all of his love. He’s too young for it to occur to him not to. 

 

So Jeongguk sings and he laughs when he forgets a whole verse and he holds a careful hand to the tiny vibrations in Jinhyung’s throat, and maybe the hurt is part of it. 

 

At the end of the song, he looks up and Taehyung is watching them quietly, leaning against the frame, and he isn’t singing, but his eyes are so the opposite of scared now, he might as well have a symphony pouring out of his mouth. 




---




“I’m sorry.”

 

Hands full of moisturizer, Jeongguk pokes at the cracked skin at his knees. Winter is months away but fall has been cruel to him. Hands ruined from a combination of too early chill front and bar weights. He can totally benchpress Taehyung over his head now so it’s worth it but he can only believe Taehyung doesn’t mind rough handed handjobs for so long before he invested in a pound of unscented cocoa butter. 

 

Taehyung is frowning at the ceiling. He’s in bed with a book and he’d come to Jeongguk the way he does most nights now, showered and ocean-pine smelling, satiny green bathrobe discarded to reveal sensible matching plaid pajamas. His nighttime routine isn’t something Jeongguk is privy to the way Taehyung is to his, whatever keeps his skin baby smooth even with the semi permanent five oclock shadow he’s actually made a habit of lately. Jeongguk’s thighs are beard burn free so he’s not going to complain. It’s Taehyung’s facial hair. He can do as he wants. 

 

“For how I reacted,” Taehyung says to the ceiling. “It wasn’t about him.”

 

Jeongguk rubs the excess moisturizer across his shin and drops his foot from his desk chair. “You signed up for cheap rent and eventual blow jobs. You didn’t really sign up for daddy .”

 

Taehyung drops his attention from the ceiling, eyes Jeongguk up and down in a way that’s meant to be greasy but just makes him blush. “I mean, I kind of signed up for daddy.”

 

Snorting, Jeongguk turns out the big lamp by his desk. The dimmed overhead light casts a warm glow to the room, the only point of true brightness the lamplight on Taehyung’s side of the bed. He gets in bed and picks an alarm, factoring Jinhyung’s drop off time, his rescheduled breakfast meeting and his promise to Yoongi to help him lug some equipment to his rented studio space.

 

He sets his phone down and Taehyung is staring at him, the wrinkle between his brows magnified by his glasses swept up into his hair. Unlike Jinhyung and Jeongguk, he still hasn’t had his haircut, keeps saying he’ll shave it all off when he gets sick of it- maybe then people will believe he’s almost thirty and not an undergrad -or let Jinhyung braid dinosaur action figures into it if it gets long enough.  

 

“We haven’t really talked about it,” Jeongguk says. He reaches out, smooths his index up between Taehyung’s brows, watches him try to track the movement. Smiles. “How involved you want to be with him.”

 

“I meant what I said. I’m in this. I’m committed to you. To him.” His eyelids flutter when Jeongguk traces over each eyebrow, comes down the arch of his perfect nose. “I’m as involved as you want me to be. As you’re comfortable with.”

 

A year or two ago this conversation scares the shit out of Jeongguk. Half a year ago, even. 

 

Now, it feels like they’ve been having this conversation for months. Years, really. 

 

When Jeongguk filled out Jinhyung’s school application, he’d been surprised to find it was almost as long as his college apps. The same surprise had turned pleasant that the parents section was labeled as parent/guardian #1 and #2, and it had felt strange, wrong even, to leave the #2 spot empty, a pang in his heart he couldn’t place. 

 

Taehyung looks at the book in his hands. Cover worn and paper thin, he places it on the nightstand on his side of the bed, bookmark peeking out. Jeongguk has seen it around the apartment more times than he can count, some ancient love story that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be one at first.

 

“Did I ever tell you about this professor I ta’d for as a junior? Greenblatt?”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t blink at the non sequitur. Taehyung doesn’t talk just to talk, to hear the sound of his own voice. There’s a meaning. A weight to him always. He shakes his head. 

 

“He was really well known in the department. Respected. Early forties, but young about it. Excited about linguistics and languages and how there was so much we still didn’t know. He made me excited about it and he was very encouraging and as an Asian student I didn’t always get that, not even in college. I admired him a lot and I was very thankful he took me under his wing. It reaffirmed that I wanted to do this too. Not just teach kids, be a professor and have a title, but that my research could have a place. That it could matter.”

 

Taehyung takes a breath and Jeongguk’s chest rises, his brain clicking on to where this is going and his stomach gets ready to bottom out, protectiveness and anger surging through him. 

 

“And then I found out he was sleeping with one of his students. A sophomore, just a year younger than me.” 

 

Jeongguk deflates and upset still swims in his stomach but it’s less personal, less like he wants to visit Taehyung’s undergraduate university faculty webpage under the G , weigh out how much trouble he’d get in for taking rough fists to a very pasty now 50 year old face.

 

“I didn’t think of it much at first. I knew I thought it was wrong but the university didn’t even have strict bylaws about professor-student relationships. Most didn’t back then. They were heavily discouraged but the language was vague enough. It’s better now, but still. So I ignored it. It had nothing to do with me. He was just an academic mentor. Just someone I wanted to learn from, not model myself after.” Taehyung blinks and he’s not looking at Jeongguk but some point behind him, like he’s looking backwards, far away, into himself at that moment, almost ten years ago now. How young he must have been then, even more baby faced. How young, to lose his innocence in this very specific way. “But then there was another student. And another. And then I stopped keeping count. Some of them were freshmen. Some I was pretty sure weren’t eighteen yet.

 

“It wasn’t like I’d never heard of student-teacher relationships before. I knew they happened. And most people shrugged it off. Everyone in college is an adult,” Taehyung says, a scoff tacked onto the word, and he’s so openly bitter and it’s terrible, this is terrible, but he doesn’t seem preoccupied with keeping his voice or words careful, and Jeongguk won’t say he’s glad for it, but he’d never reject getting to see these parts of Taehyung, the ones that aren’t baby soft. “But there was this one student who was in my section and- she knew I knew. And after they’d stopped, she came to me because she was still doing really well on the tests which I corrected, but her grades on the essays started nosediving. Which he corrected. I went back to look over all her essays and the quality of them hadn’t changed. The only thing that did was that she didn’t want to sleep with him anymore.” Taehyung shrugs but it’s not dismissive. More a weight he can’t quite shake. “I told her I’d support her if she wanted to go to the administration but she said she was too embarrassed. Didn’t want her parents to find out or have people look at her- the way they’d surely looked at her if she’d said anything.”

 

Tension fills Taehyung’s shoulders or maybe it’s rising so it can leak out. Jeongguk should have turned the oil diffuser. Eucalyptus, sage. Something calming. 

 

“After that, I declined to TA for him the following semester. Told him I wanted to focus less on the sociological aspects of linguistics and more on the neurological. That’s when I worked with Jinhyung’s speech therapist, got on her research team. Discovered this whole other side to words I hadn’t thought of. And at first I thought removing myself from the situation was enough. But it wasn’t,” Taehyung says, and his voice is so small, like he’s trying to hide himself, and they’re so different, and Jeongguk has never had to face anything like this, but he’s never understood Taehyung more. “Then I was very disappointed and disgusted with myself.”

 

Taehyung trails off and Jeongguk moves to touch his shoulder, lightly, in case Taehyung doesn’t want that right now. “Taehyung… what happened, what he did to those students. That wasn’t your fault.”

 

“But I stood by and watched it happen. I knew it was happening. And I let it.” After a moment, he says, “I promised myself I’d never work with another professor like that. That I would never be like that. When I got to graduate school, it was so normalized. It wasn’t that every professor engaged with their students like that, but no one blinks at it when it does. It isn’t even about the age thing then, but this person who’s supposed to teach you, guide you, decide your future even if it’s just one class- one class can decide your future. They have power over you, even if they never misuse it. It’s there. It’s real. Mixing sex or love with that. It doesn’t matter how old you are.. it’s not that the lines get blurred. People lose sight of where the line even is.”

 

Taehyung turns and Jeongguk thinks he’s trying to shrug him off but he sits so he can look at Jeongguk, grips his hand so he can hold it with his own. 

 

“When I started having feelings for you, I felt guilty. It made me reevaluate how I’d treated you when you were my student. Because you were. We can call it teaching-assistant all we want, but I gave you your grades. I was responsible for you. To you.”

 

“But nothing happened between us then.”

 

“Doesn’t matter,” Taehyung says. He lines their fingers up carefully, touches him like Jeongguk’s are precious and delicate instead of abrasive and cold weather dry. “It made me think ‘did I really let you stay in class that first day because it was the right thing to do?’ Was it really because I thought ‘that could have been my dad or my mom with me if they’d gone to college’? Or was it because you were beautiful? Because I was already attracted to you? Was all of it because of that?”

 

Taehyung’s words fill the room. Lavender. They definitely should have some lavender diffusing. 

 

Jeongguk asks, “Do you still think there’s something for you to feel guilty about? About our relationship now?”  

 

“No,” Taehyung says, quick and sure. “But then I wonder if that should make me guilty.”

 

It isn’t funny but Jeongguk has to repress a laugh, a frustrated sound. He thinks he finally understands how Taehyung must have felt every time he’s told Jeongguk he’s a good dad and Jeongguk refused to believe it. 

 

He wraps his hand around Taehyung’s, brings it to his chest. Taehyung goes wide eyed and Jeongguk hopes he always looks like that no matter how old he starts to look, like the world is wonderful, like there’s always some goodness in it. 

 

“You do know you’re holding yourself to a standard of something you’ve never actually done, right?”

 

Taehyung makes a surprised noise. Looks at their hands. “You’re not going to ask me if I’d ever been with a student before you?”

 

Jeongguk shrugs. “I don’t have to. I already know.”

 

Taehyung closes his eyes and a brief look of pain crosses his face, like Jeongguk’s trust hurts. Like his faith is a cross to carry. He opens his eyes and he looks so calm suddenly. Maybe it isn’t pain at all. “You said I was perfect. Before I left. Do you remember that?”

 

Jeongguk nods. He’s sure it’s not the only time he’s said it. He thinks it all the time. 

 

“Well, I’m not. I try to do the right thing, but I don’t always. I haven’t always. And I know better now, but I still mess up. I don’t always know what the right thing is and I know when a kid’s involved you don’t have the luxury of doubt. You can’t afford to put your ego before whatever you hope is right for them. But I wasn’t upset that he called me dad. I wasn’t even upset about you being upset about it. I knew. I knew you wouldn’t be.”

 

“So what were you upset about?” Jeongguk asks, breathy and terrible, and holding Taehyung’s hand hard enough he hopes it doesn’t hurt. 

 

“I was upset because he knew. He knows.” 

 

“Knows what?”

 

Taehyung curls their fingers together, and he looks so calm, Jeongguk is really lucky isn’t he, that he gets to know him, be known by him, “I told your kid I loved him before I told you. And I really do love him. He’s the best little person ever, it won’t even bother my brothers to hear me say that. They’ll think the same when they meet him,” and Taehyung says this not as an if, but a when, like it’s a fact, like of course it’ll happen. Because of course it will. “But I love you. And I was trying to tell you that without telling you. Without scaring you. Because I know you’ve been scared and I can’t blame you. You have every right to be and if I were you, if I’d been through what you have, I don’t know if I would have let someone into my life the way you’ve let me. But I can’t put your fear over you knowing how I feel about you and- if you ever want to talk about deserve? You deserve better than that. And I love you and it’s yours as much as it’s mine.”

 

His knee jerk reaction is to make a joke. The old where’s that from , play it like he can’t tell when Taehyung’s words are his own, rob him of his aching sincerity. He almost does it but he can’t. 

 

Because of course Taehyung loves him. Of course Jeongguk loves him. Not back. Just loves him, full stop. 

 

It’s just his heart is loud in his ears. It’s just the last time he loved someone like this, it killed him a little. It’s just the last time someone told him I love you like this it was a goodbye. 

 

And yet all he can hear is his heart pounding like it’s being released from his ribcage, but instead of thunderous and galloping the way stories always say love should make a heart sound, his heart feels so calm. His heart isn’t scared of the words.  

 

“Taehyung, I-”

 

“Will you do me a favor?” Taehyung asks. He lets go of Jeongguk’s hand to place a careful thumb at his lips, grazes his other fingers under his jaw.

 

Jeongguk’s heart trips and Taehyung’s skin is so warm. “Anything.”

 

Taehyung smiles even though Jeongguk isn’t the type of person who can promise anything. Taehyung isn’t the type to ask anyway. “Don’t say it now. It’s not that I don’t want to hear it, I do. But I don’t want you to say it just because I did. I want you to say it whenever you want to. When you’re ready.” 

 

Jeongguk just looks at him. Feels like he’s been suckerpunched but sweetly, gently, like Taehyung’s done it with his lips instead of his fists. He shakes his head and it’s not about deserve , but how is it when he finally feels like he’s ready to accept it, it still feels like Jeongguk isn’t worthy? “So my kid calls you dad but it’s supposed to be okay if I’m not ready to tell you I love you?”

 

“We’ve done everything else out of order,” Taehyung says on another shrug. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it very much does. “What’s one more thing?”

 

Taehyung’s other hand touches his neck, where his pulse is, where his voice box is, and his thumb touches the corner of his mouth and it’s like he’s touching all of Jeongguk’s most important parts, the parts that make him who he is. 

 

“You never let things be just about you. And I get that. I do. But just for a moment, okay? Let it be about you.” At Jeongguk’s dropped open mouth, Taehyung smiles, his laugh soundless. “For a minute then, hmm? Just you.”

 

“Okay,” Jeongguk says against Taehyung’s skin. Not because he agrees but because he’d give Taehyung almost anything right now. Would do naked cartwheels around the room or actually try to benchpress him just to make Taehyung laugh. Benchpress the world. He’s pretty sure he could do it. 

 

“Okay,” he breathes out and he kisses Taehyung’s thumb and he thinks but I do . He kisses the rest of Taehyung’s fingers and he thinks but I do. His palm and but I do. The soft skin of his wrist and but I do. His forearm and but I do. And he kisses his elbow and up his bicep and then he’s kissing him everywhere, his face and his forehead that has more lines in it then when Jeongguk first met him, and his hair, fingers untangling his glasses and setting it on the side table, his chin, everywhere, and the whole time but I do, but it isn’t until his kiss is in Taehyung’s mouth that he realizes the pain on Taehyung’s face really wasn’t pain at all, but relief because he tastes it now, feels it now, and maybe that’s why his heart is so calm, so slow, so in place. Because maybe love is just relief. Maybe it’s the deep breath you finally take only to find you’ve been breathing fine the entire time. 

 

But I do and he gets naked for him. But I do and he gets under him. But I do and it’s as much as about himself as it is about Taehyung when Taehyung is inside of him, when Jeongguk is surrounding him. 

 

God ,” Taehyung says quietly when they’re sweaty and in it, like it’s actually a curse. He wraps his hands around Jeongguk’s thighs, touches as much as he can from where they’re clinging to his waist and keeping him close. “You’re so soft. Feel so smooth, fuck , wanna put my mouth all over your everywhere but your thighs. Your, ngh, legs. Gonna donate half my next paycheck to a cacao farm.”

 

Jeongguk clamps his knees to his sides, all of Taehyung’s weight pushing him into the bed and keeping him inside of him exactly right. His hands shake and he grabs onto Taehyung’s hips, his shoulders, feels messy and the opposite of ruined. “Don’t pull out. Gonna come, like, now.”

 

“Already?!”

 

“Yeah. The struggle beard is actually really doing it for me.”

 

Teeth at his neck, Taehyung groans like Jeongguk is both the worst and best thing ever. He presses them closer together like that’s even possible, chests brushing, lips kissing his throat until he looks up at him, Jeongguk looking down though it hurts his neck a little, their hips an almost lazy afterthought. “You smell nice. Like a room that just had a chocolate cake in it.” 

 

Wrinkling his nose, Jeongguk lifts up which isn’t much because Taehyung is heavy when he wants to be, hot and good and so warm he can shove his weight on Jeongguk as much as he wants. Jeongguk could benchpress him with just his knees, he’s sure of it. “Really? The bottle says it’s unscented.”

 

Taehyung garbles a response into his cheek, affectionate and sweet, and Jeongguk wants to tell him he smells like sea salt and forest, like home. Like favorite person. Wants to tell him everything. Wants to tell him but I do. 

 

“Wait, let me check-”

 

“Nope.” Taehyung rolls his hips, slow and hard, hooks his elbows under Jeongguk’s knees like he’s settling in for the long haul, and it’s not even about sex, the thing that gets Jeongguk hot so he’s all breath, sounds from his mouth that aren’t words but Taehyung seems to get them anyway. It’s the way Taehyung smiles and he isn’t perfect, but the sun isn’t anyway. “Fact check, later. Make love to me now. Pay attention, baby,” he says and it’s funny that he ever has to ask, because despite himself, despite his own expected capacity for it, Jeongguk feels like he always is. 

 

And he thinks but I do . And the way Taehyung looks at him, like there is good in the world, lets him know he might as well be saying it too.  




---




This time, he dreams it. 

 

Taehyung and him. Their bed. The baby in the crib at the end of it. 

 

He wakes, sudden and startled, and immediately knows something is wrong. 

 

“‘ve got ‘im.” Taehyung mutters, out of bed. He’s got the lamp on, feet shuffling into his house slippers, the fuzzy yellow ones Namjoon got him two Lunar New Years ago. 

 

Jeongguk rubs at his eyes and that’s when he hears it. Muffled and soft, someone crying. 

 

He jerks up on an elbow, dry mouth forming, “I’ll go.”

 

Taehyung pays him no mind, yawning as he opens the door. “I’m already up. I’ve got him.”

 

The cries are louder, and even in his half-asleep state Jeongguk bends his legs to trip out of bed, but by the time he can do more than plant his feet, another door opens. Even louder now, Taehyung’s indecipherable rumble drowned out until they’re the same level. Then Taehyung’s voice increases, still soft as the crying quiets. In all it takes less than a minute before he’s back, a weepy but silent Jinhyung cradled in his arms. 

 

“Nightmare,” Taehyung says, hushed. He closes the door softly, rocks Jinhyung just as slow. “You’re okay, bud. Appa’s right here, just like I promised.”

 

Jinhyung sniffles, drags his cheek against Taehyung’s shoulder. “ Bbb ba. Appa.”

 

Taehyung hums. Drops a little kiss on the top of his head, lowers him so he can crawl in with Jeongguk, which he does, cuddling up to Jeongguk’s chest and muttering about bad bad and bbb big fishies and no eating nice noona who gives extra scoop at the cream-cream shop .

 

For a moment Taehyung just stands there and Jeongguk’s stomach dropping as he wraps his arm around Jinhyung, scoots back to make space, but Taehyung doesn’t even notice, mutters about a slipper getting caught on a toenail and maybe pedicures do make sense

 

Toe free, Taehyung kicks his slippers under the bed and the mattress thumps as he gracefully dumps himself onto it. 

 

The bouncing motion makes Jinhyung giggle, tiny and against Jeongguk’s chest. Jeongguk strokes through his hair, is glad Taehyung coaxed him back into his sweats before falling asleep. 

 

Taehyung makes a wonderful grumbly noise, pets at Jinhyung’s back. Yawns and asks, “Wanna talk about it? The big mean fishies?”

 

“Uhh Uhh.”

 

“Cool. We’ll psychoanalyze them in the a.m. You know, they were probably just hungry.”

 

“Hungy?”

 

“Mhhm.” Another yawn. “‘ometimes we’re mean when we’re hungry. Bu’s ’s okay. Once we eat, we go back to being nice. ‘t’s why you’re always so nice. You always eat all your food now.”

 

“Appa nice?”

 

“Appa is the nicest.”

 

“An’ appa? Appa ‘s nice bbb ‘oo?”

 

There’s silence. Then Taehyung sighs, and it’s cautious, but it’s happy too. “Yeah. He’s nice too.”

 

Jinhyung drifts off soon after in that way kids can, his snores soft and snuffled into Jeongguk’s neck. 

 

When his chest expands rhythmically against Jeongguk’s, sure and in time, Jeongguk reaches an arm out, stops when he feels the heat of Taehyung’s face. 

 

“Hey,” he says, whispers in case Taehyung has fallen back asleep too. 

 

Taehyung’s exhale is full with his breath, sleep, but in the darkness Jeongguk can tell when he opens his eyes because the room feels like morning, like brand new warm light. Sleepy and deep Taehyung asks, “Mhhh?”

 

Jeongguk says, “I love you.”

 

Taehyung inhales, quick and sharp, but instead of sounding like he’s holding his breath, his next exhale is long and measured, like it’s only natural to breathe in a moment like this. To not get tripped up by it. To, instead, just keep breathing. 

 

And Jeongguk’s heart is calm. His heart is the slowest it’s ever been, loud, the only thing he can hear other than his kid’s snores. “You enter a room and I think about the sun. I think about you and I see the sun. But not like when it’s in front of you. When it’s hard to see it. It’s like when the sun lets you see everything. And you’re right, I’ve been scared. I’m still scared. It didn’t seem fair that I got to have this. Have you. Because I do still think about her.” 

 

It feels like some terrible confession except it isn’t. She’s the mother of his child. His kid. Maybe not the only best part about Jeongguk, but the best he’s ever made. Of course he thinks about her. He’s the best parts of her too. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t give him an answer one way or the other, just moves so Jeongguk’s fingers graze his cheek.


“And for all I know, she’s the happiest she’s ever been, but in my mind she’s still this sad broken girl. She’s in a hospital bed and everyone’s told her she shouldn’t hold her baby. That’s why I haven’t opened the letter. Because if it is her, I have to face it. The guilt. I have to forgive myself even though what happened wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault and I… I did love her. I loved her. She’s Jinhyung’s mom. A part of me is probably always going to love her because of that.”

 

Jinhyung lets out a small noise, settles when Jeongguk tucks him into his side better, buried in the space between them, and maybe  this isn’t the most romantic way to tell someone you love them, but he and Taehyung have never been about the dramatic romance anyway. They’re not Ilsa and Rick, a broken war and a broken marriage and broken dreams between them, a little bar at the end of the known world. If anything, they’re Louis and Rick, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the fight for something real, the things that matter. 

 

“But I’ve been having this dream. When I’m awake and when I’m asleep. It’s us in bed and there’s a baby. In a crib near the bed. And I thought it was a baby . Someday. In the future. When we’re in our forties if you want. But it wasn’t a someday baby,” he says and this is the terrible confession, except he doesn’t truly think it’s terrible. He knows Taehyung. He knows he won’t think he’s terrible either. “And I’m not saying I don’t see that even though I used to think I could never have another kid but. But it was Jinhyung. And it was you. It was us, together since he was a baby, and, you know, we weren’t, but you’ve been in his life almost as long as he’s been alive. And I’ve loved you for almost as long. Before I really knew it.” 

 

And it isn’t fairytale romantic, but Jeongguk already had his tragic fairytale. He wants the real thing. He’s found the real thing so he owes it to himself to try to keep it. He thinks it’s okay to say he deserves that. That Taehyung does too.

 

“And the way I love you,” and he doesn’t feel like crying but his eyes feel heavy, and maybe Taehyung was right, there’s no why you love someone, but if there is it’s because this is the moment Taehyung chooses to kiss his fingers, his palm, the boom-boom in Jeongguk’s wrist. “It isn’t that it’s easy because it hasn’t always been. But it’s good. And you’re right, you’re not perfect but neither am I. And you’re not good or bad or neither. You choose to do good. You try to be. And that matters more to me. For me. And you never ask me for anything and it makes me want to give you everything and I didn’t think I knew how to do this but it’s you, Taehyung. It’s you. I love you. I love you. I really do. Taehyung? I really love yo-”

 

Taehyung cuts him off with as close to a kiss as he can without disturbing Jinhyung, his index and thumb at Jeongguk’s chin, soothing and sweet. Doesn’t accidentally poke his eye or nose and maybe Taehyung has night vision. Sun vision in the dark. 

 

“Gguk,” he says, softly like the vowel deserves that kind of care, with a laugh like he knows the consonants can take it. Weight. Taehyung’s. The world’s. “I know.”

 

“You do?” Jeongguk asks. Not breathy or in disbelief. Aiming for teasing, landing on relieved. They already knew, but it’s real and it’s true and it’s good to say it. At the very least, this deserves to be said. 

 

“Yeah, I do. Hate to break it to you, but you’re not exactly subtle, babe,” Taehyung says, his voice his smile, and he’s not perfect, but in the dark Jeongguk wants to kiss his perfect teeth.  “You said you didn’t have space for anyone else, that you always had to put Jinhyung first, and that’s true. And I love that about you. But you made space for me regardless. You put me somewhere important. You don’t let people in easily, but when you do. You care the way few do. And you always remember my spice tolerance is shit and that I hate coffee and you fix my glasses when I break them and you always, always , ask about my dad even though yours is a bridge gremlin I will fight someday -don’t laugh, I will, I swear it- and, it’s a whole list, really. I’ve got it ready whenever you want to hear it.” 

 

Jeongguk laughs, watery but this life to it, and he risks it, holds Jinhyung’s head carefully as he leans across and tries to kiss Taehyung’s mouth. Ends up somewhere on his nose or his cheekbone or his ear maybe, but it’s still Taehyung. Same thing really.

 

“Plus,” and in the dark, Taehyung’s smile is sun warm on his and he says, “you just compared me to the sun, so I figured you had to love me at least a little.”




---

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

---




Taehyung turns thirty the way he does most things. 

 

He’s set to take the train the day before Christmas so they do the whole show and dance the 23rd. Brunch at the fancy but delicious place on 10th. A movie screening at the park, blankets spread out and wicker basket packed with juice boxes and makgeolli alike. There’s a get together at his favorite jazz spot, an improvisation to the tune of happy birthday in his honor, and there’s a baby in a bar and that baby is Jeongguk’s, but Jinhyung is curious about everything that makes a tuba go goooooo , everyone helps keep an eye on him, and he laughs until he’s snoozing on Joohyun’s shoulder in the golden light, and Jeongguk doesn’t think himself a horrible parent once. 

 

On the walk home, Taehyung is pleased and rosy cheeked. Winter looks criminally good on him, scarf tucked up to his shadowed jaw, snow flurries melting on his eyebrows. Autumn didn’t see him take clippers to his hair but it’s artfully shorter now, framing his face in a way that makes Jeongguk wish he’d thought to pick up a camera once, drawing pens. He keeps checking that Jinhyung’s beanie is properly covering his ears and it makes Jeongguk’s heart melt, makes him feel like summer. 

 

“Thank you,” he tells Jeongguk, Namjoon and Yoongi a few paces ahead of them, off-tune singing some old ballad. A love song, surely. Most ballads are. 

 

Jeongguk adjusts a snoozing Jinhyung in his arms, lets himself set his weight against Taehyung’s chest as they walk. “Joohyun planned most of it. I just threw some money around.”

 

“I meant the whole day. And don’t do that.”

 

“Do what?” Jeongguk asks, smiling at the sudden dour look on Taehyung’s face. He barely had two drinks tonight but he’d tried his hand at Jaejin’s trombone like he drank a handle on his own, danced the foxtrot like a twenty-one year who’d waited to be of age to have his first drink. 

 

Taehyung sighs, long and drawn out like he’s about to join Yoongi and Namjoon in song. He smooths over the back of Jinhyung’s head, tucks the hood of his puff jacket over his beanie. “Don’t hide your love from me. Don’t hide your love away, baby. Don’t listen to The Beatles. Their love songs were terrible. Except George’s. George was good. A good nugget.”

 

He was only teasing, but Jeongguk quells his laugh. He forces his voice, tone serious, “Sorry. You’re right. I expect some very enthusiastic sexual gratitude when you come home next week.”

 

Taehyung laughs, hazy but mindful of Jinhyung’s snores. “Gonna give you some sexual gratitude tonight. Gotta put the little one to bed first. Then I’m gonna put you to bed,” he says, the dirty promise sounding like a love sonnet buried in Jeongguk’s body, but when they get home he stays awake long enough to help Jinhyung brush his teeth, take him on a long walk around the living room where they sing happy almost birthday! to every plant, before he faceplants in bed and has to be rolled over so he doesn’t smother himself with Jeongguk’s pillow. 

 

In the morning, Yoongi helps Jeongguk make the miyeok guk, sears the cut of beef perfectly because it’s Taehyung’s almost birthday and he’s been very good to his heart this year, never skips a gym day and eats all his vegetables. Gets told he’s loved and often. Says it back just as much. 

 

Jinhyung sticks to him throughout the morning, tastes from Taehyung’s bowl of soup, decides he really doesn’t like the taste of meat, scrunches his nose adorably in disgust. He seems to understand better this time what it means that Taehyung will be leaving for a little while. That it doesn’t mean he won’t come back. That Taehyung means it when he says he will. Whatever happens, Jeongguk will handle it better this time. He knows he can this time.  

 

“Yes, I packed enough socks. And my charger. And your three presents for my parents and- babe, this whole moneybags thing you have going on is sexy, but trust me, I didn’t even have to talk you up to them. They’ve been asking when’s the wedding since before we got together. You don’t have to buy your way into their hearts.”

 

Jeongguk’s face flames but then, “Oh! Shit!” and he disappears into the bedroom, leaves Taehyung gawk-laughing after him and Jinhyung, in his arms, shouting appa said shitz ag’in! 

 

He comes back to the entryway with a small wrapped rectangle, hands it to Taehyung without much fanfare despite the nerves dancing in his stomach. He’s not exactly sure why he’s nervous. Maybe because Taehyung said he’d like it if these were the last holidays they spent apart. Maybe because Taehyung’s parents have been wondering about when they’ll get married. Maybe because being with Taehyung has been making Jeongguk think about singing more and more, in a different way. 

 

“It’s not your only present but Jinhyung helped pick it. The wrapping paper too,” he says, like the dinosaurs holding multicolored balloons don’t give it away. 

 

Taehyung smiles, hugs Jinhyung to his chest, soft and secure, and Jeongguk is so lucky, isn’t he, that he never has to worry that his kid isn’t safe. That if he looks away for a millisecond, there’s someone there, making sure he’s okay. Still spinning, growing and laughing. “Oh man, look at those triceratops. So cool! Did you help wrap it too?”

 

Jinhyung nods, dimpling proudly. He touches the shiny paper, pokes at Taehyung’s fingers. “Appa owpen nuh, pleaseh?”

 

Taehyung does, letting Jinhyung help though it takes longer, lets him do most of the work because it helps Jinhyung learn, and he looks at the side of his face with that awed look he gets still when Jinhyung calls him that. Like it’s his favorite word. The most important one. 

 

“Oh,” Taehyung says when the wrapping paper gives way to a small book, the cover traced in leaf patterns, the lines a delicate golden, the insides painted emerald green. 

 

“I know you use your notes app but I thought it’s small enough you can carry around. For when you get ideas when you’re out,” Jeongguk explains, thinking about Taehyung off the subway with ink swirls on his forearms, the wine stained tiny paragraph carrying napkins from dinner because his phone died, the time he stopped making out with Jeongguk in the middle of Central Park for half a minute because he finally figured out what was wrong with this one section from a dissertation chapter, and Jeongguk got only a little miffed, helped Taehyung turn their popcorn bag into writing material, borrowed a pencil from a vendor. 

 

Taehyung holds it like it’s precious, like he can really feel it, the added weight to his hands. 

 

He skims through the pages, lined in gold too. 

 

Jeongguk says, “I wrote something on the first page. It’s not an inscription or anything, but I thought- it reminded me of you.”

 

Jinhyung presses his finger to the page, headbutts his cheek against Taehyung’s, asks, “Bb rrread, appa?”

 

Taehyung lets out a breathy laugh, says, you got it, bud, and reads out loud, 

 

The boy gathers materials for a temple, and then when he is thirty, concludes to build a woodshed.”

 

“I know that’s not the full quote,” Jeongguk hurries to say when Taehyung stares at the line, doesn’t look up, “or the actual passage, but this version fit better. You, or, what I was trying to say. You said thirty was supposed to be your fun decade, and I think it still can be. Even with a kid and a moneybags boyfriend. Like, the older you get, the more you know what’s important. You know so much, so now you get to choose the ones that matter. The ones that’ll make you happy.”

 

When Taehyung looks up at him, it doesn’t knock Jeongguk over. Doesn’t blind him. It does not feel like one day his love will swallow me whole . It feels like, in this love, the only thing Jeongguk can do is grow. 

 

Taehyung smiles, brilliant in the grey of December, says, “Not to knock on Thoreau, but I like this version better too.”




---




“Not gonna lie, I was starting to think Yoongi made you up.”

 

The room is too bright. Not in the grand scheme of what rooms can be, but for the type of room it is. It doesn’t fit the ones Jeongguk has been in, the image of them in his head. 

 

A light flashes on the board on the desk, long and against the glass. A stream of colors indicating different things. Volume. Trebel. Bass. 

 

Jeongguk says, “I was surprised you were still interested. I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you, I just.”

 

He doesn’t hesitate as much as he used to, but sometimes he still feels like words escape him. Like they don’t fit in his mouth. It scares him less than it used to. The words, whether to himself later or when he needs them, eventually they come. 

 

His apologies are waved away. Wheels roll on the carpet. “It’s like I told your brother. I was only interested in recording it if it was with the original singer. He said you’re not in the business? You’d be surprised how long these things can take. Projects half baked, fucked off. Picked up again months or years later and it’s this totally different thing.”

 

“And you’re okay with that? It being totally different?”

 

His thinking face is funny, so serious for someone so young. It isn’t surprising to Jeongguk, as he’d learned in his early college days, some of these producers are baby faces. Someone makes 90’s trance music and he’s barely twenty-two. Makes beats inspired by the 70’s psychedelia their parents listened to and they’re still in highschool. “Fuck yeah, bro. Every take is different, so.”

 

He plays a looping sequence and it’s already different to Yoongi’s original mix. Higher pitched, sweeter, a dreamy soundscape about it, and maybe Jeongguk can’t do this after all, maybe there’s a reason he let a whole half a year and then some go by, some half baked pipe dream, something he wants to stubbornly prove to himself. 

 

“Can I ask though?”

 

Jeongguk fidgets though the room isn’t cold. It’s nice for a studio, warm even. Jeongguk is twenty-six now and there’s nothing intimidating about this kid except that he seems to be very sure of himself in a way Jeongguk never was at twenty-one. He nods. 

 

The beat builds and builds, loops again, and is this all a dream? Is that what second chances are? “Why now?”

 

“You ever really love something and get scared you’ll lose it? Like, one day you’ll wake up and won’t be able to do it anymore?”

 

For a moment, it looks like he’ll laugh, but then his face goes eerily quiet like Jeongguk is talking about life and death. Maybe he is. “Wow. Yeah, bro. This.”

 

The weight of the headphones isn’t crushing. It doesn’t feel like he’s about to scrape his teeth when he gets too close to the pop filter. None of it’s life affirming either, like he’s being pulled back in time, back in place. It just feels. It feels-

 

“Are you more of a technical singer or emotional?”

 

Jeongguk aced all of his technical modules, was always good at contextualizing how and why to make his voice go this way or that. He says, “Emotional,” not because he’s forgotten the jargon or his scales, but it’s the way he sings now, private and intimate for the two people he loves most, for the way he sings like he’s carried out by the wave of them, knows that when he hits the shore he’ll be basking in sun. 

 

He nods like that’s what he was looking for, messes with the soundboard for a moment. “Chill. Okay, so can you sing it like you’re in love? Not, like, with a person, but, like, life?”

 

The city opens up beyond the window and Jeongguk wonders if the sounds will pour in, if that’s the point of the studio’s set up. Music, not as this closed off moment of space, but for what it actually is. The way a person sees something, someone, life. Hears it. 

 

Jeongguk says, “Yes,” his voice reverberating in his ears, and it doesn’t hurt. For him, it’s the same thing. 



 

---




“Okay, so the reason we wanted to take you guys out to lunch was-”

 

“To tell us you’re getting married?”

 

The other side of the table groans while Jeongguk smirks, amused with himself. It’s Sunday, the drinks have been generous, winter is waning, and Taehyung has a trip to the capital in April which means Jinhyung will see cherry blossoms for the first time in his life, perfectly lined up with his school’s spring break. Not to mention he and Taehyung sixty-nined this morning like some real life porno, so Jeongguk has a lot to be amused by today. 

 

Yoongi gives him a very convincing stink eye. “Hilarious, d-i-c-k weasel, no. Besides,” and he jerks his chin disparagingly, “shouldn’t you two be telling us that? Seriously, Taehyung, he’s my brother, but this is the ball you wanna chain yourself too?”

 

Jeongguk glares, but the sourness on his face drops at the hand that weaves through his hair, the fingers that trail along his nape. 

 

“What can I say? Sure, he’s mouthy, but god, if he isn’t cute.”

 

Someone, Namjoon most definitely, makes a gagging noise. 

 

Jeongguk turns to say something arguably pretty mouth to Taehyung, but the look on his face stops him in his tracks, the way he’s lounging comfortably in his side of the booth but touching Jeongguk easily, because maybe Jeongguk thinks himself a little difficult but Taehyung never acts like he is, handles the moments Jeongguk goes silent by giving him his space when he needs it, cuddling him like a koala when he needs that instead. Lets Jeongguk know when he needs his own quiet, always comes back to him. Kisses Jeongguk like he wants to do wonderfully depraved things to him, but always touches him like just because Jeongguk can shoulder the world doesn’t mean he still shouldn’t be treated with care. 

 

“What?” Taehyung asks, touching Jeongguk’s jaw, his chin. 

 

Shaking his head, Jeongguk grips Taehyung’s shirt collar. “Nothing. You got crayon on your neckline.”

 

Taehyung tries to look, shrugs. He and Jinhyung have been coloring for most of lunch, the paper table cloth full of their drawings, and he’s been known to teach class with stray paint and glitter in his hair, eagerly tells his students the ages between four and seven are importantly creative, nurture your future kids if you have them to follow their heart’s pursuits until their hearts are content, don’t point them where to go but give them an arsenal of color and show them that they can go at all. 

 

There’s an annoyed squawk and then, “Earth to lovebirds,” Yoongi’s put-upon face when he’s trying to look menacing but is internally imitating a marshmallow. “It’s been over half a year. Shouldn’t the honeymoon phase be over by now?”

 

Jeongguk looks at Taehyung for a second longer, stares at the smile in his eyes, and you can’t end a phase you’ve never started, and he thinks about how he didn’t have one, last time. He’s never dreamed of destination honeymoons. Tahiti. Maui. Paris. 

 

He faces his brother with an eyeroll and it doesn’t matter than Yoongi will be thirty-five soon, also in spring. That they’re both adults who file their taxes and care about what goes on in their community, the going on’s of the world and 401k’s. He and Yoongi will always be seven and fifteen sometimes. The hazards of being brothers. “You were saying, hyung?”

 

“I was saying,” Yoongi mocks, but then he shares a look with Namjoon. grips Namjoon’s hand near his water glass, and he says, “We’re moving.”

 

“Not right now,” Namjoon adds when no one says anything. “But eventually. Soon. We’ve only started looking at places, but it’s happening. With the baby and everything.” 

 

The words hang and Yoongi looks down, his eyes centering on his hand over Namjoon’s, and there’s this hush to the way they’re around each other. Namjoon turns his hand over under Yoongi’s, squeezes their fingers together, and maybe that’s what happens when you’ve been together so long. You know and you know how to remind each other. 

 

Jeongguk stares at them and his throat clicks, anguished. It was a little after New Year’s when they’d gotten the call, still under the guise of holiday cheer, Taehyung home to celebrate too. He can still hear it, the way his brother’s voice had changed, the way he’d tried to keep it from being obvious, the wound, the hurt. In the deepest part of his heart, Jeongguk knows he can’t blame her, Marissa, 19 from Kokomo, Indiana, saffron colored hair and a love for canoeing and the New York Jets, for wanting to keep her baby. But it’s like he’s got two hearts. The other torn to shreds for his hyung. It was less than three weeks later when the agency called with a new match, like now that they’d proven they could do it, Namjoon and Yoongi had the stuff to be put through the emotional ringer over and over again.

 

Namjoon clears his throat. “And we’ve decided that, if it doesn’t work out this time either, we’re going to apply to foster.”

 

“But, hyung.” His voice comes out smaller than he means it to. Taehyung’s palm is warm at his nape. He swallows, looks between them, “You’ve always wanted a kid of your own.”

 

Namjoon watches Yoongi’s quiet expression for a moment, then he looks at Jeongguk, surprises him by smiling, genuine and real, dimples that have always made strangers ask if he and Jeongguk are the brothers. “We actually used to talk about doing it. Years ago. But Yoongi traveled so much and then with Jinhyung,” he says, says it so softly, Jinhyung looks up from his dedicated coloring, offers Namjoon his purple crayon, a leftover carrot stick. Namjoon takes both with more heartfelt thanks a used crayon and a gnawed vegetable should warrant, hearts in his eyes. “He was so little. But now that he’s older- we have the money for anything they might need and we’ll have the space. We have the time now. But we also wanted you to know so you guys can make whatever decisions you need to make.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Taehyung tightens his hold , not enough to hurt, but enough for Jeongguk to notice Yoongi finally glancing up, all the adults at the table seeming to exchange looks. Except Jeongguk isn’t not a part of that anymore. He’s at the adults’ table. Has been for a while. 

 

It’s Yoongi who says, “Taking on a foster kid can be tough. Mentally. Emotionally. It takes a lot of being strong of both and it isn’t something that can be taken lightly. A lot of these kids have been through a lot. So you have to really think about it. What it means for yourself. What it can especially mean if you already have a kid in the house. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, it just means there’s a lot to consider. And, Jeongguk,  you should get a say in the kind of potential environment you want your kid to be in.”

 

Jeongguk swallows again. “Oh.”

 

“We’re not kicking you out. Not at all. We love having you with us. Getting to be a part of helping you raise the kid- it’s meant the world to us. And yeah, the picture’s been to have a baby to be our’s. But we think offering someone who needs the space to be safe, to grow up, even if it’s only for a little while,” and Yoongi looks at Namjon, and Namjoon is already looking at him, and what’s a parent anyway. Some people trip into it without even trying while others are nurturers by nature and are never called the name. “We’d like to do that for a kid who needs it. A few, even.”

 

Around them, glass clinks. Waiters circle tables with heavy trays. The only sound from their table is crayon on paper, the rustling of Jinhyung leaning his weight on the table, him asking Taehyung to draw teeth on a majungasaurus because Taehyung is very good at teeth.  

 

“You knew,” Jeongguk tells him later while Namjoon is settling the bill, Yoongi stepping out to take a call, accusatory though he doesn’t mean it. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t react at first. Maybe that never ending Jeongguk-radar he has that seems to only grow more powerful as time wears on kicking in. He glances up from the plesiosaurus he’s helping Jinhyung color, lips curling without guilt. “They asked what my plans were once I graduate. I filled in the rest. Before you get mad, this was three days ago and I hadn’t had my tea yet.”

 

Jeongguk isn’t even thinking about getting mad. He reaches out, strokes up Taehyung’s waist until he reaches his chest. Stares at the purple-yellow spot on his collar. Reminds himself to soak it when they get home. Then he stares at his kid, the curly-q at the back of his head, his hair growing long again. They’ll cut it for his birthday. Whenever Jinhyung wants. “Speaking of, what are those plans, if you care to share with the class? Your boyfriend would like to know.”

 

“Well,” Taehyuhg says, and his smile grows in that way it does whenever Jeongguk calls him that though it’s sort of juvenile and not fully encompassing everything they are. Maybe that’s why it makes him smile that way. “About that.”




---




Snowflakes melt, long and slow. Jeongguk likes to watch them first thing in the morning, those minutes he doesn’t have to get up yet, see them track down the windows, their shapes and patterns.

 

The bed shifts and there’s a chest at his back, and even in the dead of summer he wants the heat, but it’s been so welcome these past few months, the extra warmth in his bed. He didn’t know what he was missing. In a way, Jeongguk weeps for him, the younger version of himself who didn’t know. In a different way, he’s glad for him. He thinks that’s why it’s so sweet to him now. Why he’s so ready to take care of it. 

 

“‘s Saturday. No school today,” Taehyung hums, voice sleep sticky. “What’d you wanna do?”

 

“Hmm. Work?”

 

“Nope. I’m a real boy now, remember?” 

 

Jeongguk laughs, turns on his other side so they can kiss good morning, closed mouthed and soft, get all up in his space, has his space got up in. “I meant for your students. For such an overachieving nerd, you’re really smug, you know.”

 

“Earliest dissertation submission and defense in the department.” Eyes closed, Taehyung grins, and it’s smug, sure, but he’s so earnest about it, like a kid who’s excited. About everything. About life. Thick with sleep, maybe something a little somber, he says, “I’m just really happy to be done. I know the real work starts now, but I want to use all this stuff in my brain. Help other students figure out what’s in theirs. How to say it. Not have to focus on grades and advisors and all that stuff. My own research. Have it be valid because it’s mine, you know?”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t, but he can appreciate the sentiment. He can appreciate that Taehyung wants to know what he thinks. “I know. I’m proud of you.”

 

“I’m proud of me too,” Taehyung laughs, just because, against Jeongguk’s chin to avoid his mouth, but Jeongguk doesn’t mind. He’s used to Taehyung’s morning breath, always stale but weirdly still minty. “I got another offer. Just checked my email.”

 

“During the weekend?”

 

“Well. On Friday. But I’ve been ignoring my email since Tuesday, you know that.”

 

Jeongguk does know, witness to Taehyung’s cavalierness the moment he stepped out of the assembly hall he’d defended in, wilfully ignorant to the months before the semester was truly over, safe in the assurance that should a student or fellow colleague need him, they could just text him, smoke signal him surely. 

 

He lets his lid flutter like he’s getting ready to fall back asleep, rests his forehead on Taehyung’s shoulder. It’s early and it’s Saturday. No school. No work. They have all day. Heart thudding, he asks, “Where?” He’s already gotten a few, a couple of different places, and Jeongguk really wants it, Taehyung reaching for, not even the stars. Wherever Taehyung wants to go. It’s just the logistics of it. If he’s already up there, he just needs to figure out how to pivot, how they’ll make sure they’re in the same orbit. 

 

Taehyung says, “Columbia.”

 

Jeongguk opens one eye. Peers up. The room is shadowy but morning streams in, giving Taehyung’s jaw a purplish hue. “The country?”

 

With a groab, Taehyung sputters in laughter, rolls them over until Jeongguk is on top of him, all up on him in the most literal sense. “No. Sadly, an entire country in South America isn’t hiring me for my linguistic prowess.”

 

“Their loss,” Jeongguk says, the grin dancing on his mouth. He sleepily bites it into Taehyung’s collarbone. It’s right in front of his face. It’s only polite. 

 

They get a little distracted, hands and mouths in that lazy early morning way. It’s Saturday. They’re not in any rush. 

 

Taehyung presses his sticky forehead to Jeongguk’s stickier chest. They’ll fit in a shower before Jinhyung wakes up. If they’re lucky, they’ll take it together. If not, there’s always next time. “I’m gonna take it.” 

 

Jeongguk’s heart is soothed, but really, it already was. He curls his fingers in Taehyung’s hair, and in this light, all of him looks purple-golden, sunkissed. “You sure? You don’t want to wait for Cambridge? I’ve been thinking about it and you’d look great in a peacoat all the time. Jinhyung could grow up with an English accent. I could totally pretend to have one and drive you crazy with it.”

 

“Seeing as I didn’t apply to Cambridge, I can’t really wait for them,” Taehyung says, his smile knocking into Jeongguk’s heart. He drags his hands up Jeongguk’s waist in that way that makes Jeongguk feel silly, melty and young, says, “This’ll be good. Fuckers don’t even have a graduate program but they have a joint research initiative with NYU. And I’m pretty sure I’ll get that fellowship. So I’m good. I’m set. Staying in the city.”

 

And it’s what Taehyung wants. It just so happens it’s what Jeongguk wants too. “Okay. But let me know if I should practice my accent. I’ll have you swooning over my James Bond impression in no time.”

 

Taehyung laughs like he can’t wait. Sells it when he says, “Well, baby, what are you waiting for? Swoon me.”




---




“Appa?”

 

“Yes, baby?”

 

“How bbb why mmm …” Jinhyung makes a noise, thoughtful like when Jeongguk has stared at the computer for too long, when Taehyung reads a line in a book he’ll spend the next five minutes mulling over. 

 

The living room  floor is covered in old sheets, perfect for catching drips of paint. It’s just the two of them today, a large stretch of paper roll between, water colors of every shade Jeongguk has been able to find in the art shops in town, online stores.

 

Jeongguk paints a wide arc of green. He’s not really painting any one thing. A nebula. A monarch butterfly. The northern lights. Tangles of leaves and flowers. A T. rex with some elaborate tattoos. He feels like a little kid again, making things just to make them. “What is it, Jinhyun-ie? You can ask appa.”

 

Jinhyung is quiet. Then, “How am I here if’z I don’t gots a mommy?”

 

He doesn’t drop his paintbrush. Clutches it tighter. The smile freezes on his face, freefalls all the way to his stomach. 

 

The number of conversations Jeongguk has thought about when to best have with his kid started the moment he held him. How to explain stranger danger. How to explain where his trust with others should always end. How to explain how to wash his hands after going to the bathroom by himself. How to explain the best way to choose things: the right hobby, the right sport, the right clothes, the right career. How to pick the right person to love. 

 

The same way Jinhyung won’t end up picking the person he loves, the same way there isn’t a right anything, Jeongguk hasn’t and won’t always get to choose the right time to have these conversations. The right place. The perfect moment. 

 

All Jeongguk will hopefully teach him is how to tell when it is love. What love doesn’t look like. What it can look like. What it hopefully should feel like. 

 

Resting the brush on the plastic water color holder, Jeongguk asks, “What makes you say that?”

 

Jinhyung blinks his big eyes at him and Jeongguk can already see the places where he’ll look different than Jeongguk when he’s older. Nose a little more arched. Brows thicker. Mouth less of a cupid’s bow. But those eyes. Jeongguk could recognize them anywhere. “‘Cuz there’z no mommy here.” 

 

Out of all those conversations, this is the one Jeongguk has thought of the most. Some would say feared, but right now he isn’t terrified. It isn’t that he doesn’t feel anything, it’s more that he’s feeling everything. It doesn’t matter how many books he’s read, how many “this is how i explained why my kid has a single parent” vlogs and sugar-sweet hopeful movies he’s watched. He wishes Yoongi and Namjoon were here. He hopes for Taehyung to walk through the door this second. 

 

Tilting his head, Jinhyung says, “An’ at school David said all peoples come from a daddy and a mommy. Even peoples wit’ two daddies or two mommies or more. An’ I have a daddy and a daddy, so tha’s two daddies. An I hav’ a Yoogi anddd a Joonie too. But no mommy?” He says this last part like a question, like it’s wrong or something he hasn’t figured out yet and Jeongguk has the answer. “Was David not’e telling th’ trus’th?”

 

It’s his favorite word lately. Truth . For some reason, Taehyung thought Jinhyung was old enough to watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and while most of the political commentary sailed over his beautiful tiny head, he latched onto the ideas of some things being real or true and some things being not true. False. Jeongguk doesn’t know if it means he has a future scientist or lawyer or the world’s first and only honest politician on his hands. A wunderkind who’s all three Just a person who wants to know things as they are. 

 

He thinks of his words carefully. Then Jeongguk says, “No. David was telling the truth. You do have a mommy.”

 

“Oh,” Jinhyung says, voice small. He sounds calm, curious. He’s strong for a four year old but he’s really not like Jeongguk. Goes at life teeth first. Had proudly explained to classmates how he used to talk with a b all the time and now he doesn’t need it as much anymore, had gotten the other kids to talk about how they make zzzzz sounds or still go peepee in the bed or haven’t figured out how to tie their shoes yet. How he knows all about dinosaurs and stars and the things under the ocean too. How he says it’s okay to get scared because big people get scared too. Even strong daddies and he has two of them. Now, Jinhyung shrugs, comically casual, and says, “Ohkay. Mmm. Where is she?”

 

“Your mommy,” Jeongguk says and trails off because he’s never figured it out, in all the times he’s imagined this conversation. How it goes. Where it goes. 

 

And for the first time, Jeongguk genuinely believes that Taehyung is right. Not because he hadn’t believed in Taehyung until now. Theories tend to go over Jeongguk’s head. He’s the type that needs to work with his hands. Believes things as he sees them. Pavement to run instead of a stationary bike. Fake money posing as debt. Bets and where to place them. 

 

Love, too. 

 

Maybe that’s all life is. Everyone trying to tell each other stories. Maybe it really is why people started making noise with their mouths all those thousands and thousands of years ago until two of them found they were making sense. Cave paintings just couldn’t cut it anymore. Hands and eyes better suited for other ways to talk. A different way to say I want you, I need you, I love you. 

 

He scoots to the other side of the scroll, closer to where Jinhyung sits, where the purple paint is. Picking up his paintbrush, he asks, “Want to paint the ocean with appa?”

 

Jinhyung nods. Sits himself against Jeongguk’s chest, drags his green-blue smeared brush across the paper in the motion of waves. 

 

The words come. Maybe they’re not enough. They’re the best ones he can think of.

 

“You know how we all take care of each other? You and me and appa and Yoongi and Joonie? We all help each other, make sure everyone is safe and okay?” 

 

“Yea’.” 

 

“When people love each other, when they’re a family, that’s what they do.”

 

This time it’s a head wiggle, soft hair ruffling against Jeongguk’s shirt. 

 

“Sometimes,” and here Jeongguk’s voice breaks, but it doesn’t fully give in. Holds on. He holds on. “Some people can’t take care of someone else. Because they’re the ones who need taking care of.”

 

Jinhyung bumps his head back, looks up at Jeongguk with questioning eyes upside down, and those eyes. Sometimes they feel like his ruin, but really, they’ve always been his salvation. 

 

“Like babies. Like you, when you were a baby. You were too little to take care of yourself. You needed us to take care of you for everything and you couldn’t take care of anyone else yet.”

 

“Bu’ not now ‘cuz I’m all big. Bu’ not as big as Joonie.”

 

“Right,” Jeongguk says, laughs. Jinhyung nudges his motionless hand with his own, so Jeongguk dips his brush, paints some purple against Jinhyung’s green-blue. Who says the ocean can’t be purple anyway? “So sometimes big people are like babies that way. They can’t take care of anyone else. They weren’t taken care of when they were babies or they never learned how to take care of someone else. And sometimes those people are daddies or mommies.”

 

For what feels like forever, the thin hairs of their brushes scratch on the scroll. The ocean takes this dream-like color. Something out of a love story. A fairy tale. 

 

“Mmmm....so’oh… my mommy is no’ here ‘cuz she don’t know how t’ take care of us?”

 

It’s like a wave rising inside of him. Like instead of giving up his first love, his vocal cords got ripped out, exchanged them for legs, for the love of another person instead. It’s his ribs coming apart. The simple way Jinhyung puts it. The simple thing it’s always been. 

 

And Jeongguk knows that they’ll have this conversation again. That when he’s older, Jeongguk will have to explain the specifics, the who, the why, the how. That it’ll be his responsibility to make sure that Jinhyung never for a second of a doubt ever believes it had anything to do with him, who he is as a person. 

 

He shifts, sits so Jinhyung is in his lap, his arms caging him in. And he’s so much bigger than his kid, tough and veiny where Jinhyung is still sort of newborn, a few scars from running in the park, but they hold their paintbrushes in the same way, like every speck of paint matters, spilled for a reason. 

 

“Yeah. That’s why she’s not here.”

 

Jinhyung makes a small hum, then he’s quiet for a long while, too thoughtful for a four-almost-five year old. He starts painting what looks like coral. Maybe a sea monster. Jeongguk is about to speak when he asks, “Bu’ someone’s is taking care of her now? Righ’? They’re showing her how t’ take care so she can know’z how? So she can take care of her too?”

 

For a moment, Jeongguk shuts his eyes. The back of them feel wet, but it isn’t sadness. He lifts his head, brushes Jinhyung’s hair out of his face, looks at the sweet little boy life has given him, all the best parts of him. All the best parts of her. Like life took all the good pieces of both their hearts and left out all the broken ones. “I hope so, baby.”

 

Jinhyung nods like that’s enough. He grips onto Jeongguk’s fingers, his own painted blue and green, Jeongguk’s a mix of purple and orange and a few other dozen shades. “Daddy?”

 

“Hmm?” He doesn’t blink at the way Jinhyung toggles between daddy and appa, but he tends to stick to calling both him and Taehyung the same thing, clings to both of his languages in different ways.

 

“Can big peoples forget? How to take care of someone?”

 

The ocean gets a little blurry, but his voice doesn’t waver as Jeongguk answers, “Sometimes. Sometimes life makes them. But they can learn how to again. You can always learn.”

 

Jinhyung keeps holding his hand, alternates between watching his own work and staring at the colors on Jeongguk’s fingers, his own. He stretches his feet so they knock into the bottom edge of the paper, sock clad toes scrunching the scroll a little. He’s wearing one of Yoongi and Namjoon’s Christmas presents, bright pink Peppa Pig sock on his left foot, an E.T. sock on the right from Taehyung just because. His newfound love for all things space might be signaling a second extinction of the dinosaurs. It might not. It’s one of the magical things about being a kid. You can love things suddenly and immediately. You can love a lot of things. People. Love isn’t a four walled room to a kid. It’s a growing, expanding thing. A kid can love beyond what could physically fit inside their hearts.  

 

“But I want you to know, I’m always going to be here to take care of you. Even when you’re big and you won’t need me to anymore. I’m always going to take care of you, Jinhyung-ah.”

 

“I know,” Jinhyung says like Jeongguk just said something very silly, something so truthful it doesn’t have to be said out loud. “Yoogi say’d when you were little like me you took care of him. His happy. So I know you know how t’ take care of peoples when you were a baby. And you take care of me ‘cuz I’m littler than you but you take care of daddy an’ Joonie an’ Yoogi too and they’re all big so’z I know you know how’z care big peoples too for when I’m big’s too.”

 

His laugh is wet, but how lucky is Jeongguk, that he gets to laugh during this conversation. Make sounds of joy. He owes his brother more than he can ever repay. 

 

He’s glad it’s just him and Jinhyung home now, the way this conversation was always supposed to be. 

 

Little face concerned, Jinhyung twists to look at him, pets at his damp cheeks. “Daddy’s sad?”

 

Jeongguk laughs again, shakes his head. Hugs him close, kisses the top of his head. “No. I’m happy. Sometimes big people cry when they’re happy.”

 

“I don’ like that,” Jinhyung grumbles but he lets himself be hugged, holds Jeongguk’s arms around him, gets blue and green on Jeongguk’s thumb.  

 

Jeongguk asks, “Do you have any other questions?”

 

Jinhyung wiggles his shoulder. He crosses his legs, bony knees tiny on top of Jeongguk’s. His coral has grown fangs. Definitely a sea monster. Maybe from the mesozoic era. Maybe the dinosaurs will stick around for a while. “Wha’ was’z sh’eh like?”

 

The past tense gives Jeongguk pause but Jeongguk decides that’s another conversation for another day. Maybe that’s the only way Jinhyung can think of her. He had a mommy once. Maybe one day he’ll think of her differently. Maybe it won’t matter. He has a Yoogi and Joonie and a daddy and a daddy. It’s enough. Jeongguk will spend his life making sure of it. 

 

The truth is, it’s the way Jeongguk thinks of her too. She was what felt like his first real laugh in a very long time. She made him think it was okay to dream. She made him think anything was possible until she stopped believing that herself. 

 

He wonders if she’s gotten herself back to being that. At least a little bit. He hopes for it with the same intensity he once loved her with. 

 

Resting his chin lightly on Jinhyung’s crown, he watches as he works diligently on turning the inside of the sea monster’s mouth into something that looks like a sun being born, fiery and bright, like it could take out a world as much as give life to it. Jeongguk says, “She really loved to dance.”  

 

“Like tha’ nutcrack?”

 

He means The Nutcracker, his first ever ballet this past Christmas. It feels hard sometimes, all the time, juggling the customs of the world he’s growing up in and the one he comes from, but his favorite part had been the sword fighting, how it was different but still looked like bon kuk geom beop and maybe Jeongguk should worry a little less. He’ll have a mix of worlds. Maybe he’ll always find similarities where most would insist on the differences. “Yeah. Just like that.”

 

Jinhyung ohhhh’s and that seems to be enough, more important is all the creatures in the ocean, the stars sunken deep beneath it, how there might be the last of the dinosaurs down there. 

 

A thought occurs to Jeongguk, and cautiously, he asks, “Did David explain how mommies and daddies get babies?”

 

Jinhyung mmm’s and dread fills Jeongguk’s stomach because he hasn’t quite figured out how to have that conversation yet, and he says, “He sai’dh an alien brings them.”

 

This time, his laugh isn’t wet, but it fills his belly so nicely. His heart. Swims in his ribs and it doesn’t matter if luck is real. Whatever it is. Jeongguk has it in spades. 

 

Jinhyung laughs too, loud and brash and beautiful and airy. Like anything, everything, is possible. 

 

The ocean is purple and softly Jeongguk asks, “Wanna know something else about your mom?”

 

Giggling, Jinhyung nods.

 

And Jeongguk smiles and says, “You laugh just like her.”




---




The trash always comes on Tuesdays. 

 

He takes his time dividing the recycling, colored glass from plastic from metal. The night can’t decide if it wants to be too cold or warm for spring. The housecoat he’s wearing over his sweats is just enough. It’s Taehyung’s because of course it is, bright yellow with a dramatic feather collar that looks like a dead bird but thankfully isn’t it. 

 

After he slams the last bin closed, he stands there on their stoop and breathes. Thinks. Wraps the coat around himself and stares out into the bright darkness, the way this city really never sleeps, even on quiet residential streets. 

 

He could be inside, warm from Taehyung’s arms instead of his coat, and he will. He will be. He’ll go back inside in a second, but he sits on the cold stone of their stoop, presses his knees to his chest as he pulls out a wrinkled folded over envelope from one of the coat’s pockets, and he rips the seam of the envelope open, pulls out the pages, three, and before he can shove them into the paper bin, he’s taking in the words.



  My dearest Jeongguk,

 

Haeundae beach held a lantern festival for the coming Chuseok. I lit one for you, the end of your twenty-fifth year, the beginning of your twenty-sixth. 

 

You’ll never know how sorry I am. 

 

I’ve tried to write you this letter many times but no word ever seemed right or enough. When you were little you never seemed to run out of them. I wondered how you could be mine, I, a woman of so few. I regret not learning how to find them. I regret not learning how to when I could, when I had you and you were mine. 

 

Your brother sends pictures of you and little Jinhyung-ie. I hope this doesn’t make you angry though you have every right to be. Please do not be cross with him. For a long time, I told myself your father and I had done the right thing. That you would grow and see what a hard thing being a parent is, so young and on your own. Now, I see that you were the one who was right. I thought you a child but you did the adult thing when no one else expected you to. I wanted the best future for you but I see now I never should have worried though possibly you’ll forgive me this one thing as I could never help but worry about you. As your mother it was, and is, all I could do. 

 

Jinhyung is beautiful and you have turned out to be everything and more than I could have dreamed of. 

 

You’ll never know how much I regret it. 

 

Regret is a part of life, Jeongguk-ah. 

 

Make yours the sort you can live with. 

 

Take care, my son. 

 

I’ll love you until long after my last breath. 

 

Mom 



He sits for long minutes. He’s not thinking. He’s not anything. 

 

Everyone is inside, home, asleep. His family is okay, safe. There’s isn’t anything else Jeongguk has to do tonight. 

 

When he gets up, his knees crack like they’re frozen over. 

 

He goes inside, makes sure the front door is locked. That all the lights are out. Checks that Jinhyung is sound asleep. 

 

In the bedroom, Taehyung is sleeping. His glasses are still on his face, a book and his phone with the screen opaque next to him. He’s doing that funny thing he does with his mouth, a snore that shows all his teeth. Jeongguk slips the house coat off, heart swelling at the sight of him. 

 

He checks on the monstera plant as he approaches the bed. It’s a new addition from the few that have made the trip down from the loft. Taehyung uses it mostly as a study now, an urbanized greenhouse. Sometimes he’ll stay up late reading, fall asleep up there, and Jeongguk won’t notice until he’s crawling into their bed at five in the morning, reaching for Jeongguk’s body like his hands were empty as he slept and woke up wondering what they were missing. 

 

He tries to be quiet, not disturb him as he places the glasses and book on the night table, the phone in its charger, but Taehyung can be a light sleeper, always has an ear out for cries or a tiny hand reaching for their doorhandle or a faint appa

 

“Was’ wondering when you were comin’ to bed,” he says, voice scratchy, slurred. His mouth shapes around a yawn. Gaze bleary, he holds an arm out. “Come ‘ere. Need ta’ hold you.”

 

Jeongguk doesn’t question it, goes. Curls himself into Taehyung’s chest, his arm draping across his back. He’s wearing the new fuzzy sweater he got on their last outing to a thrift shop because Jinhyung needed new pants, and the fuzzies stick to Jeongguk’s lips but he doesn’t care. He needs to be held too. 

 

Taehyung says, “I was dreaming ‘bout you.”

 

Nuzzling his nose into the fuzziness, Jeongguk chokes out, “Yeah?”

 

“Mhhm.”

 

“Was I doing something cool? Or sexy?”

 

Taehyung laughs lightly. His hands have started working at the muscles in Jeongguk’s back, threading through his hair. On Jeongguk. Where he likes to think Taehyung’s hands belong. Where they say the most. “Don’t know. Can’t remember. But I woke up, and I knew I needed to be holding you.” 

 

He tries to keep his sniffles quiet but Taehyung hears them. Of course he does. 

 

Sleep tripped fingers sliding across Jeongguk’s face, careful but eager to make sure, assure, himself or both of them, he asks, “Gguk?”

 

Jeongguk lets it wash over him. The anguish. The hurt. “I read the letter. The letter I got. Last summer. Do you remember?”

 

“Yeah. ‘course.”

 

“It was from my mom. It wasn’t- Taehyung, it was my mom.” 

 

Taehyung doesn’t stop touching him. Asks, “Are you okay?”

 

And the dam should break, wreak sobs from Jeongguk’s throat, but nothing comes out. Dries it all instead. He shakes his head against Taehyung’s softness. Nods after, because he is that too. Okay and not. 

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

Jeongguk pulls back to look at him, still so close. “Yes,” he says, but then, “But not tonight.”

 

Taehyung says, “Okay,” like that’s enough. 

 

Like it really is okay.  

 

Hands at his back, Taehyung starts stroking back and forth, like he’s trying to get his blood flowing a little faster, chase the frozen out. 

 

“You’re cold,” he says quietly. 

 

Jeongguk hums, face in his neck, lips dusted in fuzzies. They’ll bother him later but not now. It’s too little, against all the other things that matter so much. “So warm me up.” 

 

And maybe they talk to each other in dreams. Maybe they look at each other and just know. Maybe none of that’s true. Maybe it’s just that they’ve made it this far, that they’re here, that they’re together. 

 

Maybe that’s enough. 




---




They visit the cherry blossoms in April. 

 

He tells Jinhyung about the Jinhae Gunhangjae festival, the bus ride to the port city. How you can step off the train in Hwagae and see them immediately. Tells him how he used to think of Busan as the center of the world. Ocean. Forest. Song. Anything a little boy who dreamed could need. 

 

Jinhyung takes it all in with wonder. Catches the delicate pink flowers in his palms, shows a shy boy, younger and smaller, that it’s okay to walk through the fallen ones. How it makes it easier to catch them, toss them in the air so they fly again. 

 

“He’s going to be prom king as a junior if he keeps this up,” Jeongguk says, watching as another kid comes up, pigtails weaving, gasping when a caterpillar makes it’s away from the flower in Jinhyug’s palm to the tip of his finger, and did you know flowers came from stars? did you know everything does? “I’m blaming you for that.”

 

Taehyung’s laugh is good natured. Sweet. “I’ll take that blame. But I was never prom king.”

 

Jeongguk quirks a brow. Despite his rough start, Taehyung ended highschool well liked. Well loved. Jeongguk can’t imagine him any other way. 

 

“I may or may not have been on the homecoming committee,” Taehyung concedes, shoulders shrugging, guilessly. “But I was never king.”

 

He doesn’t sound bitter about it but Jeongguk still knocks their shoulders together, throws him an obnoxious winky face from his side of the trunk they have their backs pressed to, cherry blossoms all around them. “Don’t worry, I can totally make you my king.”

 

Grinning, Taehyung squints at him, holds a fist to chest. “You always get me. Right here.”

 

Jeongguk scoffs, laughs. “Why?”

 

“Because,” Taehyung says, and with all the cherry blossoms, he looks like a Goryeo era prince, a warrior from the Joseon dynasty, “you’re already mine.”

 

Up and down the path, people look at the trees, gaze out at the river, and the Potomac looks nothing like the Han River, like the sea near Busan, but it’s comforting, that there are places that are so different yet remind him of home anyway. People too. 

 

Three days in D.C. hasn’t really been much for its face value but it’s all the other things. Jinhyung’s excitement on the plane, the little apartment off Dupont Circle, buying souvenirs for Namjoon and Yoongi, taking Jinhyung to explore the space museum while Taehyung was at his conference, the wonder on both their faces when they saw the Natural History museum all three of them together. They’d even gone to a show at a festival and the music was loud and fast and wild, Jinhyung sitting on Jeongguk’s shoulders, towering and giddy above the crowd. 

 

Now, he’s thinking about getting Jinhyung his passport. All the places they could go. Busan, even. Someday. 

 

Now, he finds a cherry blossom petal in Taehyung’s hair. Sweeps the bangs on his forehead behind his ear just because. Because he can. “You keep sweet talking me so often, you’re going to run out of things to say.”

 

“Not possible,” Taehyung says, smiles like he knows something Jeongguk doesn’t. “We’ll be old and wrinkly and I’ll still find fresh ways to say the cutest shit to you.”

 

And Jeongguk doesn’t know if that’s possible. He’s excited to find if he can hold Taehyung to that. When they’re old. And wrinkly. 

 

When they head back to the apartment, they ask Jinhyung where he thinks he’d like to go next, what he wants to see, explore. They walk hand in hand, their kid between them. 




---




“- so I’ve still got another year left.”

 

It’s barely May, but summer is in full bloom. 

 

Jeongguk turns his eyes to slits. It’s hard to see with all this sun. He smiles, asks, “How salty are you he beat you to it?”

 

Instead of a sharp look, the arch of a perfect brow, Joohyun laughs. “Oh, completely salty. But he’s such a nerd, I can’t hold it against him.” She looks out to where Jeongguk is scanning the crowd, teeth edged but in an endeared way. “He’s been working towards being Dr. Kim Taehyung since before I even figured out I wanted a Ph.D. He can have this one.”

 

“But only this one?”

 

“Only this one,” she confirms, presses her stacked heels into the unstable grass. Jeongguk has seen her in all sorts of dress over the years but it’s strange to see her so put together versus the pile of sweaters she was in her shared office with Taehyung he first knew her as. Like the trip down memory lane is clear on his face, she says, “You know, I was really happy for him when he said you two were together.”

 

Jeongguk is only surprised because it’s been almost a year now. Just about. They’ve crossed paths more than a few times, at dinners, at the occasional not-very-swanky-at-all jazz club performance, the lunch dates that always end in Jeongguk dropping Taehyung off at his office. “Really?”

 

“Really. You make him smile. I mean, he’s Taehyung, so he always smiles, but it was like he had something to smile about.”

 

“He makes me smile too,” Jeongguk says. Feels it on his face. Lots of things do now, but Taehyung’s just really good at it. 

 

Then she says, “Speaking of.”

 

Jeongguk looks up and it’s like the sea parts or something and the sun is that much sunnier, Taehyung with Jinhyung hanging off his back emerging from the crowd, Taehyung’s graduation cap threatening to slide off his much smaller head. 

 

“Appa! We met de’ dean!”

 

Taehyung swings Jinhyung from off his shoulders, sets him on his hip and helps him slide down when he gestures downward because Jinhyung’s a big peoples now, he only needs to be held sometimes. It only kills Jeongguk a lot. “Yep. And he was only kind of a k-c-i-d.”

 

Jinhyung sounds the letters out. Frowns at Taehyung. Points to himself. “K’id? Appa, I’m a kid.”

 

Jeongguk winces at Taehyung’s grimace but then he just laughs. They seriously need to find an effective way to swear around Jinhyung. Maybe not swear at all. Maybe just swear, let it be less of a shocker when he inevitably hears it yelled across the playground, on some random video online he’ll figure out how to get past the parent blocker to watch. The spelling has got to go though. He’s already starting to read. Slow, but surely. He’ll be eating up all sorts of books about dinosaurs and asteroids and legends about gods and princesses and everything else before Jeongguk knows it. 

 

Raising a hand, Jeongguk pokes the edge of the cap, fixes Jinhyung’s dress shirt collar where it’s stuck up. He looks like a mini Ralph Lauren commercial, pocketless khakis and oxford style shoes because it was daddy’s big important day, daddy! and he insisted on dressing himself to the nines. “Were you very polite to appa’s colleagues?”

 

Jinhyung nods, beams a smile. Then he asks, “Appa? What’s a collyyygueh?”

 

While Jeongguk explains, Joohyun gives Taehyung a noogie despite being almost an entire foot tinier than him. “Congrats, shithead!” she says, because her philosophy is to never mince words around children and she and Jeongguk have reached a compromise that the line is drawn at anything that starts with a c, an f, or involving the word ass. “You get to be paid to be a nerd now. Livin’ the dream, boy wonder.” 

 

Taehyung grunts, clearly put out but even more clearly ecstatically happy. His eyes land on Jeongguk and the happiness is just as ecstatic, if quieter. More grounded. 

 

“Hey, Jinhyung-ah,” Joohyun says, finally setting Taehyung’s head free. She doesn’t have a hair out of place and while she’s way less terrifying than when Jeongguk was a kid crying in her office, he’ll always be mystified by her. He’s pretty sure that’s how she likes it. “Want to go find your uncles? Pretty sure they said they were getting you a snack.”

 

At the mention of food, Jinhyung immediately takes her hand, carelessly throws a bye daddy! bye daddy! over his shoulder, leads the way, Joohyun nudging Taehyung’s side playfully. 

 

Jeongguk sighs after them. “Abandoned for a fruit bar.” He watches the confident way Jinhyung walks, shoulders tall and back straight, and the circle of people Jeongguk trusts with his kid isn’t that much wider, but so far it hasn’t hindered Jinhyung at all. 

 

Taehyung laughs. Shakes out his hair. He tucks his chin towards his chest, looks up at Jeongguk, shy but cute about it. “Hi,” he says. 

 

“Hi.” Jeongguk smiles. Bigger than his face can contain. Surely, bigger than his heart can. “I’m really proud of you. You did well.”

 

“Thank you,” Taehyung says and his voice does that thing Jeongguk only really noticed with Jinhyung first, soft and careful. Deliberate. 

 

Running the back of his hand along Taehyung’s honors sash, he gestures to his commencement gown, fancy dress shoes poking out of the bottom. “So. How’s it feel to be back in one of these?”

 

“Surprisingly comfortable. Polyester’s a lot more breathable than I remember.”

 

“It’s weird seeing you in a graduation gown. All studently. You’re like Professor X in my mind. Or Magneto. But cooler. And way hotter.”

 

“Oh, I’m so hotter but they’re both still cooler. I can’t bend stuff with my mind. Or read them.”

 

Jeongguk’s shoes crunch over grass. The edges of Taehyung’s robes graze him but he doesn’t mind. He’s never minded the summer heat. Sun. “I don’t know. You’re pretty good at reading mine. And who needs to bend stuff through mind-control when they’ve got hands like yours?”

 

The laugh Taehyung pushes into his mouth doesn’t taste like summer. Like cool flowing water in the middle of a forest. It tastes like Taehyung’s mouth, wintergreen toothpaste and citrus tea. The bagel he had for breakfast this morning because it’s his big day. He can have whatever he wants. 

 

“So, Dr. Kim Taehyung,” he says against Taehyung’s chin, his cheek. Ignores Taehyung’s not that kind of doctor because that joke got old fast. “Now that you’ve won the academic world series, what are you gonna do? Go to Disney World?”

 

Taehyung grins. “Sure, if that’s what Jinhyung wants. Wouldn’t mind some Minnie Mouse ears myself.”

 

And that’s really sweet but Jeongguk lingers, asks, “No, really. What do you want?”

 

Taehyung actually thinks about it, gaze narrowing consideringly, before he smiles again, says, “A lot of things. Mostly just to look at you for another second because, yeah, the world’s my oyster or however it goes, but you’re still the best thing I’ve ever seen. But, hey. Are you ready?”

 

Jeongguk straightens out. Stands tall. He isn’t ready. Maybe that means he is. He asks, “Should we get Jinhyung?”

 

“I told Yoongi to bring him out front in a bit. I just- I thought it’d be more comfortable for him if you met them first.” 

 

Warmth fills Jeongguk’s veins. His heart sings. “Okay. I’m totally not ready but let’s do it anyway.”

 

With an easy laugh, Taehyung takes his hand, knots their fingers together. The swooping sleeve of the graduation gown hides them but with the way they walk so close together, it isn’t hard to tell they’re holding hands. 

 

They walk up to the brick path, students and faculty milling by. Jeongguk asks, “How annoyed will you be if I ask how likely is it you think anyone remembers I was your student once?”

 

Taehyung tugs on his hand, but he doesn’t let go. “You’re already asking the annoying question, babe. And probably no one seeing as you graduated from the soul sucking business school.”

 

“Aww, but you like it when I suck.”

 

“Yeah, but not right now,” Taehyung bites out, mushes the words lovingly against the side of Jeongguk’s face, and says, “Now, wise up, darling. I’m still looking at you ,” and then he looks ahead, smiles even wider, “Hey! Is that one of those terrible Kim boys, I see?”

 

A woman turns and she has Taehyung’s eyes, and the man standing next to her has his jaw, and then there are four boys, some of them almost men, and in pictures they look exactly like him, but in the flesh they’re each their own person. 

 

Someone says, “Hyung!”

 

Jeongguk smiles. 




---




The street is lined by trees, perfectly pruned domes of shade. Perfect amount of light. 

 

“Can’t believe you’re doing this to us, hyung.”

 

“I am doing shit to you.”

 

“No, really. Of all places? You could’ve at least moved us to Queens.”

 

“Everyone knows Manhattan is dead and gone. Last one to figure that out is apparently you. Now, pick up at least another two boxes. I know those muscles aren’t just for pony showing.”

 

They aren’t but Jeongguk gives a long suffering sigh, picks up another three boxes just because. 

 

Yoongi pulls the back of the truck closed but doesn’t lock the latch. It’s so quiet here, traffic a distant afterthought. It feels like the kind of place where nothing happens. Just quiet people living quiet lives. It almost makes Jeongguk want to fuss, fidget. 

 

He follows Yoongi up the steps, sets the bottom two boxes in the living room, carts the last one into the kitchen. It’s spacious than their current one but sparse. Jeongguk wonders if they’ll get a wine cooler, if Namjoon will fill it with bonsai, a bigger herb garden. 

 

“Brooklyn’s not that bad.”

 

The backyard is visible from the kitchen nook’s bay window. Flowered shrubs. A young crabapple tree shoots up from the ground. Maybe they can fit some chairs under it. A hammock. 

 

“Good schools. Good food.Sure it’s gentrified as shit, but what isn’t in our lives at this point?”

 

Jeongguk hums. He turns, asks, “When did you say the furniture movers are coming?” 

 

“Saturday,” Yoongi says, stares at him for a second. Then he gestures with his shoulder, backs out of the kitchen. “Come on, pack mule. Let’s get the rest.”

 

They unload the rest of the truck and then they get sorbet pops from the parlor a block away, walk back at a leisurely pace, and the neighborhood is nice, brick fronted buildings and tons of places to eat. A bookstore and a clinic and a pet groomer. 

 

“Maybe Brooklyn’s not that bad,” Jeongguk concedes as they sit on the front stoop, eat their treats. Lemon orange drips on his knee despite how fast he’s eating. Maybe this will finally be the hottest summer of his life. 

 

Yoongi snorts, shade catching on his cheek as he wipes it with the sleeve of his t-shirt, a Japanese bear cartoon on the front. Definitely Namjoon’s. He says, “You haven’t unpacked anything.”

 

“I know,” Jeongguk says, rubbing at his knees. It’s been a gradual process of moving. Months of Namjoon and Yoongi going to see places. Almost saying yes five times before they finally did. Actually moving has been even slower. Today was round two of bringing stuff over. Even Jinhyung has been more diligent about packing, making sure he has the right box for the kid telescope Taehyung got him in celebration of completing a whole year of preschool. 

 

“Have you and Taehyung talked about-”

 

“We’re on a timeline,” he says because they are. They’ve talked about it. Tentatively looked at places. Dreamed a little. He stares at his popsicle, a strange feeling lacing around his ribcage.

 

“Jeongguk-ah.”

 

It’s the seriousness in his brother’s voice that makes him look up, but when he turns to Yoongi, he’s smiling. It’s small, barely lifts the corners of his mouth but it’s so there on his face, it might as well be all teeth and gums. 

 

“Life doesn’t have a timeline. You’ve been going after the things you want again. Don’t stop now just because it’s something you really want and it’s scary.” 

 

Because of course Jeongguk does. A house. A home. He has one. He knows he could have one with Yoongi and Namjoon still. But he’s basically moved Taehyung into his bedroom, has made space for him in all the places that matter. It’s not so crazy to want to create a space that’s just their own with him too. 

 

“What if it ruins us? Doing the actual grown up thing?” he asks, not because he doubts Taehyung and him, but because he doesn’t. Everyone always says they doubt, so is it okay if Jeongguk doesn’t? 

 

Yoongi pokes him with the dried end of his popsicle stick. Gets melted green tea on Jeongguk’s shorts anyway. “You and Taehyung have been co-parenting a kid for three years give or take. You’ve raised plant babies together. You guys have been doing the grown up thing for a while. Now you’ll just send a monthly payment to a homeowners association. Pay a co-op fee if you’re lucky.”

 

“Shouldn’t you be telling us to rent before buying? Walk before you run?”

 

Shrugging, Yoongi bites into the last of his pop, the edges around his mouth green. “Whatever floats your boat, little brother. But you and Taehyung have been speeding and then suddenly trying to stop when you realize there might be a cliff drop. Pretty sure you two will catch each other if you fall, though I doubt you will. You have great reflexes and he’s tougher than he looks.”

 

“Hey, Taehyung’s tough,” Jeongguk defends. “He can totally do thirty-five pound bicep curls without whining now thanks to me. It’s really great.”

 

And it is. Most days Taehyung does his circuits at the gym on his own at 6am but sometimes they go together on weekends. Some mornings they’ll skip and exchange sloppy kissed up handjobs in bed instead. They go on distance runs if the weather is good enough or hit the active parks around town with Jinhyung, watch him toddle the courses in his cool as shit running shoes. It’s all great. 

 

“My point,” Yoongi entones, and Jeongguk really doesn’t have to be fantasizing about Taehyung’s biceps right now, does he? “Is that Taehyung hasn’t unpacked either.”

 

And then Yoongi turns to the street, watches a girl walking her dog go by, a bird jump from branch to branch. He doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get Jeongguk to finish his sorbet, to get on the road, back to the apartment, to go. 

 

Maybe life is slower in Brooklyn. Maybe Jeongguk won’t get to find out, occasionally visit this slower life instead. 

 

“Hyung?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

Shoulders rising, he almost tells him about what their mom said in the letter. About Jinhyung and the pictures, how their mom knows what her grandson looks like, how much he looks like her own son. He almost points out that it’s been a while since Yoongi’s called him kid, a whole conversation even. He almost tells Yoongi he’s proud of him too, the man he is, the man he’s becoming. The brother he’s always been. 

 

He looks at his brother, says, “The house is really beautiful, hyung. I’m really happy for you guys.”

 

Yoongi grins, beams really, and most people wouldn’t call his brother a bright person, but most of them don’t know him the way Jeongguk does. Not even Yoongi himself. “Back at you, Gguk-ah.”




---




“How much further?”

 

“Just a bit. Watch your step, there’s trash on the curb.”

 

“Babe. It’s New York. There’s trash on every part of every curb.”

 

That’s true, but Jeongguk has other things to worry about right now. Like, making sure Taehyung doesn’t trip. Making sure they get to where they’re going. All sorts of directional type things. He’ll look up some local clean up initiatives when they get home. Figure out what thier probably overpaid government reps are doing about this. Jeongguk is a well informed person. He’s a dad. He cares about these things. 

 

But mostly, he’s just trying to keep Taehyung upright. 

 

Foot missing his next step, Taehyung stumbles, and from behind him, Jeongguk tightens his grip on his arms, guides him toward the inside of the sidewalk away from the road. 

 

Taehyung makes a belligerent complaint or five while Jeongguk checks on the scarf he has wrapped around Taehyung’s eyes, messes with the knot at the back of his head. “Are you sure you can’t see? Wait. How many fingers am I holding up?”

 

“Seeing as I almost ate shit, no, Jeongguk, I can’t. And you could be holding your dick in front of my face and, trust me, as much as I’d want to, I still wouldn’t be able to see.”

 

Jeongguk hmmphs, kisses Taehyung’s nape exposed by his shirt, the collar all swoopy and exposing his neck down to his collarbones, and man, Jeongguk really loves summer. “Quit being a baby. We’re almost there.”

 

Taehyung digs his heels for a second, laughs when Jeongguk easily pushes him forward the next. “Fine. But if this is some creepy sex thing I’m going to end up enjoying a lot, you’re going to have to make it up to me.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. You like all the sex things with me.”

 

All the sex things ? Can you believe I’ve never corrected your grammar? I must really like you, huh? You should definitely be nicer to me all things considered.”

 

And Taehyung can complain all he wants but he’s literally told Jeongguk grammar is an ever evolving living breathing system and people who act like it’s a set in stone structure suck and he’s the first person to put up a fight if Jeongguk is ever less than painstakingly nice to himself, so Jeongguk is definitely going to ignore most of everything he says for the next five minutes. 

 

It’s another two blocks and then he stops them, pivots Taehyung to their right, stops again. “We’re here.”

 

“Cool. Can I take the blindfold off now?”

 

“Nope. Now hold your breath and take ooooone giant step.”

 

Taehyung actually goes through the motion of inhaling, his chest rising, before he stops, his disdain almost palpable, and wow Jeongguk loves him so much he might explode from it. “You know, I’ve never regretted being in love with you, and I still don’t now, but this is making me think about thinking about it.”

 

“Mhhhm. Move it, sparky. To infinity and beyond and all that jazz.”

 

Taehyung guffaws but he sounds delighted about it and he lets Jeongguk guide him up the steps. Waits patiently while a lock clicks, follows Jeongguk’s hands on his, guiding him forward now. 

 

Jeongguk stops when they reach an open space, keeps Taehyung’s hands in his. 

 

Again, Taehyung waits, that tiny wrinkle in his forehead, and the curiosity is sparking off his body, but still he waits, thumbs stroking the back of Jeongguk’s gently. 

 

Jeongguk draws a breath but all of a sudden he’s so calm. He doesn’t know what he was so worried about. He can say anything to Taehyung. It’s okay to want things with him too. He and Taehyung will figure it out. “Okay. You can say no, to this, or the entire concept of it, but I want this with you. I think we’re ready for it- actually. I don’t know if we are. If anyone ever is. But I want it. I want it with you.”

 

“Gguk,” Taehyung says, and his voice isn’t shaking, but it’s like every sound smacks against his tongue, makes it resonate. “If you don’t take this blindfold off me I’m going to think it’s the sex dungeon thing again and I already told you, my jealousy is massively in check now and you’re completely in your right to your sexual fantasies, but I can’t share you with anyone else. Or share me with anyone else.”

 

There’s lots of things Jeongguk could do now. Roll his eyes. Laugh. Smack Taehyung lovingly upside the head. Instead, he draws his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, grabs the back of the fabric covering his eyes, pulls. 

 

Vision regained, Taehyung blinks. Says, “Hey! That’s my scarf.” Then he blinks again, everywhere. “ Oh .”

 

Like something out of a movie, he gives a slow spin, skims his eyes along the high arched ceilings, the strategically placed windows so light comes in but it doesn’t feel like the whole street can stare in. He ends up where he started, looking at Jeongguk, actually seeing him this time. 

 

Lips tugging upward, Taehyung says, “Was kind of expecting you down on one knee.”

 

Jeongguk raises a brow. “Should I be?” 

 

Taehyung hums, shakes his head. Asks, “What are we doing here, baby?” even though it’s obvious. 

 

So it’s obvious, and Jeongguk says, “Move in with me. Let’s move in together. Here or somewhere else. But I want a place that’s just ours. Your’s and Jinhyung’s and mine. I don’t care what it looks like as long as it gets a lot of sun, but I want us to start our lives together. I want us to have a home.”

 

Taehyung goes to speak, but Jeongguk holds a hand up, says, 

 

“I’m going to quit my job. Not now, obviously, but some day. And, uh, the app’s live-”

 

“It is?” Taehyung asks, eyes wide, and it’s not the most romantic thing in the world that he’s pulling his phone out right now, but he’s doing it because of Jeongguk so he’ll let it slide. They’ve seen each other feverish with flu, sick with almost hangovers, puffy eyed with too much sleep. Romantic means different things to different people. Maybe the things they find romantic are only so to them. 

 

It isn’t Jeongguk’s life work or anything. Not yet anyway. But he wants to use the things he’s learned, the deep underbelly of how the rich get richer, for something good. Even if it’s just giving the people who most need it the tools on how to do more than just survive. “Yeah. But the point is- I want to go after the things I want. I want to actually do them. And I want to ask for them. And I know we talked about the right time and money and rent is crazy, But we’ve both been responsible and Columbia’s so desperate to have you make their dumb non-linguistics department look good and your book’s coming out, and yeah. Why wait? I don’t want to live by fear anymore. I want to grab life by the bull or whatever, you know?”

 

Taehyung looks up at him, glances back down at his phone for a second, and Jeongguk isn’t nervous anymore but he feels split open, like his ribs have finally cracked. Then Taehyung turns his phone over and at first Jeongguk blinks dumbly at it, but then he realizes what he’s seeing. 

 

Oh .”

 

“I haven’t gone to see any of them. Wanted to get a couple listings together before talking to you,” Taehyung says, his phone screen showing multiple places for rent, a few to buy, and despite the night hour the apartment is bright but it can’t show up Taehyung’s grin. “So, yeah. Let’s move in together.”

 

“Okay,” Jeongguk says, his own smile close to vibrating on his mouth. “Now?”

 

Taehyung chortles, teeth on display as he laughs. Grabs his hands. “Okay. Let me check the place out first before I sign my name on the lease, though.”

 

It’s not a huge space, two rooms and a study that can pose as a third, but the open plan gives the sense that this is the sort of space where you can breathe, ceilings up high, wrought iron stairs leading up to a loft that hangs overhead. Airy. Solace in the city. 

 

They end up in the kitchen which seems like the biggest room in the apartment, and Taehyung stops, makes a curious noise. 

 

“Hmm. There is a bed in this kitchen.”

 

“Yeah, some European guy from the office was living here for a few months. He really didn’t want to make it a permanent thing. Ended up being sent along to the office they opened in Brussels apparently.” 

 

“Hmm,” Taehyung says again. Kicks at the plastic covering, less of a bed, more of a mattress in the middle of the dining room, not an eating table to be seen. He shoots Jeongguk a look, dark and bright, their fingers tangled hotly together. “You said was living?”

 

Jeongguk narrows his eyes but his heart kicks, Taehyung’s thumb tracing the middle line in his palm, and when their eyes meet, heat is already pooling in his belly, and he says, “I mean, we have a blindfold and everything,” and he isn’t sure if he means it, but it makes Taehyung laugh, makes him yank Jeongguk forward, bury his tongue in his mouth. 

 

They don’t end up using the blindfold, but they do end up on the mattress making a mess of each other. Hot hands getting just the right amount of clothes out of the way, searching mouths everywhere else. The plastic covering makes it hotter so it’s almost not worth it, until it very much is, a stray packet of lube pulled out of Jeongguk’s wallet because when you have an almost five year old, finding time ot have sex is an art and there might as well be a reason the bathroom at the tiny black and white theater they’ve had more than a few dates at is a single cubicle. The whole thing is squeaky and loud. They laugh too much, giggly teeth scraping skin, Jeongguk’s leg cramping from trying to hold his knee against his shoulder with half his pants still on, Taehyung soothing the hurt with his mouth.  

 

After, they stare up at the ceiling, catching their breaths, the sudden quiet startling but not awkward or unwelcome. Warm, really. It’s one of Jeongguk’s favorite things about Taehyung, about them. They can talk but they can also just share space, their silences sweet. 

 

Eventually, Taehyung sighs. Reaches over, plays with the hair at the top of Jeongguk’s head. “Guess we have to say yes to this place now. What with marking our territory and everything.”

 

Jeongguk makes a happy noise, eyelids fluttering, the soothing motions in his hair. They can’t fall asleep here but he can close his eyes for a minute, press into the warmth of Taehyung’s hand. “Only one who marked anything was you.”

 

“Nah. Pretty sure that’s your cum on the tiles. It’s definitely all over my scarf.”

 

“Shhh.” He blindly paws at Taehyung’s mouth, grunts when Taehyung traps his fingers between his teeth. “I’ll buy you ten new scarfes. Just let me nap for a second. Two seconds.”

 

Plastic squeaks and Taehyung’s heat is closer, his voice warm when he says, “Okay.” Soothes Jeongguk’s fingers with a kiss, lets Jeongguk’s hand flop over his cheek. “You can have ten.”

 

The ten seconds go by. A whole minute. Longer. Maybe Jeongguk falls asleep and that toughness Taehyung covers up with his gentleness shows its head and he carries Jeongguk some of the way home, calls a car when his arms get tired a few blocks out. 

 

There’s a hand touching Jeongguk’s face. A voice says, “Hey.”

 

Jeongguk rubs his face into what he’s leaning on, where he expects hard plastic is soft cotton, a softer chest. “Nnngh?”

 

“Hey. I want to ask you something. You can say no, to the whole concept if you want, but I have to ask. Want to do that thing you said. Grab life by the bull. You know, the horns. The balls too while I’m at it.”

 

Sleepily, Jeongguk’s heart skips. His ribs unfurl, let go of expectation. Fear. Doubt. 

 

He opens his eyes. 

 

His heart calms.

 

There’s no daylight, but the room is full of sun. 




      ---




On their last night in the townhouse, Jeongguk sits alone in his bedroom.

 

He’s the only one home. Namjoon and Yoongi have taken Jinhyung to that new history of color exhibit at the Natural History Museum, Taehyung at a club performance. 

 

It’s not his bedroom anymore, hasn’t been so for months, always thinks of it in terms of theirs. Taehyung’s books stacked neatly on the small bookshelf they found at a shop near the farmer’s market. The flowering green nephthytis and the pots of golden pothos. A framed poster of Sun Ra, his signature in looping script at the bottom. But he feels nineteen again, the last night in his childhood home, how at the moment it would never have occurred to him to think he’d never be back. 

 

He stares at his phone. 

 

The last of the boxes are packed. All of Jinhyung’s things put away, the canvas Jeongguk and Namjoon painted for him rolled up and ready to hit the road. He has to meet everyone for dinner soon, get across town during rush-hour. 

 

And still, he stares at his phone. 

 

He picks it up. Taps over to his contacts. Scrolls and stops on a name, the script spelling it out both foreign and not.

 

Hovering over the contact details, his finger lingers over the last line, the one that tells you whether someone has been blocked or not, the window that pops up to ask if you’d like to unblock this caller, warn you that should you block them you won’t receive calls, texts, anything from them. They might as well not exist. 

 

Jeongguk presses on the screen. Then he presses it again. Holds the phone up to his ear. 

 

It rings. It rings and rings and Jeongguk’s ribs don’t feel heavy. He doesn’t feel heavy. He doesn’t feel like a heavy thing to be carried, a burden bitterly supported, put up with. 

 

The ringing stops. There’s a high pitched inhale, a voice that trembles like howling winter. “Jeongguk-ah?”

 

The world isn’t so heavy either. 

 

Jeongguk says,

안녕 엄마.




---




The lights aren’t blinding. 

 

In his childlike memory, they have the brightness of a million suns. All encompassing heat. For the longest time, the only thing Jeongguk could see, the thing always in his mind’s eye. 

 

He’d wanted this so much. He’d ached for this so much. 

 

Lights to blind him. Nothing but his voice to carry him home. 

 

“So...I’ve never done this before.”

 

His breath hits the mic and the room erupts in static. Wincing, he reaches for the stand, adjusts the height, tries again. 

 

“That’s better, right? More like a voice, less like a computer dying.” A few people are nice enough to laugh and he smiles, centers the weight on his lap, his own weight better on his seat, the stool more flimsy than it first looked. “Yeah, so, like I said, I’ve never done this before. In front of a crowd, I mean. The guitar thing, especially. It’s a new skill I’m trying! Trying to learn with my kid who picked it out as his instrument of choice. Yeah, bond with your kids, man. And yes, I am old enough to have a kid. I just look crazy young. Asian genes are, like, legit, man.”

 

Laughter again, heartier this time. 

 

His eyes land on the table nearest to the front, the different sets of eyes there with varying degrees of mortification and softness. A pair in particular encouraging and bright, like someone dipped them in the sun’s least harmful rays before sticking them in his eye-sockets. 

 

Jeongguk gives a little laugh, says, “I’d apologize, but it’s open mic. You all know what you signed up for! But I will ask you to be just a little nice. The loves of my life are here and I’d like to not fully embarrass them. And before you say anything, one of them is my son, and before you say anything to that, it’s all ages and one pm on a Sunday, what are most of you doing here, shouldn’t you be at brunch?”

 

Someone yells fuck brunch , man, and Jinhyung, instead of delighting in the free reign of cuss words, makes swinging motions with his hands, a clear get on with it dad! like he can tell how nervous Jeongguk is, a gentle push forward needed. Next to him, Yoongi is scanning the crowd, glaring at whoever just yelled, his hands securing the tiny body to his lap, his phone in even tinier ones, color of light from whatever game he’s playing swirling across his tiny face. Namjoon pays no mind, angling his camera at Jeongguk, ready to record every second of his first performance glory, and it isn’t how Jeongguk imagined it, the various ideations of it. No KBS film crew, make up caked over his face, a routine he could do blindly, even in his sleep. No smoky club in the alternative student district. No festival lineup shouting his name. No late night tv host saying and now for the first time making his television debut!....

 

Tomorrow, he’ll wake up. Go to work. Make some rich bastard even richer, even more of a bastard. Pick his kid up from school, talk about their days, take him to swim practice. Meet Taehyung at home, make dinner together, help Jinhyung with his homework while Taehyung corrects essays and tries not to pop a vessel, laugh himself silly at the things freshman think they can get away with, get stupified at the amazing ways some of their minds can think, see language, use it to try and say what they mean. He’ll log on his desktop, try to figure out this one bug on the stock watch page on the app, have a late meeting with their translator coding the AI in Spanish, listen to Soohyun prattle on about how they have to have a Chinese version too because everything’s in China, man, we gotta be in China. Then he’ll crawl in bed, Jinhyung already asleep in his, and maybe he and Taehyung will read side by side before falling asleep, watch an old movie, some dumb show. Make out a little if they’re up for it. They usually are.

 

But that’s tomorrow.

Today, now, he twists one of the pegs on the guitar, comes close to the mic. “Okay. I’m being told this isn’t a comedy show. It isn’t so I’ll get to it. I wrote this first song myself- I promise, the rest are covers! It’s called Han and there isn’t a direct translation in English and there’s actually some contention of what the concept means, but I’ve come to think of it as that suffering, you know, the sad stuff, is a part of life. That the beauty isn’t the sadness, but the acceptance of it. Thank you for listening. Here it goes.”

 

He strums the first notes and his fingers stumble and it takes over half the song for his voice to stop sounding like it’s confused as to why it’s coming out through speakers, amplified and all around him, but Jeongguk steadies his voice, steadies himself, sings through it. Figures it out.

 

He finds Taehyung looking at him, the smile quiet but there on his mouth.

 

Jeongguk will figure it all out.

 

He’s looking forward to it.  




---




He’s at the kitchen counter peeling carrots when a body comes up behind him, sturdy chest pressing to his back. 

 

Taehyung hums against his neck, says, “It’s here.”

 

One of his hands rises from behind Jeongguk, a package wrapped in brown parcel paper, stamps at the top corner. 

 

Jeongguk drops the knife. Orange stained fingers rip the paper up in seconds. 

 

“That was scarily close to dropping on your toes,” Taehyung laughs. He hangs his hands off Jeongguk’s waist, lets him do as he pleases. 

 

“Shut up, oh my god, Taehyung. Taehyung? This is so great. It’s so…”

 

He trails off, doesn’t actually ignore Taehyung saying but I love your toes, babe , you gotta be careful with them pulls the last of the covering off carefully to reveal the hardcover bound pages.

 

The foreground is dark, midnight blue almost giving to purple, the design modern and sleek, the title focused in the middle and bookended by, well, everything. Nebula and galaxies. Stone tools. Scripture scrolls. Sauropods and carnivores. Ferns and crawling leaves. The first person to walk tall, back straight, shoulders held high. 

 

The title in thick font reads, 

 

Words and Their Power

Or:

How Everything is a Story

Including You and Me and Every(thing)one We Kn(ew)ow

 

Jeongguk holds it close to reverent. It’s heavy in his hands. Weighted. He bumps his temple against Taehyung’s gently. “You know, now that the hardcover edition is out, it means you’re a big shot, right? You have to make everyone address you as Doctor Kim , now. It’s your right.”

 

Squeezing his sides, Taehyung hmm’s . “You guys gonna be okay while I’m gone?”

 

From the living room, music blares.. The tv playing something else on low. It’s a lot of noise, but Jeongguk doesn’t mind it. He likes the quiet but he likes this too. A little bit of chaos. A home alive. 

 

“Definitely. Same thing I said the last five times you asked. It’s only two months.”

 

“It’s only two months,” Taehyung repeats. “It’s just last time you dropped me off at the airport, you cried and I almost didn’t get on the plane.”

 

“Yeah, but this time I’m not dropping you off at the airport. We’re way past that part of the honeymoon phase. Besides, this will be great one on one bonding time for me and Jinhyung, and with Daehyung coming into town, he’ll have another uncle in town. It’ll be great.”

 

“Can’t believe you’re taking my little brother to see colleges.”

 

“Yeah, and you taught our kid how to read. I think that’s a fair trade off.”

 

It earns him a pinch to his waist, and Jeongguk laughs. Taehyung does too, kisses his cheek. Says, “I love you,” like he knows Jeongguk will end up taking him to the airport anyway, but he won’t cry this time. Knows that Taehyung knows exactly what he’s coming home to. 

 

Jeongguk turns in his arms, kisses him back, on his mouth this time. Says, “ I know ,” and Taehyung smiles, all sun, like he knows that’s isn’t what Jeongguk is saying at all. 




---