The first thing Jungkook did in his first year of university was fall in love, badly. It took him three weeks to fall out of it again, when midterm season cleared the heartbreak from his head and replaced it with models of microeconomics and opportunity cost. After that it took another six hours to fall back in love, this time with a wicked smile that looked the right side of wrong through the bad lighting and alcohol of a party celebrating the end of exams. Jungkook doesn’t remember much of that night, aside from the wet-mouthed moment and the fumble of their bodies in the dark, but he remembers the morning after. His head felt the size of a fist, tight-knuckled and pounding. He opened his eyes, then shut them again. Whined and buried his face in the floor.
Someone tsked. A voice Jungkook didn’t recognize. “Party’s over. Go on, get out.” A pause, as Jungkook made no move to do either of those things, and then a sigh. “Fine. You can have some tea if you promise not to vomit on my carpet.”
Jungkook cracked open an eye, hopeful.
It’s been about that way ever since.
Seokjin is not what Jungkook would call a friend. Mingyu, Yugyeom—those are his friends, messaging each other in lecture under the guise of typing notes, staying up late to game when they should really be cramming for tests. Nor is Seokjin a mentor; that title belongs to Hoseok, the leader of his dance club, or Namjoon, who occasionally tutors him in English, or even Yoongi, if the feedback he returns on the short sound clips Jungkook sends him at 3 AM counts for anything. Seokjin is most definitely not an ex, though Jungkook has many, ranging from the kind he ducks around corners to avoid in the hall to the kind like Jimin and Taehyung who still show up at his door to offer bad dating advice or “borrow” clothes from his closet. It’s only gotten worse since Jungkook introduced them to each other. He’s never going to get that hoodie back, is he.
Seokjin is none of the above. He’s a graduate student, which means he’s always busy, but at the same time he’s rarely absent. He somehow knows everyone Jungkook knows, has wormed his way into all of his familiar, favourite places and settled there long before Jungkook arrived: Namjoon’s old roommate, Yoongi’s new roommate, a teaching assistant for one of Jimin’s classes. Even now Jungkook is still discovering his traces: a smile in the background of Taehyung’s photos, his presence at Hoseok’s annual dance showcase, the whistle of the teakettle from the kitchen whenever Jungkook wakes up on Yoongi’s couch, disoriented in the pale light of morning, treading the thin line between asleep and awake.
So stranger is too distant, senior too neutral. Acquaintance is too harmless and interloper too unkind. None of them convey the exact weight, the other side of a circle.
Perhaps the word he is looking for is constant, if the second time they met is any indication.
“Oh. It’s you again,” Seokjin said, and Jungkook looked up just in time to see him plop down in the seat next to him on the train.
“Oh,” Jungkook said, coloured more by embarrassment than surprise. The memory of the other morning resurfaced in him, and he flushed a little at the thought of what must have been written all over him, in the light of day: the red-bitten marks on his neck, the wreck of his hair run through, his slink of shame off the floor and into the bathroom. How Seokjin had commented on none of it, and commented on nothing now: no small talk, no questions, no expectation of awkward answers.
Where are you coming from? Where are you going? None of it came. Seokjin only shifted a little, in his seat, as though getting comfortable. He smiled, slight, and said nothing. Back then it was still autumn, one of many yet to come. He was wearing a thick white sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up. His hands out of his pockets, laid on his lap.
Jungkook returned his attention to his phone. After a while he forgot Seokjin was even there, or maybe that it was strange for him to be. When he glanced up again, he blinked.
Seokjin had dozed off, his head leant against the metal pole, eyes closed. His mouth slack, expression bare like a window that had been left open in the night.
Jungkook wondered, vague as an itch on the back of his neck, if he was dreaming.
The train, hurtling forward, on.
Which brings him to two years, a changed major, and a tangled string of relationships later, the shortest belonging to casual hookups from the club and the longest lasting three months. “It’s not you, or me,” Jimin explained earnestly over a cup of iced coffee, sometime during that awful summer Jungkook was juggling an unpaid internship and two part-time jobs. “It’s us. I’m sorry.”
Jungkook stared down at the slowly melting ice in his drink and didn’t bother pretending he understood what that meant. “Really? Right now?”
Jimin nodded. “Before you get any worse,” he said cryptically, and then, “hey. Are you okay?”
Jungkook was tired, mostly. He wanted to go home. “Does this mean I have to cancel our tickets to Train to Busan?”
“Oh, Jungkook.” Jimin leaned across the table, wrapped his arms around him as best he could in the uncompromising angle. “Of course we’re still friends. That’s the whole point. That’s what we always were.”
Jungkook sagged into the hug. He still felt wrong-footed in the conversation somehow, but everything else was falling apart that summer, so it made sense that this would, too. A stickiness in his throat that only later, much later, would he recognize as relief.
“C’mon,” Jimin said. “I’ll take you home.”
When they got there, Taehyung was skulking around the front door. “For the last time,” Jungkook groaned, “I’m not going to be your fake plus-one to your cousin’s wedding just because he said you were going to die alone. I don’t care how much free food there’s going to be. This isn’t the bad plot to a romcom. I’m busy. ”
“That isn’t what I was going to ask,” Taehyung blustered, a deer-in-headlights look in his eyes that transformed rapidly to interest when he caught sight of Jimin at Jungkook’s side. “Who’s this?”
“Sorry,” Jimin said slowly, almost sweetly. “Did you say free food?”
But that’s a different story, one Jungkook likes to tell at parties to get free drinks. And then my ex got together with my other ex! The punchline lands perfect: that his own love life works best to make others’ right. Jungkook can laugh about it now, of course, like he can laugh at himself in the summer of that year, overextended and miserable and unable to tell when someone was doing him a kindness.
Yoongi doesn’t laugh. “You were too hard on yourself,” he says, voice even. “You still are.”
“Oh, come on, hyung,” Jungkook says. They’re having barbecue, all of them crammed together around the restaurant table. It’s winter, but everything is warm in their tight-knit circle, in the safety of their laugh and chatter. Jungkook’s squished up against Yoongi’s shoulder and he’s a little drunk. “I know I needed that time, to get to where I am now. That doesn’t mean I can’t make fun of it.”
Yoongi frowns at him. He doesn’t say anything. On Yoongi’s other side, Hoseok hums a little, flipping the pieces of meat on the grill.
“Slow down, Jungkook-ah,” Hoseok says. “Either way, aren’t you still moving too fast?”
Jungkook’s last girlfriend had broken up with him because she wanted to focus on her studies. His last boyfriend had cited boredom. Before that, someone ghosted him after two and a half dates, and that one still stings a little, if just for lack of closure. So he gets it, really: the hurt they’re trying to protect him from. But Jungkook isn’t so young anymore, so quick to startle.
“If anything, I’m not moving fast enough,” Jungkook says. “I’m not getting anywhere at all.”
A piece of pork is chopsticked into Jungkook’s bowl. “Then you better eat up,” Seokjin says cheerfully. Under his black baseball cap his cheeks are ruddy, his eyes bright. “Build up all that strength you need.”
Jungkook squints across the table, as though it will help him see him clearer. “Are you calling me weak? I could take you any day.”
Seokjin’s eyebrows shoot up in mock offense. “You? Don’t make me laugh. I could flip you like an omelette.”
“That’s it.” Jungkook lurches forward, slams his elbow on the table. Holds out his hand, and cocks his head, expectant. “You’re on.”
Hoseok has dissolved into giggles at this point, Namjoon valiantly trying to hide his snicker. Seokjin only holds Jungkook’s gaze, returns it. Makes a show of shrugging off his jacket, rolling up his sleeve.
Jimin and Taehyung are egging them on, while Yoongi and Namjoon scramble to save the side dishes from imminent destruction, but only one thought cuts through the haze of Jungkook’s inebriation, quick and satisfied. Of course Seokjin wouldn’t leave him hanging. Always the edge to rise up against and meet. A balance of reciprocity: no less or more.
Seokjin places his elbow on the table almost delicately, joins his palm in Jungkook’s, both of them completing their half of one fist. His hand is warm. Soft. Jungkook clasps it tight. Looks Seokjin dead in the eye, takes a breath, and pushes.
A scant ten seconds later, knuckles smarting and arm aching, Jungkook pumps his fist into the air. “That’s right,” he crows. Even Yoongi’s swept up in the excitement, clapping him on the back. “I told you. I could take you any day.”
Seokjin shakes out his hand. “You got lucky, punk,” he says, but it’s softened by the curl of his mouth. A smile.
Jungkook’s won, so there’s no reason he should feel short of breath. The moment of victory is already passing, anyway; Hoseok’s laughter petering out at last, Namjoon mopping up spilled soju with napkins. Across the table Jimin is drunkenly trying to feed Taehyung bits of burnt garlic, which is as good a sign as any that it’s time to leave. Jungkook sighs, returns to his bowl. Picks up that last piece of pork and sticks it in his mouth.
A curious weight, as though someone is watching him. He looks up automatically to see Seokjin, a fond lilt to the shape of his mouth. But the brim of his cap is tilted low over his eyes, so there’s no telling who he’s looking at.
Jungkook chews, swallows. It tastes tender.
Back in first year, everyone in Jungkook’s orbit had to get used to it getting bigger, Jungkook most of all. High school had been simple enough, a slow song to which he knew all the words by heart, but it was over now, even if sometimes he still caught himself humming it under his breath. Everything was easy, due to the cultivation of a good reputation over the years: a friend, a well-liked senior, a pleasure to have in class. The sanding down of his edges, year by year turning into something with form, taking shape. Then in university everything reset. He found himself one in a fresh-faced crowd, each eager to rewrite themselves and each other. Jungkook could be anything, and have only his own word to back it up, and still everyone was interested in what that word exactly was. An interest Jungkook returned; not in hunger but curiosity, at what the world had to offer, at what a big world it was.
Another way to tell it, of course, is that Jungkook fell head-over-heels for the first pretty girl he met at orientation, forgot to ask for her name, and then never saw her again, though weeks later he would still startle at every high-ponytailed and red-scarved stranger in a crowd. Cue three years’ worth of overcompensation: making the leap, scraping bottom and bouncing back every time. Taehyung calls it being desperate, a self-projection that led him to latch onto Jungkook out of some mistaken recognition, calling him up in the middle of the night all through first year to commiserate over every beautiful stranger he saw crossing the street. Namjoon calls it a necessary step in finding his bearings, establishing firm ground. Yoongi calls it recklessness, though he’s one to talk; Jungkook’s seen the photos, heard the horror stories of the years before he settled into his current placid attitude of mostly minding his own business, complete with its own 60 percent success rate. Seokjin—
Seokjin doesn’t call it anything at all, though Jungkook’s been waiting for it since that night Seokjin found him standing in the produce section of the grocery store, staring down at the bundle of refrigerated spinach in his hands, the leaves limp and wet. “Healthy,” Seokjin commented by way of greeting, and then, “oh dear.”
It spoke volumes to how bad Jungkook looked, the way Seokjin’s grin instantly wiped clear all traces of emotion, especially concern, but Jungkook had no way of realizing that at the time. It was early days yet. All Jungkook knew about Kim Seokjin was that he was tall, hot, and older than him. A killer combination he’d have paid more attention to if not for the fact that he was currently trying not to cry in front of the romaine lettuce.
“Oh, hi,” Jungkook said. His hand was growing numb. What was he here to buy, again? His mind was flickering like a film reel, stuck and rewinding a single loop, over and over: I thought you wouldn’t care—I thought you wouldn’t care—I thought you wouldn’t—
“That one doesn’t look good,” Seokjin said. His voice firm. “You can tell by the leaves. It’s spoiling.”
Jungkook blinked. Seokjin gently pried the bundle from his hands, peeled back a layer of leaves to show him the darkening spots. “You see?”
Jungkook nodded automatically. “Yeah.”
“We’ll pick out another one.” Seokjin placed the bundle back onto the shelf. “What are you cooking?”
“What are you cooking? Did you have something specific in mind?” Seokjin was holding a basket. It was mostly full. Jungkook looked at his own, empty but for two bags of carrots, a bottle of vinegar, and a pineapple. He had no memory of taking any of those things, nor the faintest idea of what he would need them for.
“I... I don’t know, actually.” Time was returning to him. The fluorescent whitewash of the store lights, the lateness of the hour. He was only wearing a T-shirt, hadn’t bothered to put on a jacket when he stormed out of his room, and the chill of the refrigeration was prickling goosebumps down his arms. “I don’t even cook, really. Um, instant stuff mostly. You know.” God, this was awful. “I haven’t got the time.”
Seokjin did not laugh. Only snorted, a knowing shake of his head: well, what can you do. “Best to start small, then,” he said, and nodded at Jungkook’s basket. “Think you’ll be needing those?”
“No,” Jungkook admitted, sheepish.
“Then why don’t you start over,” Seokjin said, and Jungkook did exactly that, replacing his items on the shelves, wondering at the fact that it could really be that simple.
He ended up with eggs, onions, enoki mushrooms. A block of tofu for easy protein and a container of chili paste. He got the spinach, too. The basics, Seokjin told him; you can experiment after you’ve got what you can survive on. Just get into the habit, first, and the rest will come later.
They were exiting the store with their bags in hand when Jungkook remembered what had gotten him here. Seokjin was complaining about something or other, how Yoongi had said something uncharitable the other day, or how Namjoon was taking too long to return his texts. The chatter providing an easy way out, so long as Jungkook wished to take it. He bit his lip.
“My boyfriend cheated on me,” Jungkook said. It sounded so stupid, out in the open, but at the same time it felt like an immense weight had been relieved. Now that it was out of him it couldn’t hurt him anymore. “Apparently he didn’t even realize—” He huffed out a breath, looked down at his feet. “He didn’t even think I would care.”
Seokjin was watching him, but Jungkook kept his eyes down. He couldn’t bear to see whatever expression Seokjin was looking at him with.
“Anyone who would think that—” Seokjin began, and then stopped, shook his head. “Look. It says more about him than anything about you. He doesn’t even know you.”
Jungkook’s chest ached, inside. “I guess not.”
“Now he never will.” Seokjin tilted his head. “It’s his loss.”
Jungkook was surprised into looking up. In the parking lot of the grocery store he couldn’t have seen Seokjin’s expression anyway; it was much too dark for that. Only the edges of him outlined against the night: the flyaway strands of his hair, the hunch of his shoulders in the cold, his breath turning silver in the air. “It’s his loss,” Seokjin repeated, “because you did care. You do care. He isn’t worth it, but you do care, and that’s the best thing you can do.” And even though Jungkook couldn’t make out his face, he suddenly knew Seokjin was smiling; he could hear it in his voice, had already learned what it sounded like. “That complete tool. Should I beat him up for you?”
Jungkook laughed despite himself. “Please. Don’t embarrass me, hyung. You’d lose.”
“Oh, Jungkook,” Seokjin said, clasping his heart, thickly layering his voice in formal language, “your underestimation of my abilities, as always, wounds me to my core.”
Jungkook was shocked into smacking him with his grocery bags. “Stop! Someone’s gonna hear you!”
Seokjin only took it as a challenge. “How cruel and ungrateful you are,” he warbled.
Jungkook smacked him with his grocery bags again. Seokjin smacked him back with his own, which promptly burst a hole in the bottom.
Later, both of them collecting slightly-bruised apples from the pavement, there was a nudge against his shoulder. “Hey. You all right?”
The plastic grocery bags were cutting into Jungkook’s palms. He hefted the weight of them in his hands, all he had bought for tonight, tomorrow, the future. “I will be,” he said.
That night he made enough food for three people and suddenly wished, elbow-deep in dishes at two o’clock in the morning, that he’d thought to invite Seokjin over to share. But it was too late now. What could you do? He refrigerated the leftovers and ate all of it himself.
Thinking about that night, sprawled in bed with his covers over his head trying to sleep, another word occurs to Jungkook: witness. One still watching. For what, he doesn’t know.
And then something else occurs to him. Seokjin’s seen him at his worst, by now; all his bad ideas and poor decisions, his unluckiness in love. But Jungkook’s never seen him date, not once, in all his time of knowing him.
Huh, Jungkook thinks, and rolls over to stare up at the ceiling, suddenly wide awake.
“So,” Jungkook says, casually as he can. “Seokjin hyung.”
Yoongi pauses in the middle of a long sip of his iced americano, eyes narrowing, perhaps in realization that Jungkook has lured him into an actual conversation over the premise (and promise) of free coffee. “A break,” Jungkook had declared, and then, when Yoongi hadn’t budged from his desk, “my treat.” It’s a testament to the hours of sleep deprivation Yoongi must be suffering that he’d fallen for such a flimsy pretext in the first place.
“Is alive,” Yoongi says now, cautiously, around his straw.
Jungkook sighs. “Yes. Sure.” He taps his foot against the floor. They’re still in the coffee shop, planes of sunlight slanting in through the wide windows. Outside, trees are bent by a wind they can’t feel, one they’ll have to face eventually. For now, Jungkook takes a sip of his own drink, wonders how on earth to smoothly broach the subject.
“He’s single, right?” Definitely not like that.
To his credit, Yoongi doesn’t bat an eyelid. “You’ve known him for, what, two years. You seriously don’t know the answer to that question?”
Jungkook gnaws on his plastic straw. “Fine. I mean. So, like, Seokjin hyung—does he not date, or what?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“You’re his roommate!”
“Why does that mean I’d know about his love life?”
“I didn’t say love life, I just—” Jungkook sighs, again. “Never mind. I was just curious.”
He sucks moodily on his straw, a dejected expression on his face. Now it’s only a matter of waiting Yoongi out.
Eventually Yoongi’s shoulders slump, as though resigning himself to the conversation. “Okay, fine. I still don’t get why you don’t just ask him—”
“Really?” Jungkook grimaces. “Can you imagine? He’d have a field day with a question like that. He’d never let me hear the end of it.”
Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Well, he’s always been like that.”
“Been what? Annoying?”
“Been alone,” Yoongi says. “In all the time we’ve lived together, anyway. I don’t think he’s ever brought anyone home.” One of his shoulders pulls up in a half-shrug. “The issue’s never come up between us. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t.”
“Huh,” Jungkook says. And then, quietly, under his breath: “It should.”
A customer enters the coffee shop, door swinging open. Their cue to leave. Yoongi only shrugs again on their way out, as they hunch their shoulders and square up against the chill. “It’s up to him,” he says. “Hey, are you not wearing a coat? You’ll catch a cold.” A pause. “Be careful, Jungkook-ah.”
“Sure, sure,” Jungkook says. Pretends not to notice the considering weight of Yoongi’s stare, and plunges headfirst into the wind.
He’s got to go further back, then. He finds Namjoon lovingly explaining the allegory of the cave to Taehyung as he tries on various clothes from Namjoon’s closet, posing in front of the full-length mirror propped up against the bedroom wall. Jungkook isn’t particularly surprised. They’ve been inseparable since they partnered up for some kind of photography project, the process of which Jungkook has yet to actually see but knows involves a lot of streetwear and spray paint.
“Yo,” Taehyung says in greeting. “Jiminnie says to reply to his texts.”
Jungkook rolls his eyes and turns to Namjoon. “Hi, hyung. Has Seokjin hyung ever dated anyone?”
Taehyung drops the beret he’s holding. “You’re going after Seokjin hyung? This is incredible. I have to tell Jimin right now. Where’s my phone?”
“It’s not like that,” Jungkook says loudly over him. “I was just wondering, since I’ve never actually seen him with anyone—”
“—and you want to climb him like a tree—”
“—and I was just curious—”
“—and you want to start a family with him. Of puppies. Three of them, at least, so you can take them on long walks around the neighbourhood—”
“—and he’s helped me, a lot,” Jungkook says, voice steady, “so I want to help him, too.” He shrugs. “I know a lot of people. I could set something up.”
It’s a good excuse. Believable, even, if it weren’t for the tiny detail that it hadn’t occurred to him until he said it aloud. Because he doesn’t actually have any justification for asking, except that Seokjin’s been by himself all this time while Jungkook’s been looking for love left and right, and it doesn’t seem—fair, really. It makes sense that Jungkook would be floundering, but Seokjin would actually be good at dating. He’d never get ghosted by a cute girl from calculus or broken up with over shitty Overwatch duo chemistry. So why hasn’t he found someone, yet?
Namjoon blinks between the two of them, sitting backwards in his swivel chair. “Seokjin hyung?” he repeats. “Why, have you talked to him?”
“Kind of,” Jungkook says. It’s not really a lie. He did talk to Seokjin, two days ago, though he barely remembers the conversation. It had devolved into the consistent kind of good-natured ribbing that Seokjin shouldn’t let him get away with, but does. That counts as talking, right? “I was just wondering—you know. If there’s some sort of reason he isn’t with anyone right now.” He scratches his head. “Or if it’s something he’s even looking for.”
Taehyung has returned to raiding Namjoon’s closet, having lost interest. Namjoon frowns, though.
“He used to be in a relationship, back when we were still living together,” Namjoon says slowly. “It didn’t end well.” He hesitates. “It’s not something he really talks about. For the rest of the story, you’d have to ask him.”
Jungkook blinks, wide-eyed. “Right,” he says quickly, feeling caught out, or else off guard by the answer. But what had he been expecting, really, if not this? If not an explanation that made sense? “Of course.”
“Hyung,” Taehyung announces from the other side of the room. “These pants are so cool. You should wear them more often.”
“Maybe I will,” Namjoon says, amused. But he’s still looking at Jungkook, though his gaze isn’t questioning, or accusatory, or even curious. Only steady. “You should talk to him. Think about it.”
It’s sound advice. Jungkook does exactly that—thinks about it—all day, but it isn’t until he’s in the dance studio with the rest of his club that he realizes the problem: there’s no one who seems a good match. Who does he know who can put up with Seokjin’s unrelenting sense of humour? Who’s generous enough to constantly treat Seokjin with the good food he demands? Who out there will complement Seokjin’s looks and natural charm?
More than all of that—what is Seokjin looking for in a relationship, anyway? Someone with a pretty laugh to spoil with attention? Someone cool-hearted to keep his ego from getting too big? Young or old? Short or tall? Just what the hell is Kim Seokjin’s type?
“Jungkook,” Hoseok says. “The music’s stopped.”
Jungkook’s shoes squeak to a halt against the floor. He stares at Hoseok, who stares back at him, something simultaneously amused and concerned pulling at the corner of his mouth.
“Um,” Jungkook says. “Sorry. I didn’t realize.”
Hoseok raises an eyebrow. The concern wins out. “Are you okay?”
Which is when the door bangs open and Seokjin walks in, a plastic bag in his hands.
“Hey, guys,” Seokjin says, shooting a wink at everyone and simultaneously no one in particular. “Was passing by and thought I’d pop in to say hello. Hoseok-ah, Yoongi told me to let you know that he can’t make it on Friday for lunch anymore. You good for Saturday instead? Also, I got all of you snacks, because it’s midnight.” He waves an arm like a benevolent saviour. “You’re welcome. Don’t work too hard, kids.”
The rest of the dance club makes a mad dash for the snacks. Seokjin catches sight of Jungkook, then, and smiles. It’s like Jungkook watches it happen in slow motion.
“Hey,” Seokjin says. He reaches out, ruffles Jungkook’s hair. “You good?”
Jungkook has always found the lights of the dance studio to be harsh, meant to glean out all imperfections, reflecting all details in the unforgiving scrutiny of the wall-length mirrors. Every wrong move caught out and revealed. Under it now, Seokjin’s cheeks are red from the cold outside, chest heaving slightly as though he’d taken the stairs two at a time. His lips are not chapped, because Jungkook knows he always uses balm, has a skincare routine meticulous as waking early in the morning, takes care of himself from the outside in. His eyes are bright. He’s looking at Jungkook, and Jungkook is looking at the sum of all his mistakes, the most glaring oversight of all: that he’s in love, and it’s right there in front of him, hand in his hair, then lifting, then pulling away.
“Wow, you’re slow today,” Seokjin says. “Don’t throw out your back, you’ll need it when you’re older. Get some sleep.” He claps Jungkook heartily on the shoulder, waves at Hoseok, and is gone again.
Jungkook remembers how to breathe.
“Jungkook.” Hoseok repeats himself, his eyes narrowed, like he’d never lost sight of the question: “You okay?”
Jungkook keeps his eyes on the door through which Seokjin had left. Doesn’t want to risk looking in the mirrors and seeing whatever expression is on his face. “I’m fine, hyung,” he manages, though it comes out more of a croak. “I just—I think I’m coming down with something.”
He’s right in more ways than one. The next morning he wakes up with a sore throat; the day after that, a sniffle. Before long he’s doggedly trudging through the hallways, squinting at his lecture slides through bleary eyes and popping cough drops like candy. Finally the weekend rolls around, a lazy day he can waste away in bed, wrapped up in his blankets with nothing to do but feel sorely sorry for himself.
He texts Jimin. im dyingggg
Jimin responds immediately: ? be more specific
Jungkook rolls his eyes and sends back three sneezing emojis.
It takes under an hour for Jimin to roll up to his door. “You sad, poor soul,” Jimin says, puttering around the kitchen, filling the room with comforting chatter and the warmth of steam. “This is what you get for not wearing a coat. Yoongi hyung told me to tell you, and I quote, I told you so. ”
“Careful,” Jungkook threatens, nose stuffed with tissues. “I’ll infect you.”
“Not on your life,” Jimin says, but spoon-feeds him juk anyway.
Belly full and soul considerably warmed over, Jungkook huddles in his blankets and peers out at Jimin, sat by his bed typing out a message on his phone. To Taehyung, probably, Jungkook thinks, and then his mouth is open before he even realizes what he’s going to say.
“Why didn’t it work out between us?”
Jimin stops typing. He slides his gaze up, staring at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” Jungkook amends hastily. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Jeon Jungkook. Look at me.”
Jungkook rolls over and buries his face in his pillow.
“Jungkook,” Jimin repeats, slowly. “Did you want it to?”
Jungkook’s cheeks are burning. His fever-addled brain has betrayed him. Winter is officially his least favourite season. “No, I just—ugh. It’s stupid. It’s just that—it never does work out, with me, does it,” he mumbles, and squeezes his eyes shut.
There’s a short silence. Then he hears Jimin shift in his chair, clamber onto the bed. Jungkook automatically moves over to make room for him, as Jimin pats a hand on the back of his head, through his sweaty hair.
“Oh, Jungkook,” Jimin says. The pity in his voice too soft to stand. “Is what what you think?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Jungkook, please. You’re my friend, and I love you. But that’s a different kind of love from what you’re looking for. You know this.”
Does he? Jungkook’s body hurts everywhere: throat, head, heart. Overcome by wanting, filed down to the feeling of it. All ache and bone. All this time, all this trial and error, and he doesn’t know how much closer he’s gotten. How much further there’s left to go.
“I’m never what anyone seems to be looking for,” Jungkook says, muffled into his pillow.
A considering hum. “Well. Have you found what you’re looking for?”
Jimin’s hand has travelled down to the tense line of Jungkook’s shoulders, carefully pressing at that tight knot of muscle, gentle but firm. “I know there’s been a lot of people in your life, Jungkook, and they’ve come and gone. And I know it’s been difficult. I’m sorry. But don’t you think it maybe means something that you let them go so easily in return?”
Jungkook opens his eyes. Stares at the empty side of his bed, a blur of memories before him. He once thought love so easy he could fall to it in the street. Now he wonders if that could ever have been called love at all. The half-flirting, the first dates, the second glances that never turned into anything more. Turns out he’d only been playing a game, going through the motions. The unnavigated terrain before him is only now opening up, real danger for the first time, something to gain, something to lose. It terrifies him. It should.
“Do you see?” Jimin says, quietly.
Jungkook rolls back over, turning to look up at Jimin, who’s watching him with a half-sorry smile like he knows something Jungkook doesn’t, the same one he wore that summer he sent the sky crashing down around them and then led Jungkook right out of the rubble again. As though to say: look at all there is, beyond this. All the world we haven’t discovered yet.
“I see it,” Jungkook says. And then, through the wet clot of his throat: “Thanks, hyung.”
He sleeps through the rest of the day and night and wakes up mostly healthy. Good enough to get back out there, though he knows real warmth is far away from him right now. Not an impossible distance to reach. About the half of a horizon; the other side of a circle, closing fast.
“Jungkook,” Seokjin greets in pleasant surprise, opening up the door. “You’re here for Yoongi, are you? I heard you were sick.”
“I was,” Jungkook says. He smiles at him, just sharp enough to bring a look of mild alarm to Seokjin’s expression. A warning and a promise, all in one: “I’m better now.”
How do you begin a good thing, or more accurately—how do you make one out of what you’ve already got? In his time Jungkook’s chased those who played hard-to-get, responded to his fair share of pickup lines and played his part in flirting, dropped a line in a text and went touch-and-go from there. Always the thrill of reciprocity, for a little while, at least. But with Seokjin it’s been always easy, which is both a blessing and a curse, one that leaves Jungkook staring fruitlessly at Seokjin from over his laptop screen across the kitchen table. Jungkook had told Yoongi he was coming over to study. Sure, Yoongi’d said, just don’t bother me. His own way of welcoming. If he’d known the object of study in question was his roommate, maybe he wouldn’t have been so quick to allow it.
“Have I got something on my face?” Seokjin says without looking up from his own screen.
“Yeah,” Jungkook says without skipping a beat, “your eyes. Nose. Lips.”
“Your touch that used to touch me,” Seokjin harmonizes.
They could leave it like that. Or...
“Actually, I just thought that you look... nice,” Jungkook says determinedly.
Seokjin raises an eyebrow. “Is that a threat?”
“Guess not. Wow, your studying must not be going well, if you’re reduced to telling me things I already know.”
Jungkook glowers at him. God, he’s so annoying. But he does look nice. It’s unfair. Still, never let it be said that Jeon Jungkook gives up easy.
“Hey,” Jungkook says. Clears his throat.
“Are you free Thursday night?”
“Why? You gonna ambush me?”
“No.” Jungkook stares hard at the pixels on his screen until they blur. “There’s a new ramen restaurant that opened recently in Mangwon. I thought we could go check it out.”
“This doesn’t sound any less like an ambush,” Seokjin says, but Jungkook isn’t watching, so he can’t tell what expression he has on his face. “Sure. Let’s do it.”
Jungkook perks his head up. “What? Really?”
Seokjin gives him a funny look. “Why not?”
Which is when Yoongi’s bedroom door opens, and he emerges with a magnificent case of bedhead, only to stop short at the sight of Jungkook and Seokjin at the table. His gaze lands on Jungkook, and narrows. Jungkook widens his eyes in innocence.
“He’s alive!” Seokjin announces.
Yoongi backs into his room and closes the door again.
“Or not.” Seokjin shrugs.
Jungkook’s pulse is racing. “So... Thursday night? Dinner?”
“Sounds good.” Seokjin’s returned to his laptop. The line of his brow is slightly furrowed as he reads whatever’s on his screen. Jungkook watches it, thinks about reaching out to smooth it out with the press of his thumb; the daring of it freaks him out so bad he forces himself to stare at his own screen. He lifts his hand to his mouth and starts gnawing at his thumbnail with a vengeance.
“Good,” he repeats, a beat late. “Good.”
He focuses so intently on his reading that he actually ends up becoming absorbed in it. He only snaps out of it when Seokjin shifts, across the table; rises from his chair. He heads over to the kitchen cupboards; Jungkook hears the clatter of pots.
“What’re you doing?” Jungkook asks without thinking.
“I know you’re really stressed about your homework, Jungkook-ah, but I don’t know how to tell you that I could not be more obviously starting to cook—”
“That’s not—I mean, I know, I just—”
Seokjin takes clear pity on him. “It’s lunchtime, and I know we’re both hungry. Someone around here should make sure we don’t starve, right?”
“Right,” Jungkook manages, and Seokjin’s smiling as he returns to opening the fridge and taking out ingredients. But it doesn’t strike him as enough. He blurts: “Can I help?”
Seokjin’s back is turned to him, so Jungkook can’t see his expression. But he can see the way he pauses, cut out against the fluorescent glow of the inside of the fridge.
“Sure you can,” Seokjin says, after a moment. His tone is ordinary, casual, even teasing. “As long as you do everything exactly the way I tell you. Think you can handle that?”
Jungkook closes his laptop lid so fast he almost slams his fingers in it. He can’t help it: it’s the part of him primed to respond to challenge, or maybe just to Seokjin, standing there in his apron, the amused tilt of his head like an invitation, poised to make something for them to share. “All right,” he says. “Where do I start?”
He ends up peeling potatoes. But standing over the sink, shoulder-to-shoulder with Seokjin as he chops vegetables and putters about the kitchen and starts telling an overly involved story about something funny that happened with his classmate the other day, Jungkook feels satisfied, like he’s won something he knew that he wanted if not the precise shape it would take.
“Finished,” he says.
Seokjin makes a hum of acknowledgment, sounding appeased, even impressed. “That was fast.”
Seokjin was right. Jungkook is hungry. He puts down the peeler, turns on the tap, and scrubs his hands clean.
The scent of doenjang jjiggae coaxes Yoongi out of his room eventually. When it comes time to eat they sit around the table and dig in, the steam gathering all around them.
“Jimin told me you were really sick,” Yoongi says, ladling stew into Jungkook’s bowl.
Seokjin clucks his tongue in sympathy. “There’s a nasty bug going around. Luckily, I haven’t gotten sick in years!” He pats his own chest in congratulations.
Jungkook rolls his eyes. “Weird thing to be proud of, but okay, hyung.” He makes it a point to blow on his bowl carefully, but he still somehow burns his tongue.
Yoongi narrows his eyes, gaze still on Jungkook. “He told me you had it really bad.”
Jungkook swallows his mouthful of hot stew. He takes a sip of water. Looks Yoongi in the eyes.
“Yeah,” Jungkook says. “I do.”
Jungkook finds two unfamiliar pairs of shoes—black leather ankle boots next to scuffed-up canvas shoes with the backs flattened—lined up by the doorway when he gets home from class on Thursday, which is how he knows he has got to tell his roommate to stop letting Jimin and Taehyung into the apartment. An alarming thought strikes him: he does know Jungkook’s already broken up with both of them, right?
“There you are,” Taehyung says when he enters, perking up next to Jimin on the couch. “You’re alive! I knew Jimin was totally exaggerating when he said you were at death’s door.”
Jungkook gives them both a sour look. “Why don’t you two just move in while you’re at it? At least then you’d pay rent.”
But his heart’s not in it, maybe because it’s currently jittering in a reckless pattern that would put jaywalkers to shame. He walks past them, only to hesitate at the doorway of his bedroom.
“Hey,” Jungkook says. “So, like, if I were meeting someone tonight, do you think this outfit would be okay?”
They stare at him in his ripped jeans and black sweatshirt.
“Are those Iron Man socks?” Taehyung asks.
“Are you meeting someone tonight?” Jimin asks.
Which is how he ends up standing in a pile of clothes they thrust at him from his own closet. “Where’s that really nice bomber jacket you wore that time we went out to the movies together and you let me borrow,” Taehyung says, “oh hang on, I still have that don’t I?”
“Just why do you have so many white T-shirts that look exactly the same?” Jimin says, tone despairing.
“You have to give us more details,” Taehyung insists. “Like, where are you going on this date? What’ll you be doing? What style are you going for?”
“Who’s this mystery person?” Jimin adds helpfully.
“It’s just dinner,” Jungkook says, ignoring him. “It’s not like—I don’t know, I just wanna look nice, I guess.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Jungkook, you always look nice!” Jimin ruffles his hair. “When you’re not sniffling and sweating in bed with a fever, that is.”
Jungkook leans away from his hand, face burning. “Look, I just want to make an effort, okay? That’s all.”
Taehyung and Jimin exchange a glance.
“Then it doesn’t matter what you decide to wear, really,” Taehyung says. “That’s all you have to do.”
Jimin cocks his head. “And it seems like you’re already doing it, aren’t you?”
Jungkook bites his lip. He looks at himself in the mirror and can’t help but think it’s true, in the wrong way: no matter what he wears, Seokjin’s gonna look at him and see what he’s always seen—the doe-eyed kid he’s always needed to take care of, who keeps tagging along after him and hasn’t got a clue, who’s been broken up with so many times by now that it seems like a foregone conclusion, and even still none of it’s been enough to get him to grow up once and for all. And maybe no amount of effort is going to make a difference.
“Sure,” he says faintly. “Thanks, guys.”
A beat passes.
“Taehyung, take off my beanie, you are not borrowing that.”
The first thing Seokjin says to Jungkook when he joins him at the table in the ramen restaurant is, “Oh, hey, you look nice,” promptly causing him to choke a little on his own tongue.
“Thanks!” Jungkook says, a bit too loudly. “So do you!”
Seokjin raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, but I always do.”
“Oh, ha ha, very funny.” Jungkook signals for a glass of water from the waiter and downs half of it in one go. He’d just settled for a simple dark sweater and jacket in the end, so there’s really no need for Seokjin to be peering at him interestedly from across the table like that.
“What’s the occasion?” Seokjin asks. “Did you have a presentation today?”
Jungkook wants to die. “What, do I usually look like hot garbage all the time or something?” he grumbles, sinking lower in his seat.
“Well, all I’m saying is, it’s a good look on you.” Seokjin shrugs and goes back to perusing the menu.
Jungkook straightens back up, resisting the urge to preen.
Unfortunately, the ramen ends up being passable at best. Fortunately, this gives them plenty to talk about, or at least for Jungkook to listen to as Seokjin goes on an impassioned rant: the noodles aren’t chewy enough, the slices of chashu too tough, the broth bland and lacking flavour. They still end up cleaning their bowls anyway. “It’s a waste of food otherwise,” Seokjin declares, and Jungkook wholeheartedly agrees, savouring every bite of this night, the first they’ve spent together like this. Like friends. Like—
“Hey, hyung,” he says, mustering up a bravado he doesn’t feel. “How come you never date anyone?”
He winces the moment it’s out of his mouth—it’s hardly the most tactful way he could have phrased the question. For how well the night had been going, it now feels like he’s dropped his clumsiness right onto the table and sent their bowls and chopsticks scattering.
But Seokjin doesn’t even bat an eye. His posture remains loose, relaxed as he wipes his mouth with his napkin. Nothing changes in his face, nothing but what Jungkook’s somehow suddenly sure is only an affectation of a smile.
“I haven’t met the right person yet, that’s all,” Seokjin says, easy as anything.
And there is nothing Jungkook can say to that, so he doesn’t.
When it’s time to pay, Seokjin starts to get out his wallet, but something possesses Jungkook to say: “No, hyung, let me.”
Seokjin’s head whips up. He stares at him. “What?”
“Look, it’s my treat, all right? It was my idea to come here, and the food sucked anyway.” Jungkook fumbles with his own wallet and stands up.
“No, c’mon, that’s silly. I can pay for myself—you’re still a student, Jungkook—”
How many times, Seokjin has treated him in the past. How this time, just this once, Jungkook wants to do it for him in return.
“Seriously, hyung, I’ve got it,” he says, and the look in Seokjin’s eyes goes unreadable, which should tell him something, he thinks. Instead he turns away and heads for the front counter with his wallet.
Outside, once they’ve left the warmth of the restaurant, the night air is bitingly cold in a way Jungkook isn’t prepared for, despite having come in from it in the first place. He hunches over on himself, hands jammed into his jacket pockets. “I’ll see you around, hyung?”
“Jungkook, we literally take the same train in the same direction.”
They keep up a casual chatter to the station, but it’s a little different now, polite and offhand like they’re treading a line. Seokjin keeps glancing at him sidelong out of the corner of his eye, but Jungkook doesn’t look back; he’s determined not to mess this up any more than he already has. Than he might still.
The compartment’s too full to sit. Jungkook holds onto the handrail, his shoulder knocking into Seokjin’s at every stop and start of the train, and thinks back to that second time they’d ever met, back before they really even knew each other, and how Seokjin had fallen asleep sitting next to him anyway. How it had felt something like safe.
What had he been dreaming about, Jungkook wonders.
“Hey.” A snap of fingers, in front of his face; Jungkook blinks back into reality. Seokjin is eyeing him. “Are you all right?”
They’re nearing Seokjin’s stop, Jungkook knows. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“You need to get more sleep, you’re drifting off on me,” Seokjin says, and then, hesitant in a way Jungkook hadn’t expected from him: “Thanks, Jungkook. I really had a good time with you tonight.”
All the way home, and all night, Jungkook replays that line in his head, over and over: I really had a good time with you tonight. I had a good time with you tonight. I had a good time with you. To hear the words, but also to try and understand the gentleness with which Seokjin had said them. The faint smile on his face as he had gotten off the train.
Consolation? Kindness? Or something else?
He wakes all twisted up in his sheets, his pillow fallen on the floor. There’s a Post-It note pinned to his mirror: TELL US HOW IT GOES, with a winky face and all.
His beanie is missing.
Jungkook decides to throw a party. It isn’t difficult: he’s got the timing (everyone wants to release some stress right now as the year crawls to its end), the crowd (he hits up everybody in his contacts list regardless of how along ago the conversation died), and—most of all—the alcohol. None of the above let him down. He works himself up to a pleasant buzz by the time the first person shows up. Then the pleasant buzz mutates into something far more concerning that seems to manifest itself in flashes of consciousness: teaming up with Hoseok to rope Yoongi into doing shots with them, drunkenly dancing to a TWICE song, tripping over one of his roommate’s potted plants, getting caught in the middle of an intense couch cushion fight between Jimin and Taehyung, taking blurry selfies with some guy he’s never met before in his life, being absorbed in listening to Namjoon explain to him a book he’s currently reading for an hour, getting dared to do a handstand and forgetting to stop until somebody helpfully knocks into him, squinting at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Was his face always this red? He splashes cold water onto his cheeks.
The bathroom door opens behind him. “Oops,” comes a voice, “sorry, it wasn’t locked—” A pause. “Jungkook?”
Jungkook looks up. He blinks, eyes bleary. He still has enough presence of mind to think, resigned: this might as well happen to him.
Seokjin steps into the bathroom, which you’re not supposed to do if it’s already occupied, Jungkook’s sure. That’s definitely a social rule of some sort, right? His brow is furrowed, like he’s thinking really hard about something, or like he’s concerned. Yeah, that would be it.
“Are you all right, Jungkook?”
Jungkook turns off the tap. His hands are wet; he wipes them on his jeans and then grimaces at the sensation. “Peachy,” he says, though his voice ends up coming out more higher-pitched than he’d intended.
“Wow,” Seokjin says. “You’re really drunk.”
Jungkook rolls his eyes. “Yeah, ’cause you’re the expert on being drunk, right?” He turns around and jabs his finger against Seokjin’s chest, which feels unfairly solid. “Well, you’re not! I am! And I say I’m not really drunk at all, no.” He hiccups for good measure.
Seokjin is straight-faced, though his eyebrows shoot up. “All right,” he says, easygoing. “You’re the expert, not me. What say you we get you somewhere you can lie down? You know—since you’re such a hotshot and all. I’d say you deserve it. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
Jungkook tries to think about it. The logic seems sound to him. And it would be nice to be lying down right now. Maybe then his gut wouldn’t feel like a stone sloshing around in an ocean. “Lead the way,” he declares.
Except walking isn’t so much his strong suit anymore. His body’s betrayed him somehow. He lurches forward, and Seokjin’s hands come up to steady him, brace him against his shoulder.
“I got you,” Seokjin says.
Jungkook just grunts in response as they stumble down the hallway together. Seokjin’s warm. Very warm. He smells nice.
“You smell nice,” he tells him.
“Your arms are pretty strong.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Still can’t take me in arm-wrestling, though.”
“I don’t know about that. We might have to have a rematch sometime.”
“Can’t take me!” Jungkook insists.
Seokjin looks like he’s trying not to laugh, which Jungkook can see because of the way the lights from the party fall over his face as they make their way through the crush of bodies in the crowd, and also because his mouth is very close to Jungkook’s face. They’re normally similar in height, but with the way Seokjin has to slouch slightly to accommodate Jungkook’s arms over his shoulders, Jungkook has a slight advantage at the moment. Face tilted, he can see it all: the soft line of his lashes, the familiar slope of his nose, the crooked half-smile he’s holding back. Why’s he holding back?
Usually, people only get this close when they’re kissing. Or if Park Jimin is trying to apply eyeliner on you because he swears you’d look good in it, c’mon, I just want to see what it would look like, just hold still and stop moving, it’ll all be over in a sec, except he never warned you it would tickle.
“Kiss, kiss,” Jungkook mumbles.
He hears something like a snort. His eyes had slipped closed at some point. When did that happen? He flutters them open again to find that they’ve come to Jungkook’s bedroom. A spark of excitement flares up in him, then dies out just as fast at the morose realization that there’s no way he’s gonna be able to bring his A-game in this state. God dammit. Such a good opportunity and he’s completely wasted it. Correction: he’s completely wasted.
Seokjin plops him unceremoniously onto the bed. Jungkook gets a mouthful of pillow. He makes a muffled noise of protest. Seokjin obligingly flips him over, facing up. Something warm and weighted falls over him a moment later.
Jungkook grips the blanket in his fists. He blinks up; his vision’s blurry and the room’s dark, but he can make out Seokjin in the crack of light from the doorway. He can see him as he turns to leave. He shoots out his hand, grabs his wrist, and feels Seokjin fall still.
“Hyung,” Jungkook whispers. He doesn’t know why he’s whispering. It just feels right, like it’s time to be quiet. “Hey, hyung, wait. Why’re you alone? Y’shouldn’t be alone.”
Seokjin’s look is pointed. “You’re alone, too.”
Seokjin pauses. His mouth quirks up.
“Not anymore,” he agrees.
Satisfied, Jungkook lets go of his wrist. He lets his hand fall atop the blanket. He can still hear the sounds of the party, muffled through the walls, a comforting undercurrent. He can still see Seokjin, standing there in the doorway, angled to leave, but he doesn’t. His face is turned, watching Jungkook back.
Jungkook fights to hold his gaze for as long as he can keep his eyes open. He loses the battle eventually, but it’s okay. It doesn’t feel like defeat.
He wakes up early in the morning, early enough that the sun hasn’t risen yet, early enough that he’d still think it was night if not for the silence seeping through the walls. The layer of it fallen heavy over everything like snow. When he gets out of bed he’s almost grateful for the cold, the sharp clarity of it piercing straight through his headache and nausea. It feels something like a balancing act, the work of walking out to the hallway and into the bathroom without setting off earthquakes in his head or even throwing up all over his still-socked feet. His face stares back at him in the mirror, pale and blotchy, hair a mess. It stirs a sense of déjà vu in him. He squints at his reflection. Then shrugs, starts the shower running, and strips off his disgusting clothes.
It’s only after he’s come out of the shower, after he’s towelled off his hair and run his finger through the fog on the mirror and gotten changed into clean clothes, that he comes out into the kitchen and sees Seokjin passed out on the living room couch.
The couch is too short for him. He’s sleeping with legs curled up, arm hanging off over the side, fingers brushing the carpet. His other hand is laid over his stomach, bare against the cotton of his sweatshirt. It’s still dark outside, so all Jungkook can see is silhouetted in blue: his mouth half-open, eyes closed, lashes fluttering slightly as though he’s having a dream.
Then he goes back into his room, gets his blanket, and drapes it over Seokjin carefully.
Seokjin doesn’t wake up until the water’s boiling and Jungkook flicks off the electric kettle. Then he wakes up all at once with a start, arms flailing, eyes flying open, the blanket slipping off him and onto the floor, utterly graceless. Jungkook stifles an inappropriate and ill-timed urge to laugh.
“Good morning,” he says.
Seokjin’s eyes land on Jungkook, and then on the six packs of instant ramyun lined up before him on the counter. They widen.
“You drank enough to drown a bull last night and now all you want is to fill your body with even more junk?”
Jungkook thinks about it. “Yes?”
Seokjin sighs. “To be young again.”
Jungkook rolls his eyes. “Three of them are for you, if you want it.”
“Oh, thank god.”
Jungkook prepares the bowls as he tries and fails to not be hyperaware of Seokjin’s every movement. His slow stretch after standing up. The way he bends low to pick up the fallen blanket, and folds it. The scratch at the back of his neck as he yawns and shuffles to the bathroom. The click of a light switch, the distant sound of a tap being turned on, the water running into the sink. Jungkook wonders if the mirror’s still fogged up.
Seokjin shuffles back into the kitchen. “Let’s eat,” he singsongs, and he takes the chopsticks Jungkook hands to him, sits down at the table.
Jungkook sits down across from him. Stares down at his bowl, the noodles sinking into broth. Steam rising, hot against his face. He takes a long swig from his cup of water and can’t help but think that they’re placed in awful parallel to their first meeting, and once again Jungkook is playing the role of the fool. The cultivation of distance between them feels deliberate. Delicate. At arm’s length: just close enough to catch, and just far away enough to let go of.
“I’m sorry, hyung,” he says.
Seokjin waves his chopsticks in the air to gesticulate his point. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got to take advantage of the time when it’s still socially acceptable to drink irresponsibly, after all. Hell, it’s practically an age requirement.”
“That’s not what I’m apologizing for.”
Seokjin pauses. He glances up at Jungkook. “Then what is it?”
Jungkook cups his hands around the warmth of his bowl and thinks about the answer. That he tried? No—that isn’t something he’s sorry for. That he didn’t try hard enough, maybe. That he thought any part of this could be easy.
“I’m sorry for being rude. About asking why you don’t date.”
Surprise registers on Seokjin’s face. Like maybe he didn’t think that was what he was going to say.
“Why are you apologizing? It’s fine.” Another pause. “Honestly, it’s probably only fair. I’ve seen so much of your love life and all. Anyway, it makes sense you’re curious. Hard to believe I’m single, right?”
Jungkook feels wrung-out after last night, overextended. His skin is dry, after the shower. He’s too tired to accept all these kindnesses, the gentle jokes and deflecting humour. He wants to be rid of it, the warmth of the steam and the fog on the mirror, all that’s protected them this long from what’s really there.
“Hey,” Seokjin says, after Jungkook doesn’t respond. “Look. It’s not that interesting, really. It happens to everybody, right?”
Jungkook glances up. “What?”
“My last relationship.” Seokjin slurps up a mouthful of ramyun noodles. “Mmm. That hits the spot.”
“Hyung,” Jungkook says, indignant. “I didn’t apologize to guilt you into telling me about it.”
“I know that.” Seokjin’s tone is indifferent. “I’m telling you because I want to.”
Jungkook falls silent.
“You know, it’s funny. I think I was around your age at the time. Maybe even younger than you.” Seokjin shrugs. “It lasted two years.”
“That’s pretty long.” Longer than Jungkook’s ever dated anyone, that’s for sure.
“Well, it didn’t work out.”
Jungkook swallows against the lump in his throat.
“I’m sorry they hurt you, hyung.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Not every relationship ends like that, you know.”
Jungkook doesn’t say anything. Does he know?
“Or, well, at least not deliberately. We treated each other the best we could at the time. Sometimes it wasn’t enough.” Seokjin shrugs. “What else is there to say?”
Jungkook thinks back to all the relationships he’s had, by now. The sweeping gestures, the careless mistakes; the inconstant pulse of happiness, on and off and on. All the excitement and the expectations. So much of himself he’s exchanged only with certain people who have since gone on to become strangers, acquaintances, even each other’s lovers. He could fill an empty room with all he still has left to say about them. Speak aloud an entire crowd of stories, confessions, secrets once shared with him in confidence and now unravelling in loose ends. And even now, how eager he is to plunge forward and wind even more through his greedy fingers, while Seokjin before him has remained tight-fisted for years, standing private guard over all he’s cherished in his time; all that’s his.
Something noble about it. Something lonely.
“Are you going to eat or not?” Seokjin points his chopsticks at him.
Jungkook obligingly takes a bite of his now soggy noodles. But something’s digging at him, refusing to go down quietly. A persistent tugging thought.
“So that’s your answer?” he asks.
“Why you don’t date anyone.”
“Well, it is like I said. I haven’t met the right person yet.”
But Seokjin hesitates before he says it, and in that flicker of a moment Jungkook recognizes the space he’s been given. He straightens up.
“But how can you know? If they’re right or not? Until you try?”
Seokjin chews on his ramyun for a while, mouth closed, a thoughtful expression on his face. He swallows.
“After that relationship, I took it to heart that I had to be very careful,” Seokjin says. “I told myself that I would know it, when the right person came along. That waiting would be safer for everyone.”
He laughs, then, a quiet one. “But I think I’ve always known, deep down, it’s only an excuse. I guess I’m just still scared.”
Jungkook feels a burst of relief so strong it’s startling even to himself. “Me too.”
Seokjin stares at him. “What do you mean? You have so much dating experience.”
“What, you think it gets any easier?” Jungkook pauses. “Well, I guess I used to believe that, too.”
More than that: he believed that over time, he could make himself into someone worth liking. Worth loving, even. That it could be as simple as sanding down the edges of an object cradled in his palm. His own hand. How tempting it had seemed to him back then, when he lived loneliness as a time of day, that empty hour when he would lie in bed and listen to the sounds of the night around him: Taehyung on the phone talking into his ear about another perfect stranger, music muffled from the other room, slow traffic moving outside his open window. How tempting it still is. It isn’t that Jungkook’s afraid of being alone. It’s that he wants to become a person who is good at love. Knows himself capable of it, as though a hollow space carved inside his chest, ready and waiting. That he could someday fill it with someone’s heart, and handle it with care, and it would almost even fit.
“Anyway,” Jungkook says. “I am sorry, really.”
Seokjin is staring at him. He puts down his chopsticks. This must be really serious; he hasn’t finished eating yet. He sighs.
“Jungkook,” Seokjin says. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s not fair to go on a date with someone without actually telling that person it’s a date?”
Jungkook drops his own chopsticks. They clatter into his bowl and spray flecks of red soup onto his white T-shirt. He doesn’t notice. “What?”
Seokjin trains his steadfast gaze on him. “Did you ask out all your past lovers this way? It’s a miracle you ended up in any relationships at all.”
Jungkook splutters. He can feel his ears burning. “I asked you out to a restaurant!”
“You did it like you were inviting a friend to dinner, and you know it.”
“Yeah, but—” Jungkook falters under Seokjin’s unimpressed expression. “Okay. Fine. Yeah. I did. Because I was—”
“Uncertain?” Seokjin says. He hasn’t taken his eyes off Jungkook, not once. “Confused?”
Jungkook lets out a breath he doesn’t feel. “No. Scared, remember?” A pause. “Like you.”
“Hm,” Seokjin says.
He drums his fingers against the table. Their ramyun noodles are getting cold.
“Ask me again,” says Seokjin.
Jungkook doesn’t move a muscle. He doesn’t dare.
Seokjin’s gaze is unflinching. Patient.
“Um,” Jungkook says. “To the ramen place? Because I thought we agreed it kinda sucked—”
“All right, I’m taking it back. We’re done—”
“No, wait, hyung!” Jungkook reaches out without thinking and grabs Seokjin’s hand in his. It’s warmer than Jungkook’s own. He squeezes it.
“Hyung,” he says. Heart in his throat. The sun is finally rising, outside. He hadn’t even noticed until he saw the glimmer of gold creeping over Seokjin’s face, striping diagonal across his jaw, feathering soft into his hair. The reflective gleam in his eyes. He squeezes Seokjin’s hand again. “Would you—will you go out with me?”
Seokjin looks at him.
He squeezes Jungkook’s hand back.
“Only if you let me pick the restaurant this time,” Seokjin says, and breaks into a blinding smile.
Jungkook feels a stupid grin come over his own face in response. He picks up his glass and chugs some water just to hide it, though he has the sinking feeling that it’s a lost cause.
“Oh, good,” Seokjin says. “Can we finally finish eating now?” He picks up his chopsticks again, but keeps holding onto Jungkook with his other hand.
It’s kinda hard to eat ramyun with only his left hand, but Jungkook’s determined to manage. He barely tastes it as he shovels it into his mouth, even though it’s the super spicy kind. His mind is racing. His chest feels fit to burst.
“Hey,” Jungkook says, when he’s finished, and he’s full.
Do you—Have you always—When did you—
But there’s time, for all of those and more. There will be.
“What were you dreaming about?” Jungkook asks instead. “Last night?”
Seokjin smirks at him. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“Ugh, hyung,” Jungkook says, making a face and kicking at his foot under the table.
But he thinks he already does.