There are two constants in Jeongguk’s life, and he only hates one of them: tax returns, and Park Jimin.
He doesn’t mind the tax returns.
“As if someone like you actually needs to worry about tax returns,” Jimin gripes where he’s spread out on the floor of Jeongguk’s room, pens and pencils scattered over the pristine white carpet. Bent over a mess of paperwork, he is the picture of an adult thoroughly unready to shoulder the crushing reality of capitalism.
(Though, honestly, Jeongguk wasn’t joking about helping Jimin pay off his student loans. But if there’s one thing about Park Jimin that Jeongguk can always count on, it is how hardworking he is; for years now he has refused Jeongguk’s money, and he will probably continue to do so until he is hospitalized with a failing kidney because he sold the other one on the black market for three hundred grand. Only then, maybe, will he allow monetary support from someone two years younger than him.)
Jeongguk scratches the bridge of his nose with his ring finger, looking up at Jimin over the edge of his desktop. “You know, you can sit on my bed if you want. It can’t be comfortable on the floor.”
Jimin rolls his eyes. “‘Can’t be comfortable on the floor,’ he says about carpeting thicker than my ass,” he mutters. “Jeon Jeongguk, my cinnamon roll too rich for this world, too privileged, when you sit on bare concrete every day for two straight years because you’d rather skimp on real furniture and spend it on food, anything is comfortable.”
So at least tax returns don’t give Jeongguk sass.
No, Jeongguk isn’t a teenage prodigy. He’s no mogul of an empire. He doesn’t even work at a strip club, but he has a feeling if he did he’d probably be able to double his salary. No, Jeon Jeongguk works a modest job in investment management making six whopping figures a year, and Jimin looks at him with solemn eyes sometimes and says, “You truly are living the only worthy fantasy of Fifty Shades. The one where you get a job right out of college. Except you’re not even out of college. What the fuck is this?”
It had come in the form of shaky financial gamble when Jeongguk had barely been sixteen. Back then, he’d just started out interning at the local investment firm. Spent his days cramming his head full of business strategies and statistics and marketing terminology, eating bagels and cream cheese with watery coffee in the kitchen. It was hard, being surrounded by people leaps and bounds ahead of him. The least he could do to keep up was to learn three times as much as they knew and try twice as hard to get half as far as the rest of them.
And it paid off, in a way. At sixteen years old, six months, twenty-six days and not a second older, Jeon Jeongguk became the richest person in the Gyeongsangnam-do province overnight, and since then, his life has never been the same.
Jeongguk looks up from the binder open in his lap, bagel crumbs tumbling onto the floor when he shifts. Namjoon gives him a glance from the coffee machine, finger pressed down on the lever with his mug held under the stream.
“Bad business?” Jeongguk repeats.
“You get a line here when you’re stressed out.” Namjoon taps the space between his own eyebrows, turning around to lean his waist back against the counter, and sips. “And you’re doing that thing where you work in the kitchen on your break.”
“Caught that, huh?” Jeongguk shuts the binder with a thud, the rings cracking at the weight of the shifting paper.
“Seokjin says you used to do it more back when you were an intern,” Namjoon says. He winces at the burn of coffee on his tongue. “And I’ve seen you do it once or twice before when it was hectic around here.”
“The kitchen helps me concentrate,” Jeongguk says, digging one end of his bagel into his packet of cream cheese. “More homey, I guess. Friendlier atmosphere.”
“No room for friendliness in the stock market, then?”
Jeongguk laughs dryly. Namjoon is older than him—though not by much, the way his thoughts are wired makes him feel considerably so. He picks up the ends of his scoff in something a little more respectful.
“It’s not so bad when you’re on the profiting side, hyung. Then you can afford to be an asshole.”
“You’re fine,” Namjoon points out. “Taciturn, sometimes, but you’re fine.”
“Thanks. You’re truthful, sometimes, hyung, but you’re fine too.”
“Where do you learn to talk like that,” Namjoon says, but it’s without poison, and he’s laughing too. “That Park Jimin? I bet he gets it from Seokjin.”
The truth, the one that Namjoon would never say aloud, is that no one likes a rich asshole.
Take Tony Stark, for example. The first time he wasn’t disposable was after he saved the world, or something along those lines. A rich asshole that has never touched the lives of the people around them is just an empire of money with no one to spend it on. And technically speaking, Jeongguk isn’t Tony Stark, not if he counts Park Jimin. And Jeongguk half counts both Namjoon and Seokjin, having been his superiors for so long that they feel like friends now, so together they make one person. This gives him a grand total of two people he cares about, trusts with his life, and two has been enough.
(His family is a bit of a different story.)
But spending money on Park Jimin presents a couple of difficulties. To begin with, he’s with Seokjin—who may not have had the windfall fortune under his belt like Jeongguk does, but he still makes far more than enough. Not that that even matters, considering Seokjin spoils Jimin in all other areas of life anyway. As for Seokjin, Jeongguk has. Gotten him flowers, once. Seokjin had just been discharged from the hospital after a couple of fractured fingers (in the middle of the night, and Jimin had been on scene, so Jeongguk does himself a favor and never asks). Seokjin had resolutely brushed his offers off to help with the ER bill. And Namjoon—Namjoon, for someone who makes as much money as he does, spends far too much time philosophizing about capitalism and the social implications of money, so Jeongguk just Does Not Even Try with him.
And Jeongguk is not afraid of being alone. This is what he tells himself, and this is what he believes. He’s lucky to attend university on the other side of the country, in Seoul, where people don’t know his name. Those who take him home after a frat party never find out what he earns, what he does for a living, who he is, and Jeongguk has never had a problem with this. Pulling on clothes in the middle of the night—hunting around for his pants and sweater, buried another another pair of baggy oversized jeans or a silk dress—he never feels the need to look back.
It’s easier this way. Jeongguk wakes up the next morning, attends class, gives Jimin grief, and goes to work if he has it that day. His house in Gangnam is quiet when he gets back. It’s been quiet for as long as he can remember: straight edges, no nonsense, impersonal in its furnishings and decor, and Jeongguk wonders if anyone could tell that someone were living here.
But at nineteen years old, two weeks, three days and worn down to his bones, Jeon Jeongguk looks back. Something tells him to. It comes soft at first, almost inaudible, but after living in static silence, even the most distant bars of music are applause in an empty room.
“Hey, you, dildo factory reject. You’ve got a lot of ’splaining to do.”
“This now!” Jimin exclaims, shoving his Samsung between Jeongguk’s face and his entrepreneurship textbook. The brightness is turned down, so Jeongguk sighs and puts down his pen to appraise whatever new discovery Jimin has unearthed. “Why didn’t you tell me? I’m hurt.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says shortly. Right, this. He’s squinting at his own Tinder profile. “Why, was I morally obligated to tell you about this?”
“No, actually, that’s not really my point.” Jimin backtracks. “You matched with me. And Seokjin hyung. Jeongguk, you hate cooking. Why the hell is that under your interests?”
“As if you actually use Tinder to find someone to cook for you,” Jeongguk says, tossing Jimin’s phone back at him. “Why do you and Seokjin have Tinders? You guys are dating each other. Oh, God, my boss has a Tinder. Wait, fuck.”
Jimin looks at Jeongguk with raised eyebrows as this information finally sinks in. “Your boss matched with you on Tinder. He screamed and threw his phone at me when he did. It was lovely. Gave me a real shiner.”
Jeongguk looks at Jimin’s face. “You look fine.”
Jimin, with the skill of a practiced artisan, ignores him, looking back at his phone. He holds it up to his face, then at arm’s length, then right up to his face again, and concludes, “I mean, I guess.”
“What the fuck does that—”
“You’re not really good at selcas, Jeonggukkie. It’s just the truth.”
“Then what I’m supposed to use?” As if to prove a point, Jeongguk pulls out his phone. Jimin shrugs.
“I don’t know. There’s that picture of you in the suit that day you were leaving that conference, right? Seokjin hyung was wearing a parka. That day. You looked good.”
Jeongguk winces. “It’s not that recognizable, but I’d rather not in case someone figures out it’s—” He pauses at the alert badge on his Tinder app. “Me.”
“What?” Jimin leans over to look at his phone. “What? Ooh. New match?”
“Shove off,” Jeongguk says, pushing Jimin away. The alert is from a girl he’d swiped right on ages ago, but that’s not what has him pausing. It’s a suggested match—Taehyung, 21, says his profile. His picture is a little blurry, like it had been taken when he was walking, but it’s obvious that he’s handsome—black cardigan, green beanie, winking against a backdrop of a driveway. He’s so much of a hipster that Jeongguk rolls his eyes, and almost swipes left to decline. But Jimin is faster than him, hand darting out like a snake to snap up the phone in his fingers.
“Hmm,” he says, sticking his tongue out and gloating at Jeongguk, who glares at him from his seat. “Let’s see here—”
“Give it back!”
“Nope,” Jimin says, dancing away with the phone in hand. He doesn’t think this through too well, because Jeongguk is taller than him. When he reaches out to pluck it from Jimin’s fingers, Jimin opts to roll up into a ball and wedge the phone between his chest and thighs. “No, come on! Let me see who you got matched with.”
“Stop touching the screen! What if you fuck it up?”
Jeongguk successfully wrenches the phone out of Jimin’s hands, standing victorious, but his grip on the phone is loose at best and it slips from his grasp. He watches as it falls, in slow motion, his thumb drawing over the profile picture. It drags across the screen of his phone, the faint green LIKE stamp flashing as the picture disappears. Then his phone hits the floor with a clatter, face up, with the words It’s a Match! appearing in white cursive over their icons.
Miraculously, the screen of Jeongguk’s iPhone 6+ does not shatter into a spectacular cobweb pattern, despite the fact he doesn’t even have a hint of a case protecting it. Natural selection will come for him one day. Today is not that day.
“Oh, fuck,” he says with horror, not moving to pick it up. “Fuck, look at what you made me do.”
“Oh my God.” Jimin looks at the screen before doubling over in laughter. “Oh my God, I didn’t make you do anything, Jeongguk. This was all you.”
“You talk to him!” Jeongguk says, kicking the phone at Jimin.
“What the hell? Why should I talk to him, you’re the one who swiped right on him!”
“I did not!” Jeongguk protests. “It was an accident—”
“But would you have?” Jimin asks, knowingly.
“Would you have?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Why are you even freaking out? Aren’t you just looking for a quick lay? That’s what everyone on that app is looking for. You’re getting what you signed up for. Just don’t talk to him if you don’t like him, it’s not that hard.” Jimin leans towards the screen. “Is he even—?”
Jimin looks up from where he’s still squatting on the floor when Jeongguk snatches the phone out of his reach. There’s a glint in his eye that Jeongguk dislikes hugely, and Jimin claps his hands together as he stands as if beating away dust.
“Well, you tell me how it goes, hotshot,” he says, his wink bouncing off the angry wall of Jeongguk’s glare.
Jimin collects his phone and gets out of Jeongguk’s space, evidently only here to bother him. He’s long gone, the door of the empty classroom swinging shut, before Jeongguk looks back at his phone. You and Taehyung have liked each other, says the message screen.
Jeongguk taps Keep Playing, sleeps his phone, and forgets about it.
『 ₩ 』
Taehyung, in one moment, is cradled in the soft warmth of sleep, and in the next, Sujeong’s voice is piercing through that fabric of dreams and he groans in the back of his throat. Distantly he hears her laugh. Then he’s shifting in position and the hard linoleum meets his shoulder blades as he rolls over.
“I just went to sleep,” he complains to the ceiling. “I just closed my eyes.”
“It’s been an hour. Also, you have paint on your face.”
Taehyung groggily reaches up and pats his hand over his face until he meets something slick and oily on his cheek, and his fingers are a midnight blue-black when he brings them away. Serves him right to crash on the rough linen the art students lay down to minimize the splatter, but it’s not like he’s going to bring his clean bedding into the studio every day and risk getting oil paints on it.
“Wake me up at four.”
“Before you went to sleep, you told me to say no if you requested this.”
“Okay, but did I tell you to say no to waking me up at five?”
“You have a project deadline at midnight and you only started this morning.”
At this, Taehyung jackknifes into a sitting position, half-stumbling, half-tripping into his office chair. It wheels halfway across the studio before he can properly drag himself back to his easel with the heels of his shoes. Sujeong watches, still crumpled with sleep and blue paint smudged on his face, as he sorts through his dirty paintbrushes.
“Why are you going the traditional route this time?” she asks over her laptop, tablet balanced in her lap. “I thought you said you were going to do installation for your project.”
“I’ve done installation too many times, I think burnt myself out,” Taehyung says, scratching behind his ear as he loads up a brush with wicker white. “I couldn’t think of anything. Why do you think I put it off until this morning?”
Sujeong sets down her tablet. She comes to a stop beside him, blinking at his canvas beside him, and says with confusion, “You don’t have anything.”
"Yeah I do.”
"I don't see anything."
“I know. You're not supposed to. That’s four coats of white paint, Sujeong. And two of floating medium.”
“Oh.” She seems to struggle with words for a moment, then stays silent. “Anyway, your phone buzzed when you were sleeping.”
“Really? Call or text?”
“Text, I think.”
Taehyung’s phone really needs charging, he notices, when he takes it out. He expects a message from Jimin, maybe Baekho or Youngmin, some of the other seniors in the art department, but it’s a notification from Tinder. He swipes on the banner and it opens up to the app.
“Everything all right?”
Yeah, everything’s all right all right. Taehyung hadn’t even been expecting anything when he swiped right on this boy. All he remembers is thinking that he was really hot, in that frowny, forbidding kind of way, and Taehyung had swiped right on him without a second thought. He hadn’t imagined he’d actually match with him, though, this Jeongguk that apparently liked skateboarding and guitar and cooking. That last one is a little oddly out of place but Taehyung will take it in stride.
It’s a Match! You and Jeongguk have liked each other.
Taehyung rubs one of his eyes, still dry with sleep, and taps on Send Message. Somehow he can’t picture someone as cold city chic as Jeongguk will reply right away, if at all, but if he ever does get around to finishing this godforsaken project (spoiler: he’ll have to, if he wants to pass Visual Arts and Culture), he’ll need a way to unwind. And, seeing as Taehyung has made it a personal goal to swear off weed this year, he can’t end the week ripping a bowl to destress.
The message goes through. Taehyung taps into Jeongguk’s profile to look through his pictures, and finds that he doesn’t have many—there’s his default display selca, one of him with his chin propped in his hand as he’s seated at a picnic bench, looking at something off camera, and another one where his face is hardly visible, head bent over a guitar with a pick in his teeth.
Shit, Taehyung is so lucky. He navigates back to the message page and switches his phone to sleep. If this works out, Jeongguk will be the hottest lay he’s snagged. Senior year is coming through for him, clearly.
It won’t come through for him if he doesn’t get to fucking work on his project, though, so he puts his phone down and plugs his sound-blocking earbuds back in. The paintbrush still feels stiff and uncomfortable in his hands, but he dabs it against his palette, presses the bristles to the canvas, and milks the last bits of creativity he has for this.
Sujeong packs up around dinnertime. Baekho and Youngmin end up stopping by in the late evening, picking up supplies for their own projects and giving Taehyung a pat on the shoulder as they watch him struggle with his work.
“You have two hours to finish this?” Baekho says, glancing at the clock and then back at Taehyung’s easel, which now has a tasteful splatter of bloodred paint across the white canvas.
“I guess,” Taehyung says, picking at a hangnail on his thumb, chalky white from dried pigment. “I could call this done, though. Maybe.”
“What’s it supposed to be saying?”
“Uh,” Taehyung deliberates, “if you hear a funny a noise at night, don’t turn on the light.”
“Oh, so it’s a cautionary piece.” Youngmin props his chin in his hand. “Did you have a prompt?”
“Yeah. It was the word danger. That’s all they gave us.”
“Interesting. We’ll leave you to it, then.” The door creaks on its hinges as they bustle out, and Taehyung listens to their voices fade down the hallway, looking back the canvas. To be honest, he really can just stop here. His professor is probably going to sigh, and let him scrape by if he’s in a good mood that day—but Taehyung has an animation project that he needs to prioritize far more and that’s a class he can’t afford to fail.
A yawn rattles through his mouth. Taehyung props his heels up on one of the work tables and reaches for his phone, and makes a noise of delight when he sees a message notification from Tinder, sent just fifteen minutes before, and opens it up.
It’s Jeongguk. Took him long enough.
hello, i’m jeongguk
soooo...what do you like?
haha don’t have much time for what i like
the arts though
dance and drawing
but school and work...
guy’s gotta get through college
omg i’m an arts student!
:P :P :P
so we both know what we’re here for
are you down?
Jeongguk takes his time to reply. The typing bubble poofs in and out of sight, before finally deciding on
yeah i’m down
when are you free
kinda wanna unwind from the work i had today
been a real pain lol
damn you too? haha
can we do your place?
it’d just be a hassle though
sorry, is that a problem for you too?
i mean my place isn’t impossible
it’s a little small but it’ll do
you want to meet at the crepe place right off campus?
how does 8 sound
i’ll see you there at 8 tomorrow then!
Jeongguk doesn’t reply after he’s seen the message. The cold city chic aesthetic is strong with this one. Taehyung has a feeling that Jeongguk isn’t going to be an amazing conversationalist tomorrow, and racks up possible topics they can make small talk about. Drake’s newest mixtape. Natalia Kills and her mayonnaise husband. Or, if Jeongguk isn’t into that kind of bourgeoisie trash, maybe Kafka on the Shore. Or Jeongguk’s favorite flavor out of a selection of Italian sodas. Standard pre-hookup etiquette, is, after all, deceptively important. With the way word travels around among the hookup community on campus, it is far too easy to tarnish a reputation if things aren’t done right.
Well, whatever. Jeongguk doesn’t seem to be one to talk that much, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Here today, gone tomorrow, and no one will be ever the wiser.
Taehyung doesn’t know if he missed some memo because he’s sitting in the crepe place, alone, nursing a glass of berry-infused water when someone slides into the seat across from his clad in a full suit.
Jeongguk, for the record, looks as cold as his texting is. His Tinder profile says he’s nineteen, but he could probably pass off as older, and Taehyung sits back in his chair as though physically blown away at how much more attractive he is in real life. It’s a little disorienting, especially with the way Jeongguk reaches up to his throat and loosens the knot of his tie. It’s clipped at the ends with a glittering pin engraved with the word Armani, and Taehyung has to fight the urge to stare. An Armani tie clip. He doesn’t know if he’s laid eyes on something that expensive in the last four years of his life.
“Jeongguk, right?” Taehyung smiles. Does he reach out for a handshake? The way Jeongguk holds himself makes Taehyung feel like he’s meeting his employer, or a future boss, and he feels tremendously underdressed. He just came in his day to day clothes. He literally has a beanie pulled down over his ears because he wasn’t about to deal with bedhead on a day where he has to present a project to his professor.
“That’s me. Sorry about this.” He gestures to himself. “I came right from work.”
“How old did you say you are?”
Jeongguk meets his gaze flatly. “Nineteen.”
Taehyung lets out a low whistle. “Impressive,” he says. “It’s not every day you run into a nineteen year old that has to suit up for his job.”
As it turns out, Jeongguk doesn’t mind talking about bourgeoisie trash. When Taehyung brings up Drake’s album Jeongguk’s face lights up in a way he doesn’t expect it to, and that bit where he’d said he likes music is no lie. Taehyung thought, as an art student, he knews enough people who have wide ranges of music tastes, yet Jeongguk challenges them all.
“So, you want to do this?” Jeongguk asks during a lull in their conversation. It had dragged longer than either of them expected, the hour nearing nine, and Taehyung really does need to get started on that animation assignment soon. He nods, standing.
“How did you get here?”
“I drove,” Jeongguk says. His voice is not unkind, but a little stiff, if anything. “I can take us to wherever you live.”
“I’m not amazing with directions,” Taehyung says. “So you’ll have to bear with me.”
Jeongguk is quiet when he drives. Being in a relatively private space with him now, Taehyung falls silent. It’s not that he doesn’t have anything to say, but the silence is thicker now, and charged, like it will spark if Taehyung reaches out to touch it. Jeongguk’s hands are ghostly on the steering wheel, the only bits of him illuminated by the harsh white street lights. Even when Taehyung glances at him, his face is mostly obscured in shadow, and he opts instead to examine the material of the seats. Judging from the quality of the black leather, this car can’t simply be a standard little Toyota, and Taehyung wonders vaguely where Jeongguk—a university student—gets the money.
He never does get a chance to find out what kind of car Jeongguk drives, because when he steps out of it, searching his backpack for his keys, Jeongguk is already beside him. He doesn’t move on Taehyung like so many others have before, but he is close enough that Taehyung looks up meets his eyes. For a moment Jeongguk seem like he’s about to say something, but then Taehyung hears the jangle of his keys deep within the mulch of his bag and unearths them.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” he says, and Jeongguk shrugs. His expression is intense, but still closed off. “Woes of an arts student. Try not to step on any paint underfoot, some of it won’t wash off.”
When the door shuts behind them, though, Jeongguk wastes no time. Taehyung turns around to him toeing off his shoes already, undoing the knot of his tie completely and slipping it off his neck. And, in truth, Taehyung doesn’t really keep track of the motions of all his hookups. Sometimes there’ll be more pomp and circumstance, more kissing, more teasing. But this particular one, this time with Jeongguk—well, in one breath Taehyung is undoing his pants, and in the next, he’s sliding naked onto the bed in front of Jeongguk, sitting cross legged in his slacks, still, a tent in the fabric between his legs already.
Jeongguk doesn’t kiss him, though, when Taehyung puts his hands on Jeongguk’s shoulders and leans in. Initially he doesn’t move a muscle, but just as Taehyung tilts his head for a better angle, Jeongguk jerks his face away. Taehyung can work with this. He trails his lips down Jeongguk’s neck instead, tonguing at the vein that stands out in his skin when Jeongguk swallows. Still, there’s a pang of hurt in his chest. He’s never gotten into bed with someone who turned down kissing so staunchly, but whatever. Jeongguk’s neck is amazing and he makes a delicious noise when Taehyung sucks at the hollow right behind his ear. His hands find their way to Taehyung’s ribs, holding him steady as they eventually ease down onto the bed.
Taehyung gets him bothered enough, with a hand down his pants and a mouth on his cock, that Jeongguk flips Taehyung over onto his hands and knees himself. He groans when he hears Jeongguk tugging the waistband his slacks down, and gets even more turned on when he realizes Jeongguk isn’t going to take them all the way off. Just enough so that his cock is freed, unhindered by any cloth. When Taehyung spreads his thighs, holding his pillow under his chest, he can feel the soft brush of cotton over his calves and the insides of his thighs, and the shivers have nothing to do with the way Jeongguk slicks two fingers into him.
Not that he doesn’t shiver at that—oh, he does, at two, then three, then at the sound of Jeongguk tearing open a condom packet. When he finally slides in, Taehyung curls his fingers into his unmade sheets, throwing his head back and whining. Only then does Jeongguk stretch his body over Taehyung’s back, chest to spine, and Taehyung can feel his racing heartbeat between his shoulder blades as Jeongguk fucks into him.
Jeongguk finally does kiss him when they come—Taehyung first, crying out into the pillow where he finds enough friction to get himself off, and Jeongguk right after, body stuttering to a stop, the sharp juts of his waist pressing into Taehyung’s skin. They don’t move right away, catching their breaths, and Jeongguk is slow to ease out. Taehyung nearly startles when Jeongguk drops a kiss on the small of his back, quick but firm.
“Thank you.” Even as he leaves, pulling his clothes on, fixing his hair so that it sits neatly in place again, he leans down and kisses Taehyung, before pulling back and looking him in the face one more time. A goodbye seems to hang on his lips, and he seems to fight with himself for a moment. Taehyung presses in and kisses him instead, and Jeongguk breaks away again. But this time, it doesn’t feel like a refusal, and Taehyung chuckles to himself at the dark flush that colors Jeongguk’s cheeks as he disappears out the door.
Mmm. He rolls over and buries his face in the sheets and thinks he can still smell the expensive cologne that had clung to Jeongguk’s neck and collarbones. Maybe Armani, too.
『 ₩ 』
“I am not discussing my sex life with you.”
Jimin just laughs, and continues eating his lunch, as if this idea is so incredulous that he doesn’t even need to do anything beyond laugh and wait for Jeongguk to drop the facade. It’s obvious, at least to someone like Jimin, that he’s been fidgety all day. It is only a matter of time.
“He was really,” Jeongguk bursts out, then quiets. Really—he doesn’t have a the right word for it. Jimin fixes him with knowing eyes and expectant eyebrows and Jeongguk wants to just slap the look off his face. He clamps his mouth. “Never mind.”
“On a scale of one to ten, one being ‘I never want to see the likes of him again,’ and ten being ‘I’d hook up again right now if I was given the opportunity,’ how good?”
Jeongguk pulverizes the inside of his cheek with his teeth. “Eight.”
At this Jimin sits back, tilting his head. “Wow,” he repeats, sounding genuinely surprised this time. “Really? That good?”
“Well, maybe a seven,” Jeongguk corrects. “Or. Six and a half?”
“Now you’re just bullshitting me.”
“I’m just answering your goddamn question.”
“Jeongguk, the last, I don’t know, ten lays maybe, you’ve all rated them threes. And that one girl who got a four because she was, quote unquote,” Jimin drops his Subway to crook his fingers in midair, “‘really wild in bed and went along with any kink you wanted, including the one where—’”
Jimin shuts up when Jeongguk knocks his cup of water to the ground. They stare at the pooling moisture, darkening the patio cement between them, and then Jimin looks back up. “‘She licked the come off your dick,’” he finishes with a flourish.
“I sincerely hope you choke on a Hot Cheeto and die.”
“And you gave her a four!” Jimin throws his hands up. “What on earth could this guy have offered you to secure an eight? It escapes me.”
“He…” Jeongguk picks at a bit of shredded lettuce in Jimin’s sandwich wrap. “He...hmm. He—oh my fucking God, he’s right behind you don’t look don’t look don’t look. Stay cool. Don’t be obvious. Don’t look. Hoe don’t do it.”
Jimin turns his entire body around in his seat.
“Oh my God,” Jeongguk mumbles into his hand, staring resolutely at the table.
“Wait.” Jimin turns around again. “The guy behind me that’s talking to the girl in the white sweater? Him?”
“Stop talking, he’s going to hear you—”
“Jesus take the wheel,” Jimin whispers into his bread. “Take it from my hands.”
“Why are you freaking out,” Jeongguk says, still talking from behind his hand. “You’re not the one who hooked up with him last night.”
“I’m freaking out because I know him,” Jimin says. “No, like, he’s my friend, I’m not shitting you. Holy shit, Jeongguk, you hooked up with one of my best friends and—oh my God, I, okay, eight? Really? Oh my God, I—damn. I would not have expected that of him.”
“Is he gone.”
“Uh, he’s ordering food right now. He can’t see you, Jeongguk, I’m blocking you from his direct view. Besides, it’s not like hookups ever actually say hi after the hookup, so what are you worr—”
“Never mind,” Jimin says to himself as Jeongguk attempts to become a marble statue.
Taehyung looks different in the natural sun; without a beanie on, Jeongguk can see the strands of his hair that pick up the light and look like threaded gold. He seems tired, exhausted, even, but the curiosity in his eyes glosses over that when he passes by their table with a wrapped subway sandwich in hand. “Hey, Jimin. Jeongguk, it was really nice talking to you last night, I never got a chance to say thank you, too. It’s too bad we had to cut it short because it was getting late, so maybe I can see you around again sometime?”
“Sure,” Jeongguk says, sounding like a strangled chicken, and when Taehyung walks away with the girl beside him Jimin looks to him out of the corner of his eyes.
“Did you guys,” he asks slowly, as if afraid of what Jeongguk’s reaction will be, “go on. A date?”
“No,” Jeongguk snaps. “We just met up at a place first and it went from there.”
“Since when did you do meetups?” Jimin asks. “One time you couldn’t even remember the damn face of the guy you fucked and now you’re doing meetups?”
“What’s wrong with a meetup? Why do you care?”
“It’s just new, is all.”
Jeongguk sighs, crinkling the corner of Jimin’s sandwich wrap. “New, yeah. It was pretty weird. I don’t know if he caught how much money I make, but he must have. I was still in my suit and all. Even so, though, he was the first person in a long time that I’ve actually talked to that didn’t ask about work, or my salary, or anything having to do with money. He talked to me about music. He’s an arts student, but I guess you know that already. It was nice. New, yeah. But nice.”
“Wow, because I talk to you about your money all the time,” Jimin points out, pouting. “I am an absolute gold digger. I have no shame. I only like you for your giant bank balance.”
“You know it’s different.”
Jimin laughs. “I know,” he agrees. “And I’m glad he gave you a nice respite. Taehyung is a really fun person. I can see why you liked him. Albeit, he is an odd one, I mean. Arts student and all.”
“But,” Jimin says, “he’s just a hookup, you have to remember that. Because you don’t want anything to happen again.” Jimin hesitates. “Right?”
“Yeah.” Jeongguk frowns. “I know.”
“I’m just saying, you know,” Jimin says. “The way you talk about him, it’s—just don’t dig yourself into a hole you can’t get out of.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Is Taehyung like, an asshole?”
“No, he’s not. Frankly, he’s one of the nicest people you will ever meet. That I’ve ever met, in fact. I’m just saying that if you get hurt again, it’s not my problem,” Jimin says with an air of finality, “so don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Jeongguk heeds this warning and promptly proceeds to do the unthinkable: he hits Taehyung up again at the end of the week, with the excuse to himself that he really does want an actual crepe, still, and work continues to grow more and more stressful. No harm in another hookup. Taehyung is more than willing to join him.
“I don’t come here too often,” Taehyung says, sailing in after Jeongguk this time. “So it’s so nice to get a chance to eat something! This place gets really good reviews on Yelp and everyone talks about their strawberry shortcake crepes like they’re the second coming of Jesus, and—”
Taehyung pauses abruptly when Jeongguk reaches forward to pick a fleck of blue paint out of his bangs. For a split second Jeongguk is shocked at his own forwardness, but in the next second Taehyung is smiling again.
“Thanks,” he says. “Sorry. I came right from the studio and I was helping take down old work. It gets messy in there.”
“It’s fine,” Jeongguk says, and he finds he means it. “I didn’t really change for our last—meeting.” He almost says date but catches himself at the last moment and can practically hear Jimin laughing.
If Taehyung catches the stiltedness of Jeongguk’s words, he says nothing, perusing the menu. Jeongguk has looked at it already, and now there’s nothing to distract him from the squirmy feeling in his stomach. The question of so, are we going to finish up here and then go hook the fuck up again? sits like a stone in his belly and Jeongguk finds himself staring at the crown of Taehyung’s head. It’s a little dusty, like he’d be knocking things off high ceilings. It’s like Taehyung can sense his gaze, and he looks up. Jeongguk turns his face away.
“Some people create art,” Taehyung says, directing his attention back to the menu, but his voice is candied with amusement. “And some people themselves are art. No shame in looking.”
“I wasn’t looking at anything. Your hair is dusty.”
“Aw, man,” Taehyung says, looking up until his eyes can’t go up any further, and he bats at his hair with the hand not holding the menu. “I thought it was all right this time.”
They order their food. When the waitress leaves them, Jeongguk asks about Taehyung’s life as an art student and he rattles off far more information than Jeongguk bargained for. But he finds that he likes listening—to the stories about Taehyung’s classmates, to their bizarre projects, to their slightly less-than-brilliant ideas. Taehyung tells him about Ryu Sujeong, the animation genius, and if Jeongguk didn’t know better (he thinks he knows better, anyway), he would say that Taehyung liked her; he talks about a boy named Youngmin and his grotesque honey-and-taxidermy project that had attracted squadrons of ants, and the time a Baekho had poured a shot of five-hour energy into a cup of black coffee and mixed that horrific concoction with a whole can of Monster.
Taehyung likes children. Sujeong, he boasts, works at the family center, and he wishes there were more hours in a day so he could take a job there with her, because they all are so cute. “I could do with the money,” Taehyung says sadly. “Funds are always tight when you’re an art student.”
“Is he alive?”
“Alive and well.”
“You sound like you have a lot of fun with them.”
“I love them,” Taehyung says. “We’re all a really cranky with each other when we’ve been awake for fifty hours, it’s true. But it’s hard to find friends in the arts program, so when we do, we hold on tight. You should come visit sometime! God knows if I keep distracting Sujeong she’s going to throw her five hundred dollar tablet at me.”
Jeongguk rests his chin in his hand. “Maybe I will.” If he is honest with himself, he’s a little jealous. Taehyung seems to have more to say, more people to talk about, and here Jeongguk is with Park Jimin, whom he has to share with Seokjin.
“What about you? You work, right? Do you like your coworkers? Any nightmare stories to share?”
Their food arrives, then, and they eat in relative silence. Mostly because Taehyung eats like a starving animal, wolfing it down like he hasn’t seen food for hours, and if anything Jeongguk has heard about arts students is real, he probably hasn’t. Taehyung licks the last bit of ice cream from the corner of his mouth with the tip of his tongue and scrapes his plate with his fork one last time to catch all the bits of powdered sugar and Nutella.
“You ate that in four bites,” Jeongguk murmurs.
“I could’ve done it in less,” Taehyung says seriously. “Ah, I could go for another one, but they’re not exactly cheap.”
“I’ll pay for one if you want another one,” Jeongguk says, not thinking about it before the words are out of his mouth. “I wanted to come here, after all.”
“No.” Taehyung frowns. “I’m not going to let you pay for me. I wanted to come too, after all.”
“It’s no problem, Taehyung.”
“Maybe it isn’t for you, but it would be for me,” Taehyung says. “I don’t let people pay for my things if I can help it.”
Jeongguk tries not to smile, but a hint of it tugs at his lips anyway. Taehyung sees it, and looks puzzled. He will never know why.
When Jeongguk is finished and paid for, they walk outside together and the awkward silence amplifies until it’s a dull throb in Jeongguk’s ears. Taehyung shuffles his feet, as if making to leave, but then he looks to Jeongguk and asks, “It’s Friday. Are you working?”
“I work early on Fridays.”
“So do you want to come over?”
Jeongguk has this rule for himself. Not one that he’s ever explicitly acknowledged, but he never, ever sleeps with the same person twice. He’s seen enough miserable, broken FWB relationships to know that that kind of life is just too risky. He’s seen enough people pull him close only for material wealth to know that that kind of life is just asking for trouble, and yet.
(Jeongguk sucks Taehyung off this time, teases him and doesn’t let him come until he’s begging for it. He tells himself that it’s because it seems to get Taehyung off, the edging, which it does—but he ignores how much he likes hearing Taehyung moan his name, like it’s the only one that he has ever tasted.)
『 ₩ 』
“Hey,” Taehyung says somewhat breathlessly as he dodges Youngmin’s work on the ground, stylus in hand, “what are you doing here?”
“Weren’t you the one that invited me here?” Jeongguk says. “Don’t want to see me?”
“No!” Taehyung protests too quickly. “No, of course not. I thought—well, I thought you wouldn’t be interested.”
The exasperation in Jeongguk’s face is unbridled. “Who do you take me for?” he asks. “I told you I like the arts.”
“I also happen to recall you saying you have no time for the arts,” Taehyung points out as he meanders his way back to his workspace. Jeongguk follows him, thumb hooked under one of the straps of his backpack and Taehyung drags a rickety chair over to the table where he’s working for Jeongguk to sit in.
“Sorry. Spinny chairs for art students only.” He taps the desktop awake, eyeing Jeongguk curiously. “What are you studying?”
“The words might make your ears bleed.”
“Oh, God. You’re a math major.”
“Financial stats,” Jeongguk corrects, and Taehyung makes a noise like a dying cow. “And I did say I don’t have time. That doesn’t mean it stops me from doing this shit anyway.”
“Do you sleep?”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, hugging his backpack to his chest and resting his chin on it. “I try to.” Suddenly, Taehyung notices, he looks like a different person. Nowhere to be seen is the no-nonsense, suited up Jeon Jeongguk that had seated himself across Taehyung weeks ago. Now, looking out of place on a wobbly wooden studio chair in nothing much beyond a solid red t-shirt and black jeans, Jeongguk blends right into their student demographic. He’s just another nineteen year old.
That Taehyung happens to have hooked up twice with, but that is beside the point.
“I take that struggle bus every day,” Taehyung sighs. “You happened to catch me before I take my afternoon nap.” Jeongguk says nothing, and Taehyung glances at him. “You’re just going to watch me work?”
“I guess,” Taehyung says. “It’s slow going, I promise you.”
“Where are the rest of them?”
“Lunch. I ate already.”
“You guys don’t take meals at regular hours either, huh?”
“Nope!” Taehyung says cheerfully.
They fall silent then, and Jeongguk watches Taehyung work with surprisingly rapt attention. His presence make it difficult to focus and Taehyung fucks up most of his lines five times each, hitting Ctrl+Z more than he’s used to. Sujeong would laugh at him, and he forces himself not to look at Jeongguk until he’s made it through three frames of his animation.
“Mind easing up there a little,” Taehyung says, just to cut the inexplicable tension between them. “It feels like you’re trying to bore holes in our best Mac with your eyes.”
“I’m just watching you!” Jeongguk says, meeting Taehyung’s gaze, and the laugh that had been simmering at the brim of his throat dies. For a moment, they hold it, a shaky stalemate that Taehyung breaks by doing what he’s been thinking about since Jeongguk sat down beside him.
Jeongguk doesn’t pull away when Taehyung kisses him. Granted, he doesn’t kiss back, lips soft and unresponsive under Taehyung’s mouth, but it’s already more than he could have asked for. The second he pulls back and sees Jeongguk’s face, he thinks, fuck, I fucked up, why did I act on impulse he will never want to see me again—because the reality of hookups rests on the assumption that, outside the sex, one person is tied down by nothing regarding the other. More often than not, if Taehyung meets the eyes of his old hookups in the library or walking around on campus, a flicker of recognition will flash in their eyes and they will look away. Not enemies, per se, not strangers with memories, either. Acquaintances, in the basest of definitions, but here he is, sitting across from Jeongguk, a hookup, in an empty art studio trying to decipher the expression on his face.
“Sorry,” he says quickly, pulling out of Jeongguk’s space. “Sorry, I don’t know why I did that.”
“Why are you sorry when I let you do it?”
Taehyung blinks stupidly at the computer before looking back into Jeongguk’s face. It’s devoid of any telling emotion, but he doesn’t appear to be angry, either. “I just assumed,” Taehyung fiddles with the stylus, “that. You don’t like it, you know. Because you wouldn’t let me when I tried to the first time.”
“So you must know perfectly well that if I didn’t want you to, I wouldn’t have let you,” Jeongguk says, so pragmatic. “But I did. Stop apologizing.”
“Then, can I,” Taehyung licks his lips, “can I do it again?”
Jeongguk watches him evenly for second, then closes his eyes.
And Taehyung does.
There is a strange little place between FWB and dating. It has no name and the feeling of it creeps in slowly, then attacks fast. Maybe it’s Taehyung’s own fault for not paying more attention.
All he knows for sure is that they’re friends. Jeongguk still doesn’t tell him what he works in and Taehyung gets it into his head that whatever he does might not, strictly speaking, be legal (because really, what kind of a job pays enough for a university student to be able to both pay tuition and own Armani), and Jeongguk likes this theory enough that he doesn’t attempt to correct him. But after hanging out with the art department for all these years, and Jimin—who takes none of Taehyung’s shit—Jeongguk is different. Yeah, he’s different, but it’s not the defining reason why Taehyung wants him to stick around.
Jeongguk tells him little stories of his life unprompted, especially late at night at the studio when he drops by after work, wearing one of his suits and a Rolex watch, smelling of sweet cologne. Taehyung learns that, once upon a time Jeongguk held a brown belt in taekwondo, until he heard some old wives’ tale that martial arts would stunt his growth and he needed all the height he could get out of his genes. Taehyung assured Jeongguk after that that his genes are spectacular and patted his denim-clad knee, and Jeongguk swore he’d throw Taehyung out the window if he came up with a pun that shitty again. Jeongguk had, in the tender teen years, dreamt of becoming an idol, but it was scrapped when he got turned down at Superstar K2, and Taehyung asks him if he can sing.
“I like to think I can,” Jeongguk says, worrying a tiny ball of earthen clay in his fingers. “But I’m not singing for you, so don’t get any ideas.”
He really doesn’t. Jeongguk is nothing if not stubborn. Taehyung can tell just from the way he talks. And Taehyung can tell, just from Jeongguk’s stories, that he doesn’t seem to keep too many close friends besides Jimin.
“Jimin is enough,” Jeongguk shrugs. “My coworkers are fine, too. I’m kind of glad Jimin is dating someone now, to be honest. He’s kind of big on the skinship thing and I’m just,” he grimaces, “not.”
“You let me touch you,” Taehyung points out bluntly. Jeongguk doesn’t laugh and shoot back a retort like he expects him to, though, and that lack of blatant denial is probably at least half the reason why he’s so confused where they stand.
But Taehyung isn’t going to fuck it up by opening his mouth. He’d rather turn back time and never have swiped right on Jeongguk, never have met him, than give up the way Jeongguk looks at him when he doesn’t even spare others a glance.
『 ₩ 』
“So,” Jimin begins, taking a sip from his bottle. “Have you summoned me here, Jeon Jeongguk of Busan, because you are for once acknowledging your feelings?”
Jeongguk turns on Jimin with chopsticks positioned in his fingers like daggers.
“What? Because there’s some other reason you called me here on a Tuesday night? When I was in the middle of a date with Seokjin hyung, mind you. Thanks for that. How are you going to explain to your boss you interrupted private time with his boyf—”
“My boss is a boss when he needs to be boss,” Jeongguk says. “He doesn’t and wouldn’t ever talk about this in front of me.”
“Which is why you need help,” Jimin reasons, pointing his finger over the rim of his cup. “Who is it? How much damage control do I have to do? I am only so good at shittalking, Jeongguk, half the people you hook up with are actually decent—”
“I don’t want you to shittalk him.”
Jimin raises his eyebrows, a foamy mustache lining his upper lip. “Really?”
“But you always want me to do that,” Jimin points out. “Give you a reason to dislike them enough to not see them again. Break off relationships before they start, the whole deal.” He pauses. “What, you actually want my advice on how to pursue one instead?”
Jeongguk wordlessly plates up his fried rice.
“Wow,” Jimin says, sitting back in the bar stool. The veins and tendons in his forearms stand out in his skin when he crosses them. “I always did wonder how you never got lonely in this giant house all by your lonesome, but it appears that you do.”
“It happens, okay?” Jeongguk says, setting down his plate across Jimin’s on the counter with a clatter, shoveling rice into his mouth with unnecessary force. “It happens and now I don’t know what to do, and you’re here.”
“To tell you what to do?”
Jeongguk shrugs a shoulder. Of course he’d stuff his mouth full to avoid answering hard questions.
“You’re a fool to think there are cold, hard answers to things involving feelings, Jeongguk.”
Jeongguk’s throat bobs when he swallows too fast, and he coughs. “I know there aren’t. But you’ve got answers and I’ve got none, so that’s somewhere to start.”
Jimin makes a theatrical show of sighing. “What is it, then?” he asks. “Who is it and what have they done to get you wound tighter than a spring coil?”
It’s not like he needs to ask who it is, but Jimin knows Jeongguk well enough to know that he responds better to hypotheticals. He is, after all, a businessman.
“This person,” Jeongguk says unhelpfully. “Someone I hooked up with, he’s. Really fun. I like him, but I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“What if he only likes me for my money?” Jeongguk asks, like this question has been grating at his throat all evening. “What if he knows who I am, what if he’s connected the dots—I don’t know why I did it, Jimin, I drove him in my car, yeah, my Audi. What if he’s figured out I’m Jeon Jeongguk of Busan and all he likes me for is some financial gamble I made five years ago clicking around on a website?”
A silence like cold butter settles around them. Then, “Well, does he like you?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk snaps. “If I knew the answer to that, would we be here?”
“Maybe,” Jimin says. “And you’d still be having a grand meltdown like you are now.”
“I’m not having a grand meltdown.”
“You’re eating your rice with your hands.”
“Fuck,” Jeongguk mutters, looking down at his oil-stained palms.
“Is it Taehyung?”
Jeongguk’s furious hand washing calms a little. “So what if it is?”
“Knowing who we’re working with can help,” Jimin says. “Taehyung, huh? What did he do that’s so charmed your ice cold heart?”
“If I could tell you that, we also wouldn’t be here.”
“Maybe not,” Jimin agrees this time. “So what I understand is that you want to potentially...pursue something with him?”
“Would it be stupid of me to?”
“I mean,” Jimin quirks a corner of his mouth. “You’ve always wanted me to discourage you from relationships because you didn’t want to get wrapped up in someone that could take advantage of you again.”
“So you’re asking me for my honest opinion now?”
“I think I am.”
“I think you should try it,” Jimin says. “I think you should, not because I think this one will work out any better than your other relationships, but what are you losing if you don’t?”
“I’m not too keen on heartbreak, Jimin.”
“No one is,” Jimin says. “But you can play the what if game with yourself forever. Do you want to? What if he’s only here for your money? Drop him. I’ll catch you. But what if he’s really something else, someone you can hold onto?”
“I asked you for answers,” Jeongguk sighs, “and all you gave me were more questions.”
“Jeongguk, my naive, fluffy duckling,” Jimin says, “that is what love is all about.”
『 ₩ 』
It’s cheesy and stupid. Taehyung will admit that, as an art student, he has laughed at stories where people have found their muses in others because the idea is so laughable. People are impermanent, people come and go, but he has always found himself wishing he could understand that feeling, too—the one where creative inspiration flowed like water over stones, like the unmarred stream of time. Taehyung felt it once, long ago, when he was younger and before he did this for a grade.
But when Jeongguk is beside him in the studio, into the late, late hours of the night, it comes back. Fleeting, at first, timid tastes of it in his fingers.
“Hey,” Taehyung replies. He no longer jumps at the sound of Jeongguk’s voice, short and soft, in the buzzing fluorescent silence. “You should’ve gone home. It’s late as evil already.”
“Says the one still up and working.” A fleecy plaid scarf of black and red is bundled up to his chin, the fringe caught under the strap of his work bag. He nods at the empty sketchpad open in Taehyung’s lap. “What’s on the agenda today?”
“Well,” Taehyung says, “I just took acid.”
Jeongguk stares at him. “What.”
“I might have just taken acid?” Taehyung says, smiling sheepishly up into Jeongguk’s dark scowl. “It’s for a project, you’ll see what I mean.”
“I’m not sure if I want to see.”
“No, no, hear me out. I’m not going to hand this in for a grade, I’m just going to see what this does. I’m going to draw a self-portrait of myself every hour until I feel the effects wearing off, and see how each of them changes. Sounds cool, right?”
“I—I guess,” Jeongguk says haltingly. “Are you sure about this? Acid doesn’t sound—”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Taehyung says, and motions for Jeongguk to sit down. He does, with some hesitation. “I planned on doing this alone, since it’s a weekend and no one will be in here until at least noon tomorrow, but you’re welcome to stick around and see what happens.”
“What happens when you’re on acid?”
“About to find out, aren’t you,” Taehyung says, carefully selecting Prismacolor and smoothing a hand down the blank page.
Acid is different with different people. Taehyung doesn’t actually notice himself changing—that’s the thing about it, that a distorted reality becomes concrete reality, and Jeongguk’s face starts doing weird swirly things in his field of vision as the hours pass. He chatters in between self-portraits, and he might be too loud because Jeongguk shushes him more than once, and steers him back into his seat when Taehyung somehow ends up on his feet.
“I don’t know what I expected,” Jeongguk says when the sixth alert chimes for the night and Taehyung reaches for his sketchbook again. His voice is loud, really loud, like he’s speaking right next to Taehyung’s ear. When Taehyung reaches out for him, Jeongguk lets his gaze fall on his face. It feels like they could fit a world in the distance between them, but then Taehyung’s hand is closing around Jeongguk’s wrist and he’s leaning closer. “What’s wrong?”
“Hold on, the world is spinning,” Taehyung says, and laughs. “I’m okay, I just. Spinning. I’m okay!”
“Are you really?”
There’s something strange in Jeongguk’s voice. Taehyung notices it, through the haze, but it doesn’t really communicate anything, or form a coherent message in his mind, so he just laughs and squeezes Jeongguk’s wrist harder as he plucks a green pencil out of the collection and gets back to work.
The trip doesn’t wear off for four more hours, and in the time between holding onto Jeongguk and the sunrise, Jeongguk bids a sleepy farewell. “I have to catch a wink for work later,” he pleads, and Taehyung waves him off. “I’ll see you around.”
“I’ll show you when I’m done!” Taehyung calls after him.
“Will you really,” Jeongguk replies, dryly, and now Taehyung ponders longer on the meaning of that answer. The world is moving far too much, but the colors of his surroundings have dimmed into a greyer reality and Taehyung collapses in his chair to flip back through the pages of his sketchbook.
He had started out fairly normal, a close representation of his own face scribbled in golden tan and peach over the page. As the night had progressed, through, he laughs when he sees that his face had grown more and more pink, then purple, with green eyes and fire for hair. In the one he made at the five hour mark, he has frills extending from his eyelashes like peacock feathers, and he think this one will be his favorite.
But then he turns the page, and looks down at his work from the six hour mark. It isn’t a self-portrait at all, and suddenly, the strangeness with which Jeongguk had acted suddenly makes much more sense. Taehyung stares down at his drawing of Jeongguk’s face, caught in profile, the line of his nose accentuated with hard green shading all around his face. It’s done with a kind of care that isn’t present in any of his other sketches.
“Oh,” he says, looking at his hand, still holding a color pencil. Acid has always disconnected him from his body, but never quite like this. “Oh, shit.”
Jeongguk takes it better than Taehyung expects him to. This is not saying much considering Taehyung did not think Jeongguk would ever speak to him again after that.
“It was flattering,” Jeongguk says, when Taehyung can’t even look him in the face the next time he stops by, a week later. For every one of those days in between Taehyung had cursed himself for letting Jeongguk stick around to watch him, for fucking up when he told himself he wouldn’t. “A little odd, but flattering. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. It was an interesting project, too.”
“I know, but—I’m sorry,” Taehyung repeats, sounding like a broken record. “It was still embarrassing, even if it wasn’t for you. If I hear myself say sorry enough, I’ll feel better.”
“And I’ll tell you it’s okay until you feel better.”
“Okay, I’m better.”
Jeongguk snorts. “So, do you have any other plans for me this Friday evening or are you going to keep things as normal as they can get around you?”
“Well, actually,” Taehyung begins, and Jeongguk takes on an expression like, oh, I really should not have asked that question, “I wanted to ask you if you were okay with helping me.”
“Helping you,” Jeongguk echoes. “How so?”
“Can I,” Taehyung asks, fiddling with the hem of his shirt, “uh. What do you say to me painting you naked?”
Jeongguk blinks dumbly at him.
“Only say yes if you’re okay with it!” he exclaims, waving his hands in an effort to bat away the thick curtains of silence. “It’s absolutely fine if you’re not! But I was thinking—”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, cutting Taehyung off.
“—that you could—what?”
“Okay. If you can promise no one is going to walk in, anyway.”
“Oh, no one will, not at this hour,” Taehyung says. “And I can lock the door from the inside. You won’t flash any poor, innocent eyes.”
“Okay, take your clothes off!”
“What, now?” Jeongguk says as Taehyung begins to gather his supplies, bustling around as he arranges a surface for Jeongguk to sit upon.
“Inspiration is a fickle mistress, Jeongguk, one does not ignore her advances.” The wooden chairs clack as Taehyung pushes them together to form a long, unbroken seat. “Yes, now. Sorry it’s cold. We only turn the heater one when it’s snow—snowing.” Taehyung pulls the scarf Jeongguk had tossed at his head away from his face. “Hey!”
“Hey yourself,” Jeongguk says evenly, undoing his tie, and Taehyung’s throat closes. He’s been here before, watching Jeongguk deftly flip satin over and around his fingers, loosening the knot at his throat and slipping the length of fabric from his neck in one fluid motion. Then his blazer goes, landing on the growing pile of clothing in Taehyung’s arms, until he straightens up in nothing but his own skin.
“Okay,” Taehyung says, setting down the armful of Armani fabric, still scented with the spice of cologne Jeongguk uses, “I’m going to need you to lie down.”
『 ₩ 』
Taehyung was very methodical about the way he touched Jeongguk—and Jeongguk, for the record, is not usually ever this stark naked in bright light. But Taehyung had curled a soft hand around his elbow, steering Jeongguk to the chairs that he had draped with one of the paint splatter linens. “This one is laundered, I promise,” he said seriously, as Jeongguk eyed it with some uncertainty. Then he sat Jeongguk down, hands skimming over his shoulders. “Stretch your legs out for me? And bend one knee.”
Jeongguk tried to hide the shiver that shook his bones when Taehyung drew a hand over his arm, bringing it up so that it was stretched out over the length of his body, his wrist resting on his bent knee. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I’ll stop touching you as soon as I get you in position.”
“No, it’s,” Jeongguk swallowed, and he hoped not audibly so. “Fine.”
“Prop yourself up on your elbow,” Taehyung prompted. “Okay, good. Now,” he positioned Jeongguk’s head ever so gently, holding his face between his two hands, “hold that.”
Jeongguk blinked as Taehyung pulled away. “For how long?” he asked.
“For however long it takes,” Taehyung singsonged. “But if you’re tired, you can move. I can put you back together if needed.”
As if this were some implicit challenge, Jeongguk really hasn’t moved in the last five hours. The elbow that he rests upon is throbbing in protest, sore from holding all the weight of his upper body on the solid wooden surface. But, if Jeongguk were honest with himself, he’s a little insulted—insulted by how composed Taehyung is around his naked body. Really, he’s been lying here, prostrate, for all this time and Taehyung hasn’t even pretended he wants to jump him.
Maybe Jeongguk had expected too much out of this. Not that he had expressly been expecting anything when Taehyung told him to strip off in front of him, but still. The studio is drafty this late in the night. Jeongguk thinks of the column of Taehyung’s throat when he’s under him and has to shove that image into a deep, dark part of him before it causes any trouble.
“And here I was thinking you weren’t happy to see me,” Taehyung says, voice disembodied in the tense silence, and Jeongguk opens his eyes. Somewhere after the second hour he’d let them fall shut, sliding in and out of a doze. But now he’s blinking at Taehyung, who has a funny look in his eyes and an upturned curl to his lips, and Jeongguk wonders what he means. “I was going to finish this alla prima, but it looks like that’s not happening.”
Jeongguk feels heat pool low in his abdomen, then between his legs, and understands when he glances down. “Oh,” he breathes. “Fuck.” So much for avoiding trouble. “Sorry, I—”
“No, don’t be,” Taehyung says, dabbing at his palette, paintbrush poised in midair. Each and every one of his movements is tightly controlled and calculated, and Jeongguk doesn’t know how he didn’t notice the tense coil to all the muscles in Taehyung’s body. “Me too.”
“Hyperawareness does wonders for artistic creation,” Taehyung says.
“What the fuck does that mean,” Jeongguk asks, the words coming out somewhere between a scoff and a laugh.
“It means painting when I’m horny produces some damn interesting results,” Taehyung says frankly, and Jeongguk makes a strangled noise as he sets down his brush. The faucet is loud, water hitting the bottom of the stainless steel when Taehyung turns on the tap, and he washes his hands. “I’m burnt, though. This’ll have to wait.”
“For?” Jeongguk shifts, finally, and his arm quivers when he pushes himself up to sitting. Taehyung crosses the room, the playful glint in his eyes clearer than ever as he draws close. He hesitates when he steps into Jeongguk’s personal space, but when Jeongguk doesn’t object, he gets on his knees. No preface, no fanfare.
“Holy shit,” Jeongguk hisses when Taehyung mouths at the head of his cock, fingers curling around the shaft to hold it to his lips. “Shit, Taehyung—”
“Don’t be too loud,” Taehyung says, pulling back and looking up through his lashes at Jeongguk, running his tongue over the dampening slit of Jeongguk’s cock when he pauses. “I can promise you no one is going to walk in here, but I can’t promise you the art building is empty. We work at odd hours.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk exhales harshly as Taehyung goes down on him again in earnest, taking a breath through his nose and pressing the flat of his tongue to the underside of his cock. “I’ll—I’ll say.”
They’ve never done this, so Jeongguk isn’t sure if he’s surprised or not when Taehyung takes him all the way down into his throat. He fights the urge to buck forward into the tight, constricting heat, and Taehyung’s arms are straining with the effort of holding Jeongguk’s hips still. He works at a maddeningly slow pace, licking back up the length of Jeongguk’s cock, then kisses the swollen head. “Come,” he urges, lips slick. “You want to, right?”
But Taehyung simply hums, sucking Jeongguk back down, and it’s enough to push him over. He comes so hard he reaches down and tightens his fingers in the hair at the back of Taehyung’s neck to anchor himself, and his chest is heaving when he comes back to himself. Taehyung has his cheek pillowed against Jeongguk’s thigh, lower lip stained with come as he smiles up at him.
“Come back to my place?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper.
Jeongguk draws his hand through Taehyung’s hair.
“No. Come back to mine.”
『 ₩ 』
No, apparently not. They pass into the district of Gangnam, still flashing with lights in the late hours. Bars full of rich expats and exchange students are finally clearing out, and here and there are people being held upright by their friends.
“You live here?” Taehyung asks. He only ever dreams of coming here, sometime.
“Around here,” Jeongguk replies.
Taehyung doesn’t get a chance to get a good look at Jeongguk’s house when they get in. He does register that it’s huge, unforgivingly so, because the slam of his back to the door quite literally echoes through the space around them. Jeongguk’s mouth is hot on his and Taehyung forgets about money and high-end living, and instead concentrates on kissing Jeongguk and holding himself up even when Jeongguk slides his thigh between Taehyung’s, hitching him up. Taehyung reaches over his head, steadying himself with a palm flat against the cool wood of the door.
“How long did you hold yourself back?” Jeongguk asks against Taehyung’s mouth, not so much kissing him as he is just mouthing against his lips as he speaks.
“All evening,” Taehyung admits, kissing Jeongguk again, hard, biting the soft flesh of his lower lip. “I have the self-control of a god, don’t I?”
“Hmm,” Jeongguk says, pulling back, and there it is again—the nimble loosening of his tie, followed by a beckon this time. He leads Taehyung up a flight of stairs, and in brighter, less heated circumstances Taehyung might pause to admire the design, but right now he’s just focused on not tripping over his own feet in his haze of desire. “We’ll see about that.”
Seeing about that entails, well—Taehyung can’t say he’s used to be being held down, but he absolutely has no qualms about it. He would be ashamed at how much he’s on board with it, in fact, whimpering when Jeongguk pins him down by the wrists into the mattress, begging for more, then begging for release. The mattress, so big that Taehyung isn’t sure he can see the edges in his periphery, still creaks when Jeongguk presses into him, thrusting slow, but with confidence now—after so many hookups together.
“What did I say,” he gasps when Taehyung digs his heels into the dimples of his waist, “about struggling?”
“I know,” Taehyung’s breath hitches on a cry when Jeongguk hits his spot just right, voice breaking, “I know, but—”
Jeongguk has both of his hands pinned over his head in one of his, one wrist caged in with Jeongguk’s thumb and forefinger, and the other trapped in the steel grip of his other fingers. Taehyung fights against the hold, and Jeongguk is unraveled enough that he doesn’t rebuke Taehyung for yanking one hand free, bringing it up to hold his cheek in the cradle of his palm. The tenderness of the touch makes Jeongguk’s hips stutter, a noise of question caught in his throat that Taehyung swallows when he cranes his head up to kiss him again.
When Taehyung comes, painting their bellies white, Jeongguk loses himself too. He feeds the broken cry into Taehyung's mouth, between his lips and teeth, and only breaks away to catch his breath, wet and warm over Taehyung's lips. Jeongguk's hand loosens around his wrist, and the skin of his palm prickles when blood rushes back into it.
“Why,” Jeongguk pants, against the thundering pulse in Taehyung’s neck, “what was that for?”
“You used to not let me.”
“Not let you?”
Taehyung pulls Jeongguk back, so he can look into his face. “You used to not let me kiss you during sex.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says shortly, looking away, but Taehyung puts a hand to his jaw and makes Jeongguk look at him. Even then, he directs his gaze down, at Taehyung’s chest. “Yeah, I guess not. I don’t really kiss any of my hookups.”
Taehyung moans faintly when Jeongguk pulls away, and pulls out slowly, peeling his condom off with practiced movements. He props himself up on his elbows when Jeongguk slides out of bed, disappearing into the bathroom. He returns with a towel.
“So what am I?”
Jeongguk tosses the towel at Taehyung, and it lands on his come-streaked belly like a misshapen butterfly. “Hmm?”
“If you let me kiss you, what am I?”
“Mmm,” Jeongguk hums, climbing back into bed. He leans in, not touching Taehyung, and kisses him on the mouth with surprising sweetness. Jeongguk draws his tongue over Taehyung's lip, soothing over the bruising bite he’d left earlier. “Thinking too much.”
The house is quiet as Taehyung pads out of Jeongguk’s room. The old-fashioned banker’s lamp is still on, casting a soft green glow over the couches and Taehyung makes to duck if Jeongguk is awake to catch him—though, he’s not sure why he would, considering Jeongguk once didn’t leave his place until the morning after—but it seems that he isn’t even at home.
As he expected, there’s no answer. Taehyung stops trying to shrug on his clothes in a hurry, straightening his letterman jacket around his shoulders before bending down and hooking his fingers into the heels of his shoes. With the lights on dim, in the high ceilings and the kitchen, Taehyung gets a good look at Jeongguk’s apartment for the first time.
The decor on the walls don’t seem to come together with any rhyme or reason; they’re expensive, Taehyung can tell, they don’t look like things can just be picked up at any old department store. No, some of them are custom-made art pieces, hand-painted, hand-sewn, hand-assembled. Taehyung hops up on one of the armchairs, feet digging into the soft leather, to get a better look at a 3D piece encased in a frame of glass and steel bearings—it’s made with bits of amber, seaglass, and angel aura quartz, an impressive piece that must weigh over a hundred pounds.
Taehyung wanders more, finds the narrow winding staircase that stretches up towards the skylight tucked into the corner. The brushed metal rail is smooth and cold under his fingers, and the landing ends in a dark hallway, with just two doors—one ajar to a guest room, hotel-like in its blandness, and another, wooden and set deep in the wall. It’s heavy to push open, and opens to a tiny, drafty room with a damp floor. Distantly, Taehyung hears the splash of water.
Of course. He didn’t know what he was expecting to find up here, but what he does still takes his breath away—the spreading skyline of Seoul, wind laughing through his hair as he opens the door. A walkway of peachy slate and a short set of stairs leads down to a pool deck, complete with padded lounge chairs. The air up here seems cleaner, and Taehyung is about to take a deep breath in when he sees a dark silhouette in the pool, heading towards the wall. Before he can scamper back inside unnoticed, Jeongguk surfaces.
Jeongguk pulls the goggles down his face so that they rest around his neck. “How did you find your way up here?”
For a heartbeat, Taehyung is caught off-guard. Not what are you doing here, evidently. As if Jeongguk isn’t surprised that he’s here, doesn’t mind that he’s here.
“Your house has impressive architecture, and I...helped myself. I’m sorry.”
Jeongguk shakes his head, waving one hand airily as he rakes the other through his hair, and Taehyung is so, so glad it’s mostly dark to help the mind-numbingly difficult task of holding onto his train of thought as poolwater streams down Jeongguk’s body. He’s clinging onto the wall, floor too deep to stand up on, and they hold their gazes for a moment before Taehyung has to look away. The pool lights are a brilliant ice blue, lighting up all of Jeongguk’s body that’s still underwater, throwing the planes of his muscles into sharp relief. Taehyung squats down with his arms resting over bent knees so he can’t see much past the line of Jeongguk’s shoulders.
“You swim at night?”
Jeongguk makes a noncommittal noise. “Great stress-reliever. You should try it sometimes.”
“You’re stressed?” Taehyung feigns offense. “What, am I that bad at sex?”
Jeongguk’s laugh bounces off the low walls around deck. “You’re decent.”
“It’s just different,” Jeongguk says.
“What is it?” Taehyung asks. “What is it that you’re so worried about?”
“Work in investment and assets is always kind of a nightmare,” Jeongguk says. This is the first time Taehyung has ever heard him detail what he does, and suddenly, Jeongguk’s affluence seems to make a whole lot more sense. Investment. Of course. Where else could all this money rack up so quickly from? “The stock market is always changing, so assets and investments are always changing, too. People going in and out of the market. People gaining and losing. It’s a little corner of one big picture you never really see as a whole before it changes again.”
“I try not to talk about work outside work,” Jeongguk says, closing the matter. Well, this is more than Taehyung bargained for. And if Jeongguk is ready to talk about it again, he will.
Taehyung wets his lips thoughtfully. “Even if I wanted to swim, the campus pools close at midnight. That’s when I work best.”
“Hmm.” Jeongguk swipes at his eyes, flicking away more water. Taehyung watches a drop of it slide down the side of his face, beading at his chin before dripping off. “You could come up here. More private, too, no swim teams practicing until eleven.”
“What, like, this pool? Your pool?”
“How would I get in? It’s not like I could just march in here and demand to use your facilities.”
“You could,” Jeongguk says. A shrug, and the water sloshes around him gently. “I’m up pretty late at night, anyway.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says shortly. “I—okay. Thanks.” He doesn’t ask Jeongguk if he just invites any of his whatever-they-ares ("thinking-too-muches" as per Jeongguk's status quo) to his house to use his pool whenever they so damn please, partly because he doubts Jeongguk will answer, and partly because he doesn’t know if he wants to hear it even if Jeongguk does.
“What, you can’t swim?” Jeongguk teases, eyes glinting with mischief. “Is that it?”
“Excuse me,” Taehyung adopts as much offense as he can in his voice, “I’ll have you know that I can doggy-paddle just fine.”
“Are you scared of water?”
“I am not—wait, what are you doing, Jeongguk, hey, hey—!”
But Jeongguk reaches out, arm slick, and his fingers close on Taehyung’s collar as he yanks him forward. Taehyung is pulled off balance easily, and he throws his arms out for purchase on something only for his palms to meet water. Then he realizes Jeongguk is holding securely onto his waist, clothes billowing up around them. In the water, they are weightless, and he wraps his whole body around Jeongguk’s frame.
“Goddammit!” Taehyung complains, tightening the grip of his thighs around Jeongguk’s hips. “You scared me, don’t let go—”
“I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” Jeongguk says, not laughing but with words full of mirth. He bobs along with the movement of the water so that they’re suspended in the middle of the pool. “See, I’m standing. It’s only five feet here.”
Taehyung pulls back, a little shaky, but Jeongguk’s feet are indeed planted firmly on the bluish concrete beneath them, so he relaxes slightly. “Good job, you,” he says, lifting a soaked sleeve up for appraisal. “How do you expect me to get home in wet clothes?”
“Then don’t go home.”
Taehyung turns back to stare into Jeongguk’s face. His arm drops back into the water, finding their place on his damp shoulder, just barely breaking the surface of the water.
Belatedly, Jeongguk realizes what he’d said, and drops Taehyung’s gaze. “I said, then don’t go home, I guess.”
Jeongguk’s lips taste like chlorine when Taehyung presses his mouth to them, hesitant, then insistent. Kissing surrounded by water is new. The feeling of weightlessness is heightened, even with how heavy Taehyung’s rapidly dampening clothes are; wrapped this tight around Jeongguk’s body, it’s easy to press closer, water splashing in the narrow divide between their chests. Taehyung fights the smile that stretches over his lips when his hand lays flat against Jeongguk’s chest and he can feel the flutter of his heartbeat behind his sternum.
“What are you laughing about,” Jeongguk mutters, pulling away and whispering against Taehyung’s teeth.
“Nothing. Everything. You,” Taehyung says, and shivers. He leans in again, but Jeongguk only jerks back and Taehyung chases his lips in vain. “I’m not done with you.”
“Who said anything about being done?” Jeongguk says, and this time Taehyung’s shivers have nothing to do with the cold. “You’re shaking up a storm. Come with me.”
Taehyung isn’t going to pretend he doesn’t ogle Jeongguk’s ass when he lifts himself out, arms streaming with water as he braces them on the deck and slides his body out of the pool. He makes it look so effortless, and yet when Taehyung tries to follow suit, he ends up having to use the staircase built into the side of the wall.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Jeongguk says with mirth glowing in his voice, “your clothes were dragging you down.”
“Stop laughing, I can hear you laughing.”
“I’m not laughing!”
“Where are we going,” Taehyung asks, arms wrapped around himself. Jeongguk leads him across the deck, and Taehyung hopes that he’ll hand him a towel or something, because the wind is cutting right through the soaked clothing to his skin. “It’s freez—oh.”
There’s a splash where Jeongguk’s feet should be. Then a ring of lights, dimmer, but still blue to match the pool, comes to life and the water around Jeongguk’s knees begins to bubble and steam. When Taehyung doesn’t immediately follow him, he turns back.
“It’s freezing, right?” he asks. “Well, get in.”
“In my clothes?”
“What,” Jeongguk says, expression bland, “you want to take them off?”
“So get in.”
It is blessedly warm, Taehyung admits, when he takes one step into the jacuzzi. Jeongguk is submerged waist down, and shifts back slightly to make room for Taehyung when he gets to the bottom, the warm water bubbling up to his chest. He delights in the bubbles and Jeongguk asks, “Better?”
Taehyung looks into his face, at the pinpricks of light in his eyes and the steamy moisture sliding down Jeongguk’s jaw. He smiles, and for the first time in ages feels the exhaustion from deadlines and schoolwork and pressure from his professors take the back burner to the way Jeongguk looks in front of him.
This time they move together, Taehyung reaching out and Jeongguk pulling in. The denim over Taehyung’s knees scrape the concrete seat when he straddles Jeongguk’s thighs, hands gripping the rim of the pool deck when Jeongguk kisses him. It seems like they kiss forever, or at least long enough for the moisture to start clinging to Taehyung’s skin, too; when he’s burying his face in Jeongguk’s neck as they rut against each other, water sloshing between their bodies, the air he sucks into his lungs is thick with steam.
“Do you want to,” Jeongguk grits out, hand steeling around Taehyung’s thigh. He must intend for it to be a signal to stop, to hold Taehyung back, but the grip makes Taehyung even harder, if that’s possible. “Go back inside?”
“Yes,” Taehyung says, straightening to kiss Jeongguk messily again. “Yes, Jeongguk, yeah, I want to—”
They don’t make it into Jeongguk’s bedroom this time, but Taehyung is just proud of himself for shedding his clothes outside so they don’t make a mess all over Jeongguk’s hardwood and carpets. The rug burns under Taehyung’s back, and so does the look in Jeongguk’s eyes when he hitches Taehyung’s legs tighter around his waist, sucking a line of hickeys over Taehyung’s collarbones and fucking him so hard that they dance over his skin.
Jeongguk fucks him so hard that Taehyung still feels it in his bones when he wakes at dawn hours later, back in his own quiet, dusty little bed in his flat. For some reason he had thought he’d open his eyes to be greeted by Jeongguk’s bare back in his bed big enough for two kings and a secret, marred only by the angry red lines his nails left behind. The lingering dream fades when he blinks his eyes a few times more, and Taehyung believes, deep in himself—deep in the high-quality leather of Jeongguk’s Audi, in the cashmere of his scarves, and the oil of his cologne—that that is all they ever will be.
『 ₩ 』
“Thank you,” Jeongguk says, sliding the bagel across the table. The new receptionist, transferred over from the Gwangju branch, is overly fond of smiling. Jeongguk is not exactly sure what to do around people who smile this much if they’re not Jimin, so he kind of slants him another grateful smile that he hopes doesn’t come off as pained and peels open the cream cheese packet.
“And you’re Jeongguk!”
Hoseok pulls out a seat across the table at which Jeongguk is seated with his usual two-inch binder in his lap, bagel crumbs littering the pages. “What are you worried about?”
“Who said I was worried about anything?”
“You spend your breaks in here, with a balance binder,” Hoseok points out. “You get a line between your eyebrows, and you talk less.”
“I don’t talk that much to begin with.”
“That might be true,” Hoseok says, “but when you do you have some smashing one-liners.”
“Oh.” Jeongguk dips his butter knife into his bagel very carefully. “Thank you.”
“You can tell me.” Hoseok chinhands thoughtfully. “Whatever you feel comfortable telling me.”
Jeongguk sets his bagel down on his napkin, trying to gather his thoughts. It’s true, that this has been bothering him for a while, and it’s funny. Hoseok echoes a question that Taehyung asks Jeongguk far too much for him to keep brushing off, and yet, with Taehyung, Jeongguk can’t bring himself to tell him about his work and his money. Here, amongst people who only speak the language of work and money, Jeongguk feels silly bringing up his personal life.
The easiest method has always been to retreat to the kitchen and stuff three bagels down his throat.
“It’s okay if you just want to be vague,” Hoseok continues. “I can just listen. Sometimes even putting it in words untangles the knots in your stomach, I find.”
Jeongguk begins pulverizing his bagel with his fingers again, and Hoseok winces as the bread rips.
“I’m just caught between a rock and a hard place, kind of.”
“That sucks. No way out?”
“It’s more like…” Jeongguk dips a ripped morsel of bread into the cheese. “How do you tell someone you care for something you’re not proud of?”
“Ahh,” Hoseok says, understanding seeping into his voice. “The deep, dark past problem.”
“It’s not a deep, dark past.”
“It’s deep enough that you don’t want to dredge it up, right?”
Jeongguk decides Hoseok is too perceptive for his own good. “Well.”
“So you want to mention it to them, but you can’t, for fear of rejection?”
“Kind of,” Jeongguk says. Not exactly.
“I mean, you probably have already heard the spiel about how they should accept you for who you are, even if you’re not proud of everything about yourself,” Hoseok says, “so I’ll save my breath for that. How do you feel? Before I say anything. What do you want?”
“I want,” Jeongguk fiddles with the corner of the page. “I want to tell them, but.”
“You’ll be rejected?”
“Kind of rejected, okay. And you have been before for the same reason?”
“So what makes this person different?”
Jeongguk blinks. “Huh?”
“You want to tell them about yourself, right? You want to take a risk because you care for them that much. Why should you? Will it make you happy?”
“If it goes right,” Jeongguk says, “yes.”
“And if it goes wrong, you’ll be miserable.” Hoseok crosses his arms. “But you’ll move on, won’t you? You have up until now.”
“I’m not too keen on heartbreak.” There these words are again, recycled and mechanical.
“And sometimes it takes pain to find real happiness,” Hoseok says. “You hold a flame to a wound to make it better. You rip a bandage off fast and with gritted teeth and the sting of physical pain will linger, but the only thing that remains is the scar to prove you’re here and whole.”
Hoseok’s words seem to come from a place that Jeongguk might not ever truly understand, either. “So you mean to say…?”
“Why not?” Hoseok asks. “What have you got to lose?”
Jeongguk will never quite get used to walking into the art studio, even after all this time, because he never knows what he’s going to get greeted with. Once he narrowly missed a dart to the eye because Baekho was doing something with balloons filled with paint and tacked on a canvas; another time, Sujeong was sagely handing Taehyung something that looked like a tiny clay penis the size of his thumb and Taehyung had simply sighed and said, “Well, that’s one plan scrapped.”
Today it is animal crackers. Taehyung is sprawled on the floor, tracing the outline of a rhino with his tongue pinched in the corner of his lips in concentration when Jeongguk’s feet come to a top in front of his canvas. Taehyung’s gaze slides up from his shoes, along Jeongguk’s legs, and his face brightens.
“Hey! Don’t you have work?”
“Ah, right. Shit, haha.”
“You haven’t slept since Monday, have you?”
Taehyung scratches the back of his neck sheepishly. “You caught me.”
“Taehyung, really,” Jeongguk sighs. “It’s past three, you should be sleeping. Where’s Sujeong?”
“She went out with Yein—one of the other art students—for food, she hasn’t eaten,” Taehyung says. “I offered her these crackers but we decided that it’s best not to ingest graphite.”
“No, best not.” Jeongguk plucks Taehyung’s pencil from his fingers. “I said you should be sleeping! I’ll be your alarm since she’s not around, you’re going to keel over.”
“I am fine!” Taehyung insists. “I’m only in my thirty-fourth hour.”
“Only,” Jeongguk repeats. “And what’s your record?”
“Fifty two,” Taehyung says. “And I could have gone longer if I hadn’t sat down.”
“Based God,” Jeongguk says faintly.
“Actually, now that you’re here, I thought it would be good if you’d help me finish up that painting from the other day,” Taehyung says. “Remember? It’s mostly done, but I wanted to add something to it and I can’t do it without you here.”
“Nope. You’re sleeping. Not to mention I refuse to strip when people could still be walking in unwarned.”
Taehyung frowns. “You’d let me fail a project?”
“Then what do you say to a deal instead?”
“A deal?” Taehyung asks. “What kind of deal?”
“We take turns taking off clothing,” Jeongguk says, not sure if he’s going to regret this decision for th rest of his undoubtedly short life, “and if I stop first I’ll help you with your painting again. If you stop first you have to sleep.”
"What if we both get naked?"
"Then I'll hope on pain of death no one decides to walk in."
“Ha,” Taehyung says, kicking off his dirty Converse immediately. “You’ll lose, Jeon Jeongguk.”
But Jeongguk is nothing if not competitive, and he toes off his shoes in response. Taehyung, he who goes big or goes home, reaches behind himself and yanks the collar up over his head, throwing it in a pile between their feet.
“Jesus,” Jeongguk says, peeling his socks off modestly.
“Oh, okay, Driving Miss Daisy,” Taehyung says, sarcastically tugging his socks off as well.
Then Jeongguk unzips his blue hoodie, letting it pool around his feet. He’s in just his jeans in a tank top now. Taehyung’s eyes darken, just a hair, but enough for Jeongguk to notice. His hands come up to his belt buckle and the clasp is clinking open when the door opens, and—
“Oppa!” Sujeong screams, and the slam of the door is so violent that the paintings on the walls rattle on their mounts. Taehyung doubles over with laughter, pants still hanging open. “Put your clothes on! I thought we discussed this!”
“You lose,” Jeongguk says smoothly, reaching down for his hoodie again, thanking the gods that may be that he hadn’t gone for his tank top. He’d never live this down.
“Okay, okay!” Taehyung shouts, pulling his t-shirt back over his head, stepping into his shoes. “You’ve seen more naked men than the next person at this school, what’s so bad about seeing another one?”
“I don’t make a hobby out of looking at nude models when I don’t need to,” Sujeong says with the air of chronically traumatized, “especially not when they’re you. Anyway, you got mail. Here.” She inclines her head towards Jeongguk, who returns the nod, and she settles down behind her desktop.
“Shit,” Taehyung says, flipping through his envelopes. “An eviction warning.”
“What? You’re getting evicted?”
“I haven’t been meeting my fees for the last few months, so I did odd jobs for the landlord to make up for it,” Taehyung says, reading the notice. “But recently I haven’t had time to do work for him, I have to stay here if I want to stay on track for graduation.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. He considers offering help, but Taehyung’s face brightens then, and Jeongguk swallows his words.
“Oh!” Taehyung tears at the envelope, sitting down and crossing his legs. “My brother sent me pictures.”
“Your brother sent you pictures? What year am I living in?”
“He uses our Polaroid,” Taehyung says. “Come here! Look at them with me.”
Jeongguk steps over the animal crackers to sit down beside Taehyung, who makes a noise of dissent and plants himself in Jeongguk’s lap instead, resting his back on Jeongguk’s chest. He lets the photos spill out over his lap, then snags one up to read the caption.
“Oh, our puppy is growing up,” he says, flipping the photo back and forth. “‘Soonshimie is acting weird these days. She wouldn’t stay still for this photo.’ Hmm. I wonder if she met a guy?”
Jeongguk hooks his chin over Taehyung’s shoulder, picking one from the pile. It’s a blurry picture of a girl in pink smushing a snowball into the face of a little boy. “Your siblings?” he asks.
“Yep,” Taehyung says. “Cute, right?”
“You have any siblings?”
Jeongguk shakes his head. “Hyung.”
“Wow, really? Is he as hot as you?”
“What!” Taehyung leans away to look Jeongguk in the face. “Am I not allowed to say that?”
Jeongguk turns to hold Taehyung’s gaze with his own. He leans in, tilting his head and letting his eyes slide half-closed, but Taehyung shuts his own completely, waiting for a kiss that never comes. Jeongguk stops a breath away from Taehyung’s lips, and almost laughs, trying not to give himself away—but the quiver of his muscles, trying to hold back the laughter, is enough for Taehyung to crack open one eye in confusion.
“You!” he hisses, cuffing Jeongguk on the shoulder as his chest shakes with chuckles. “Making me look stupid!”
But Jeongguk is not so cruel. When Taehyung’s complaints die down just enough, trail away into grumbling, he leans in, angles his head, and kisses him like he meant to.
What have you got to lose?
『 ₩ 』
“Okay,” Taehyung says, feeling the cold, hard ground beneath his back as he’s jerked out of his doze, “This time I know I just went to sleep.”
“You did, I’m sorry! But your phone just rang four times from your mother, and I don’t know—it seems urgent if she’s calling nonstop like this.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says, sitting up. There’s a thick, hard crack! at the base of his spine. “Really? Thanks for telling me, then.”
Sujeong is right. There’s a banner for four missed calls from his mother, and one from his aunt. Worried, and chewing at his lip, Taehyung calls his mom back. His chair rolls when he sits down heavily in it, head still swimming from being yanked out of his nap.
She picks up on the first ring.
“Umma,” he says. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, Taehyung,” she says. “We didn’t want to tell you about this, but we had to ask you if you could help.”
There is something wrong in his mother’s voice, like she’s been crying for a long time. Adrenaline begins waking him up in earnest, clearing his stuffy nose. “What’s wrong?” he asks, and Sujeong gives him a worried, sideways glance as he takes the call outside, the door falling shut quietly behind him. “I’ll do anything to help.”
“It’s your grandmother,” she says. “Last night, in the middle of the night, she—”
Taehyung feels his heart sink when his mother finally chokes out the story. It had been 3 AM, and the spring storms had been loud and filled with thunder. No one heard when his grandmother fell in the hallway coming back from the bathroom, and by the time they got to her, she was unresponsive and pale.
“Collapsed,” Taehyung repeats when his mom gives him the verdict. He’s sitting in the hallway, back to the wall, voice echoing down the corridor. “Is she going to be okay?”
“Hopefully, she will be,” his mother replies, sounding decades older than she really is. “They operated on her already. Whatever it was, exactly, required immediately operation or it ran the risk of certain death, and I—” His mother chokes here. “I couldn’t take that risk.”
“Of course not.”
“So they went ahead and operated, and she’s in intensive care right now,” she says. “But they’ll have to operate again tonight.”
“Is she awake right now?”
Taehyung swallows hard. “So how can I help?”
“Taehyung-ah, I know,” his mother sighs, “I know we ask too much from an art student. But the bill—is there anything at all you can spare?”
Taehyung bites the inside of his cheek so hard he tastes iron. He should have taken that job teaching at the family center with the little kids. He should have suffered a little more then so he wouldn’t have to so shamefully let his family down now after all they’ve done for him, and—
A knot lodges in Taehyung’s throat when the idea comes to him.
“I’ll get back to you, umma,” he promises. “I will. I’m going to see what I can do. It’s going to be okay, all right? I’ll do everything I can.”
When Taehyung hangs up, he holds the phone to his lap for a moment, staring at his home wallpaper. It’s a picture of Jimin making a horrendously ugly face at the camera, and in the worst times Taehyung could always get a laugh out of it. But now, he fights down his tears and taps his thumb on his messaging app.
Here goes nothing.
Jeongguk’s face is knit together in concern, in that way it gets when he’s reading a less-than-tasteful balance sheet. He doesn’t even bother with a greeting when Taehyung turns around in his chair, and he thinks his expression must be bad because Jeongguk does not hesitate for a moment to walk right up to him and pull Taehyung’s face into his chest like he’ll shoulder away all the negativity by sheer force of will. “Are you okay?”
“I needed to ask you a favor,” Taehyung whispers into Jeongguk’s clothes. All it is is one of those simple flannels that Jeongguk is so fond of, but it’s thick and soft and smells of Marc Jacobs and something inherently Jeongguk—sharp and warm, a little like spiced rum. “If that’s all right with you.”
“Of course,” Jeongguk says, pulling back now, as if regaining his sense of propriety, holding Taehyung at arm’s length now but not letting go. “What is it?”
“My grandmother collapsed back home in Daegu,” Taehyung says, voice shaking on the last syllable. “Something—I’m not even sure, I couldn’t understand everything my mother was saying, something about a heart perforation? And immediate operation was required. They did all of that, none of them told me because they didn’t want to scare me unnecessarily when I’m so close to graduation, but now they need to do more operations and the bill—” Taehyung swallows hard, the words feeling like glass in his throat, cutting the soft insides of his mouth. “The bill is stacking up, and they called me as a last resort to ask if I had any funds to spare.”
“And you don’t,” Jeongguk says for him, words bland. “I know you don’t.”
“So you need some from me?” Jeongguk’s voice is hollow.
“Any amount is fine,” Taehyung says in a rush, taking Jeongguk’s hand in both of his. “Just, whatever you can give. If you can’t, that’s okay too, I had to ask—I had to try. I’ll do anything for you if you help me out right now. I’ll do anything in my power to pay you back, however you want. I’ll sleep with you however many times you want. Whenever you want, even if I’m busy. Even if I don’t feel like it—”
Jeongguk pulls his hand out of Taehyung’s hold and the loss of contact feels like a slam of a door in his face. “Excuse me?” Jeongguk says, disbelief dusting his voice cold and bitter. “Do you think that’s all you are to me? Sex?”
Time pauses again. “What?” Taehyung chokes out in that impossible silence.
But Jeongguk is already reaching into his backpack, zipped up sloppily like he’d dashed out in the middle of class to come find Taehyung, and pulls out a checkbook. “How much do you need,” he says, every word clipped. When Taehyung doesn’t answer immediately, lips parted, Jeongguk looks up and Taehyung has never seen him level a look at him so full of disappointment. “I said, how much do you need?”
“One hundred million won,” Taehyung says, and stares as Jeongguk jots down the numbers quickly and with ease. The check tears crisply from its booklet and Jeongguk holds out the unassuming slip of paper to him.
“Thank you,” Taehyung says, taking it into his hands. “Jeongguk, I swear, somehow I will—”
“In return for that,” Jeongguk says, nodding at the check, “let’s stop—let’s stop. Seeing each other, that is. I can’t do it anymore.”
“Wait,” Taehyung says, reaching out for Jeongguk, who only jerks back. “Wait, what do you—?”
“Clearly, only I was in it for something more than sex,” Jeongguk spits, acid on his tongue, and Taehyung recoils. “And if that’s the case, then I think we’re done here.”
But the door to the senior art studio is falling shut with a click, too heavy to slam, and Taehyung is left alone. He’s standing in the middle of his oil paints—yep, that’s definitely burnt umber on the sole of his shoe, goddammit, he really likes this pair—holding more money in his hand than he has ever seen with his own eyes, but somehow, he feels like he has lost the world.
『 ₩ 』
“Jimin,” Seokjin says, catching Jimin’s fingers in his when Jimin pulls back and climbs out of his lap. “Who is that?”
“We’re going to have to find out, won’t we?” Jimin says. Seokjin frowns, pulling him to his side protectively. “Who is it?”
No answer. Jimin screws one eye shut and quints through the eyehole, only to see that the dimly lit hallway is vacant. Spooked, he curls a hand around the knob and lock of the door. “Who is it?” he calls again, voice louder and more commanding this time. He presses his ear to the wood, and hears the sound of labored breathing.
“Jimin,” Seokjin says after another tense moment, “I don’t think—”
“Open the fucking door, Park Jimin.” The sentence is slurred, participles in the wrong places and syllables dragging their feet, but Jimin knows that voice.
“Holy shit,” he says, fumbling with the lock and chain. “What the hell, hang on, are you okay?”
“Whoa, who is it?” Seokjin says, laying a hand over Jimin’s. “Are you sure this is safe?”
“I’m sure, I’m sure, it’s Jeongguk,” Jimin says. “And he’s really—”
The door swings open and Jeongguk is sitting on the doormat, slumped against the plaster wall with his head tipped back. At the sound of the door, his eyes flutter open, and he peers up at the two of them through a drunken, half-lidded gaze, and laughs. Jeongguk doesn’t get pink in the face when he drinks, he holds his alcohol well enough, but once he’s had too much, his skin turns a waxy, sterile white. Jimin’s only ever seen it happen once.
“Drunk,” Seokjin finishes unnecessarily.
Jimin, who has bent down to press a hand to Jeongguk’s cheek, looks over his shoulder. “Hyung, I’m so sorry,” he says. “I—could we take a rain check for this date? I’m so sorry for this, but—”
“Of course,” Seokjin says, without question. “Don’t apologize. Let me help. He needs you, right?”
Jimin shakes his head, smiling grimly. “I don't know if he'd be able to live with himself if he knew his boss had to see him like this. I'll take him from here. You don't need to worry, hyung.”
Seokjin ruffles Jimin’s hair. “I know. I trust you.” He takes one of Jeongguk’s arms and throws it around his neck as Jimin does the same on his other side, and they haul him into the apartment clumsily. Their height difference really does not serve to help in circumstances like this, but once they have Jeongguk situated on the couch, Jimin stretches up to give Seokjin a kiss.
“Come around tomorrow, same time?” he asks, and Seokjin agrees. By the time Seokjin has left and Jimin has filled his Thermos bottle up to the rim, screwing it shut tightly so as to keep the water from spilling should Jeongguk drop it, Jeongguk has slid down to be lying with his head pressed into one of the ratty cushions.
“Nice couch,” he says as Jimin sits down beside him. “Where you get it?”
“Seokjin hyung got a new one. He passed this one along to me. Finally, no more homework on the floor.”
“Can’t be comfortable, huh?”
Jimin’s hand hovers over Jeongguk’s head for a moment before he lets it down to rest in his hair. “No, not really,” he admits. “Come on, sit up. You need to drink some water.”
“Water,” Jeongguk repeats, nodding. “Right, right. Water. I was getting water, but then I ended up out here. Shit, shit, I—I interrupted something, didn’t I? Did I walk in on something? Shit—”
“Calm down,” Jimin says, coaxing the bottle into Jeongguk’s hand as he sits upright. A little crumpled, but still upright. “You’re fine. Seokjin hyung is the most gracious boyfriend to walk this earth.” Jeongguk nods, and the lack of his motor coordination would be comical in any other situation. Somehow, Jimin has a feeling that the reason Jeongguk is here isn’t because he’d got caught up at a frat party. Not when he has Taehyung, now, anyway.
“Right,” Jeongguk says, slapping a hand to Jimin’s shoulder. He leans in, eyes shut with a crease appearing between his brows, the picture of intense critical thinking. “Seokjin hyung. He’s good to you, right?”
“He’s—yeah, he’s great to me, but Jeongguk, what’s going—?”
“You know if he ever did anything to hurt you,” Jeongguk says. “I’d fuck him up. Even though he's my boss. I'd put Ex-Lax in his coffee! I’d fuck him up real hard. Fuck him real hard.”
“Thanks,” Jimin says dryly. “Ixnay on that last bit, though.”
“You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” he asks, hitting his fist to his chest. It doesn’t quite work because that’s the hand he’s holding the Thermos with, and water sloshes from the mouthpiece and onto Jimin’s pants. “You’d fuck up someone who hurt me, right?”
Jimin thinks he understands why Jeongguk is here. Why he’s on Jimin’s deflated couch in his tiny cramped apartment, head dropping down to hang between them. The crown of Jeongguk’s head presses into Jimin’s chest like he doesn’t have the strength to support himself any longer.
“Who hurt you?” Jimin asks, not wanting to ask a question he already knows the answer to. Jeongguk’s hair clings to his shirt as his head dips lower, and Jimin brings hands up to his face to make him meet his eyes. “Hey, hey, stay with me here. Who hurt you?”
Jeongguk laughs again, eyes closing and opening slowly like he doesn’t quite want to be awake. His breath smells of soju, of makgeolli, of whiskey. “Jimin. Jimin hyung."
Only when Jeongguk is shitfaced drunk would he use that honorific. "Yeah, I'm here," Jimin says. Because Taehyung isn't, he thinks.
“I’m sorry for this,” Jeongguk pulls off, sober lucidity peeking through the haze of alcohol. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop it, I asked you who hurt you. I want to be here, don’t apologi—”
“He wanted my money.”
Jimin blinks. “Who wanted your money?”
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, propping his face in his hand, elbow balanced haphazardly on his knee. “Taehyung. He just wanted my money, after all, Jimin. He’s just like everyone else.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait,” Jimin says. “What happened? What’d he say to you?”
“He wanted my money and said he’d sleep with me for it if he had to,” Jeongguk replies. “Grandmother, his grandmother. He needed my money to pay for something. That’s all I am, hyung. No feelings. A walking bank. You know? You would know. You don’t use my money. Would you even miss me if I were gone?”
“Hey, Jeongguk, what the hell,” Jimin says. “I need you to stop talking like this, it’s not funny.” He pauses, then, “Did Taehyung really say that to you?”
“I wish he hadn’t.” Jeongguk hiccups. “I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. But it would have been a matter of time, I suppose.”
“I don’t think he—”
Jeongguk retches. Jimin jumps out of his seat and yanks him into the bathroom before he throws up on their floor, which admittedly isn’t nice wall-to-wall carpeting, but he’d rather just push a lever and let it go down the plumbing than have to bring out the mop. They just barely make it, toilet seat up, and Jimin sighs as he rubs a hand between Jeongguk’s shoulder blades as he spits up into the bowl. The fact Jeongguk doesn’t smack his hand away makes Jimin’s heart sink.
“God, you’re a mess,” he says. “If I’d known you were going to drink this much—”
“Jokes on you, I wanted to be alone,” Jeongguk says, and his body seizes beneath Jimin’s touch as he dry heaves more. “You’d never let me drink this much.”
Jimin doesn’t even had the heart to lecture Jeongguk about the dangers of binge drinking, as if he doesn’t do it himself sometime. But if Jeongguk really had been alone, there’s no saying how much he could have kept going before he got the idea to come find Jimin. He could have gotten alcohol poisoning. Jimin sighs again, and Jeongguk is either still too drunk or just too tired to care, and hands him a glass to gargle with. By the time he finishes spraying Lysol all over the bathroom, Jeongguk has knocked out right on his couch. Jimin covers him up with a blanket.
When the sun rises over the city the next morning, Jeongguk is gone.
Taehyung doesn’t take the criticism very well. Then again, Jimin does barge in on him and should really know better by now not to do that when Taehyung is working on a project, but if Jeongguk is going to show up at his apartment at eleven PM and throw up everything he’d ingested that week (maybe that month), then Jimin has to at least attempt setting him straight.
Still, he supposes “What the hell did you do?” is not a tasteful opening statement.
“What the hell do you mean, ‘what the hell did you do’?” Taehyung drops his paintbrush into the dirty coffee mug with a frown. His eyes are bloodshot behind his glasses. He must have pulled another all-nighter without his usual naps in between. “Don’t you have class right now?”
Jimin ignores him. “What the hell did you say to Jeongguk?”
Taehyung’s expression frosts over. “Oh. Is that what this is about?”
“How can you be so calm?”
“Because I can elect to have a nervous breakdown or pretend everything is fine,” Taehyung says. His hand shakes when he reaches out for the Starbucks cup balanced precariously at the edge of the stained worktable. Jimin takes a deep breath. This is Taehyung. Taehyung, whom he fights with like they’re children more often than he ever did as a child.
“Why did you say that to him?”
“What? What did I say?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“That I’d sleep with him however many times he wanted if he could just lend me the money?” The tone of Taehyung’s voice is colorless, as dull and grey as the dirty water in the paintbrush mug. “That's what he told you, isn't it? I was desperate, Jimin. I know—I know shouldn’t have said that, but I didn’t think he’d take it so badly.”
“You implied that he was only sticking around for sex,” Jimin says flatly. He crosses his arms as Taehyung dries his brush on a paper towel and dips it into more paint, the sound of bristles against the pallette soft between the spaces of their words. “I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to take that any other way.”
“Leave me alone, Jimin,” Taehyung says, and the sluggish weariness in his movements makes Jimin snap. He reaches forward and snatches the brush out of Taehyung’s hand, and oily crimson pigment stains his fingers.
“You fucked up. You know what people do when they fuck up something they care about it? They fix it. Why are you here, acting like you don’t give a shit?”
“Look, what do you want from me?” Taehyung says, voice rising. “My grandmother collapsed. If I don’t pay rent by this Saturday, I’m going to be evicted. I'm a week behind on this project and you really, really aren’t helping at all right now, how hard is it for you to cut me one corner of slack. One corner!”
“I know.” Jimin sets down the brush. “I know things aren’t easy for you right now, but it hasn’t been a walk in the park for him, either. You have to understand why he was angry.”
“Oh, because financial stability sucks so much, right,” Taehyung says, words dripping with disdain. “Have you seen his house? His fridge? His bed, his room? His life? How can you stand there and tell me I should be sorry?”
Jimin scratches his nose, taking a deep exhale, letting it out slowly to the count of ten. “Okay, I shouldn’t be the one telling you this, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Listen. Who you know is Jeongguk. That’s the only side of himself he’s shown you, and I’m sure the only side he wanted you to know. It’s on him for not telling you more, but. But let me tell you about Jeon Jeongguk of Busan."
Taehyung sets his mouth in a straight line.
"Jeon Jeongguk of Busan hasn’t spoken to his parents since he was sixteen. That’s four years now. Almost five, I think. His older brother hates him. Yeah, he has an older brother, I’m not sure if you know that. Now you do, I guess. He’s our age. In Jeongguk’s last year of high school he tried to poison him with cyanide so that the fortune would fall to him.”
Taehyung sits back in his chair like Jimin punched him in the face. “Holy fuck,” he says weakly.
“Yeah,” Jimin says. “There’s more, but really all you have to know is that his family uses him as a cash cow. Every person that’s tried to pursue a relationship with him has always turned out to just be after his money, and after what happened with his brother, he’s too scared to get close enough to them lest they, well.”
“God, I shouldn’t be saying this either, but now that we’re here, I might as well,” Jimin mutters. “Do you have any idea how much he likes you? It’s like, abnormal, Taehyung, I don’t know how well you know him but I’ve never heard him,” Jimin shakes his head as he tries to recall, and pulls up no one, “ever, talk about someone like he talks about you. He doesn’t even like hearing me say ‘I love you’! To anyone, doesn’t even have to be him! But goddamn, you though, you—he talks about you like you’re home, and he’s been lost for a very long time. He talks about you like you’re the performance that he’s been practicing all his life for and he just wants to get it right.”
“Stop,” Taehyung says, looking away, eyes swimming.
“And I don’t know how many people you’ve come across that look at you like he looks at you, or maybe it’s just more jarring for me personally, when the last time I’ve seen him look at anyone like he looks at you was...never, honestly. The last time he trusted someone was when he was fifteen, so when you implied that you guys were nothing more than—well, friends with benefits, how do you think he felt?”
Jimin is out of breath, panting, as Taehyung sits with stained hands in his lap, tears running silently down his face.
“Are you quite done,” Taehyung says in a hoarse whisper.
“Are you going to do anything about this?”
“I don’t even know where to start,” Taehyung says. “How am I supposed to make up for wrongs to someone who has everything?”
“You give him the one thing he doesn’t have,” Jimin says. Taehyung looks to him with wide eyes. “Respect.”
“You pay him back what he lent you,” Jimin says simply. “Not that he actually needs it back, however much he gave you. But not once in his life has anyone returned him a penny of what he gave them. You care about him, right? Beyond just sex?”
“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “Of course. I have for the longest time—”
“Then show him that you do.”
『 ₩ 』
He doesn’t even need to be in the office at this hour. With finals on the horizon, though, it would do him well to get extra work done now than have the need to squeeze it in around studying. His eyes burn with exhaustion. The words on the seed financing documents below bleed into each other under the pale white-blue lamplight, numbers climbing over the next, and Jeongguk scoops up his suitjacket into the crook of his arm before switching off the light. Once again, he’s the last one left at the office. He’s gotten good at locking up.
The streets are quiet. It’s too late for any university students to be wandering around downtown, not on a weekday like this. Jeongguk’s stomach rumbles, and he grimaces in acknowledgement. Yeah, he still has homework to do. Maybe it’s a good idea to grab something for the long night in.
Jeongguk, for the most part, likes driving alone at night, when he can press the gas pedal into the floor of his car and feel it do what it was built for. It’s peaceful. If swimming didn’t work, driving at night makes him feel better, difficult though it may be to find roads deserted enough to gun the gas.
You let me touch you.
Jeongguk slams the brakes. Behind him there’s a ferocious blare of a car horn, and then a white Lexus pulls next to him before sprinting into the night ahead of him. But Jeongguk is still here, parked in the middle of the road, whiteknuckling on the steering wheel. The car rumbles softly beneath him, almost alive, waiting for him to dig his foot back into the gas.
Taehyung’s voice came out of nowhere, ringing in his ears clear and loud like he’d been sitting besides Jeongguk this whole time.
“Fuck,” Jeongguk exhales, loosening his grip on the wheel. He pushes the thought away, back into the corners of his memory. Out of sight, out of mind, right? His hands, curled tightly around the textured pads near the top of the wheel, slides his down until his fingers are just barely hooked into the bottom. Then, slowly, he takes his foot off the brakes and taps the gas again.
Jack in the Box is quiet at this late weekday hour, and Jeongguk leans his face out of his window and hardly hears the questions his server asks him over the drive-thru intercom. Is he having a good night, sir, what can I get you, will that be all? Jeongguk places his order without really thinking about it. Jumbo Jack with cheese and a large Coke that Jeongguk just knows he’s going to feel right when he needs to go to bed, and he knows that he, more than anything, could do without another night of sleeplessness, but he finds that he can’t care right now. No more fucks left to give! Jimin would say, brightly, every time he walked out of a midterm or a final.
“Good evening,” the server says, turning to him to lean out of the drive-thru window. It’s not a good evening at all, and it suddenly gets so much worse when Jeongguk rolls down the window and comes face to face with Taehyung.
“Will that be—oh.” His breath hitches audibly, a hiccup in his throat. Taehyung doesn’t look like himself, changed out of his usual cardigans into a muted green polo, a nametag pinned to his chest on a cap with the chain logo embroidered over the front. “Will that be all for you this evening?”
“Why are you working here,” Jeongguk asks, not moving to take his food where it dangles in the air between them. “I thought you said you didn’t have time for work around your academics.”
“I,” Taehyung licks his lips, and reached up to rub the back of his neck. “Needed the money, so—”
“Why, was what I gave you not enough? What are you trying to say here? You should have just asked for more. Where’s the shame in that?”
“What the fuck,” Taehyung says, expression frosty. “Look. I get off at 5 AM. If you can wait that long, at least give me a chance to explain.”
The poorly suppressed anger in Taehyung’s voice makes Jeongguk feel bad. Marginally so, anyway. He has always vowed not to become this person—someone who mocked others about their income or about their need for money. He has always told himself he wouldn’t become a Tony Stark. A rich asshole.
A rich bitch.
He takes the bag of Jack in the Box from’s Taehyung’s hands, the paper crinkling in his fingers. Wordlessly he rolls the window back up and pulls out of the drive-thru lane, leaving Taehyung behind him.
『 ₩ 』
He’s quite good at it, actually. He’s not, as a general rule, the kind of person who lets dashed dreams keep him from hoping. When he applied for universities, he wished with all the might of his little heart that he could get into the one he wanted to the most, even when he knew the chances of acceptance would be slim to none. He had to settle on his second choice, in the end, yet found that disappointment is far more fickle a mistress than love.
And now, hanging in the window of a drive-thru on a vampire shift and fighting sleep, he finds that he is scared to hope—scared that he will walk outside to meet an empty parking lot and a bus stop occupied by a grizzled old man sleeping on newspapers for company. He is scared to hope, for once in his life, against hope that Jeongguk still has enough forgiveness and naivete in his heart to wait those two hours, and Taehyung spends those two very slow hours fighting the urge to just rip out of his uniform and run outside.
Time plays that infuriating game it always does in the push and pull of wanting it to pass slower, or faster. It rushes by in harried dollops, the seconds tripping over the heels of the minutes when Taehyung is trying to crank out his project for that week. Now, it creeps by on padded kitten feet.
When his shift finally, mercifully ends, he jumps back into his own clothes and almost cries in relief when he walks outside to see that the familiar black Audi is still in the parking lot. He hovers in front of the hood for a moment, unsure what to do—he can’t even see Jeongguk’s face, shadowed in the darkness.
The window rolls down on his side, and Jeongguk leans out. “Get in.”
“I’ll drive you back.”
Jeongguk waits for him to slide into the seat before starting up the car, and Taehyung takes a deep breath, to launch into his explanation—but the words die in his throat and sink to the bottom of his stomach again. Where can he even start? With an apology? At the beginning? Or talk about why money creates a deep rift between Jeongguk and himself, a rift over which a bridge can never be built.
When he drives now, Jeongguk no longer needs pointers to get back to Taehyung’s place. He knows it well now, like the back of his hand, well worn into the tendons of his knuckles that are always so white when he has them curled around the wheel.
They drive in silence, and Taehyung’s heart sinks when he pulls into the last space along the curb, just outside his apartment. The doors click softly when they unlock, the engine still running, an open invitation to get out.
“Wait,” Taehyung says. “Wait, let me explain. I can. Let me try.”
Jeongguk doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything, so he presses on.
“Look, I know I fucked up. I did, I seriously did. I fuck up a lot, you know? You know this, Jeongguk.” Taehyung runs his fingers through his hair, and feels them get tangled in a blot of dried acrylic. “But I seriously—seriously didn’t think that you would want anything beyond sex with me. I’m sorry if that’s not how you felt, but I told myself that, so I wouldn’t get overly invested—which is the ultimate joke on me, because I did anyway. It just didn’t, and still doesn’t, make sense to me, that someone like you would want someone like me. Do you know what I mean? Like, you’re a millionaire, and I’m a fucking art student. Who can’t even help his family when they need him most. What could I ever offer you?
“I’m sorry for a lot of things, but I’m the most sorry for seeing you as a ticket out of my financial burdens. All my life I have known money troubles, how to ration, how to cut corners. I know I told you that my parents support my pursuit of the arts, but they didn’t in the beginning—and understandably so. But if anything, my parents taught me that the rich stay rich and the poor help anyone who helps them, we pay back our debts even if we can’t do it in full because even the gesture is enough.” Taehyung swallows, throat getting drier and drier when he feels tears pressing down on his words. “Even if it takes me the rest of my life to pay you back, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”
Jeongguk is looking at him now. He’s still just as expressionless as he had been in the parking lot, but at least he seems to have heard everything Taehyung said. He doesn’t answer, and Taehyung feels like he stares into Jeongguk’s face for a very long time waiting for it, but it never comes.
“Well,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Thanks for listening.”
Jeongguk doesn’t call after him. Taehyung is stupid for hoping for that, too. His sore feet move automatically under him, and the sidewalk is undulating like the surface of water in the way it gets when he moves around too much with sleep deprivation. As tired as he is, the tears finally come then, worming hot and unwelcome down his cheeks as he walks. No one is listening for sobs in the early morning except new parents and Taehyung, for someone who has always felt like the world has held his hands, feels so alone. He’s lost Jeongguk. He’s lost his home. His best friend thinks he’s a piece of shit, and every day he lives in in fear that he will lose his grandmother.
There is a car following him. Taehyung jumps at the sight of a dark shape moving in his teary periphery, but when he blinks through his tears, he sees that it’s Jeongguk. The window is down.
“Where the hell are you going?”
Taehyung sniffles. It isn’t attractive. “Oh, uhm,” he says thickly, “they evicted me last week. I sent home all the money you gave me, and couldn’t make up my bills with work for the landlord because of my job, so I sleep in the studio now.” He laughs and the sound of it is pitiful. “Sujeong brought me extra blankets so it’s not too bad. Just don’t tell the faculty.”
“Get back in the car.”
Jeongguk passes a pack of Kleenex over the console, and Taehyung takes it gratefully. At first he thinks Jeongguk is going to drive him to campus—which is no problem, he decides, even though he doesn’t think he can get into the art building this early, so he might just have to crash at a Starbucks—but he takes a different turn off the freeway, towards Gangnam.
His house doesn’t look different from the last time Taehyung saw it. He stumbles in exhaustion stepping out of the car, and catches Jeongguk’s elbow for support. Taehyung takes the fact that Jeongguk doesn’t shake him off, instead curling his wrist back for Taehyung to drop his hand into, as a better sign than he could have hoped for.
“Take a shower,” Jeongguk says, nodding at the staircase up to his room. He tugs Taehyung forward, gently, then lets go of his hand. “Don’t close the door. If you pass out in the tub I won’t be able to get you out.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Just take a shower and we can talk after you sleep.”
“Are you su—”
“I’m sure. Just do it.”
For the record, the hot water on his back feels great. Taehyung hasn’t had a warm shower in days now. Sujeong has been nice enough to let him use her suite’s this entire week now, but she lives with four other girls and warm water is scarce five showers into the night. Not to mention he can’t bear using their shampoo and add onto their water bill.
There’s a pile of nondescript clothing left on the counter outside where Taehyung had shed his clothes. He decides that this is stuff for him to change into, and it looks like something he would wear—black shirt that falls below his waist and basketball shorts. It’s comfortable and they smell faintly of Armani.
“Sleep,” Jeongguk says, coming in. He’s fastening the buttons of his shirt up to this throat. Cornflower blue, Taehyung registers weakly, sitting down on the mattress he’s come to know well. It goes nicely with the deep black of the blazer Jeongguk is shrugging on, the wooden hanger swinging back and forth on the rack when he tugs it off. “We’ll talk after you sleep.”
“I’m fine now,” Taehyung insists, swaying even as he speaks. Jeongguk raises his eyebrows, tightening the knot of his tie. “We can talk now.”
“No, you look like you’re going to black out,” Jeongguk says, and he crosses the room to press Taehyung into the pillows and the touch of his hands on Taehyung’s body makes him jump, and Jeongguk jerks back—but Taehyung wants so much for that touch to be on him again. He’s sufficiently tired, and delirious, that he reaches out even as he’s snuggling into the sheets.
“Don’t go anywhere,” he says, even though he knows this is a ridiculous request.
“Taehyung, I have class. And then work.”
“No, I always wake up when I go to sleep in dreams,” Taehyung protests. “In five seconds Sujeong is going to call my name and tell me I have to get up and work again. Just stay until I fall asleep.”
Jeongguk is quiet, sitting down on the edge of the bed beside Taehyung, propping his arm over Taehyung’s body. His face and frame block out the ceiling lights, and his arm is secure and warm against Taehyung’s ribs. He sighs, relaxing into the pillows.
“Okay, I’ll stay until you fall asleep.” Jeongguk’s voice is still far from warm, but at least here is his agreement, plain and clear. “But this isn’t a dream, Taehyung.”
“Why shouldn't it be?” Taehyung hears the words like they’re spoken by someone else. “Only in dreams could I ever expect to be in your arms again."
The next time Taehyung is even aware of human existence, the sky is dark and he panics. A dark sky means nighttime, and nighttime means that another day is past and he hasn’t gotten all the work he needs to get done, done. A college student will remain in bed until a great enough panic spurs them into motion, and all that. Taehyung is nearly that college student until he turns his face on the pillow and sees Jeongguk beside him.
He’s asleep, in all his work clothes. His tie is still on, though a little loose, like he’d lay down with the intention of getting back up soon. But here he is, spread out on top of the wrinkled expanse of blankets. Taehyung looks into his face for so long, afraid to move, and then slips a hand out of the warmth of the comforters to reach out and brush the bangs off Jeongguk’s forehead.
Jeongguk’s eyes fly open and Taehyung jerks away, sitting up so fast his head swims. The world comes crashing back down around his shoulders. Academics. He and Jeongguk are not friends. Are not anything, in fact, and he has no place here.
“Your clothes are washed and dried,” Jeongguk says, and behind himself Taehyung can hear him sitting up a little more slowly. “They’re outside on the couch.”
“Do you want me to drive you to the studio?”
“I can take the bus.”
“Can we talk now, or would you rather not?”
Taehyung stops in his hurry to get out the door, combing fingers through his hair in an attempt to get it to lie flat. He turns, looking at Jeongguk, who’s sitting at the edge of his bed now.
“Now,” Taehyung says, facing Jeongguk, “now is fine.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says right away. He presses his knees together, hands propped on either side of his legs. “I’m sorry. I made you feel like this was your fault, wasn’t it? It—it’s mine, too.”
Taehyung watches him, waiting for him to continue.
“I—all my life, I’ve never known financial struggle. My life was comfortable enough as it was before my financial gamble. My parents lived easy lives, made easier still by my income. I earn more money than many will ever even see in their lifetimes, it’s true. But I’ve never known what it was like for family to mean so much to you that you’d do anything—including sleep around—to help them. Because I’ve only given my family money because they wanted it, and because I have to. Never because I wanted to.
“And because of my money, I’ve never been in a relationship that ever—progressed past the want for riches, so I didn’t know how to get it across that I wanted—that I wanted to be with you, not just for the sex. When I found myself wishing you wouldn’t go home, and found myself wanting to go to that crepe place with you again just so I could see you, I had to be honest with myself for once in my life. Still, I didn’t know how to be honest with you. I really messed up there, I know. I’m sorry I expected so much from you without even making myself clear. There are just no excuses, I’m sorry."
He seems to be done, but then, “Don’t work at Jack in the Box anymore. It’s fine. I understand. You said it yourself, right? You pay back your debts even if you can’t do it in full, because even the gesture is enough. You’ve paid it off. I can help you find a place, if you need it. One you can afford.”
Jeongguk hasn’t looked at Taehyung all this time, picking at a loose thread in his slacks instead. He does now, peeking at Taehyung’s face.
“Say something,” he prompts when Taehyung tries, and fails, to speak. Instead, he steps up to Jeongguk and takes his hand, heart swelling hesitantly when Jeongguk curls his fingers with Taehyung’s.
“I always wanted to believe you felt that way about me,” he says, words coming out a little hoarse. “The way you acted around me, all of it—I could sense it. You made yourself clearer than you think, but I doubted myself. I just kept telling myself it wasn’t possible. I just didn’t believe I’d ever be enough for you. I’m sorry I was so blind, I—” Taehyung takes a breath, feeling winded, “want to be in your life. If you want me to be. Don’t be alone any longer, Jeon Jeongguk.”
Jeongguk smiles, so faintly that Taehyung thinks he might have imagined it, and pulls him down to kiss him. It’s intense, as it always is, but somehow even more so than usual—like Jeongguk wants to pull Taehyung into him, breathe him in, burn the feeling of their lips moving together onto his skin.
So Taehyung ends up not going to the studio for—well, hours. He stretches out along Jeongguk’s body on the bed, and they don’t have sex, but they hold each other for all of those hours. And Jeongguk tells Taehyung about himself—everything he can think of, grabbing it in fistfuls from the corners of his memory. Things he hasn’t even told Jimin, he confesses, and Taehyung does the same.
“What is that financial gamble you always talk about?” Taehyung asks.
“Ah,” Jeongguk says, humming. “Stocks. When I was fifteen I bought a little share from a little app company, and didn’t think much of it. I would sell it if it looked like I would start losing money, but never would I have imagined that it exploded the way it did. You know what the app was?”
“Holy shit,” Taehyung breathes.
“Yeah. When LINE came along, I bought shares from them, too. And they expanded just as I expected them to.”
He feels a little silly, honestly, in retrospect. Maybe Jeongguk does too. They could have had this ages ago if they’d just had the guts to speak the hell up, say something. Taehyung has never had trouble doing that. But as Jeongguk tightens his arm around Taehyung’s shoulders, gathering him to his chest to kiss the crown of his head, Taehyung decides that maybe it’s about time to stop regretting choices he made in the past. Maybe it’s time to look ahead, and cross the bridges when he gets to them.
『 ₩ 』
The only time Jeongguk does get with Taehyung is at night.
“Babe,” Jeongguk says. The midnight cravings rear their ugly heads. It’s not that he’s actually hungry, but he also made the uneducated decision to go watch Food Network on his phone, and now he just really wants strawberry shortcake. “You wanna eat something?”
When Taehyung doesn’t reply, Jeongguk lowers his phone quietly. Taehyung is out like a light, pencil curled loosely in his fingers, his head resting in the crook of Jeongguk’s neck. His breath is deep and steady on Jeongguk’s skin. In the soft yellow light, Jeongguk can see a faint mess of lineart in his sketchbook, and it’s odd—Taehyung usually doesn’t feel the pull of slumber till the ungodly witching hours, but perhaps here, leaning against Jeongguk with one of Jeongguk’s arms around him, sleep had been too hard to resist. He brings his free hand up to Taehyung’s hair, runs his fingers through it gently enough so that Taehyung won’t wake, then moves his art supplies onto the nightstand. When he’s dropping his phone onto the pile, Taehyung makes a sleepy noise, squirming against him, but Jeongguk shushes him and turns off the light.
“Wait, I need to finish that,” Taehyung mumbles, curling up into Jeongguk’s chest even as he says the words. He reaches across Jeongguk’s body for it, but falls just short as sleep draws a hand over his eyes. All Jeongguk does is laugh and snuggle down into the covers, shifting his arm so that the prickling sensation in his muscles clears. Taehyung’s head has been resting on it for hours. Taehyung stretches, too, so that the weight is taken off, and is just close enough for Jeongguk to drop a kiss to each eyelid.
"You know, you sleep with your eyes open.”
Taehyung hums. "If I closed them all the way, I’d miss you too much in my dreams."
Sleep is strange. It’s said that it’s the closest thing to death that humans can get without actually dying, a blank wash where memory and free will have no reign. It’s a morbid way of thinking but Taehyung is used to looking at things from unconventional perspectives, and somehow along the way, Jeongguk got caught up in it too. And sharing slumber with someone says something—something important. Something like, hey, share this space with me. Share this little taste of eternity with me, I don’t want to do it alone.
“What,” Jeongguk murmurs, teasing. “You don’t dream about me?”
But Taehyung is already out, walking through a land of colors that Jeongguk will never see.
He gets a pretty good idea of what Taehyung’s dreams must look like, anyway.
The year-end art show is a production that Jeongguk has never, put plainly, given a shit about. This year, though, Jeongguk takes his first day off that he’s ever requested, at the raised but unquestioning eyebrows of his boss, and finds himself in attendance.
It is located in the art building, first floor, and it’s full of people by the time Jeongguk is there. He sees Sujeong first, talking to someone who must be a professor. She’s standing beside a TV screen, displaying something that looks a little like Pacific Rim and he realizes it’s her work—her animation, her CG rendering, and he almost goes over to admire it when Taehyung appears.
“Your faith in me, Taehyung, is flattering.”
“I thought you had work,” Taehyung points out. “It’s Friday.”
“Got the day off. Seokjin isn’t exactly a totalitarian.”
“Have you looked around yet?” Taehyung asks. “My corner is over there. You’ve seen some of my things, so it won’t be hard to find. Mine is the one with the giant mural! Impossible to miss. I have to talk to my advisor and some of the other undergrads so I’ll see you in a bit!”
He takes off before Jeongguk can object, but he supposes that it’s just as well—now he can take his time looking at everything, and when he finally does make his way over to Taehyung’s work, he sees something he recognizes immediately: the image of himself, laid out in nothing but his skin. Jeongguk would have never expected it, but Taehyung is amazing with realism; he’d covered up the space between Jeongguk’s legs with flowers, and he’s lounging across a throne of fruits and flowers tumbling from a cornucopia. His eyes are painted shut, and a wreath of olives and grapes rests over his head. Plutus, God of Wealth and Good Harvest, says the title. Oil on canvas.
There is the piece with animal cracker shapes, and Jeongguk laughs, but he is blown away by the mural—nearly twelve feet from end to end, filled with images of children and books on one end and straight-cut buildings and high-rises on the other. In the middle is a wizened old tree.
The Money Tree, it’s titled. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Jeongguk stares at it all evening, even as the guests begin trickling out as the hours pass by. The amount of detail to it is immeasurable, and Jeongguk can’t even begin to comprehend the kind of work that must have gone into this. Taehyung joins him again when the venue much quieter, nearly empty save for a last few art buffs.
“It’s amazing,” Jeongguk murmurs. “This is what you’ve been working on?”
“I finished up some loose ends on the other pieces, but mainly yes,” Taehyung says proudly. “Not too bad, right? I would tell you all about the planning and meaning behind it but. It would bore you, to be honest.”
Taehyung looks away from the mural and fixes Jeongguk’s profile with a searching look. “Huh?”
“How much?” Jeongguk asks, voice barely above a murmur, and he gestures at the piece. His voice is quiet, but the way he says it, Taehyung can tell he’s been holding the words in all evening. He must have waited until almost everyone was gone, only a few other art students straggling, and Taehyung laughs.
“It’s not for sale,” he says. Jeongguk’s face falls into a disappointed scowl until Taehyung goes on. “You’re the reason I’m even graduating, and you think I’ll let you pay for this?”
Jeongguk makes a noise of question.
“Look at it,” Taehyung nods back at the mural, taking Jeongguk’s hand in his, two little people facing a big piece of art. “The money tree. People always say, ‘money doesn’t grow on trees!’ to mean that becoming rich isn’t easy, isn’t something that can be done without hard work. And they’re right, but the point of this assignment was to take something old, and make it something new. The money tree,” Taehyung repeats, like it’s obvious, “don’t you see? It has all the money it could ever need. But it cannot grow strong and lovely with money alone. No, a tree needs someone to love it.”
It’s Jeongguk’s turn to look at Taehyung’s profile. Taehyung can feel the heat of his gaze, but feels too embarrassed to meet it just yet, so he goes on. “And that’s why you’re the reason I’m graduating,” he says. Maybe one day Taehyung will tell Jeongguk he is his muse. Maybe he already knows. “That’s why I’m not letting you pay for this.”
A gentle silence settles its arms over their shoulders. Then, Taehyung adds, “It’d look good over your bed, though.”
The words sink into Taehyung’s skin. He turns numbly, finally meeting that hard, determined look in Jeongguk’s eyes. “Move in with me,” he mutters, and Taehyung remembers that night in the pool, and expects Jeongguk to look away—but he doesn’t. He looks like he wants to, but he holds Taehyung’s gaze with resolution. “I’m not taking no for an answer. It makes perfect sense. I’m tired of living in that giant place myself and you have nowhere to go.”
“You can have your own studio. We can convert the guest room on the roof, it’s not like anyone uses it anyway. It gets the best sunlight.”
“I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Jeongguk continues hastily, like he’s scared to hear Taehyung’s answer, full of words now when he’s usually so taciturn. “But I want you to. One day, maybe, if you don’t want to now. I can help you find a place, and—and.” He seems to lose his train of thought here and opts to drown in Taehyung’s gaze instead. “What?”
“How could I accept that from you?”
“After everything that’s happened,” Taehyung says, hoping Jeongguk will understand, “how can you do that for me?”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. He turns his body fully now, facing Taehyung. “But I want do it for you. You taught me this. For the first time,” and Taehyung interlaces his fingers with Jeongguk’s, “there is someone I want to give everything I have.”
So, realistically, from the perspective of anyone that doesn’t see the world through rose colored glasses, they have a fairytale ending. It’s so rare nowadays that Taehyung is scared to call it a happy ending, but it’s as close to one as he could possibly dream of and more. When the art department gives him the green light to take his projects down, the first thing Jeongguk does is take the mural home with him and hang it up over the headboard of his bed. Taehyung helps out, still looking a little dazed at the fact they’re here, he’s here, and Jeongguk has a ball of string on his hands, trying to figure out how they’re going to hang the heavy canvas.
“I think we should just get it custom framed,” he says seriously, stepping back and survey their work. The mural is a hair lopsided on the right, swaying from the cords looped into the gold rings in its corners. “Or at least find better hangings.”
“I think it looks good,” Taehyung says just as solemnly, wrapping the string back onto the spool from which it unraveled. He can tell, just from practiced eye, that it’s crooked from where he’s standing at the head of Jeongguk’s mattress, but it feels right. Personal. He works out the knots in the string with his fingers, slow and patient, and it’s pretty clear that Jeongguk really has no need for tools to repair or make things from scratch, so they’ll have to make do for now. “But we have a lot of ribbon and chain links and things in the art department. I can go look around next—”
The moment he climbs off the bed to set the string down on the bedside table, Jeongguk comes up behind him, and it isn’t without some measured choreography that Taehyung somehow gets himself to land on his back and not his face when Jeongguk pushes him down onto the bed, pinning his hands down into the sheets.
“—week,” Taehyung says, laughing slightly, a little winded. He twists one wrist free to reach up and comb his fingers through Jeongguk’s hair, thoughtfully, pensively, before sliding his hand down to Jeongguk’s face. Taehyung brushes his thumb across the faint scar on Jeongguk’s cheekbone.
“Hello,” he says. Jeongguk closes his eyes and presses his face into Taehyung’s touch.
He stretches up when Jeongguk leans down, and their mouths meet. Things progress naturally from there. It reminds Taehyung that same perfect feeling when he picks up a paintbrush or a stylus or nylon fishing string and feels the inspiration thrum in his hands. Jeongguk kisses him as if he’ll live forever but also as if he’ll die that very day and Taehyung can’t say he doesn’t match him, fire behind his teeth and on his tongue. He wrenches his other hand free so he can wrap his arms around Jeongguk’s neck and pull him closer, but Jeongguk pulls away, only just enough so that their lips are still touching, to tilt his head and lean back in.
The sex itself isn’t so different. Taehyung shimmies out of his clothes first, as he always does, and Jeongguk initially pretends to be hesitant, teasing for longer than he needs to, as he always does—smoothing down the hem of his shirt when Taehyung tries tugging it up, not lifting his hips off the bed when Taehyung undoes his belt with a clink and pulls down his zipper with practiced hands.
“Come on,” Taehyung nearly whines when Jeongguk watches him struggle with his jeans with glittering amusement in his eyes, leaning against his half a dozen pillows. He’d taken off his shirt himself, after Taehyung had almost tore the seams. “Don’t be difficult—”
Jeongguk finally gives. It probably doesn’t take more than ten extra seconds of his teasing but it feels like an eternity to Taehyung until he’s hooking his own thumbs into the stiff waistband of his jeans and tugging down. Taehyung doesn’t manage to fling it all the way off of Jeongguk’s bed, it’s just too expansive, and he doesn’t think he minds seeing their clothes strewn around them. The mess makes this more real, somehow.
The lube, when Jeongguk’s slicked fingers meets Taehyung’s hole, is warmer than he’s used to it being. Not that Jeongguk didn’t warm it up before, but he is being extra gentle now. The realization makes Taehyung’s head swim and he has to grip tight onto Jeongguk’s shoulders where he’s straddling his thighs.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung gasps, trying not to come as he fucks himself on Jeongguk’s fingers. “Wh-where’s the lube, give me the lube.”
Taehyung is satisfied with the quiver of Jeongguk’s hand as he plucks it out of the sheets for him. He uncaps it, warming some up in his own palms, balanced only on the muscles of his legs now. Jeongguk watches him quizzically, then groans, startled, when Taehyung reaches down to slick him up himself.
“Hey, what are—I haven’t. Condom, yet,” Jeongguk says eloquently, as Taehyung spreads the precome at the head of Jeongguk’s cock before cupping his hands around it and drawing his palms over the skin, the wet sound of lube loud in Jeongguk’s ears. He grits his teeth. “Taehyung, I haven’t put a condom on yet.”
“Do you want to?”
Jeongguk stares into Taehyung’s face, looking punch drunk and speechless. “I—no,” he chokes. “No, I don’t. Do you?”
“Of course not,” Taehyung says plainly, a little strained. “Unless you—?”
“I haven’t,” Jeongguk says, and the tenderness in his voice is out of place in the heat between them. “You’re the first one.”
At this, Taehyung leans in to kiss him again, and Jeongguk guides him closer by his hips until the head of his cock is nudging against his entrance. The lack of the thin latex to separate them is making Taehyung light headed, and he has to lock his arms around Jeongguk’s neck to steady himself as he sinks down. He feels Jeongguk’s groans more than he hears them, ground out against the skin of his bare shoulder, trailing off into a gravelly breath when Taehyung is fully seated.
In this position, Taehyung has freer reign than Jeongguk does. He fucks himself on Jeongguk without holding back, and Jeongguk obliges more than willingly when Taehyung reaches for his hands, flicking his gaze between Taehyung’s face and his own cock, watching it disappear into Taehyung’s body. Taehyung wants to kiss him but he can’t seem to get his lips to pucker and mold around Jeongguk’s just right, but Jeongguk understands, and sucks Taehyung’s lower lip between his teeth for minimal effort.
“Jeongguk,” he says, shuddering, lip swollen now as he pulls it out of Jeongguk’s mouth with a soft, wet noise, “I’m going to—”
“Come for me,” Jeongguk says, hands tightening in Taehyung’s. “Do it. Let me see you do it.”
Taehyung feels all his muscles tighten as he does, body curling as his come spatters over Jeongguk’s stomach and abdomen, breath coming in short staccatos. It takes him longer than usual to ride through the aftershocks, quiet moans tripping over his tongue as he feels Jeongguk shift beneath him and subsequently inside him. Taehyung pulls back, Jeongguk still so patient, even though the flush is dark and and high in his cheeks. He slides his hands up Jeongguk’s arms until he’s cradling his face between his palms, shiny and glistening at the temples with sweat.
“Come inside me,” Taehyung whispers, and Jeongguk’s cock pulses harder inside him. “I want it. Fill me up. I want you—”
If they were in Taehyung’s bed, Jeongguk would have had to flip them around, carefully so that they wouldn’t tumble onto the floor—but the bed is big enough for Jeongguk to hold Taehyung’s body against his own, sit up, and pitch them forward until Taehyung is on his back, bouncing in the sheets. Something cold digs into Taehyung’s spine—his belt buckle, maybe, and Jeongguk slides into him deep again.
“You’re,” he pants, not finishing his thought as he picks up his pace, “Taehyung, I. Taehyung—”
And Taehyung tugs him close for more kisses, starting at Jeongguk’s lips and mouthing along his cheek and his jaw and his neck, inking hickeys deep into Jeongguk’s skin. The sound he makes when Taehyung sucks at the spot behind his ear is wrecked, desperate.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung answers him, out of breath from the force of Jeongguk’s thrusts, body sliding forward along the bed, “I love you.”
Jeongguk comes, at that. Taehyung feels it, hears it, a combination of a hot rush inside him and broken cries in his ear. One of his hands fists in the sheets by Taehyung’s ribs, and the linen stretches taut beneath them. “Fuck,” he gasps, hips stuttering.
Jeongguk’s legs are shaking as Taehyung slowly unlocks his thighs from around his waist, letting himself relax into the mattress with a sigh. He doesn’t want Jeongguk to pull away, though, even when his cock slips out and the come is likely leaking into the bedsheets, so Taehyung curls his arms around Jeongguk’s neck and breathes in his scent.
“You’re covered in come,” Jeongguk protests when Taehyung doesn’t let him move to grab tissues, or a towel. “Mine and yours, so—”
“Just, lie here for a second, okay,” Taehyung says, loosening an arm to turn Jeongguk’s face to his. His eyes are unreadable and Taehyung doesn’t kiss him right away like he’d be planning to. “Is there something wrong?”
“You caught me off guard,” Jeongguk says, shoving his face into Taehyung’s cheek. He’s still trembling, and Taehyung sweeps his hands down Jeongguk’s back and rolls so that he’s lying on Jeongguk’s chest, damp with sweat. This way he has to look into Taehyung’s face. Damn, Jeongguk’s bed is so big they could roll all over it without falling off the edges. The dream. “What you said.”
“I meant it.” Taehyung drops a kiss on his nose.
Jeongguk swallows, breath slowing. “I know,” and the sincerity is clear in his voice.
“Want to hear it again?”
Jeongguk scrunches his nose for a moment, lacing his fingers together over the small of Taehyung’s back. “Sure. I want to hear it again.”
Taehyung makes a show of taking a deep breath, as if ready to plunge into deep water, but just as the words form in his mouth, Jeongguk beats him to it.
“I love you too.”
(They don’t actually get out of bed for the rest of the evening, or for dinner, or at all that night, like they planned. Somehow Jeongguk isn’t too bothered by it. For once, for once, for once, the size of his bed actually makes itself useful, and he can hardly complain.)
There are three constants in Jeongguk’s life, and he's in love with one of them: tax returns, Park Jimin, and Kim Taehyung.
Tax returns are kind of boring, Jeongguk concludes after careful consideration.
As time passes, Jeongguk’s penthouse starts looking less like a house and more like a home. At first the changes are small and slow.
Taehyung is freelance for several months, and in those several months he swears he cranks out more pieces than he had all year in his last year of university. True to form, he doesn’t kick the habit of being awake deep into the night in his studio on the roof. It’s too lonely to go to sleep in a bed so big those nights, so Jeongguk sets up camp in the corner of the studio and works until his eyelids fail. When his alarm beeps him awake in the mornings, sometimes Taehyung will still be up, smiling at his work in progress; other times he’ll be curled up on the floor beside Jeongguk, hands still sticky from paint or glue or tape adhesive, and Jeongguk will carry him to bed before he leaves for class. Junior year waits for no one, and Seokjin—well, Seokjin cuts him no slack, still. Although Jeongguk is sure he caught the hickeys on Jeongguk’s neck once, and Seokjin chose only to blandly point out a few paint stains on Jeongguk’s tie, and left it at that.
Jimin is a lot more vocal in his observations.
“Whoa,” he says one evening when he comes over. Taehyung is at an exhibtion and Seokjin in a meeting, so the two abandoned boyfriends come together again for chicken and way too much beer. “Your place looks...different.”
“Does it?” Jeongguk asks, unloading beer from the fridge. “How so?”
"It looks lived in. Messy."
"No, I like it."
"I tried cleaning up before you came over," Jeongguk says. What he doesn't say is that he's kind of bad at it, so Jimin might not want to sit on the chaise lounge end of the couch because Jeongguk might have forgotten about that until he just now spotted Taehyung's shirt still balled up on the cushion and remembered their session there last night. Well, he tries not to remember. Taehyung won't be back for hours and Jeongguk really hates jerking off in the shower.
"A plus for effort. C for actual result."
“The stuff on the walls,” Jimin looks around. “They’re new. Where did that rock picture go?”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “That rock picture,” he repeats under his breath, because dating an artist turns him into an elitist like none other. “The one with the seaglass and the angel aura? I sold it. For a pretty good sellback value, too, I was surprised.”
“Aw, I liked that one,” Jimin says, climbing up into a bar stool and setting down the giant box of fried chicken. “What’s that now?”
“Taehyung made it,” Jeongguk says. It’s an installation piece, set up so that it looks like someone with midnight-blue, star-studded skin is walking into the wall. Dreams, Taehyung had called it.
“Aww,” Jimin says, tossing the plastic bag into the trash as Jeongguk pops open a Hite, pushing it across the counter towards him. “That’s so romantic.” He takes a long draught from his bottle, gesturing at all the other pieces that are foreign to him. “Are these all his, too?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “Most of it, anyway. Some of the jars and vases are his making, too. He got his hands on some, from what I understand, ‘really good clay’ the other month and made a bunch. It takes forever to wash off in the shower, though.”
“But you’re not complaining about that,” Jimin says knowingly.
“Park Jimin, if you don’t shut up—”
“I will suffer in both life and death and you won’t visit me when I die because you’ll be in prison for killing me, yadda yah, I get it,” Jimin rattles off as he tears into a drumstick. “But I’m being honest. Seeing you like this, it makes me happy. Your smiles reach your eyes now.”
Jeongguk smiles at this. He can’t help himself, and it just proves Jimin’s point.
“How is living with him, though,” Jimin asks. “He’s an artist. He doesn't even operate at normal human hours.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, then shrugs. “I mean, well.”
“No, right?” Jimin laughs. “Yeah, I would know. He used to be my roommate until just this year. Said that he wasn’t going to subject me to that. Turns out he spent more time in the studio than at home anyway this year, huh?”
Yeah, so Taehyung is still awake or asleep at odd hours and odder places. But more and more often now Jeongguk can convince him to climb into bed when he does, just around 2 AM. Jeongguk has been falling asleep the moment his head hits the pillow these days, exhausted down to his bones from his upper division classes and work, but one particular night, Taehyung’s glowing phone keeps him up.
“Babe, go to sleep,” he says, words slurred and tired. “Or at least turn your brightness down.”
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were still awake,” Taehyung says. “I’m almost done.”
Jeongguk scoots closer, spooning Taehyung in earnest when he’d just had a loose arm draped over his waist. He hooks his chin over Taehyung’s shoulder and squints at the screen. “What’re you up to?”
“Just deleting stuff I don’t need anymore. Freeing up some space,” Taehyung says. Jeongguk watches as he erases photos, notes, X’s out a number of obscure apps. Just as he’s about to tap Delete on the banner that appears for Tinder, though, Jeongguk catches his hand.
“Don’t delete that.”
“Why?” Taehyung turns his head slightly. “I have you now. Why would I still need my Tinder?”
“I don’t want to forget,” Jeongguk murmurs, sleepiness making his thoughts honest and naked. “I want to remember how I met you.”
"It's just Tinder, Jeonggukkie."
"I know." Jeongguk presses his lips to the first cobble of Taehyung's spine. "Just Tinder. A silly, unassuming hookup app. Not some stuffy dinner party or conference."
Taehyung is quiet. Then, “Jimin told me you swiped right on me on accident.”
“Hmm?” Jeongguk turns his face so that his nose is in the hair at the nape of Taehyung’s neck. “Did he now.”
“Is it true?”
“Does it matter?”
Taehyung considers this. “I guess not, huh.”
Jeongguk hums. “Don’t delete that app.”
It’s a Match!
Taehyung chuckles, his phone shutting off with a papery click, and he turns around so he can bury his face in the crook of Jeongguk’s neck.
You and Taehyung have liked each other.
What a match, indeed.