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Never Let Me Go

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✖ phase 1: ghrelin ✖

Taehyung is on all fours and the hands on his hips are holding him hard enough to bruise.

“Too hard?”

“It’s fine,” he says, but the grip on his waist loosens anyway. He can feel lube sliding down the insides of his thighs, cool and slick, the sensation enough to make him squirm back with impatience so he can concentrate on something else. “Hurry up!”

They get on with it. Taehyung moans when he’s finally filled, full and deep, head dropping down to rest in the pillows he has hugged under his chest. The thrusts are hard, almost punishing, and asking if the grip had been too tight goes to waste—the hands around his hips slide up to his waist, fingers digging into the crests of his lower ribs. Taehyung knows he’s going to be sore the next day, all over, knows that he won’t even fancy getting out of bed.

It ends quickly. Taehyung isn’t stopped when he works a hand between himself and the bed to jerk himself off, and when he comes he tightens enough around the cock inside him to pull the boy behind him into orgasm, too. He doesn’t pull out right away, and Taehyung, wanting to hang onto the feeling of the aftershocks, eases himself back and forth on the cock inside him until he hears a choke over his shoulder. He smiles to himself when a hand comes down on the small of his back, stopping his movements with a sting of nails dug into his skin.

“Stop it.”

Taehyung grins to himself, pulling away completely, and whimpers when he feels the come leaking down his thigh, cool and sticky, a little uncomfortable now. He lies there for a while, maybe, becoming increasingly aware that it isn’t socially acceptable to be staying any longer without striking some kind of conversation. The other option is sleeping here, and Taehyung isn’t too keen on it. The sweat that lines his body makes shimmying back into stiff denim a struggle, but Taehyung bids a kind farewell when he goes.

Hoseok is still awake when he gets back home, squinting at the tiny glowing screen of his phone in the darkness.

“Bad for you, hyung,” Taehyung says. “I’m turning on the light, close your eyes.”

“I was getting worried about you,” Hoseok says, and he’s sitting up with his eyes shut, blinking them open slowly as he adjusts to the light. “What took you so long?”

Taehyung shrugs. “This guy was good.”

Hoseok pointedly eyes the redness that laces around Taehyung’s hips and waist when he tugs off his shirt to hop in the shower, gathering his towel. “Any luck?”

“I wish,” Taehyung sighs. “But no.”

“Sure?”

“I’m sure. They’re not forming in the right places, anyway.”

 

A bruise, otherwise known as a contusion of the flesh, involves the rupture of blood vessels like capillaries, or in more severe cases, veins. It is the blood that escapes into the surrounding tissue that gives the skin that trademark bloom of black orchid and pansy, spread in the shape of the injuring pressure.

“Jesus,” Hoseok says when he bustles into the bathroom the next morning as Taehyung is staring at the pattern of bruising along the crests of his hips. He snags the open tube of Crest off the counter where it’s already damp from Taehyung washing his face, the soapy water dripping off his elbows. “You bruise so easily that one day you’re going to find the one, and you won’t even know, because it’ll just look like everyone else’s marks.”

“Nuh-uh,” he says, letting his shirt fall back down. “I’ll know what theirs looks like.”

“Man,” Hoseok says. “I wish I could live with faith in life as pure as younglings like you.”

“Hyung, you’re a year older than me.”

“A youngling.”

“We teach actual younglings for a living, I thought you’d appreciate someone only a year younger than you by now.”

Hoseok laughs, handing Taehyung his jackets as he shrugs on his own. The scarf that always goes with it dangles off the hanger. It’s a little too warm today for it. “Sometimes I think you work so well with kids only because you’re right down there with them.”

“Hey!”

But Taehyung laughs too. Mostly, it’s true. He gets up at the crack of dawn every day and goes to the district elementary school by subway and foot, and on some days they’ll catch Seokjin going into work earlier than usual, one hand stretched up to hold onto a support beam, another one swiping rapidly across the screen of his phone. After two stops the subway clears when it makes a stop at a business park and most of the people in suits and skirts brisk off onto the platform. Hoseok always gets out his lesson plan for the morning, as he teaches first, to read over as Taehyung hugs his bag to his chest and dozes off on his shoulder. From what Taehyung guesses, the subway regulars probably think they are soulmates.

“Oh God, I’m glad we’re not,” Hoseok said when Taehyung suggested this. He had caught a girl staring at them with envious eyes one dewy spring morning last year and Taehyung had had a particularly late night. “That would have been such a nightmare.”

“You would have had to go to class looking like a human eggplant!” Taehyung said, loud enough that the girl had given him a half-amused, half-embarrassed glance.

The story with soulmates in this world is a little harder to come by. Not everyone has one. Some people can spend their entire lives searching only for their efforts to be fruitless and others never expect anything, can’t even imagine having someone by their side to call their own, and yet, someone like that—someone made for them—will crash into their lives.

Taehyung thinks he falls somewhere in the middle.

“I still haven’t forgiven you for that,” Hoseok said. “Every time I walk up any flight of stairs now I have to check and make sure no one is coming down.”

It had been Taehyung’s second year in college. Hoseok had lived in the same apartment building as , and had, one evening, been a little more tipsy (drunk) than he was accustomed to, and had insisted to an equally tipsy (drunk) Jimin that he could make it home just fine, he lived right down the street. And he’d made it out the door without tripping on his face as he was usually capable of even sober, so Jimin had assumed he was going to be fine.

Somehow, Taehyung had also believed that taking seven flights of stairs to the ground floor was a good idea at the time, and he made it to the third floor when he heard approaching footsteps ahead, looked away from his feet for once second, and promptly crumpled down the length of the stairway, knocking a soft body onto the landing with him.

“Oh,” he’d said, and Taehyung remembers the look of pained shock on Hoseok’s face. “Hi!”

“I’m not going to lie,” Taehyung said seriously, that day on the train. “I really thought you were the one. What kind of kiss kiss fall in love is that?”

“And yet we both went our own ways, unharmed and unbruised.”

“Easy for you to say! My right ankle will never be the same after that night.”

The story with soulmates in this world is a little like a Love Story. The rules are unusual and one of a kind. Soulmates do not have to fall in love. Those who don’t are inseparable friends. The first time Taehyung ever touches his soulmate, if he can find them, a monstrous bruise with settle in the exact place and shape of contact. Afterwards, with enough time, he’ll never have to eat another bite of food again.

The only thing he’ll be able to survive off of in this world will be physical touch—physical touch of his soulmate alone.

 

“The superintendent is stopping by our school today! She will be a very important-looking lady, maybe wearing a dress of a tie. So if she walks into our classroom I want everyone to be on their best behavior. Can you all do that for me?”

A chorus of agreement rises from Taehyung’s class, seated on the carpet. Hoseok’s done teaching for the day, technically speaking, and he’s at his desk writing something in what looks like tiny lettering, and decides not to ponder over it too long. An email had been sitting in their inboxes the second they booted up their laptops, a school-wide memo to let teachers know that the district superintendent was going to be on campus and dropping into classrooms for spot inspections. Taehyung knows that most of these efforts are concentrated on the older students in fourth, fifth, sixth grades, so he doesn’t expect that anyone will drop in.

The day passes uneventfully, for the most part. Taehyung teaches them their math lesson, gets through through their rudimentary writing exercises, and it’s at the end of the day when he is reading to the class an old little story about a fish with rainbow scales does the door open, suddenly, without warning.

Hoseok has stepped out to go back home first, having not felt well all day, and Taehyung promised to clean up and lock up once he sent the last student home. For a split second he thinks that Hoseok might have forgotten his keys, which he’s done more than once after a particularly exhausting day. But someone Taehyung doesn’t recognize stands in the doorway, in a dark blue blazer and pencil skirt, and he straightens up a little in his seat in front of the class. As if in reply, all twenty of them wiggle in place, sitting up straighter with him, and he has to fight down a smile of pride as he continues reading, somewhat uncomfortably self-aware. He notices, out of the corner of his eyes, another figure scurry in beside her.

The superintendent stays behind until the parents start arriving, watching with what he hopes is silent approval as he shakes hands with any parent that approaches him to talk about their child. It isn’t until almost all of them have left—some are still straggling, parents talking to each other and a few of the kids pulling their mothers by their hands to show them the work they did in class that day. She reaches out with her hand and he takes it, shaking once. The person who followed her inside, a boy of perhaps Taehyung’s height and the kind of mouth that looks like a frown permanently tattooed to his lips, offers his hand too, as if out of propriety. Taehyung shakes his, too, because he is nothing if not mannered, even if this guy has a champion resting bitch face.

“Sorry to bother you after what I’m sure has been an extremely long day,” she says. “I’m sure you read the memo about my presence on campus today. This is one of my interns, he just wanted to come see the ropes out in the great wilderness.”

Taehyung chuckles, and it does sound tired to his own ears. “It’s alright. I’m surprised you want to talk at all, don’t you usually just drop in and out quickly?”

“I’m actually not here on a routine inspection,” she says, voice growing solemn. “But no one but the district office and the teachers I visited today know this.”

“Oh.” Taehyung wets his lips with the tip of his tongue. “What’s wrong?”

“There was a case of child soulmate bonding in a neighboring school district,” she says, then pauses as Taehyung blinks.

“What?”

“It wasn’t widely spoken of, very hushed up. The students were both first graders. You know kids that age rough and tumble plenty, so their parents didn’t think much of the bruising on their hands. After about two, three weeks, those two girls rejected food completely and were rushed to the hospital. They were found to be soulmate matches during their stays there.”

“Oh, God,” Taehyung says. He’s heard stories like this, where children will meet their soulmates before they can even truly understand what soulmates are. The concept of it begins trickling into the curriculum around third grade, then is taught in full detail in the older grades, through middle and high school. “Are they okay?”

“They’re fine. It’s one of those things that everyone knows about but no one talks about, at least not publicly. But immediately after news of it spread, even just under the table, I started getting emails from parents that were concerned about continuing to teach young kids in community environments like this one.”

“What,” Taehyung says, incredulous, “so they want to pull their kids out of school?”

“Not exactly. They want to put their kids into public school later. As in, eight or nine.”

“Is that so?” Taehyung frowns. “Are we going to be enacting this or something?”

“No, no. I wanted to ask the preschool teachers so see what their opinions were about something like this,” she says. “Or if you don’t feel comfortable discussing right away, you can email me with something better thought out.”

“I can discuss it right now.” He hums thoughtfully. “I don’t think putting kids in school later is going to help. If two soulmates are meant to meet, they meet when the time is right. Just because you take a child out of school doesn’t mean they won’t somehow bump into their soulmate somewhere else.”

“Do you have any suggestions, then?”

“Mm, not really,” Taehyung says. “Well, actually. Perhaps we need to consider starting to teach children about soulmates as soon as they start school. It’ll take studies and work and rewriting of the curriculum but if they understood what it means, even in its simplest form, then things like what you mentioned before are less likely to happen.”

“You mean to say you should be teaching them about soulmates at an age like the students you teach?” she clarifies, eyebrow quirking.

“Keeping something like this from children doesn’t protect them from anything, is how I see it,” Taehyung says. “But that’s just me.”

“Well,” she says, with an air of finality, “thank you for your opinion. Taehyung, right? Kim Taehyung? I saw on the nameplate by the door that you have a co. Did he leave?”

“Oh, he was feeling unwell, yes. He left after he finished teaching his class.”

They shake hands again, and the intern just offers Taehyung a tip of the head before they’re gone. The classroom is quiet now, as all the kids and parents have left as well, and usually Hoseok would put on music from his laptop as they cleaned up their workspaces and got the classroom ready for the morning tomorrow. But Taehyung is alone today, the music a little loud in the lonely space around him, so he decides to sing along as he lays down a math activity at the seat of every desk.

“Sorry,” Hoseok croaks the moment he gets back. He’s swaddled like a baby in what looks like the entirety of his bedding, nursing a mug of hot tea on the couch. “You’re back so late, I would have helped you if that didn’t mean possibly getting you and all the kids sick too.”

Taehyung laughs softly, flicking Hoseok’s forehead as he passes by. It’s burning under his fingernail and he doubles back to press his palm against Hoseok’s head.

“Jeez,” he says, dropping his bag at the dinner table. “Did you not take anything for it? You’re burning up.”

“I try not to.”

“Now is not the time for alternative medicine, hyung,” Taehyung says, reaching for the bottle of Tylenol and brandishing it in his face. “Here. Eat up.”

“Are you going out later?” Hoseok asks as he puts down his cup to unscrew the bottle with shaking hands. Taehyung turns from where he’s staring at their snacks, holding a half-finished box of Wheat Thins. He loves these things, and dinner isn’t sounding super hot right now if he can’t share it with Hoseok.

“Yeah. Do you want me to stay home with you?”

“Nah,” Hoseok says. “No, I’m fine. I was asking to be curious. I’m just going to go to sleep after you leave, anyway.” He drinks from his cup. “Where do you find all those hookups, anyway?”

“Soulmate searches on Craigslist,” Taehyung says absently, rummaging through their fridge for cream cheese. “A lot of people are sad and horny. Or curious and horny. It’s a pretty good deal.”

“What the hell,” Hoseok says. “Be careful. Craigslist? That website is the shadiest place on the Internet.”

“I’m careful,” Taehyung says. When Hoseok doesn’t look convinced, he says. “Really! I know a shady posting when I see one.”

His hookup tonight is fine. It borders a little on boring, though, even though he seems like he’s pretty stellar in bed. He makes Taehyung come once against the wall—he’s pretty big, in all senses of the word, and expectedly strong for how big his arms are. It’s not until Taehyung is on his elbows and knees on the bed when he sees his hand in the dim lamplight, and makes a strangled noise in his throat.

“You all right?” comes a voice behind him.

“I,” Taehyung says, turning his hand over against the sheets. It had been trembling a little from the force of his orgasms, but now it’s full-out shaking—because tattooed lightly over the skin of his palm, extending to his fingertips and the tendoned back of his hand, is a purpling bruise undertoned with a chilly green. “I think so.”

“You sure? We can stop.”

He’s nice. Taehyung is thankful for that, because he doesn’t say anything when Taehyung slips back into himself, sitting up on the bed in the spot he’d come already, the sticky come cool on his thighs. “Can you turn on the light?”

It flickers on over their heads. When he sees Taehyung staring at his own hand in wonder, he sits back heavily on the mattress.

“Oh, my God,” Taehyung says. It’s unmistakable in the bright light—a handprint curled around his own hand, gentle and quiet.

“Is that…?”

“I think so.” Taehyung looks up apologetically. “I don’t think it’s you, though.”

“No, that’s,” he shakes his head. “Congratulations. Do you know who it is?”

Taehyung thinks of all the hands he shook tonight—so many of them. A seed of worry plants itself in his stomach but he’ll worry about that weed later. He shakes his head. “No.”

“Well, why are you still here? You gotta go find them!”

“Wow.”

No one hears the word except Jeongguk himself. The desk across from his, where Jaeho sits, is empty right now, and the only only person in the office right now is Youngji, at reception, talking to Jackson over the counter. They keep laughing at something he can’t hear, and Jackson keeps reaching out to brush her hair back, or tuck it behind her ear. Jeongguk shivers at the sight of it. Soon he’ll be in that position.

He can’t stop rubbing his thumb across the span of his palm. The nerves tingle painfully every time he does, dragging a white line through the darkening bruise on his hand. The more he presses it the realer it feels and Jeongguk can’t help but remember the look on Kim Taehyung’s face. Soft and hard at the same time, gentle but sure.

Jeongguk wonders if he is looking for him, too.

Not that Jeongguk is looking, because a loud, obnoxious, “What’ve you got there?” jolts him out of his thoughts. He shoves his hands further below the desk and sits up straight. Jaeho sinks down into his seat, heavily, leaning back and groaning. It’s only the afternoon. Jeongguk had gotten here right after class only a few minutes ago, but he feels that sentiment on a spiritual level—especially since he hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday. Sadly the sandwich in his bag right now doesn’t sound appetizing at all.

“Nothing,” Jeongguk says, but Jaeho gives him this look that Jeongguk can read easily. You’re going to have to use your hands to type so good luck hiding that, it says, and he sighs. Slowly he uncurls his hands in his lap and brings them up on his desk, reaching for the mouse of his computer with his bruised hand. For a moment he forces himself not to look at Jaeho, acting as if nothing is out of the ordinary. It’s great. Jaeho’s expression is dumbstruck and priceless.

“Who?” he demands immediately, and Jeongguk hisses shh! so he lowers his voice a hair to a fierce whisper. “Who?”

“Someone that works in the district,” Jeongguk says. “Met him yesterday.”

“Wait, I didn’t expect you to have an answer.” Jaeho’s eyes are huge in his face. “It took my parents over a month to find each other again, and you mean to tell me you know who it is already?”

“Over a month?” Jeongguk asks, and it’s Jaeho’s turn to shush him. “What the fuck kind of—? How did it take them that long?”

“Their bodies didn’t reject food that fast, and they met in university. It’s hard to find one person among the thousands.” Jaeho sits back. “Wow. What’s he like? Do you know him?”

It’s then that the boss comes back in and gives Jackson a pat on the shoulder to indicate that lunch break is over, and he should probably be getting back to the HR department. Jaeho opens up his work as their boss passes by to sit down in his own office, then says, “That’s not going to fade until you two acknowledge each other, you know that, right?”

“Seriously?”

“My dad walked around with a bruised crotch for a month,” Jaeho says solemnly, and Jeongguk hacks as he inhales his own spit. “So consider yourself lucky.”

 

Jimin screeches like a angry macaw over the phone when Jeongguk breaks the news to him.

“No one else knows,” Jeongguk says, fiddling with the strap of his bag. The subway is mostly empty around this part of town, and it’s a surprisingly balmy evening this late in the year. Every time the doors slide open Jeongguk feels a gust of thick city air on his cheeks. His stomach rumbles in his belly and yet that sandwich in his bag has never been less appealing. “Well, except my coworkers and classmates, I guess. Anyone who’s seen me walking around with my bare hands.”

“Has anyone asked?”

“No. When I’m not writing or typing I just keep my hand in my pocket and no one is going to ask that kind of question in the middle of class, anyway.”

“Who is it?”

“I’m not telling.”

Jimin sighs. “I didn’t think you would,” and Jeongguk chuckles at the resigned defeat in his voice. “But you better find them again soon, or you’ll start starving. They will too. Are you feeling okay? Have you eaten today?”

Jeongguk hesitates. Then, so as to not make Jimin worry, he says, “Yes.”

“No you haven’t. I can hear it in your voice.” There’s a murmur off to the side, and Jimin continues, “Oh! Seokjin hyung says you can come over if you want. He’ll make you mackerel and rice.”

“And third wheel the most disgustingly PDA couple in the universe? I don’t hate myself that much.”

“Rude!” Jimin shouts, but Jeongguk is cackling into the phone, much the fright of a little girl holding her mother’s hand. “But seriously, Jeonggukkie. You know you can still live off food for a while until your body adjusts.” He pauses when Jeongguk doesn’t answer. “You really don’t know anything about this soulmates business, do you?”

“I never needed to.”

“Oh my God, Jeongguk. They taught this in school.”

“I mean, I know. But it’s been years, and this is all really sudden.”

Yet Jeongguk finds himself hopping off at the stop a block from Jimin’s and Seokjin’s apartment anyway. It’s hard to pass up an offer of Seokjin’s cooking. By the time he’s made his way there, and taken the elevator up to their floor, he’s a little sweaty. It’s mostly from the heat—the cicadas are shrilling in the trees—but he thinks, perhaps, also from the hunger.

“Hey,” Jimin says when he opens the door. Jeongguk’s stomach grumbles before he even manages to get out of a greeting and Jimin clucks his tongue.

“I know food doesn’t sound appetizing to you anymore, but you have to keep your strength up if you’re going to find that soulmate again.” Jeongguk lets Jimin usher him inside, he’s too tired to protest, even though his homework is complaining loudly in his bag. He has a midterm come the end of this week and a report due to his boss by the next that he hasn’t even begun thinking of, but the couch is so inviting right now. Even if Jimin launches himself back into Seokjin’s lap the second Jeongguk seats himself.

“You look tired,” Seokjin observes. Jeongguk hasn’t seen him in a while—he takes a different subway than the one Jimin and Jeongguk take for their commutes to class. “What sounds good? I can run to the store and whip something up.”

“You still own pans?” Jeongguk says. “I thought you would’ve donated them all.”

“Seokjin hyung still likes cooking,” Jimin says. “Our neighbors love it.”

So Jeongguk relents, and Seokjin steps into his shoes to run down to the marketplace down the street. Jimin looks like he wants to go with, but sighs when he sees Jeongguk pulling out his schoolwork, and turns back to the mess of books on the dining table instead.

“I hate your work ethic,” he gripes.

They work silently, and even when Seokjin gets back, he just drops a quick kiss on Jimin’s cheek, plastic bag rustling as he dumps the contents out on the counter. The smell is amazing, and Jeongguk’s work ethic is beaten by the aroma that pulls him into the kitchen. Seokjin is pushing a cut of fish around the bottom of the pan, and the way it’s curled up around the edges as Jeongguk’s mouth watering.

“Hungry?” Seokjin asks, cutting a bit off the end of the fish and lifting it up on his spatula. “Taste that and tell me if you want more seasoning.”

Jeongguk likes it the way it is, and Seokjin plates it up for him in a flourish. “It’s been a while since I cooked that,” he confesses, as Jeongguk digs in.

“It’s good. Thanks, hyung.”

But after two or three bites, the hunger that’s been crashing its cymbals in his stomach starts up again. It’s like it has a mind of it’s own, and the mouthful of food that goes down this time suddenly doesn’t taste that great. Jeongguk balks, a strangled noise worming its way out around the half-chewed rice in his mouth.

“You okay?” Jimin asks, frowning a little.

Jeongguk slams down his chopsticks with a clatter, and he hears one hit the kitchen floor when the table shakes. “Jeongguk!” comes Seokjin’s voice, but he’s tearing down the hallway for the bathroom. It’s damp inside. One of them had probably just taken a shower before Jeongguk came over. The toilet lid is already up and Jeongguk has to close his eyes when he feels his dinner come back up—along with what feels like everything he’s eaten in that week alone, stomach acid burning his nose and tearing at his throat.

“Oh my God,” Jimin says, sitting down on the rim of the tub beside Jeongguk, not giving a shit about the smell and leaning in to rub Jeongguk’s back between his shoulder blades. The touch feels good but it’s not satiating, and Jeongguk hears Seokjin come in, too. “Are you okay? I knew you weren’t feeling well the second you called me.”

“Liar.”

“You never call me.”

“But I felt fine until I ate just now.”

“Maybe you were too hungry.”

“No, I think your body is rejecting food,” Seokjin says, somewhere above Jeongguk’s head. “This is only supposed to happen after a few weeks or months after you get weaned off, though. It’s a gradual process. After you and your soulmate first meet each other, you can still eat for a while just fine.”

This is what Jimin had said over the phone. Jeongguk remembers his crackly voice over the receiver, and yet here he is, watching the contents of his stomach wash down the deep hole of the toilet when Jimin reaches over his head and pulls the lever.

“It happens,” Seokjin says. “It can be hereditary. Are you parents soulmates?”

Jeongguk nods as Jimin hands him tissues to wipe up with, and a plastic cup to rinse.

“That might be why. If they cut out food cold-turkey when they met too, it’s not too unexpected that you’re the same.”

“What am I going to do, hyung?” Jeongguk asks, breaths coming shaky.

“Simple.” Seokjin smiles. “You find your soulmate.”

 

Apparently Seokjin has no concept of difficulty. It is not exactly easy for Jeongguk to just waltz back into a preschool classroom and announce to who is basically a complete stranger that they are soulmates, and by ‘not exactly easy,’ Jeongguk means he chickens out and leaves. Go figure.

He knows he’ll have to face the music eventually. The reality of imminent starvation presses down on his shoulders harder than ever when he sits alone in a quiet little sushi boat by himself some days later, watching the nigiri and and sashimi drift past on their wooden rafts without the urge to eat anything at all. Back in the day his brother had always called him black hole—for how endless his appetite seemed to be, and how much their mother always had to cook to feed two teenage boys’ mouths.

Class is in an hour, and Jeongguk has work right after that until nightfall, so this is his last chance to eat until late night. The plan was to privately talk to Taehyung when Jung Hoseok was teaching his own class, yet here he is, staring at his serving of hamachi that he usually loves so much that he’ll eat it until he’s fit to burst. Now, the smell of fish just makes his stomach roll uncomfortably.

“Look who it is, back again, Taehyung?”

Jeongguk jumps when someone hops up into the empty stool beside him. Taehyung. The name feels like candy on the back of his tongue and his hand erupts into throbbing pain in his jacket pocket.

Taehyung laughs beside him. He doesn’t seem to have noticed Jeongguk’s perturbed reaction at all, and the chef is pulling up a whole filet of sake at his counter, his sushi knife flashing in the lights.

“How many servings are we going for today?” he asks. “

“Hmm, as much as you got!” Taehyung says. “Because, guess what?”

“What?”

“You’re not going to see me here for very much longer,” Taehyung says. Jeongguk’s heart sputters, does something funny when he Taehyung holds his hand up over the boats, unraveling the length of gauze and sports tape around his palm. It falls away to show a bruise that blotches his entire hand—from his fingertips to his wrist, as dark as red wine. “Look!”

“Good lord,” the chef says, sounding impressed. “Finally found them, huh? Do you know who it is?”

“No,” Taehyung says emphatically. “Not yet. I shake so many hands in one day. I really hope it wasn’t a parent or something. I’m so worried it is.”

Jeongguk wants to reach forward to touch him—he’s right here, sitting a with only a handspace between each other.

“The world wouldn’t do that to you,” the chef says. The blade scrapes the wood of his counter rhythmically as he slices through the fish and Jeongguk agrees to himself.

“I hope not,” Taehyung says. They chatter away, about who Jeongguk presumes must be Taehyung’s students. He thanks the chef when he’s handed a whole platter of sashimi over the boat, ripping open his chopstick packet with relish, then finally notices Jeongguk beside him.

“Lunch break?” he asks. Some soy sauce splashes out of the tiny dish by his chopstick stand, bouncing off the glob of wasabi. “Eating alone too, huh?”

“I—yeah,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung’s forwardness surprises him, and it must show on his face.

“Sorry, I just recognized you from the district office,” Taehyung says. “You’re the intern, right? I didn’t mean to intrude on any thoughts.”

“You’re fine,” Jeongguk says, and it comes out a little too loudly, and he curses to himself. “I mean, don’t worry about it.” He quickly nods at Taehyung’s hand to take the attention away from himself. “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Taehyung says, holding it out in the soft light of the restaurant. “Half the reason I had to wrap it up was so my kids wouldn’t be so scared by the sight of it. It’s worse than I expected.”

Jeongguk shoves his hand deeper into the pocket of his jacket. “I’ve seen worse.”

“I know, man,” Taehyung says. “Once I knew someone whose entire back bruised because her soulmate tripped into her from behind.”

“You don’t know who it is?” Jeongguk asks. “Sucks.”

“My pool of candidates is pretty small, so I think I’m lucky,” Taehyung says. He’s worked his way steadily through half the plate of sashimi now, chopsticks clacking. “Hmm. Let’s see. Parents...I shook at Yoojung’s mother’s hand, Minha’s father’s…Dongjun’s older sister’s. Hm.”

“Are those all the students you teach?”

“Yep,” Taehyung says, breaking up a chunk of wasabi in his soy sauce.

“You care about them a lot.”

“I have to,” Taehyung says. There is no bitterness, no annoyance in his voice. “How we raise those people who are younger than us says a lot about the people who raised them. They’re going to run this world one day. We need to leave it in a better place than the one they were born into.”

And Jeongguk has never cared much for children, but Taehyung says this with so much conviction that he can’t help but feel it in his own blood, too.

“Earlier integration of soulmate teaching into the curriculum, huh,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung smiles. It’s there, but it’s grim.

“Well. I can dream. The other half of the reason why I bandaged up this hand was so they’d stop asking questions. How do you even explain the soulmate bond to people their age in a way that makes sense? Eventually I just told them that I’m a crime-fighting superhero at night.”

“Like an Avenger.”

“They might really begin thinking I am one,” Taehyung says seriously. “What with all the promotion of Age of Ultron right now. Damn. Maybe that was a bad id—”

Taehyung knocks over his glass of water when he reaches for his napkin, and as if instinctively, Jeongguk’s hand darts out to catch it before all of the contents spill onto the bar counter. Taehyung, though, reaches too, a little faster than Jeongguk—and Jeongguk’s uninjured hand closes over the back of Taehyung’s bruised knuckles. The zing of energy that travels up his arm and sizzles down his spine is instantaneous, yet such a strange feeling that it has him snatching his hand back as though he touched a hot burner.

“Sorry,” he says, the word sounding jumbled in his mouth. Taehyung rights his cup, and water is dripping off the edge of the table, but his face has changed.

“It’s no—it’s no problem,” he says, voice quieter and slower now. A shallow wrinkle is forming between his eyebrows. “Wait, can I—”

“I’ve gotta go,” Jeongguk says quickly, standing up, hamachi still untouched. “It was nice meeting you, Taehyung. I’m Jeongguk.”

“Oh, uhm. It was nice to meet you too—?”

“Jeongguk. Jeon Jeongguk.”

“It was nice meeting you again, Jeong—”

But Jeongguk has already thrown down his money, and disappeared out of the restaurant.

“You need me to cover for your class tomorrow?”

Hoseok’s reaction to Taehyung’s hand had been one of excitement, but when Taehyung had come up empty asking every parent that stopped by to pick up their kids, he’s come to a very concrete conclusion.

“I think I know who it is,” Taehyung says, flexing and relaxing his hand in the darkness as he talks to Hoseok in the darkness.

“Really?” Hoseok’s voice piques with interest. “Who?”

“That day you came home early because you felt sick,” Taehyung says. “Remember? The superintendent came by to the primary grades to ask us about our opinions of what we should do about soulmate bonding in children.”

“Oh, is that what they were stopping by for? On campus?”

“Yeah.”

Hoseok sits up in bed. “The superintendent is your soulmate?” he nearly yells.

“No! At least, I don’t think it is. I’m not sure, but I want to visit the district office tomorrow so ask.”

“Who else would it be if it isn’t the superintendent or any of our kids’ parents?”

“Someone came with her. An intern, he’s called Jeon Jeongguk. I ran into him at that sushi place we go to sometimes for lunch. You know how you had to go sub in for another class yesterday? I met him at that bar.”

“And he—he didn’t say anything?”

“I don’t know. He acted kind of strange, and then he accidentally touched my hand when he was trying to catch my glass from falling over, and…” Taehyung shivers, remembering the feeling of how warmth at spread through his entire body, buzzing in his blood like alcohol. “Holy shit, hyung. It was intoxicating.”

“Jeez.”

“Really,” Taehyung says. “It was so weird. Then after that he hightailed it out of there, and you know how much I love sashimi, hyung. I just didn’t feel it anymore.”

“Jeongguk, huh,” Hoseok repeats. “Did you find out anything about him?”

“The first time I met him, I thought he was kind of cold,” Taehyung says. “But at the sushi boat he just seemed sad. I don’t know. He was pretty quiet.”

“He must have been. If he’s really your soulmate, it’s weird that he didn’t jump at the first opportunity to touch you, isn’t it?”

“I suppose it is a little odd.”

“So naturally, he was made for you.”

“Hmm,” Taehyung hums. “He’s pretty hot, though.”

“Oh? Hot, huh?”

“Real hot.”

“That’s good, right?”

“Of course!”

Hoseok is quiet for a while. “It’s strange, having you home right now.”

“What? Why?”

There’s a rustling of blankets as Hoseok curls tighter in his blankets, and the onset of winter has begun in earnest now. There was frost on the windowsill in the morning when Taehyung got up, shivering in his thin pajamas, and the snow is starting, lining streetlamps and park benches with a thin layer of icy fluff.

“You’re usually out getting rammed right now, aren’t you?”

Taehyung considers this. Hoseok’s not necessarily wrong. But now that he’s here, with a bruised hand and a shrinking appetite, he has no reason to be there hooking up left and right anymore.

“That’s true.”

“You should find him, soon,” Hoseok says. “I saw you nodding off at your desk yesterday, you’re so tired.”

“Food is still fine, though.”

“Not for long. And you don’t know what he’s doing, right? What if he’s starving?”

“Okay,” Taehyung agrees. “Tomorrow. I’ll go find him tomorrow.”

 

The morning kids are pretty excited to have Taehyung lead them through their day. It’s not that Hoseok is strict, but the truth is just that Taehyung is louder and more excited than he is regarding just about anything, and their responding excitement is uplifting.

“I don’t know how you teach morning kids,” Taehyung says with exhaustion as Hoseok takes over for the last story reading before their day ends, and Taehyung’s students start filtering in. Most of them are quiet right now, at the tail end of their nap hour, and Taehyung switches the sound button of his phone on and off, on and off.

“Practice,” Hoseok says. “I’m more impressed by you, you go from dawn till dusk. But that’s not what’s important here.” He leans forward in his seat. “Do you know how to get down to the district office?”

“I think so,” Taehyung says, zipping his bag slowly so it doesn’t wake any of the kids. “I’ve been there once or twice for those board meetings.”

“You’re right. True. Good luck,” Hoseok says. He sits back, crossing his arms loosely over his stomach. “Next time I see you, you’re going to have a soulmate, huh?”

His voice is a little sad. Taehyung pauses where he’s packing his stuff away, then moves around his desk to lean down to hug Hoseok around his shoulders where he sits in his chair.

“Hey. It’s not like I’m leaving for some distant land where we have no contact. I’m just going to get my permanent meal ticket.”

“Well, that’s not what I want to hear,” Hoseok laughs. “Jeongguk’s a person. A person that’s been waiting for you, probably, so get moving.”

“See you later, hyung,” Taehyung says, shouldering his bag. Hoseok waves at him from behind his desk, and Taehyung treads lightly so his footsteps don’t shake the floor. It’s snowing outside, and snowflakes cling to the windowpane as he shrugs on his jacket and pulls his fur-lined hood over his head. “Have fun with the afternoon kids!”

Wind howls when Taehyung opens the door and the snow is fairly light, but the breeze cuts sharply into his cheekbones. Taehyung shivers, feeling colder than usual lately, and almost jumps out of his skin when he turns around, because there is someone sitting against the wall of the adjacent building right outside the classroom.

“Good God,” he whispers, trying to calm his racing his heart. He frowns when he looks closer, then crouches down on his knees when he thinks he recognizes the face. And he does—he does, it’s Jeon Jeongguk himself, sitting with his back to the wall, eyes closed like he’s asleep. He doesn’t move even when Taehyung’s cloudy breath kisses his cheek. “Jeong—Jeongguk? Is that—hey, are you all right? Can you hear—”

That’s when Taehyung looks down, sees Jeongguk’s hands where they are shoved into his pockets like they’d been that day when he sat down beside him at the sushi boat. His right hand is slipping out from its pocket. If Taehyung isn’t imagining things, there’s a smudge of bluish-purple on Jeongguk’s wrist in the shape of a finger.

Jeongguk doesn’t stir when Taehyung reaches out for him, not until he pulls Jeongguk’s hand out from his pocket, and there it is—a bruise as harsh as winter, the color of smashed plums in Jeongguk’s skin. Taehyung fits his own hand against the shape of it he’d left behind, then clasps both around Jeongguk’s. His fingers are ice cold. Snow has settled in his hair and on his face and Taehyung can’t help himself—he reaches up to brush some of it away. It’s only at touch of his fingers on his cheek does Jeongguk seem to respond, eyelids fluttering, face turning as he comes back to himself.

“Hey, are you okay?” Taehyung asks, quietly so that he doesn’t alarm him. For a moment, it seems that all Jeongguk can do is stare at him, hand tightening in Taehyung’s. Then his eyes widen and he tries to scramble to stand up, but falls back heavily against the wall again.

“Sorry, sorry,” he breathes as Taehyung steadies him by the shoulders. “I wanted to come talk to you again, but I saw that you were busy teaching and thought I’d wait. I was really sleepy, I’m sorry, this is so—”

“Hey,” Taehyung says, getting Jeongguk to relax. “It’s okay. Are you okay? You passed out, are you okay now?”

“I think so,” Jeongguk says. “I—can you, maybe. Do that again.”

“Do what?”

“Hold my hand.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says, feeling a blush creep up his cheeks. Jeongguk’s eyes are very deep and very dark up close and he watches Taehyung with a gaze that’s warm, a small comfort in this snow. “Of course.”

And nothing has ever felt so right.

Jeongguk has not, from birth, been a huggy person.

He remembers how his older brother once told him that he’d cry until the sky fell in as a baby if he was handed into the arms of strangers, and as Jeongguk grew up and into his body, he still doesn’t like it—not with people he doesn’t know well, anyway. When he gets the chance he does not pass up an opportunity to launch himself onto Seokjin’s back for a ride, but Jimin always tries ripping him off because he’s my soulmate! which Jeongguk can’t argue with. Not when he has one of his own now.

And he doesn’t know Taehyung all that well yet. He doesn’t, but even so, he feels like he has known him for years. His whole soul sees Taehyung in this small space between themselves and thinks, ah yes. There you are, where have you been, I’ve been looking forever for you.

Perhaps it is just his body speaking, though. Screaming, more like, almost always clambering for more. Taehyung is light with his touches. He seems to sense how Jeongguk is timid, and the most he’s done so far, really, is this—press up against Jeongguk’s side after he came by to the district office to see him out of work.

“I was hungry,” he admits after Jeongguk slings an arm around his shoulders, and they walk side by side down to the subway, where Taehyung found they both took the same line home bound. “And I’ve been alone at the classroom for almost three hours—”

“What? Why didn’t you come to the office?”

“Because you were working,” Taehyung said. “And Hoseok went back early because one of our friends asked to hang out.”

Jeongguk worries his lip in the cold. “I was hungry too,” he mutters, diverting his face away from Taehyung’s gaze. Even now his blood is absolutely singing in his veins as Taehyung leans into him harder, a triumphant smile on his face.

“Really,” he asks. “Wait, no. I didn’t hear you. What?”

“Nothing, you,” Jeongguk says, pushing Taehyung’s face out of his, but in truth, he so wants to drag him back in. Maybe put a kiss to Taehyung’s cheek and see how it feels, but he’s not sure what kind of boundaries Taehyung has and even though it’s been weeks, he doesn’t know if he should bring them up.

“You want to come to my place today?” Taehyung asks lightly, like he wants to be casual and isn’t sure Jeongguk will take it the right way. “My roommate will be in but he’s been wanting to meet you.”

“Oh, uh,” Jeongguk says. He’s momentarily distracted when Taehyung reaches up with one of his hands to lace his fingers together with the ones that rest over his shoulder, and Jeongguk stares at the fading bruises on both their hands. “Sure. Is it a bother?”

“How on earth is it a bother? Do you need to be somewhere?”

“No.”

“Then come over!”

Jeongguk does. He knows he shouldn’t, not when he has so much work. Taehyung is so adept at reading him now, even in the span of a few weeks, that he says, “Oh my God. Your work will be fine. You’re so strict with yourself about it you can afford to procrastinate a few days.”

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says. “I can be a perfectionist sometime.”

“I know,” Taehyung says, as if he really does, and doesn’t care at all. The subway is crowded when they board, people coming back from later shifts of their jobs, so both of them have to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers. Jeongguk reaches up to grab a hand railing in the crowded train car, shuffling aside all he can, managing to make some room for Taehyung, too. But Taehyung simply looks at him, steps into the space, and hugs his arms around Jeongguk’s waist, steadying himself on his body.

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, “alright.”

“Is this okay?” Taehyung asks, lifting his head from Jeongguk’s shoulder. Jeongguk turns his face and Taehyung is so close he could kiss him, but he doesn’t.

“It’s good,” Jeongguk says, and smiles at the grin that spreads over Taehyung’s mouth when he drops his face onto Jeongguk’s shoulder again.

They stand quietly, like that, pressed chest to chest, and Jeongguk is so self-conscious he just wants to fling himself out the window, but really—no one is looking. When he looks around he sees plenty of people in the same position he is, and this simply feels so good that he can’t complain anyway. His body thrums with pleasure at the warmth of Taehyung through the fabric of their clothes, and when Taehyung blinks he can feel the brush of eyelashes on his neck.

It’s strange, but it’s good.

“Hoseok?” Taehyung calls when they get back. “I’m home.”

“Hey, you got a call—whoa,” Hoseok says, looking up from the dinner table, and Jeongguk waves his hand in greeting. Awkwardly.

“Hi,” he says, notices it’s his bruised hand, and promptly opts to wave his left. “I’m uh. I’m Jeongguk.”

“I’m Hoseok!”

Jeongguk decides he likes Hoseok. He doesn’t bat an eye at all of Taehyung’s idiosyncrasies, ones that are still taking Jeongguk some time to get used to. He goes off to bed first, and the hour grows late, and Taehyung is quiet now—no longer excitedly shouting about this or that. “Hoseok is a light sleeper,” he explains.

“I should probably,” Jeongguk says, looking at the hour hand flirting a little too closely with the twelve on the clock than he’d like. “I should probably go.”

“What? Aw, but you just got here,” Taehyung says.

“I know, I know. Sorry. I work so late.”

“You can stay here if you want,” he offers. “Stay the night. Unless it’ll be a pain for you to leave tomorrow, or something.”

Jeongguk wants to. Hell, he’s not interested in going back to his drafty little studio apartment to snail his way through what he can of his work and fall asleep face down in his pillow until morning and his alarm clock screeches him awake. He’s not interested in being alone, leaving the heat of Taehyung’s side, and the want is so desperate it scares him a little. Jeongguk has never had a problem with being a lone wolf and now the idea of leaving Taehyung’s side has him grimacing.

“Well, if you really don’t want to,” and Jeongguk realizes this conflict must have showed on his face.

“No, I do! I do,” he says. “I was just. Thinking a little too hard about it.”

“You can just sleep beside me,” Taehyung says, voice impossibly soft. “Nothing else.”

As if Jeongguk doesn’t want anything else. He does, but Taehyung burns like a light in his life, and he wants to do this right. Organically, so to speak. He doesn’t want to mess things up.

“Okay,” he says. “I have a later class tomorrow.”

“Great,” Taehyung says, hopping out of his seat, tidying up with lightning speed. It’s impressive how quickly he can get all of his stuff packed away into his bag but Jeongguk thinks that this kind of skill might come with having to work with a platoon of tiny humans day in and day out. He leads Jeongguk down the hallway, treading silently, and hands over toiletries that Jeongguk can use to wash up. “I don’t know if any of my stuff will fit you, though,” he says. “Shirts, maybe, but pants…”

He flashes a look down at Jeongguk’s legs and the way he slides his eyes along the length of Jeongguk’s body makes the pit of his stomach burn.

“I’m okay with no pants if you are.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says. “Just holler if you need anything. Actually, don’t holler, Hoseok will never fall asleep again if you wake him up.”

Jeongguk chuckles. “Okay. Got it.”

Taehyung bustles around after he finishes in the bathroom, nodding for Jeongguk to climb into his little twin bed. It smells like Taehyung, and Jeongguk can’t help himself when he presses his face into the sheets and breathes in. The scent is musky and fills his lungs, and he’s so focused on holding the taste of it in his throat that he doesn’t hear Taehyung coming back until a weight slides into bed beside him.

“Are you tired?” Taehyung asks, as Jeongguk tosses around to face him.

“A little,” Jeongguk says. Then he falls silent, even though he can see Taehyung’s eyes still open in the glow of the digital clock. “Mostly in awe that I’m here right now though.”

“You’re okay with it, right?” Taehyung asks. He’s holding all of himself carefully away from Jeongguk’s body, and there’s nothing more that Jeongguk wants than to reach forward and curl into Taehyung’s form. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable.”

“It’s okay,” Jeongguk says. “I actually.”

The words peter away into silence. “You actually what?”

Jeongguk lifts his hand up until he can settle it on Taehyung’s cheek, and warmth glows in his fingers at the contact. Taehyung’s face moves like he’s smiling.

“I actually wanted to know if I could kiss you.”

“Oh,” Taehyung hiccups, breath coming out in a staccato on Jeongguk’s face, they’re so close. “Uhm. I’m not sure. Uhm.”

“Oh, sorry,” Jeongguk says immediately, cursing himself for having overstepped a boundary he hadn’t seen. But Taehyung’s body is trembling with laughter, then, and this confuses him even more until he feels a very solid weight on his mouth.

“Did you think I was serious?” Taehyung says, dropping the words into Jeongguk’s mouth.

Taehyung kisses him without diffidence, pressing his mouth into Jeongguk’s and the fit is so perfect it knocks Jeongguk punch-drunk, sets his skin on fire in the best way. He gasps when Taehyung pulls away, and Taehyung has somehow managed to sling himself over Jeongguk’s chest, propping himself up with a hand on his pillow.

“Holy shit,” he whispers, and Jeongguk can only agree, laughing breathlessly. His hand has found its way to the back of Taehyung neck, thumb stroking absently. Taehyung shivers.

“I know,” Jeongguk replies. “Damn.”

“You want to do that again?” Taehyung asks, and Jeongguk makes a noncommittal grunt in his throat.

“You don’t have to ask me.”

 

It’s a bit of a struggle when becoming soulmates means, to Jeongguk, dating, falling in love, kissing a lot, and touching each other every chance you get, all at the same time. It seems like all of these things are supposed to have some kind of order to them but they don’t with Jeongguk. It’s especially exhausting for someone like him who can hardly seem to wrap his mind around the vast hunger that yawns within him but Taehyung seems only too happy to indulge.

“You work so late,” Taehyung says, marching into Jeongguk’s apartment with mock anger. It’s a tight fit with Taehyung’s presence taking up all the space but Jeongguk loves it so well, laughing when Taehyung pushes aside the laptop in his lap and straddles him instead, a much better legwarmer than a piece of metal. “You need to take hours off. I can’t keep coming over for two hours, barely loading up, then having to leave again because I work at the asscrack of dawn.”

“I have a solution for that, maybe,” Jeongguk says, tipping his head back as Taehyung kisses him vehemently, ardently, and really, Jeongguk doesn’t really fancy talking right now because he just wants to make out, too.

“What?” Taehyung asks. “If it’s a shitty one I don’t want to hear it until I’ve made out with you for another fifteen minutes.”

“You could move in with me.”

Taehyung pulls back in earnest at this and Jeongguk kicks himself for the suggestion. Say bye bye to that fifteen straight minutes of kissing, Jeon Jeongguk, thanks to your giant stupid mouth.

“You’re serious?” Taehyung asks. His hand is resting over Jeongguk’s heart and it pitter-patters under his touch.

“It’s kind of small. Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“Do you want me to?”

“What kind of a question is that?” Jeongguk says, sitting up so he can kiss Taehyung again. “Do you think I like sleeping in a bed by myself?”

“But Hoseok…”

“Oh, right,” Jeongguk says. His face falls, and Taehyung tips it up in his hands hurriedly.

“I can ask him!” he says. “One of our friends, the one he’s always hanging with, wanted to sublease with us once but we couldn’t fit another guy in. I can ask if he’s still down.”

“Really?”

Yes, really. Jeongguk might not have heard that last part clearly. It’s a little lost in the groan that Taehyung makes when he pressed forward to kiss Taehyung’s jaw.

“I’ve got lesson—lesson plans to write,” Taehyung gasps when Jeongguk pulls down the collar of his sweatshirt to kiss at his collarbones. He’s shaking in Jeongguk’s lap, and if they both honest with themselves, if this goes any farther they might not be able to stop.

“Once someone told me to procrastinate a little,” Jeongguk murmurs, biting hard enough that Taehyung cries out softly above him.

“They sound like a smart person,” Taehyung says, pulling back so they can kiss again. Jeongguk shivers at the hand that Taehyung slips, dangerously, under the hem of his shirt and presses to his stomach. “Damn,” he says. “How often do you hit the gym?”

“Enough to do a minute of pushups without breaking a sweat,” Jeongguk brags, and Taehyung rolls his eyes.

“I wasn’t counting on getting a soulmate who was packed,” Taehyung says as Jeongguk’s mouth. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Jeongguk chuckles. He moves then, twisting his body until Taehyung is lying back in the couch cushions. It’s a small, lumpy couch that the previous owners had let Jeongguk have for free, and it gets kind of uncomfortable after sitting too long in it, but right now Taehyung is spread out under him and Jeongguk likes the sight of it more than he wants to. He swallows thickly.

“Oh,” Taehyung says, eyes darkening. The expression on his face is a little harder to read—surprise, tinged with amusement and what Jeongguk hopes is want. “Really?”

“Really, what?” he asks, feigning ignorance as he leans down for kisses. Taehyung holds his hand up to Jeongguk’s lips, stopping him halfway.

“Do you want to?” he asks. “Right now?”

“I—” Jeongguk pulls Taehyung’s hand away and licks his lips, tasting Taehyung on them. “Yeah.”

“Oh,” Taehyung sighs, and the sound makes Jeongguk dizzy. “Finally. I thought you would never ask.”

Jeongguk’s bed is bigger than Taehyung’s, though not by much, and still then half of it is covered in what looks like Jeongguk’s entire closet. They try to be careful not to get everything on the floor.

Taehyung has always worried about how hesitant Jeongguk is about touching him. He can see the unadulterated want in his eyes sometimes, but something always seems to be holding him back. Taehyung thinks he can understand it a little—it’s not the easiest thing in the world to ask for something as intimate as this and even he feels a little vulnerable just up and admitting that he needs Jeongguk more than he lets on sometimes.

But something seems to have broken in him, a dam opening when Taehyung gave him full permission to his body, and Jeongguk to him. Now, he’s trying to undo the buttons of Jeongguk’s shirt, fingers trembling as he twists the buttons from their buttonholes. It’s slow going from the urgency, and Jeongguk is so impatient that he props himself up by the elbows and mouths at the hollow just behind the bend of Taehyung’s jaw, by his ear.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, voice unsteady. His hands fumble more as he tugs Jeongguk’s shirt out from where it’s tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Jeongguk pulls away from Taehyung’s neck, looking up at him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Ah,” Taehyung breathes when he shifts and feels the heat between Jeongguk’s legs. “Nothing. Never mind.”

Jeongguk kisses him, once, as if to ask if he’s sure, pulling away slowly to gauge Taehyung’s reaction. Then Taehyung is kissing him properly, shivering as Jeongguk drags his clothes off his body. Jeongguk, deftly, rolls them over until Taehyung is under him, and Taehyung feels heat build in his chest and face when Jeongguk sits back on his heels between Taehyung’s thighs, his gaze heavy, admiring the way Taehyung’s cock stands at attention for him. None of his hookups are like this. His hookups are hookups. More often than not Taehyung catches one or two glimpses of their faces at most.

But this is Jeongguk coating his fingers with lube and scooting closer on his shins and knees until Taehyung’s hips rest in his lap. Taehyung has been in this kind of position more times than he cares to remember but Jeongguk’s touch to his hole is so electrifying that all of Taehyung’s nerves feel like live wires in his muscles.

“Relax, relax,” Jeongguk says. “Have you done this before?”

“Yes,” Taehyung whimpers. “But it’s never been like this, not like you—”

Jeongguk shakes at his words. Taehyung moves to sit up, and Jeongguk moves with him, gently, but his fingers still shift where they’re buried inside Taehyung. They’re so good that Taehyung needs it to be like this, wrapping his arms around Jeongguk’s neck to there can be something he can hold onto. Hold himself together.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, in that way where he doesn’t seem to have anything to follow it up with, saying Taehyung’s name just to feel it on his tongue.

“Do you,” Taehyung grinds out, as he moves against Jeongguk’s hand. “Do you feel it?”

Taehyung isn’t sure he can elaborate what it is. It’s a strange feeling, mixed in with thick, heady arousal, so he can’t put words to it just yet. But Jeongguk nods, and he’s glad.

“All of it,” Jeongguk replies, voice rough with want. “All of you. I feel all of you.”

Taehyung’s whimper is weak as he scrambles for Jeongguk’s cock. He lubes Jeongguk up himself, impatience bleeding through his movements this time, and it’s only Taehyung’s weight on his thighs that keep his hips from bucking up too hard. He withdraws his hand, slides them up Taehyung’s sides as he moves in closer, holds Jeongguk’s cock steady to his entrance.

Taehyung has hooked up a lot. This is just the truth of things. It’s not that they were ever so enjoyable that he couldn’t go without them, but this, this—the feeling of Jeongguk inside him, he thinks, as Jeongguk lays him back in the pillows so can he thrust into Taehyung at a better angle—is something he doesn’t think he will or can ever tire of. Jeongguk gasps when he presses in deeper with every stroke and Taehyung reaches up to steady his face between his hands, pulling Jeongguk’s face down to kiss, even though they mostly just end up breathing against each others mouths as their orgasms ride higher and finally crest.

Jeongguk comes hard, Taehyung can feel it, his whole body seizing as he does. In the time it takes him to come down from the high, Taehyung tightens slightly around his cock, smiling at the way Jeongguk’s hips jerk at the overstimulation, then kisses him in the corner of his mouth. Carefully does he lower himself, onto the bed by Taehyung’s side so his weight doesn’t crush Taehyung, and the sensation of his cock pulling out makes Taehyung choke a little.

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, stroking the side of Taehyung’s face, smoothing away his damp hair. “Was that okay?”

Taehyung turns his head on Jeongguk’s pillow, and he feels naked—in all senses of the word, like Jeongguk can read all this thoughts on his face as he’s curled into Jeongguk’s chest.

“What kind of a question is that?” he says sleepily, and Jeongguk laughs.

“You seemed to have something on your mind,” Jeongguk murmurs, balancing his head in the palm of his hand.

“Oh,” Taehyung says, and he rolls back slightly so he can see Jeongguk’s face, then presses his face back into the pillow. “I just. You’re not the first person I’ve done this with. I thought you should know.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says simply. “You aren’t either, for me. That doesn’t change anything.”

“Good,” Taehyung says, and he hopes Jeongguk understands how much he means this. “Because I only did it to look for you.”

“You slept around so you could find me?” Jeongguk asks, bemused.

“I was curious,” Taehyung says, burrowing into Jeongguk’s embrace harder when he feels his fingers on his back, rubbing across his vertebrae soothingly. Jeongguk is bigger than Taehyung is used to, and the base of his spine is tingling with a dull ache, but it feels good.

“Curiosity fulfilled now?” Jeongguk says, kissing the crown of Taehyung’s head.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, happy. “But, Jeongguk?”

“Hm?”

“I think I’m full.”

And so, as it turns out, there is a curious little phenomenon known as being full of your soulmate. It crops up after they have sex, and Taehyung always kisses Jeongguk for a while afterwards for the sake of kissing—but always pulls away saying he can’t fit in any more.

Jeongguk doesn’t ever get a chance to feel it, but he’s not too worried. It will come around, he is sure.

It happens more often after he moves in, and it really is a tight fit, but Jeongguk loves, more than anything, coming home to an attack of kisses. Taehyung always spreads out his work in a mess over the dining table that Jeongguk almost donated, but Taehyung had stopped him just in time, saying he needed a place to work, of course!

But they do clear out the fridge, handing off all of Jeongguk’s food—seriously, why does one person need that many potatoes—and hand off the fridge and the stove and all of Jeongguk’s pans and plates and silverware to a recycling plant that’ll make them into something new and pretty again. Then the dining table fits in the kitchen, and the living room opens up slightly for all of Taehyung’s things that don’t fit into Jeongguk’s tiny bedroom.

“I can’t believe how useless kitchens are after you find a soulmate,” he said, clapping his hands of dust the day Taehyung finishes moving in officially. Hoseok’s friend, Kim Namjoon, had literally jumped up at the opportunity to take Taehyung’s place in his apartment. Taehyung had asked his own friend to help him move out, and this friend turned out to be none other than Park Jimin himself, who had to sit down for an hour reeling from the revelation that his childhood friend’s soulmate is his best friend from university, as if the world couldn’t get any smaller. “A whole part of the house dedicated to something you never need to do again.”

“Why do you think they sell two-person apartments with no kitchens?” Taehyung replied, turning around so he could drape his arms around Jeongguk’s neck and shoulders.

Love like this isn’t a crash, and a burn, and a build, and a fall of Rome. It’s never really loud or obnoxious or overbearing. Instead, it’s a strangely quiet simmer between them, like the hum of the air on a summer evening.

Jeongguk has to actually start using his closet so that Taehyung will fit into his bed, but it’s a lovely fit—better than the one on Taehyung’s twin. Taehyung talks a lot in his sleep—mostly about his students, and work, but more often now Jeongguk’s name has starting leaking into his dream vocabulary, oftentimes making no sense in the jumble of words he mumbles into Jeongguk’s shoulder. His name will be mixed in with those of his kids and sometimes Hoseok’s, and Jeongguk simply will snuggle in closer until Taehyung stops fidgeting in his sleep (he’s an excellent kicker).

Sometimes, motivation to hit the gym wears thin. Taehyung seems to only enjoy this too much, because once, he says, "Wait, let's try this!"

Jeongguk watches as Taehyung settles himself on the floor, lying back, beckoning Jeongguk to come closer. "Pushups," he says, cheeky. "Do them over me. Every time you come down, you get to kiss me."

"What kind of motivation is this?" Jeongguk asks.

"Good motivation," Taehyung says. "Now you can take it or leave it. I have to call parents soon."

Jeongguk isn't stupid—well, most of the time he's not. He stretches his body over Taehyung's, supporting himself with hands on either side of Taehyung's head, his feet on the carpet between Taehyung's legs as he holds himself in pushup position. "This is ridiculous," he says.

"Are you going to talk, or are you going to work out."

So Jeongguk pitches in, and Taehyung isn't quite low enough on the ground that it really requires Jeongguk to expend much muscle energy. But unfailingly, Taehyung tips his lips up to kiss Jeongguk when he gets close enough, sighing when he pushes back up.

"Hey, this was your idea," Jeongguk laughs when Taehyung pouts, then comes back in for more. They through maybe twenty pushups, more or less, but around the twenty-fifth Taehyung seems to lose his patience and hooks his arms around Jeongguk's neck, anchoring him in place.

"I told you it wouldn't work," Jeongguk says against Taehyung's lips, and he giggles into Jeongguk's mouth.

"Maybe if you weren't such an idiot you'd know that I never wanted it to work, anyway," Taehyung says, pressing his thumb into Jeongguk's rosebud lips.

And it’s good. It’s great.

✖ phase 2: leptin ✖

“What if I said I have a hypothetical question?”

There’s a huff of breath on the other end of the line. Jimin does not seem particularly amused nor willing to entertain Jeongguk’s hypothetical questions on a Thursday night, when he is undoubtedly getting his day’s worth of contact. Still, though, Jeongguk can hear the shift of Jimin’s attention to him. Rustling filters through the phone as he answers.

“You have a hypothetical question so dire that it warrants a phone call to me?” Jimin says. “The last time this happened, you found a soulmate. I’m only guessing that you broke a law this time.”

“You’re real funny, hyung.”

“Oh dear. What’s wrong,” asks Jimin. “I don’t like it when you use that word with me.”

“What, hyung?”

“Stop!” Jimin says. “What happened?”

“Nothing, I said I had a hypothetical question.”

“Okay then. Let’s hear it.”

“Uhm, so,” Jeongguk asks, fidgeting in his seat. He twirls the highlighter between his fingers and it spins out of his hand, the chiseled tip leaving a faint strip of pink across his knuckles as it lands over the paperwork on his desk. “Is it possible for soulmates to be. Tired, or. Full. Of each other?”

Jimin is silent on the other end. “You’re talking to me about soulmates, Jeongguk,” he answers flatly.

“I know, I know!” Jeongguk says. He tips back in his chair, the wood creaking beneath his weight as it’s thrown onto the two back legs. “I’m asking because, uhm. I’m not sure, and, you know. I think. I might not. I’m not sure.”

“Holy shit. Use your words.”

“What I am saying!” Jeongguk says. “Okay. Look. Sometimes Taehyung says he’ll be full of me and pulls away and uhm I’ve never felt that way about him, I always want to touch him more, so whenever he moves away from me I always want to say no, and pull him back, but I don’t want to make him uncomfortable either, but I just don’t feel satisfied and I think there might be something wrong with me, I’ve never felt full, I’m always hungry, always wanting.” Jeongguk’s breath comes in pants, and he swallows at the even thicker silence at Jimin’s end. “There's something wrong with me, isn’t there.”

“I—I don’t think so?” Jimin says. He doesn’t sound too sure of himself, but he isn’t slamming the phone down in horror, either. Not that Park Jimin as a person would ever do that to begin with. “I’ve never had this problem with Seokjin hyung. Did you talk to Taehyung about this? You should.”

“It’s embarrassing,” Jeongguk mutters.

“You haven’t?” says Jimin, with disbelief. “Oh my God, it’s your health and well-being. And it’s Taehyung, he’s only too eager to listen to your feelings.”

“It’s just.” Jeongguk sighs. “It’s not as easy for me as it is for you, okay? It’s not that I don’t want to say things—I mean, I don’t, sometimes—but other times I don’t even know where or how to begin.”

He can almost imagine the sad little purse of Jimin’s lips, the half pout half frown that he wears when he thinks. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “But Jeongguk, this is your own health and your own happiness. It’s fine to ask for it. There’s nothing wrong with that.” A pause, and Jeongguk fingers the worn, curled edge of a page. “And Taehyung is your soulmate. Someone just for you.” Jeongguk makes a strangled noise that Jimin elects to ignore. “Talk to him.”

 

Trouble in paradise begins when Jeongguk wakes up one morning with his face covered in blood.

The only reason he comes to be aware of this at all is that he rolls over in bed, licking his lips, only to taste a mouthful of iron. His hands come away flecked with black-red when he draws them over his cheeks. The bed is cold beside him and Jeongguk is glad, for once, that Taehyung isn’t here, so he doesn’t have to see the soft-edged pool of blood staining Jeongguk’s pillowcase. He stumbles out of bed, a vague sort of panic building in his stomach, holding his face as if worried it’ll break apart—because that’s really what it looks like until Jeongguk gets to the bathroom and flicks the light on.

It is a champion nosebleed. Jeongguk leaves a smear of blood over the hot water handle when he turns it with a shaking hand, waiting for the stream to warm against the back of his palm. As his vision clears, sleep melting away from the corners of his eyes, his bedhead comes into full clarity, and so does the blood—it’s nightmarish, black where trails had oozed from his nose, lightening to shocks of tulip red along his cheeks and chin, tinting his teeth, too.

It takes a while to wash all of it off. The water runs pink against the white porcelain. When Jeongguk straightens, he grabs his toothbrush and uses three times as much toothpaste as he usually does to scrub the taste of blood out of his mouth, and ten minutes later, he looks a little less like he’d just walked off the set of Fight Club, and tries to be grateful that he at least doesn’t have a bruised face.

Admittedly, he doesn’t feel stellar. His body moves like he’s sick with fever, and the last thing he wants to do is put on clothes, go to class, and then sit in the district office until it’s time to go home. No, he just wants to collapse in bed, and soak up the last tendrils of Taehyung’s warmth. It is a measly substitute for the feeling of his skin but Jeongguk will have to take what he can get.

Jeongguk peels away the pillowcase, stiff with blood, and balls it up for the laundry basket. It’s overflowing, and his actual pillow is stained too—he kicks it under the bed. He’ll deal with it later, when he feels less like he’s coming down with pneumonia, joints aching, and opts instead to hug an armful of blankets to his chest.

The next time he opens his eyes, he’s first aware of fingers in his hair, and there is blessed warmth against his body.

“Hey babe.” Taehyung’s voice is soft, a shadow. “Are you okay?”

“Mmm,” Jeongguk mumbles. His muscles are sore, like he really has come down with fever, but he still brings his hand up to press it over Taehyung’s when he slides his palm along Jeongguk’s jaw to his cheek. Taehyung rubs his thumb soothingly over the skin right at the corner of Jeongguk’s mouth. “I’m okay.”

“The district office called me and said you never showed up for work,” Taehyung says, and at this, Jeongguk’s eyes fly open. “It was like they were reporting a truancy. They said you didn’t give them any notice for—”

“What? What time is it?” Jeongguk says, sitting up, but vertigo slams into him like a freight train, and he sways. Taehyung reaches out for him, steadying Jeongguk by the shoulders, but then he simply scoots closer at the edge of the bed until Jeongguk can tip forward and rest his face in Taehyung’s shoulder.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Taehyung asks, and Jeongguk is only sure about one thing—that Taehyung’s touch against his skin is making the pain in his bones melt away. “You were in such deep sleep, even for someone like you.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told them I didn’t know, and I’d call them back,” Taehyung says, brushing his lips over Jeongguk’s temple, and Jeongguk shivers at how good it feels. Sensation is bleeding back into his fingertips now, where they had been numb and cold since the morning. “And when I found you I told them you were really sick and couldn’t make it to the phone to call in.” Jeongguk pulls away to give Taehyung a dirty look, to which he exclaims, “What! You want to go in to work like this? It’s not like I lied, anyway.”

“This messes up my perfect work attendance record,” Jeongguk sighs. “I was neck and neck with one of the other interns that has his head so far up his own ass he can see out of his mouth.”

“You need to stop working yourself to the bone like this,” Taehyung admonishes, trying not to laugh at Jeongguk’s petulance. “You’re not getting enough energy, you come home late and you come to bed even later, it’s no wonder you’re getting sick. Move over, I’m getting in.”

“Don’t you still have class?”

“Hoseok can handle the last few hours when there are fewer kids,” Taehyung says, lifting up the blankets and pressing his body to Jeongguk’s, and the dull ache in his legs begins to lessen too. “I told him I might not be back for the day and he said he could hold the place down himself.” He frowns, then, as he’s arranging himself in Jeongguk’s embrace. “Where’s your pillow?”

“Uh,” Jeongguk says, grasping at straws, “I uhm, didn’t feel well, and you weren’t here, so I tried eating something and—”

“Oh my God,” Taehyung says, and his voice is so filled with guilt that Jeongguk almost feels bad. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have gone to work today, I didn’t know.”

“No, don’t be sorry. You said it yourself, you didn’t know.”

Taehyung frowns harder but cranes his head up to kiss him, and Jeongguk breathes him in until the breath burns in his lungs. He doesn’t pull away like Jeongguk expects him to, as he usually does, to chuckle or kiss Jeongguk’s cheek. Maybe he senses how much Jeongguk needs this, from the way Jeongguk holds his face in his hands, sliding one down the back of Taehyung’s shirt collar, or the way he nudges Taehyung’s face to the side to kiss him deeper. Taehyung parts his lips for him, making those little moans that Jeongguk loves hearing when they kiss. Jeongguk shivers harder when Taehyung slides his arms up to loop around Jeongguk’s neck, fingers clawing into the hair at the back of his head. Jeongguk can’t help the whimper he feeds into Taehyung’s mouth at the sensation of nails dragging across his scalp, and this time, Taehyung does break away, breathless and laughing.

“You really like it when I do that,” he says, more statement than question, pressing a soft, swift kiss to Jeongguk’s mouth—then to the divot right below his lips, knowing Jeongguk will chase the kiss and fail anyway. “Sleep. I’ll be here. I won’t let you go.”

“Are you sure that’s okay?” Jeongguk murmurs, but Taehyung has never gone back on such promises. He snorts, a gentle puff of breath in the valley between Jeongguk’s collarbones. Already, Jeongguk can feel peaceful sleep pressing kisses to his eyelids—or it could just be Taehyung, mouth impossibly gentle. At any rate, it’s difficult not to succumb to the exhaustion.

“Don’t ask stupid questions, Jeonggukkie.”

 

Jeongguk is not attacked with nosebleeds from Hell again, at least not for a while, and everything goes back to normal.

For the most part, anyway. Taehyung still leaves at the first birdsong to open up the school and ready it for the preschoolers that parents will drop off before work, and Jeongguk rouses himself by sheer force of will an hour later, going through the entirety of his morning routine with his eyes closed. By the time the sun has set and he gets home, Taehyung is at the dinner table, writing lesson plans by hand.

Well, there’s a little hiccup in the middle of the week, when Taehyung works a shorter shift at the school, and comes back early enough to finish his lesson plans before Jeongguk can get home. Wednesdays are wild card days, though not usually all too wild. Not as wild as this, anyway.

“Taehyung, I’m back,” he says at the door, toeing his shoes off and dropping his backpack with a thud in one of the dining room chairs. Taehyung isn’t curled up in the couch, dozing off, or nursing a mug of hot water, because he says the warmth of the ceramic in his hands reminds him of Jeongguk. “Taehyung?”

The apartment is oddly silent, and Jeongguk looks down the hallway. The door to their room is ajar, the way Jeongguk had left it this morning, and the bathroom’s lights are off. It’s odd. Taehyung hadn’t mentioned that he would be out later than Jeongguk today, and he tries recalling if he had mentioned anything of the sort, but comes up empty.

“Taehyu—oh,” and Jeongguk sounds suffocated, even to his own ears. “Hyung. What are you—?”

Taehyung opens his eyes and turns his head where he’s stretched luxuriously out over their bed, hand moving up and down the shaft of his cock with frantic strokes. He thumbs over the slit as Jeongguk swallows, throat dry as sawdust as he watches in the doorway.

“You were taking so long,” Taehyung says, syllables coming in breathy moans and Jeongguk’s head swims when the tail end of his words tapers off in a whine, hips jerking into the curl of his fingers when he rubs across the head. “Thought I would—thought I’d surprise you, maybe—”

“Holy shit,” Jeongguk says. He wants to move forward, holy shit indeed, get on the bed and take Taehyung’s cock into his mouth, but he feels cemented in place. Taehyung laughs as well as he can laugh, but even then he sounds wrecked; he strokes harder, faster, a few more times, and then his hips are coming to a shuddering halt as he comes.

“Jeongguk.” The word slips off Taehyung’s tongue, mixed in with a half-exhale, half-moan of bliss. “Jeongguk, oh fuck, yes, yes, Jeongguk—Jeongguk—

And Jeongguk finally responds to his name, lurching forward to join Taehyung on the bed. Even as the mattress sinks under his weight, Taehyung doesn’t seem to register how close he is—head still thrown back in the blankets, body arched from the force of his orgasm—not until Jeongguk slides a hand along Taehyung’s forearm, closing his fingers around the wrist of the hand that Taehyung still has around his cock. He lifts his head in surprise when to look down at Jeongguk when he tongues over the slit of Taehyung’s cock and sucks gently at the head, flicking his gaze up to gauge Taehyung’s expression as he opens his mouth to take all of him in.

“Oh, Jeongguk,” Taehyung whimpers, grasping weakly for purchase along Jeongguk’s jaw as he licks Taehyung clean. He’s still in his clothes, mostly, crewneck and flannel rucked halfway up his stomach and his pants pulled down to his shins. Jeongguk hooks his thumbs into the cuffs of Taehyung’s jeans and slides them off over his ankles, flinging them behind him, so Taehyung can spread his legs unhindered. “You took too long.”

“I took as long as I always do,” Jeongguk says, unable to help the gravelly roughness in his throat, gripping Taehyung’s legs by his calves and pulling him forward until he’s propped in Jeongguk’s lap, and Taehyung can sit up. “You were just impatient.” Not that Jeongguk hasn’t been. He always, always is, and Taehyung finally indulges him now, kissing him hard from his perch in Jeongguk’s lap

“I thought of you,” Taehyung says, pulling away before Jeongguk is even near done with him, to slide his fingers into Jeongguk’s hair, one hand at the back of his head and one dragging through the bangs that fall into his eyes. Then he’s leaning in again to speak against Jeongguk’s lips, “I thought of you when I got home, and when I got in bed. I thought of you when I got myself off and I thought of you coming in me when I came, Jeongguk, it was so good but just not the same—”

“Of course not.” He knows. It feels good but it’s missing something. Jeongguk sweeps his hands up the expanse of Taehyung’s back, under his clothes, groaning when Taehyung rolls his hips against the denim at his crotch. His erection strains against the fabric and it hurts, cruelly so, but then Taehyung is kissing him again and Jeongguk can’t say no to that.

Taehyung gives him a blowjob. Jeongguk comes down his throat so hard he feels sparks in his blood, Taehyung’s own personal fireworks show, burning out through the touch of Jeongguk’s palms when he drags him up for kisses and tastes the tartness of himself on Taehyung’s tongue. His shirt is damp with sweat and he peels it away, over his head, and Taehyung arranges himself along Jeongguk’s body so that their skin can be pressed together with his head resting on the bicep of Jeongguk’s outstretched arm. The hair at his temples is dark with sweat but Jeongguk doesn’t mind, curling his body in towards Taehyung’s until he can lazily run his fingers down the pebbled length of his spine, the way Taehyung likes it. It feels as if you’re playing the piano on my back, he had murmured once, sleepily, into Jeongguk’s shoulder. It makes Taehyung shiver, the way Jeongguk likes it, and he smiles into the crown of Taehyung’s head.

“Do you ever wonder.”

Jeongguk stops his hand when Taehyung doesn’t continue. He squirms, making a noise of dissent, and Jeongguk starts up again, brushing low at the end of Taehyung’s tailbone. “Ever wonder what?”

“What it’d be like if we hadn’t met? If you hadn’t shaken my hand that day. If Hoseok hadn’t been out of the room. If the superintendent hadn’t chosen to stop by one last classroom before leaving. We could have passed each other by and I might not have ever seen you again. Imagine that. That’s a little crazy, don’t you think?”

“People fall in love too often for it to be all that crazy.”

“That’s the thing, though,” Taehyung continues, voice slow like he’s drunk, or dreaming. “Isn’t it, don’t you think, a little miracle that soulmates can find each other? All the things that had to happen for two people to come together at the right place, at the right time. All those details. And sometimes it still doesn’t even work out. Isn’t it a little miracle that two people that are made for each other can find each other at all, and love each other?”

Taehyung falls silent like he’s worried that Jeongguk will laugh at him, but he doesn’t.

“You make it sound like you’re just talking about me,” Jeongguk chuckles, but Taehyung is propping himself up on his elbows, looking very seriously into Jeongguk’s face where it rests in one of Taehyung’s pillows.

“That’s what I mean,” Taehyung says. “Isn’t it a miracle that someone like me could find someone like you, and that someone like you could fall in love with someone like me?”

“Are you doubting us?”

“No! No, more like—it’s scary to imagine that if all those things hadn’t come together to work out for us, who knows—you’d still be eating those disgusting sandwiches every day and I’d still be teaching children by day and hooking up by night. But now there’s you. There’s an us, and I can’t help but think that love like this is a little miracle.”

Jeongguk brings his hand up to Taehyung’s face, and has to smile when Taehyung’s eyelids flutter at his touch. “That’s why there is such a thing as soulmates,” he says, and Taehyung gives him that soft smile he saves only for Jeongguk. “That’s why you’re mine.”

 

The next time Jeongguk is attacked with physical malady is, unfortunately, not in his own home and not while he’s bumming out in his pajamas. It is both embarrassing and inconvenient, especially when Youngji at reception says something along the lines of “Dude, at least you didn’t bleed through your pants and onto the chair you’re sitting in.”

Jeongguk makes a mental note note to check the receptionist chair if he ever finds himself in a situation where he must be seated there. At any rate, it’s unexpected and entirely out of the blue. Jaeho turns at the copy machine, looking like he’s about to say something, when he meets Jeongguk’s gaze and dives for the tissue box at the reception counter.

“Jeongguk, your nose is—holy shit, here—”

At first Jeongguk thinks he’s playing around. Jaeho has been seventeen different kinds of smug ever since Jeongguk returned to work last week, so he doesn’t take it too well when Jaeho begins smashing Kleenex into his face.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jeongguk says, flailing, try to swat away Jaeho’s hands but succeeding in nothing but banging his knee on the leg of his desk when he spins in the chair. But then the tissues float down into his lap and his eyes widen when he sees that they’re wet with blood, and he grabs a handful to hold against his nose. “Oh, shit.”

“I told you. I was just trying to save your extremely white shirt. Like Jesus Christ, what are you? The poster child of Clorox?” Then Jaeho frowns when Jeongguk doesn’t answer, silently stemming the flow of blood with fresh tissues. “Are you okay, though? Sorry, I only freaked out because it looked really dark, almost black, and it came really sudden—like a vein had burst or something.” He pauses when Jeongguk gives him a look of deep concern. “Shit, sorry, no, don’t listen to me. Go to bathroom and clean up, I’ll tell the boss where you went if he asks.”

And throughout the week, Youngji ends up solemnly placing a personal tissue box on Jeongguk’s desk. Blood leaks, unbidden, from his nose without warning, and he gets to work one afternoon to find a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer topped off with a red gift bow, and a tiny, desk-sized wastebasket sitting by his keyboard. When he looks up, Jaeho flashes him a thumbs over the divide between their desks and Jeongguk finds himself smiling.

“Don’t tell Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, one day when Youngji is looking especially troubled. Taehyung had been, too, stroking Jeongguk’s hair off his sweaty forehead in the morning when he’d gotten up for work. More and more, these days, more than ever in his life, Jeongguk is having trouble waking in the morning, and even when he does, it’s always in a cold sweat. Maybe you should skip class and work today, babe, he’d said, voice rough with sleep but tinged more with worry. I’ll call in for you.

“You look like you’ve been dragged through the Serengeti tied to the back of a camel,” she says flatly when he arrives at work after class one day. If Jeongguk is honest, that sound like it would be less of a struggle, because even in his field of vision there are two silhouettes of Youngji that keep matching up and and then diffracting when he tries to focus on her. “Hey, hey—are you okay, are you—?”

“I’m fine,” Jeongguk insists. “Can I leave early?”

Youngji gives him a severe look that Jeongguk doesn’t quite understand. Then, “Is Taehyung treating you right?”

The shock of artificial energy Jeongguk gets from an accusation this high actually makes her come into focus for a moment.

“Excuse me?”

“You seem really sick, is he taking care of you?”

“He does plenty for me, he treats me perfect,” Jeongguk says, waspish, but Youngji doesn’t flinch. “And I’m fine. Stop acting like I’m about to fall apart—”

Youngji sagely hands him a tissue, and Jeongguk feels the sticky, telltale trickle beneath his nose. Silently he holds it to his skin, and she regards him with resignation.

“I can’t stop you from working,” she says. “But what will?”

“I’m fine,” Jeongguk repeats.

“Jeongguk,” she says, and the way she says his name has him pausing before he trudges to his workspace. “I’m not sure you are.”

The first person to understand what is wrong with Jeongguk is not Jeongguk, or Taehyung. It is not even Jimin, who has known Jeongguk from the day he was born, a tiny wrinkled pudge of pink under his curious gaze.

“Wait, say that again,” Seokjin says, and Jimin looks at him across the console. Jimin’s hand is cold in Seokjin’s on this rainy day, their fingers laced together in Jimin’s lap. He swallows his mouthful of taiyaki, and Seokjin shifts his hand on the wheel to catch a left on green.

“Which part?”

“What you said about Jeongguk just now. About him not being full.”

“Oh,” Jimin says shortly. “Uh, I don’t know if he’d want you to know—”

“Obviously he doesn’t, and I wouldn’t be prying if I didn’t think I had to,” Seokjin says.

“Well.” Jimin releases Seokjin’s hand to peel a bit of wrapper away from his taiyaki fish, crinkling it so it’s held out of the way of his teeth. “He called me, asking if it’s ever actually possible to feel full of your soulmate, because he says he’s never felt that with Taehyung, when Taehyung feels full of him sometimes.”

Seokjin is silent. Jimin doesn’t always say everything in one go, often, gauging people’s reactions before continuing.

“So he was worried, I guess. I told him it had to be normal, and to go see a doctor about it if it continued. And to talk to Taehyung, oh my God. I don’t know if he ever did but he just refuses to, I don’t know why, they’re soulmates—

“Jeongguk would be that person.”

“Huh?”

“I said, Jeongguk would be that person.”

“I know, I heard you the first time. What person?”

“Jiminie,” Seokjin says, switching the windshield wipers to the slow setting now that the rain is easing up and they’re close to home. “Let me pose you a question first. Do you ever feel full of me?”

“I mean, I guess,” Jimin says. “Yeah, sometimes. I—hope you do, too? Of me?”

“Of course,” says Seokjin. “Okay, now let me ask you this. Do you know what the contact spectrum is?”

The rain that drips down from the trees they pass under are loud, droplets fat and and big on the windshield. The taiyaki wrapper crinkles quietly.

“I’ve heard of it,” Jimin says. “Should I know?”

“For us, no, it’s really not that important,” Seokjin says. “The contact spectrum is exactly what it sounds like. For every individual person they fall somewhere on that spectrum. Those who have no soulmates are at the low end, the absolute zero. For those who do have soulmates, the measure fluctuates in the first few weeks after they meet each other, when their bodies are still adjusting to touch, and getting weaned off food.”

“So what does the spectrum measure?”

“Neediness,” Seokjin answers simply. “The need to touch your soulmate. How fast you need them again, how long you can go without them, how long a certain kind of touch will last. Every bond falls somewhere on that contact spectrum, and all of them are a little different. Platonic soulmates usually operate a bit below average. You and I operate at the same level, about average to right above average.”

Jimin raises his eyebrows. “How do you know?”

“You can kind of tell,” Seokjin says. “But I know because my brother—you know, Ryujin—he’s high spectrum. Really high.”

“Oh,” says Jimin. “Wow, I can’t tell.”

“Well, you can’t anymore,” Seokjin says. “Also, why do you think we made him move into his sister-in-law’s apartment as opposed to vice versa?”

“Ah,” Jimin says sagely.

“Sodam is low spectrum. So low, in fact, that until she met Ryujin, she thought she was absolute zero. And then we have my brother, who’s the polar opposite, and needed to be around her all hours of the day and night. It took a lot of work, and some time, but they managed to equalize their needs. And now both of them are happy.”

“So you’re saying Jeongguk is high spectrum and Taehyung is—low?” Jimin asks, taiyaki crumbs tumbling into his lap when the car pulls into the driveway. Seokjin is going to have to make him brush those off outside.

“I wouldn’t say Taehyung is low, but he’s low enough that Jeongguk probably physically feels the gap,” Seokjin says. “Did you say he refuses to talk about it?”

“Yeah,” Jimin says, sighing dramatically. “Isn’t it bad for him that he’s not getting enough, and not speaking up about it?”

Seokjin exhales through his nose. “Let’s hope he speaks up soon, then.”

Taehyung can hear when Jeongguk gets home because he does so with a crash. Then there’s a thud against hallway wall, and Taehyung is springing out of his seat at the dinner table, dropping his pen, which rolls off the table surface with a clatter to the floor.

“Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk’s only response is a groan, and Taehyung finds him sitting up against the door with his head in his hands, one shoe partly untied as he rocks back and forth.

“Babe, what—what’s wrong, you have a headache?”

Jeongguk shakes his head weakly, then hard, gathering a handful of hair at his temple in his fist. His hand tightens so hard that Taehyung is afraid he’s rip his hair out and he’s curling around Jeongguk in seconds. The bulk of Jeongguk’s backpack is still sandwiched between his back and the door, but Taehyung does the only thing he can think of and doesn’t jostle him.

“Migraine,” Jeongguk croaks. “Hurts, my eye and right here,” and he claws at his temple as if to tear skin, “every time my heart beats, I can feel it.”

Taehyung pries Jeongguk’s hands away from his face as gently as he can, moving slowly and shutting off all the lights in the hallway so that it’s dark and quiet. In the silence, Jeongguk’s breathing is labored and heavy, miserable in the way he whimpers with every exhale. Taehyung runs his thumb over Jeongguk’s eyelid, soothing it closed. Jeongguk’s breath hitches when Taehyung presses his lips to the corner of his eye, rubbing circles over Jeongguk’s cheekbone. His lashes are wet with tears and Taehyung’s heart twists.

“Babe,” he whispers against Jeongguk’s forehead as he slides his mouth over Jeongguk’s face. “There’s something wrong, you have to tell me—this isn’t right, you’re really sick—”

“I’m okay,” Jeongguk mutters through gritted teeth, clenched against the pain. He’s shaking in Taehyung’s arms. “I’m just tired. Just tired. Class and work, you know?”

Taehyung wants to argue, no, he can’t be just tired, he knows what that looks like, and it’s not this—it’s not Jeongguk curled up in a ball on the floor, head hurting too much to even move, it’s not Jeongguk nearly sobbing into his shoulder with icy sweat on his neck. But he is in hardly any shape to be reasoned with right now, so Taehyung helps him to his feet with an arm around Jeongguk’s waist.

He holds Jeongguk in his sweaty work clothes all night, until his shaking subsides in his sleep, and his breaths even out to a slow push and pull of air through his lungs. He is so quiet and still, breathing shallowly against Taehyung’s chest, that Taehyung finds himself holding an unsteady finger to the space below Jeongguk’s nose. The relief that settles over his shoulders when Jeongguk’s breath, cool and damp, is hardly satisfactory, and a constricted, crushing feeling fills Taehyung’s chest. All night he hears a sinister whisper weave through his bad dreams as he drifts in and out of slumber. His right hand tingles. Jeongguk is sick. So, so sick.

 

Taehyung doesn’t know where or when the idea gets into his head. Jeongguk lies against him all weekend, for hours on end, and when the work week rolls back in, the skin of his cheeks is a tinted a little pinker, and he’s smiling again. But the idea sits low and heavy in Taehyung’s thoughts, like the monster that lives under the bed, gnawing at his ankles in the classroom.

“Seonsaengnim!”

Taehyung jumps, looks around him, and—right, he’s reading to the class. Hoseok is staring at him over his desk at the other end of the room, a slight downturn tugging at the corners of his mouth. Taehyung clears his throat and adjusts the grip he has on the storybook, smoothing the page down. It’s a story of a baby penguin, lost a long way from home.

“‘Have you seen my—’”

“You’ve read that page already!”

“Oh, sorry, sorry guys,” Taehyung says, turning the page. He has no recollection of reading it at all, but he’s been operating all day on autopilot. “‘He swam a long, long way from the cliffs where the walruses were. He was very lonely. No one had seen—”

Hoseok slips the book out of Taehyung’s hands. The battered shrinkwrap around the spine crinkles, and Taehyung has to use more energy than he’s accustomed to expending to simply tilt his head up. The expression in Hoseok’s eyes is unreadable, now, and only remains for a fleeting moment before he’s turning to speak to the class, still seated in their little cross-legged positions on the floor.

“Hoseokie seonsaengnim will read to you guys!” he says. “Taehyung seonsaengnim is tired from his mission saving other people from harm, so he’s going to go prepare our end of the day activity instead! Sound good with you guys?” At the resounding chorus of yeses and cheers, Hoseok gives Taehyung a pointed look, then nods at his desk, like he’s telling him to go sit his ass down and make himself useful elsewhere if he can’t even pull it together in front of a class full of children.

“What was that about?” he asks, later, when the kids are put down for their naps, and Taehyung fiddles with the volume switch on his phone. He’s gotten halfway through one plan and on any other day, he’d be kicking himself for procrastinating. But Hoseok slides his hand over Taehyung’s, touch gentle, and flicks the phone onto silent before taking out of his fingers. “Is Jeongguk is okay?”

“Hyung,” Taehyung says. “Those kids. Our kids that we teach every day, some of them are going to grow up and find soulmates, too.”

“Yes,” Hoseok says with a furrowed brow, pulling up Taehyung’s chair from his desk. “What’s going on? You’ve been distracted all week. You called Yoojung ‘Minha’ just yesterday.” He laughs under his breath. “I don’t know if she’ll forgive you for that.”

Taehyung allows one side of his mouth to quirk up, on reflex. He’s gotten kind of good at it, working with young children.

“But I’m assuming it’s not your eternal damnation at the hands of a four year old that’s been worrying you, huh.”

“Some of them are going to go on to find soulmates,” Taehyung says, “but how are they sure that their soulmate is right for them? Will they never wonder? What if we’re teaching the wrong thing, hyung?”

In the ensuing silence between them, Taehyung can hear the clock tick. It is never nearly this quiet in the classroom, even during nap hour. Even then, one or two kids will be clambering over each other or arguing whose arm had claim to the this part of the floor first. Hoseok blinks.

“Are you serious?” he says, and the hostility in his voice jolts Taehyung out of his stupor. He’s not loud enough to wake anyone, but this close Taehyung can hear the angry disbelief in his words. “You’re sitting here, telling me you think you’re not the right person for Jeon Jeongguk? That your soulmate bond might not be real?”

“I’m not just pulling this out of thin air!” Taehyung exclaims, but Hoseok holds a finger to his lips and he drops his voice again. “He’s—not been well, hyung. Not well at all. But he says he’s fine every time I ask. He won’t tell me what it is. All I can do is be by his side, and that seems to work, but just barely. It’s like filling a car up with just enough gas to go a few more miles before the engine dies on you. And it’s scares me. It scares me because I’m supposed to be the one that can move mountains and pin the skies up for him and here I am, powerless as he gets sicker and sicker.”

“How do you know?” Hoseok asks. “What symptoms does he have?”

“Migraines,” Taehyung says. “He’s not sleeping the same way he used to. It’s erratic and he either can’t sleep or sleeps so deeply it’s like he’s d—it’s really deep, like scarily so. And he’s lost weight. There’s something wrong, but I can’t pinpoint it exactly.”

“And you still try to tell me you’re not the one for him?” Hoseok’s laugh is dry and sad. “Listen to the way you talk about him. Most people can’t even tell when someone has gained or lost weight if they live around them every day, and you say it with so much conviction.”

Taehyung, without something to occupy his hands with, begins thumbing the tab of his binder rings. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Take him to the hospital,” Hoseok suggests. “If he won’t tell you what it is, at least you’ll know if he’s going to be okay. And information is confidential between doctor and patient unless the soulmate’s life is in immediate danger, so he has no reason to say no.”

Taehyung chews his lips until it feels bruised. “After class,” he resolves. I’ll take him out of work.”

“Hey,” Hoseok says, catching Taehyung’s sleeve as he stands up to move to his own desk. “It’ll be alright. Okay?”

For the most part, Jeongguk gets through his day without circumstance. When he walks into the office he’s immediately assaulted by the smell of fresh flowers and has succeeded and sneezing out half a lung by the time he sits down at his desk.

“Sorry!” Youngji keeps shouting across the room. “Sorry, I forgot! Be careful with all that sneezing, you might get a nosebleed again.”

“It’s fine,” Jeongguk calls back through a stuffed up nose. He had also forgot that today is Youngji’s and Jackson’s anniversary and he’d sent a basket of flowers over from HR, and they’re now sitting on the reception desk spewing plant sperm everywhere. Admittedly, the office really does smell nice, for once not permeated with the aroma of coffee and hate for cubicle jobs, but Jeongguk does not do well around pollen.

But a whole weekend lying against Taehyung’s body seems to have done a good number for him, and Jeongguk manages to get through the afternoon without feeling the faintest trickle of blood over his lip. His concentration still isn’t fully functional and more than once an hour he has to shut his eyes and rub them until the words on the paper stop reshuffling, sliding down the page and jumping over each other.

“Are you okay over there?” Jaeho says, as evening begins rolling in. This is the longest Jeongguk has lasted in the past weeks without one of his coworkers asking that question, and he looks up. His temple is throbbing again, just slightly, from where he’d been digging his knuckle into it.

“Huh?”

“Are you okay,” Jaeho repeats slowly.

“I’m fine,” Jeongguk says, and this time, he actually does sound fine. To his own ears, anyway, but Jaeho looks unconvinced.

“You’re sweating like you barely escaped a horde of zombies, that’s not really the textbook definition of fine.” Jeongguk shushes him lest Youngji hear him and threaten to call Taehyung again. “What? You look sick again, and I refuse to be dragged away from that perfect attendance bonus if you get me sick, too.”

Jeongguk makes a face at him, but he can hear the concern in Jaeho’s voice. “Don’t count on it,” he says, but gets up from his seat anyway. After Jaeho’s pointed it out, Jeongguk can feel the fabric of his shirt sticking uncomfortably to his back, a thin sheen of cold sweat beaded along the nape of his neck where his collar is. His stomach is roiling, like he’s too hungry. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

“Don’t take too long, I need to use it too,” Jaeho says, no longer looking at Jeongguk when his phone rings. “Hello?”

Warm water against his skin feels good. When Jeongguk splashes it into his face, some of his runs down his wrists into his sleeve cuffs, but as he reaches for the paper towels the ground does a horrible tilt-a-whirl under his feet. He grips the sides of the sink for support, breath coming harder as he tries to regain his balance, but the room won’t stop spinning. The dry, focused burn in Jeongguk’s stomach comes to a head and the sensation shoots up his throat and into his mouth, without warning.

When he coughs the sink is spattered with red. Some of it runs, mixing with the droplets of water that cling to the sloped sides of the porcelain. The sight of it alone is enough to make the floor undulate again beneath him, and Jeongguk’s breath comes ragged as he chokes over the clot of blood that bubbles in the back of throat.

Before he can even register that it’s blood, he heaves again and a mouthful of it dribbles from his lips and down the drain. It’s dark red, almost black, like the first day Jeongguk had bled all over his pillow. He assumes that this is what Jaeho must have seen that first time he’d punched Jeongguk in the face with a box of tissues. When he looks up into the mirror, he sees himself, just as he always looks. Nothing is out of place except how white his cheeks have gone, how starkly the blood stands out on his lips and chin, a flood of rubies down his face. He can’t help but drag his fingers through it, just to make sure he’s not hallucinating. The sound of the running water is so far away, and Jeongguk, in his haze of fear, reaches for his phone.

In any situation where he needs help, no matter how desperately he needs it, Jeongguk still doesn’t ask Taehyung for it, choosing to suffer alone. He doesn’t know what makes him finally cave this time. Perhaps it is the sheer volume of the blood he’s spat up, or the color of it against his face, or how much it tastes like liquid panic on his tongue. But right now Jeongguk wants nothing more than the feeling of Taehyung’s skin on his.

He manages the hit the send button. Just as he does, the room shift angles entirely around him, or maybe he’s falling, and Jeongguk registers pain when his head thuds on the tiles. The floor is cold against the side of his body, nothing like Taehyung’s soft, warm heat, and at this angle his arm doesn’t even appear to look attached to his body. There is a bloodstain across the brushed silver backside of his phone. He hopes the screen isn’t shattered, in a fall like this.

Right before he blacks out he thinks he can imagine being back at home, curled up in bed, listening to the soft stream of water as Taehyung brushes his teeth in the cold dawn.

Hoseok shoos him out of the classroom when Taehyung sends off the last child into the arms of her mother.

“We have to rearrange the desks for—”

“Yeah, we do, but I’ll do it,” Hoseok says. “You’re going to go down to the district office and take Jeongguk to the hospital.”

“But hyung—”

“It’s one or two hours of sleep for me, or Jeongguk’s—and, frankly, your—well-being. I don’t want to see hide nor hair of you until you’ve been to the hospital.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Taehyung promises, and Hoseok laughs.

“You can try to get through a whole book next week without getting lost and distracted in the middle of it and it’ll be all the payment I could ask for,” he replies.

When Taehyung checks the time on his phone, he sees that he missed a call, most likely when his sound had been turned off during nap hour. His phone unlocks, and he sees that it’s from Jeongguk—which is out of the ordinary but not too bizarre, so he swipes across the name and listens to the ringtone. The bus stop is mostly empty now, and he shifts from foot to foot alone.

“Hello?”

“Uh,” Taehyung says. This voice doesn’t belong to Jeongguk at all. “Who is this?”

“Are you looking for Jeongguk?”

“Yes, can I speak to him?”

“Something happened. I don’t know if he’s available to come to the phone right now.”

Taehyung feels his heart sputter. “What? Is he okay?”

“I don’t—I’m not sure, I work in HR—”

“Is the district office still open? I’m going to stop by right now.”

“Yes, but we’re closing in ten—”

But Taehyung is hanging up already, and the gods have smiled down upon him today because the bus is pulling into the stop on time. It does so maybe once or twice a week and Taehyung swipes his transit pass through the machine so fast that the driver has to give him a Look and make him swipe again, with shaking fingers, so that the transaction goes through. The district office is only three stops from the school but it has never felt farther, the traffic snailing through the streets so infuriating that Taehyung nearly hops off at the first stop to run on his own two feet.

Everyone in the administrative office jumps when Taehyung barges in, breath coming hard and fast. He’d taken the steps two at a time to this floor, and when no one says anything, he asks, “Can I see Jeongguk?”

“He’s not here.”

“Well, where is he?”

“He collapsed. Youngji took him to the emergency room,” says the one that sits, Taehyung realizes, right across from Jeongguk’s desk. He’s standing up to pull his jacket on. “He left more than an hour ago. We think he tried to call you, but you didn’t pick up.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Taehyung demands, almost tearfully, but he’s becoming increasingly aware of the way the office is looking at him—full of disapproval, like it is his fault that Jeongguk collapsed. In the back of his mind, that voice comes back, and he thinks that it’s because it is his fault, because he’ll never be able to give Jeongguk what he needs most.

“He didn’t want us to tell you anything. Even at his worst, he made us swear not to tell you.”

“Why?”

“Because,” and Taehyung fears the words that come at him next, “he didn’t want to make you sad.”

 

The thing about hospitals is that they always, first and foremost, answer people who claim to be here to see their soulmate with “Why didn’t you come in with them?”

And Taehyung finds that he has no answer for this. Indeed, why hadn’t he been there for Jeongguk? Why can he never be there, and do something right? The nurse looks at the expression on his face, the way his head hangs over the front desk like a swan peering gloomily into a pond, and she asks no more beyond, “Name?”

“Jeon Jeongguk.”

“Your name,” she corrects gently.

“Oh. Kim Taehyung.”

“Okay, if you’ll just come this way.”

She takes him up to the fourth floor. On the second, a girl pushes another young woman into the elevator on a wheelchair, and they shuffle aside to make room for them. Taehyung stares at the girl’s hand, soft and comforting, against the woman’s shoulder and has to look away.

“Here we are,” says the nurse as they get to right wing. It is much quieter up here, and Taehyung sees the sign hanging over the hallway. Intensive Care Unit it says, and he wonders just how late he is. “He’s the second door down. Try not to be too loud.”

“Thank you.”

More people than Taehyung expects are already inside, and they all turn at the sound of the door opening. He exhales when he recognizes Jimin and Seokjin, and another man that looks so much like Seokjin that Taehyung does double take, and a young woman that he assumes is the man’s soulmate.

“Where have you been?” Jimin asks, detaching himself from Seokjin, coming at Taehyung like he wants to grab Taehyung by the arms and shake him. “Why did it take you so—”

“Is he okay?”

Jimin stops himself when Taehyung looks over his shoulder, trying to sidestep him. He moves out of Taehyung’s way and, for a moment, Taehyung is afraid to go any closer. He hasn’t done any good already, and now Jeongguk looks so ghostly in the sheets that Taehyung thinks that he’ll simply evaporate if he breathes on him. But then Jimin gives him a shove from behind, and Taehyung stumbles up to the bedside.

“Jeongguk.” His voice comes out as thin and papery as Jeongguk looks. His lips are chapped, but his breath is so faint that Taehyung can hardly hear it, the blankets unsettlingly still on top of Jeongguk’s chest. There’s an icy sweat along his jaw when Taehyung hovers over him and cups his hand to Jeongguk’s cheek, despite how hot the safety railing is, how warm the mattress is. The bed is incubated, Taehyung is sure, to mimic the sensation of body heat, but it isn’t enough. “Babe.”

“You should get in with him,” the Seokjin doppelganger says. “Right now he needs as much of you as he can get.”

“I’m—I’m not—”

“Do it, Taehyung,” Seokjin says, and his voice is the coldest Taehyung has ever heard it. “Jeongguk needs you, he’s—I don’t know how you didn’t—”

“Hyung,” Jimin says, and Seokjin falls silent. Taehyung pauses as he’s pulling Jeongguk’s body to his, cold all the way down to his ankles, but Jimin is sliding a reassuring hand up Seokjin’s arm. “Later. We can tell him later.”

Seokjin takes a breath through his nose. “Okay,” he says. “You don’t leave his side, okay Taehyung? Don’t let him go. We’ll come back later.”

“Do you want me to call Hoseokie hyung for you?” Jimin asks.

“Please do,” Taehyung says, pillowing his cheek against Jeongguk’s clammy neck. “He might have to call in a substitute and he’ll need all the time he can get to run over the lesson plans if he does.”

“I got it.”

The room is quiet when the door falls shut behind them, save for the steady buzz of the incubator under the bed. It casts a deep orange glow across the linoleum. The blankets smell of antiseptic, but Taehyung arranges more of them around Jeongguk’s body, and the door opens again to different nurse this time. She doesn’t so much as even cast Taehyung a glance, checking Jeongguk’s vitals methodically.

“You need to take off your clothes,” she instructs after a moment, pulling the blankets back up to Jeongguk’s chin.

“N-now?”

“Yes, now,” she says, frowning at the monitor fixed into the wall, recording data into the tablet in her hands. Across the screen is an army of numbers and figures that Taehyung can’t understand. “His blood pressure keeps falling and his pulse is too slow, you have to get his heart working harder or we’re going to lose him.” When Taehyung remains motionless, she gives him a stern look. “You’re his soulmate, aren’t you?”

Taehyung fumbles under the covers, slightly self-conscious even concealed by blankets. Not that the nurse is looking at him, but after a few minutes of struggling, he kicks his shirt and jeans to the foot of the bed and wraps himself around Jeongguk again, shivering at the stiff chill that runs deep in Jeongguk’s skin and into the marrow of his bones. It’s like his body had just shut down for good, from whatever it was, and Taehyung is too afraid to ask anyone what it is.

Even skin on skin—even with Taehyung’s arms wrapped around Jeongguk’s waist, his shirt shucked up to his chest, Jeongguk remains unresponsive for hours. His eyes are motionless beneath his eyelids, his lips as white as surgical gloves. They taste like blood when Taehyung sits up slightly to press a soft kiss to his mouth. When he reaches up to put just enough pressure on Jeongguk’s lower lip with his thumb to pull it down, he can see bloodstains on the soft insides of his mouth.

“How long have you been hiding this,” he murmurs, but Taehyung forces himself not to cry. Not in a moment like this, lying beside Jeongguk. For once, he steels himself, and tries to be as strong for his soulmate as his soulmate always has been—needlessly so—for him.

 

No one disturbs them for the night and a few hours after sunrise the next morning.

Taehyung falls into an uneasy, bothered sleep from which he wakes up every other hour to rearrange his body around Jeongguk’s, wiping sweat from his face with his balled up shirt and dropping kisses to the skin the fabric moves over. Because this is the best thing he can do, and hopefully the only thing Jeongguk needs. By the time the nurses come in and rouses Taehyung again, Jeongguk has stabilized enough for Taehyung to be away from him for the time the doctor wants to reexamine.

Seokjin stands outside in the hallway. Taehyung has just managed to button up his shirt, jacket warm from the incubator, and he stumbles with exhaustion when he closes the door behind him. “Hyung,” he says with surprise. “You’re back already?”

“Thought you might need this,” Seokjin says, holding up a little duffel bag He takes Taehyung’s hand and loops the straps into the curl of his fingers. “Clothes and stuff. Jimin used your extra key.”

Taehyung brings it up to hold more securely in his hands. “Thank you.”

“But I wanted to talk to you, too,” Seokjin says, voice solemn again. “They didn’t tell you what’s wrong with him, did they?”

Taehyung swallows, throat dry and rough. “No,” he says. “Am I not supposed to know?”

“The polar opposite, in fact,” Seokjin says. “They assume you already know.”

The gravity in Seokjin’s voice makes it so hard to meet his gaze, but Taehyung forces himself to do it anyway. He’s never seen Seokjin so stern, toeing angry. Always, when he and Jimin are around each other, their eyes are soft and gentle. He looks like he’s holding himself back from slamming Taehyung against the wall, like Jimin had to restrain himself from physically rattling Taehyung with his hands. His heart sinks even further. If Seokjin is looking at him with this much disappointment, he doesn’t have anything to say for himself.

“But I don’t,” Taehyung says. “I’m sorry. I know I should have seen it all along.”

“You should have.”

“I know, hyung. I don’t know why I let myself believe it, but it was so wonderful and perfect that I—I believed it, you know? That I was the perfect one for him, his soulmate, the only person he needed. I guess I’m not, and I should have helped him find someone better, maybe, but I was blinded by—”

“Wait, what?” Seokjin frowns. “What are you talking about?”

“I—that I’m not the right soulmate for him?” Taehyung says. “Isn’t that what it is? Isn’t that why he is the way he is, because I’m not enough for him?”

“Taehyung,” Seokjin says, and this time he really does move forward to curl his hands around Taehyung’s upper arms, but it’s steadying and firm. “You really think that? That you’re the wrong one for him?”

“Aren’t I?”

“When soulmates find each other,” Seokjin says, very seriously, “they are soulmates for life. There is no other person in this world that will be right for them like they are for each other. I can’t believe you even harbored the idea that you’re the wrong one for Jeongguk.”

“Then how else do you explain it,” Taehyung says, throwing up his free hand in resignation.

“Let me ask you something,” says Seokjin, “how did you feel at work yesterday?”

“Fine, I guess,” Taehyung says.

“You guess, or you’re sure?”

“I’m sure. I felt normal.”

“And tell me, how has Jeongguk been faring recently?”

“Not so fine.”

“Correct. Now what keeps people with soulmates healthy?”

“Physical contact and touch,” Taehyung says. “I don’t understand, hyung, you’re saying I’m the one for him but then you’re implying that—”

“Listen to me. Have you ever heard of the contact spectrum?”

“Uh. Yeah, I guess. I’ve heard a little about it. But I’ve never known or met anyone that measured anywhere out of the ordinary on it.”

“Yes, you have,” Seokjin replies. He takes a deep breath, then drops his hands as if he’s only now aware they’re gripping Taehyung too tightly. “Your soulmate is one of them.”

Taehyung gapes. “What do you mean he’s—? He measures out of the ordinary?”

“Jeongguk falls on the extreme high end,” Seokjin explains. “Yeah, your soulmate. He needs physical contact more than you, more than me, more than Jimin. More than anyone you’ve probably ever met, except perhaps my brother, who is the same. He was the person that was in the room yesterday, with his wife.” Seokjin sighs. “The thing about it is that most soulmates don’t know about the spectrum simply because they usually calibrate their needs naturally, without even being aware of it. Most soulmates also don’t have such a big discrepancy in needs like you and Jeongguk do, so big that it oftentimes can’t adjust naturally until something drastic, like this, happens.”

“How do you know all of this?” Taehyung leans back against the wall. “Your brother?”

“My brother.” Seokjin scratches at the hair by his temple. “I don’t remember much of it anymore, to be honest. I was pretty young, and he was hospitalized in the middle of the night, when I was just getting some shut-eye before school. His symptoms were the same. Probably identical, in fact, to your Jeongguk’s.”

“Migraines?”

“Migraines,” Seokjin repeats. “Trouble sleeping, then trouble waking. Unpredictable sleep patterns. Nosebleeds. Weight loss. At the worst, he was vomiting blood.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says faintly, recalling the taste of iron on Jeongguk’s mouth. “Oh my God.”

“Then they tested him, and my sister-in-law.” Seokjin chuckles. “She tested very low on the spectrum, and he, very high. That’s when they moved out. But now they’re happy, because they worked it out. But like I said, Taehyung, needs calibrate in relativity to your soulmate’s. Ryujin’s since lowered on the spectrum so much that my sister-in-law complains he never kisses her right anymore.”

“So,” Taehyung asks, still leaning against the wall for support, “what do I do?”

“Taehyung?” The door opens, the nurse peeks her head out, glancing momentarily at Seokjin. “We need you back inside, please.”

Seokjin gives Taehyung’s shoulder a squeeze. “You’ll know what to do. You’re his soulmate, after all.”

 

The bed is no longer incubated, and Jeongguk stops cold sweating halfway through the second night. Taehyung rouses himself at dawn, just because he’s so used to this routine, to hop in the shower and change into the fresh clothes Seokjin had given him. It probably looks strange, Taehyung thinks, as he props the mattress up so he can unfold the table and pull together a rough lesson plan to send to Hoseok with Jeongguk’s head resting in the curve of his neck. But no one is checking, and there is nowhere Taehyung would rather be than here, feeling the breath in Jeongguk’s lungs strengthening by the hour. He reads Hoseok’s texts to him of his chronicled struggles as he texts him with his roughed-out plans. new sub today, name of min yoongi. don’t know how he got this job. he hates children.

Taehyung laughs, the movement jostling Jeongguk where Taehyung has curled himself into Jeongguk’s chest. He’s still unconscious, but less frighteningly so, no longer looking as if he’s sitting on death’s doorstep and more like he’s in a deep, impenetrable sleep.

It takes one more day and one more tense night. It happens at an ungodly hour of the morning, far past midnight: three AM and the hospital has settled, the building breathing quietly.

For too many in the ICU, the endless night is the most critical period of time. For too many the verdict is that if they survive the night, they’ll make it to the next day. Taehyung for the life of him cannot catch a wink—so here he is, brushing Jeongguk’s hair off his forehead. It has gotten back its deep, rich black shine in the past few days. The more Taehyung runs his fingers through it, the more he spirals back into that void of self-deprecation, berating himself for not noticing. How could he have not noticed, how dull Jeongguk’s hair had been when it was usually so thick and lush?

Taehyung startles when he passes his hand over Jeongguk’s forehead again—in one moment Jeongguk is asleep, and in the next he is staring at Taehyung with wide eyes. Taehyung’s hand hovers uncertainly over his hair, frozen with surprise. It’s so late—the hour hand suspended in a time of night when even the healthiest of people are asleep—but Jeongguk is blinking slowly, sleepily up at him, turning his head on his pillow to better see Taehyung in the dim light.

Jeongguk's face is thrown into sharp relief then, and soft yellow light slides over the angles of his face, cuts across the bridge of his nose. Shadows pool on the underside of his cheek. Taehyung wants to say something. Of course, he tries. But Jeongguk’s name turns into a sob in his mouth, his face blurring in Taehyung’s vision. The guilt and the fear of losing Jeongguk comes crashing back in sticky waves. Crying will bring the nurses in here but Taehyung can’t be bothered to restrain himself. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t cry, especially not when Jeongguk opened his eyes again, yet here he is.

“Jeongguk.” The word is strangled. “Jeongguk—”

A soft touch kisses the back of Taehyung’s neck. His breath catches, but then it’s moving up to the back of his head—the cradle of Jeongguk’s hand, pulling downwards slowly until Taehyung’s damp cheek is pressed to his forehead, and he sighs. Taehyung feels it, the quick rush of air out of Jeongguk’s lungs, his ribs contracting suddenly under the weight of Taehyung’s arm.

“You’re here.”

His voice is a ghost between them. Taehyung sniffles, sliding his hand up Jeongguk’s body until it meets his jaw. The pulse at his jugular thunders with life.

“Of course I—how could I, Jeongguk, I—”

“Shh.”

He quiets, hiccups caught in his belly. Then,

“Isn’t it twisted,” Taehyung murmurs, thumbing the pulse point in Jeongguk’s neck gently, as if to make sure it’s real, “that you’re like this—as sick as this—and you’re still trying to reassure me that you’re okay. You’re the one who collapsed, and yet you’re the one that’s hushing me. Wiping away my tears.”

“How is it twisted,” Jeongguk says. His voice is weak and watery but there, right by Taehyung’s ear. “You’re my soulmate. I love you.”

His hand slips from Taehyung’s neck then, falling with a soft noise into the blankets. Taehyung nearly feels panic grip him again until realizes Jeongguk has simply fallen asleep, face turned into Taehyung’s cheek. Some of his tears have left glistening trails along Jeongguk’s face where they dripped onto his skin. He is about to reach up and dab them dry with his shirt sleeve, but Taehyung instead slides his hand higher up until it spans Jeongguk's cheek, and kisses them away. He thinks Jeongguk smiles, even in his sleep, when he drops extra kisses all over his face, in the hollow of the corner of Jeongguk’s eye, the high crest of his browbone, the corner of his mouth.

Around dawn, Taehyung falls into dreamless sleep and wakes up to the slow trail of Jeongguk’s fingers up and down his spine, and for the first time in a long time, feels a little pearl of hope form over the gritted worry in his heart.

(Taehyung goes back, once, to bring some of Jeongguk’s clothes from home. When he’s rummaging through their bed for his jacket, the big blue Supreme zip-up, Taehyung’s foot catches on something beneath the bed frame. When he looks under the bed, he pulls out Jeongguk’s pillow, covered in dust, and doesn’t understand until he flips it over to see the stiff brown bloom of blood across the spot where Jeongguk always rests his cheek. The floor is cold when Taehyung sits back heavily, the thud of his body loud when it hits the side of the bed. He buries his face in Jeongguk’s jacket, the scent wreathing around him, and cries in a place where Jeongguk cannot see.)

 

The hospital keeps Jeongguk for two more days before his blood pressure and body temperature stabilize enough for them to deem him fit to leave. He’s restless both those days, and any moment he’s awake he insists on calling the district office to ask if they have work for him to do, if they’ve fired him, if he can still keep his job. Finally, to put him at ease, Taehyung calls the district office.

“HR actually got penalized for not seeing it sooner,” Youngji says conversationally, as Taehyung is halfway through explaining the situation. “So please tell Jeongguk that we have it covered and the district office will not collapse because of one missing intern.” She drops her voice down to a whisper. “Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s actually not as important as he thinks he is.”

Taehyung laughs, and Jeongguk looks even more concerned by this.

“So what happened to HR?”

“What happened to HR?” Jeongguk demands, and Taehyung presses him gently back into the pillows.

“The nurse said not to overexert yourself and I am fairly convinced sudden movement like that falls under ‘overexertion,’” Taehyung says, partly because it’s true, and partly because he likes to see Jeongguk pout. Jeon Jeongguk Does Not Pout. But he does about this and he’s done it these days when Taehyung has slipped out of bed for the doctors to do their work, and to shower.

“HR is fine. Jackson got a bit of a talking-to for letting interns work overtime unpaid, though, and the whole department got memos.” Youngji is solemn now, comically so. “Actually, I was supposed to talk about this to Jeongguk when he got back since he never answers his godforsaken phone. I don’t understand why he has a smartphone if he’s going to treat it like a flip phone. A pager. A fashionable piece of metal.”

“What was it that you were going to tell him? I can pass it along.”

“Wait, let me talk to her,” Jeongguk says.

“No, don’t let him talk to me,” Youngji says. “Because he’ll try to argue with me and I have other calls on the line. Anyway, he’s been asked to take some time off. However long the hospital prescribes, preferably. The district wants it. It does not reflect well on the schools if he comes back to work as soon as he can stand up again. We’re not too interested in looking like we’re working our employees to actual death, you know.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees. “Well. So this has been arranged? This sick leave?”

“If you mean that he has two tickets to Jeju sitting in his email inbox right now by arranged, then yes, it has,” Youngji says. “We don’t want to see his face around here for at least a week.”

“Holy shit, that’s—thank you, really—”

“When he gets back he’ll have to talk to Jackson and our boss about his hours,” she continues. “But that’s something to be discussed later. I’ll talk to you soon, Taehyung, the superintendent secretary is on the line.”

“Right. Thank you!”

“What happened?”

“They don’t want you to go back into work until you’re recovered,” Taehyung says. “And when you do they want you to talk to Jackson about your work hours.”

“Ugh,” Jeongguk groans. “Well. That’s better than what I hoped for. I’ll have to email all my professors, too.”

“I’m pretty sure an ordeal like this is a valid reason to have missed classes.”

“I have to get better fast.”

“You have me, don’t you?”

Jeongguk seems to relax, even just slightly, at this. “I have you,” he echoes.

On the last day, Jeongguk pulls on clothes that Jimin had packed into the duffel and things that Taehyung brought from home, and a doctor sweeps in for the last time. She still holds the omnipresent clipboard to her chest but the expression on her face is finally one of optimism.

“Jeon Jeongguk,” she says, flipping through his records from the past few days. “Blood pressure normal, heart rate normal, body temperature normal. I’ll let you have these to read over yourself.” She tugs the paper out from the clip. “As for your prescription and home remedy—”

“There’s more?” he asks.

“When things like this happen, we compare it to rebooting a piece of technology,” she says, scribbling across her notepad. “Our work is to reboot our patients and get them back on their feet again. It is the job of their soulmates to charge them up to full battery.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, flushing slightly.

“Kim Taehyung, soulmate, correct?” she clarifies. “Average measure on the contact spectrum. You’ve got some work cut out for you so I hope you have a good stamina.”

“For him,” Taehyung’s hand tightens in Jeongguk’s where they rest intertwined on Jeongguk’s thigh, “I can do anything.”

“Okay, so, at least three days of bedrest, moving around is okay, but only around the house. No going outside for extended periods of time. No hard sex—”

Taehyung feels the blush explode across his cheeks. Jeongguk, on the other hand, chokes violently, presumably on his own spit.

The doctor pauses, glancing at him as he waves his his free hand for her to go on.

“No hard sex, no hard BDSM, light acceptable, but nothing too psychologically taxing. Skin on skin preferred. Barebacking is recommended—”

“Oh my God,” Jeongguk says, sounding as if he’s gargling with rocks.

“—and making love has a maximizing effect on recovery, do that as many times as you can manage. It is not recommended you do any of this in the first three days, and save it for the rest of the week,” she finishes without missing a beat. She looks from Jeongguk, who looks like he’s attempting to self-immolate, to Taehyung, who’s blushing down to his chest. “Any questions?”

“No I think we’re great,” Taehyung says too quickly.

“Then don’t hesitate to call back in with any problems or return of symptoms,” she says. “Feel better, Jeongguk!”

 

Jeongguk can’t look Taehyung in the face for a good hour.

He insists, after they get home, that he is fine and that he is going to at least email his professors, but Taehyung sends him into the bathroom with a towel first.

“You smell like the hospital,” he says. “Get cleaned up and then you can email them in bed with me.”

Jeongguk’s fingers close around the fabric. “Okay,” he says, and Taehyung wonders if his own exhaustion shows on his face so much, too. An inept pause settles between them as Jeongguk doesn’t turn to step into the bathroom, and instead he reaches out, almost as if hesitant.

“Come with me?” There is a glint in his eyes, a shy one, like he is afraid that Taehyung will say no.

“Absolutely,” Taehyung breathes. It is difficult not to marvel at the warmth that radiates off of Jeongguk’s palm when Taehyung slots his fingers with his. “Absolutely.”

Taehyung doesn’t expect Jeongguk to run the bath, but in retrospect, this is probably the better idea—being swathed in suds and warm water lying down is a little gentler on the nerves than pounding water pressure standing up. By the time he pulls his clothes off, Jeongguk is already in the tub, fiddling with the water dials.

“You didn’t put any soap in,” Taehyung says. “You can’t do this without soap!”

Jeongguk does not argue when Taehyung grabs the shower gel and upends it into the bubbles where the stream from the bath spout meets the surface of the water. After several minutes ice-white foam comes up to their chests and Jeongguk shuts off the water with a quick turn of the knob. Then he is pressing into Taehyung’s body, kissing him. The side of the tub is cool against Taehyung’s back, even in the hot water. Jeongguk kisses him intense, the column of his body rising out of the bath, and the water streaming down the length of his torso is loud even over the sound of their mouths meeting.

“Hey, they said,” Taehyung manages between kisses, “to take it easy—”

“Mmm,” Jeongguk hums. He pulls back to nip at Taehyung’s lower lip, then sucks it between his teeth, tugging until Taehyung makes a strained noise in his throat. Jeongguk lets go, and he may still be tired but the smirk on his mouth is very real as he smooths his thumb across Taehyung’s lip, enjoying the way it sprung back. “I think I’m taking it pretty easy.”

But he settles, anyway, into Taehyung’s chest. The grooves of Jeongguk’s back are solid against him, and Jeongguk keeps reaching out of the water so he can turn Taehyung’s face to kiss. Not that he’s complaining in the least; at some point, Jeongguk is the one that is pressed to the tub with Taehyung gripping his soapy shoulders, panting as Jeongguk decorates his throat with rings of hickeys.

“Water’s cooling,” he says, and Jeongguk grunts under him, running his tongue over the bump of Taehyung’s voice box, then his Adam’s apple. “We should get out.”

The noise Jeongguk makes is mostly one of dissent, but he lets Taehyung lather his hair up quick in the lukewarm water, fighting a laugh and trying to look irritated (failing spectacularly, of course) when Taehyung styles it so that locks of Jeongguk’s hair stand up like two kitty ears.

“You look ridiculous,” Taehyung decides.

“I feel ridiculous. I’m dunking my head now.”

Taehyung rinses it off himself. It takes a quick run under the showerhead to get off all the lingering soap suds but finally, with much deliberation, they curl up under the covers together. Jeongguk breathes steadily where he’s buried in Taehyung’s chest for all of five minutes before he groans, propping himself up into a sitting position.

“Okay, I have to email my professors now,” he says. “And HR, and my boss.”

“Why do you have to be responsible like that, now I feel bad and have to get up and do work too.”

“Maybe you should,” Jeongguk suggests as he powers up his laptop. “Hoseok sounds like he’s about to cry with all the substitutes.”

“I’ve been writing him lesson plans!” Taehyung says. “The subs are just really shitty at following them…”

But Taehyung does get himself out of bed to collect his binders and schoolbag, dropping them at the foot of their bed. Jeongguk looks up, and the surprise on his face is unfiltered.

“You’re working here?”

“I’m not letting you out of my sight,” Taehyung declares, climbing back under their blankets. Jeongguk is using his pillow, so he flops down onto his stomach to work, hooking a leg around Jeongguk’s. The day passes steadily like this, Jeongguk sorting through his small mountain of schoolwork and work-work, the calm silence between them punctuated by the quiet flip of pages.

Late in the afternoon, long after Taehyung’s shoulders have grown sore and weary from propping himself up so long, he looks up from his binder to see Jeongguk asleep. He had slumped sideways onto the bed, body making an L around Taehyung, hand pillowed beneath his cheek. Carefully, he drags himself forward until he’s close enough to kiss Jeongguk on the mouth, only to get distracted by the flutter of his eyelids.

“Just kiss me already,” Jeongguk murmurs, and Taehyung pulls back with a noise of embarrassment.

“You were awake?”

Jeongguk blinks his eyes open sleepily, and Taehyung feels a pang when he’s reminded of that night he’d brushed Jeongguk’s hair off his face. “Kind of hard to stay asleep with you popping your binder open and closed like that.”

“Oh, fuck—I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” and Jeongguk closes his eyes again, breathing in deep. “You work harder than I do.”

“Please,” Taehyung says. “You juggle school and an internship.”

“You worry about all those kids, all the time,” Jeongguk says, shifting to get more comfortable. “I can see it in your face. Minguk from the afternoon class who’s great with the little girls but can’t seem to calm down enough to apply himself. Seojun who is so shy. Yoojung from the morning class who’s so bright that her parents asked you what this could mean for her future, and she’s only just a baby.”

“Wow,” Taehyung says. “I guess talk about them a little more than I thought.”

“You love them,” Jeongguk says, rubbing his eyes. “You want to make a difference in their lives. I knew that about you from the moment I met you.”

Taehyung chuckles under his breath. It’s true. “That’s the goal here.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes to look at Taehyung again, a short puff of air rushing through his nose as he chuckles. He doesn’t say anything, though, and Taehyung pulls a face.

“What?”

But Jeongguk only silently holds his gaze, warm and heavy, and slides forward. The sheets rustle as Taehyung closes the distance between them, laughing, and gives Jeongguk the kiss he’s been waiting on tenterhooks for.

Jeju is rainy, which is great.

Maybe not great for all the visiting students and tourists, but as far as Taehyung and Jeongguk are concerned, Jeju being rainy is great, because now,

“We have an excuse to stay in all day!” Taehyung says. He sets his suitcase down with a thud at the foot of the bed, and it rolls away gently on its four wheels. Jeongguk puts his suitcase down with a little more care, and reaches out to retract the handle of Taehyung’s back into its compartment. The ocean, when he pulls the curtain aside, is a steel grey, and the balcony railings are beaded with a thousand raindrops. “Jesus. It’s really coming down hard.”

“Take your jacket off so it can dry,” Jeongguk beckons, and Taehyung crosses the room. He unzips as he walks, and Jeongguk hangs it up beside his own.

Just as Youngji had promised, Jeongguk had two ferry tickets to Jeju waiting in his email inbox for him. At first he hadn’t seen them, and Taehyung had to tell him, because Jeongguk has all of Youngji’s emails directed straight into his spam inbox. All she does is send him invites to strange websites and those middle school chain letters that say things like, WARNING: IF YOU DO NOT PASS THIS ON TO AT LEAST 30 PEOPLE THE GIGGLING GRANNY WILL FIND YOU!!!!!!!

Jeongguk’s professors had been conveniently understanding about all of this. Initially, they had been suspicious—needing a leave right around midterms, it really isn’t the most innocent-looking move—but as soon as Jeongguk had emailed them a photo of his prescription with the doctor’s signature (Taehyung’s idea), they had shut up immediately and wished him a speedy recovery.

“So,” Taehyung says, “what now?”

“Are you seriously asking me that question?” When Jeongguk gets done arranging Taehyung’s jacket on its hanger and turns to him, he’s met with a playful smile on Taehyung’s mouth but feigned innocence in his eyes. “We’re in Jeju, we’re in a hotel, and it’s raining so hard we can’t see outside.”

“Stupid question,” Taehyung agrees, voice barely above a whisper as he steps into Jeongguk’s space. He is already leaning in to kiss Jeongguk, tilting his face, when Jeongguk grabs Taehyung around his middle and bowls them over onto the bed so that Taehyung is pinned under his body, one wrist caged in by Jeongguk’s hand beside his head and the other one darting out to catching Jeongguk’s arm in surprise. Then he laughs, eyes curving up, and Jeongguk cannot help but kiss his smile. He kisses it until it fades under his lips and Taehyung fits his mouth with Jeongguk’s, opening up for his tongue, for him, for the heat of of him, catching a moan against Jeongguk’s mouth when Jeongguk pulls away so he can better angle his head and press back in.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, the word spilling out of his mouth when Taehyung breaks away for air, gasping against his cheek. The rhythm of his breaths mutes for a moment when Taehyung swallows, and then he’s turning his face so he can kiss Jeongguk’s cheekbone.

“What?”

But the way Taehyung is looking at him, gaze burning into Jeongguk’s face, makes whatever thought he might have had evaporate. Not too much of a problem, as this means they can just get back to kissing, and they do. It is Taehyung’s turn this time to leave a trail of hickeys from Jeongguk’s jaw down to his collarbones, and he presses the pad of his thumb into the well of Jeongguk’s clavicle when he shudders, muscles tensing.

“Clothes off,” Taehyung pants against Jeongguk’s neck, fingers already tucked snugly into the hem of Jeongguk’s jeans, thumbs curled around his belt. “Take your clothes off.”

It’s the first time they’ve been naked in bed together since before Jeongguk was hospitalized. Now he bears down on Taehyung’s body beneath him and Taehyung takes all of him, begging for more. It’s not all that new, but some parts of it are. Taehyung doesn’t hold back, scratching red welts over the expanse of Jeongguk’s back, and kisses Jeongguk even more than he usually does when they have sex. Where Taehyung usually grabs onto Jeongguk’s shoulder when he’s pressing his cock inside, or clenches a fist in the sheets, today he curls his fingers in the hair at the nape of Jeongguk’s neck, tugging him down to kiss. He moans brokenly when Jeongguk thrusts once, testing, but still then he resolutely keeps his mouth locked on Jeongguk’s.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says again, but this time he doesn’t wait around for Jeongguk’s unlikely answer—Jeongguk’s hips jump when his cock shifts inside Taehyung, who digs his nails into the solid thickness of Jeongguk’s shoulder when he feels it, too. He flips their positions until Jeongguk is under him, lying back against the layers of hotel pillows.

“I like it better up here,” Taehyung says, adjusting himself in his seat and sinking down further so that he is buried to the hilt, and shivers when Jeongguk runs a hand up his thigh until it meets his waist. He reaches for it with his own hand, then rolls his hips, and it feels so good that Jeongguk has to drop his head back. Taehyung whimpers too, pace quickening when the slide gets easier, but Jeongguk pries his eyes open and tightens the grip of his hand in Taehyung’s, hard enough to get a pause from him.

“What—?”

But Jeongguk is pulling him in, down, until their bodies are pressed together, stomach to stomach, rib to rib. Taehyung is trembling, all of his muscles thrumming like they’re charged with electricity, as Jeongguk wraps his arms around Taehyung’s waist and buries his face in his shoulder, a little damp with sweat.

“Jeongguk,” he says, shifting his knees where they’re straddled on either side of Jeongguk’s pelvis.

“I can touch more of you this way,” Jeongguk mutters into the skin of Taehyung’s shoulder, and this close he can breathe in his scent—deep and musky, one that Jeongguk would recognize anywhere.

“Oh,” Taehyung chokes, crying out softly when Jeongguk fucks into him again, using the leverage around his waist to pull him down. He gets the message, grinding down as Jeongguk bucks up, establishing a hard rhythm between them. And it’s good, it’s so good. Taehyung comes in a mess over Jeongguk’s stomach first, propping himself up with his hands in the pillows on either side of Jeongguk’s head.

“Come on,” he whispers, as Jeongguk doesn’t break pace, “come on—come, come—”

“Taehyung—”

Jeongguk feels Taehyung press his palm right up against his heart when he does, arching hard off the pillows as his fingers tighten on Taehyung’s hips so much that he might bruise, and Jeongguk will kiss the marks better; as if he knows how sensitive Jeongguk is, Taehyung rolls his hips as he comes down from the high, then whimpers hoarsely himself when Jeongguk twitches from the overstimulation and thrusts into him again.

“Good?” Taehyung asks, leaning back down, face hovering over Jeongguk’s. The headboard is padded, as Jeongguk finds out when he lets his head fall back with a gentle thud, and smiles lazily as Taehyung kisses him, fast but damp with sweat.

“Mmhmm,” Jeongguk says. “I could go again, honestly.”

“You want to?” Taehyung asks, pulling his lip out of Jeongguk’s teeth where he’s sucking on it. He presses his hand into the pool of come he left behind on Jeongguk’s belly and seems to delight in the shiver of Jeongguk’s legs beneath him. “Let’s go again, then.”

“Really?” Jeongguk asks, feeling heat flush down his cheekbones in powder pink. “If you’re tired we can—”

“What did I say to the doctor?” Taehyung says, reaching up so he can hold Jeongguk’s face in place with a hand cupped under Jeongguk’s jaw, as if he can just sense that Jeongguk will look away in embarrassment—as if he still isn’t buried deep inside him with his own come leaking out between Taehyung’s legs and onto his thighs. “For you, I can do anything.”

 

The rain keeps up for three days straight and both of them eagerly capitalize as much as they can on the great weather, until one morning Jeongguk wakes up to blazing sunshine streaming in through the narrow slice of window they hadn’t pulled the curtains over, and he groans.

“I’ve never heard such a lackluster reaction to a sunny day,” Taehyung says, voice coming up from a little above Jeongguk’s head. As he comes to he can feel Taehyung’s fingers in his hair, their ankles linked together in the sheets.

“Sunny day means we have no excuse to stay inside,” Jeongguk mutters into his pillow, reaching up to hold Taehyung’s hand to his face. As the world slides back into focus he sees Taehyung messaging Hoseok and the words parent-teacher conference dash across the screen before he snuggles in closer to Taehyung,

“You’re right,” Taehyung says. “We should get out at some point. Go sightseeing, maybe. The tourism is rampant here and we should at least see why.”

“But if we go out I can’t put my naked body all over you,” Jeongguk says, sleepiness making him far too honest, and when he realizes what he’s said—and at Taehyung’s sudden silence, fingers stilling on his keyboard—he pulls the covers up over his head. “Shut up.”

He feels Taehyung shifting, then the sound of him putting the laptop on the nightstand reaches Jeongguk’s ears. The blankets lift up around him for a moment, cold air rushing inside the warm little cocoon Jeongguk has secured around himself, but then Taehyung is pressing against him, stomach and shoulders cold like he’s been up for a while.

“Or we can just stay in again,” he agrees, sliding an arm around Jeongguk’s waist. “If you want that so bad. Our do not disturb sign has been hanging on the knob for three days already...they must think we’re dead.”

“They must think we’re nymphos.”

“That too,” Taehyung laughs. “I just thought you might be too weak to keep going at it this much and would appreciate some air, or something.”

“Are you serious,” Jeongguk says. “I can feel your boner on my leg. You’re not fooling anyone.”

“I wasn’t about to wake you up for it, jeez. You were sleeping so nicely!”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, gathering himself up before sliding deeper down into the covers. Taehyung watches him go with a twinge of curiosity and he seems to understand after a few moments, when Jeongguk turns him onto his back with a soft hand on his hip, spreading his legs so he can settle between them.

“Wait, Jeongguk—holy shit—”

Taehyung is half-hard when Jeongguk takes his cock into his hands, thumbing expertly at the head where the precome is already leaking down the shaft—like Taehyung had been harder, earlier, for whatever reason (he smiles to himself when he realizes, hey, it’s probably because of him)—and Taehyung’s moan is muffled outside the blankets. Jeongguk takes his sweet time, working a loose hand up and down Taehyung’s cock until his hips are jerking up in search of more friction.

“Jeongguk, your mouth, your mouth,” gasps Taehyung, hand coming down on the back of Jeongguk’s head on top of the covers. “I want it.”

“Let me see you.”

Taehyung flings the covers off, the breeze ruffling Jeongguk’s bangs as he stretches up to kiss him, letting go of Taehyung’s cock. He moves away before Taehyung seems to be done with him, which is new—but Jeongguk presses a line of kisses along the column of his throat, down his sternum and belly, vividly aware of the sensation of Taehyung’s cock dragging against his own body as he goes. It leaves behind a sticky trail of pre-come, until he’s finally back where he started.

“Jeongguk—”

He takes Taehyung’s cock in his hand again, leans down torturously slow, knowing that Taehyung is watching—he glances to up to check, and Taehyung is there, propped on both elbows. Jeongguk doesn’t look at him again, not until he kisses the head and feels more than hears Taehyung’s groan.

The slice of sun falls across Taehyung’s face when he comes, hard, heels digging into Jeongguk’s back where he had draped Taehyung’s legs over his shoulders. He isn’t looking at Jeongguk anymore, panting with his head in the pillows, until he struggles back into a sitting position, reaching for Jeongguk’s hand and then his face. Jeongguk can feel some of Taehyung’s come dripping down his chin where he hadn’t been able to neatly swallow it all, and Taehyung is only too eager to kiss it off before kissing Jeongguk, sliding his arms around his neck.

“Okay,” he pants, “okay. Now you.”

 

So they spend the sunny day in, and neither Jeongguk nor Taehyung are not too beat up about it.

Taehyung falls asleep after he makes Jeongguk come, with his head on Jeongguk’s arm and one of his legs slung over Jeongguk’s knee. He sleeps like the dead for a good hour or so, because that good hour or so later Jeongguk is woken Taehyung shaking against his body. It’s not cold, though, at least he doesn’t think it is; he pulls the comforter up to Taehyung’s chin, and runs his hand down his back. His body is almost abnormally warm, and Jeongguk entertains vague ideas of a fever or nightmares when Taehyung whimpers, and says his name in his sleep.

“Jeongguk.” It’s breathed out right against the skin of his shoulder.

White-hot arousal spikes in Jeongguk’s blood but he doesn’t dare to move, not that he needs to consider the ramifications of lying here until Taehyung wakes up—in one, two heartbeats Taehyung tenses and comes all over Jeongguk, a hot rush in the sheets, and the force of his orgasm is enough to jolt him awake. For a moment he lies where he slept, disoriented and groggy, then tilts his head up to meet Jeongguk’s gaze where he’s staring at him.

“Oh,” he says. “Fuck—I’m sorry, I—”

He’s still talking when Jeongguk leans down to kiss him, but gives this relieved sigh when Jeongguk shuts him up because he probably didn’t know how to follow up coming all over his soulmate because of a wet dream. It’s pretty self explanatory, but Jeongguk pulls away and turns onto his side so that he can press his hand between Taehyung’s legs, hot and sticky.

“Looks like you had fun without me, huh,” and Taehyung’s whole body jerks with sensitivity, even when he chuckles breathlessly.

“Oh, but—ah, Jeongguk,” he swallows, when Jeongguk strokes a firm hand down his cock, slick with his come, “I was dreaming about you.”

“I sure hope you were dreaming about me,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung laughs again. “What did we do?”

Taehyung curls his hand around Jeongguk’s wrist to stop his movements, panting hard enough that Jeongguk can feel the puffs of air on his neck. “Here,” he says, flicking his gaze back up to Jeongguk’s face with mischief in his eyes. “I’ll show you.”

When Taehyung rolls over on the last night of their stay in Jeju, Jeongguk catches his hand when he reaches down in the sheets and says, “Hang on.”

Taehyung pulls away from the kiss, the tip of his nose still close enough to touch Jeongguk’s. “What’s wrong?” The look of confusion on Jeongguk’s face is worrisome.

“I think,” Jeongguk says, grip loosening. His voice is full of scared wonder, like he’s too afraid to acknowledge this for fear that it might not be real. “I think I’m full.” He looks into Taehyung’s face when Taehyung doesn’t immediately react. “Of you.”

Taehyung feels something like elation bloom in his chest. “You are?” he asks. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Jeongguk says, laughing like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. “I think feel it, I think I finally understand what it’s like. Holy shit.”

“Holy shit,” Taehyung echoes. “Is this even possible?”

“Oh my God,” Jeongguk says. “You’re killing my buzz.”

“I have to make sure!”

“I’m not insatiable,” he says. “Just—just high spectrum.”

“Aw, well,” Taehyung says, stroking his hand up Jeongguk’s belly to his chest, where he lets it rest over Jeongguk’s heart, “I kind of wanted to ride you.”

“Oh my God,” Jeongguk repeats, blushing to his eyebrows. “I mean, if you want to—if you want to, obviously I’m not turning it down—”

“Is this what it is?” Taehyung asks. “The calibration. Your needs are lowering, and mine are…?”

Jeongguk’s smile is all too big, but honestly, Taehyung wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Life reshuffles itself around the spectrum and it takes some work at first. Or rather, in both of their cases, less work—Taehyung returns to the classroom after two and a half weeks, cheering, “Guess who’s back?” and his students shout in reply “Look! Look! Hoseokie seonsaengnim’s side bae is back!”

To which Taehyung nearly faints because “Who on earth taught you guys to say that?”

His name is Jung Hunchul, as Taehyung learns. The district finally found a substitute that worked well both Hoseok and preschoolers—to absolutely no one’s surprise, because there is a telltale fading bruise on Hoseok’s temple, and at Taehyung’s desk sits a man that looks like he drags people all over the highway on the back of his motorcyle for fun. He sports a bruise on his bicep, peeking out of the sleeve of his black tshirt. He flashes a grin in Taehyung’s direction and all Hoseok can do is give him a sheepish smile until it’s nap hour.

“Are you sure he’s like, good,” Taehyung asks very seriously when the kids are asleep, Hunchul hunkering down next to a fussy student that can’t seem to settle until he does. It’s magical. “How the fuck did this even develop? He looks like a mob boss, or something.”

“Oh, because Jeongguk is a fucking sunflower when he’s not smiling,” Hoseok retorts, and for this Taehyung has no good comeback.

“Hey! He smiles all the time. Don’t be mean.”

“He only smiles for you.”

“O-oh,” Taehyung says. “Well. I suppose that is true.”

“It’s a long story,” Hoseok says. “But I promise I’ll tell you.”

But honestly, Hoseok is happy, and for Taehyung, that’s all he’s really concerned about.

Jeongguk, on the other hand, cuts his hours so that he leaves the district office even earlier that Taehyung can finish up at the preschool, and the kids all get to meet their superhero teacher’s superhero sidekick. They decide he is not quite big enough to climb all over, like Hunchul is, but a couple of them really get into the habit of leaping into his lap.

“I can tell they’re your kids,” Jeongguk mutters when two girls scramble around in his lap. “Just from the way they act.”

“You’re the man from the subway.”

One of the girls points right into Jeongguk’s face, and he blinks at her. “I’m who?” he asks.

“You’re the man who laughed on the subway once,” she says. “Were you talking to Taehyung seonsaengnim?”

Jeongguk remembers—the little girl who had startled when he’d teased Jimin. He laughs.

“No. I was talking about him, though.”

And then, one morning, Taehyung wakes up at noon in Jeongguk’s arms. It’s his favorite place in the world, but when he sees the time on the clock, he almost screams that Jeongguk is late for work.

“Mmm, quiet down, babe,” Jeongguk says, curling his arms around Taehyung more securely in response. “I have Saturdays off now.”

“You—wait, what?”

“I have Saturdays off now,” Jeongguk says, cracking open an eye where Taehyung is half-risen out of bed. “So I’m all yours.”

“Really?” Taehyung whispers.

“Yes, really. Boss said he saw too much of my tired face around the office anyway and that he’d write me a glowing letter of recommendation whenever I needed it and that Jaeho could—” He yawns, “—take his perfect attendance boner and shove it up his ass.”

“...your boss said this?”

“He’s cool guy.”

“He sounds like a cool guy,” Taehyung says, settling back down to curl up in Jeongguk’s chest. But now that he’s awake his brain is working a mile a minute. After a while, when Jeongguk might have fallen asleep again judging from the rhythm of his breaths, he says, “Jeongguk?”

“Mm,” he grunts, a rumble in his chest.

“Why do you think you’re high spectrum?”

Jeongguk doesn’t answer, but the silence is thoughtful rather than sleepy. “Should I tell you?” he contemplates aloud.

“Of course you should! I want to know how two people like us so not made for each other—were made for each other.”

“I asked the doctor when you were gone,” Jeongguk admits, and he sounds embarrassed. “And the truth is, before you, I didn’t like touching anyone. I wasn’t too hot about hugs or standing close together with arms around each other for the office holiday picture. So when I met you, it was like—it was like all those years catching up to me and now I—” He clear his throat awkwardly. “Can’t get enough of you, or whatever.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says. He’s pretty sure he likes his answer. “Well, you know how I feel about you.”

“Hm?” Jeongguk laughs. “Do I, now?”

“Of course you do,” Taehyung murmurs against Jeongguk’s collarbone, kissing the dip at the base of his throat. And Jeongguk doesn’t press him for more, even though Taehyung wouldn’t mind. He simply sighs, contentedly, against Taehyung’s cheek, heart beating quiet in reply between them—I do, I do, I do.

✖ epilogue: dopamine ✖

Here is a little known truth about love that more people should know.

The perfect person for you isn’t the one that takes your breath away. They don’t make your stomach twist in thick, tight knots. The person best for you doesn’t feel like exhilaration, they don’t feel like the wild ride strapped into a roller coaster. They’re not fireworks. They’re not earthquakes. They are not lights in your eyes or giggles in your mouth.

The person best for you is the one that gives you back the breath that you’ve been struggling to catch all your life, when you didn’t even know you were drowning. The person best for you feels like getting into bed after a long day knowing that you can sleep in until noon. They’re the settling of your stomach after it’s been yowling for food all morning. They are the lingering smell of tangerines leftover on your fingertips. They are crushed velvet and chenille. They are warmth on your back when a fever wracks you with chills.

But this is not A Love Story. Because, somehow, somewhere, love stories follow an implicit yet curiously strict guidebook of rules—that because two people come together, meet each other, they are destined to fall in love. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe they have walked across starlight and galaxies to find other.

Sometimes Jeongguk will look at Taehyung, and he sees someone that he loves—and yet, by saying that, it feels as if he is trying to map out an entire universe by describing only a single planet. On those days he is quiet, quieter than usual, enough that Taehyung will notice and press his fingers to warm thrum of Jeongguk’s heart in his chest.

“Think louder,” he says, and Jeongguk’s smile is infinitesimal, a brush of petals on his lips. “I don’t think the neighbors can hear you.”

“And they hear enough, huh? Considerate of you.”

“When you think loudly,” Taehyung says, playing the piano across Jeongguk’s ribs, “I get worried.”

“Why?”

“We all know what it looks like when you think loudly and say nothing.”

“It’s nothing,” Jeongguk promises. “This time I promise it’s nothing.”

“Well,” Taehyung says, withdrawing his touch, “if you insist.”

Jeongguk reaches out slightly as Taehyung pulls away, when he’s not looking, but lets his hand drop. But Taehyung is right. He does think with sparks at his temples with nothing to show for it on his tongue.

“Taehyung?”

“I knew it.”

“Don’t gloat, or I won’t say it.”

“Aw, tell me!”

“Never...never mind.”

“What, no fair! Tell me.”

“Hmm.” Jeongguk smiles lazily against Taehyung’s temple. “I’ll save it for later.”

“You’re mean, and I dislike you.”

But there is no bite to his words. Later, when Jeongguk is sure Taehyung is asleep, slumbering with his head tucked snugly in the curve of Jeongguk’s neck, he presses the words into Taehyung’s hair. Quiet, soft, too honest.

Perhaps one day Taehyung will hear them when he is awake. But for now, Jeongguk thinks, as he feels the slightest tightening of Taehyung’s arm around his waist—for now, he’ll let them swim, in the rumpled fabric between them.