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Everything starts with something small, Yoongi thinks. When he was seven, his mother gave him these cool little toy cars for Christmas. They weren't like those expensive remote-controlled cars he saw in the toy shops in the city, or like those elaborately designed robots that he'd been ogling for months already – no. They were cute, small. He could fit two toy cars in his palm and imagine one was an autobot and the other was a decepticon, if he wanted to. He’d have them battle each other until he got bored or decided that peace wasn’t such a bad thing, when you only had two good toys with you. Sometimes, two different cars could co-exist. And sometimes, peace also meant ‘fun’.

He’d use those toy cars of his to survive morning classes for the next few years. Because of that, he still had enough energy to power through Math and Science in the afternoon. Then when he got home, his brother would greet him with a big smile and an invitation to play until bedtime. Or at least until their mother caught them still playing in their room, under the blankets with only the flashlight to illuminate their little toy world. Those were some of the best years of his life. Those were also some of the last years that his brother would play with him until his brother became ‘too cool’ for kids like him.

A few years after, he'd fall in love the same way with hip-hop, after his music player ran out of battery and gave out for good. He had to make do with the sound that spilled from the earplugs of the guy beside him in the bus, had to resist the urge not lean closer because hey, that's pretty good. The same day, he'd discover his eyesight was already shitty because he couldn't read the text on the man's music player anymore, but he was able to make out the cover art for the song. Then he'd learn that the artist was Epik High, and the song was called 'Love, Love, Love,' and that he actually had a talent for making rhymes after trying to write a 'sequel' to the song and rapping it mindlessly on his way to school the following day.

Small things – everything starts with small things, like him bumping into a kid on his way to cram school, and the kid calling him out for being clumsy, for not minding his surroundings. For damaging that 'magical thing' in that big bag of his that 'contained all the secrets to ending the war and achieving world peace.'

"It's just a racket," Yoongi had said then, when the kid waved his racket overhead like he was summoning some... beast or otherworldly force with it.

The kid snarled at him, narrowed his eyes. Leaned close until Yoongi could already catch the faint scent of the sun in the kid's hair and the kiss of warmth in the kid's skin. "It's not just a racket. It's my racket."

Whatever, he mused. Then he shrugged, snorted, laughed a little when the kid moved even closer. He could count the freckles on the kid's cheeks if he wanted to, but it was three in the afternoon and the sun was shining brightly and it was washing them out. "Okay, sorry. It's your racket. Cool."

The kid took a step forward, narrowing his eyes even more like he'd made it a mission to draw his eyes into slits, then pulled away with a frown. "You'll see me on TV someday, just you wait!" said the kid, then slipped the racket back into the plastic cover that it was in earlier. Yoongi watched in morbid fascination as the kid huffed and growled at him but still kept his hold on the racket light, cautious. It was almost as if he was holding a baby. "And you'll be my biggest fan and you'd be nothing and–"

"And your parents are here, I think?" Yoongi muttered under his breath. The kid widened his eyes, leaned back little by little like he was saying, Oh, come on! You're kidding, right? The kid gulped hard at the sound of the car horn. It reminded Yoongi of his mother.

"I dunno, might be someone else's. But anyway–" Yoongi cracked his neck, then walked past the kid. The sentence felt weird in his throat, trailing off just like that, but he still pressed on. Made sure to not to bump into the kid's bag anymore (it hurt the first time it happened, like learning he had to wait an entire year until Epik High's new album) and kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Cram school wasn't too far from home, but he still needed to take the train to his province and go through his lessons for the day. He needed to get a good grade for the college exams and get into a good school and build a better life for himself, by himself. He couldn't afford to be a fuck up. Not anymore.

So he studied hard, stayed in his little study corner near cram school and aimed to finish reading at least five chapters of his textbook. He pulled up Naver and typed the word 'racket' on the search bar. He spent the next ten minutes going through pictures so he could find a racket that looked a lot like the one the kid was holding, then the next fifteen watching all sorts of videos related to a sport called 'tennis'. And he found himself staying wide awake even as he flipped through the pages of his Science textbook, as he read through one chapter, two, three, while watching matches out of the corner of his eye.

Within the next month, he'd pick out his favorites among the vast number of players. The month after, he'd attempt to catch the matches live on the sports channel on TV and wouldn't go to bed until they were over (and the French Open matches went on for hours). The same year, he'd save up for his first ever tennis racket – a secondhand that he got from a kind old man in one of the sports shops in the city. He had to skip on late-night odeng and tteokbokki for that. He had to skip on certain pleasures to be able to afford this one luxury that he never knew he wanted until he bumped into that kid.

Then, after a year of playing on his own, in those few pockets of time when he could afford to put down his textbooks and just play, a man approached him and told him that his footwork was a bit problematic, needed to be corrected. "Your forehand's really good, though. Love the varying spins every few shots. It makes reading the direction the ball's heading in a bit more difficult."

Yoongi furrowed his eyebrows, blinked a few times, then tightened his hold on his racket. Another use for it that he'd discovered along the way? It was a great tool for warding off strange people who talked more than they breathed. "I... just play for fun? Haven't played against anything but a wall?" he answered after a while, then scratched the back of his head. He grimaced at the feeling of sweat sticking to the pads of his fingers. He just wouldn't learn. "But thanks, I guess. I–"

"You could be winning titles if you received proper training,” said the tall, weird guy. He had the build of a tennis player, Yoongi mused, had the stance of a player who had already won championships left and right. He gave off this... John Isner vibe. Or was it Richard Gasquet? He'd never been good at names outside his favorites. Agassi's name was the song that gave him the most peace and contentment in his life. That's what's important. "You have a grace in your play that some players don't have."

And the man sounded like he was completely sure of what he was saying. It made Yoongi want to... either shuffle to a corner and say, Hah! The wall makes me look like a legitimate player! or to laugh in that awkward tone of his and mumble, Uh, thanks. But I don't have money for training and the strings of my racket are about to give out and–

"How do you feel about training with Kim Junsu?" asked the man. Yoongi blinked a few times, cocked an eyebrow at the man then coaxed it back down when he realized what he'd just done. "You know him, right? Korea's top player at the moment? The first Asian to reach the top five in years–"

"Because Michael Chang doesn't count," Yoongi mumbled. He blew at his bangs, then took a deep, shaky breath. "He was registered in the U.S. so Kim Junsu-ssi is the first Asian to break into the top ten and also the first Korean to ever win two Grand Slams in a row–"

"–in the French Open and in Wimbledon, yes," the man continued. His voice dropped to a whisper, but the gentle quiver of his lips pulled up into a small smile. Yoongi's stomach lurched. He's dead sure he's not hungry, though. "So, is that a yes?"

Yoongi sucked in his bottom lip and bit the inside of his cheek. Making training – training, not playing on the courts, against a wall, and hoping someone would walk by and decide to join him so he wouldn't be stuck bouncing a ball off an inanimate object – a constant in his life would probably be the biggest commitment he would ever make next to being enrolled in cram school for an entire year, but it didn't feel as daunting as any of his responsibilities. It didn't feel like having to sign a contract – though he might have to; he was positive he had to. It didn't feel like a burden. If anything, it made his insides turn and made the steady pulse at the back of his ears scream in a thundering beat. He would be lying if he said he wasn't nervous, but 'nervous' wasn't 'afraid'. 'Nervous' was for people who could still see a bit of light in the darkness even with a vision clouded with fear. 'Afraid' was for people who'd already given up even before they were asked, "I thought you were already in the courts? Drills started five minutes ago. What are you doing here?"

Yoongi's body gives a powerful jerk and his eyes fly wide open. He sucks in a rattling breath when he sees Junsu's towering figure, when he sees his coach with his arms crossed over his chest, when he sees Junsu cock an eyebrow at him before saying, "So? Do I have to drag you to the courts or will you get your ass moving right now?" I just have to stop taking trips down memory lane, hyung, Yoongi's tempted to answer, but he knows better than to use his words at 7 a.m.. He and the morning have never been the best of friends, after all. If anything, mornings are his worst nightmare.

So instead, he offers Junsu a curt nod and dashes to his locker to grab his racket. He wraps his fingers around the handle, strums the strings before plucking them with his other, then swings it from left to right. Years ago, he would have been afraid of getting too rough with his racket, with even touching the strings, but that's all in the past. Now, he’s twenty, no longer the kid who was uncertain about a lot of things that weren't tennis. He's been training with Kim Junsu for years now, and has long stopped playing against a wall unless he absolutely had to practice his strokes alone. And he's just come from a strong semi-finals finish in the Australian Open early in the year, suffering his first straight sets loss to up and coming tennis player Kei Nishikori. He's no longer that kid who couldn't even tell the continental grip from the western grip. He's Min Yoongi, and he's been making a steady climb to the top thirty since the start of the year.

"Yoongi. Court. Now," Junsu warns him, but the smile tugging up at the corners of his mouth isn't lying. So Yoongi takes a risk this time, gives Junsu a gentle pat on the ass with his racket, and heads out into the courts.

He tightens his grip on his racket, ready to play.

 

 

In Yoongi's opinion, Monday morning trainings are always the most difficult to deal with. There's still the allure of the weekend draped on his back, coaxing him to go back to sleep, but there's also the reality that the sooner he finishes all his scheduled drills for the day and his new training program for the pre-season tournaments, the sooner he gets home. Sure, he still has a truckload of assignments to work on before he can dive into his bed and dream of defeating Andre Agassi, but there's something about just being in the comforts of his home that makes him feel at ease. He likes the adrenaline rush from hearing the squeaking of shoes against the hard court and the gentle 'thud' of the balls on the surface. He raps to the same beat at the back of his mind everytime he goes out to play. But from time to time he just wants to sit back and enjoy the humming of his air conditioning back at home. Or Junsu's fitful snores piercing through the walls keeping them apart. They're strangely calming at times.

Until he recalls that he has at least two papers due a week from now, at least. He has enough time to work on them – and he works fast, he really does – but he can't take risks. With the ATP 500s and a couple more local tournaments that Junsu wants him, along with the other 'senior' players, to compete in just around the corner, he'll have to take a chunk of either time for work or for school to study the techniques of players in his bracket, to find ways to counter them and to come out at the top. To find holes in his play even before his opponents can get to them so that he can clean up his game and attempt to win a title or two. To make Junsu proud.

"You keep dragging your foot when you're approaching the net. If you want to do serve and volley, really do serve and volley, then you've got to stop limping on court," he hears Hoseok saying, voice peppered with little crackles as he goes along. He looks over his shoulder, then, cocking an eyebrow at Hoseok when Hoseok tries to flash his pearly whites at him. "Hey, don't give me that face. Frown at your friend here who keeps screwing up his net play. I've been hitting drops like a pro while I'm sick and he's been half-assing net training–"

"Excuse me, I've been working hard," Namjoon agues. His eyebrows are pulled together in a light furrow and his mouth is twisted in a small frown, but the fire in his eyes that has come to a sizzle speaks volumes of what he really wants to say. He turns to Yoongi then, and adds, "I think I have to focus on how to switch grips after service. Running to the net right after the stroke just... fucks up my rhythm."

Yoongi laughs a little. He was like that the first month that he spent training outside the public courts and actually playing with another human and not a wall. He was just a rookie then, still unaware of how to make shots instead of just hitting balls. The first week of training, he'd discovered that he was most comfortable playing from the baseline and hitting groundstrokes. He could pick up balls on the rise, just when they've lifted off the ground, but his grip was still weak then. Feeble. One time, he almost dropped his racket after taking a really heavy serve from Minho, Junsu's assistant coach. Junsu didn't frown at him, but the worry scrawled all over Junsu's furrowed eyebrows and his slightly parted lips were enough to make Yoongi feel like he'd fucked up something as easy and simple as returning a serve.

"It's not easy. It will never be easy," Junsu told him one time. Then, Junsu gripped him by the arm and gave him a gentle squeeze. "This is why we always train, sunrise 'til sunset. We will never be able to perfect shots. We're not... gods or anything. We're players. And as players, we have to strive to improve all the time. So pick up your racket now, c'mon, and get back to court. You serve and I'll receive. Watch me closely. Feel the weight of the ball, the spin when it hits your racket. Process all those information then think how you – not me, because we have different styles – can return the ball easily. I'm just your textbook, Yoongi. I’m a guide. But I’m not you. This is your game. Everything is up to you."

"Twist your wrist a bit. Thumb facing up, don't forget," Yoongi replies, then reaches out to give Namjoon a light pat on the arm. Namjoon scoffs in response, even shakes his head, but he mouths a thank you at Yoongi, anyway. To Hoseok, he says, "Y'know what? You two would make quite a nice doubles team. You're shit when playing from the baseline and Namjoon's pretty decent with groundstrokes. You're okay with net play and he sucks at it a hundred percent, so–"

"So you're saying they can learn from each other and improve each other's play, yes?" comes a voice from behind, bright and loud like the sound of a whistle. The corners of Yoongi's mouth pull up into a tight-lipped smile on impulse. His limbs shake a little in fear. Then the man's resting his warm hands on Yoongi's shoulders before sliding them down his arms to give him... a pinch. Yoongi bites the inside of his cheek to keep a smile from sprawling across his lips. "What did I say about using foul words in court, hmm? What did I say about observing ATP regulations during practice and as long as you're here, breathing the air in my territory?"

You told us to 'fucking follow them at all costs,' Yoongi wants to say, wants to quote from a drunken conversation a few years ago, but he's positive Junsu won't remember. Or at least Junsu will do a bloody good job at denying he'd done such a thing, then flash his best smile at everyone like he knows nothing about being bad. Off-court, Junsu has to be one of the kindest, goofiest, craziest people Yoongi has met, but have Junsu take center court in his best tennis outfit and he turns into a platoon master, a station commander. John McEnroe minus the foul mouth and two times the temper. Amelie Mauresmo when it comes to exercising training discipline and being strict. Yoongi's worst nightmare. Still, Yoongi rests his hands atop Junsu's own and makes sure to rub small circles on the back of Junsu's hands. This isn't an apology, not even an admission of what he's done, but in the years that he's spent living with Junsu, acting like Junsu's 'son' or best friend, depending on Junsu's mood, he's come to learn that the best way to pacify Junsu is through touch. The slightest brush of the fingers against skin, a gentle caress. A squeeze of the hand to let Junsu know that yes, he understands that what he did was wrong and he'll try to not do it again. Operative term: try.

"Sorry," Yoongi whispers after a while, then gives Junsu's hands another squeeze. Sorry for not respecting you and the sport, he means to say, but the creaking of the door snatches his attention and makes him flinch just a little. He drops his hands to his sides and looks over his shoulder, looking past the ghost of a smile lighting up Junsu's features and– Huh. He lifts his eyebrows when the image of a man comes into focus, then furrows them a little when he sees the man waving in their direction. Rather, in Junsu's direction.

"You know him?" Yoongi asks, leaning back to see Junsu better. The faint smile on Junsu's lips has bloomed into something bigger now, not one of his shit-eating grins but not one of his 'corporate smiles', either. It sails comfortably between the two, and if years of knowing Junsu are anything to go by then Yoongi knows this can only mean one thing. "New blood?"

"Come on, you make it sound like this place is a battlefield," Junsu mutters. His mouth is twisted to the side, like he'd just taken a really heavy service to the cheek, 250 miles per hour. Yoongi had been on the receiving end of one before, except to the gut, and he had to sit out the next match until he could feel his stomach again. It was that bad. But Junsu made it seem like he was enjoying countering Yoongi even through that wicked grin plastered on his lips. "We're a family here, right? We cheer each other on. We motivate each other. We live in a community filled with love–"

–and competition, and challenges, and the thirst to win, Yoongi continues in his head. He swallows hard, pushing the words further down until he can't feel them clawing at his throat anymore, demanding attention. Every training session, every match, every day he spends in the courts feels a lot like marching to battle without any certainty of victory. It scares him a little, maybe freaks him out on really bad days, but for the most part it keeps him driven. It keeps him on track. It reminds him of that incident close to a decade ago when he didn't think he'd ever feel his arms again until he realized he was packing his things in three duffel bags in lightning speed and running to Junsu's place faster that he can even tell his mother, I'm done.

You're done with that. Stop relapsing, he tells himself. With a deep breath, he refocuses his vision and looks straight into Junsu's eyes as he says, "Yeah, we love beating the... living daylights out of each other. It's our way of making each other realize the many things we can improve on–"

"You sound like you're reading a manual on being kind. It sounds weird," Namjoon whispers in his ear. When he snorts in response, Namjoon digs his elbow in his side and twists it there until he's letting out a small yelp. "Okay, manual writer, time to practice your How To Be Kind To Noobs In Three Easy Steps write up."

Yoongi offers his friend a wry smile, but coaxes the corners of his mouth to pull up, anyway. "Gimme your copy later and I'll sign it. You want hearts on that?"

"Nah, I'm good," Namjoon whispers, then finishes with a wink. Across them, Hoseok's already engaging the 'noob' in conversation, the words tripping from his lips coming to him more naturally that the smile making his cheeks tremble. "Or maybe you can sign my chest as your ultimate fan. Yeah, that'd be much, much better–"

The last warning is a pinch in his side – Yoongi feels this when he takes a bit longer than expected to face front and acknowledge the presence of Junsu's guest. He shivers for a quick second then he's back, breathing out as he takes in every bit of detail on the man's features. The newcomer's face is... small, sort of. Smaller than the face of a junior's racket, or close to sticking five, six balls in a tight circle. Like if Yoongi brought his hands together, attached at the sides, he'd already be able to cover the newcomer's little face. His eyes are sharp, though, focused, and his eyebrows are furrowed in a way that Yoongi feels the man's studying them instead of things supposedly being the other way around. It makes Yoongi's insides turn a little, makes his throat feel unbearably tight that he has to cough the feeling out to ease the crippling sensation. And it makes him clear his throat when he feels the sensation hang around for a second longer.

"You should get that checked," says the newcomer just as soon as the last of Yoongi's coughing drops down to a loud exhale. He presses his lips together, the corners pulling up in the slowest, most torturous curl, and for a moment Yoongi considers asking, what are you smiling at? It's rude, though, and he knows better than to humiliate Junsu in front of fresh blood. "Coach mentioned you guys preparing for Dubai 500s, so..." The newcomer scratches at his throat, then twists his mouth. "Wouldn't want to go into the tournament sick, right?"

"Yeah, of course," Yoongi mumbles in response. He still keeps the smile on his lips, though. It feels a lot like having tug at the corners of his mouth for minutes on end. Then, remembering protocol, he wipes his hand on his shirt and sticks it out. "Min Yoongi," he says, voice no longer cracking, then extends his hand even more when the newcomer only stares at it. "Pretty sure hyung saw something special in you. Every single player he's brought here has made a name in the Asian tennis scene. Total ATP's next, of course, but–"

"Baby steps, of course," says the man. His voice trails off into a chuckle, and only then does Yoongi notice the little dimples on the man's cheeks. This guy can probably be the shittiest player on court yet still get endorsements. He won't be surprised if he sees the guy's face on the next Rolex ad or something. Or maybe an endorsement from SPAO for their sports collection. That's more feasible. And competition of that sort should be the least of his concerns. "But yeah, thanks," he continues, then slips his hand in Yoongi's own. His palm is soft, warm. And Yoongi can feel the man's mattering pulse against his skin. The body never lies. "That really means a lot."

"He makes really nice topspins with his forehand," Junsu offers, then rests a hand on the newcomer's shoulder. He gives it a light squeeze, just enough to startle light laughter out of the man, but not enough to make the man wince. "You'll have to know when to use your backhand instead of stepping to the side to return with a forehand, though. Every second you take getting to the perfect position delays you from getting to the ball at the right time. Yoongi here can help you with backhand training–" He turns to Yoongi with a focused gaze and a small smile on his lips that Yoongi knows can only mean one thing. "An hour everyday after your normal drills should improve your backhand in a two weeks to a month. What's important is that you get a feel of how it's supposed to be done so that your body can get accustomed to how and when to execute perfect shots."

You could be winning titles if you receive proper training, Yoongi recalls Minho telling him years ago, one fine Tuesday evening after his first part-time work in Lotteria. He'd serviced the worst clients that time and needed something that could help him cool down, relax. Something that could help him breathe easier. So he turned to tennis, and tennis took him in with open arms.

And here he is now, telling Junsu, "Yeah, an hour a day should do it." Out of a corner of his eye, he sees Hoseok's shoulders making these little jumps that he can only interpret as Hoseok laughing at him and screaming, Baby-sitting duties! "Hobi can do net play training, as well, if this… guy–"

"Seokjin. Kim Seokjin," the newcomer says. Clearing his throat, he adds, "Any kind of training would be great, to be honest? I mean, the last time I really trained was when I was... ten, I think? Or younger? It's been too long, I’ve probably already forgotten some techniques."

He's fishing for compliments. Don't bite the bait, a voice at the back of his mind says. Yoongi pushes that further back until he can hear nothing but static in his head. He's grateful for that sometimes, having the ability to not hear anything or think of anything at all. It feels a lot like a breath of fresh air after having to play match upon match upon match, with only the court changes in between tiebreakers as his rest. It feels... comforting. "Gotta relearn them, then."

Seokjin arches an eyebrow at him. It isn't anything big, just a gentle lift of the eyebrow that Yoongi might just be making up in his head, but he's built his career around reading body language. He knows when someone's bluffing a heavy forehand and is actually planning to go for a drop shot, knows when someone's simply returning a smash with a backhand to slow down the ball somehow and not aiming to finish a rally by aiming a shot to the corners. And he knows what the slight tilt of Seokjin's head and the widening smile on Seokjin's lips mean as Seokjin says, "Definitely. Gotta go back to the basics!"

Seokjin's voice cracks. Yoongi tries not to grin, tries to be civil, and wins the argument against impulse at the back of his mind when he responds with a curt nod. Seokjin hasn't looked away yet, hasn't shifted his gaze to Namjoon and Hoseok who are inching closer, so Yoongi meets him in the eye, head on, letting a wicked grin surface on his lips as he says, enunciates, "Definitely. It should be fun."

 

 

For all of Yoongi's discomfort with throwing away compliments like handing candies to kids, he has to admit that Seokjin isn't as bad at the sport as Seokjin had made himself seem. Seokjin makes bad reads from time to time and fails to anticipate the most predictable of plays sometimes, but for the most part his shotmaking is nice and clean. He can aim swift and accurate forehands to the corners of the court. He can return smashes with an easy swing of the racket and can catch some opponents off-guard with the power of his backhand. His volleys aren't half-bad either. Part of Yoongi wants to think that Namjoon is just really bad at attempting to secure points by the net, but he knows that absolute control over the power of one's strokes is important in making volleys. You're closer to the net, closer to where the ball can catch on the tape and fall to your side. Just a step away from making the mistake of adding too much power to your swing and making the ball land outside the singles court. And Seokjin seems to have all his calculations memorized, written on the back of his hand, burning at the back of his eyelids.

Yoongi leans back against the railing of the courts, then wipes the sweat on his upper lip with his wrist band. When Seokjin fails to return Hoseok's drop shot in time, he presses the band closer to his mouth and grins.

"His backhand's improved a lot," Namjoon says as he approaches. He grunts a little, yawns, stretches his arms overhead, then bumps his hip against Yoongi's own to make space for himself. They're both sweaty and sticky and any form of contact is supposed to be gross, but this is Namjoon. Namjoon who doesn't leave until he's made sure that all the junior players have been picked up by their parents, Namjoon who, for all of his inability to keep his energy levels high outside the courts, just lets Hoseok talk about anything and everything until Hoseok realizes that he's spent way too much time and energy just talking about his strategy for his upcoming match. Yoongi knows this man, can close his eyes and still recognize Namjoon's footsteps even with the noise of rubber shoes squeaking all around them. Namjoon's the kind of person Yoongi can turn to at the end of a long, tiring, and challenging day at practice as he whispers, I'm tired. And Namjoon wouldn't prod, would just hand Yoongi a bottle of Gatorade in his favorite flavor, and stay by Yoongi's side until Yoongi decided that it was already too late in the evening to be feeling down. "He's hitting three out of five shots now, compared to the one out of five–"

"You're talking about yourself, right?" Yoongi teases, then twists his elbow in Namjoon's side. Namjoon scowls in response, but the smile on his lips isn't lying. Pain doesn't look like eyes slowly turning into half-moon crescents, or the corners of his mouth pulling up in a violent tug. Yoongi knows what pain looks like, and he's a hundred percent sure it isn't the look on Namjoon's face. "How's net training coming along? Any luck with the drops?"

"Don't change the subject." Namjoon narrows his eyes at Yoongi. Yoongi only cocks an eyebrow at him, then takes a step back when he sees Namjoon curling his fingers into a small fist. No way in hell is he getting hit with that when Namjoon can dish out 250 kph serves with relative ease. "So, how's the kid been doing so far? On track with the training sked?"

Way ahead of schedule, Yoongi almost says, but instead he goes with, "He's alright." The week before, Seokjin finally stopped half-assing his backhand stance and began to assume the proper footwork whenever he was about to receive a shot to his left. A few days after that, he'd worked on making his backhand shots stronger, sharper. It came at the cost of long preparation time and leaving the other side of the court open, but Seokjin was a pretty fast runner, as well. Sure, he still couldn't return most of Hoseok's impossible drop shots but, in time and with lots of training, Yoongi's sure that Seokjin might just be able to startle Hoseok and hit back with a drop of his own. "I mean, if we're talking about ratio of shots to strokes then I'd say he hits about... six out of eight groundstrokes? Better than your five–"

"Stop it." Namjoon laughs a little. "I know you've been obsessing over my play for years, but your man crush on me is ridiculous."

Yoongi swallows, long and hard, then snorts. 'Man crushes' are normal, he supposes. Murray and Federer have complimented each other before, even going out to say that the other's hair is really nice and fluffy. And bouncy. That's got to be normal in sports books. And besides, "I have better taste. You just happen to be blocking my view every time I try to watch other players–"

"Ah, so you're a professional stalker!" Namjoon laughs a bit too hard this time, almost leaning back too much and falling to the other side of the railing. For a second, Yoongi's tempted to push him off just as revenge, but he's not as heartless as people think he is. His being evil stops as soon as he steps outside the white lines of the court. He knows his boundaries. And this – him grabbing Namjoon by the front of his shirt instead of steadying Namjoon with a palm flat on his thigh and a hand on the small of Namjoon’s back is proof of that. "With crazy fast reflexes– Y'know, you really have to teach me how to switch gears after serving. I know net play isn't always necessary but I've got to change up things somehow, y’know?"

Yoongi breathes out. It sounds like a huff, but Namjoon's too distracted with regaining his balance to care. And he belatedly realizes that he's been too cooped up in his thoughts earlier to notice the heavy thumping in his chest, the thundering pulse at the base of his throat. He could've cracked his skull. You were just worried, he tells himself, but it still takes longer than usual to even out his breathing, to coax the racing in his chest to slow down. He withdraws his hand from where they're fisted in Namjoon's shirt, then, ready to slip them back in the pockets of his tennis shorts, but soon he's hearing a loud groan coming from a court nearby.

"He missed another smash, " Yoongi mutters when he catches Seokjin talking to his racket – or is he talking to himself? It doesn't really matter anymore; if Seokjin's just begun hitting his head with the tightly-woven strings of his racket then he's definitely gone loco. Still, Yoongi remains where he is, head tilted just a little and eyes squinted as he tries to make out the movement of Seokjin's lips. It looks a lot like, It's just a smash, Jin. Just a smash. Who even misses smashes these days? "Yeah, who does?"

"Does what?"

"Who even misses–" Feeling Namjoon's curious gaze on him, he looks to his side and meets his friend in the eye. Namjoon's eyebrows are furrowed in a loose knot, and his lips are pressed into a thin, thin line. And he looks like he's seconds away from repeating his question, so Yoongi answers even before his words can get the better of him, "–smashes these days." His voice trails off to a whisper. He rubs the underside of his nose and sniffles a little, then shifts his gaze back to the match unfolding in front of them. If Seokjin ever caught him sniffing, he'd never hear the end of Seokjin's go see a doctor for that speech. Then Seokjin would let Junsu know, and Junsu would drag him to the doctor's unless he put up a really good fight. And he'd be wasting too much time just waiting for his doctor to arrive and try to save his problematic nose. "I mean, he's been doing smash practice for a week now and he still makes the same mistake every single time. It's not even a case of not having skill anymore. He's proven that already: he's a good player. He's smart. He knows how to conserve his energy and when. His body's just... very stubborn."

Namjoon lifts his eyebrows. His lips are parted in a small, small 'o', just enough that air and strings of sentences can freely flow between them. Like a comment on how Yoongi's been watching this fresh blood too much and too long for him to be able to make all these observations on Seokjin, or a remark about finally accepting Seokjin as someone who can rival him someday. Yoongi gets none of those, though. Namjoon stays eerily silent, the small smile on his lips speaking loudly, instead. "Maybe he's just not comfortable hitting overhead shots while moving around?"

"It's just serving while running," Yoongi groans. He doesn't even know why he's mulling over this. He just knows that the disgruntled look on Seokjin's features makes his insides turn. Then again, he's always felt uncomfortable watching people deal with frustration. He's seen that look on his face too many times when he was much, much younger. It wasn't a good look on him, and it never will be. "And serving is basic. You can't go into matches not knowing how to serve properly."

"He's a pretty shitty server, though," Namjoon mumbles in response. The smile on his lips has tugged down to a frown, but it's more sympathetic than anything else. Not an aww, that poor thing kind of frown, but one Yoongi recalls seeing on Namjoon when Hoseok suddenly stopped doing net approaches. Later, they'd discover that Hoseok was actually nursing a bad knee injury. Later, they'd realize that they weren't teenagers rushing to the net to hold up a trophy anymore. They'd already gotten old. They were already worn out. They were tired. "He gets some nice kick serves in from time to time but man–" Namjoon shakes his head. "You've gotta call him out on that. His swing timing's awful. That can be bad for his arm."

"Yeah, point," Yoongi answers. He leans back against the railing and seethes when he feels the stinging heat of the sun press to his skin. "But it's not just his timing, I think. Just– Study his face as he serves–" He sucks in a deep, violent breath as Seokjin tosses a ball into the air one more time. The ball toss is nice, perfect, at a good distance from Seokjin's body that he can easily do any of the three common serves – a flat, a slice, or a kick serve – depending on his mood. And Seokjin's body reacts to the toss in a blink of an eye, back arching as he tilts his head up to face the ball. So it's not in the stance, not in the way Seokjin pulls his arm back in preparation for the hit, not in the way Seokjin bends his knees so he can propel himself up for added power to the serve.

It's the way Seokjin's eyes go blank all of a sudden, like he's being transported somewhere, elsewhere, to a place he doesn't want to be in if the way he widens his eyes as soon as he surfaces is any indicator of that. It's in the way Seokjin swings his arm a bit too late because he's been busy evening out his breathing, too caught up in whatever vision that has just struck him. And it's in the way Seokjin lets out a big sigh of relief when he manages to make contact with the ball and send it zooming past the opponent on the other side. The ball hits the singles line at the back before bouncing to the left, earning him a point and a reason to smile.

"He looked a bit... unsure back there, I think?" Namjoon comments. He cocks his head in Seokjin's direction when Seokjin begins to engage his opponent in a rally, aiming sharp forehands that inch closer to the lines with every hit. The opponent answers with a lob, sending the ball arching too high, and Yoongi holds his breath as he watches the ball hang seemingly suspended in the air. Timing is key, kid, a voice at the back of his mind says. Don't hit it yet. Wait for the right moment to strike– "I get the bit about transitioning from one pose to another being really tricky. I hate that. Leaves you open for a split second. And you know good opponents – they'll make full use of that small window of opportunity to–"

"You're just too lazy to move around," Yoongi whispers in thoughtless retaliation.

Namjoon twists his elbow in Yoongi's side. After a beat, he answers, "Not lazy," then pauses in time for Yoongi to meet him in the eye. "Just a bit scared."

Namjoon's face is unreadable. Or maybe Yoongi's just trying too hard to make sense of things, but it's becoming difficult having his attention split between dissecting Namjoon's words and Seokjin's play. He files the look on Namjoon's features for later, then, and breathes out, curling his hands into tight fists until he can feel his fingers again.

Later, Junsu rounds everyone up and tells them that they'll be doing doubles matches to maximize playing time on court. "And just so nobody gets left out – yes, Hobi, we're 'ohana' – or slacks off. Best of three, now, everyone. No tiebreakers in the third. Clear?" He gives the group a quick, assessing look, then begins to call out names. "Sungjong and Howon versus Woohyun and Kibum. Not the Kibum with fluffy hair– I meant opal hair Kibum." He cranes his neck, then nods at someone in the far back. "Sungyeol and Dongwoo versus Sunggyu and... please make sure Myungsoo's awake in time for the match. I'm giving everyone fifteen minutes to warm up. Just fifteen minutes!"

Fifteen minutes means five minutes of trying to work out doubles dynamic with Namjoon, then the remaining ten for warm up. Seokjin's been serving better in the past seven, eight minutes that they've been hitting balls, but Yoongi can still see a bit of hesitation, fear, in the stutter of Seokjin's swing. Don't show your weaknesses, he wants to say, wants to remind Seokjin, but then they're opponents in this match. They're not co-trainees being groomed by Junsu to become the next Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras or Roger Federer; they are Min Yoongi and Kim Seokjin, two players who are striving to become the best possible version of themselves with the help of their doubles partners for this match.

"Heads?" Seokjin asks when they meet at the net for the coin toss. His hands are shaking.

Yoongi meets Seokjin's gaze head on and tries to summon a small smile. He can feel his cheeks trembling. "Game."

 

 

Saturday means having to drag his lazy ass to the courts at eight in the morning because, apparently, it's easier to sustain the attention of six-year-olds at such an early hour. Half of him thinks that it's just Junsu's way of getting him out of bed early on a weekend, but half of him can't really contest the claim. In the past decade that he's spent his Saturdays gathering kids and teaching them the basics of tennis, he's only run into a few hiccups – a little boy crying out of frustration because he couldn't hit the ball properly, a girl wailing because she accidentally hit herself after swinging her arm too hard. A few sprains here and there, as well, but for the most part everything had been smooth-sailing since Junsu had moved the schedule from ten to eight. If, before, he'd find two or three kids falling out of line and running around the courts at random, chasing each other while waving their rackets about, now he hardly ever has to reprimand the kids.

Except for, well, when one gets a bit too foul-mouthed after losing.

"Hey, be nice. Losing isn't the end, okay? When you lose, that just means you have to practice more, to train harder. To do better," he says as he ruffles the hair of the girls playing at court number five. If he were dealing with older players, people his age or maybe just a bit younger, he'd probably say, That was a convincing win. You only managed to win two games total in those two sets and you have the nerve to throw a fit? But these are kids. Some are aware of the concept of sportsmanship, but most just want to have fun. So when 'fun' is taken away from them and replaced with a loss, what do they do? Lash out at the winner and call them a 'beech' or a 'basserd' for making shots impossible to reach. Trash talk each other until they're zapped of energy and the only way to recharge is to shut up.

"Now, what did Yoongi-oppa tell you before you started the match?" he asks, then, looking at the winner's opponent with a focused gaze. He tries to widen the smile on his lips even more just to make the conversation a bit lighter. The last thing he wants right now is to make another girl cry. He's already graduated from that phase of his life. "What does Yoongi-oppa always say after the coin toss?"

The opponent meets Yoongi's gaze head on for a second, then looks down at her feet. Ah, guilt. There you go, he whispers to himself, then smiles even more as he rests his hand on the girl's shoulder. "Chin up, Ahreum-ah. Oppa's just asking, okay? Oppa isn't pointing fingers and blaming anyone. Now, tell me, what did I say before the start of the match? 'No matter what happens, you should–'"

"We should–" The winner sniffles. Yoongi looks to his side and pulls the winner closer, then strokes her hair. You better get that checked, he hears Seokjin saying at the back of his mind all of a sudden, in the same tone that he used as they shook hands and Yoongi sniffled without knowing. Getting closer to the tournament date and still sick? That can't be good, Seokjin had added then, and Yoongi had only shrugged in response. He'd just had one of the best matches in his career, almost losing in straight sets to Seokjin and Hoseok but managing to turn things around with his and Namjoon's exceptional teamwork; he couldn't be assed to think about his coughs and colds. He shouldn't even be thinking of those. He cracks his neck now in an effort to push that thought to the back of his mind, but Seokjin's voice continues to ring in his ears. "That we should always be nice to other players so that they'll be nice to us, too. And that–and that–" The winner nibbles her lower lip and looks up at the other girl through the slits of her bangs. "And that even if we lose, we should always have the at...titude? Of a... champion?"

The attitude of a champion. That sounds nice. He laughs to himself. He doesn't fancy giving pep talks to kids, but children have always been a better audience than adults. Children always listen before questioning; adults question even before they hear a word. Children have these little nuggets of wisdom in their innocent words while adults are just focused on the nuggets, themselves, and not in the meaning behind them–

"Oppa? Yah, oppa, when you ask someone something, you should listen!" says the little girl. She raises a fist in the air, but she drops it to her side as soon as he meets her gaze. She crosses her arms over her chest, then, and pouts, her cute red lips jutting out like Yoongi has just committed the most heinous crime in the world. And maybe he has. He's trying to remind these kids to have respect for every player they encounter and here he is, letting his mind drift to last night–

To the way Seokjin tried to hit smashes and missed a handful the first few games, to the way Seokjin managed to finally gain control over his shots and his serves and work with Hoseok to even out the score in the first set, 5-5. To that exact moment when the two managed to turn the tables and win the first set, 7-6(10), and with a break point. To the peculiar lilt in Namjoon's voice as Namjoon whispered in his ear, "Don't you think you're going too easy on them? Aren't you supposed to be heartless on court?" To the voice at the back of his mind asking, again and again, who even misses smashes these days? Tell me, who does that? Who fucks up something as simple as that?

"Whoops. Caught me," he whispers, then holds his hands up in surrender. The girls only roll their eyes and stick out their tongue at him, but they don't make up yet. It takes five more minutes for Yoongi to be able to make the two talk without having either of them squeal in frustration, to make them understand that losing is a way to improve oneself. To gather them in his arms and force them to hug each other as he says, "If you two don't make peace right now, I won't buy you two ice cream later. Or even give you lollipop. Or gum."

The two girls grumble, then wrap their arms around each other. With a deep breath, Yoongi presses a kiss to the forehead of the kids, then whispers, "Good girl. You don't have to make things worse. Don't complicate things yet."

What if you end up getting too sick? he recalls Seokjin asking last night, then shakes his head lightly. He has two little girls to urge to play for the next hour to maximize the fee their parents had paid him. He has more important things to do than to contemplate on a thrilling match that he'd already won. What if, Yoongi? What if?

 

 

Six in the evening with a mop in hand – that's when he lets his mind wonder.

Court number ten was where everything happened. Namjoon had promised to cover the baseline; Yoongi agreed to take the shots close to the net until midcourt. Seokjin and Hoseok had both stayed at midcourt to receive the first serve, and Namjoon made it his mission to fire off one ace after another. Watching Seokjin try to redeem himself by actually hitting a smash was painful, but it wasn't as if Yoongi had been watching Seokjin the whole time. He had just been keeping his eyes on the ball the entire match; Seokjin just happened to be in the way.

Then Seokjin started hitting nice, clean serves. Then Yoongi and Namjoon lost the first set after Hoseok hit a volley from midcourt. The ball caught on the tape but rolled over to the other side, then rolled down the net. All of them fell silent. It was as if time stood still, like someone had decided to pause the stopwatch and told them not to breathe.

Then Hoseok laughed. Snorted, to be exact, but almost all of Hoseok's snorts sounded a lot like strangled laughter. Seokjin widened his eyes as pressed his lips together, but the corners of his lips pulled up into a smile. Namjoon let out a soft hah and clasped his hands over his mouth, but too late – Hoseok and Seokjin were already laughing. The two were cackling at their win and Hoseok was wrapping his arms around Seokjin and twirling him around and Seokjin was screaming, how the hell did that happen? And Yoongi was biting his lower lip so he wouldn't give himself away. But the sound trapped in him was a force too strong. Soon, he was laughing, coughing between the bubbles of giggles, and shaking his head.

Seokjin looked over his shoulder. His mouth hung open in an awkward smile, like he wanted to say something but couldn't because Hoseok wouldn't slow down. Yoongi would wait, but then there was a set to win. There was a match to even out. They had to play.

He laughs to himself now as he breathes out, then mops a part of the court near the net that's darker than the rest. They shook hands right here, locked gazes as Seokjin said, "That was fun. We should do that again." Part of Yoongi wanted to ask then, you two should lose again?, but he knew what Seokjin meant by that. Seokjin means, let's try to not beat each other to a pulp again and just enjoy the match. Let's try to just do our best instead of outdoing each other. Let's just have fun.

"Winning is fun," Yoongi whispers, then runs the mop along the same spot one last time. But here's a confession, he muses as he lets himself smile: last night's match was the most fun he's had in years.

 

 

Yoongi takes a deep breath and grips the ball tight in his left hand. Twenty games and close to a hundred serves in and he can already feel his knees going weak, his wrists feeling a bit sore. Only two hours into this match against one of the junior players and he can already feel a burn in his arms. His stamina isn’t as good as that of Federer’s or Isner’s, but he’d like to think that, as a twenty-year-old, he should be able to play longer matches without feeling the side-effects this early. Heck, Agassi retired at the age of thirty-six and he was still able to play five-setters around four hours long and he still won matches. Yoongi expects himself to do more, to do better.

So when he feels a sharp pain shoot up his playing arm, when he loses the feeling in his right elbow for a quick second, he groans to himself, C’mon, body, work with me now. You can’t give up this early! You can’t give up at all!

“You’re taking too long to serve!” he hears Seokjin calling out from the umpire’s post. Yoongi looks up, then, meeting Seokjin in the eye, and cocks an eyebrow at him. “Don’t give me that look. Unless you want to get penalized for unsportsmanlike behavior–"

“Fine, fine,” Yoongi grumbles. To his opponent, he says, “Sorry ‘bout that. I’ll make this quick.” With a deep breath, he tosses the ball into the air again, resuming play.

He’s been feeling the same dull ache in his limbs for a while now. A week and a few days, give or take, ever since he’s decided to devote an extra hour to service training on top of the regular drills and matches. He wouldn’t have if Junsu hadn’t called him out on sacrificing the accuracy of his serves for power, but then it’s been a long time coming. He knows service is one of the most important aspects of playing tennis, but he’d been devoting more of his time on practicing technique rather than the basics. The reality, though, is this: if he wants to be the best player in the sport then he can’t just stick to the standard formula of ‘kick serves first, slice serves second’. He has to be constantly improvising, catching people off-guard. Surprising everyone, even himself.

“Let, first serve,” Seokjin calls out. Yoongi huffs, shakes his head, grits his teeth as he assumes his place behind the service line once more. Serving may be basic knowledge to tennis players, but here’s a secret: sometimes, the most basic of things are the hardest to perfect.

He manages to wrap up the match in just under three hours after that, after blazing through his service game with some of the best services he's ever done. The last one's a bit of a disappointment – he could have easily nailed the win if he just went for the safer slice serve but, instead, he decided to test if he's already accustomed to that modified topspin serve he'd been working on before he was called to play. But the important thing is that he won. And that Junsu has just acknowledged him for getting even better at the topspin serve. "Just a bit more control and you'll get there!"

"Clearly not," he mutters now as he inches closer to the net. He got lucky in his second attempt at doing the topspin serve when the opponent made the mistake of reading his serve wrong. The guy moved to his right instead of the left when it was so obvious that the ball was about to bounce to the left. Any player of his or, say, Namjoon's calibre would know that it was a bad call, but then– He's just a kid. A kid who doesn't know that practice is useless unless you start winning games. Still, he wears a smile on his lips when he sees the kid approaching, then holds a hand up as he say, "Really great game back there, kid. Loved the drops. You have to teach me how to do that sometime."

"Hyung!" The kid groans, but the grin on his lips isn't lying. Sungjong is one of their newer recruits, but of all the junior trainees he's the one who has shown the most progress and promise. Yoongi isn't surprised, though; when you put together determination and great control over strokes, you're bound to have a great player in your roster. "You know I get all my techniques from you!"

"Wha–me?" Yoongi snorts. "I can't do drop shots as nice as yours. You're–" He narrows his eyes, then, deciding to tease the junior, and purses his lips. He tries not to cackle when he sees Sungjong widening his eyes and leaning back. "You've been watching your Hoseok-hyung more now, haven't you?"

Sungjong parts his lips to speak, but Seokjin beats him to even making a sound when Seokjin steals their attention with light laughter. "Yeah, he has a better role model now," he comments as he descends from his post, and only then does Yoongi realize that he and Sungjong haven't even shaken hands yet. Or even exchanged a high-five, if Seokjin's more lax than most umpires. He reaches for Sungjong's hand, anyway, and gives it a firm shake before turning to Seokjin with a tight-lipped smile. "I mean, Hoseok would've probably chatted with him on his way to the umpire's post instead of stopping right in the middle because, y'know, shaking hands with the umpire even if he was the shittiest official during the match is part of the rules."

I don't need a reminder. I know my shit, Yoongi's tempted to lash out, but it will only prove that he needs a refresher on tennis rules. It only builds Seokjin's case. It means losing to Seokjin. He can't afford that. They're not fighting over anything, not points or less drills to do for the day or a chance to dodge cleaning duty. Heck, this isn't even a match. Seokjin probably just wants to get on his nerves. And Seokjin's probably rejoicing at the back of his head now because he's getting to you, Yoongi. Don't let him get to you. Don't let him win.

"Hobi's a good man," Yoongi answers after a while, then breathes out a heavy exhale. He holds his hand out in Seokjin's direction and slips his hand in Seokjin's own, then gives it one quick shake. "I think even Namjoon looks up to him. He's an inspiration to us all."

Seokjin hums. He twists his mouth to the side and tilts his head, like he's trying to come up with the best retort. Or like he's trying to study Yoongi, trying to see him better so he can capitalize on the holes in Yoongi's play. Players do that – use every breathing moment as a hint as to another player's style, thought process, level of determination to win. And Seokjin looks exactly like the type of player who'd want to lay someone down on a table and dissect every inch of the person until he's already sucked all the information he needs out of that human.

Seokjin's fucking scary; at the same time, one of the greatest challenges Yoongi has to overcome. And Yoongi loves challenges.

His arm retaliates, the muscles twitching when he tightens his hold on Seokjin. The fit of their hands is nice, warm, almost right if it were not for Seokjin's callous palms, but every fiber in Yoongi's right arm feels too tense. He can feel all these little explosions at the tips of his fingers, can feel a surge of cold to his palms then to his wrists, all the way up to the joints in his shoulders. And he can slowly feel his arm going limp, dropping right in front of him along with Seokjin's hand.

Seokjin's eyes widen. Yoongi takes a step back, hoping to pull away, but Seokjin's quick to tighten the link of their fingers again. Seokjin's quick to send Sungjong off and tell him that he's been doing well these past few days. And he's quick enough to tug Yoongi closer when Yoongi tries to shake him off. "What just happened?"

A lot of things, Yoongi's tempted to say. He'd found a flaw in his service, allowing him to work on what he has to work more on before he competes in the French Open. He just finished a match against a kid at least seven years younger and emerged victorious from it. He can't feel a fucking thing in his arm even if his muscles are supposed to be complaining about the strain he's forced them to go through for three long hours. He says none of these, though. Instead, he shakes his head head and mumbles, "Nothing," then yanks his hand away from Seokjin's own. "I'm good."

Seokjin gives him a wary look, then drops their linked hands. He doesn't leave yet, just hovers like he expects Yoongi to say more, then leans back when he gets nothing in response. "Alright."

 

 

The next time he sees Seokjin up close is after practice, on his way to the cleaning closet to mark the start of his cleaning duty. They'd been at opposite ends of the court area for the entire afternoon. Yoongi isn't complaining, though; it's not as if he wants Seokjin to see a repeat of what happened earlier, when he lost the feeling in his playing arm and almost lost his mind.

He shuts his eyes tight now and shakes his head. Focus on cleaning duty, Yoongi. Never lose focus, he tells himself. You know what happens to people who lose their way. And you know what Junsu does to people who report late for 'cleaning duty'. The coach had called him over earlier and told him to take over because Namjoon still had to brush up on his net play and Hoseok would be helping him. "Just look at it this way," Junsu had said then, pausing only to clasp a hand on his shoulder. "You only have to clean nine courts. Or you and Seokjin can do four each then work together on the last. Better than having to clean five, yeah?" Then Junsu flashed a bright grin at him, the same grin Junsu would normally use to coax Yunho and Jaejoong to buy him ice cream whenever he wanted to. "Treat this as a bonding activity. You two hardly talk outside of practice, anyway. I'm beginning to think you hate Seokjin's guts."

"Fine," Yoongi had replied, then huffed. Only now, when he almost bumps into Seokjin, does he realize that he hadn't said ‘no'.

"I'm beginning to think Junsu-hyung hates us the most," Seokjin mumbles as he reaches for the knob. He gives it a swift twist, then leaps back as soon as he's pulled the door open. For a second, Yoongi contemplates saying, whoa there, it's just a mop, but soon he sees the handles closing in on them one by one, as if waging war against them. He tries to fight them off, tries to gather them in his hands so he can trap them inside the closet again, but to no avail; everything happens too fast and his hands still feel like he'd made the mistake of pressing his palms to the scorching surface of the court after winning in straight sets against another junior by the name of Myungsoo.

"Who the fuck cleaned last? Own up!" Seokjin yells as he looks over his shoulder, hands still grabbing at air and hoping to get a hold of something solid. He manages to get four mops under control; Yoongi takes care of the rest and bundles them up his hands, offloading Seokjin of the wild handles. "I'm serious! Whoever did this has got to prepare for some ass-whipping because–"

Because you do seem like the type who'd like to have everything in control, a voice at the back of Yoongi's head finished. He pushes the same tone further back until all he can hear is his bones cracking and the muscles in his hands complaining when he tries to grip the bunch of handles tighter. He'd lean them against one side of the closet, but they might fall off anytime. And Seokjin is blocking the way, one of his hands still gripping the doors; trust Seokjin to get in his way all the time.

"–because I swear to God–"

"Because you swear to God Junsu-hyung will kick your ass when he hears you talking like that while you're still in his 'zone'," Yoongi says. Seokjin snaps his mouth shut at that, teeth grinding between his tightly-pressed lips. Yoongi shivers at the dull sound. "Just hit 'em in the ass with a mop. I think you've earned… these mops’ loyalty now or something."

"Right," Seokjin mutters. He worries his bottom lip for a second, until he tears his gaze from where he's been looking Yoongi right in the eye and shifts his focus to the bundle in Yoongi's hands. "Mops, yes. Sorry, I just–"

"It's okay. I–" I get it, he almost says. It tastes like bitter gourd on his tongue, at the roof of his mouth. It doesn't sound good. So instead, he says, "I understand," then gestures at Seokjin's hand. "Close that side of the door so we can have these buggers lean to the side. Then they'll stop falling forward."

"You have an answer for everything," Seokjin mumbles. Or it seems like he has, at least, because the next time Yoongi looks in Seokjin's direction, he already has his lips pressed together into a barely-there smile. The corners of his mouth are tight, rigid, as if he'd missed three serves in a row and he feels he's about to miss a fourth. Yoongi pushes the thought to the back of his head, then, and gets a mop for himself, retreating from the press of their bodies as soon as he's taken a pail.

Mopping becomes therapeutic around fifteen minutes after, when most of the players have already left the courts. He can hear the sound of balls bouncing and rubber shoes squeaking even louder now that there's nothing else to soften the music, but the white noise in between is still comforting. It feels... sort of like a warm quilt draped over his shoulder, coaxing his muscles to relax, telling his brain to slow down. It feels like that glorious moment after earning match point when you know that you can finally let your guard down and rest.

"Can't believe you still push yourself to the limit even when you're mopping," comes Seokjin's voice. Two beats, then, "Don't your muscles ever complain?"

They do. A lot, Yoongi almost blurts out, but instead he keeps his eyes on the spot he's been mopping for the past ten, fifteen seconds. It's a bit darker than the rest, as if someone had spilled oil on the surface either by choice or by chance and just left it there. He runs the mop by the mark a few more times, then, strokes slow and easy. He wonders if Seokjin will see this as an answer or another question that needs to be resolved soon.

He looks over his shoulder and scoffs when he sees Seokjin still staring, watching his every move. That's some mad dedication you've got, he whispers to himself. The last person who'd been this persistent with him was one of those girls back in high school who had a crush on him. He kept telling her that he was only interested in balls and rackets, but she wouldn't let on. Kept trying to woo him with Pepero and chocolates and little love notes that got creepier by the second. Until now, he isn't sure if she understood everything he meant by saying that. He isn't quite sure of what he wanted to say that time, either. He just knows he was desperate to rid himself of any unnecessary attachments that kept him from achieving his goals.

"From time to time, yeah," he whispers in response, then turns on his heel. Two out of four courts cleaned up in less than half an hour, and close to a minute of staring. This is a record for them. He's not sure if these are achievements worth talking about it any way. "Mopping's easy, though. And straightforward – there's only one way to mop the courts. It isn't like serving where you–"

"Pronate your arm too much." Seokjin laughs a little, the corners of his mouth pulling up into a small, knowing smile. Yoongi just wants to snatch that from his face and to throw it to the ground, maybe crush it under the weight of his foot, but he's tired. His body is screaming for him to rest and he's drained and he just doesn't have enough energy to argue with Seokjin anymore. "You shouldn't be stretching your arm too much when you serve, you know. It... puts too much strain on your muscles. And that puts you in danger."

And you care because? he's tempted to groan but, instead, he shrugs, brushing off Seokjin's worries with a wave of a hand. He's already been told by three people how his playing style puts so much strain on his arms and knees, has already been reminded by his own body of its strengths and limits. He doesn't need another person worrying about him. Besides, he’s a grown up, a grown man. He’d like to think he can already take care of himself without being told what to do. "Nah, I'll be fine. I've just been practicing my serves more these days. This isn’t serious."

“Sure, it isn’t. That’s why your arm went limp earlier. You should’ve seen your face; you looked like you were about to pass out." Seokjin says even before Yoongi can finish. He presses his lips into a small upward curl, just enough to light his tired features with a hint of a smile. “Glad you didn’t, though. That would’ve been quite the scene."

It would’ve been better if you hadn’t brought it up at all, Yoongi grumbles at the very back of his mind. The words get jumbled in his head, though, when he looks up to meet Seokjin’s heavy, focused gaze. It feels like Seokjin’s slowly peeling off his layers and examining every inch of him for scars, bruises. Weaknesses such as his body relaxing all too quickly when Seokjin reaches over to brush the pads of his fingers along his arm, and holds him by the elbow in the gentlest of touches. It feels a lot like a repeat of that split-second when he thought he’d see his career crumbling right in front of him just because he’d pushed himself a bit harder during practice.

“I mean, I’d know. I’m a physical therapist. Would’ve been, at least, but–” Seokjin cracks his neck, then lets out a loud exhale. He looks like he’s about to say more, like tell Yoongi about his entire academic history and why he decided to stop, for whatever reason, but he doesn’t. Instead, he presses his lips together again at the same time that a soft blush of pink blooms on his cheeks, at the same time that he steps into the light, the white rays washing him out and putting more space between them.

“But–” Yoongi blurts out when he sees Seokjin tightening his hold on the handle again. He inches closer, risks getting blinded by the harsh lights in the courts, and squints. “But what?"

Seokjin blinks a few times and widens his eyes. Yoongi isn’t sure if it’s the fatigue or the lighting in the courts at work, but he thinks he sees Seokjin’s lips tremble before a smile stretches across them. It isn’t one of Seokjin’s templated smiles, but is isn’t foreign either. Yoongi’s seen this before, maybe a few weeks back, when he played against Seokjin and Hoseok in a doubles match that lasted a good three hours – the best three hours of his life.

“But you should get more rest, yeah. I’ll just–“ Seokjin loses his grip on the handle for a second, but it quick to regain control. Soon, he’s taking a few steps forward, away from Yoongi and closer to the courts he’s supposed to be cleaning. “I can do the rest. You’re the star player; better save your arms and hands for more important things–"

I’m not weak. You don’t just do stuff for people because you think they can’t. It doesn’t work that way, Yoongi grumbles to himself, but he doesn’t air it out. Instead, he lunges and bumps his mop against Seokjin’s own to– To what? To get Seokjin’s attention, to make Seokjin look at him realize that there’s nothing wrong with him, to toss the favor that had been shoved into his arms without preamble back in Seokjin’s direction because he doesn’t need that? To just make Seokjin stop? He isn’t sure. All he knows right now is that Seokjin has his eyebrows furrowed and his head tilted and his little mouth poised in a small ‘o’.

“I’m alright,” he grumbles. Doesn’t say, I don’t need your help. “You clean that side and I’ll mop this side. That way, we can finish faster.” And rest, since you seem to be so starved for that, he almost blurts out, but he manages to swallow those words even before he can regret it. “Then we can get home sooner and Junsu-hyung won’t grill our asses anymore."

Seokjin laughs. “Didn’t think he’d be into that,” he whispers. He doesn’t pull away yet, though, doesn’t drop his gaze to his feet, but he doesn’t say more, either. Instead, he just lingers – watches – before taking a few steps forward, the tips of the toes of his right foot barely touching the ground. It’s almost as if he’s just finished dribbling the tennis ball on the floor and is now ready to toss it into the air to mark the start of the match. As if Seokjin’s issuing another challenge, this time in the game of mopping. Yoongi isn't sure if he has the slightest chance at winning. “I’m taking this side, right?"

“Yeah, all yours,” Yoongi mutters, then fixes his gaze on his mop. He dips it in the pail at the same time that Seokjin does, squeezes the excess water until the mop isn’t dripping too much anymore, then begins swiping it from side to side to the beat of Seokjin’s humming a few feet away.

They finish cleaning the courts half an hour later, after Namjoon and Hoseok call it a day and retreat to the locker rooms to freshen up. His arms still feel like jelly and his knees feel weak, so Yoongi stays at the bleachers, back pressed to the cool concrete and head tossed back. He counts as many stars as he can see, counts the minutes that his two friends have spent under the spray, until he sees Seokjin hover over him. Seokjin’s hair is pulled back to a messy ponytail and the corners of his lips are pulled up into a smile, but there’s no mistaking the sound his stomach makes as he says, “I’m really fucking tired."

“You should eat something,” Yoongi comments. When he doesn’t get an answer from Seokjin, he kicks Seokjin in the calf. “There’s a stall outside, just a block away… I think? Why don’t you grab something while the two are still–"

His stomach croaks, groans. He’s determined to ignore it for a few more minutes because no way in hell is he going to eat when he’s still sweaty and sticky all over, but–

We should eat something,” Seokjin declares. He kicks back, two hits to Yoongi’s shoe, and adds, “Should we grab something for them, as well?"

You’re not even friends with them. Why do you care? Yoongi wants to ask, but his stomach won’t stop speaking on his behalf. So he pushes that thought to the back of his mind for another day and gets back to his feet, falling into step with Seokjin in their quest for food. The whole trip is quiet, but the silence is oddly warm, comforting. The big, bright grin on Seokjin’s lips when Seokjin beats him to paying for everything, even more.

 

 

He feels a sharp pain in his playing arm again the same week, smack in the middle of a match and just before the tennis ball smacks him hard in the face.

The truth is, he's been feeling a dull ache in his muscles – more specifically, in his shoulders and right upper arm – the whole week. He's no stranger to all sorts of pain anymore; he has been playing tennis for more than half a decade already, after all. The soles of his feet hurt from time to time and he's already felt a strange, tingling sensation in his heels before, but he's never had to worry about spurs. He would hear his bones crack whenever he pulls his shoulders back, but he has never felt the need to consult with a doctor or at least have an x-ray taken. And he's felt his wrists become really sore before, but he's never been concerned about it affecting his performance. Granted, those pains have never gotten in the way of him playing, but still– A sharp pain curling around his elbow and shooting up his entire arm, drumming quick beats on his shoulders and nape for more than five seconds, shouldn't make his heart race in his chest and him run out of breath. He's better than this.

He shakes his head. Keeps his eyes focused on the approaching ball and tries not to let the speed at which its descending shake him up. Suck it up, Yoongi. C'mon, you've been through worse. You can't give up now! He inhales, sharp and deep, and grits his teeth. If he can just reach for the ball, grab it before it falls to the ground or to his face, if he can just pull his lower arm up so he can swing his racket forward and hit that ball fast approaching him– If he can just stop the pain from spreading across his shoulders and crawling up his nape then he'll be able to bounce back and aim a serve to the other side of the court.

But he can't. He doesn't. The pain sticks to him like sweat and heat after a long day of practice. And it has been a long day. So he shuts his eyes in anticipation of the ball landing on his face, leaving a light red mark there that might not disappear until a few seconds after.

The ball misses him by a few centimeters, but air rushes past him and leaves a nasty burning sensation on his cheek. He gulps hard and shuts his eyes for a quick second, then, allowing himself to breathe.

"Stupid pain," he mumbles to himself soon after, as he clenches and unclenches his fists. He can feel his fingers again, no longer frozen by fear or pain, but his arm still feels too heavy for just one person to carry. And that's ridiculous – he's been lugging it along his entire life. He tries to pull it back, then, and tilts his racket back before swinging his arm, but he only ends up loosening his grip on his racket without preamble. He scrambles to reach for his racket, tries his best to get back on track, to not draw attention to himself, to not make a scene, but too late – Namjoon's just stopped dribbling the ball on the court and has looked in his direction, and Hoseok's craning his neck a little to see him better.

Then there's Seokjin crossing the net, holding his racket by the throat, defenses down as he asks, "You alright?"

He looks up at Seokjin for a quick second, then drops his gaze back to his clenched fists. He has his racket tucked in his arm now, safe and comfortable. He can no longer feel the prickling sensation in his nape. And he can splay his fingers out without feeling a scorching burn shoot up the veins at the back of his hands anymore, so yes. Maybe he's alright now. Not the best of states, but anything is better that feeling so disconnected from limbs that have carried him through the toughest times in his life.

So he nods, takes his racket by the frame, wraps his fingers one by one around the handle and swings his racket back and forth. The pain in his shoulders has already dissipated, even the one in his elbows. He can pick up the forgotten ball with his racket if he wants to, if he wants to get back to playing. But then he's on his third match for the day. He's already gone through his training regimen twice and he's considering doing a few more drills before calling it a day and maybe he isn't 'alright.' Crazy, that's what he is. And overworked. He has nobody else to blame but himself.

Seokjin leans closer, staring at him with curious eyes and assessing him with a focused gaze. A few blinks, then, "No, you're not." He guides his gaze to where Yoongi's holding his racket, then heaves a sigh. "You're not alright."

Yoongi snarls, not because of the proximity or the thinning air around them or the fact that Seokjin still smells strangely of bath soap and shampoo, but because he's always hated being watched, being studied from such a close distance. And he hates it even more when people lean back at the very last second like they're backing down from a fight. He can fight this battle. He can press on with the match. He can serve all the fucking topspin serves he wants until he runs out of balls to hit–

"You look like a kitten pretending to be a tiger. Stop," Seokjin whispers, then pushes Yoongi away with a gentle nudge of the finger. Just beyond Seokjin's shoulder, Yoongi sees Junsu approaching, waving his arms overhead and calling out something that sounds a lot like who gave you the license to stop practicing? Yoongi holds his breath. "Go on, tell him."

"Tell him what?"

Seokjin cocks an eyebrow at him, then drops his gaze to his shoulder. "That."

"I'm just tired. Preps for the grand slams always the hardest." Yoongi shrugs. "I'm sure you wouldn't know because this is your first–"

Seokjin's grip on him tightens. He hadn't even realized Seokjin was already holding him earlier. Then again, Seokjin's touches have always been a bit too light, like being caressed by air. It's easy to not notice Seokjin reaching out to brush Yoongi's bangs out of his eyes, or running his fingers along the stretch of Yoongi's arm as if wiping away the burning pain just beneath Yoongi's skin. And it's easy to not acknowledge the burning concern in Seokjin's eyes because now Seokjin's smiling – templated, calculated – Junsu's figure a bit fuzzy in his irises.

"I can't tell if you two are keeping each other from punching each other in the face or playing kai bai bo." Junsu clears his throat as he walks over, then gives both of them a once over. "Or both."

Seokjin laughs. Laughs like a deranged man on the streets who hasn't had anything to eat for days, Yoongi muses. He's seen people like those. He could've been exactly like that, if Junsu hadn't taken him in so many years ago. And he might be like that again if he ever stretches himself until his body snaps. He parts his lips, hoping to save himself from having to hear Seokjin make a fool of himself, but then–

"I fu–screwed up my backhand earlier," Seokjin blurts out even before Yoongi can say a word. He pulls Yoongi closer, just a gentle tug of the wrist, and ah. Yoongi lets out a soft exhale. This touch, he knows. This touch, his body has come to relax to for some strange reason. Seokjin guides his hand up, then, for demonstration, and twists his mouth like he's just picked up a mask of disappointment along the way and decided to put it on. "He's been telling me to grip the racket like this after switching from a forehand but I still can't get the difference between the two–"

"Just a small clockwise twist. About... five degrees," Yoongi mutters. He does exactly that, keeping up the act, but for the most part it's Seokjin moving his wrist in an easy turn. It's inconspicuous enough that Junsu only nods in agreement and points out, It'd be easier to just push at the sides with the big bone in your thumb until the handle fits better between your thumb and your index– Yes, that's it. Beautiful. That's perfect. But it isn't perfect. His grip is too loose and if he were were really playing then he'd have tossed his racket onto the opponent already instead of hitting a ball with it. His palm is sweaty and sticky and Seokjin's pulse is fast against against his skin. It's almost as if Seokjin's nervous on his behalf, like Seokjin is scared that they might get into trouble.

I don't need help, a voice at the back of Yoongi's mind says. He loops that in his ears until Junsu leaves, until he's strong enough to shake Seokjin's hand off. I don't need anybody's help, and I certainly don't need yours.

"You're not telling anyone," he whispers as a last warning, then pulls away. Seokjin's body gives a tiny jerk, but hey – he can just be imagining things. Seokjin's standing tall and at a good distance from him now; Yoongi could have been just making things up. Then, in a brighter voice, he says, "Now, I want to see you apply what you've learned." He grips a ball tight in his hand, then swings his right arm back. No pain anymore, at least. That break helped. Not that he's ever needed help. "Three backhands in succession, then three smashes. Just keep at it until the ball dies. Understood?"

Seokjin nods. His lips are pursed and his eyebrows are drawn to a straight, straight line and his cheeks are tense, but at least the corners of his lips are curved up in a tiny, tiny smile. Maybe they have a life of their own, like winds that throw shots off course. Or like electricity shooting up Yoongi's arm and reminding him that you're not the same fourteen-year-old who first walked into these courts anymore, Min Yoongi. You've aged. You're not getting any younger. And you're not getting any better, either. Yoongi shakes his head, shunning the thoughts away, and drops the ball right in front of him at Seokjin calling out, play! Then he swings his arm forward, coaxing his muscles to cooperate even as Seokjin's voice rings in his ears – You pronate your arms too much. You should stop doing that. It puts so much strain on your arms. And it puts you in danger.

And then in a small, small voice, like the dull 'thud' of the ball against the courts, When will you ever learn?

 

 

Yoongi locks his arms behind him and stretches out. It's been a while since he's last walked along these streets without feeling too beat, a while since he's last breathed in deep and inhaled the sharp scent of summer's last dregs in the air. It's the first time in a while that he's taking leisurely steps on his way to the train station instead of walking in big strides because he's itching to get home, as well. With cleaning duty off his shoulders – Junsu had assigned half of the juniors team to make sure the courts were spotless for the next few days – he's free to walk past the gates before seven and even drop by one of the food stalls nearby to grab something to eat. It'll be another hour until he gets home, after all. He can't stay famished and tired for too long; that's just him looking for trouble. It's a disaster in the making.

"Hey hey hey. Hold up, champ. The stalls aren't going anywhere," Namjoon says. He snakes a hand across Yoongi's shoulder, then pulls him close until they're pressed side to side. Even after a long shower, Namjoon's body is still incredibly warm. He's the type of friend you'd like to have around during winter, Yoongi muses. He's a walking heating system. Also – and Hoseok will always contest this because he thinks he's better in this department – he gives warm hugs. "Or are you really that hungry?"

Yoongi's stomach grumbles. To Namjoon, he laughs sheepishly and says, "You heard him."

Namjoon rolls his eyes and shakes his head. He drums a soft beat on Yoongi's arm, gradually picking up pace but the pads of his fingers just grazing Yoongi's cool skin. "I really like how you've trained your body to speak on your behalf."

Yoongi leans back and cocks his head. The dim lighting in the streets makes it impossible to see the details of Namjoon's face, but years of friendship shines upon Namjoon's features like a lamp that highlights even the little things Namjoon hates other people seeing – the dark circles under his eyes, that subtle dip on the underside of his jaw where he took a really heavy ball to his face. That landed him in the hospital but thankfully not in surgery. The medics had been quick to do everything they could to make sure nothing had been dislocated, and somehow Namjoon's body cooperated even if had been pumped with anesthesia from head to toe. Then there's that peculiar twist of his lips that Yoongi knows can only mean one thing – Namjoon's waiting for an answer that Yoongi seems to be keeping from him, and he needs it fast.

His stomach lurches. This is his body saying, I'm too hungry to answer. The only thing I can process right now is food, food, food. And he knows he doesn't make sound decisions when he's hungry. So he says, when Namjoon huffs, "I think I'm pretty good with stuff that involves training. Sports, games, dogs–"

"Pushing yourself to the limit, overextending yourself, making a schedule for the slams that requires twice as much time and effort as your original training program–" Namjoon's voice thins to something a bit shriller than usual, reedy. It's as if he's run out of breath all of a sudden, or maybe even things to say. The right things to say. Which is weird, because Namjoon has always been gifted with the ability to string together the right words at the right time. "Don't think I didn't see you because I did. Losing momentum during the ball toss is such a beginner's mistake. You wouldn't want to get caught doing that even if it was for some... exhibition match or anything. Or a gag show. I dunno."

"My life's a huge sitcom, surprise?" Yoongi tries. Namjoon only rolls his eyes and twists his elbow in Yoongi's side in response. "What? I'm just saying, shit really does happen from time to time–"

"Your arm is one thing 'shit' cannot happen to," Namjoon counters. He slows down by half a step. Beyond his shoulders, Yoongi catches a glimpse of a food stall selling waffles and ice cream. He could use some right now. There’s still the dregs of winter hanging around, sticking to his nape and making him shiver, but his body feels so warm after practice and fatigue sticks to his skin like his clothes after hours of heavy training. Or Seokjin's words that haven't stopped ringing in his ears – You're not okay. "What happened?"

I couldn't feel my arm but I could feel every part of my body screaming for help? I couldn't feel my fingers, my hands, my playing arm but I could kinda feel my career slipping away? He shakes his head. Muscle ache is normal in sports. Pain is the mark of hard work and determination. Rest is for the weak and those who are afraid they can't outdo the best version of themselves. And Yoongi isn't like that. So he just shrugs, waves it off, looks at Namjoon as he says, "I'm good. Don't worry."

"You sure?" Namjoon lifts his eyebrows and purses his lips, but at the end of it he offers a little smile. "Anything you want to tell me about?"

Seokjin's a big pain in the ass and notices every-fucking-thing? he's tempted to say, but he doesn't. Instead, he shakes his head, wears the best grin he can fashion, and repeats, "I said, I'm good. Don't worry."

Namjoon looks like he's about to say something – or a lot of things, if the way he keeps pressing his lips together after licking them apart is any indicator of that – but soon Seokjin and Hoseok are catching up with them and resting warm palms on their shoulders. Hoseok goes on about the upcoming Pokken Tournament online and wanting to join but being too busy to even find time to boot up his console. Namjoon snorts and tells him, if you really want something so badly then you'll find a way to get it. Yoongi agrees. He only nods to show his support, though, because adding another voice to Hoseok and Namjoon's already loud ones might just shake up the neighborhood. And he dislikes being shaken up.

"Those waffles look good," Seokjin whispers right by Yoongi's ear, but he can just be thinking out loud. Yoongi can just be hearing things. They're tired, drained, radioactive, and they're hungry. Those never make for a good combination. Still, when Seokjin yanks at his shirtsleeve and pulls him in the direction of the waffle stand, he doesn't put up a fight even when Seokjin demands, "You're buying me one of these."

"Your loyalty can be bought with waffles, really?"

Seokjin hums. "My loyalty is only worth yummy waffles," he reasons, then sticks out his tongue at the same time that the wind blows. He groans. "And my loyalty tastes like strawberry."

Yoongi rolls his eyes. He pulls out four 1000 won bills from his wallet and hands them over to the lady behind the counter, anyway, too tired to put up a fight. For a second, he thinks Seokjin's about to walk away with his waffle already but, instead, Seokjin just sways from side to side, waiting. Anticipating.

"Thanks," Yoongi whispers when they fall into step with each other. He thinks back on that moment earlier when Seokjin told Junsu, I keep screwing up my backhand. Focus on this petty issue instead of worrying about Yoongi, instead, since he hates receiving unnecessary attention. Lemme take this one for him, and breathes out a loud exhale. "For the save."

Seokjin stops in his tracks and hovers, eyes wide, lips parted in a small 'o'. Yoongi stutters in his steps, then, rhythm disrupted, until Seokjin lets out soft laughter and picks up pace again, setting the two of them in motion. A few feet away, Yoongi can see the lights in the stalls blur a little, but he sees the smile on Seokjin's lips and the light crinkle at the corners of Seokjin's eyes clearer than ever. And through the noise of the city streets ahead, he hears Seokjin saying, "Sure thing, dude. Anytime."

There won't be a next time. I won't need your help anymore. Yoongi keeps that promise in his back pocket, anyway, and catches up with the other two, his chest unbearably light, at ease.

 

 

The good thing about working in a small cafe, Yoongi thinks, is that it takes less time to move around and get things done. He doesn't have to run from one table to another just to make sure they're clean before customers get settled down for a cup or two. He doesn't have to sprint from the far end of the shop to the door when he has to help customers get in, especially mothers dropping by for their morning coffee before dropping off their kids at school. Number one on the list: if he wants to give the shop a quick check just to see if there's anything weird and shady going on, then all he has to do is press his body close to the counter, crane his neck, and look around. Squint his eyes if he's feeling lazy to slip on his prescription glasses that he hardly ever wears, then walk around if his gut is still telling him that there's a part of the picture that he isn't seeing. Look again, Yoongi. Look closer.

On the cons, however: the place is almost always packed, and there's hardly time to breathe. That means more time spent on just trying to cross off orders and tasks, and less time to consume coffee in peace instead of chugging it down in one gulp. Also, it gets a bit too noisy whenever they have a big group of elementary school students over. The takeout habits of the college students have already bled onto the schedule of the high schoolers; the ones who stay in the cafe are either the younger students who still have time to play, or adults working just across the river or in neighboring Hongdae.

"Yah, hyung– Hyung!" Jimin pokes him with a finger when he takes more than a few seconds to respond. Yoongi's body gives a jerk, the type that tells him it's already three in the afternoon and that it's time to drink his second cup for the day because he's rarely ever surprised by anything anymore. Or maybe he should take tea, instead? Junsu keeps telling him to cut down on his coffee consumption now that the next set of tournaments is just around the corner. He says having too much coffee in one's system just makes nerves tingle all the more, hypersensitive and hyperreactive to every single thing. "You should be feeling well-rested before practice, not agitated,” Junsu had even commented one time. "And you wonder why you get muscle aches often." "I was asking where the cold brew– Never mind."

Yoongi parts his lips, ready to reason out, but the chatter in the shop soars high above his voice. He cocks his head in the direction of the tables, then, and mouths to drive his point across – Can't hear a thing! Too noisy! And who left the machine running– He isn't lying, though – the noise has become louder and brighter now, like everybody's competing not for an extra cup of coffee but for a chance to get heard. The worst part is that he and Jimin can't just stand in the middle of the shop and scream for everyone to shut up. If they want to lose their jobs before sunset, they definitely can; otherwise, they'll just have to put on imaginary earplugs and listen to the sound of their heavy breathing. Pray that, somehow, the kids will decide to stop getting overexcited about everything that happens in their lives and acquaint themselves with the concept of silence.

Silence is good. Silence helps Yoongi think more clearly, helps him breathe better. But sometimes, silence pulls him into the deepest trance and to the deepest recesses of his mind where nothing but the memory of his childhood remains.

He gulps hard, then clenches his fists. Reaching for the keyboard of the laptop near the register, he pulls up one of Minseok's playlists and sets the volume to just about fucking right to make the voices in his mind shut up.

"That's me. I just finished pulling shots. You were even watching me grind the beans...?" Jimin frowns, then shakes his head when Yoongi only gives him a passing glance. He detaches the spout from the machine once he's drained it of the last few droplets of espresso, then dumps the coarse grounds in the waste basket. Yoongi makes a mental note to air dry the grounds later so they can still be used as fertilizer. Junsu's mother will probably appreciate his son's 'kid' bringing her something for her garden. And Junsu will probably stop dumping cleaning duty on him if he was a bit kinder to Junsu's mother. Everyone wins. "And don't touch that–"

"Ow." Yoongi shakes the hand Jimin had just swatted away until he feels the tingling sensation at the tips dissipate. "Look, I'm doing you a favor. I was going to turn off the machine. I won't spoil your good shots or anything and I'm helping us save power–"

"If you keep turning it on and off, you'll just use up more electricity," Jimin argues. He cocks an eyebrow when Yoongi gestures to reach for the switch again, then huffs when Yoongi holds up a v-sign. "Relax, Minseok-hyung's not gonna cut off our heads just because we left the machine on ten seconds after pulling a shot."

"Sure, he won't. He'll just cut my pay, take away my bonuses–"

"Or your dick, so you can stop being one. It's not always about you, you know." Jimin sticks out his tongue when Yoongi narrows his eyes in response. He stays on track, anyway, picking up a stirring spoon and making sure that the sugar he'd just put in has already been dissolved. If Jimin were a tennis player, he'd probably be agile enough to take shots close to the net then run to the far back to hit a winner. Yoongi isn't that quick. Not that he has to be; he can end rallies even before his opponents can hit back and try to score a point. He can also end Jimin's little outburst with a small frown and a gentle tug on Jimin's shirtsleeve. "Sorry, I know you've been... more drained than the usual. You've been looking more like a zombie these days, hyung. It's pretty... scary."

Yoongi lifts his eyebrows and blinks. Jimin's definition of 'zombie-looking' is just mostly zoning out and a puppy-dog look that looks 'weird' on Yoongi, but Jimin has his lips pressed together to a thin, thin line. The corners are tugged down into a frown. And he's letting out a heavy sigh, like he's struggling with stringing his words together, with looking for the right words to fill the gaps. "I know it's almost the start of... one of those big tournaments that you like so much, but hyung–" Jimin explains, pausing only to rest the stirring spoon against the brim of the cup. Then, with a deep breath, he continues, "I think you're stretching yourself a bit too much."

He's been taking more breaks in between drills, been taking more time to breathe between matches and to feel the shifting of his muscles before saying 'yes' to juniors challenging him. He's been using his underhand serve more and pronating his arm less, or at least whenever a biting pain in his arm reminds him to wait for the ball a little longer instead of lunging to intercept it even before it drops to a more comfortable height. So he hasn't been 'stretching himself a bit too much'. That's ridiculous! Sure, he stays in the courts until nine in the evening sometimes, watching the juniors practice and calling Seokjin out on his shitty smashes, but at the onset of pain, he raises his left hand and calls for a break. He'd like to think that he's learned not to cause more problems for himself by now. He'd like to think he's already learned his lesson.

"Nah, training's fine. I think it's the assignments biting me in the ass. I hate doing research online. I always end up looking at sports stats," he reasons after a while. When Jimin cocks an eyebrow at him and mouths 'whatever', he adds, "Look, the US Open's coming up and I can't slack off. Of course I need to practice as much as I can, whenever I can. I can't do anything about that. But I'm pretty sure my coach won't give me drills that will harm me. He knows my body well enough to not try to fuck it up."

"But do you? Know the limits of your body, I mean." Jimin purses his lips, then reaches out to give Yoongi's arm a gentle squeeze. Yoongi freezes for a quick second, worried that a sharp pain would shoot up his arm as a form of rebellion, but his arm behaves, cooperates. He swallows hard. "I dunno, hyung. There's three of you in your senior team or something, right? So the burden of winning isn't all on you?"

That's not how it works. The moment you step into the court, you're expected to give your best performance, to give the audience the best match they'll ever see. You're expected to outdo your best game all the time. You're expected to have already prepared yourself for the worst, that anything that will come your way in the match is just another obstacle you can easily go through. So winning isn't a burden; it's the goal. It has always been Yoongi's goal. And only when he's already lifting a Grand Slam trophy in the air can he tell himself to slow down or maybe even come to a complete stop to breathe.

And they're four. There are four seniors in the team now. He'd put Seokjin in the junior level, if they're using just service and smashes as basis, but Seokjin has already developed an intuition for shotmaking. The few occasions that Seokjin has complete confidence in his serves and not a single trace of hesitation in his movement, he manages to close out matches in nice and clean service games. Seokjin's even pushed one of his matches against Hoseok to a seemingly endless tiebreaker in the second set after returning each and every single one of Hoseok's serves with easy backhands down the line. At one point, Yoongi had to do a double-take because was it really Seokjin whom he was watching? Was it really the same boy who'd come in with raw talent and no technique that he was seeing push Hoseok to his limits? Had Seokjin really improved this much in such a short period of time, or had he just stopped getting better?

"He's a competitive bugger. That's how he'll always be," Jeongguk comments. Yoongi breathes out, chest feeling a bit lighter but still gripped by a tight, invisible knot. It's just as painful as that time, three years ago, when he made the mistake of– "You can't just tell him to stop getting high on competition or something. I dunno– I think that'll drive hyung crazy."

"And it will hurt him."

"And he's old enough to know what he should and shouldn't be doing." Jeongguk reaches over, pinching Jimin's cheek to pacify the latter, then turns to meet Yoongi in the eye. "Right?"

Yoongi takes a deep breath. On a normal day, he'll end an argument even before the sparks burn into flames or he won't spend too much time talking with people while he's still behind the counter, but not a single customer has come in in the past five minutes. Jeongguk looks like he's waiting for Yoongi to prove his statement and do the right thing, and Jimin seems to be hoping Yoongi would do the same. And Taehyung has just returned from delivering the latte Jimin had made for 'backpack guy who owns table number five and keeps drawing guys in tennis attire'. He's looking at Yoongi with a curious gaze and he's squinting hard and he's leaning in as he says, "I don't know with you guys, but I think hyung's been better these days, actually. I mean, usually, during hell period a.k.a. before the Grand Slams, he'll be asking for more days off and he'll be whining the whole time he's in the shop–"

"Excuse me, I don't whine." Yoongi pinches Taehyung in the side, but Taehyung manages to dodge the hit. Taehyung ends up bumping into the counter, though. Yoongi isn't sure if that's supposed to be better. "I've never whined about work. Or practice. Or anything."

"Sure, you do. You do this... 'silent complaining' thing with your face. Your nose does this twitching thing when you do something you don't like– There."

Taehyung laughs a little and shakes his head at the slightest scrunching of Yoongi's nose, his features. Yoongi clasps his hands over it, then, but that only proves that he's guilty as charged. He's only digging an even deeper grave for himself when he should be digging deep into people's concerns and trying to find ways how coffee can make them smile. And he's supposed to be old enough to know what and what not to do but, instead, here he is – dropping his hands to his sides, admitting defeat.

"That doesn't even make sense," Yoongi mutters as a last ditch effort to fight back. Taehyung only rolls his eyes and mutters, try harder, hyung. Really, you can do better than that.

"I really think the season's been much better for you, though," Taehyung whispers later, while Jimin and Jeongguk attend to a group of customers that have just come in. He moves closer but keeps his eyes trained on the espresso dripping to the demitasse. A nice layer of brown foam begins to form at the top. In a few seconds, Taehyung will have to pour more attention into work so he can create the perfect latte art. In a few more seconds, Yoongi will finally be let off the hook and be able to breathe. "I don't hear you groaning about practice and your teammates, and I don't hear your bones crack–"

Hoseok had challenged him to a match the other day and ended up winning. Namjoon teased Hoseok after the handshake, saying Yoongi had probably gone easy on him because it was already 'ass o' clock' in the evening. And Seokjin slipped right beside him, stared, then asked through the gentle lift of his eyebrow, you alright?

Yoongi never replied. Instead, he locked his arms behind his back and said, "I'm sooo hungry. Tteokbokki, yeah? Who wants to share twigim with me?"

"And it's creepy when you list all those things about me, I hope you've realized that." Yoongi snatches one of the cups Jimin has just scribbled the order on and takes note of everything written there – triple ristretto for a tall drink, but extra vanilla pump for the base. If these details were body language then he'd say the one who'd ordered it has just emerged victorious from a challenging tiebreaker but doesn't want to be overconfident of his success. If he were playing tennis right now then he'd make sure to use trick shots on this man to catch him off-guard and hopefully find a hole in the man's play that he can capitalize on.

"And if you really wanted me to shut up then you'd pinch my nose and twist it," Taehyung declares, thinning his lips into a smug smile as his voice drops to a whisper. "It's okay to be happy even if you're tired, hyung. I think that's normal. In our world, at least. We call that 'contentment.' You know that feeling? That... word?"

Yoongi cocks an eyebrow at Taehyung as a warning. He ends up shaking his head when Taehyung hums in response. If contentment means slowing down too much to enjoy the 'now', then nope, he almost says, but Jimin steals his attention when he calls out, "Would you recommend extra caramel drizzle to go with that, hyung?" He parts his lips, hoping to get back at Taehyung with a sharp retort, but he chooses duty over desire and nods at Jimin. Holds two thumbs up when he sees Jimin squinting, then gets to grinding beans for the ristretto shot. He shuns away all other thoughts in his mind and concentrates on the machine in front of him roaring to life, on the sound of something being crushed into fine, fine bits. Somewhere between loading the spout on the machine and watching the coffee extract color the clear demitasse, he lets Taehyung's words sink in and wrap around him like a quilt – It's okay to be happy even if you're tired.

 

 

"You've got to be the most stubborn player I know," Seokjin grumbles. He tucks his racket under his arm then walks over, steps quick yet light. "What part of 'don't pronate your arm too much' is hard to understand?"

The part where it says 'that's totally not my style', Yoongi almost says in retaliation, but he manages to bite the inside of his cheek. He's been trying hard, he really has, but the reality is that holding back on stretching his arm – so he can reach the ball sooner and add more spin to it, making it nigh impossible to return – fucks up the rhythm of his swing. He’s been pronating his arm during his serve since the day he went pro that he almost doesn’t know any other way to set the ball in motion anymore. Seeing the face of his racket hit nothing but air makes the cogwheels in his mind turn too fast. Not feeling the friction between the ball and the strings makes the muscles in his thighs shake and quiver. And then it's downhill from there. All promise of a nice, clean serve goes down the drain just because he tried to change things up and not strain his body. Just because Seokjin keeps convincing him that his serving style is shit; you're putting yourself in danger by doing that–

But that’s how sports are supposed to be. You test yourself and push yourself to the limit until you can't anymore, protests a voice in his head. Seokjin seems to hear it, stopping dead in his tracks with a good three feet still keeping them apart. At least he had the decency to not invade Yoongi's private space. One of Seokjin's few redeeming qualities.

"Your body's too used to that form and momentum already that you can't just... correct it so easily." Seokjin rubs the underside of his nose, then tilts his head like a slight change in perspective will help him find a better solution to Yoongi's 'improper' serving stance. "Not that I'm saying that it's wrong. It worked for you for years, after all."

Yoongi snorts. "You're just saying it's not right. Yeah, yeah, big difference. I get it." He rolls his eyes. He hadn't meant for sarcasm to swim to the surface and stick to his voice like gum, but it's there now. This is the point of no return. Or this can be the point where he just turns on his heel and walks away from every chance at going head-to-head with Seokjin. He hates arguments and confrontations as much as he hates those tricky drop shots; they're a waste of time. He lunges, then, reaching for the ball with the face of his racket, and smiles a little when he manages to catch it with his left hand. The niggling thought at the back of his mind remains, though – there's something wrong about his style, the way he moves on court, that can make or break his game. "Anyway, where were we? 40-30 before you stopped me from serving, right?"

"I didn’t stop you," Seokjin retorts. "You weren't able to hit the ball so that was a fault. I made a passing comment; now you're reacting this way."

"I'm reacting–" Yoongi furrows his eyebrows tightly, tightly, and parts his lips in a scowl. He isn't reacting; he's merely stating facts, recounting what had just happened. He's not shoving words into Seokjin's mouth and down his throat. He's not in the wrong. What's 'this way' even supposed to mean, he's tempted to ask, but he doesn't need any explanations anymore. The schooled calmness in Seokjin's features has dissolved into stiff eyebrows and a sharp gaze, and those can only mean one thing – you’re acting like a five-year-old who got caught for doing something awful. Grow up, Yoongi. "If you hadn't made that 'comment'–"

"It is what it is, Yoongi. Don't misinterpret it." Seokjin looks to his side, then drops his gaze to his feet with a huff. His name rolls off Seokjin’s tongue differently, Yoongi muses, like they haven’t been practicing with each other for the past few months. Like they’re seeing each other for the first time and have already decided that they hate each other’s stinking guts. Close enough, mutters a voice at the back of Yoongi’s head at the same time that Seokjin mumbles. Either people love him or hate him, after all. There’s no in-between.

"You know what?” Seokjin lifts his eyebrows and twists his mouth. He looks like he’s about to lift his hands up in surrender, but instead he’s letting his shoulders fall forward. Yoongi can’t tell which is worse, or if the lurching sensation at the pit of his stomach can already pass as a contender. “Let's just... call it a day. You've been working hard and we're tired and–"

"And there's something wrong with my serve. And your backhand still needs some work.” And you have to shut up if you don’t want to get into trouble, he tells himself, reminds himself. And he’s right – you have to stop acting like a kid and just toss your racket into your bag–

"And I can show you how to not harm yourself while having fun," Seokjin finishes, lips curling up to a tight, tight smile. There's a tremble to his voice that Yoongi has never heard before. Yoongi's stomach lurches at the sound, at the noise. He isn't sure if he wants to hear it again, but then his body has always been quicker on the uptake. Or maybe his mind just keeps rejecting certain realities even if they're already apparent, clear as day. "You show me what I need to work on when it comes to my backhand and I show you how you can take care of yourself better. How does that sound?"

Sounds like trouble. Stressful, Yoongi almost says. He bites down on his tongue even before he can start another match with Seokjin. The previous one hasn't even ended yet. So instead, he answers, "Fair."

Seokjin stays still, lips pursed, the calculated smile stretched across his mouth thinning into something neutral. Something more... detached. A lot less of the Seokjin Yoongi has come to know and learn about in the few months that they've spent training alongside each other, and more that stranger Junsu had recruited off the streets and invited to practice one Monday morning. It's as if they'd taken a leap backwards and, instead of Yoongi knowing exactly what to do, he'd fallen on his ass and made a fool of himself the same way that he looks stupid now for making a fuss out of Seokjin reminding him, time and again, to not strain his muscles.

"Just one set. Race to six games, no tiebreakers in the final. Let’s just… try not to reach 41-39 or something," Yoongi declares, then takes a step back. The dimming lights on the court blur his vision a little, making the scene before him fuzzy, but Seokjin does the most exaggerated of eye rolls that they’re impossible to miss. And he’s stopped moving. He’s meters away from Seokjin who is looking at him with the most discerning eyes, pinning him in place with a focused gaze, and he can see more clearly now than before. “Game?"

Seokjin doesn’t say a word. He responds with his body, with a crack of the neck and a nod and him twirling his racket by the throat. Yoongi tosses the ball in his direction, then, rewriting court rules and saying, “Do the opening serve. I like to see how you do it."

A corner of Seokjin’s lips tugs up into a small smile. “How I do things right, you mean?"

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Yoongi shakes his head. He leans forward, nonetheless, and bends low, swaying from side to side in anticipation of Seokjin’s ‘proper’ serve. “Just do it."

Seokjin doesn't waste time. At the third dribble of the ball, he grips it tight and tosses it into the air, marking the start of the match. Yoongi's no stranger to this – Seokjin bending his knees at the same time that he bends back, Seokjin framing the ball with the L of his left hand, Seokjin slowly curling in his fingers as the ball approaches him. He does all those, too, except faster. With less time to breathe in between poses, stances, and more adrenaline pumping through his veins as he prepares for the next action. If he were in Seokjin's shoes, he would already be swinging his arm forward and feeling the rough surface of the ball make contact with the face of his racket, the tightly-woven strings. He would be feeling a stretch in his upper arm now as he kicks his body off the ground even more, as he runs the face of the racket along the ball in a nice, smooth curve. Then he would be releasing ball, the vibrations of the strings crawling to the underside of his arms and making him shiver. He would watch the ball land on the ground with a dull 'thud' and see it bouncing again, this time in a higher arc that would stun the opponent, catch him off-guard.

Then he'd win the first point and clinch the first lead of the match. The momentum would be in his favor, and he'd be riding that wave for the next few games, sets, maybe even the entire match. If the tide remains on his side, he might even be able to use it to win a title the same way that he won the Cincinnati Masters last year convincingly in three straight sets.

"Focus!" Seokjin calls out, and that snaps Yoongi out of his trance, out of the match he'd sketched in his mind and back to the reality that Seokjin is making him play. He squints harder, then, as he takes in every detail of Seokjin's serving motion – the way Seokjin tosses the ball slightly to the left side of this body and not too high up in the air, the way Seokjin opens up his body to the side but keeps the back of his left arm facing the opponent. The way Seokjin pulls his arm back in a quick motion then swings forward all at once, the face of the racket brushing an upward stripe against the ball and sending the ball speeding to the other side of the court. The curve's too high, Yoongi mutters to himself, but that's the point – topspin serves are never supposed to be low-bouncing shots. They're supposed to hit the service box in a loud 'thud', then bounce back up, charging either towards the opponent's face or to his upper body. It's like a player making a comeback from two sets down and proceeding to win the game with nice and easy shots. It's like that Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut that turned Yoongi from 'that unassuming Asian in the top fifty' to 'the Asian to beat in the top thirty, soon to be top twenty'.

It's the same shot that won him his first ATP Masters 1000 event, his best chance at winning tough return games against veteran players who have molded the game instead of the other way around. And Seokjin can do the shot better. The topspin serve is headed in his direction right now, just meters away from his body, and shit, Yoongi, move your lazy ass and return that with a forehand slice, quick! Come on, Yoongi, you have to fight back–

He steps to his side and swings his arm back, then, as he counts down the seconds until the ball comes within a same distance from him. Seokjin's approaching the net now, maybe hoping to intimidate him with net play, but that's the last of Yoongi's worries. He can easily aim the ball to the far back of the court, right on the line. He can do a lob and hope that Seokjin miscalculates the power of his shots by hitting the ball too hard and too fast. Or he can just keep the ball alive so they can rally it out. That way, he can secure a winner with an easy forehand to one of the corners of the court. It's the safest play. It's the best option he has.

Don't overthink your shots, he tells himself, then meets the ball halfway as he swings his arm forward. The strings vibrate at the slightest contact with the ball. The waves crawl up to wrap around his wrist, shaking him up a little, so he snaps his left hand to the base of his right as he gives the ball a much needed push, sending it shooting just a few inches shy of Seokjin's foot.

C'mon, move! a voice at the back of his mind squeals. He's already seen too many players crumble like this in the face of a good return, has seen good set ups go down the drain because the player failed to adjust to a gameplay that didn't go according to plan. He doesn't want to see that happen to Seokjin. He doesn't want to win this match at the first point just yet. You can still reach that shot. Don't put your serve to waste. You've worked hard on that and–

Seokjin moves. Just a subtle jerk of the body at first but, soon, he's running in the direction of the ball. Faster, Yoongi almost says, screams. He manages to bite down on his bottom lip, thought, and instead take a sharp, deep breath. Air filters between his teeth, making them chatter and making him shiver just a little. It isn't enough to make him lose focus, but it is enough to make his nape feel a bit sore.

Not now, body. Cooperate, he mutters. He gives the court a quick scan, then fixes his gaze back on the ball. The bounce is low, impossible to reach if the opposing player displays the slightest hesitation in his movement, but then Seokjin's toeing that line between too-far and incredibly-close right now. If Seokjin leans forward even more and stretches his arm then he'll be able to hit the ball in no time. If he takes two extra steps and five seconds too long – if he stops practicing what he's been preaching to Yoongi for weeks now and 'strains' his arm – to make a decision then he'll screw up all chances of hitting back with a nice forehand. And if Seokjin just pushes his feet off the ground with a solid kick then maybe he can catch the ball by the tip of the face of the racket.

What are you gonna do now, huh? Yoongi mutters under his breath. He can feel the thrumming pulse in his temples, at the back of his ears and knees, at the base of his throat. And he can feel his palms getting sweaty when he sees Seokjin take that extra step, takes longer than he should to make a decision, then leap.

"Holy shit," he says, voice dropping to a whisper. He takes a deep breath as he watches Seokjin pull his racket down. The ball crawls up the face of the racket, gaining a spin, and when Seokjin releases the ball in one fluid motion, like a liquid whip, Yoongi finds himself shaking his head and laughing. "Holy fuckingshit."

"Your turn!" Seokjin calls out from the other side of the court. His voice cracks when it peaks, when a violent upward tug pulls at the corners of his lips, when last dregs of winter blow and tousle their hair, their words, their bright laughter. Yoongi hears his breath hitch, but then he's rushing to get to midcourt before the ball can hit the ground so he can return Seokjin's shot with something just as beautiful. Something that exhibits all the training he's had in the six years that he has been playing tennis professionally. Something that can stun Seokjin and amaze him. So he slides to get in place in time, picks up the ball on the rise, just as soon as it has bounced on the court, and grins when he feels the tension between the ball and the strings reverberate through his racket.

"You've got to be kidding me," Seokjin groans.

He laughs to himself, then he finishes his forehand with a buggy whip shot of his own, aimed to that tiny square between Seokjin's feet. Seokjin shakes his head. I don't make jokes. I perform tricks. That's what makes me a good player. That's what makes me better than most.

"I was waiting for a backhand lesson," Seokjin says a while later, as he returns to the service line. "We had a deal, right?"

He's dribbling the ball and he's bobbing his head to a rhythm only he can hear, but not once has he torn his gaze from Yoongi – not when he picked up the ball from the court, or when he walked back to the service area while walking backwards. And Yoongi would call him out on being so distracted and not focusing on the game, but then this is the game. They are each other's challenge. Every point they score against each other is a step closer to reaching the finish line. So Yoongi says, "I'm just getting started," twists his lips in a wicked grin, and winks. "Wait for it."

Seokjin rolls his eyes. With a deep breath, he tosses the ball in the air again and serves.

Yoongi grips his racket tight. Excitement bleeds from his lips onto his cheeks, his arms, his hands, the rest of his body, but he stills when sees the ball approaching, when he feels blood rush to his soles and coax his feet to move.

They play.

 

 

28-26. They end the match in close to an hour and a half, at 28-26, in a fit of laughter and with Seokjin's loud finally! echoing in Yoongi's ears.

They could have easily stretched it to 29-27 with the scare Yoongi had in the last game. He dropped three match points after Seokjin had forced him to miss a few shots and net a few unforced errors here and there, but in the end he managed to win with a second serve ace. "Who even does that?" Seokjin had said then, when they met each other at the net, then reached out to shake his hand. "I mean, a second serve ace. The only person I know who can consistently do that is–"

"Roger Federer, yeah. Idol's gonna be so proud of me." Yoongi had nodded, pressed his lips together to a small smile, then exhaled loudly. As soon as he'd let his back hunch, he felt his muscles tingle and burn. It felt as if a dam had been opened, or he was taking one one serve after another from John Isner or Andy Roddick. Or both. "Soon enough, you'll be telling your friends about the new master of second serve aces–"

"You mean you want the world to know that your first serve's really bad?"

Yoongi had narrowed his eyes, then tapped Seokjin on the crown of his head with his racket. Seokjin snarled in response. There was still a ghost of the smile he had been wearing on a corner of his lips, though. Yoongi had sworn he could still see traces of it in the way Seokjin's lips kept trembling. "I mean, soon the world will know that first serve blunders can be salvaged if you try hard enough. Anything is possible with hard work and determination. And the will to win."

"And a body that you don't use and abuse," Seokjin had said in retort, then hit Yoongi in the ass with his racket. Then he'd sauntered away, steps quick and light, stopping only to look over his shoulder and say, "And food. Anything is possible with food. Tteokbokki?"

Which is how he finds himself accidentally jamming his elbow in Seokjin's side in a cramped food stall, rain pelting down just beyond the plastic curtains. The water pools at his ankles where his socks peek. It makes him shiver. It's not as if there's a better place to be – all the stalls along the road are either just as packed or have already closed due to the sudden downpour.

Hoseok had suggested having waffles and ice cream in one of the shops nearby, instead, but Seokjin used the 'free food' card to steer everyone in the direction of his favorite ahjumma's stall. Namjoon backed him up and said, "Who even eats waffles and ice cream when it's drizzling–I mean storming–" Then Seokjin had looked Yoongi in the eye, brows lifted as if asking, you're okay with tteokbokki, right?

Yoongi shrugged. It's easier than verbalizing I'm fine with anything. Actions come to him easier than words, after all. Seokjin hovered for a moment, a bit confused, and only when Namjoon whispered, "He means 'yes'. He's just too lazy to say it," did Seokjin flash Yoongi a grin.

He's generous with apologies, though. Those are something he'll never leave up to just body language to express. He checks Seokjin's arm for any red marks, then, after resting his toothpick on the empty plate of tteokbokki, and says, "Sorry 'bout that." Clearing his throat, he continues, "You done with that yet? It's getting really cramped in here–"

"Almost," Seokjin says between munches on his kim mari. He looks like a little rabbit eating too many things all at once. A rabbit widening his eyes like he isn't accustomed to being watched while eating, maybe – Yoongi shuns that thought away faster than he can curl his fingers into loose fists. But then Seokjin's puffing his cheeks out as he chews faster, and he's blowing his eyes wider than before, and there's a dusting of pink on his skin that doesn't look like it's from eating too much spicy food or the unflattering lighting in the stall.

Post-match glow. That must be it, Yoongi muses. Taehyung brings it up every time Yoongi does morning sessions in the courts before heading to his part time job in Hapjeong, so there must be an ounce of truth to it, right? He clings to that thought then, and shifts his gaze to where Namjoon's peeking inside the tent and mouthing at him, Hobi got us cute polka-dotted umbrellas! Dibs on the black and white one!

"If you don't want to go around walking in polka-dotted umbrellas, just say so," Seokjin mumbles. Or at least that's what it sounds like, because he's still chewing what he'd stuffed in his mouth just seconds ago. "I can always say I'm a slow eater. Or that I'm afraid of the rain."

"Yeah, you are," Yoongi whispers, scoffing. Seokjin had grabbed onto his arm when thunder roared in the skies. Gripped him tight and didn't let go until they'd gotten inside the tent. He hadn't spoken until he already finished half a plate of tteokbokki and had his second refill of odeng broth. Bummer, Yoongi had thought then. He wanted to discuss the recently concluded match with Seokjin, really wanted to know what Seokjin thought about the trick shots, the surprise kick serves, the topspin aces that sometimes startled or even stunned him. He could always talk to either Namjoon or Hoseok about it, though. They were there when the match took place. They would know if he's improved in his serving, in his choice of shots, if he's been straining any part of his body at all. They'd know better that Seokjin did.

The niggling feeling is still there, though, at the back of his head, chanting questions like a mantra. He has two options – either he goes with Namjoon and tells Seokjin they'll just wait for him outside in the rain, under polka-dotted umbrellas, or he stays here and watches Seokjin eat like a hybrid of a rabbit and a hamster. And maybe, somewhere along the way, crack the question that has been echoing in his mind since that moment Seokjin pulled off a buggy whip shot.

Yoongi snorts, then laughs to himself. It should be easy, and yet–

"So have you just been pretending to suck at the sport all this time?” Yoongi blurts out.

Seokjin looks up, then tilts his head. His chewing has slowed down and his eyes aren't blow wide open anymore, but Yoongi can still see an ounce of curiosity in the way Seokjin lifts his eyebrows. Or in the way he quirks his lips to his side and stops chewing, like he's stringing together his words for a clumsy enunciation later on. "I mean, you're... pretty decent, I guess? You know how and when to do trick shots and–"

"I learn fast, I guess," Seokjin mumbles. He chugs down his odeng broth in one gulp, then clears his throat before facing Yoongi again. The pink flush is still there, but maybe this time it's from the heat of the food. Maybe it's from the push and pull of temperatures all around them. Maybe Yoongi shouldn't be paying attention to that at all. "I mean, I've got the basics down and all that even before but, when you don't play for a long time, you sort of forget how to... read movement, I guess? Then your body forgets how to react to that. And it's downhill from there. So–"

"But the buggy whip–"

"Was practicing that for a few days now. I used to be hella good at that. Buuut–" Seokjin laughs a little, then turns to the lady to ask for more broth. She complies without question, then gives Yoongi a cup, as well. Seokjin thanks her with bright laughter, then, and a wink before he looks back at Yoongi. That face is a sin. The blinding grin on his lips, even more. "The topspin serve, I got from you. I guess you could say I've... learned and relearned a lot since the day Junsu-hyung took me in."

Seokjin breathes in deep, then heaves a sigh. The corners of his lips curl up into a soft smile. "And I've learned a lot from you."

Yoongi curls in his toes. "Thanks, I guess," is the first thing that spills from his lips." The second, "You're actually good, though. Which makes it easy to teach you." He takes a sip of the broth, hiding the weird quirk of his lips behind the cup, but why? His mouth is just twisted to the side, pulled up at the corners in the slightest tug. That can be a smug smile. Or a plain smile. Or it can be fatigue taking control over the muscles in his body. It doesn't mean anything. It shouldn't mean a thing. Maybe, on court, it could be him challenging Seokjin to show him another one of those drive volleys that he'd accidentally pulled off, but here, bodies pressed so close together in a cramped food stall, trapped in a tent, it's just fucking muscle movement beyond his control.

Seokjin chuckles. There's a twinkle in his eyes that can only spell trouble, but the lighting here is dim and messes with Yoongi's vision a little. He should consider wearing his prescription glasses more often. In fact, he shouldn't be taking them off anymore.

"So, now that I've learned from you, will you try to learn from me for a sec?" Seokjin nudges him, jostling him where their arms get caught in a sticky slide, then adds, "No more pronation?"

Yoongi rolls his eyes. This isn't about me, or my game, or my style, he wants to say, but Seokjin has slipped into one of those unassuming, hard-to-read smiles of his again. It's eight in the evening and his muscles feel too sore and it's a chore to retaliate, but then he's just come from a win. He's not about to lose this fight, or any other match with Seokjin, for that matter. So he says, "That's your serve, not mine."

"Match is over. Nobody's winning," Seokjin mutters in response. Even before Yoongi can ask, what does that even mean, he hooks a finger on Yoongi's shirtsleeve and gives it a gentle tug. "Your polka-dotted umbrella's waiting, c'mon."

"Shit," Yoongi groans.

Seokjin laughs. "Bet you'll look cute holding one, though."

Yoongi throws a jab at Seokjin's arm in retaliation, but misses by a width of a ball. Seokjin almost ends up losing balance on the slippery streets, but Yoongi is quick to grab him by the wrist and guide him back to his feet. It’s a nice push and pull that restores their equilibrium, somehow, as they slip under the same umbrella just before the rain starts pouring even harder than before.

The trip to the train station is mostly quiet. Hoseok mentions the weirdest of things from time to time and Namjoon indulges him, but for the most part Yoongi doesn't have to worry about noise from the cars, high schoolers frolicking the streets, or Seokjin dropping questions at random. They split up at the end of the block, Seokjin and Hoseok heading the other way to catch a bus, Namjoon walking further north, and Yoongi ready to alight the stairs. "Rest," is the last thing Yoongi recalls hearing from Seokjin before making his ascent; the last thing he recalls seeing, Namjoon waving over his shoulder and flashing a peace sign at the others overhead.

Only minutes after – already sitting comfortably in the train with his earphones plugged, with a full stomach and his chest brimming with a twisted sense of contentment and satisfaction, miles away from wherever Seokjin is headed in that cozy little bus of his – does he realize that he's never given Seokjin a proper answer.

Only then does he realize that he never said 'no'.