Once upon a time, the night was clear and the moon hung in the sky like a beacon. It called out to Taehyung's heart and drew him in, had his elbows perched on the windowsill and face pressed to the glass even though it was definitely way past his bedtime. The second star to the right shone especially bright.
He stopped singing and let out a sigh. It's about time to sleep, he thought to himself.
But just as he turned on his heel and made toward the bed, he heard a loud knock on his window, and then another and another.
There on his windowsill sat a boy. Not just any boy, but a boy in a ratty green hoodie, a smirk on his face and large, round eyes, as large and round as the moon itself.
"Come, let's go on an adventure," someone whispered.
When he wakes up, he does so to the sound of sirens and rushed footsteps and the feel of grass against his back. The throbbing in his head starts then, loud and pounding, and it doesn't cease even as he sees his parents and a group of policemen clambering toward him.
"Taehyung!" his mother calls out, arms darting out to pull him into a bone-crushing hug.
He tries to open his mouth and speak, but nothing comes out and his head hurts, his heart hurts. It's only then that he registers that she's crying—his mother, the fabled iron woman who fought her way through four attempts on her life and married a man five years younger, unheard of back then, is crying.
"Taehyung, where have you been?" his father asks. He's anxious, too, lines on his face tight and lips pursed, eyes shining. He never knew his father could look so old.
"What do you mean?" he croaks. He looks around and sees that people have started to stop and stare. "I was just headed to bed last night. I don't know how I ended up here, though. Maybe I sleepwalked?"
His father passes him the piece of paper he's been clutching onto like it's his lifeline.
Thirteen years old, 164cm, 50kg
Last seen: 3 September in Gongsan-dong, Daegu
Please contact 02-3444-0143 if seen.
"It's been a month," his mother breathes. "A whole month. You were missing for a month, Taehyung. Where did you go?"
The thing is, he can't remember. He tries and tries, but all he ends up with is a splitting headache, and it feels like someone's cut a hole in his chest and ripped his heart right out. He tries and tries, but all he remembers is a pair of large, round eyes and a wicked smirk.
"You're late," Jimin hisses, as he tiptoes in backwards and slides into his seat with a loud sigh of relief. It's only their first lecture of the year and he's already off to a wonderful start. How nice.
"It's not called 'late' if no one catches you," Taehyung replies, smiling.
He finds himself not quite able to pay attention to the lecturer. The voice drones on and on and god, is it boring. Maybe he should pass a note to Jimin. That would be cool. But Jimin would probably hit him on the head and sexile him from their dorm for the next five years, since someone is trying to get onto the Dean's List to impress a certain pink-haired Music major.
Just as he's about to fall asleep, mouth hanging open unattractively—as a certain best friend has told him many, many times—said best friend taps him on the shoulder.
"Hey, Tae," Jimin says. He catches sight of Taehyung's cheek pressed against the table and frowns. "Dude, wake up. Lesson's over."
"That was fast," Taehyung straightens up and yawns, "and enlightening."
"You should really get some proper sleep, you know," he frowns. Then he looks to the crowd of students filing out and nods his head at one in particular, a tall figure with broad shoulders and a green hoodie, back faced toward them. "You see that?"
"Um, he's dressed in his pyjamas?"
"What? No," he scoffs. "Have you seen him around before?"
"Park Jimin," Taehyung begins solemnly. "Are you trying to cheat on Swagmaster Suga? Because, let me tell you, I know Hoseok and he says that Min Yoongi is—"
"What?" he splutters. "No, no. Anyway. That's Jeon Jeongguk. He's a year younger than us, just transferred in and he's already skipped a whole year."
"Whoa, that's cool." Colour him impressed. He's barely gotten through a year of Linguistics without blanching every time he so much as hears the words 'Chomsky' and 'Lakoff'. "So he's a genius then?"
Genius Jeon stops in his tracks right then. He frowns, as if he can hear them talking about him from the other side of the classroom. (He probably can. Jimin and Taehyung aren't exactly the most subtle of people.)
They lock eyes, and Taehyung is momentarily taken aback, hit with a shot of something like nostalgia and familiarity, that feeling when you meet a childhood friend after years of walking your own separate paths. He can barely tear his eyes away from the other's, lined with dark circles and half-closed, like they're treading the line between dreams and reality.
Jeon Jeongguk should really get some sleep, he thinks.
Then Jeongguk walks away, Jimin shoves at his shoulder and tell him to "get your ass off the chair and stop staring, it's creepy", and it's all over.
Taehyung is the kind of person who is the walking embodiment of a rainbow, with a side of tequila whenever the weekend arises.
At least, that's how Seokjin once described him, and he's inclined to agree. He's the resident people-pleaser, a highly commended campus tour guide, aspiring guitarist and the sort of person to stay up late at night, making goodie bags for high schoolers who wander onto their campus during their open house, complete with temporary tattoos and all. In short, he's a pretty cool and nice person.
And so, when he sees Jeon Jeongguk wandering around alone all the damn time, he can't help but wonder, and as he wonders, he starts to feel bad. Jeon Jeongguk always wears the same hoodie and the same sad expression in his eyes, like he's seen the world and lived through it twice. He never sees him talk to anyone or walk with anyone. He's just always... there. Alone, frowning. Comes to class and leaves as soon as they're dismissed. Rinse and repeat.
It's a Friday afternoon when he spots the elusive Jeon Jeongguk all alone, sitting back against the trunk of a tree, that permanent frown still etched on his face.
"Hi there!" he chirps. He sits down on the grass next to Jeongguk, elbows brushing the hem of his hoodie. "I'm Kim Taehyung."
Jeongguk turns to look at him. His eyes widen, his mouth hangs open a little, as if he wants to say something but the words are caught in his throat. Then he smiles, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes.
"We're in the same linguistics class," Taehyung explains, undeterred by the lack of response. "You're new here, right? Just transferred?"
"Mm." He nods, a jerk of the chin that has his jaw jutting out and whoa, hold on a hot minute, Jeongguk is maybe kind of very attractive. "I'm a year younger."
"That's really cool," Taehyung smiles.
It's kind of awkward, trying to befriend someone who deals in monosyllabic replies and head jerks. But the more they talk and the more he manages to squeeze words out of Jeongguk by sheer willpower, the more he realises that there is a strange aura around him.
He can't quite put his finger on it. But it's not anger or hostility or indifference; it's sadness, something that clings to his skin, a sort of melancholy that feeds off of old souls.
It's not just that either. Talking to Jeongguk is frighteningly easy. Taehyung's pretty good with small talk and strangers anyway, able to chat even with even the most eccentric of people, but conversation seems to come especially naturally with Jeongguk even though he hardly seems like a willing participant. Well, he'll take what he can get.
And, to be honest, Jeongguk isn't completely pushing him away either, so he takes that as a sign that he must be doing something right, and by the time he offers to get them both a cup of coffee, he's managed to get a smile out of Jeon Jeongguk, and that in itself is more than enough.
"It was one small step for a man, a giant leap for Taehyung's harem."
"I don't have a harem!" Taehyung shouts, affronted. He shoves at Jimin who quickly backs away, still laughing his stupid ass off. "I just have lots of friends. And sex."
"Harem," Jimin sings.
There is some truth to it though, however ridiculous it sounds. After that one day, Jeongguk no longer shies away from Taehyung. He even took the initiative to sit next to him and Jimin during that one lesson they share. And it's nice. He learns that Jeon Jeongguk, for all the tall, dark and brooding facade he puts on, is a pretty awkward person who doesn't quite know how to interact with others, which certainly explains the lack of, well, interaction. They've taken to hanging out together a bunch of times, three of them crowded over a tiny coffee table and a single cappuccino, hogging the seat for hours just so they could finish their text analyses.
"Do you see this face?" he exclaims, falling backward onto his bed. Jimin's still at dance practice and he somehow managed to rope Jeongguk in to accompany him on his quest to finish his sociolinguistics paper. "This is the face of an angry man."
"Taehyung," Jeongguk says. "You should have done this a week ago."
"I can't hear you over the cries of Les Miserables telling me I should have taken Literature instead." He turns over and buries his face into the pillow. "At least then I'd be able to bullshit my way through instead of having to actually study."
"Shakespeare's rolling in his grave right now," Jeongguk says. He rolls his eyes. Well, Taehyung can't actually see him rolling his eyes, since he's currently trying to escape from responsibilities, but he's pretty sure Jeongguk is giving that sassy face of his that he's come to realise is a bit of a signature look, if one could even call it that. "Seriously, though. You need to get down to business."
"And defeat the Huns?"
"And finish your paper." There's the clicking of a pen before Jeongguk pulls him off the bed and presents the laptop, which had until then been sitting latent and mocking, with a flourish. "Look, I've even written the first paragraph for you."
"'Kim Taehyung is an angry boy who needs to finish this paper,'" Taehyung reads out loud. He turns to Jeongguk and glares but is pretty sure it has no effect; over the past couple of weeks, he's discovered that Jeongguk is all but immune to glares, sneers and lewd jokes. He sighs. "Alright, alright. Let's get pizza first, though. Dibs on pepperoni."
"Ew, pepperoni." Jeongguk wrinkles his nose but picks up his phone anyway—an old, clunky flip phone the thickness of his palm. The first time he'd whipped it out Taehyung thought he was back in 2005. "Since you're the hyung, you're paying, right?"
The next time they head out together, it's two days after he forced Jeongguk into a Tokyo Ghoul manga marathon which saw both of them lying on the bed, side-by-side, laptops propped up on their laps. Jeongguk shouted every time Kaneki Ken almost died (which was every other chapter, obviously), and Park Jimin poked his nosy head in every half hour and told them off for killing their eyesight before they even become of age. Killjoy.
A friend texted Taehyung about a new coffee shop opening that's modelled after Anteiku, the very coffee shop in Ishida Sui's masterpiece of a story, if Taehyung does say so himself. The place where everything started. And so, as a devout fan, what else can he do but visit it on a Tuesday evening?
"It's crowded," Jeongguk says, as they push open the door and enter, the tinkling of the bell signalling their arrival. The servers bustle around in uniforms the exact replica of Anteiku's, though Taehyung does feel his heart drop when he realises there's no Touka, Yomo or Kaneki walking about. "But it smells great."
It really does, he thinks. He inhales deeply. It smells like freshly ground coffee, but there's something else in the air—lavender, maybe, something distinctly floral—and it almost makes him dizzy.
"One cappuccino and one Americano, please," Taehyung requests. The man behind the counter nods and smiles.
Jeongguk's already in one of the booth seats in the corner, but he's shifting around uncomfortably, eyes darting here and there, hands clenched in the fabric of the armrest, knuckles white. Taehyung frowns and makes his way over; he places a hand on Jeongguk's shoulder, trying to tell him to breathe, calm down, they're in public. It sort of works. He can feel Jeongguk visibly relax, knuckles loosening their hold on the poor armchair, but his fingers still dig into the material.
"Are you okay?" he asks. "You're kind of tense."
"No, it's nothing, I'm fine," Jeongguk reassures.
Taehyung glares. "Liar."
"No, really. I'm just overthinking things," he insists. He reaches for the cappuccino and sips on it, making a face as it touches his lips. "Ah, shit. Sugar." And he proceeds to add a grand total of ten sugar cubes to his coffee.
Taehyung can't help it. He laughs, hard enough that he clenches his stomach and feels tears well up in his eyes. Who'd have known that stoic, gloomy Jeon Jeongguk would have a gigantic sweet tooth?
"What's so funny?" Jeongguk asks, affronted. He puts the cup down to cross his arms and pouts almost petulantly.
"You're going to get diabetes from that," Taehyung manages to say. He looks at the other boy incredulously. "Ten sugars? Really? That's enough sugar to kill a cow."
"Really?" Jeongguk's mouth drops open and his eyes widen. "Cows can be killed with ten sugar cubes?"
He bites back another laugh. "Um. Probably not."
To his own Americano, he adds nothing. This is how coffee should be taken—black and bitter, leaving only the biting aftertaste of roasted coffee beans behind. And the coffee really is pretty good. He's got half a mind to ask them about the origins, since all they said was that it was an 'in-house mix'.
"How is it?" Taehyung asks. Jeongguk's downing his cappuccino by the gulp, as if to get it over with as quickly as possible, wrinkling his nose as he does so. He feels his own face fall. "You don't like it?"
At his words, Jeongguk hurriedly places the cup down. "No, no, it's fine. It's just, I've never had coffee before, so I didn't expect that it'd be so... strong? Is that the right word?"
"You've never had coffee before?" Taehyung gives him a look of disgust usually reserved for the piece of gum he finds on the sole of his shoe after a day of classes. What a heathen. "Heathen. You've blasphemed. Please lie in a ditch and reflect."
"My silence is my reply."
They milk the place for all it's worth, ambience and all. Briefly, they consider buying a slice of blueberry cheesecake to share; after seeing the price tag ("I can buy three bowls of bibimbap with that!") they sneak off and Taehyung takes forever and a day to savour his Americano, just so they can stay in the place a little while longer. He ignores Jeongguk's super subtle coughs of "table hog".
"That was rude," Jeongguk says as they make their way out of the cafe. "I swear the couple behind us was giving us the evil eye the whole time."
"It's called getting the most bang for your buck," Taehyung explains, getting on his tippy-toes to pat Jeongguk on the head. The taller boy flinches but doesn't move away. "You need to learn how to be selfish sometimes. This is how you live in the adult world."
"Yeah, well," Jeongguk shrugs.
At some point, they end up passing by a small alley. It's one of the small nooks and crannies in this labyrinth of a city. Its walls are decorated with graffiti of all sorts, from the witty to the undecipherable, half-torn posters adorning the concrete too. He notices something at the end of the alleyway.
"Jeongguk, look!" he calls out, pulling on the hem of the boy's hoodie to make him stop. There's something glinting at the end. Like fairy dust, gold and silver, swirling around in the air. He leans forward into the alley. "Do you see that?"
"What?" Jeongguk asks.
Taehyung is already crouched and ready to sprint. He whips his head back and grins at Jeongguk. "I'll race you!"
But he's already shot off, darting into the alleyway. It's not every day you get to see something you've never seen before.
You know that feeling you get when you just know something is wrong? There's a shiver down your spine, something makes you stop in your tracks, your hair stands on end and your heart stops and you know that, fuck, this is it. This is how you're going to die.
That's what makes Taehyung come to an abrupt stop. That, and the ominous screech of something heavy scraping across concrete, a metal beam stretching above him, and all of a sudden it's getting closer and closer and closer and—
Someone yanks Taehyung backward and he falls onto a body, harder and larger than his, something that smells like mint and cherry blossoms.
He's breathing heavily, too heavily. His chest is heaving and he swears his heart is about to leap out of his chest.
"Taehyung, Taehyung," Jeongguk breathes. "Are you alright?"
And he snaps out of it. He realises he's literally lying on top of Jeongguk, the very person who just saved him from what would have been a horrible death, and rolls off to the side hurriedly, face-planting into the ground. He pushes himself up on all fours and closes his eyes.
Inhale, exhale. It's going to be okay. It's alright. You almost died, but you're alive. You're alive. You're not dead. You're not dead.
"Taehyung, can you hear me?" Jeongguk's voice is at his ear, low and insistent, and he can feel a phantom hand hovering by his shoulders, as if wondering if they have permission to hold them. "Taehyung, please answer me."
He opens his mouth but nothing comes out. His brain has come out of shock but his body clearly hasn't, and all he can do is nod, more of a jerk of the head than anything else, and sit up properly, curling his head between his knees as he leans back against the wall. He can't even be bothered to think about how unhygienic this is, or how he almost became Kaneki Ken. His breaths still come in staccatos, inconsistent beats that come and go in tandem with nothing, nothing at all, and he can't think and he can't speak and he can't move—
"Taehyung, please," Jeongguk pleads. He sounds desperate now, so desperate. Then he cups Taehyung's face in his hands and brings it up so that he's forced to meet Jeongguk's eyes. "Come on. Look at me. Listen. You're okay, you're safe, you're fine. Okay? You're okay now."
"I'm okay." The words come out as a whisper, a feather's touch. It takes everything to say them but he still can't meet Jeongguk's eyes. "I'm okay."
"You're okay." Jeongguk slings an arm around Taehyung's shoulder to carry him up. "Come on, let's go back, alright?"
He can't do anything but nod and follow. His feet move on their own accord, but Jeongguk's supporting him in every other way possible, almost dragging him across the pavement. All he can do is stare straight forward and try to still the hand that has his heart in a chokehold. And as he obediently follows along and manages to breathe once again, he almost misses the way Jeongguk stares right into the eye of the alleyway and glares as if he sees something no one else can.
Taehyung doesn't talk much about the incident afterward, and Jeongguk knows better than to ask. He doesn't even tell Jimin. But things go back to normal and that is more than enough for him.
"You don't have anything on this weekend, right?" he asks. Jeongguk shakes his head. "Let's go out today," he smiles. They're sitting on some benches watching people file in and out of lecture halls. "This place is gorgeous and I'm guessing you've never gone around much."
"No, not really," Jeongguk admits. He bites at the pen between his teeth and smiles. "But it'd be cool."
It really is a beautiful town, and it's one of the reasons why Taehyung even chose to come here in the first place despite it being so far away from his home. In springtime it's especially so. Cherry blossoms dot the stream a myriad of pinks, grass a shade of green he believed only ever existed in storybooks. But even in the fall, there is a small area, a mere ten minute drive out from the campus, that Taehyung likes to call his own.
"Ta-dah!" he proclaims, presenting the view with a flourish.
It's one of the open pastures near a forest, a patch of clear greenery amongst thick foliage. But it's not small, not at all. It spans almost an entire football field, a sparkling lake situated right in the centre, surrounded by rocks and trees and shrubs. There's a hill somewhere off to the side and mountains in the distance. It looks like something out of a Ghibli movie. The only thing missing is a waterfall and a beach, but he'll let it slide.
"It's gorgeous, isn't it," Taehyung says, eyes twinkling. He motions for Jeongguk to come nearer but when the boy hesitates, he merely reaches out and pulls him closer. "Come on. You're not going to ruin its beauty."
"It is gorgeous," Jeongguk says. The words sound like they're caught in his throat. He blinks. Once, twice. Then he shakes his head roughly and looks back up at Taehyung and smiles, smiles so bright his eyes shine, and it makes Taehyung's chest ache. "It reminds me of home."
"Your home is a beautiful place, then," Taehyung says. He sits down on the grass and stretches his legs out, leans back onto his elbows. "I always lived in the city, so a place like this is pretty amazing for me. I've never been to any place like this but every time I come here, it always feels like I'm coming home to something familiar."
"Oh." Jeongguk sits down too, almost tentatively. "Okay."
"Also, I forgot to tell you," Taehyung says, turning to the side to grin at the boy who doesn't seem to know what to say. "We're having an impromptu outdoor sleepover."
"What?" Jeongguk splutters. Then he glares at Taehyung. "Did you even bother asking?"
"No, I didn't," he replies, unabashed. "But I have sleeping bags and a tent in the back of the car and I fully expect us to utilise it so we can catch something called 'the sunrise'."
"Oh yes, the sunrise," Jeongguk says exaggeratedly. "That time when the spherical piece of dirt we sit on rotates near a giant ball of hydrogen gas. Wonderful."
"Take back what you just said!" Taehyung exclaims. Arms held up in front of his face, head tilted slightly forward in a battle stance. He is ready to fight. "Sarcasm is unbecoming."
"I like think I'm sassy."
"No, you're not. You're just rude."
They do end up sleeping in the tent that night, and he endures the shrill of three different alarms on his phone before finally waking up with bleary eyes.
Oh, god, he wants to go back to sleep. He really can't be bothered to get out of the sleeping bag right now, and so he merely twists his body such that his lower half kicks against Jeongguk's. A bit like a snake or a worm. Jeongguk doesn't budge, though. He sleeps like the dead. But Taehyung keeps at it, snickering as he sees the other's body becoming more and more twisted with each hit, until Jeongguk finally lets out a loud groan and turns over, arm flying over to hit Taehyung in the face.
"Ow!" he exclaims. "That's what I get for trying to wake you up."
At this, Jeongguk finally opens his eyes. He stares straight at Taehyung and for one electrifying moment, their eyes lock, and he feels like all the pieces have settled into place, like his heart is being torn apart and mended together all at once. He can feel Jeongguk's breath on his face.
"Let's get up," he laughs weakly. "Sunrise."
After a lot of prodding, they climb up a hill and neither one even complains, not even with empty stomachs and aching legs. Soon enough, the sky is flooded with a myriad of pinks and reds and oranges as the sun rises above the horizon.
"It's nice," Jeongguk says. "But kind of underwhelming."
"I can't tell if you're being rude on purpose."
"No, really. I've seen better," Jeongguk says. He smiles and his eyes crinkle just so. "But this is nice too."
Taehyung breathes. He closes his eyes and lets the wind wash over his face and kiss him good morning, feather light, bringing with it a faint scent of springtime even though it is only fall. It feels good. Nice, comfortable. Sides pressed against each other, exposed knees knocking into his, the slight roughness of his hoodie against the skin of his wrists.
And as the sun peeks above the hills in the distance, he feels happy. He's always been predisposed to joy, moments of euphoria usually accompanied by a rectangular smile or a loud laugh; but it'd always die down. Now, there's no shot of adrenaline. It's just... contentment. Happiness. Not like he's floating or anything (though he would kill to float, that'd be cool) but more like his heart feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, like he's home.
He turns toward Jeongguk. The morning light catches on his cheekbones, on his jawline and the slope of his nose, and his chest tightens.
"Are you alright?"
He turns away and smiles into the sky. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Taehyung comes to enjoy their little adventures. He hopes Jeongguk does, too. It started out as wanting to show Jeongguk around the town, but now, he wants to show Jeongguk the world.
It's another Friday again and after a bout of keening and underhanded bribery ("I'll buy you bubble tea! With extra pearls!") he manages to drag Jeongguk out from under that damn tree and into his car and onto the road, back to that open pasture, because in all honesty, he's still miffed they didn't get to jump in the lake. Fingers wrapped around the other's wrist, he hauls them both into his beat-up Chevy and starts the engine.
"Is this your first car?" Jeongguk asks. He breathes onto the window and starts to draw. It's a penis.
"Yes, he is my first car," Taehyung replies, resisting the urge to reach over, grab Jeongguk's hands and shove it back into his lap. No one is to defile his precious car with male genitalia, temporary or not. "His name is The Titanic. Capital 'T's."
When Jeongguk turns his head, it seems to happen in slow motion. But then his laughter breaks out all at once, and he's doubling over, one hand propped up on the dashboard in front of him to keep from keeling over.
Taehyung wants to hit him and kiss him at the same time. The thought makes his heart skip a beat.
"'Do you want a ride on The Titanic?'" Jeongguk mimics. Tears still brim at his eyes. "'Don't worry, it won't sink, it just has a flat tyre and smells like college boys.'"
"If I wasn't driving, I would hit you right now."
"Try me." Jeongguk steels himself and just his chin upward, a small smile playing on his lips. Then it breaks into a full out grin and his nose scrunches up really, really adorably and his eyes curve into little half moons yet not quite, because his eyes are huge and his cheeks are maybe kind of very pinchable. Then his eyes dart to Taehyung's hands on the steering wheel. "On second thought, no. Don't kill us, please."
They reach the place without any bodily injury. (His ego did get bruised, though. Just a little bit.) And he's glad to see that the lake is empty. It always comes as a shock to him how quiet the place is, as if this piece of heaven in the middle of the forest opened up just for him, and him only. Well. Him and Jeongguk, he guesses.
He walks toward the edge of the lake and takes off his shirt. It's kind of chilly, but not cold enough that he wouldn't dare dip into the water.
"W-what are you doing?"
"Come on," Taehyung calls out. He waves Jeongguk over, but the boy is hesitant, back still glued to the side of his car. "Let's get in the lake."
"It's fun!" He starts working at his jeans, unbuttoning the first one only to find that the zipper had been open the whole day. Ah, damn. That must be embarrassing. At least he wore his plain boxers today, and not the Hello Kitty ones Jimin had bought as a gag gift (and that he secretly wore every week because they were comfortable as hell, so sue him). "Come on!"
It takes about five more minutes of coaxing and pouting from Taehyung before Jeongguk finally relents, like he has always been doing for this past while. They place their clothes on a large rock and Taehyung steadfastly refuses to look at Jeongguk, not even once, before stepping into the water.
Cold, cold, cold. That's all he feels. It's not the first time he's gone in the lake, but it's the first time he's gone in with someone else, and it makes him even more self-conscious than ever. He can feel Jeongguk's eyes drilling into his back. Fuck, he can see his goosebumps, can't he?
But Kim Taehyung is anything if not a fool, so he simply walks further and further in until he can no longer feel his feet graze the bottom of the rocky floor, and he gives himself in to the water.
He dives underwater for a few seconds before resurfacing, shaking his head to get rid of the bangs covering his eyes. And right there in front of him is Jeongguk, treading water, looking all around him as if he is unable to believe what he's seeing.
"It's nice, isn't it?"
Jeongguk pauses in his rapid analysis of their surroundings to look at him. There's still wonder in his eyes, wide and glazed over in awe.
"Yeah, it is." A smile, soft and tender and almost not quite there, stretches across his face, and he reaches a hand out to swipe the wet bangs away from Taehyung's eyes. Where his fingers are, warmth spreads, from skin down to bone. "Thank you."
His heart hammers against his chest and he knows if he opens his mouth now, he will say something completely, absolutely, infinitely stupid. So he keeps it shut and keeps his words locked inside his mind and tucked away in his heart. He shakes his head again, letting water splatter all over Jeongguk's face, and grins.
When they've swam the length of the admittedly small, but beautiful, lake and engaged in sufficiently intense games of who-can-splash-more-water, they prop themselves up on the shore. He catches sight of the blank ink peeking out from behind Jeongguk's shoulder blade. (He tries to ignore that yes, Jeongguk has very nice shoulders, thank you very much.) Unlike most tattoos, the ink is barely there, thin and unassuming. The lines come out in confident strokes and he twists his body to get a better look at it but it's still hidden by Jeongguk's back against the ground.
"I didn't know you had a tattoo," Taehyung murmurs.
"It reminds me of home," Jeongguk says. His voice is thick and heavy and he reaches a hand over his shoulder, muscles in his arm straining as he traces the outline of whatever it is. "It's been a while."
"Where are you from? What's your home like?"
"It's beautiful." He leans back against the grass and looks into the sky. Like this, he looks just like a god, Taehyung thinks. Majestic and beautiful, tall and strong. "Sort of like this place, actually. Lots of trees, lakes, mountains. There wasn't a lot to do, not like the city, but it was home."
"I was from the big city," Taehyung starts. "Alright, it wasn't that big. Daegu. Smaller than Seoul and Busan, definitely, but I'd still count it as a city. I wanted more peace and quiet."
"You? Peace and quiet?" Jeongguk scoffs.
"Yes, peace and quiet," he replies, slightly miffed. "I don't know. I just saw pictures of this town and there was this tug in my heart that said yes, you need to come here, it's where you belong. And here I am, I guess."
Silence. Jeongguk just stares at him, eyes darkened and hooded and contemplative, like trying to figure out a puzzle. His gaze is too intense. Taehyung has to stare at that spot between his brows for fear of choking or doing something similarly embarrassing.
He can't tell what Jeongguk is thinking. People say your eyes are the window to your soul, but for Jeongguk, they betray nothing but a vague sense of wariness and burden, like he's seen too much and has yet to forget.
"Your eyes look like they've seen the world."
He's surprised to find that it comes out hoarse, words unrehearsed and rough and honest. But Jeongguk, Jeongguk merely nods in an almost solemn manner that almost makes Taehyung want to take back every word he said.
When Jeongguk finally speaks, it breaks his heart.
"They have," he says. On his face is not so much a smile as it is a tug of the mouth, accompanied by eyes that look far, far too old for his age. "They have."
Taehyung looks back out at the lake because that's all he trusts himself to do. It's mid-afternoon now, and the sunlight glints off the surface, diamonds and pixie dust encrusting the top of the water. Every so often a ripple breaks to the top and every time it does, Taehyung counts down from ten.
When he reaches one, he musters up the courage he doesn't have and asks, "Can I see your tattoo?"
Jeongguk nods and turns onto his side, showing Taehyung his back.
A feather. That's what it is. Not just a simple tattoo, but an actual sketch of a feather, as if someone had taken graphite and toiled away at his shoulder, a palm-sized sketch complete with shading and contour. It's all thin lines and shadows and it looks almost ethereal—almost real—so much so that he catches himself reaching out for a mere touch and quickly snatches his hand back.
"A feather?" Taehyung says. He reaches over to his own shoulder, where the tattoo would be if it were on him instead. A stamp to anchor him down to home. "That's... really, really nice. It doesn't even look like a tattoo at all. More like someone imprinted a picture of a feather onto your skin."
"That's exactly it," Jeongguk nods solemnly, before breaking into a smile.
He smiles back and leans back onto the ground, the side of his body against Jeongguk's. It's warm and nice even if they're still dripping and the wind is chilly. Never mind that the grass is really itchy and he will probably end up with allergies tomorrow. Never mind that. Because they're here, right now, together, and even if this is all he's going to get, he will take it all.
Friday night and the town is eerily quiet as all of them squeeze in the open-air back of Seokjin's truck, on their way out to the nearby city of Hanam for the weekend. The college's rather rural location makes for peaceful weekdays but drearily boring weekends; and this is what they've become used to. This time, he brings Jeongguk along after Jimin keeps hinting at his new 'harem', and he folds into their group almost seamlessly.
He sits beside Taehyung, leaning out of the truck slightly, face propped up on his forearms. They're not moving particularly fast—Seokjin has a penchant for something called 'not dying', apparently—but the night breeze is enough to mess up Jeongguk's hair.
Barely thinking, he moves the bangs out of Jeongguk's eyes, lingering on the soft strands. They fall between his fingers like silk. But he snaps his head away immediately, doesn't dare catch the other's expression.
"So you guys do this every week?" Jeongguk asks.
"Maybe once a month. Twice if we're lucky." Yoongi is the one who answers, most probably because he's the only one awake. Seokjin and Namjoon are seated up front and Hoseok and Jimin are both asleep by now, the latter using Yoongi's lap as a makeshift pillow. "Nothing much to do in the town."
Jeongguk hums in acknowledgement. His eyes flicker to Yoongi's hands, one playing with Jimin hair and the other on his chest, anchoring the boy down. Taehyung nudges him with his elbow and nods toward the spare blanket in the corner of the truck, a silent question hanging in the air.
"Want to get some sleep?" he asks. "It's another couple of hours before we get there."
"It's alright. I like the night," Jeongguk replies. "Don't really get to see it often."
Taehyung frowns. "What do you mean?"
Jeongguk doesn't answer. He merely smiles enigmatically, wistfully, and tilts his head backward, baring his neck to the night winds.
Two in the morning and their first stop is a fast food diner that's open twenty-four hours, right on the outskirts of Hanam. Namjoon's house would be the final destination, the spare place that his parents keep empty and they now use as a weekend getaway, but for now, they're starving and seven hungry boys need some sustenance. The cashier doesn't so much as blink an eye when they enter.
"I'll order for you guys," Namjoon says. Seokjin's tired, tired after driving for hours, already slumped on the table. The rest shuffle in with heavy bodies too. "Jeongguk, are you okay with the usual?"
"As long as it's edible."
Namjoon cracks a smile and when he returns, it's with a tray full of food. The smell of grease and salt has never been so appealing. Taehyung grabs the fries and begins shovelling them into his mouth by the handful; they're kind of dry and could do with more salt, but he takes what he can get.
"Jeonggukkie, open up," he coaxes. Now that he has eaten something, he feels much more awake. He holds up a bunch of french fries in the air, the other hand tickling Jeongguk's chin in an attempt to get him to open up. Maybe tickle him while he's at it. "Say 'aah'."
Jeongguk narrows his eyes but opens up anyway, and Taehyung triumphantly shoves the fries into his mouth.
The boy looks a little out of place here. Like he's uncomfortable, unfamiliar with the idea of a two am fast food run, even as he meshes with everyone so smoothly. It's in the way he fidgets every so often, knees knocking against Taehyung's under the table. It's in the way his mouth dropped open and the way he stared up into the artificially bright lights when they entered. It's in the way he seems endlessly fascinated by the night sky.
But Taehyung is discerning, and he catches these little things, even as he knows Jeongguk tries as hard as he can to hide it. The wonder, the surprise. He knows better than to bring it up, though. Not when people can just up and leave. Not when Jeongguk can just up and leave.
"They have curly fries?" he asks indignantly when he catches sight of the flyer. He looks down into the normal fries in his hand that now seem comparatively sad. "What is this?"
"Disappointment," Jimin snickers. He glares, throws a fry at Jimin and fist-pumps the air when it lands in his bangs.
"I'm going to get curly fries," he announces. "And a drink. Anybody want some?" Everyone either shakes their head or is too busy eating to answer. He shrugs. "Alright then."
He returns to the table with more than expected: two servings of curly fries, a large cola, a box of chicken nuggets and a chocolate sundae.
"Are you sure you can finish all that?" Jeongguk asks, incredulous.
Time to prove him wrong. Kim Taehyung has a stomach of steel, if steel was flexible as it was strong and could expand to accommodate multiple meals in one sitting. "Of course. Don't question the abilities of the Holy Grail."
"Did you just refer to your stomach as the Holy Grail?" He makes a face. "Really?"
"You'll get used to it," Jimin says. "Though for all the time you two spend together, I'd think you already are."
Taehyung sticks out his tongue at his annoying best friend. Emphasis on 'annoying'. "If I didn't value my curly fries that much, I would throw them at your face."
He starts off with the curly fries. They're good. Not the best he's ever had, but worlds better than those pathetic normal fries that are in dire need of a good crisping. The nuggets are decent too, he guesses. You can't really go wrong with fried chicken, even if it does come in a rather dubious form of meat paste.
But when he reaches for the cola, takes off the lid and brings it to his lips, Jeongguk suddenly lashes out and knocks it to the ground.
Taehyung turns to his left and is about to lash out at Jeongguk because why the hell did he just destroy a perfectly good drink? But he can't do that, not when Jeongguk's face is now completely pallid and kind of fucking pale and it makes the dark circles under his eyes even more prominent, the look of utter terror on his face cutting into Taehyung's heart as he stares right at him, as if Taehyung would disappear any moment. He can't do that, not when he rips his gaze away from Jeongguk because he can't deal with the intensity and sees the cola on the floor, sizzling away until it turns the tiles a charred black, nothing like he's ever seen before.
He's pulled up from his seat, hears Jeongguk mutter something short and quick and foreign in response to everyone else's puzzled cries, before he's brought to the bathroom. He leans back against the bathroom wall—it must be dirty as fuck, but he can't find it in himself to care—and he's breathing too hard and there's something stuck in his throat and—
"Breathe, Tae. Breathe."
It takes a few moments for him to catch his breath. He looks up at Jeongguk and hold on, why is Jeongguk all blurry now, why are there fucking tears?
"What just happened?" he croaks. "What the fuck just happened?"
"You saw it. You saw the smoke," Jeongguk replies. Shaky, but patient. Gentle. "You know."
"Why?" he sobs. His chest hurts. It really, really fucking hurts. "Why me? Why now? If the universe wanted me dead it should have done it earlier."
"The universe doesn't want you dead." A hesitant hand reaches out. "And don't you dare say that. Not now, not ever. You're not going to die."
Tears don't come as a torrent. They come in short staccatos, sudden and ugly, in tune with the sobs that break from his throat. He falls forward onto Jeongguk's chest and arms, strong and warm and familiar, wrap around his body. He presses his forehead against Jeongguk and feels the hoodie get wetter and wetter with salty tears.
"You must think I'm a wimp," Taehyung mumbles, voice muffled by the shirt. "That I'm crying, even when I haven't died."
"You're not a wimp. You're brave." His cheeks press against the top of Taehyung's head. "Really, really brave."
"I've almost died before, you know. When I was really young, I disappeared for a month. A month. I can't remember what happened, nothing at all." He pulls away slightly, fingers still playing with the hem of Jeongguk's hoodie. "And one day it finally hit me that I could have died. I could have actually vanished, have my family and friends torn away from me and when the metal beam thing happened, god, I swear, I thought everyone was going to be taken away from me, that this was how I was going to die." He laughs weakly. "Fuck, that's selfish, isn't it? That I only care about dying because I want to have my mother and father, to have Hoseok-hyung and Namjoon-hyung and Seokjin-hyung, Yoongi-hyung and Jimin and you. It's selfish. I'm selfish. I just... I just don't want to die."
There's a pregnant pause and the air is still, too still, before he finally speaks. "Everyone's selfish, and everyone doesn't want to die."
"Do you know anything?" Taehyung asks softly. "How did you know the drink was poisoned? How were you able to save me the previous time, back in that alley?"
"I-I don't know," he stutters. His eyes dart away. "It was a hunch, I guess."
"Yeah, just a gut feel. Something didn't feel right."
"It was a good hunch, then." Taehyung doesn't quite believe him, but he's not in the right state to ask any more questions, not when he's still reeling. He steels himself. "Thank you."
He spends the weekend in a sort of stupor. No one questions what happened after they come out of the bathroom, everyone acts as if nothing had happened, and the spill on the floor has cleaned itself up.
The days are spent trudging through as if he were in a thick fog. He's not sure what to believe any more, finds himself curling into Jeongguk's side more often than necessary, hands seeking out his. He does his best to put on a strong front and a happy face, but it's clear from Jimin's periodic frowns and Seokjin's concerned looks that it's not working very well.
When they get back to town on Sunday afternoon, Jimin's at dance practice and Jeongguk is somewhere or another and so, he coops himself up in his room. It's easier to forget this way.
Maybe this will placate Jimin. He can only hope. He doesn't want to explain anything, not when he doesn't understand it himself. He needs answers, and he is absolutely sure that Jeongguk has at least some, but he doesn't want to come on too strong and risk pushing the boy further into his shell, not when he's barely begun to coax him out of it.
Maybe it was just a fluke. Definitely. If he's unlucky enough to disappear for a month, then he's probably unlucky enough to almost be crushed by a metal beam and die via cola. After all, life's a game of luck and chance, and he's starting to think the odds were never stacked in his favour to begin with.
They go on their adventures once again, and it manages to take his mind off the fiasco somewhat. They've taken to not just exploring the forests a mere minutes' drive away, but even scouted out a few new places. Not necessarily nature, mind you, but they hold a sort of beauty all the same. Abandoned houses, silent scrapyards. He never knew the small town held such gems, not when he flew back to the comfort of his little abode all the time.
The sky is navy, a velvet blue that reminds him of stormy oceans at midnight, stars blinking against the backdrop of a dark and silent night. This treehouse is one they've found only recently and he likes to think of it as another one of their secret hiding spots. A place to run to when he fails the latest quiz, when Jimin steals his socks, when fear grips him once again. It's comforting, much like the open spaces in the forest. It even smells like wood.
And so this is how their days pass. He goes to class in the mornings and looks forward to nights where he and Jeongguk sit in the shelter of an old, musky treehouse, the glare from their phones the only light source.
Or weekends, when they escape to the city with their friends and binge on fries and steadfastly avoid the greasy fast food place. Or when he hops into his car and waves Jeongguk along, and they travel along an all too familiar road, back into the embrace of the forest, where they chase after the sunrise and climb up rolling hills and come undone in sparkling lakes.
It's peaceful. He knows it won't last, because nothing good ever does, but he relishes it while it's still here. This is the only way to be happy when you know happy endings only happen in fairytales.
One night, they sit in the treehouse, Jeongguk next to him as usual as he fiddles with his phone. Winter is coming and he's wrapped up in layers and layers, but it's not quite enough. Jeongguk, on the other hand, is an actual furnace.
"You're really warm," he whines. "This is so unfair."
"Life is unfair, young padawan." Ever since he introduced Jeongguk to Star Wars, the boy can't stop talking about it. Not just Star Wars, either; everything to do with space and the stars. Then he smiles. "Do you want my sweater?"
"It's fine," he replies. "If I take yours too you'll probably freeze to death. Then who would come climb into treehouses with me every night?"
There's a small window. It's the only source of ventilation, but it's more than enough, because the night wind manages to filter in anyway. It's dark out here in the countryside. Cities are full of light no matter what time of the day, so much so that it drowns out the glimmer of the stars; but here, it's easy to be fascinated by just how bright orbs of hydrogen gas glint against the backdrop of the universe.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Jeongguk whispers.
"Yeah, it is."
"You know what else is beautiful?"
He tilts his head and cracks a smile. "What?"
It isn't even funny, but he starts laughing, doubling over at his own very unfunny joke. His laughter is high-pitched and, in all honesty, kind of awkward-sounding, but it suits him all too well. He actually looks his age now, cheeks rounder and eyes brighter. And even then, the moon is still kind to him, its light glinting off against his cheekbones and the slope of his nose and his jawline. It catches on his collarbone and stains it with dark shadows. And in the next second, Taehyung finds himself leaning forward.
They kiss under the moonlight and in the shelter of an old, abandoned treehouse. It's cold and hot at the same time, all hesitant hands and wet, open mouths and soft breaths.
And even though it's tentative and soft and slow, like they're testing the waters before deciding to make the first jump, electricity still courses through his veins and down to his very bone. It feels like he's on fire. Jeongguk tastes of mint toothpaste and, for some odd reason that he can't be bothered to question, cherry blossoms, and he's surprised just how much Jeongguk leans into him too.
When they break apart, it's with loud gasps and heaving chests, wide eyes and red, swollen lips. He opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out and, really, nothing needs to, not when Jeongguk gives him a smile that makes his chest swell and leans forward once again.
If there is one thing Taehyung is good at, it is forgetting. Within a matter of hours of anything going wrong, he goes back to normal and manages to pull a smile across his face; not as boxy or rectangular as usual, but a bright grin nonetheless, and no one can tell the difference.
For a moment there, when they escape to the forest or to the treehouse or, heck, even just to the comfort of his dorm room, ignoring Jimin's suggestive looks and Yoongi's knowing smiles, he manages to forget. Just for a while, he doesn't tense up every time he goes near an alleyway or see a bottle of cola. He doesn't worry about the fact that he almost died twice. He's always been good at masking whatever is making him freeze up, but being with Jeongguk—it's as if he's a child again, free of worries and burden.
The trouble is, memories always come back to haunt you.
The next time something strange happens, he's on the way back from conducting a campus tour. It's seven on a Friday night and the sky has already turned dark, the campus stores have all closed and he's making his way across the ridiculously large quad. Seriously, who designed this school? It's far too large a place for this few students. As he trudges along and curses the architects of educational institutions, he hears the rustling of bushes.
He should know better and run away, but he's always been a sucker for danger. And so he stops.
"Who's there?" he calls out. It's a campus, it should be safe, he reassures himself. It might be late and dark and there may be no other people around, but it's a school and no one would dare attack him in a school. "Come out!"
Within the next second there's a loud scuffle and he feels fingers grab around his throat, pulling him toward the ground. He kicks and grabs at the attacker's hands, clawing and clawing and clawing, but it's no use, not when he can barely fucking breathe and his vision is getting blurry and he hears the murmurs of low cackles by his ear, not just one but several.
"This is for taking him away," a voice snarls into his ear. Then he feels a blade, sharp and cold as ice, press against his throat, and the first trickles of blood and pain seep in. And then there is a blaring, white-hot ache in his chest, like someone has twisted it inside-out. "And this is for leaving him."
He hears scuffling, someone being pulled off his body and then thrown against the ground, the pain in his chest still blazing but slowly subsiding. He hears a familiar cry of "Taehyung!" and musters a lift of the lips.
The memory of what happens next is fuzzy. Time passes by too slowly, but he remembers the look of sheer fury on Jeongguk's face as he does something, something dangerous and deadly. He wants to tell him to stop but he can't speak, he can't move. He can only see Jeongguk's face painted the colour of war.
And when it all ends, Jeongguk brings him back to his dorm, slings an arm around his shoulder and carries him with all the care of someone handling a porcelain doll. Changes his clothes and wipes him down. Lays him in bed and tells him to go to sleep, that he will be alright.
He has questions. So, so many questions. But before he can ask any of them, Jeongguk is gone, and it is as if no one had ever entered in the first place.
When he wakes up, this is when he knows he needs answers. He texts Jeongguk every day, every hour, but there's no reply. He can't find the boy any more. He's not under the tree, not in class, not even in their secret hiding spots.
And so he decides to look for Jeongguk in his dorm. The problem is, he only knows which building he lives in, and not the exact unit.
This is how he ends up loitering outside one of the dorms all the way on the other side of campus. The building is old and dreary, all grays and browns, and he's not surprised why Jeongguk would rather camp out at his place instead. Just his luck, too; it's a Tuesday afternoon and most people are still in class. There's barely a living soul around to ask.
He lets out a sigh of relief when he finds someone walking out of the building.
"Excuse me!" he calls out, jogging toward the girl. "Do you know which unit Jeon Jeongguk stays in?"
"About this tall," he says, placing his hand an inch or two above his own head. "Always looks like he's upset about something, wears a green hoodie. Really big eyes with really dark circles."
The girl purses her lips and frowns. "What's his major?"
"Psychology. I think."
"You must have the wrong place," she says. "This dorm is only for STEM majors. No social sciences."
"What, no, I'm pretty sure this is where he stays." He is sure. Jeongguk had even pointed it out one day when they walked past and adamantly refused his repeated attempts at letting him in. "It's the East Wing Dorm, isn't it?"
"It is. But I've never seen anyone with that description around, and we only have math and science majors here."
"A-alright, thank you."
Something's wrong. Something's weird and suspicious and very, very wrong.
His phone buzzes and he looks down, only to see a series of messages, all sent in quick succession.
Literally two seconds later, he turns around and sees Jeongguk running toward him, sprinting with all his might, eyes widened in apprehension and fear and something else. Taehyung opens his mouth and is about to ask what the fuck is going on, but he merely grabs Taehyung's wrist and takes him away from the building. He doesn't even register where they're going.
"What's going on? Where are you staying? Why have you been lying?" His voice comes out urgent, insistent and desperate, but he doesn't care.
"I'm staying with a friend now."
"No, you're not even a STEM major. You weren't even staying here in the first place." He realises that they're beside his car. Jeongguk leans against the door and he has half a mind to tell him to move, damn it, but he can't bring himself to do it. "Who are you?"
"Just drop it, Tae. Please."
Anger creeps in, anger at not knowing and being lied to and not fucking knowing. He clenches his knuckles until they're white, pulls open the door and flings himself into the driver's seat.
"Get in," he says. His voice is calm. That's good. Calm is good, calm is good. "Get in."
And Jeongguk does. He takes shotgun hesitantly, hands folded in his lap and looking straight forward, jaw clenched.
Taehyung drives. He drives because he is mad. So, so mad. Hands clutching onto the steering wheel for dear life, feet on the pedal as they speed out of campus and onto the open road. It feels like something has his heart in an iron-grip, the sinking of his stomach. He wants to say something. He really, really does. But each time he opens his mouth, he knows all that will come out is a snarl and poison-laced words.
They've been driving for half an hour, maybe even more, and neither has said a word. All that hangs in the air is a tension and an uncomfortable silence.
It's high time they stopped.
He puts his feet to the brakes, pulling up to the side of the road so they can have a nice, long talk like decent, mature adults, but nothing happens. He keeps stepping and stepping but nothing's working, the car doesn't slow down, only speeds up faster and faster and shit fuck damn the whole car is swerving off to the side, he hears Jeongguk shouting at his ear and he can't get the car to stop—
There's a jolt of pain as he's thrown out of the car and lands, back-first against the gravel. Sharp rocks dig into his back and cut at his skin. The wind is knocked out of him and he can't move, he can't move he can't move he can't move, everything hurts and nothing is okay.
"J-Jeongguk," he tries to call out, but he can't even hear the words himself. They fall from his lips like a silent whisper. He can't see, everything is blinded by the scorching sun and everything is white, pure white.
This is how he dies, he thinks. This is how he dies, a broke college student with his family torn away. His friends torn away. Jeongguk torn away.
There's a voice at the side of his head. "Wake up, wake up, wake up," it calls, desperate and almost sobbing.
It's Jeongguk. He knows it's Jeongguk, he's heard the same voice a thousand times before, but it also sounds like a voice from years ago, the voice of a boy who sat on his windowsill and he is absolutely certain because he knows, in his heart, that that boy had said the exact same thing before.
In the back of his mind, the rational part of him asks, why is Jeongguk even speaking? Why is the boy on the windowsill even speaking? But this isn't a time for rationality.
He tries to blink his eyes open but everything hurts and it's blurry, he can't see anything except blobs of colour. And what he does see is Jeongguk crouching above him, seemingly and miraculously unharmed, anxious and angry. He runs his hands over Taehyung's body and it's a wonder Taehyung doesn't spontaneously combust, not least because he can barely feel anything, anything at all.
Words spill from Jeongguk's lips, strange incantations in a foreign language that he's never heard before, and he passes out.
Taehyung opens his eyes. It takes little effort, feels like he's merely woken up from a fitful sleep.
Is he thirteen all over again?
He's lying on a patch of grass and for a moment there he thinks he's back in the forest, near the sparkling lakes where he and Jeongguk escape to every week, but he looks to his left and there it is, The Titanic completely wrecked, upturned and destroyed.
Even worse is Jeongguk lying down on his right, pale and unmoving. Then he notices that Jeongguk's chest isn't even moving, not even the slightest bit and panic rises up like bile in his throat. Shit, shit, shit.
"Don't do this," he mutters.
He sits up with surprising ease and leans over Jeongguk, grabbing him by the shoulders and leaning down to listen for any sign of life. Nothing. Zero. None. His hands are jittery as he props them on the ground for leverage and puts his ear to Jeongguk's mouth. He's never been religious, but right now, he's praying and praying and praying for even just the slightest breath.
His eyes open and Taehyung collapses on top of him in relief, feels his heartbeat slowing down. Jeongguk smiles almost lazily, but it doesn't make sense, not when his face is as white as a sheet and his lips have lost all colour and his eyes are shining with tears. God, he looks like absolute hell, but at least he's alive.
After relief comes happiness, because Jeongguk is alive. Taehyung is happy, so happy he could cry, so happy he could kiss him.
And so he does. He leans down and cups Jeongguk's face in shaky hands, brings their lips together, tastes salty tears on his tongue as he keens into Jeongguk because they are alive.
They pull away after a while and he smiles at Jeongguk.
"I never wanted you to remember," Jeongguk whispers, a sad smile on his lips, before it feels like he's being flung out of a car all over again.
It hits him like a freight train, and he remembers everything.
"Come, let's go on an adventure."
The boy sat on his windowsill like he belonged there, back leaning against the frame as the wind blew past him and ruffled his dark hair. Moonlight filtered in and, in any other situation, would have cast a dark shadow; except, in this case, the shadow was nowhere to be found.
Taehyung tilted his head. This is suspicious. He liked fairytales and mysteries and grand adventures, but he was not stupid.
"Why should I?"
"I can show you how to fly."
Now that was definitely suspicious. Only someone completely delusional would claim they could fly. Sometimes, Taehyung would pretend that he could fly, too, but he's not as delusional as to claim that he actually could.
Then the boy stood up on the window ledge (Taehyung had half a mind to tell him not to get his dirty, ugly shoes on his window, damn it) and he stepped off with an almost dramatic flair, hands raised in the air and falling backward into the dark, dark night. Taehyung rushed toward the window, and even though he barely knew this strange boy, he prayed and prayed that he would be okay. It's just a two-storey drop, right?
Instead of a mangled corpse, he is met with someone literally floating in mid-air. The boy hung in the middle of the air, suspended by some magical force or another, a mischievous grin on his face. He held a hand out invitingly.
Taehyung was still marvelling at the fact that the boy was actually floating. "Taehyung."
Jeongguk dug deep into his pockets and presented a handful of something numerous, tiny and sparkly with a flourish. With a wave of his hand, he threw whatever he was holding onto Taehyung's entire body, bits of dust and scattering across his skin and glinting against the dim light.
"Pixie dust," Jeongguk grinned. "It does wonders."
A tingling feeling spread its way up from his toes and along his spine and into the back of his neck. And the next second, his feet are above the ground. He's floating. He's flying.
The grin that he flashed must have been blinding, because Jeongguk stilled for a second before putting on that strange smile again and pulling Taehyung out from the window. With his hands—fingers long and thin, just like piano fingers—he grabbed Taehyung and wrapped his arms around the boy's waist before taking off into the night.
They fly and fly and fly, until they come to a place with rolling hills and sparkling lakes and sunrises the colour of lavenders.
"This is Neverland", Jeongguk said. "Where we never grow old, because the sun never sets and the day never ends."
He was introduced to the lost boys, a ragtag group of young boys all a few years younger than the two of them, sporting ratty clothes and mischievous smirks. These boys proudly asserted the fact that they had followed Jeongguk from their homes all the way to Neverland, because Neverland was home for lost boys, just like them.
They spent their days fishing and hiking. They laid down by the numerous lakes and waterfalls and watched as water rushed over and casted everything a foamy white. They hiked up rocky mountains and small hills to catch the sunrise, which flooded the world a light purple instead of the oranges he was so used to. They fished by the rivers for their meals, sat next to each other and made bets as to who would reel in the first catch. (It was always Jeongguk. It would always be Jeongguk). They met mountain spirits with stories as old and wise as the universe, talked to animals that would shun them once they realised they had no food. On occasion, he would pass by the hobbit hole where the lost boys resided and invite them along, but they would either shake their head or sneer or smile sadly.
But for all they did, his favourite place was a small open pasture in the middle of the forest. It was not a particularly large space compared to everything else there was, but surrounding it were a series of small hills and right smack in the centre was a sparkling lake. When midday came, sunlight would glint off it and a thousand tiny diamonds embedded themselves on its surface. Almost like pixie dust, he thought. They jumped into the lake every other day, hidden from the sight of the lost boys or mountain spirits or talking animals. It was their secret spot.
One day, they perched on the shore of that particular lake. Afternoon sun beamed down onto both of them, a warm respite amidst the strange but comforting stillness and stasis of Neverland.
One day, Jeongguk told him about the story of the infamous Captain Hook.
"All the lost boys are afraid of Captain Hook," Jeongguk said. He leaned back against the rock and tilted his head up into the sun. "But he's not even real."
"They think he's out to get them, a scary adult on our paradise of Neverland. That if they try to leave, he will come after all of us." He turned his head and looked at Taehyung, looked right through Taehyung. "He's not real, though. I made up the story about Captain Hook and they believed it. So I let them."
All was well. All was well, until one day Taehyung woke up to a searing pain in his chest.
When he looked down, he saw a gaping hole where his heart used to be, now left with a black abyss of nothing and a torrent of blood and pain. When he looked up, he was met with the malicious grin of one of the lost boys, a small one who barely ever talked but wore a sardonic grin all the time.
He heard loud footsteps as Jeongguk clambered in and screamed, screamed so loudly the trees outside cowered in fear and the flowers turned away. All he could feel was pain, pain, pain, but all he could hear was Jeongguk's war cries. All he could see was Jeongguk attacking everyone, lashing this way and that, painting the cave with red and maroon.
It felt like forever before everything finally stopped and the world fell silent.
Jeongguk crouched down beside him, placed his arms on Taehyung's shoulders and wept into his shirt. It was long overdue for a wash anyway, Taehyung thought. He couldn't quite open his eyes fully no matter how hard he tried. At this point, the blinding pain had dwindled down to a sort of numbness that clawed at his heart.
"Wake up, wake up, wake up," Jeongguk pled. It was almost like a prayer, except Neverland did not have gods, only immortal mortals.
Taehyung wanted to scream. He wanted to tell him that it was alright, he was okay, he loved Jeongguk and that was more than he ever deserved.
With half-open eyes he watched as Jeongguk steeled himself and resolution washed over his face. He chanted something strange and quick and rapid in a foreign language he did not understand before leaning down and kissing Taehyung fiercely, so fiercely, fierce enough to draw blood.
And this was when his mind went blank and the world turned to darkness.
Taehyung opens his eyes for what seems to be the umpteenth time and he cries. He buries his head into Jeongguk's arms and lets the tears flood out because it feels as if his heart is dying, as if someone has ripped his heart out for the millionth time in his entire existence. It feels like someone has taken an axe to his mind and body and soul and hacked it apart.
Jeongguk rubs circles into his back and his palms and puts his cheek against the top of his head. And, fuck, it helps, it really helps, but he doesn't feel any better.
"I've been searching for you for years, you know." He hears a smile in his voice. "And I finally found you and I'm so happy. So, so happy, even if I don't look like it half the time. You make me happy, Taehyung. I hope I made you happy too."
The past tense doesn't escape him. But he's always thought that words wield power, far more power than anything else, even fat and luck and chance.
"But the only way for you to stay safe is for me to die." Taehyung's breath catches in his throat and he pulls back, ready to rip a new one into Jeongguk because what the fuck is he talking about, why is he talking about dying, when Jeongguk places two hands on his shoulders and stills him. "Listen. Just listen for a second. When you left, I left too, and I grew up. But so did the lost boys. And they're stronger and more powerful than I am because they still have a lot of magic left in them. They're still bitter and angry."
"Why?" His voice cracks, and it's embarrassing and he wants to crawl into a hole because this is not reality. Reality is supposed to be normal and dreary and boring, not about death and lost love. "Why?"
"Because I brought you there six years ago, on that one night. When I left to search the world, they became even more bitter and more angry. They've been searching for you, too, but they can only track me; and when I found you, that's when they did, too. They think that you stole me—and you did not, no matter what anyone thinks. You stole only my heart."
"That's cheesy as fuck," Taehyung laughs weakly, even as he sobs. He blinks the tears away and looks at Jeongguk, really looks at him. "But you're wrong."
"I'm not. This is the only way, Tae."
"No, no, no, no, no." He's desperate now. Desperate, pleading. He's ready to give the world to have everything back to normal, as long as normal includes Jeongguk. "There's always a loophole. In fairytales, there's always a loophole."
"This isn't a fairytale. It's not even a story." He bites his lip and his shoulders deflate.
"This is not how it's supposed to be. We're supposed to be happy, damn it," Taehyung snaps. But the brief flare of anger barely lasts, passes by only for a second before it gives way to an aching pain that fills his chest, for entirely different reasons. It's worse. It feels like there's a chokehold on his heart, squeezing and squeezing until nothing is left and he can't breathe, he can't breathe. "We're supposed to be happy."
Jeongguk doesn't even look at him. He takes off his hoodie—he never takes off his hoodie—and wraps it around Taehyung, pulls the two of them close together until Taehyung can barely tell where he ends and Jeongguk begins.
"Don't cry," he murmurs, tucking Taehyung's face into the crook of his neck. Lets the tears flow and stain his skin with salt and pain. "It'll be okay. You'll be okay."
He lifts his head back up because this is not how it will end. He will not let it end like this, not when he's just found his fairytale.
"There's another way," he says. "Only one of us can live, right? Otherwise the lost boys will find us?" Jeongguk nods. "Then I'll die. I don't mind dying, not if it means you will live on."
Jeongguk's smile breaks his heart.
"But I've already seen the world."
This is not how it's supposed to be. Taehyung wants to scream, he wants to scream to the heavens and tell them why are they doing this, do they delight in the pain of others? Why must the world be about mysteries and sadness and death? Why can't they pick their own ending? Why can't it be a happy ending? Why?
Jeongguk's arms, bare and strong, are still wrapped around him, but it's not just warmth and electricity he feels. Each touch feels like a thunderstorm of emotions, anger and frustration swirling through his mind. The heavy weight in his chest is not one of sadness—that, he thinks, will come later, when he has succumbed to reality—but it chips away at him all the same, like someone is taking his heart apart and not putting it back together.
He's aware of just how ugly he must look right now. Sniffling, sobbing. A complete wreck. He is so, so angry. Angry enough to pull himself out of Jeongguk's embrace—and the sudden cold, it sends a chill down his spine—and he's ready to fucking fight because there is no way he is going to let Jeongguk die.
But then something shiny and sharp catches on the light of the afternoon sun. A blade glints almost menacingly in Jeongguk's hands, a small dagger that he wields like a sword.
"What is that?" Taehyung knows. He knows, he knows, but he doesn't want to hear it. "Why do you have that? Where did you find it?"
"Why do you even need one when you have fucking magic?" he cries. "If you're so desperate to die, then—"
Jeongguk moves forward with almost imperceptible speed. He grabs Taehyung's right hand, wraps it around the hilt of the dagger and clasps it between his own. It's only now that he registers that they've moved to the edge of a cliff. He can see the sharp plummet over Jeongguk's shoulder, a furiously loud river running hundreds of meters below.
They're literally on the precipice of the world. He looks almost ethereal like this, Taehyung thinks, back to the sky and sun, tall and strong and the very sort of person who deserves to be immortalised in prose and portraits. His eyes are wide, wide and sad and shining, a look of utter resignation across his face as he holds Taehyung's hands even tighter between his own. He holds on tight enough that his knuckles bloom a stark white.
He takes a step backward, and then another. Ever closer to the edge of the world.
"Taehyung, please," Jeongguk pleads. His voice is softer than he's ever heard it before, barely carries through the wind. But Taehyung is adamant. He's not about to let anyone die. Not now, not ever. Feet rooted to the ground, he refuses to budge. "You need to be the one to do this for it to work. If you don't come along, I'll just jump off right now."
"What are you—"
"I'll jump off right now if you don't do it." He's resolute, voice steady and commanding and god, there it is, in spite of that supposed calmness, there lies that undercurrent of melancholy. Like he's accepted his fate. "It'll be less painful if I'm stabbed through the chest. A quick, swift death, rather than falling off the cliff and cracking my bones all the way."
Tears stream down his face and his vision is blurry and there's nothing he can do, except follow along with Jeongguk as he nears the edge of the cliff.
"No, please, no," Taehyung chokes. He shakes his head furiously. "No, no, no."
Wind billows around Jeongguk's face and his bangs sweep over his eyes. He wants to reach out and brush them aside like he's always done, but he can't do that, not when his hands are around a fucking knife and the slightest movement would send both of them tumbling down. How cruel it is, that the grand display of someone standing against the world, someone who is so loved by the sun and moon and stars, would eventually lead to tragedy.
They're teetering on the edge now. Playing with life and death.
"Don't say goodbye," Jeongguk whispers. "Never say goodbye. Because goodbye means going away, and away means forgetting."
"Please don't say that like you're about to leave and never come back. Please, Jeongguk."
"I missed you, you know," he says abruptly. "Six years—only six years—but it felt like an eternity to me. I searched everywhere but I couldn't find you and, god, when I finally did, I was so happy. But you didn't remember me at all."
"O-of course I didn't." He tries to laugh. "You wiped my memory, you asshole."
"Yeah, I did, didn't I?" Jeongguk gives a wry smile. Then his gaze drops to the tears lining Taehyung's face and something in his expression softens. "Hey, don't cry. I won't be gone forever. I'll wait for you, alright? Move on with your life and do what makes you happy. Don't linger on the memory of a ghost. And someday, we'll meet again, somewhere between reality and all we've ever dreamed."
"I love you," Taehyung sobs. "I love you so fucking much and I don't want this to happen."
"But it has to." He steels his gaze. "For both of us."
"For both of us," he echoes. He closes his eyes for a few moments and takes in a deep breath and when he opens them again, he does his best to be strong, because no one wants to be sent off by a grim reaper who can't even get a hold of themselves. "I'll wait for you. We'll wait for each other. No one's going anywhere."
The corner of Jeongguk's mouth lifts up and he bites his lower lip and the look in his eyes makes Taehyung want to fall into his arms and cry all over again.
"You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming?" He pauses, loosens his hold and strokes the back of Taehyung's hands with rough fingers. Reaches up to caress his face, wiping off a stray tear that clings onto an eyelash. "That's where I'll always love you. That's where I'll be waiting."
He can feel it now. They're so close to the edge, so close that a slight breeze would knock them over.
Jeongguk pulls him close and for a moment he thinks they are about to fall into the abyss together—and an errant thought rushes into his head, the thought that he wouldn't mind it at all—but instead of death he merely meets Jeongguk's mouth, warm and wet and desperate. They kiss feverishly, hotly, passionately, like it is the last time they will ever get to do this. (It is. It really, really is.) He traces the inside of Jeongguk's mouth, the way he tastes of cherry blossoms and mint, the way his bottom lip is just slightly fuller. He commits to memory every last detail about Jeon Jeongguk, Jeon Jeongguk, Jeon Jeongguk.
And when they pull apart, he finds that the blade has loosened from his grasp, already buried hilt-deep inside Jeongguk's ribcage. Blood seeps out from the wound and stains the shirt. He can't tear his eyes away.
But the look on Jeongguk's face, that is what breaks him. He isn't pained, he isn't crying or angry or upset. He wears a smile on his face and tears in his eyes, a bright grin that Taehyung has only ever had the privilege of catching once in a blue moon and a lone tear that makes its way down his face, catching on the corner of his mouth.
"I love you," he whispers, before stepping backward, falling and falling and falling into nothing.
And this is the story of how Jeongguk disappears from his life.
Everything goes back to normal. It's almost as if the universe is mocking him, and he doesn't know how to feel about it, going through mindless motions with a heavy numbness. He goes to classes, hangs out with Jimin and the rest of the gang, escapes to the city every once in a while, but always makes sure to avoid forests and treehouses of any kind. No one seems to care that Jeongguk's disappeared. After all, the strange genius transfer kid must have simply upped and left for a better school—why'd he even come to this slump of a college in the first place?—and when asked, he merely nods.
He carries around the truth like a weight on his heart.
Every night he comes home to a green hoodie on his bed, damp and ratty and soiled, a hoodie that he never washes but presses close to his face before he goes to sleep, uses it to pat his eyes dry and fill his entire being with the scent of mint and cherry blossoms.
Every night he dreams of a place called Neverland with rolling hills and sparkling lakes and lavender sunrises and a boy on his windowsill whispering to him, "Come, let's go on an adventure."
A thousand miles away, in a land filled with rolling hills and sparkling lakes and lavender sunrises, a boy perches atop a tree branch. The wind is a little strong today. Usually, he would be wearing a green hoodie, but circumstances have seen it gifted away.
There's no one left. The place is beautiful, the stuff of fairytales, but quiet. Everyone's grown up. But unlike him, they don't remember the way home, not after so many years of bitterness and hatred have festered in their hearts. They will continue to roam the world for years and years until their magic wears out, but at the very least, Taehyung will be alive. They won't be able to find him anymore, not when the protective charm, carved out of his tears and kisses, still follows the boy around and guards him against all malice.
In the distance, a bird calls out and the sound of rustling leaves breaks the silence, just for a moment. A river spirit trots on by with a log tucked underneath its arm and whistles loudly.
He toys with the idea of heading back. It would be nice to see him again—it would be brilliant; he would move oceans and mountains to see him again if it meant that he would be safe—but he knows it is nowhere near safe for either of them, not as long as the lost boys still walk free and will pounce onto him the moment he leaves. And eventually, they would find Taehyung, too.
Maybe one day in the distant future, when the sun has died out and the universe is dark and silent. Maybe one day when Taehyung has all but forgotten about him. Forgotten all about the first day he flew past a nondescript house with a boy singing his heart out and decided to take him on an adventure, forgotten about six years later when they finally meet again, forgotten about the boy he gave his heart to.
He might as well be dead, then. Love is not worth dying for, but Taehyung is.