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something was bound to go right sometime today

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The good news is that the new batch of cats that Yoongi has taken in has already calmed down considerably. Seokjin isn't the biggest fan of cats, would rather have a pet koala clinging to him all the time or cute little turtles poking out their heads when they feel they're safe to expose themselves, but when you have a best friend who has lived with you practically your entire life and has a heart too soft for the mewling little critters that he just can't say 'no' to them even if the flat Yoongi shares with Seokjin is already 90% cat and 10% Living Space For Humans, it's impossible to look the other way and kick them out, said best friend included. That and, well... Cats are nice. They're drama-free creatures who know the concept of black and white, yes or no. If they don't like you, then they don't, no questions asked. If they do, however, they'll demand attention and plop down on your feet and make sure their scent rubs off on you so that other buggers will know you're theirs. Which is actually touching and cute, if Seokjin thinks about it carefully and forgets the bit where 'touching' means 'yay, claws!' with cats, but it's a bit annoying that Yoongi, the biggest, slyest kitten Seokjin has ever known, has actually used the knowledge of Seokjin's ultimate weakness – that is, cute and fluffy things – to great success. To insanely great success. Multiple times.

The bad news is that there are hardly any people in the coffee shop for the cats to play with today. In fact, there have hardly been any customers picking up the kittens these past few days.

Seokjin had initially thought it had something to do with the season. Spring this year is a strange combination of humid and rainy, and if Seokjin were like most of the students they'd been servicing these past few years then he wouldn't slip out of his dorm room unless he absolutely had to (case in point: he was dying from hunger or had to submit a couple of term papers to professors he still had to hunt down). He wouldn't spend so much time loitering in the streets of Seoul with the weather out to torture him; he loves himself too much to do that. If he were like, say, the office workers who flocked their coffee shop on most afternoons, then he would rather spend his three in the afternoon in the loving arms of the air conditioning system. If he were a coffee enthusiast, then... he would probably have an espresso machine of his own back at home; if not, then at least a French press or a coffee machine he could make brewed coffee with. If he were already at the brink of death – whether by bad weather or fatigue – then he would have someone bring coffee to him and not the other way around.

And yet Hongdae was still filled with students whose limbs were slick with sweat and soju and everything that screamed 'not fit for the humid weather', when Seokjin took a train to the next station just to check the coffee situation in other places. And yet neighboring Mangwon or even Sangsu had living people flocking the hole-in-the-wall coffee shops in the area. And yet the location of their coffee shop was ideal – they were at the center of everything that was happening in little Hapjeong, and if anyone ever wanted a cup of coffee from eleven in the morning 'til ten at night then all they had to do was to walk some four, five minutes to Code: Coffee. So it wasn't the weather. It wasn't people just being lazy. It wasn't the people, either. Whatever it was, it most likely had something to do with whatever Seokjin and his baristas couldn't give.

Seokjin heaves a sigh. He can't just gather his things and leave, though. This shop is his as much as it is Yoongi's. He's stuck – with Yoongi's cats and two puppies in the form of Hoseok and Taehyung looking over his shoulder and making these tiny, whimpering noises that sound a lot like yips, and a Min Yoongi balancing a soft kitten on his head as he says, "Y'know what? Maybe we should actually consider doing coffee deliveries. Dibs on the rider job. I'm getting as far away as possible from your dogs. They're driving me crazy."

"My dogs? My dogs?" Seokjin gasps, leans back, accidentally-on-purpose transfers his weight on both Hoseok and Taehyung until he can push them back a little, playful yet with just enough force, until the two are groaning and making little jabs at his sides. "Excuse me, they were yours even before we got this place. Don't go dumping them on me!" A half truth, all things considering – he's been sharing friend groups with Yoongi since they were kids. Still, he keeps his voice firm, solid, wrinkles his nose when he feels acid crawl up his throat, when he hears his voice crack even with all the grumbling coming from behind him. It feels a bit weird, even more so to be gripping Taehyung and Hoseok by the wrist instead of holding coffee cups and pastry dishes and handing out change to customers. They don't get to dick around often, not with all the work that they have to do, don't have enough time to breathe around each other when the shop is packed and their stress levels are stacking up. On good days, the most interaction they can get with each other is a pat on the back, a squeeze of the arm, quick, fleeting glances that are more an attempt to check on each other than anything else. Heck, they don't even get to detach themselves from either the counter or the espresso machines unless it's eleven in the morning or just five minutes before closing time! It's been that way since their first brew, when it was just Seokjin, Yoongi, and Hoseok manning the shop. Then Taehyung came in, dragging along with him an entire legion of fans who thought the best way to keep up with Taehyung's energy was to consume the coffee he made. Then Chanyeol helped them out until he had to fly to wherever and finish his masters degree somewhere far, far away. Then Jonghyun and Jinki saved the team from the loss of Chanyeol for a year and a half until they had to try their luck with another company, another job, another chance at idol life, and trusted Myungsoo and Woohyun to help Seokjin and the others out until they could feel a bit more comfortable with the operations.

And then they were back to the original four – Seokjin, Yoongi, Hoseok, and Taehyung, the same group of people that turned the coffee shop from the alright coffee shop that it was before, six months into the start of operations, to the cozy coffee hideout that it is now. Of course, they'd leave, too, Seokjin had grumbled to himself when Myungsoo and Woohyun two tendered their resignation, but it wasn't as if he could keep them from wanting bigger, better things. He did that before, after feeling so stuck in the same place that he made the wildest decision of his life – that was, to leave with only two weeks' notice and to tell his asshole of a production head, "You know what's ruining the commercials we make? You and your close-minded way of thinking that keeps us from opening ourselves up to better opportunities."

Yoongi had snorted then and gave Seokjin a pat on the back in support, then he was handing both of their letters to the same head of production and helping Seokjin gather his things. Two weeks after, they were throwing a small, intimate party with their closest friends in production (which was mostly just Namjoon and Jackson, really; the others were slaves to the asshole of a boss they had). Two more weeks, and they were meeting up with Hoseok at an uninhabited house they bought a few years back, thinking they'd end up single for the rest of their lives so, "Why not buy a house together, right? I mean, you did make sand houses for me before. And flower crowns. And you got us promise rings–" "And you did my morning eggs just the way I want 'em because apparently you were trying to woo me at age eight– Jesus Christ, Kim Seokjin, you'll still need me to sign those bank papers so stop slapping my arm–" Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into some of the most trying months of their friendship until they got everything settled – the tables and seats, the counter, the coffee maker, the name of the cafe that was almost 'Coffeesticated'. Their 'color scheme' for the mugs and dishes, the type of design they were going to go with for the menu boards otherwise Taehyung was going to have too much fun designing the blackboard panels and every surface he could draw on, and the silent agreement that if anyone ever wanted out already, if any of them felt like tapping out anytime soon, then at least give me a month to find someone who can be just as good as you.

Seokjin laughs to himself. People come and go, he has to accept that. That doesn't mean he has to be completely happy about that reality, though.

"I can take 'em in, if you ever want to kick those two out for real," comes a familiar voice, one Seokjin hasn't heard in a while but still rings in his ears as if the man had just walked in four hours ago, at eleven in the morning, just in time for the coffee shop to open. He cranes his neck, pushes his glasses back, trying to see better, and maybe it's just all the days he hasn't seen this particular customer of his at work that makes him notice his eye bags, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the thinly-veiled fatigue in the way his cheeks sag as soon as he eases the grin on his lips into a softer smile. "I've always wondered what having a Taehyung and a Hobi would be like. What kind of dog food do they like?"

Seokjin snorts. "They eat anything that doesn't have ginger and cucumber in them. Even paper and plastic. We found Tae munching on a lollipop stick once," Yoongi murmurs even before Seokjin can answer, but there's no denying the lilt in his voice as he walks past Seokjin and around the counter so he can greet the customer on the other side. Minseok welcomes him with a big hug, brief but not enough to go unnoticed, then Yoongi's pulling away to say, "We haven't seen you in ages–"

Three days, to be exact, whispers a voice in Seokjin's head. It sounds more like a low croak than anything else, but Seokjin knows better than to let Minseok know that. Rule number one in customer service (or, fine, maybe it's just somewhere in the top ten; Seokjin can't be assed to check right now): Do not make snide comments in front of your customers. Don't even curse. The second bit, Yoongi's been working on more these days. Teasing is okay, though – they're close enough with Minseok and Yoongi doesn't really throw sharp words at people without meaning to – so he adds after while, "Seventy-two hours, hyung, seventy-two! I'm beginning to think you've found a new coffee shop to satisfy your needs..."

Minseok's jaw goes slack, lips parting into a small, small 'o', then the corners of his mouth are pulling up in an impossible smile. Now this is familiar, Seokjin muses. He hasn't spent the past five years servicing his regulars not studying the littlest of facial expressions or the way the hard-edged resolution in their voices softens into a hum at the first sip of coffee. He reaches over, then, at the same time that Yoongi motions for Minseok to come closer, and pinches Minseok's arm as he adds, "Or that work swallowed you whole and shot you dead three times before reviving you hours ago. With coffee."

Minseok chuckles. He shakes his head, rolls his eyes, twists his elbow in Yoongi's stomach when Yoongi murmurs something that sounds like, 'yeah, hyung, we feel so betrayed.' "Well, yeah. Sort of," Minseok confesses after a while, then heaves a sigh. "Not that I actually intended to switch shops all of a sudden, but my officemate dragged me to that cafe a block from our office–"

Seokjin squints. "There's a what?" he asks, voice faint and low, then he's looking up to meet Yoongi in the eye. Yoongi's good at schooling his features, on most days, pretty skilled when it comes to pretending he's neither fazed nor shaken by what he sees and hears, but right now Yoongi's eyes are wide and he has an eyebrow cocked and he's mouthing at Seokjin who the hell's in charge of making sure we're the only cafe in town? "As in an actual coffee shop, not a pop-up store or something?" he tries again, when Minseok doesn't answer, "Because there are a lot of those here at any point of the year. That's where we picked Chanyeol up."

"You make it sound as if he's a puppy or something," Minseok replies, laughing a little. He shifts his gaze between Seokjin and Yoongi as if checking for a pulse, a response, then continues, "But yeah, a real shop. A big one, actually. Two blocks down from your place, I think? Near the playground? Corner shop, the one where the rickety 7-11 used to be." He sniffs a little, wrinkles his nose, shivers, and all Seokjin can think of now is that Minseok probably shouldn't be drinking whatever it is that he's been getting at the other coffee shop. Minseok is... one of his favorite purist coffee drinkers. Minseok respects the sanctity of black coffee. Minseok needs... something Colombian and Mexican for his brewed coffee of the day. Nothing too strong that will overwhelm his palate with legitimate coffee flavor after staying away for so long. Minseok needs to buy coffee here and not some pretentious coffee shop– "Thought you've heard about the new shop, to be honest, because you sorta have the same concept. Except they have rabbits and hamsters there, as well. And ferrets. And lots of kids."

Seokjin gulps hard. Beside him, he feels Hoseok shift and murmur against his ear, should I call the troops now, hyung? Want me to alert the gang for a fight? Summon the four guardians or something? He'd probably nod in response if Minseok wasn't around or if he gave little to no shit about whatever their... five customers were going to think if he declared war right here, right now, but nope. They're playing sly and dirty, but I can do that better. With Yoongi's help. Probably. So instead, he asks, "Kids as in... actual kids or kids at heart?" and wears his best smile. "Or dogs?"

"High schoolers, actually." Minseok leans closer, resting his elbows on the counters, then looks up at Seokjin before shifting his gaze to the menu just over Seokjin's shoulders. "Man, I haven't seen legit black coffee ever since I started grabbing coffee from that place. I mean yeah, they have the classics, but why would I even drink sweet potato latte on a regular basis?"

Yoongi cringes. "You need to be purified. At once," he says, offering Minseok a solemn pat on the back as he does so, then lets his gaze on Seokjin linger longer than usual. "Fix our favorite something good. Something that will make him regret even going to that other coffee shop."

"I love how you guys get so territorial about Hapjeong."

Because we've been the coffee authority here for years, Seokjin would argue but nah, he should be focusing on other things, more important things like leaning back a little so he can stop blocking the 'new arrivals' panel of the menu from Minseok's view, like gesturing for Yoongi to get back to the machines because he can make out a group of friends approaching their shop from the glass windows and that means work and salvation for them, like actually getting to making coffee again during their peak hour because aren't three in the afternoon's supposed to be spent walking back and forth, to and from machines as he makes coffee and hands them to customers in intervals? He laughs, then, in lieu of a proper answer, and digs his hands in his pockets as he asks, "So, what are you in the mood for today?"

"Something sweet but not too much? Dessert-y but black. But still strong–"

"And not too acidic, or else your stomach's going to complain the whole day and make you regret everything," Seokjin singsongs. His voice thins to laughter when Minseok groans and frowns. He can hear Hoseok and Taehyung scuttling away, assuming their places in the shop – Hoseok at the bar, and Taehyung just by the pastry shelves. Behind him, he can make out the soft whirring of the machines, the steaming wand, the gentle jingle of coffee beans. His insides lurch. It's a nice lurch, though. "What? It's not as if I'm going to deprive you of coffee– Hey, remember the blend we made for you before? The Mexican-Monsoon Malabar blend? Chocolatey but not too sweet. We can cook that up for you again."

Minseok lifts his eyebrows. His mouth quirks up, corners curling into the cutest little smile. He looks like a cat. He totally belongs in this coffee shop. "I thought the Malabar thing was a limited edition offer? Don't you guys change beans every quarter?"

"We may or may not have bent a couple of rules for our favorites? Whoops?" Seokjin hums, finishing with a wink. "Is that good with you? I mean, it's still acidic but it's not as bad as the Kenyan blend–"

"That I love so much. I know, I know." Minseok heaves a sigh. He hasn't lost the smile yet, though. It reaches the corners of his eyes now, bleeds onto his faint voice that soon gets drowned out by Hoseok's bright 'Welcome to Code: Coffee!' and the chatter of the high schoolers who have just entered the shop. "I hate it when you bring that up. But I love it that you guys actually remember. This is why you guys are still my favorite."

Seokjin gurgles. On a scale of one to ten, he's giving himself an eight for looking ridiculous in front of a customer, but he'll take little victories like this any damn day. And he'll take the sight of more people approaching the coffee shop as a reminder that not all sunsets lead to dark nights. Some pave way to star-laden ones, to better days that see people filling up empty tables and making the coffee shop feel less like a place and more like a home.

He adds a pack of biscotti to Minseok's tray after Minseok settles his order and says, "On the house. We missed you." To Yoongi who's half-chuckling, half-whispering in his ear, "Are you actually threatened?", as they watch Minseok saunter away with his order, grinning from ear to ear, he scoffs, shakes his head, and twists his elbow in Yoongi's stomach until Yoongi's pulling away with a, "Whatever. You're too obvious."

He sticks his tongue out at Yoongi, but quickly puts on his best smile when he hears a new customer approach the counter.

Not threatened at all.

 

 

Well, maybe Seokjin's feeling just a bit threatened. Or curious – that's more like it – and that's exactly why he walks two blocks down when the traffic in the coffee shop draws to a gradual halt. Most evenings, the streets of Hapjeong look like they're fresh off of a thriller or some creepy horror movie that Hoseok probably wouldn't ever watch if he hadn't been dared. The alleys are not the easiest to navigate, what with the shadows of the night blocking his view of the right path, but the new shop isn't too hard to spot. Just follow the trail of young people, of course, grumbles a voice at the back of his mind as he drags his feet down the path. Granted, the place is well-lit, sort of serves as a beacon of light in the darkness of the neighborhood, but he's quicker to make out the familiar faces approaching the coffee shop just a few feet away. He can recall these students from... just a few days ago, actually. One of them ordered an Americano; the other two ordered a macchiato and said something about the coffee 'tasting too much like coffee'. "Well, what were they expecting?" Yoongi said then, voice barely above a whisper but his features screaming 'seriously, kids, why would you even buy coffee if you didn't want to taste at least a hint of it?' Seokjin understood, though; he'd be banging his head on the counter if he wasn't so busy taking orders and making sure Taehyung's trainees got all the coffee orders right by throwing occasional glances over his shoulder, in the direction of the machines. He might have even echoed Yoongi's cry of despair.

All three of them walked away with smiles on their faces, though, so how, how, how could you betray me–

He catches the sound of bells chiming when he swings the door forward, stepping inside and leaving behind the biting cold of spring. The chatter inside isn't just loud; it's deafening. It's like... coffee cups crashing against each other before falling to the ground, or Hoseok and Taehyung after five cups of coffee and three doughnuts each. It's– It's– He huffs, shakes his head, gulps hard and bites the inside of his cheek. He can't even find the word for it! He shivers when he feels something prickling in his ears, when someone cackles too loudly and the rest of the group follows suit, when he looks around, really looks around and takes in the details of the place – the cozy couches, the long tables littered with little post it notes caged in by a thin sheet of glass as a cover, the shelves where the warm yellow light trickles down in flights, casting jagged bolts of light on the customers, sort of softening their features, even setting some aglow. The pretty photos of people laughing hanging on the walls, lending more warmth to the cafe. The faint, faint guitar somewhere in the air, just below the thick sheet of voices. Someone in the group right in front of him laughs and light catches on the man's eyes, making them glimmer, and shit–. All at once, he feels his chest tighten and his throat go dry. That's when it hits him like three punches to the gut and one right up his ass – the very reason why these coffee drinkers have been going to this shop instead of his, an established cafe that has been around for years and has never let anyone down.

"Too cozy," he whispers, more to himself than to anyone who can hear. To all the voices in his mind screaming for release, to the voices that keep asking why this has to happen, he says, Too warm–

"Hyung?"

Seokjin's body gives a powerful jerk, one that sends him shivering a the cool goosepimples crawling up his spine, draping on his nape, wrapping around his neck. It could have been some stranger calling someone else's attention, could be just him imagining things and getting extra paranoid because this happens all the time to people who aren't supposed to sneaking out of the shop before closing time, even if said person is one of the shop's owners, but the voice is familiar enough to make him stop in his tracks and look over his shoulder. His first instinct is to curl his fingers into tight fists, telling himself, you could've easily walked away but look at you, kid, look at you; his second, to force his lips to curl up into a big, big smile that he knows can get him out of whatever shit he's gotten himself in. But come on, who is he kidding? Hoseok won't fall for this trick. Maybe he will in another lifetime, but Hoseok's way too familiar with the slightest shift of Seokjin's muscles already that he can tell the exact point where Seokjin degenerates from 'so damn embarrassed' to 'holy shit, let's just forget this happened or that you even saw a thing.' "No fuckin' way– Hyung?"

Seokjin narrows his eyes. He learns forward, purses his lips, hums in a way he knows freaks Hoseok out because it means Hoseok is in trouble, and puts to good use whatever skill in acting that he's acquired from when he was still in production. He's always been good at method acting – it's the very thing that made him a much more effective commercial director than the rest; he could make endorsers feel the products they're trying to sell – but he still cocks an eyebrow for good measure. Can't be too sure. He has to be 200% sure about everything. "What are you doing here? Didn't you say you had to go grocery shopping–"

Hoseok lifts his arms, holding up two plastic bags the size of Taehyung's head. Could be props, but nah, Seokjin can make out the labels of various brands Hoseok has stuck with in the past ten years or so of his life. So fine, fine, Seokjin loses this round, but that doesn't mean he can't try again. That doesn't mean he can't know why Hoseok's been snooping around. "Whatever. Doesn't explain why you're here–"

"Why are you here, though, hyung?" Hoseok asks, voice lilting as his lips curl up into a smile and as he wiggles his eyebrows. Hoseok doesn't wear this look often, not when he has to plaster a perfect smile on his lips every minute of every day for the sake of customers who look like they've had a worse day than he does, but years of friendship have taught Seokjin to label this peculiar grin as, well... trouble, for the most part, but sometimes it also means light teasing, a challenge. On most days, Seokjin would fight him head on, but when you have just come from suddenly having to service large volumes of people and have made the stupid decision of walking two blocks down with the chilly winds of spring whipping at your joints the only response that makes sense is to wave a hand in the air, brush off the entire situation, and look the other way. "Our shop's not even closed yet. Aren't you supposed to be–"

Helping Yoongi and the others serve the last group of customers that came in just thirty minutes ago? Cleaning the machines and making sure Taehyung isn't adding weird doodles to the menu board? Making sure that nobody he knows spots him spying on his enemy? Probably, but there are more pressing things to attend to such as the bells at the door ringing again and the chatter all around them growing even louder as time inches closer to eleven in the evening. "What the hell? They close in thirty minutes," Seokjin mutters under his breath as he squints even harder, trying to check through the glass walls of the shop if there will be customers walking in at the very last minute, but to no avail – there are too many people circling him, passing him by, painting the details outside in a nasty blur. "I'd turn around as soon as I see the line, but the people just keep–"

"Coming in, yeah," Hoseok mumbles, shoulders falling forward as he heaves a sigh. He looks around again, steps to his side when a new wave of customers comes in, and pulls Seokjin closer to him when a couple of teenagers speed past him and almost bump into him. "Hasn't stopped in the past hour. You'd think people would be discouraged by the long line but nope! They'd rather wait in line for a takeaway drink at ass o' clock in the evening. Nice." Seokjin gulps hard, bites down on his lower lip, thins his lips into a straight, straight line, then he's following Hoseok's movements as Hoseok drags his hand across the room. "The kids at the far back? Came in fifteen minutes ago, ordered a second round of pastries before you came in. The oldies over there, at the long table? The ones hogging the sockets?" Seokjin doesn't answer at first, simply cranes his neck to see better, but soon Hoseok's yanking him closer by the back of his shirt, pulling him away from the students trying to find their way out of the coffee shop, hoping to escape. "I think they've been here for hours. The kids who just left have been praying for them to leave already so they can stay longer – and order more, hyung, they want to order more – but I guess they just... gave up."

Who wouldn't? a voice at the back of Seokjin's head chimes. It's almost eleven in the evening now and those high school students have already lost hours of their precious time trying to study here instead of at a cram school or a private study cubicle. He'd be furious and frustrated and mad at himself for choosing a posh coffee shop as a study place instead of someplace quieter and more comfortable. Heck, he'd have already left fifteen minutes into trying to concentrate because it's impossible to focus on anything but the way the noise makes his ears feel like bleeding. So okay, maybe the coffee shop isn't as cozy – good news for him. It's nice and warm, though, definitely comfortable, reminiscent of university lobbies or cafeterias where Seokjin spent half of his university life in, whether eating, studying, or just dozing off. The chaotic kind of cozy. Right. Of course, kids would love it here. Of course.

"And they serve really sweet coffee here, hyung. Like, super sweet. Sweeter than Taehyung kind of sweet," Hoseok adds. He leans to his side, shifting his weight a little, then he's dropping his things to the floor in a huff. "The only consolation? The manager's really cute. Cuter than cats. That the customers kinda scared off, by the way, because it's too noisy, but hyung, hyung." He widens his eyes, and that gets Seokjin wondering – is he having one of those moments in movies or romcoms where the office crush walks up to the leading man from behind while the lead and one of his closest friends are talking about said guy, or does Hoseok just pour his 200% in everything he does, reactions included? Worse, both? "I swear to God, when you see him–"

'You'll shit bricks' is Hoseok's standard closing, but none of that – Seokjin rolls his eyes even before Hoseok can finish. Hoseok doesn't seem to mind, though, pressing his lips into a tight smile instead of one of those shit-eating grins he loves to wear so much, and maybe that's what makes Seokjin... wonder even more, feel a bit more curious, a bit more scared. Hoseok's face is a reflection of everything that he sees and feels, after all, and right now Hoseok looks like a madman two second away from no longer being constipated with laughter. When I see him what? C'mon, he can't be cuter than me–

"Hello, good evening, and welcome to Hug Cafe!" comes a bright greeting from behind Seokjin, a stark opposite from the disbelief thick in Hoseok's questioning hyung? earlier. Taking a deep breath, he looks over shoulder, leans back a little so he can see better, squints so his eyes don't feel like burning. There's light filtering from right above the man, spilling onto his orange hair, the gentle curve of the bridge of his nose, the jut of his lips that curl up into the cutest little smile. There's... a pause just before the man lifts his eyebrows then brings them back down as the smile on his lips eases into something more relaxed. And there's a faint 'oh' spilling from the corners of the man's mouth just before he twists it to the side, biting down on his lower lip as he says, "I–I'm sorry for making you wait, sir, and thank you so much for your patience. I'm Jimin, the store manager. Can I take your order?" Seokjin's first thought is, excuse me, he isn't cute. His second, fuck, he isn't just cute. The man – Jimin, his mind registers, reminds him – is varying levels of 'holy shit' and 'why can't I be as adorable as he is, why can't I smile like that?' He's all sorts of 'nope'. Everything is wrong about this man who's whispering, head cocking to the side as he does so, "Ex...cuse me, sir? Did you want to order anything? Coffee, tea–"

Or you. "Piccolo, please. Extra hot. The hottest you can go," Seokjin says all in one breath. Jimin hums and nods in response. To Hoseok who hasn't stopped making weird, strangled noises that sound a lot like hiccupped cackling, Seokjin whispers, "You can go now, really. It's past your bedtime. Stop gurgling."

"Anything else?" Jimin asks after a while, eyes widening as he looks up at Seokjin another time.

Is there anything else you can kill my taste buds with, you mean, other than that annoying smile of yours, groans a voice at the back of his mind, but he brushes that off with a shake of the head and a small, perfunctory smile. Only when Jimin excuses himself does he realize that he's been holding his breath half the time, and spending the other half trying to convince himself that nope, this isn't the brightest smile he has seen in years. That peculiar curl at the corners of Jimin's mouth won't haunt him for days. And that he doesn't see, feel the burn of Jimin's smile at the back of his eyelids when he shuts his eyes to take a deep, shaky breath, a step forward, closer to the counter and farther away from his own shop two blocks away.

 

 

As far as modern flirting techniques are concerned, Jimin's an actual pro.

Not that Seokjin had been paying attention to anything else that wasn't the service in the coffee shop; Jimin just made it nigh impossible to not get drawn to him even for the quickest second, whenever he squinted-smiled-tilted his head just slightly as if expressing interest in whatever the customer at the line was saying, even if it was probably an overly customized coffee order that he wasn't supposed to be a stranger to, whenever he did that high laugh of his that sounded a lot like– Shut up, it doesn't sound like music, Seokjin found himself muttering under his breath one time – a lot of times – too faint that he could have just been breathing out, huffing in distress. It doesn't sound anything like music. In fact, it sounded like... dolphins screeching, styrofoam boards squeaking against each other, too many basketball sneakers drawing lines on the court. It wasn't funny; it was annoying. It ticked Seokjin off.

But what probably made him a bit more uncomfortable was the fact that Jimin loved slapping his baristas on the ass whenever he passed by. Two things about it made Seokjin squirm: one, the fact that it was unsanitary to slap someone's ass in the presence of sterilized coffee cups and an open can of coffee beans; and two, it was highly unprofessional to be going around giving your people 'encouraging butt slaps' as a one-sided bonding activity. The kid named 'Jeongguk' – that was what his name tag said, at least; he didn't walk up to customers and introduce himself the way Jimin did – got the brunt of Jimin's slapping spree, but he didn't seem to mind. Then again, the kid didn't even flinch when he cleaned the steaming wand with a piece of cloth that was way too thin to shield him from impending burns. Either Jeongguk was already immune to pain, whether in the form of a sore ass or skin too sensitive from being softened by heat, or Jeongguk liked it.

Seokjin's first thought was, maybe he should've just put up a kink shop. His second, muffled at the back of his mind as Hoseok hummed something about Seokjin being just as flirty and probably doing more with his favorite barista, actually, never mind. That's too dangerous. Much more dangerous.

"You look troubled," Yoongi says now, as he approaches Seokjin, one hand busy removing his apron so he can toss it to a corner and the other holding his coffee cup firmly in place. Seokjin blinks a few times, recalibrating, then takes a quick look around the cafe. Five in the afternoon now and the clusters of people in different tables still keep changing every fifteen to thirty minutes, sometimes even less. The volume of people is manageable, something Seokjin's confident they can serve even if it was just him and Yoongi operating the cafe, but the customers are just loud enough for Seokjin to almost miss Hoseok's bright laughter as he thanks the customer at the counter for commending them on their coffee selection, Taehyung's chuckles as he guides the new recruits – Amber and Kibum – and tries to keep them from teasing each other at the first opportunity in equal amounts. The noise is just loud enough to dissolve Yoongi's humming until Seokjin meets Yoongi's gaze in earnest. It's a noise that he's come to feel completely comfortable with. He'd choose it over the eerie silence in the cafe and Amber and Kibum's little banters in the stockroom any damn day. "What's up?"

Seokjin shrugs. He locks his arms behind his back, groaning when he feels his bones crack, but there's still a tiny kernel of tension somewhere there, from when Jimin had rested his warm palm on Seokjin's back in an effort to urge Seokjin to move forward in the line instead of moving closer to him so Jimin could hear what Seokjin was trying to say, what Seokjin's answer was to Jimin asking if he wanted anything else. You'd think that twenty or so hours after, Seokjin would have already found it easy to brush off the last dregs of Jimin's touch, but no stranger can touch him in a way so soft and delicate and get away with it.

And no way in hell will his body ever get accustomed to new things so easily. He needs time to process, to reprogram himself so he can react exactly how he wants to. He needs space to breathe.

"I'm okay," he murmurs after a while, cracking his neck as he does so. He shivers when he feels a familiar tingle crawl up his spine, the same sensation he gets when he leans back in whatever soft cushion is available and just... tunes out everything. All the stress from the past few weeks is fast piling up on him and, honestly, he'd be lying if he said he wasn't feeling the slightest bit daunted by the dip in sales, patrons, believers. He just... chooses to turn his worries into something more productive – that is, coming up with a new muffin recipe and crossing his fingers that his passion can flare up into something that can sell. The good news: customers liked the new offer a lot when they handed out samples yesterday. Amber ever requested for a copy of the recipe, said she'd try to build on it and see if a dollop of cream cheese on top would work with the cookie butter flavor of the treat. "Pretty excited to see how the customers will react, to be honest!" Amber had even said, "D'you think we can call them Orgasmic Cupcakes? Seriously, boss, you know they're gonna be orgasmic. I'm just saying, we have to call the cupcakes what they truly are, right?" The bad news: Seokjin had to get up at three in the morning instead of five, drag Yoongi's ass all the way to the coffee shop so they could already start baking and so they would already have a sizeable amount ready when opening time hits, and make sure Yoongi didn't snatch two cupcakes for himself. "Just tired, I guess."

Yoongi scoffs. "And Taehyung can actually speak Parseltongue. And Hobi's actually half-puppy and half-human. And I'm tall. We're all tired." There's no sharpness to his words, though, just an underlying softness that Seokjin knows Yoongi reserves for when their ears have already adjusted to the noise and can hear the faintest of sounds again – hums, chuckles, tiny 'hey's' and 'mhmm's' spilling from the corners of their lips, completely unrehearsed. Yoongi nudges Seokjin, just a gentle bump of his elbow against Seokjin's side, then he's offering Seokjin a small, small smile. "And the last time you looked like this was when your cousin got married. Taeyeon-noona, remember? You weren't bawling but you looked like you were dying inside because someone took your favorite noona away from you–"

Why do you even remember? Seokjin almost asks, but it's not as if he has to. Yoongi remembers everything, even the strangest things – the peculiar list of food Seokjin will never eat, Seokjin's favorite candies from the time he was eight and Yoongi was seven yet already an ass for snatching his favorite treats all the time, the evolution of Seokjin's coffee preference from when they were in college and accidentally admitted, while stressing over their thesis, that they once had the biggest crush on each other, when I was ten, okay, which was, what, more than a decade ago? Yah, if you don't let me live down the flower crown thing then I won't let the perfect eggs thing go! up until today. That time, too drunk and too honest, when Seokjin told Yoongi to drop the fucking honorific, dammit. Screw the age thing; we've gone through the same shit together. We're tight. We're equals, because if there was someone in the world whom Seokjin felt would forever be a piece of him, it was Yoongi. Sure, Yoongi doesn't remember to pick up coffee filters for their coffeemaker at home, or to change his toothbrush even when it's already worn out, bristles already sticking out in several different directions, or to sleep, but he does remember to make Seokjin warm milk before Seokjin goes to bed.

"Let's not," Seokjin groans, then kicks Yoongi in the ankle for good measure. It doesn't pack as much power as he'd like it to, but Yoongi wails like he's been shot through the heart with poisoned arrows, anyway. They did this a lot when they were kids, still dripping with too much energy and spirit. Then again, parts of them never really grew up or grew apart. "Go back to work."

Yoongi hovers. He squints, purses his lips, doesn't say a word, but he might as well be muttering his spiel about Seokjin oh-so-subtly pulling up all his walls at the press of a button, sometimes even without him knowing. A 'knee-jerk reaction to people offering help' – that's what Yoongi calls it, has been calling it for years now, ever since that drunken confrontation after their last final exam in university, when Seokjin walked up to the guy who was supposed to be his thesis partner but ended up disappearing from the face of the earth not even more than a week into thesis period. Yoongi had been with him the whole time, only nodding thoughtfully beside him even if Yoongi had offered to trip the evil guy, only humming as he dropped big bombs and words on the man's lap even if Yoongi could have easily pitched in a few choice words, all of them prickling like acid. And Yoongi was also there to give him a pat on the back for a job well done, was there to accompany him to the closest convenience store so they could buy booze and celebrate. Fast forward three hours and Yoongi already had his face buried in Seokjin's chest and he swore on every man alive he could hear the loud thump-thadump where his skin met Seokjin's own even if Seokjin kept saying he was okay, everything was fine, the only thing he could think of at that moment was how stupid they were that they thought they would be able to finish three bottles of soju and two boxes of pizza without regretting it just hours after. That, and, "You smell different. Did you switch shampoos? I thought you were still using mine."

Two beats, and Yoongi was looking up, peering at Seokjin through the narrow slits of his bangs. His eyes were asking, are we really going to talk about this? The small curls at the corners of his mouth were whispering, oh, we so are. Then Yoongi was humming, shaking his head, leaning against Seokjin again, shoulders shaking like the words he'd been rehearsing at the back of his mind were still trying to fight their way out of his system. So maybe that was why Yoongi said, minutes after the topic ceased to be relevant, "Did you want to switch shampoos?"

"I'm okay with the one we have right now, I guess."

"Then no, I don't smell different," Yoongi murmured, slumping against the warm cocoon of Seokjin's body. Half of Seokjin wanted to push Yoongi away, tell him that it was probably gross to be clinging to each other like this when they were drunk and sweaty and too sweet, but that's the thing – they were too drunk and sweaty and far too gone already to even care. So instead, he shut his eyes tightly, listened to the sound of Yoongi's uneven breathing, and laughed a little when Yoongi said, "And I'm still using your shampoo. Mine. Ours."

"Well, in any case–" Yoongi locks his arms behind his back now and stretches, grunting as he pulls hard. He squints a little, eyelashes fluttering in accord, but not once does he takes his eyes off of Seokjin. Yoongi has always been this way – he'd wrap his fingers around Seokjin's wrist just tight enough for Seokjin to feel Yoongi's pulse on his skin, but not enough for the grip to sting. And as strange as it may be, it lends Seokjin a twisted form of comfort, of... balance. It's the push and pull before they reach the standstill, before they're able to walk in the same direction again without having to link their pinkies together, content with the way their knuckles brush lightly against each other. It's the storm before the long calm again. It's their little tremors shaking them up for a few sacred seconds, trying to see if the quake can change anything between them – if there's anything to be changed at all. "–the offer lasts 'til the end of my shift." Yoongi picks up his coffee cup – when did he even put it down? You need your afternoon cup, Jin. Drink it now – and takes a huge gulp of his drink. Trust Yoongi to not be daunted by the impending heat. And trust Yoongi not to let the sting of the scald show in his features, as well. "So if you decide to stay quiet 'til the end of the day then fine, suit yourself. I won't bother you when we get home. I'll let your darkness consume you 'til you're gasping for air. Or until you've passed out or something."

Seokjin snorts. His body gives a powerful jerk, jostles the tension out of his system, then he's laughing and snarling at Yoongi. "Thank you for your concern," he mutters, sticking out his tongue when Yoongi offers a curt bow in response. "I'm really, really touched."

"'He died a masochist' – I'll make sure to have that engraved on your tombstone."

"'And handsome', don't forget!"

"'And in denial'."

Seokjin groans. Yoongi snickers, flashes a v-sign, then he's sauntering to the backdoor like he knows he's already won and his coffee cup's his fucking trophy. Problem is, Seokjin can't even deny being in denial about a lot of things – the existence of another coffee shop in the neighborhood, the way the place draws people in like bees to honey, the cute manager and his cute staff and the high probability that Seokjin might have to hire people who are even cuter (even more adorable than Yoongi's cats and the two puppies behind the counter) or somehow persuade Yoongi that having the baristas wear kitty headbands or caps is a good idea. Slowly, then, very slowly, he reaches out, hooks his fingers on the sleeves of Yoongi's shirt, and gives it a powerful enough tug to make Yoongi stop in his tracks. "It's... about the shop hyung mentioned. The new coffee shop, I mean," he begins, pausing only to breathe in deep, then he's taking a step back to that one step forward that Yoongi takes. "I– Hobi and I checked out the shop and found out a few things." He gulps hard. "A few... interesting things."

 

 

 

"The store owner's hot. Like, really, really hot," Hoseok groans.

Seokjin risks a glance over his shoulder and rolls his eyes. If Hoseok meant Jimin was a bit unnerving with the way he looked at people like he wanted to devour them then sure, he's hot. Scalding, even, but otherwise– Nah, definitely not. Jimin has a bright, boyish smile that reaches the corners of his eyes, regardless of whether he's laughing or plain looking at someone with a fond, fond gaze. Jimin... actually looks like a kid who has never run out of candies, ever, like a kid who treats every single day as Christmas or every period in school as recess. Or maybe every other period, because Seokjin saw Jimin thinning his lips into a tight smile at some of his baristas at one point, caught Jimin lifting an eyebrow at a customer who had apparently hogged the bathroom for too long. Still, Jimin's no... extra hot macchiato. He's a hazelnut latte that has three shots of espresso instead of just two. Good for him, I guess, Seokjin muses, fixing his attention back to the seats he's flipping over and resting on the clean tables. A couple of people could probably benefit from having someone like Jimin in their lives, but Seokjin's pretty darn sure he's not one of them. His needs consist of coffee, food, and sleep. And the peace of mind that Jimin has roughhoused to the ground when Jimin put up a coffee shop just two blocks from where Seokjin's cafe has been for the past five years.

He snorts. He already has a lot of stressors in his life. He doesn't need a life-sized one in the form of Jimin, and he definitely doesn't need one the size of an entire coffee shop.

"No," he says through gritted teeth after a while, once he's done hoisting the chairs up and onto the tables. Maybe he should also flip Hoseok over so he can wipe off the judging look in Hoseok's features. Too much work for eleven in the evening, though. "The real problem is," he says this time, enunciating his syllables a bit more than usual, "the sweet, experimental coffee they offer is actually good. If you could sip past all the syrup and flavoring and stuff, of course, but for people who like sweet coffee, younger coffee drinkers who make up, like, more than half of the coffee-drinking population in the area, their drinks are good. Perfect, even. And now the young coffee offenders think we're elitist baristas and coffee snobs just because we serve only the classics." He scoffs, then, frowns, and lets out a breathy exhale just before finishing, "And, well, Peppermint Macchiato."

"Because Yoongi-hyung actually has good ideas sometimes and the patrons liked that. Remember when we pulled it out? Everyone went berserk," Hoseok mumbles, lifting his arms up as he stretches. When he catches Yoongi cocking an eyebrow at him, he drops his arms to the side and ducks behind Taehyung like it can actually help. "But wait, we are elitist baristas."

Yoongi takes a deep, deep breath. "Thanks, kid. You're being helpful. Very helpful, indeed."

"No, no, I mean–" Hoseok waves his hands in front of him, fingers dancing in the air, and oh – Seokjin knows this. It doesn't happen often – Hoseok's eureka moments are usually more quiet than explosive – but whenever Hoseok runs headfirst into a really good idea, he makes huge, elaborate gestures with everything he can move – his hands, fingers, his tip of his nose, his hips because he can't find the right words for whatever his mind is screaming at him, the rest of his face as he scrunches it before looking up at Seokjin to say, "Seriously, why are we even trying to keep up with them when he have two very different markets?"

Seokjin's eyebrows twitch, furrowing out of their own volition, then he's leaning back, gulping hard, pulling away. Hoseok has a point – his shop and Jimin's are not like espresso and water that naturally melt into each other; they're oil and water. They're black and white and while they can be darker shades of many different colors, the point is that they're different. So maybe they don't have to go head-to-head with Jimin and his shop. Maybe they can co-exist in the same neighborhood and even share customers every so often (Seokjin calls dibs on M-W-Fs; he hates Tuesdays as much as he hates sweet coffee). Maybe... maybe he should stop fooling himself that the very reason he feels so unnerved by the entire situation isn't the fact that there's another cafe in town; it's the fact that right now, he's playing second fiddle to a new coffee shop that offers nothing but sugar dressed up as coffee beans. And Seokjin hates being second best. He hates not being at the top.

He huffs. He bites the inside of his cheek, counts to ten until the right words come rushing up his throat and knocking at the back of his teeth. "Because we're losing customers and we're earning less and if you kids want any shot at keeping your jobs, we'll need to innovate and match whatever they're offering," he says in all in one breath, voice cracking towards the end, but if Yoongi ever notices or feels like pointing it out, he doesn't. Instead, Yoongi stays so dangerously still, lips quirked up just a little at the corners, gaze discerning. "I'm serious," Seokjin continues after a while, "We can't lag behind. We have to come up with a... crisis management plan or something. That doesn't involve sugar."

"Or cute managers and baristas who have a really nice ass–ow! Hey, that really hurts!" Hoseok seethes, snarls at Seokjin, and that's when the tightness in Seokjin's chest lifts a little, just enough to let him breathe a bit more easily. Hoseok's unschooled reactions are much, much better than him trying to piece together a sentence so curt and straightforward that they'd be able to whisper it in each other's ears between shifts, during split-second breaks, as they pass each other behind the counter, Seokjin handing Hoseok happiness in a coffee cup and Hoseok offering it to a coffee-drinker in need, after a long and tough day. Reactions are instant, spontaneous, honest; words will always have a thin veil of something else clinging to the surface. "I'm just saying, when you have a nice combination of a really attractive manager and a barista who looks like an anime character making the best macchiato ever – sorry, Yoongi-hyung – it's hard to fight back."

But we can't just give up, Seokjin's wants to say, but soon Yoongi's humming, squinting, smirking in a way that has Seokjin worrying about his own sanity. "Well, if they're so good at using the power of cute then we'll just have do the same, except with coffee," Yoongi mutters after a while, then shifts his gaze to Seokjin. Seokjin stays in the tight link, the only movement of his muscles that registers at the back of his mind being the slight tilt of his head, otherwise he's anchored right here, to this moment, and Yoongi's pinning him in place with an amused gaze. The peculiar glimmer in Yoongi's eyes is blinding. "We'll just have to do cute in coffee in a way they've never seen before."

 

 

Most days – and by 'most days', Seokjin means seven out of ten times – Yoongi has the worst ideas. 'Worst' not because he gets himself and the people around him in trouble – that would be Taehyung experimenting with scalding milk, all sorts of syrups, and too much cinnamon and nutmeg in his drink, it will be good, hyung, I promise!. Yoongi's ideas are just too damn good that they're already impossible to execute or at least attempt to pull off sometimes. He's always been that way, even when he and Seokjin were still in production – aiming for the best possible outcome, shooting for the stars even if it meant getting shot by his own arrows. He'd want certain treatments for shots that were too difficult, already bordering ridiculous and illogical, but he would keep working towards his goal until his eyes were red and it was already seven in the morning (he could have sworn it was midnight just a few minutes ago). He'd always be willing to risk part of him to get things done, to meet deadlines, expectations, and so far the results have been toeing that fine line between wonderful and you really shouldn't have tried.

Seokjin laughs to himself. The remaining three out of ten times, though, Yoongi has swept people off their feet with outstanding results. And, well, Seokjin's a fish flopping on the ground right now. Try as he may, he can't get up even if he has to take another look at the figures on Yoongi's phone, all the big numbers waving right in front of him, crying out–

"30 new followers, 74 regrams, a thousand fucking likes!" Yoongi twirls on one foot, arms lifted high in the air, again and again until his laughter fades into dizzy hiccupping and a faint stream of holy shit, shouldn't have done that. There's still a smug smile on his lips, though, a lazy upward curl at the corners of his mouth, satisfaction in the stretch of his body as he props himself against the counter. On any other day, Seokjin would have shoved his palm right up Yoongi's face already and given him a playful shove (before pulling Yoongi into a bone-crushing hug and messing up his hair because Yoongi hates that more than anything else), but he can't even take his eyes off of Yoongi's screen, of Code: Coffee's Instagram video stream showcasing many different clips – a fifteen-second clip of Yoongi creating latte art of different K-pop idols and even imitating certain album artworks on the microfoam of the latte, another fifteen-seconder of Taehyung doing classic florettes, except 'drawn' in comic style, of Hoseok painting scenes on a thick sheet of foam. He blinks a few times, pinches himself, shushes the voice in his head that hasn't stopped chanting, How's this for a comeback, huh, Jimin? How's this for competition? In your face! Then the 'likes' are trickling in again – in fives, tens, fifteens, more, like they've just opened the doors of their cafe to an entirely different world of coffee enthusiasts. Yoongi snatches his phone away, then, glances at the figures for a quick second, then he's grinning up at Seokjin again. "So... what did you call my idea again? 'Crazy,' was it? 'Impossible'?"

Seokjin heaves a sigh. He can feel blood rushing back to the tips of his fingers, lifting the cold there but setting off little explosions as Yoongi shows him the updated figures – holy shit, 30 new likes in a matter of seconds. He probably would have pinched Yoongi in his side already if they weren't at work, probably would have snarled and frowned now that Yoongi is flashing him one of his shit-eating grins and a peculiar glimmer at the corners of his eyes, but soon a group of students walks into the coffee shop. A few blinks, then Seokjin spots four, five more people approaching their cozy little shop, figures peppered with just the right amount of details even through the glass. A deep, shaky breath, then a couple more people who look like they need more than just a shot of espresso – they need a truckload of love and care in the form of really strong coffee – swing the doors forward, limbs heavier than the wooden panels guarding the shop. So he rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and gives Yoongi's cheek a soft pat as he says, "When did I ever– I said 'genius.' You're a genius." He presses his lips together into a tight grin, then, and shuts his eyes into half moon crescents. He doesn't miss the way something flickers across Yoongi's features, though, settling comfortably in his eyes as they glimmer, and the next thing Seokjin knows his insides are lurching in thoughtless response. Stimulus roundhouse kicking him to the next planet, to the cold, hard ground. "Min Yoongi is a genius – there, I said it. Happy now?"

Yoongi hovers. "Mhmm. Very," he says after a while, humming, then he's turning on his heel and slipping his apron on again, the one that says 'trust me; I know coffee better than you do' in big, bold characters. He makes his way back to the counter, steps slow and measured, but not without pausing to look over his shoulder, to risk a smile at Seokjin and offer him one of those smiles of his that has gotten out of many tight situations (and might have gotten Seokjin into very difficult ones, as well). "Told you we'd be able to save our little shop."

"Never said we wouldn't."

"You never said you were confident we would, though," Yoongi counters, lifting his eyebrows in accord, then he's on his merry way again, a bounce in his step as he sways from side to side right in front of the coffee machine. He rests his phone nearby, just by the French press, sneaking glances at his screen and shaking his head a little like he's finally admitting to himself that even he didn't think their little project would see so much success only a few days in. Yoongi working with the coffee machines has always been a sight to behold, but Yoongi with a soft smile coaxing the corners of his mouth to pull up as he steams the milk, folds the bigger bubbles in the milk and steams the mix again until he's satisfied with how fine the microfoam is... It feels different, so, so different. It's on a league of its own.

Yoongi could wipe away Seokjin's worries like this if he wanted to, really, but nah, don't go there, Seokjin tells himself as he cracks his neck and locks his arms behind his back. It's only five in the afternoon and they both have five more hours to go 'til they can be free from whatever adult commitments they have. They have to stick to the plan, the route they've planned out for themselves. They need to focus. They made an agreement a long, long time ago to never mix work with whatever it is brewing deep inside them the same way coffee must never be tainted with sugar, after all, so Seokjin should fulfill his end of the deal, right? He pushes the thought further back, then, hones in on the numbers still burning at the back of his eyelids, and takes a deep breath. Shifts his gaze to Taehyung who is still at the counter, taking orders and compliments and handing out gratitude in the form of bright smiles and an even brighter 'Thank you! We'll make sure to post more latte art videos in the future!'."

We'll make sure to crush Jimin's dreams more and more in the future, too! Please look forward to it! chimes a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind. He laughs to himself but doesn't quite shrug the thought away; this one can stay.

"Sorry, can I borrow this cute kid? He's not supposed to be here; he's supposed to be on break," he whispers to the next people in line, then carefully bumps his hip into Taehyung's own in an effort to push Taehyung away from the counter. If the kid sticks around any longer, he'll never be able to take a few minutes of respite from work. Seokjin has learned – from all the years he's spent watching the kid and sharing more than just the occasional laugh with him – that for Taehyung, it has always been easy to get so engrossed with things he enjoyed and difficult to detach himself from things he's come to love. "Quick, take your break so you can sub for me later and I can video your hyung doing latte art–"

Taehyung laughs. "He won't stop talking about it, hyung. He's so proud of himself," he says, snickering, but there's not a hint of disdain in his voice. If anything, this is amusement. Often, Taehyung speaks in a big, bright voice loud enough to echo across the room, but too often it makes his voice crack, messes with the message, with his breathing. Seokjin likes this better, Taehyung's quiet voice, the one he doesn't hear often. He likes the easier, more relaxed smile on Taehyung's lips, as well. "I think he's forgetting that your latte art got us our first 500 followers."

A few feet away, Yoongi scoffs. The noise from the machines drowns it out just a little, though, softens the tiny lilts in Yoongi's tone that betray the vacant expression in his features. "It's harder to sustain traffic to social pages, just saying."

"And even harder to have people comment on the posts," Taehyung chimes, grinning as he ends. Seokjin bites the inside of his cheek in an effort to keep himself from laughing. "Y'know, hyung, ever since we started the latte art videos thing, it's my posts that have always gotten the most number of comments–"

"Because you actually do a running commentary of the evolution of coffee foam from milk to 'cute little bubbles' from start 'til end," Hoseok offers as he emerges from the doors to the stockroom, a tiny yelp breaking up his speech. When Seokjin looks over his shoulder in response, checking if Hoseok fallen flat on his ass all of a sudden and if Taehyung has already slipped out of his apron and is about two steps closer to taking his break, all he's met with is the sight of Taehyung narrowing his eyes at Hoseok, leaning in too close, fisting his hands into Hoseok's shirt. Make that five steps closer to taking a much-needed break. Right. "But yeah, the 3D latte art's really cool, hyung. What if– What if we actually do 3D faces next time? Like, we can make the 3D art right in front of the customers–"

"Ooor I can just do 3D latte art of my face for everyone and everyone will be happy. Yup. Sounds good. Also, much more feasible," Seokjin says, humming, then steps to his side when Yoongi motions to kick him in the ass while balancing two cups of coffee in his hands. To the group of students on the other side of the counter, faces red and cheeks pulled up into what seems to be a smile, he says, "Nah, kidding. Your faces are far more beautiful. So, how can I make these lovely ladies happy today? What do my princesses want off the menu?"

Apparently, the 'princesses' aren't the only ones who are in the mood for foam cats swimming in cups of coffee – nearly half of their customers for the day wanted something close to the cute kitties they've been seeing on Instagram, the same coffee kitties that people have been raving about both online and offline. Seokjin stays close to the coffee machines, then, stations himself right in front of the steaming wand as Yoongi takes care of pulling shots and attends to his own latte art requests the fastest way he can. Only an hour in and Seokjin can already feel the nerves at the back of his hands tingling, but the chaos that is too many people pouring in and filling up empty tables isn't so bad. He hasn't seen the shop this packed in a while, and he certainly hasn't seen the boys and Amber so eager to engage the customers in conversation even if they're swamped with work. Even Yoongi has taken a liking to chatting up some of the customers and looking at them longer than five seconds so he can take in the details of their features more. Even he has developed a certain fondness for talking to customers who get excited at the first mention of 3D coffee cats and the probability of coffee bears hitting coffee cups in the next few weeks.

"We both know you won't be able to let go of your coffee cats so easily, though," Yoongi murmurs much later, closer to ten in the evening than the busy hours from six 'til nine in the evening that they've just survived. He doesn't look up, eyes still trained on the face he's drawing on the sheet of foam on the coffee, but he does give Seokjin's ankle a light kick. And he's smiling, has been smiling the entire time he was working on cartoon faces upon the request of a group of office workers who looked like they need an entire month off from work. Of the five other baristas in the coffee shop, Kibum and Amber have probably been the most transparent in displaying concern over the dip in sales – 'overly attached newbies', Taehyung had called them one time – but Seokjin knows Yoongi cares just as much as Hoseok and Taehyung do, combined. Seokjin inches closer, then, until their elbows brush against each other and until he can see the face Yoongi's drawing on the foam better. He snorts – Yoongi's 2D boner for Naruto will always be the most hilarious thing ever. "You say you don't like cats but you actually do. In fact, you can't live without them."

"They're alright, as long as they're not licking my coffee cups. Or scratching the customers' legs." Seokjin adds another dollop of foam to the surface, puffing it up just a bit more to make the cat he's about to draw just a bit squishier, heaves a sigh when he feels something warm curling around his ankles, when he feels another ball of fur leaving patches of warmth on his thigh and digging its tiny claws in his pants in an effort to climb his leg. Ah, his favorite cat trait – jealously over inanimate objects. "Or curling on your neck while you're working– Yoongi, get Pepper off your back and put her down before she falls–"

Yoongi laughs. He adds a last series of dots to his latte art, brandishes the metal stick in the air once he's done, then snaps a quick photo of it before handing the cup to Amber for her to take to the customer. "She'll be fine. Just relax. If she feels you getting tense then she'll panic," he whispers as he looks over his shoulder, pressing a soft kiss to Pepper's forehead before patting the cat on the head. Pepper purrs, brushes her cheek against Yoongi's own, and Seokjin resists the habitual urge to gurgle. "See? Ain't falling. Besides, if you have claws like hers, I'm pretty sure you'll have a really good grip."

"This one has," Seokjin mutters, gesturing at the cat crawling up his leg as he gives the foam one last series of chocolate whiskers before asking Kibum to go looking for the girl who'd ordered the drink. "And really, do I have a choice?" he adds after a while, scooping the kitten in his arms and running his fingers through its fur in the gentlest, slowest motion. Two weeks ago, he was on the verge of convincing Yoongi to take this kitten to a real doctor instead of trying to 'fix him up' in their flat because the poor little kitten was so badly injured from some asshole throwing it away but seriously, what was he expecting? For Yoongi to let other people take care of treasures he's found? For him to actually feel okay with leaving the kitten's fate to someone else's hands? So they treated the kitten the best way the knew how, sent Heechul – one of Yoongi's friends from the Cat Council of Korea – regular updates on the kitten's condition until it was up and about again.

"Just make sure the cute li'l bugger doesn't get too hyper," Heechul had said, then gave Yoongi and Seokjin a nod of approval. The kitten purred loudly, as if in retaliation. Seokjin heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes – like father, like kitten. "Seriously, you two make such good kitty parents. I'm convinced you were cats in your past lives."

Mint. Right, this little guy's 'Mint'. Seokjin frowns at the kitten when he scratches the back of Seokjin's hand, but Seokjin keeps his hold on Mint soft, not too loose that Mint can easily wriggle himself free from Seokjin's arms, but just the right kind of 'secure'. He may not be the best at handling cats, but he's had enough experience dealing with humans who might as well be cats at the very core. He knows better than to choke this one up. So he keeps his eyes on Mint instead of Yoongi, tickles the kitten as he mumbles, "Seriously, I'm inclined to believe that our flat has some... strange ability to draw cats in. Or you're really just a cat magnet, that's also possible. I mean, kitties just flock you wherever you go!"

Yoongi laughs a little. The corners of his mouth quirk up into the strangest smile, one Seokjin doesn't recall seeing in the past few days, weeks, months, but if years of friendship are anything to go by then Seokjin knows this is Yoongi trying to... gather his thoughts, string them together into something cohesive enough to pass off as a statement, then restring them until he deems them fit for enunciation. Never the one to say things without reason – that's how Yoongi has always been. "And his worst trait had to rub off on you," Seokjin recalls Jackson complaining at one point, "On you and Namjoonie and now I think he's out to get me–"

Seokjin surfaces, taking a deep, shaky breath, and meets Yoongi's gaze. He can still make out the teasing glint in Yoongi's eyes, the familiar curl of the lips at the corners even as Yoongi takes a step back, drops his gaze to Pepper for a quick second, then looks up again with a more calculated gaze, but if Yoongi really did mean to drop the bomb then he would have done so minutes ago. So Seokjin takes this as his escape, shifts his gaze to where their evening regulars have started to come in, to where the rest of the world is. "Customers," he whispers, then he's setting Mint down on the floor, telling the kitten to go play with Pepper, cracking his knuckles before walking past Yoongi to wash his hands. "Think you can cover for me while I check on the other shop? I kinda want to see how they're taking the big news."

Yoongi snorts, heaves a sigh, twists his elbow in Seokjin's side in an attempt to make space for himself in front of the sink – the way he always does, the same way he always crashes into someone's life without preamble – but the smile on his lips remains...

... until Seokjin splashes water on Yoongi's face as a last ditch effort to ease the tightness in his throat, the lurching sensation in his stomach, in a silly, silly effort to keep himself focused on the task at hand – taking Jimin and his coffee shop down, not digging an even deeper grave for himself.

 

 

One of the best presents Seokjin has ever received probably has to be all the good marks he got from university that lead to him graduating with Latin honors. Granted, it's something he had to work hard on for years and not handed to him on a silver platter, something he had to give up rest and sleep and part of his sanity for just to achieve, but eh – Yoongi, Namjoon, and Jackson all give shitty gifts, anyway, so he doesn't have too much to work with. Besides, back then, good grades made his parents happy, and making his parents happy made him feel like he wasn't a complete failure despite how much his parents kept saying that his brother was stronger, wiser, smarter, a lot better than he could ever be. And not feeling like a failure has been keeping him from looking back on his sad and tragic life when he was still in high school and the probability of him hearing harsh words directed at him at one in the morning being a whooping one hundred percent for the longest time. He'd like to think he's already recovered from the initial shock of his father not talking to him during dinner after he got really low marks in Math when he was in elementary (and even if he didn't, just that he scored lower in his exams than his brother), or his mother saying he was only ever good for household chores (because "That doesn't require thinking. I'm pretty sure you can do that on your own."), but from time to time he'll see his past life flash right before his eyes, will see glimpses of five, ten, fifteen years ago burning at the back of his eyelids, reminding him of all the things he was never going to be able to do – not now, not ever.

Then he'd shiver all over and shut his eyes as tightly as he could. He'd wrap his arms around his knees and rock himself gently until his mind quieted down and the voices in his head stopped being cruel. You really should have pursued an acting career, you know, or a career in film. That would have been a big 'fuck you' to them, his mind would often say, and try as he may he couldn't bring himself to retaliate because he knew it was true – he'd have been a great actor, or a producer, or a director. It was probably the closest he was going to get to a happy ending, and his parents would have eventually been proud of him–

"Oh, right, right, noodles," he mumbles to himself as he pulls his cart back, making a u-turn just as soon as he's maneuvered it to the other side of the aisle. Yoongi was supposed to be in charge of grocery shopping this week, but the poor guy had to cover for one of the DJs at the radio station he was working at. As if he doesn't work extra hard in the shop already, chortles a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind because it's true – while Yoongi might not be as generous with energy to activities that don't involve making coffee and music, he pours his 1000% percent in the things he's passionate about in the same way that Hoseok is extra passionate about performing and teaching ballet to little kids, or the way Taehyung usually doesn't arrive at the coffee shop until one in the afternoon because he helps out at a pet shelter in Myeongdong. Kibum and Amber have their busking stints to keep them sane, whenever making coffee morphs into finding reasons not to strangle demanding customers, and Seokjin, well, has... long walks down grocery aisles and video editing tutorials he spends most of his one in the mornings working on keeping him breathing, alive. So really, it doesn't feel like such a burden having to go through the extensive grocery list that he, himself, had come up with, not when everything has been going pretty well back in the coffee shop.

He laughs to himself as he reaches for a few packs of the spicy noodles. 'Pretty well' is actually an understatement – Seokjin's a hundred percent sure the shop hasn't experienced that much traffic and positive attention in years.

Not that the shop hasn't seen much success in the past five years that it has been running – it has. A year into the operation, they'd already built a solid following. Around six, seven months after, they were featured in several blogs and were deemed as the 'best third-wave coffee shop the country has seen in the past decade', a title that moved all of them to tears (and gave Taehyung and Hoseok an excuse to urge the elders to treat them to yummy samgyupsal). Somewhere between their second and third years, Yoongi had managed to get them a radio interview, and Namjoon, bless his kind soul, was able to land them a nice feature in a nighttime show in KBS (though Seokjin's positive Jackson had a hand in things, as well; the kid had a way with people and wasn't half as intimidating as Namjoon could be, whenever he slipped into one of his moods). So to say that the shop hadn't gathered much attention until recently...

Seokjin scrunches his face, twists his mouth, and heaves a sigh. All their successes – big or small – in the past didn't feel much like victories because there wasn't really anyone to consistently try to outsmart and outdo. Sure, there was Starbucks and A Twosome Place and other smaller coffee shops that had, without a doubt, better coffee than the big coffee chains, but Code: Coffee was the authority in coffee in Hapjeong and Hongdae for the longest time, especially when it came to pure, unadulterated black coffee. No one would dare go up against their shop or any of their baristas, asking for a fight. No one would dare attempt to challenge Seokjin or Hoseok to a coffee competition – those poor souls would just end up humiliating themselves if they did. No one... had ever made Seokjin feel so damn compelled to reinvent the shop, try to improve the beverages (even if they were already the best Seokjin has ever tasted, and he's being objective when he says this), to step up his – their – game, until that Jimin guy put up his stupid coffee shop two blocks down and decided that, hey, wouldn't it be nice to offer super sweet coffee because high schoolers in the area are probably just settling for Code: Coffee's drinks because they don't have anywhere else to buy good coffee from? Wouldn't it be nice if we–

Oh, you've got to be kidding me, groans a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind, thinning into a high scream as he tries to pull the corners of his mouth up into a small smile. The one time he thinks he's safe from all of his worries, the one time he's certain he wouldn't have to choke himself by wearing his presentation-perfect mask, this little Jimin kid just has to reach across him and almost smack his elbow into Seokjin's nose in an effort to get some coffee grounds from the shelf. In a mart in Hapjeong he hasn't been to in a while, not since a mart with cheaper products opened in his neighborhood. On a weekend. Half of Seokjin is convinced the world hates him or that he's done Fate and Destiny wrong at one point in time, but what? He's been nice the whole year and he hasn't been berating Yoongi for taking on more work than he can manage. He hasn't been kicking Kibum in the ass for clocking in late. And he's been... trying to hit the sack earlier than usual ('usual' being two in the morning; his mind takes a while to calm down after three, four cups of coffee). He also isn't as unkind and heartless as Hoseok claims he is, so he takes a step back, thins his eyes into half-moon crescents at the same time that Jimin let's slip a faint 'oh' from his lips.

"Did you... need help with that?" he says after a while, voice eerily calm despite the loud thumping in his chest. When Jimin doesn't budge, he adds, "I can get it for you, if you want."

Jimin blinks. He widens his eyes, lifts his eyebrows, sucks in his lower lip, then the corners of his mouth are quirking up into the cutest little smile. Or what would have been a cute smile if Jimin wasn't just two seconds away from elbowing Seokjin right in the face in a desperate attempt to grab the last pack of Seokjin's favorite grounds from the shelf. Seokjin can easily get some from the shop, but he has this policy against taking home what belongs to the cafe. "And yes, Taehyung, that includes the caramel and lemon candies. I think you're forgetting that we actually give those to kids who drag their moms to our shop?" He has a policy against striking people when they're weak and unguarded, too.

"Jin," Jimin breathes out, voice barely above a whisper, at the same time that the tight press of his lips eases into something softer, more relaxed. Slowly, Jimin pulls away, finally drops the intrusive arm and tilts his head to the side as he meets Seokjin's gaze. Here in the supermarket, with only a few inches of breathing space between them and without the flattering lights in Jimin's cafe to lift traces of fatigue off of Jimin's features and set him aglow, Jimin looks... less harmless, more like a kid who's been sent to buy extra kimchi because they ran out of it while cooking stew, or a high school student taking a quick break from all the long hours of studying for the much awaited and feared entrance exams, and less like the burning beacon of light that he'd been back in his coffee shop where he hopped from one table to another, asking if the customers were enjoying their coffee, the food, each other's company. Rougher, though, without the yellow light to soften the hard edges of his jaw or the little cracks on his lips and hints of freckles on his skin that look more like an explosion of little smiles on his cheeks. Also, much sillier because who the hell even heads out at the in a weather that feels a lot like winter holding on to spring so desperately in a threadbare shirt and jeans that look like they'd seen better days? Who the hell would have the balls to do that? "Jin, right? The customer from... a few weeks back?"

Seokjin doesn't budge. He takes a deep breath, gulps hard, bites the inside of his cheek – whether to keep himself from asking Jimin exactly when or from wanting to pretend that he doesn't know Jimin at all, "Sorry, I think you're talking about a different Jin?" he isn't sure, but he does know that Jimin's not backing down anytime soon, not with the way Jimin is leaning in, squinting, taking quick, shallow breaths before saying, "You ordered a Piccolo that time. Extra hot. The hottest we could go. And you actually drank the thing even if it was extra hot."

Seokjin snorts. It wasn't even that hot, groans a voice at the back of his mind but nah, he's too tired to even start an argument with someone who looks like he needs sleep more than coffee. That, and a couple of layers of clothing. For a second, Seokjin contemplates reaching over to wrap his own scarf around Jimin's neck (and accidentally-on-purpose slapping the thick cloth on Jimin's face, whoops), but he doesn't even know this person beyond coffee cups and those little interactions they've had at the counter. He knows Jimin can be a bit loud and obnoxious when flirting with customers falling in line in an effort to distract them from the slow turnaround, but other than that... nothing. He doesn't even know if Jimin's receptive to people lending him clothes. So instead, Seokjin nods, tries not to retort, and that's hyung for you, kid, and says, "Yeah. The Piccolo was good, by the way. Just a bit on the sweet side, but otherwise you've got the velvety texture nailed. Great work on that."

Jimin laughs a little. He scrunches his nose for a quick second, rubs its tip, nods in thought, but he doesn't tear his gaze from Seokjin yet, doesn't even take another step back to put more space between them. Perhaps now is a good time for Seokjin to look away and dump that pack of his favorite grounds in Jimin's shopping cart then scurry as far away as possible, but something about the gentle curls at the corners of Jimin's lips keeps him... rooted to the ground, all the air in his chest standing so dangerously still, a complete contrast to his insides lurching in endless circles.

"Thanks. It was the first time anyone ever ordered that from us, actually." Jimin drops his gaze to the ground, to his feet, to where he's gripping the cart tightly, then looks up at Seokjin again, a peculiar glint at the corners of his eyes. It looks a lot like the look Jimin had given Seokjin weeks ago, back when he was waiting in line for his drink, but then he could have just been imagining things. He was tired, delirious, on an undercover mission yet in dire need of coffee then; it's not hard to twist realities when you're running low on energy and caffeine. "I mean, we practice making everything on the menu regularly, but it's still different when you're actually making the drink for someone, you get what I mean? Like, you have to be extra careful with the preparation, you have to check and double-check measurements and all that, you have to make sure that even the latte art is perfect, you can't make mistakes–"

Seokjin heaves a sigh. As with everything, really. You have to be a hundred percent sure about everything you do, but he gets it, the thrill and pressure that come with preparing – no, crafting – coffee for others. Every drink is a gift; every cup is an attempt to touch someone's life. So Seokjin pours a portion of himself into every single drink that he makes, sprinkles hard work and his passion for the art in every single cup he hands to customer after customer after customer. Yes, it may feel like baring yourself to the coffee drinker, giving him permission to diss your work, digging your own grave with each cup you pour espresso shots into, like purposely falling into said pit with every latte art you make, but there's always the hope that the same customer will pull you out of the grave. It sounds strange and masochistic, but hey – we all do silly things for love, and Seokjin's love for coffee far exceeds his desire for rest.

He laughs to himself. More like, his passion for making people happy far outweighs his need to make himself happy by leaps and bounds. It's both a strength and a weakness. And it may or may not be something that has gotten him into trouble more than a handful of times.

"You have to put your best foot forward all the time, or willingly taking an exam again and again. Which is alright, I guess, if you're pretty crazy," Seokjin says after a while, voice thinning to a whisper as he steps to his side, inching further away from Jimin. He shifts his gaze, checking if the grounds he'd come for are still on the shelf, but he doesn't miss the way the Jimin's lips tug up at one corner more than the other, or the way Jimin narrows his eyes a little, squinting, as if he's certain he's just missed something, or found something out.

His eyebrows twitch all of a sudden, completely out of volition. His insides lurch. His mouth tastes like acid and his throat feels so damn dry and the pulsating sensation at its base keeps quickening, hasn't showed any signs of stilling since Jimin had decided to open his pretty mouth and call Seokjin 'Jin, the customer from a few weeks back who looked kinda weird drinking an extra hot Piccolo but hey, that was actually really cool'. Except Jimin seems to be... seeing through the thin veil of a lie that Seokjin had draped upon himself– No, wait, he's not even hiding anything! Yoongi calls him 'Jin' seven out of ten times. Taehyung calls him all sorts of nicknames, 'Jinnie-hyung' included, all the time. Hoseok may or may not have called him 'Jinjja-hyung' on a few occasions, so seriously, seriously, brain, stop being a kill-joy. I'm not even doing anything bad.

Well, fine, maybe it's rude to be wishing the ground would eat Jimin up all of a sudden so Seokjin could just... snatch the coffee grounds and run as far away as possible (or to the next aisle; he really needs to buy everything on his shopping list because no way in hell is he having instant noodles after tonight), but come on, saying that, yes, he's Jin isn't even a lie! It's half of his name and half of who he really is, so–

It's a half-truth, kid. You don't even use 'Jin' when ordering food when you're dining out, a voice at the back of his mind says. He huffs, then, snarls to himself, and licks his lips as he prepares to excuse himself–

"You... live in the area?"

Seokjin leans back a little. If, by 'in the area', Jimin means just a blocks away, then no – he lives just south of the river, and while he could have moved to Hapjeong years ago and left the tiny place he shares with Yoongi... he likes it in Dangsan. He likes how quiet and peaceful the neighborhood is, likes how everything creeps at a snail's pace in Dangsan whereas everything moves too quickly in neighboring Hapjeong and Yeungdeungpo. He likes how Dangsan, in itself, feels a lot like a coffee shop with its surprisingly quiet spaces and with how laid-back everything is. Sure, there isn't much to do in Dangsan during downtime, but that's the thing – he doesn't have to fill his empty hours with activities. He doesn't have to feel guilty about lounging at home and waking up later than Yoongi (in which case, he'd wake up with Yoongi still in bed but with a couple of printed menus in his hand, the question 'so, where are we ordering today' written in the lazy stretch of his body).

In three hours, he'd feel like a total rockstar for being able to resist the habitual urge to do something. In another three, he'd feel listless because holy shit, where did his day go? If he ever decided to wail about it right in Yoongi's face then Yoongi was bound to laugh at him and just shove another menu in his face while saying, "Relax, hyung, it's a weekend. You don't have to do a thing. The kids can take care of the shop." but if he didn't then Yoongi would say, in a tone that he swore shouldn't sound as if it was saying, 'I'll pretend we haven't done this at least a hundred times before, but go', "Okay, spill. What's bothering you?"

"Forget it," Seokjin would normally reply, and Yoongi's standard response would always be a pointed gaze and a small smile. It was times like those that Seokjin regretted sticking with the same best friend since he was six or seven, but it was also in times like those that he was thankful, so damn grateful, that it was Yoongi dealing with his inability to translate his thoughts into actual words that didn't sound a lot like dry heaves and not someone he's met just recently trying to figure him out.

He laughs to himself. In his defense, Yoongi always shoved important conversations in his face either before he had his first cup of coffee for the day or long after the effects of coffee had already faded into dust. Yoongi's timing is both impeccable and the actual worst, sort of like Jimin's timing when it comes to grocery shopping. Or Seokjin's very own timing when it comes to slipping into one of his trances and being unable to resurface until someone yanks him out of it – case in point, Jimin leaning in too close as if inspecting his features and asking, "You alright?"

I would be if you didn't stick your face in my private space, wow, murmurs a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind, but he manages to push that further back and, instead, answer with dry laughter. "Sorry, just... tired from work. Tough week. Weeks. And no, not really. I live a station away," he says after a while, then takes a few steps closer to the shelves once and for all in the hope that Jimin might get what he's trying to say. "I mean, it isn't much of a difference since it's still pretty near the office but... I dunno, I guess I just like literally separating work from real life. Life outside of work." He curls his fingers into loose fists, just enough for him to feel a light burn at the back of his hands and to feel the rest of his senses booting back to life. He has to get the batteries of his mind changed, really. The lags have been getting worse these past few days. Or maybe he just needs more coffee. "Just being near my workplace–"

"Stresses you out?" Jimin laughs. He leans forward, reaches out, meets Seokjin's gaze with discerning eyes and a question in the gentle furrow of his eyebrows. Maybe he was born with a curious look, is Seokjin's first thought; his second, or maybe he just likes staring at people because he also did this back in his coffee shop. What a weirdo. Two beats, then the pads of Jimin's fingers are grazing Seokjin's skin, searing hot instead of warm – or maybe the air conditioning system in the supermarket just isn't working properly? Seokjin can't tell at the moment. All he knows for sure is that Jimin moving close, close, closer, throwing all respect for private space over his shoulder as he–

Oh no, you didn't– Seokjin grits his teeth as Jimin cranes his neck just a little, narrowly missing his cheek where they're supposed to touch. For a second, he thinks of pushing Jimin away, but right now all that registers in his mind is I found the grounds first I found that pack first get your filthy hands off what's mine– And while his patience is probably twice the size of the Americas, he can only do so much when someone who he thought was legitimately having a conversation with him has just decided to zoom past the answer to the question he'd just posed and go straight for the trophy just over Seokjin's shoulder – the pack of coffee that Seokjin has been guarding for the past five minutes.

Still, Seokjin tries to be civil, tries to smile and dig his hands into his pockets even if the only thing he wants to do right now is to twist his knuckles in Jimin's gut or maybe twist Jimin's nipples until Jimin's pleading to be let go (unless Jimin's into that, in which case Seokjin would be making the biggest mistake of his life). Tries not to let the simmering rage at the pit of his stomach get the better of him even as Jimin draws the pack close to his chest, rubbing some of his scent off of it like all cats do, and says, "I feel you, man. I totally feel you."

Seokjin furrows his eyebrows, squints, leans just a bit closer. If Jimin's only intention was to run off with his coffee then he probably would have done so minutes ago, but Jimin's... still here, eyes softening as he heaves a sigh and lets his shoulders slump just a little.

"When I was still training with some... entertainment company way, way back, they made us stay in company-provided dorms and basically... controlled us, in a sense?" Jimin adds after a while, pausing only to clear his throat. He tosses the pack into his cart, flexes his fingers, then– Wow, is he shaking a little? Hang on. Hold up. We were here for the coffee, not for a conversation. How in the world can you share your life story with someone you've just met? but too late – Jimin is now facing him in earnest, rid of all the things he can use to shield himself from whatever words Seokjin is about to throw at him. And Jimin's licking his lips, sucking in a deep breath, coaxing the corners of his mouth to curl up as he says, "We'd still be able to go out to buy food and all, we'd still be able to live like... I dunno, 'normal people' every so often, but when you know someone's watching you all the time, when you know someone will be able control your movement one way or another, you just give up even trying to live the way you want to. You conform. And you push yourself too hard to meet and exceed these people's expectations, otherwise you won't be ready for the big stage. You train and train and train until your body... just gives up on you.

"And I guess that was what... made me wonder if I had been doing everything wrong the entire time? I was sick for, like, half the month, sometimes even more, but I'd still show up for practice. I kept dragging my ass from one session to another, trying to keep up with the choreo but I'd fuck up 50% of the time. It was awful. Then I realized, shit, the very little money I've been earning from training? Almost all of it's actually just going to medication, to trying to make myself feel better. And that's not the purpose of working for yourself. You don't work your ass off so you can buy meds. That's... just sad."

Jimin lets out a loud exhale and thins his lips into a small, wistful smile. "That's not how I want to enjoy life."

Not that I needed to know all that, murmurs a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind; still, he feels a dull ache in his chest, a pang of something in his ribs. Yes, he knows exactly what Jimin means, knows exactly how it feels to be constantly pushing and convincing yourself that all the hard work is for your greater good, even if your body has been screaming nothing but 'stop, stop, stop doing this to yourself' for the past decade or so. From time to time, he'll slip back into his bad habit of overextending himself, of testing his limits even if he's already well aware of what will happen when he tips over the edge, and it will take a good kick in the ass to snap him back to the new reality he's formed for himself, the one he's working on. It will take more than just a cup of coffee to wake him up again and make him realize what he's doing – not listening to his mind that always knows better, punishing his body, giving himself reasons to relapse to a decade ago when the only thing he didn't hate in life was waking up at six in the morning so he could make coffee – for the whole family, to have something to talk to his parents about without being yelled at.

Thank God for coffee, I guess, he whispers to himself, then takes a deep breath as he tries to ease the tightness in his throat. To Jimin, he says, "We have to learn the hard way sometimes, I guess. It's better than not learning from our mistakes at all."

Jimin widens his eyes a little. There's nothing but the sticky sound of static in the air, nothing but the cool rush of the air conditioning all around them and the sound of Jimin's rhythmic breathing. Now this would be the perfect time to escape, to excuse himself from the mess he's gotten himself in because there's nothing to talk about anymore, but Seokjin isn't exactly fond of leaving people in a strange, dazed state. So he waits – for Jimin to press his lips together again after letting them fall open into a small 'o', for Jimin to nod, hum something that sounds a lot like, 'yeah, right, we have to learn the hard way,' and tear his gaze from Seokjin's own. For Jimin to look at the pack of grounds in his cart, then back up at Seokjin to say, "Sorry, you didn't have to hear all that. It's just– It's not everyday you find someone who–"

Understands? Commiserates? "Will listen?"

Jimin laughs. "Yeah, sort of. Someone I can ambush in a supermarket with my life story, yeah," he mutters. His eyes soften for a while, then he's offering Seokjin a small smile. "Thanks, though, for… commiserating, I guess? And uh, did you want that?" He cocks his head in the direction of his cart, the pack Seokjin has been eyeing for a while now, and lifts his eyebrows. "I mean, it's the only brand I know and I'm generally against switching brands without looking 'em up first, so–"

So take it. Tell him you want the coffee he stole from you. Tell him to give it back, but Jimin looks like he could use quality grounds right now instead of a lollipop, and Seokjin, of all people, should know how coffee can make people happy. So instead, Seokjin says, "Nah, it's fine. I've been meaning to switch grounds for a while now, anyway," and inches closer, reaching for the Tanzian grounds that he knows will appease Yoongi once Yoongi finds out Seokjin didn't get their favorite Ethiopian blend. "You should try this, by the way. Should work well with your hazelnut latte, unless you just really want to bring out the chocolatey flavor of the latte more than the actual coffee flavor–"

"Take it if you want it. You got here first, anyway. And I can try out the Ethiopian one and add sugar, if needed," Jimin says, voice lilting, little bubbles of laughter spilling from his lips as he shakes his head. He sounds better like this, voice lilting instead of cracking up, face illuminated by the pale white glow of the lights around them instead of being scarred by shadows of his past. Not that Seokjin has been keeping track of Jimin's expressions, the dips and highs of his voice, the unspoken words scrawled at the corners of his eyes. Not that he's been paying attention. "You... sound really passionate about coffee. I don't think I've heard anyone else other than Yoochun-hyung talk about coffee like that. And hyung gets really intense when we talk about grounds."

Because I am? Seokjin wants to say but nah, Jimin doesn't have to know that. And Jimin definitely doesn't have to know that Yoongi probably gets even more intense than 'his Yoochun-hyung' ever would, so instead he laughs and says, "I just like coffee a lot. Keeps me sane," before reaching for another pack of the Tanzian grounds and holding it out in Jimin's direction, both an invitation and a question rolled in one. Jimin hovers for a second, almost hesitating, then he's examining the pack as he leans even closer. "Don't try them in combination. It will be death for your taste buds. But seriously – the Tanzian grounds are good. You might want to have milk ready, though. It tastes just a bit darker and fuller than your regular Ethiopian grounds, but non-fat milk should help even out the flavor a little. Full cream milk overpower the coffee, so–"

So you probably shouldn't be giving away too much information because aren't you supposed to just be a very passionate coffee drinker? whispers a voice at the back of his mind. Granted, there are people who just love testing and tasting coffee but aren't necessarily coffee shop owners, but it's safer to talk less and laugh more. There's less to lose and more to gain in just studying the way Jimin assesses coffee, the way Jimin takes little whiffs of the grounds through the little holes at the back and rubs his thumbs along the letters on the packaging, the way he reads the write up at the back like he's trying to take in as much information about the coffee as he can. Seokjin doesn't have to lay down all his cards and scrawl bits and pieces of himself all over the thick slabs of paper.

Seokjin laughs to himself when Jimin's nose twitches. This kid still has a lot to learn.

He excuses himself after a while, saying he has to go get a couple more things from the poultry section, satisfy his friend's craving for meat, make sure they have enough real food in their fridge so they won't have to resort to adding hot water to instant ramyun every damned day. Jimin nods, waves over his shoulder and thanks him for the tip and for letting him have the grounds Seokjin was supposed to get for himself, then they're going their separate ways, heading off in opposite directions only to meet at the counters again. This time, Jimin doesn't beat him to getting anything or to falling in line first; instead, Jimin shuffles right behind him, leaning on the handle of his cart and saying, "If I take the coffee black, will it really kill my taste buds?"

Seokjin blinks. Well, you don't seem to fancy black coffee at all, he'd say if he were just a tad more familiar with Jimin, but he isn't even certain how many times Jimin has tried not to drink coffee black (his sneaking suspicion – all the time) when, in fact, he should have. He isn't even sure if Jimin has zero tolerance for bitter and drinks or if Jimin just likes everything sweet. "You won't know unless you try?" he offers, then, and hands a couple of bills to the lady at the cash register. "Black coffee is... acquired taste. Even I didn't like it that much when I was starting out."

"Starting out?" Jimin begins, voice lilting just a little when he meets Seokjin in the eye, but the question soon dissolves when the lady at the cashier asks for Jimin's grocery items, asks him if he's paying cash or through credit, and if Seokjin could please step to the side to make way for the next few customers while he's still packing his groceries. So Seokjin takes that as an opportunity to duck, drop his gaze to the items scattered on the counter, to where he's mindlessly packing the things he'd shopped for in the brown bag, and brushes away the fact that even if he tries speeding things up, even if he stuffs one item after another in his shopping bag in the fastest way possible, his body just keeps acting against his will, tells him to slow down and wait for Jimin who has just placed a bottle of milk on the counter along with two familiar packs of coffee, one of which Seokjin could have easily, easily, taken away.

 

 

 

The thing with Jimin is that he sticks to people like caramel candy at the back of Seokjin's teeth – he's sweet, tooth-achingly so, a bit unnerving but, ultimately, he tastes good. Not that Seokjin has already tasted Jimin in the few weeks that they've been... acquainted with each other's faces – Jesus, Seokjin would never. Jimin just seems to be the type of guy you'd love to hate because he smiles too much and fuck if that smile isn't creepy and feels a lot like the next apocalypse. Truthfully, though – and Seokjin will keep trying to deny it 'til his dying day – Jimin is a nice guy, nice enough to help him with his haul when almost drops the paper bags while trying to transfer them to a bigger shopping bag, one that he forgot he actually brought with him. "You always have extra shopping bags in your coats," Yoongi had mentioned one time, "I won't even be surprised if you had gloves in there or something," but that didn't mean he wasn't prone to focusing on more important things – the fact despite all of his attempts at shooing Jimin away in the subtlest way he knows, Jimin is still walking alongside him, quiet with his lips pressed so thinly together, but too loud with the way he keeps shooting glances at Seokjin.

"Do you do this to your customers often?" Seokjin asks after a while, when the silence becomes too thick and begins to drape its heavy self on his shoulders. Jimin shifts, looking to his side, and tilts his head in question before hoisting the paper bags in his arms up for the nth time since they've exited the supermarket. "Walk them to their next destination? Is this part of... I dunno, your after-service thing at the shop?"

Jimin laughs. "Nah, not really. You're just lucky," he singsongs, then he's taking a few steps forward, hopping and skipping even with all the load in his arms. Seokjin heart leaps in his chest for a quick second, then it's beating against his bones, drumming a quick beat inside him. Yeah. Startle me, won't you? groans a voice at the back of his mind, but in Jimin's defense – why is he even coming to Jimin's defense? – his balance seems to be immaculate. Which is probably something Seokjin should be working on, but whatever, he's too busy trying to make magic through black coffee that Jimin probably doesn't approve of. "Usually I'd be sending Kookie out to get the groceries but he's totally in the zone right now and that means giving him complete reign over the machines and letting him make people fall for him, one cup of coffee at a time." He hops over a short tower of pebbles, narrowly misses a puddle from the late afternoon rain, and fixes the bags in his arms again. He... has the energy of a teenager. Seokjin's kind of envious, kind of… endeared. "He delivers, though, and he's probably the best barista I have right now, so if having fun like that helps him do his work better then, by all means, go all out and do a latte art exhibition thing. I mean, I'm still better at him when it comes to making latte art, but the kid learns fast. Pretty soon, he'll be beating every single latte art master out there."

Seokjin half-snorts, half-laughs, half wants to smack himself on the head because you should know better than to let the kid read you so easily, you know. But Jimin seems to be more interested in where they've stopped in their tracks, in a coffee shop so familiar that Seokjin didn't even realize his feet were already taking him to it even without a directive, than the gurgling sounds Seokjin is making at the back of his throat. Part of him is relieved that Jimin no longer looks as if he's about to ask more questions, whether out loud or through soft, gentle prodding, but the curious glimmer in Jimin's eyes feels a lot like a sign of bad things to come, a... warning. Add to that the fact that he's carrying something really heavy in his arms and that he probably should have gone straight home instead of taking a detour and heading to the shop to check on the kids, but whatever. He can always pretend he's a casual customer with sore and aching arms that he has to make a pit stop right here, right now. Or he can just stop worrying that Jimin might piece the dots together sometime soon and realize that he's been fraternizing with the enemy, his rival, for the past hour or so. He should stop caring so much about every single thing.

"Aaand this is my stop!"

Jimin lifts his eyebrows and nods, just a gentle bob of the head that seems neither daunting nor threatening. He does give the shop a once-over, though, sort of like he's scanning it from the outside, craning his neck in an effort to see through the glass fogged up by the cool winds outside. Squinting, squinting, squinting until he can see the figures better – Amber taking orders at the counter, Taehyung and Kibum miraculously never bumping into each other even if they keep passing each other near the machines, Hoseok shuffling to and from the bar to get orders to customers who have already made themselves comfortable in their seats. If Seokjin didn't know these faces by heart then he would probably have a hard time identifying them, what with all the activity happening inside, but he's spent the larger part of the past five years with these people that it's almost impossible to not be able to I.D. them from a mile away.

So if Jimin ever passed by the shop in the recent past, if he ever decided to walk by on his way to his own coffee shop from HomePlus and looked to his side to see what the 'commotion' was all about, then Seokjin wouldn't have to worry about getting seen. Sure, he'd tower over the baristas and most of the people filing in and out of the shop, but he spent at least 40% of his time working on the cups and making sure that the customers' desired 3D latte art was refined to perfection. And the remaining 60%, he was either going around the shop, doing his checks, doing inventory at the back just to make sure everything was accounted for, or taking orders at the counter, lifting his head up then tilting it back down as he jotted down orders, scribble figures and characters on order slips, made sure he didn't miss any detail in the order, no matter how small.

He has to stop worrying about most things. And he needs to stop giving a fuck about this whole Jimin thing if he wants any shot at finding his peace again.

"Gonna take a break. I think my arms died back there," Seokjin says after a while, breaking the standstill, then wraps his arms around the shopping bag even tighter than before, pulling it closer to his chest. Half of him is grateful he had to buy this many items else he won't have anything to shield himself with, to save himself from having to stay with Jimin for too long, but the other half, that one that keeps telling him, Dude, this is really heavy. Ask the kid for help! just wants him to throw in the towel, invite Jimin inside more to help him with the things than to let Jimin get a taste of what it's like to be in Code: Coffee, and maybe convince Jimin that black coffee is ten times better than whatever he's offering in his coffee shop of his.

Syrupy sweet like caramel candy, groans a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind when Jimin moves closer, gives his arms a perfunctory squeeze, then juts out his bottom lip in a cute little frown. When Jimin says, "Not my coffee shop? Oh, come on–" Seokjin grumbles to himself, Syrupy sweet with candy sprinkles that prick your throat and make it impossible to swallow easily–

"I don't think I can make it two more blocks with all these things. Even with your help," Seokjin reasons, then pulls away, taking a few steps closer to the door, pressing his ass to the cold, hard wood. "And I'm in the mood for black coffee, so–"

Jimin snorts. He takes a deep, shaky breath, hugs his paper bags closer to his chest, but he doesn't take a step back yet, doesn't inch away. Instead, he offers Seokjin a tight-lipped smile, a small shrug as he says, "Oh well. Don't stay bitter for too long, though. You don't want to remain bitter 'til you die." Then he's turning on his heel, sauntering away, hips moving in a fluid motion until he stops dead in his tracks and looks over his shoulder. "Hey, drop by again sometime! Your next cup's on me!"

Seokjin gulps hard. As if I'd want another cup from your shop, he wants to say, but instead he rolls his eyes in response and shakes his head. The next time they meet, Jimin will be at his mercy, asking for a ceasefire and for Seokjin to douse the simmering competition because we don't stand a chance, Jin. I'm sorry for even thinking we could beat you guys. Sorry for being us. Jimin would be asking for a merger to salvage his business and not for Seokjin's number – what?

"Just in case we have new offers you might want to try," comes Jimin's voice, still bright despite being softened by the blowing winds, but then Jimin's right beside him, whispering in his ear, giving his arms another squeeze. "Now this I do with all the customers I bump into wherever. C'mon, don't be shy. I won't send you prank messages, just promos announcements and codes. Maybe even a free drink?"

I don't even use my phone to text people, Seokjin muses but... well, why the hell not? He'll be able to get intel on Hug Cafe's new offerings straight from the manager. He might even get news on the new drinks way ahead of time and he can use that information to his advantage, to his business' advantage. So he drops his worries to the ground, taking off some of the load on his shoulders, and bites the bait, keying in his number in Jimin's phone and taking a deep breath as he types the characters for 'Jin' before clicking the 'Save' button.

Jimin stares at the contact card for a few seconds, then looks up to meet Seokjin in the eye. "It's a stage name, like Madonna. I'm really famous," Seokjin says before Jimin can get in another word, and tries not to draw his attention to the way Jimin's lips curl up at the corners in the craziest grin, to the way his insides lurch when Jimin slips his phone back in his pocket, walks away, but leaves the syllables for interesting hanging in the cool spring air, haunting him, ringing in his ears.

 

 

Whoever said imitation was the highest form of flattery was probably stuck in past and still living in the middle ages. Sure, back in high school, Seokjin sort of... wanted to be exactly like his music teacher, go down the same route and train with some of the best entertainment companies in Korea so he could perform in front of a crowd of thousands then train kids aspiring to make it big someday, when his joints already ached and performing became more of a chore than something he would do for charity, but in the very end he'd decided that maybe his music teacher wanted him to have his own goals, his own future, his own life. At one point, he wanted to be like his first production head – not the asshole he hates up until this very day – back in his old job wanted to be the type of person who had a perfect sense of balance between work and personal life, but after a while he'd just decided that he didn't need balance to keep himself afloat – it was peace with whatever he was doing and within himself that he needed to keep himself from drowning in the daily negativity of dealing with people. So really, the highest praise anyone can ever get isn't being imitated or copied by people, left and right; it's moving, urging them to find ways to outdo their best take, to test and to challenge themselves to do something more.

Case in point: Jimin sending a message at ten in the morning, reminding people in the text blast that hey, Hug Cafe actually exists, and that they're phasing out drinks they'd been serving from two months back – they actually have an entire menu for it; Seokjin never realized because all the sweet stuff tasted the same to him – so they can introduce their new spring selection, fresh and refreshing frappuccinos that are sure to 'Quench your thirst. So grab your first spring frappuccino this coming Friday, bring your friends along, and your second frappuccino is on us!'

Seokjin snorts. The first thought that crosses his mind is, wow, they're that desperate; the second, I finally have an excuse to make peppermint Americanos again.

"Hey, check this out – the videos we posted last night actually got a thousand likes overnight. Overnight!" Yoongi holds his phone up in Seokjin's direction, the screen just a few good centimeters away from where Seokjin's nose could be clicking on the Instagram controls if he just leaned in a bit closer. A thousand likes shouldn't be foreign to them anymore, but damn if Seokjin doesn't still feel warm and fuzzy all over whenever he sees the reception of their posts, their videos, their coffee and all their hard work. You'd think that the initial high from receiving so much positive feedback will die down after a while, but no – Seokjin hasn't felt this alive in years. It's as if a violent breath has been knocked back into his lungs and has pushed out all the stale and suffocating air inside him. It's like the gears in his mind and his entire system have been kicked into submission and forced to work in the best way possible after years of being asleep. Excitement drains him after a while, yes, but he'd rather be drained from feeling so nice and good about the most important things in life than to wake up the in the morning and dread clocking in at work every damned day. "People are loving the movie poster series and the comic book remakes. We might just have to make those part of our regular offerings–"

Or we can swap out one of the conventional designs for the new ones, chirps a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind. Except that sounds a lot like what Jimin and the others are already doing. He heaves a sigh, then, lips pulling down to a frown, then squints at Yoongi. "We can do themes per week so we won't have to overextend ourselves andcompromise the quality of coffee just because we want to get as many different designs done as possible. Like, Star Wars for the entire week, then next week we can have Heroes or Suits or..."

Yoongi narrows his eyes. He's wearing one of his looks again, one that screams, I know you're older than me and all but I swear to God, Jin, I swear to God, if you rope me into one of your crazy ideas again then I'll be wailing the entire time. He recalls this from their days back in university when Yoongi kept rejecting the idea of spending weekends lounging on the couch and watching one new series after another instead of mixing music in the university studio. Seokjin understood it, though, sort of, the need to always be doing something, crafting something with his hands, except half the time his thought process was 'why spend the day watching movies and series if Yoongi wasn't even around?' He was better off sleeping or knitting sweaters to give to people because his friends almost always forgot to bring clothes to combat the cold with whenever needed. He was better off trying to discover new ways to reinvent food and coffee whenever he was holed up in their shared dorm, all alone with only Yoongi's music playing in the background to keep him company.

Ooh boy, here we go again, whispers a voice at the back of his mind. He listens to it this time, cracks his neck in an effort to ease the tension in his nape, and breathes out, long and loud just as Yoongi says, "Fine, fine. We can do Disney, but only if it wins in polls. Some... balloting thing, I dunno. I mean, it's just fair to ask the customers what they want to see in their latte art, right? So if they don't like to see Mufasa or Mulan or whoever in their latte art–"

"We do an online poll," Seokjin says, interrupting, voice dropping to a whisper as he nods. He laughs to himself. If Jimin can do online voting for the new drinks they'll be rolling out then surely Seokjin can do the same, right, and ten times better? If Jimin can let everyone know that they have a new selection of drinks to offer as the new season comes bustling in, then Seokjin can very well tell their customers that they're about to introduce a system to creating latte art, right? Besides, he's pretty sure Jimin isn't the only person in the world who has ever thought of using online polls and tools for convenience. He once entered a contest using Google Forms and ended up being one of the twenty to receive gift packs from Nature Republic. It wasn't a bad experience, at all. "We create the latte art already, snap a photo, then ask customers which of those they'll want to see in their cups for the next two weeks. That gives us time to practice the winning design on a regular basis and not screw things up once the group orders come in. You know how crazy people can get whenever we announce new latte art designs."

Yoongi furrows his eyebrows. He doesn't look too convinced, doesn't seem to be too sold on what Seokjin has just said, but if he really was thinking that Seokjin's idea was ridiculous bordering on awful then he'd have brushed off Seokjin's suggestion already and walked away.

"It'll be perfect timing, you know," Seokjin continues after a while, wiggling his toes in his shoes as he inches closer to where Yoongi is. "The other camp's rolling out new drinks and phasing out some of their classics. Which is actually weird since they're already tried and tested and whatever. I just... heard it had something to do with the change in seasons and stuff. 'Winter's out, spring is in.'"

Someone snorts. Seokjin looks around, then, and over his shoulder, searching for the source of the sound, but Taehyung makes it impossible to concentrate on anything else but the way he's hovering and leaning in too close, enough that he can make out the stubble on Taehyung's chin, the dark lines just under his eye bags, the way his lips curl up into a cute little smile at the corners – little things that tell Seokjin just one thing: Taehyung being up to no good again and forming all these little conclusions in his head. "Winter's been out for months. And how do you even know that, hyung?" Taehyung asks, voice lilting before he thins his lips into a small smile. "Last I checked, they didn't have posters for that yet."

Because Jimin's too lazy to get stuff printed and he thinks his customers love his shop enough to spread the word about the promos? he's tempted to say, but he knows better than to dig his own grave. He knows better than to drop hints about whatever association he has with Jimin. He knows better than to make the same mistake of saying too much, like handing Jimin information about himself on a silver platter and even coating it with a generous amount of advice in the form of information about coffee that Jimin is already supposed to know. So instead, he waves Taehyung off, twists his elbow in Taehyung's gut when Taehyung inches even closer, and doesn't say, The owner, himself, texted me about the new promo, that's how. Happy?

"Doesn't matter anymore," he whispers after a while and takes a deep breath. He kicks Yoongi in the calf, cocking his head in the direction of the coffee cups left unattended on the counter as he does so, and fishes for his phone from his pocket again, this time quickly navigating to the camera application in preparation for their next video, their next upload. "Ready whenever you are."

 

 

 

Seokjin has this twisted relationship with Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's a given that he hates Tuesdays for being the longest day of the week and that he's... pretty conflicted when it comes to Thursdays simply because it takes him one step closer to the weekend and reminds him that he doesn't really have weekends, hasn't had any since he's decided to put up a coffee shop business with Yoongi, but he likes the long, solitary walks during those two days. Yoongi always has to clock out extra early two out of the five human work days and leave Seokjin in the shop with the kids at seven in the evening so he can make it to Gangnam without fretting getting to his radio show on time, and Seokjin understands that. It doesn't mean he's happy having to deal with four kids in the coffee shop at such a late hour especially when their preferred way of releasing stress is by randomly squeezing Seokjin's arms or pinching his cheeks, but eh. He's okay with the whole arrangement, he supposes. For all of the kids' penchant for stirring trouble behind the counter, they always deliver and make sure Seokjin's well fed, lest they suffer the consequences. And in all honesty, he would punch out of work extra early if he was enrolled in, say, a pottery class or in one of those advanced composition class that Yoongi found one time, when they were walking along the stretch of Hapjeong. He'd also probably punch his boss if he was ever held back from pursuing something he was fiercely passionate about.

Maybe that asshole Kim would, but Yoongi would never, he says to himself. To the blowing winds of spring that feel a lot like winter choking him, he says, Can't you just let me breathe for a bit and actually stop turning me into ice?

He wiggles his toes in his shoes as he looks over his shoulder, giving Code: Coffee one last check before resuming in his steps. The shop isn't too far from the train station, but the cool weather makes every single movement, every jerk of his limbs feel like running a few hundred miles just to get home. He looks around, hoping there will be someone to commiserate with him, but tough luck. The lights in the stores nearby are already closed. The signage at Hug Cafe's door now says 'closed' in big, bold characters. He's the only one experiencing the pains of powering through the spring winds at just a few minutes shy of eleven in the evening, shivering in the low, low temperature and rubbing his hands together in an effort to keep himself warm. It's times like this when he sort of misses walking aimlessly with Yoongi and just talking about whatever comes to mind. Speaking always helps warm his body up, always makes him feel like it's normal to have tongues of fire licking up a familiar warmth inside him, but from time to time a part of him will crave some peace and quiet, time to gather his thoughts even before Yoongi could figure him out.

Y'know what? This is actually why you need Yoongi around sometimes, especially during long walks, a voice at the back of his mind says. He brushes that off, cracks his neck, pulls his shoulders back, and forges on even if the winds are blowing much stronger than before, even if they feel like a huge slap to his face that wakes him up and stirs his senses. You need someone to remind you not to think about everything too much, but then your friend's just as bad as you are–

"Oh sh–" Seokjin manages to bite down hard on his tongue at the same time that he feels someone bump into him with the force of a thousand spring winds. Or maybe a few million, because the next thing he knows his vision's fucking up so badly and he's seeing a face so strangely familiar that it makes his insides turn. Bright orange hair that frames the man's cheeks and softens the hard angles of his jaw that aren't usually apparent unless he's outside his little coffee shop, away from flattering yellow lights, eyes that always look as if they're up to no good, pink lips that curl up at the corners in a manner that makes him look more amused than surprised– Seriously, you've got to be kidding me, Seokjin grumbles to himself, but if there's someone he can't lie to even if he tried really, really hard, it has to be that little boy inside him that would never ever cut him some slack. If this is another reason to hate Tuesdays then fine, I will never like Tuesdays ever again! groans the same voice in his head. Still, he crouches low, checks for any cuts, blood, injuries, the slightest trace of pain in the man's – Jimin's – features. He isn't as mean as his thoughts make him out to be, after all. He can be nice when Jimin's not handing out coffee to customers who may or may not be a bit too fond of sweet drinks. He can be nice when he and Jimin are not coffee shop owners struggling to outdo each other's best attempt at winning customers over with quality coffee. "Hey, are you alright? Sorry, I really didn't see you approaching–"

Jimin winces just as Seokjin runs his palm down the stretch of JImin's arm. He has a coat on this time, no longer just dressed in his threadbare shirt and the torn pants that he wore back in the supermarket. And he isn't carrying anything apart from a small container where faint mewling sounds are coming from. Seokjin inches closer, then, bends low and squints to check what's inside the container, but to no avail – it's always the darkest near the dumpling shop after eleven in the evening. Hapjeong has always been one of the tougher communities to navigate at such a late hour, after all, without any help from street lamps and cars passing by, headlights turned up on high.

Hapjeong's a bit scarier, darker without anyone to walk with back home.

"Kara," Jimin croaks out after a while, then he's stretching his legs out and sitting on the cold asphalt, shuddering as he grips his thighs tightly and tries to even his breath. Seokjin nods, then, gets down on his knees and feels around for the knob of the small cage, but peers through the slits to check if the cat – the kitten; Seokjin knows one when he hears one, knows all the little sounds and noises by heart – won't push him away if he tried to help. "Just check if Kara's okay. She– She's easily startled so quick movements always agitates her more than most cats and–"

And Kara... is curled up into a tiny ball at a far corner of the cage. She's small, so small, possibly only the size of Seokjin's palm in her current state, but Seokjin can feel her warmth all the way from the rails of the cage, even with the winds blowing all around them. She makes a small, pained sound, almost tentative, and Jesus, I did not sign up for this, groans a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind. It's one thing to run into his rival on his way home, but to find a scared kitten shaking in a corner of a cage, to not be able to reach out to give her reassuring pats because he knows he might startle her–

Something beside him rustles. He looks to his side to check, to see if another person has to come to their rescue, but no – it's just Jimin trying to steady himself as he crouches, as he slips his jacket off his arms and creates a little nest out of it before reaching over, bruised hands reaching for Kara's cage. "What the– You'll die in this cold!" Seokjin blurts out, completely unrehearsed, and pretends he doesn't catch the flash of surprise that surfaces on Jimin's features before Jimin hooks his fingers on one of the railings of the cage. He... has no time to process every single detail, not right now. It's eleven in the evening and it's freezing cold and there's a silly, selfless man right beside him giving up warmth to save a cat's life– "If you want to save your cat then trust me, you'll want to put on your jacket and just hold her close so you can keep her warm–"

"No, she's–" Jimin shakes his head. "It's– It's complicated," he whispers, then he's brushing his knuckles against Seokjin's skin as if saying, You know what you can do to help? Actually move the cage closer because I can't even feel my knees anymore. Thanks. You're an angel. Seokjin nods, then, lifting the cafe off the ground in the gentlest way possible so as to not startle the cat curled up in a corner. She has the brightest orange fur and oh, she's slowly stretching out, unfurling from where she'd been coiled into a tight circle. Then she's... looking around and looking up – at Seokjin who greets her with a soft 'hello' and a small smile, then at Jimin who extends his hand in her direction, chuckling when she lets out a faint mewl, then says, "It's alright, Kara. You know we won't hurt you, right? We'll never hurt you–"

"She's not yours, is she? A stray?" Seokjin asks after a while, voice just barely above a whisper. Jimin stops abruptly in his tracks, the sleeves of his jacket falling off from where he'd bundled them so Kara could have a nice, cozy bed until Jimin found a good enough shelter for her. Then he's heaving a sigh, letting his shoulders fall forward, hitting Seokjin with his elbow and twisting it in his side with very little effort. If this is Jimin trying to push him away then he'll have to do better. Seokjin: 1, Jimin: 0. "Where did you find her? Why did you even have to–"

"She's a regular," Jimin begins, pausing only to shiver when the cool winds whip at their skin another time. Jimin's arms are exposed and they're painted with goosepimples all over, and part of Seokin just wants to yank his own scarf off so he can wrap it around Jimin's neck. Temporary warmth, a tiny kernel of heat to get him through the next five, ten, fifteen minutes. Sure, Jimin's as good as a stranger if you take out the rivalry aspect of their relationship since Seokjin knows nothing about him outside the context of coffee, but there's a cat to be saved and there's only the two of them here and who else will they turn to for help? "Sort of. Found her sleeping in one of the pots for three straight days a few weeks back and, well, I've been taking care of her ever since. I mean, I've been trying to feed her since she's very... particular with people she interacts with. And everything was really, really going well until one of the kids in the neighborhood snatched her, so I had to run after the kid and get Kara inside a cage because she looked so worn out then and I might drop her if I just carry her around and–"

And you bumped into me on a Tuesday, of all days. And you look really weird worrying like that. And a panicked look doesn't suit you at all. And I shouldn't even be bothered by this but there's a cat involved, and fine, fine, maybe Yoongi's right. Maybe Seokjin does like cats, enough for him to forget about his desire to just tumble into bed, face first, and sleep until his alarm sounds off the following morning just so he could save the little mewling creature. And maybe he shouldn't be inching closer all of a sudden and wrapping his scarf around Jimin's neck to help keep him just a bit warm, but whatever. Jimin needs it more than he does at the moment. Jimin needs all the warmth he can get, and they don't need to be friends for Seokjin to have the license to care.

"Cats have great intuition, though. They won't just go with humans whom they think will be bad for them," Seokjin whispers. Slowly, he shifts in his position and peeks inside the cage again, squinting even harder this time so he can make out exactly where the kitten is. She's much, much closer to the exit now, her orange fur no longer coated with a thick black, but she won't step out of the shadows just yet. If years of experience handling cats are anything to go by, Seokjin's pretty sure Kara's no longer scared, but she is still a bit apprehensive. So he lets his hand hover the exit and waits for the kitten to bump its head against the pads of his fingers, his palm, the back of his hand, to give him a green light. To invite him to reach out even more to touch and eventually cradle her in his hands. "You just have to be extra patient with this one. She's young and she's gone through a lot of hardships already and–"

Jimin chuckles. He makes a tiny gurgling sound at the back of his throat when Kara nuzzles Seokjin's palm, then lets out a soft, soft, "Wait, be gentle, what if she suddenly– Wait–" when Seokjin nudges him in his side and urges him to do the same to the cat. It makes Seokjin want to laugh a little because where, where, where is the man who approached him with bright eyes and an equally bright smile and a cheerful greeting before taking his order at ten in the evening? Where is the same man he'd bumped into at the supermarket, the same man who almost stole the last pack of his favorite grounds from the shelf, complete with a sly, teasing smile pulling up the corners of his mouth into a maniacal grin and with eyes that looked like they knew exactly how to convince people to look at nothing, no one else but them? Where is the Jimin whose existence he's come to hate and warmth he's come to appreciate at this late hour? All he can see is a man who is two parts afraid to hold and, potentially, hurt a kitten that is already halfway through climbing onto his palm and one part relieved that the kitten is mewling at him instead of letting out a low hiss of pain, so bring out the Jimin I met weeks back so I can leave without feeling bad. C'mon, Life, bring the old Jimin back so I can walk away in peace–

"And she seems to like you a lot," Jimin half-gurgles, half-whispers as Kara brushes her nose against the inside of Jimin's wrist. All of a sudden, Seokjin feels his throat go dry and his chest grow tight, and the words that had gotten caught at the back of his throat are fast dropping to the pit of his stomach. It's not one of those funny lurches that he gets when he sees Taehyung leaning into Hoseok's tender touch, or Kibum's tight smiles softening into something more relaxed once Amber has already walked away from one of their cute teasing tirades. It's something he can't find the words for at the moment, even more so when Kara hops and hobbles her way into Jimin's warm jacket, curling up and mewling softly before looking up at Jimin with eyes curled into half-moon crescents. "It took me days to make her warm up to me but you just... go ahead and steamroll your way to her heart or something and have her nuzzling your hand like you two have know each other for centuries and–"

Jimin stops. His mouth hangs agape, lower lip quivering when the wind blows another time, and Seokjin's tempted to prod, to give Jimin a gentle poke on the arm, maybe even make him press his lips together so he won't feel the cold even more, but no. Seokjin should be leaning back, pushing himself back on his feet, walking away. He was supposed to be on the train home some ten, fifteen minutes ago, not helping someone save a cat from the chilling cold. He's not supposed to be here. And yet every fiber of his being keeps him rooted to where he is – just a few inches away from Jimin and the tiny, tiny cat cradled in his arms, making these cute little sounds that melt even the harsh spring winds around them.

"You... You should be heading home. Sorry for keeping you," Jimin says after a while, voice thinning into a whisper as he drops. There's still that signature 'Jimin smile' on his lips, though, less teasing and taunting but just as bright, the type that isn't blinding but still warms Seokjin up a little. The type that thaws him out just in time for him to hear Jimin say, "I mean, it's getting late and you looked like you were on your way home from work, so yeah. Pretty sure you've been working really hard–"

Seokjin laughs a little. He waits for a niggling voice in his brain to come up with a sharp retort, something that sounds a lot like yeah, of course, because I need to constantly look for ways to kick you out of business, but it never comes. Instead, he hears the static in his thoughts, a peculiar kind of calm that he hasn't experienced in years. Maybe it's Kara working her magic on him, easing the tension in his nerves with her faint kitty snores. Maybe he's just tired and yeah, JImin's right, he should be heading home now. If he hops on the first train to Dangsan then he should be shuffling to his flat before midnight, zombie-walking to the bathroom and calling dibs on it for a bath, then tumbling into his bed even before Yoongi can say 'good night, big guy' like he normally does with his cats.

"Yeah. I have to work hard if I want to live comfortably when I'm already forty," he answers, then, and steadies his hands on his knees so he can push himself up, so he can bring himself one step closer to home. "You'll be alright with Caramel?"

"Kara," Jimin mumbles in response, but the smile on his lips doesn't wane. "I should make a name tag with a short explanation of her name, really. 'Public service announcement: 'Kara' isn't short for 'caramel'. Please don't turn my cat into food."

Seokjin snorts. "Karaoke, then?"

"No, that's even worse." Jimin heaves a sigh. "And hang on, you can't be more than thirty. You look... pretty young. Pretty sure you're just my age."

Best thing I've heard all week, really, a voice at the back of his mind hums, but he can't throw in the towel just yet. He has an identity not entirely separate from 'the real Kim Seokjin' to keep, and that entails not yielding too quickly, stretching the match to five long sets if he can, not letting Jimin win. He has a safe distance to maintain from Jimin. He's an agent on a secret mission and he can't let circumstance jeopardize his success, his business' success. So he shrugs, smiles at Jimin when Jimin narrows his eyes at him, and says, "Under thirty-five, but over twenty-five. Guess the exact number. In months."

"Wha– You can't be serious," Jimin retorts. Seokjin looks over his shoulder from where he's already sauntered away from Jimin, then presses his lips to his coat. The look on Jimin's face is too raw, too real, too memorable that it burns at the back of his eyelids just five seconds in. He's tempted to hand Jimin the facts already if only to save himself the hassle of cackling in the streets of Hapjeong and maybe waking some people up in the process but, soon, Jimin's wailing, raising one fist in the air as he cries out, "You've got to be kidding me. No way in hell are you thirty-five already! Jin!"

The guessing game lasts until they get to the station, its walls and stairs no longer lit by the white lights that usually serve as a beacon for lost, drunken souls on most days. "Really sorry for keeping you back there. You probably would've caught the last train if I hadn't," Jimin whispers, breaking the thick sheet of white noise all around them. He kicks at the ground, nothing too forceful that Kara would feel the tremors and be jostled out of her slumber, but Seokjin hears the dull 'thud' just the same. It's impossible not to – the winds around them had calmed down to a low, distant hum, and they're close enough that Seokjin could probably draw little constellations on Jimin's cheeks with with the little red dots strategically plotted just a few inches shy of Jimin's mouth. If he wanted to, at least, and if he could feel his fingers again. The looming cold makes it nigh impossible to feel anything but the little explosions going off at the tips of his fingers. "Where do you live again?"

"Dangsan," Seokjin replies even before he can think of coming up with another response. He makes a mental note to smack himself in the head later, when already under the spray, covered by a thick sheet of running water and well out of Jimin's sight. "Just one station away, south of the river. I guess I'll just grab–"

Something flickers across Jimin's features. Then again, it could just be the night and fatigue and Seokjin's shitty vision getting the better of him, but there's no denying the way the corners of his lips ease into a much more relaxed smile. "Oh, lucky. My stop's actually at Sindorim," Jimin says after a while, voice just barely above a whisper, then he's hugging Kara closer to him, thumb absentmindedly stroking the back of the kitten's ear as he says, "Wanna split a cab or something? Or actually, just... hitch a ride with me. I'll drop you off at the station. I was the one who kept you from catching the last train, after all."

Seokjin gulps hard. If he asks himself now how badly he needs to stop getting himself into weird situations like this, on a scale of one to ten, he'll probably give himself a twenty, but his joints ache and there's nothing he wants more than to just curl up in bed. So he takes a deep, deep breath, nods, relents and laughs when Jimin's lips part open into the brightest smile.

"Yeah, cool," he mutters, then lifts a hand in the air to hail the approaching cab. Jimin's arm pressed to his feels so strangely warm, a stark contrast to his cold, numb fingers wiggling in the air. He sort of– He actually likes it. "I don't mind."

 

 

Exactly once in his lifetime, when he was still with his previous company, Seokjin had the unfortunate honor of proving to the world that, well, disasters did come in threes. Their main talent for the production had to cancel at the very last minute, citing a nasty case of coughs and colds as the reason, and nearly a third of the crew was either stranded at home, kept from leaving their houses because of the pouring rain, or stuck in a train that had stopped halfway through the trip due to power outages all over Seoul. To top it all off, Yoongi was feeling a bit more under the weather than usual and was just dragging his ass from one set to another, struggling to stay on his feet but still trying his hardest to get the best shots he could possibly take. To everyone's defense, it was a tough summer for South Korea, what with all the storms and extreme heat hitting them in waves, but, why, why, why does this have to happen to me? Why does it have to happen right now? Why?

Seokjin wanted to scream out loud then, wail in distress, fall to his knees on the floor and slam his fists on the cold, hard concrete, but what good would any of those do? He'd still be stuck with bad luck. He'd still be trying to get rid of a 38.8-degree fever and acid scoring rough lines along his throat. He'd still have to cook porridge for himself and Yoongi when they got home and pray to God they'd be in tip-top shape again at the talent's next availability. So instead, he heaved a sigh, locked his arms behind his back, and promised, "We're gonna make something happen. We'll get through this."

"You know what? Maybe it would be better if we... pushed the shoot to next week," the client had said after a while, a few takes and fifteen minutes of rain showers in. She eased the tight press of her lips into a small, apologetic smile, just a subtle upward curl at the corners of her mouth, as she gave Seokjin's arm a gentle squeeze. Shifting her gaze between Seokjin and Yoongi, she added, "But seriously, I appreciate all the hard work and the effort. I don't think I've met a production team as... invested in the project as you are. None of this will ever go to waste because I'm telling you, I'm telling you now, you've just proven to me – to everyone here, your staff included – how dedicated you are to this project, to the brand. And you know what makes output more than just 'good'? It's the love you have for the brand."

Yoongi had snorted in response, maybe even laughed a little as he shook his head because who the hell even talked about productions gone wrong like that, seriously? Soon, though, he was whispering a faint, faint, 'thank you', bowing to the client, offering her a smile when he looked up to meet her in the eye. "And it means a lot that you still went to the shoot despite the weather," he had added after a while, then allowed himself to slump against Seokjin's figure, to let Seokjin feel just how much he was shaking all over. Or was that Seokjin? They were close, too close to each other that it was almost impossible to dissociate the lightest jerks of his own body from Yoongi's own. And exactly once that day, he felt that... things weren't so bad. For all of the time they spent breathing the same air, sharing the same space, sleeping on the same bed but never making the mistake of rolling over so they'd consciously try to fit in each other's arms all these years, it was only then that Yoongi willingly submitted himself to fatigue and screamed with every fiber of his being that he was sick and tired and that he needed Seokjin more than anything else in this world. "It's just... unfortunate that everything had to go wrong when it wasn't supposed to. We promise to make it up to you on the next shoot. We... promise to make everything perfect."

The following week, they shot one of the best commercials they'd ever had the opportunity to work on. Cut to a few months after and they were being shortlisted in many different advertising contests, inching closer to winning an award, to getting recognized for being such dedicated directors, producers, hit-makers. A few more months, and they were receiving a call from the agency they'd worked with, saying The campaign won! It actually– No, we won! This is your victory as much as it is ours. We wouldn't have been able to win this without you and your team.

"We owe you everything."

"Oh, hello, comes a familiar voice, the tone bright and loud even amidst the chatter in the room. Seokjin would be able to recognize that voice even with heavy bass thumping against the walls of the stereo, or even if he was trapped in the noisiest, most crowded room. Granted, he's neither seen nor heard too many facets of Jimin just yet, but if there's something his senses can easily wrap themselves around and absorb until he's making room at the very back of his mind for that sliver of memory, it's voices, sound, music. And Jimin might not be humming a song under his breath at the moment, but the lilts in his voice might as well be him trying to come up with a song right here, right now. "You're... here."

Seokjin snorts. Yeah, obviously. Why the hell are you here? he's tempted to ask, but the scent of coffee in the air reminds him of where he is, of what he should be doing, of who he should be. And there may be a few good feet of space between them, pushing them apart and pulling them closer in equal amounts, but he can make out the way Jimin's eyes crinkle at the corners just a little at the same time that he smiles. It isn't... one of his signature grins, though, isn't like the smile he wears when he's in the coffee shop – not that Seokjin's been taking snapshots of Jimin's smile and filing them at the back of his mind for later, for when he needs to decipher the look on Jimin's face during one of his 'investigations' – and there are more pimples on his cheek now than when they'd last seen each other... a few weeks ago? Except back then, everything was dark and the only thing that was bright was the way Jimin smiled at the cute little cat in his arms when Caramel shifted in her position and nuzzled his chest even more. And, well, the headlights of the cab they'd almost rammed into when uncle driving their cab drifted off for a few good seconds, slipping into a light slumber. Maybe every single moment in Seokjin's life flashing at the back of his eyelids, as well – him tendering his resignation after years of suffering in the production house, signing off his entire life when he and Yoongi agreed on putting up a coffee shop and making it the best cafe Hapjeong will ever have. Bumping into Jimin on a Tuesday night and ending up saving two lives – the cat's, by helping Jimin keep little Caramel warm, and Jimin's, when he tugged his scarf off of his neck and wrapped it around Jimin's own – instead of hopping on the first train home so he could dive into his bed and snooze his worries away.

Jimin cracks his neck and oh, there it is, Seokjin's red scarf, a third of it wrapped so loosely around Jimin's neck and the rest of the cloth resting comfortably on Jimin's chest. It's a nice contrast to the gray sweater Jimin is wearing, breathes a bit more color to his pale cheeks where the base of his glasses settle, to his lips peppered with cracked skin and scars of stress and fatigue. For a second, Seokjin thinks of inching closer, of grabbing Jimin by the scarf and yanking it off so he can take back what's rightfully his, but–

"You know him?"

Do I know him? Do I know him? He's been to Jimin's coffee shop at least five times already, most of them attempts at trying to go undercover but only ever ending up hiding behind magazines and peering from the top of the pages. He's seen Jimin outside the cafe thrice now, and on the second time they ran into each other, they took care of a cat and sat next to each other in a dark cab and almost got into an accident together. And actually accidentally ended up hugging each other in the cab, sort of, a voice at the back of his head reminds him, but nope, nope, now is not the time for him to be relapsing to that one Tuesday weeks ago. So he shrugs, sort of, except it feels more like his entire body jerking out of volition, and licks his lips before saying, "Yeah. He's, uh–"

The asshole who put up another coffee shop in Hapjeong, the very reason we're even trying to reinvent that coffee we make because apparently, the students whom we thought were enjoying our pure, unadulterated black coffee just couldn't be assed to drag their silly asses to Hongdae for more coffee options. It's a mouthful for eleven, twelve in the afternoon, though, especially since he hasn't had a proper cup of coffee yet, has only tasted coffee from the samples he'd been given in the different kiosks he and Yoongi have been to, so he rethinks his words, rearranges them in his head before answering, "Yoongi, this is Jimin. Met him in one of the coffee shops I went to... a couple of weeks back? No, actually, I think that was around... two, three months ago?" Three months of misery and having to constantly think of ways to outsmart him, apparently, groans a voice in his mind, but he pushes that to the back of his throat until he can't feel acid crawling up its walls anymore. "He has a store in Hapjeong, actually. It's around... five, ten minutes away from work? Shop's almost always packed, though. He's a pretty popular guy."

Jimin laughs. Seokjin catches Yoongi snorting, cackling just a little, feels Yoongi's body give a violent jerk at the same time that he clears his throat and clasps his hands in front of him. In most cases, this is step one of Yoongi's attempt at not yelling 'cut!' smack in the middle of Seokjin's stellar acting, but in all the years that they've known each other Yoongi has never really pushed on to step two. Whether for fear of getting hit or for fear of losing the best director he's ever worked with, Seokjin isn't sure, but he's glad Yoongi has the discernment to know when and when not to be an asshole, and when to be just a tad more evil than usual.

Still, Yoongi says, "Oh, so you're the coffee shop guy. Owner. Jimin," and nods in thought even as Seokjin pinches him hard in his side. To Seokjin, he says, "You've mentioned him a couple of times, right? Yeah, I think I remember him from somewhere."

"Nah, I'm just a regular guy who makes coffee," Jimin says after a while, brushing off Yoongi's statement with a wave of the hand. "Though I am kinda popular with younger people? I think?" For a second, Seokjin thinks he sees Jimin squint, but the question in his head is soon replaced by a tiny voice squeaking as Jimin continues, "Yoongi, right? What brings you to the expo, though? Do you work in the industry well? I mean, I'm pretty sure this expo is for coffee shop owners looking for cheaper coffee suppliers–"

"I... am a food blogger. A coffee blogger, I mean," Seokjin interjects even before Yoongi can get in another word. He trusts Yoongi to know the right words to say and when to say them, but right now his friend looks more interested in teasing him than in getting away from someone he's just met. And Jimin looks like he's seconds away from asking what Seokjin had been telling Yoongi all this time, what Seokjin had been saying about him, if Seokjin had mentioned Caramel at all, if Seokjin had somehow made the mistake of commenting about the erratic winds of spring making him feel cold and if I didn't give that kid my scarf, I probably wouldn't be freezing right now– "And Yoongi here is my cameraman. We, uh, thought it would be nice to sample coffee and actually shoot the shop owners as they try out different beans? And not just the shop owners, actually. There will be a tasting event for the experts later, if I remember correctly? Says so in the program–" And if anyone ever asked him for a VTR or suggested that he audition for a commercial, a series, a movie, then this exact moment would be the one he'd capture on film and send to talent scouts because this is the best acting he's done in years. It even trumps that one time, back when he was still in production, when he and Yoongi acted out part of the script for the talents to follow, just so the talents would be able to imagine how the best of friends who'd just realized that they were actually in love with each other were supposed to act. It puts his not-acting back then, when he and Yoongi had made a conscious decision to lean in a bit too close, to stare at each other's mouths longer than they should, and a subconscious reaction to pull away even before they could both yell 'cut!' at the back of their minds, to shame. "I can imagine the short feature now – coffee connoisseurs Park Jungsoo and Im Yoona talking about and reacting to different kinds of black coffee–"

"Yetch." Jimin shivers, scowls, frowns as he leans back a little. It shouldn't come as a surprise anymore, shouldn't even shock Seokjin at the slightest since Jimin's coffee shop is the epitome of sacrilege to black coffee, what with all the sweet coffee he serves (Seokjin has zero qualms about the pastries they offer; their cakes are actually really good), but the intensity of Jimin's reaction, the spontaneity of Jimin's comment, they way Jimin sort of curls in like a cute little cat who's been startled out of his safe haven is just priceless. "I don't understand how people can drink black coffee without anything. It tastes like hell!"

Seokjin snorts. "You've tasted hell?"

Jimin huffs. The tight corners of his lips twitch a little, softening for a quick second until a cackle spills from the seams. He shakes his head, then, blurring the grin stretching across his mouth, as he says, "You're funny. And cute. Mostly funny, but actually really cute." But I'm not, Seokjin wants to argue, because between the two of them it's not him who has a blush of pink blooming on his cheeks. It's not him who's curling his fingers into loose fists. It's not him who's frowning and pouting and smiling in intervals, like he can't settle on an emotion just yet – that's all Jimin. And as much as Seokjin would want to deny it, the way sunlight – not the warm, yellow light in Jimin's coffee shop – catches on Jimin's hair, on its soft curls, the way his eyes crinkle at the corners, the way color spills onto the rest of his features when Jimin finally surrenders and smiles, may or may not be more than just 'cute'. "Anyway, I'll be off. Nice meeting you, Yoon–Yoongi, right? I'd stay longer but I have a cat to pick up after this–" Their eyes meet and something flickers in Jimin's expression for a split second, something that Seokjin probably would have missed if he hadn't been watching Jimin intently, but he sucks at dividing his attention, and right now Jimin has snatched all of it. Trust Jimin to take things from him without preamble. Trust Jimin to sneak up on him and try to win in every way possible, by hook or by crook. "I… got Kara checked and apparently she's needs a couple of supplements but she's doing so much better now. Aaand, it turns out, she's actually scared of the rain. Just imagine, if it rained that time, if it actually rained that night–"

–Jimin probably would have gotten sick and Seokjin would have felt compelled to not leave two kitties out in the streets, probably would have even taken Jimin in and made sure he and Caramel were well-fed and felt better before sending them home, where they were supposed to be. He probably would have dug at least two more graves for himself, but luckily Life doesn't hate him as much as he thinks it does even if Life has thrust a grave situation in his face in the form of a Jimin waiting for a response and a Yoongi tilting his head in question, asking, What is he talking about? What are you not telling me? Why are we still here and not drinking beer yet?

"–it would have been the worst day ever," Seokjin manages to say after a while. A heartbeat, then, "Hug Caramel for me? Or just... pat her head, maybe. The poor thing gets startled so easily."

"Kara, not Caramel. She's not food," Jimin groans. Soon, though, his lips are quirking up, and Seokjin gets the strangest lurching sensation at the pit of his stomach, clawing at his insides, making his breath hitch. "And nah, probably wouldn't have been such a bad day– Oh shit, sorry, I really have to go. Gotta run after that guy. He keeps disappearing from the kiosk. Nice seeing you around, Jin!"

There's nothing but silence for a while, broken occasionally by the sound of footsteps, light chatter, coffee machines, Yoongi humming in the softest, faintest voice and looking up at him with a discerning gaze. It's as if he's preparing Seokjin for the next slew of words, statements, questions, when in fact Yoongi can summarize everything in a simple, "Jin, huh? He calls you 'Jin'? You wouldn't even let me call you that in front of the kids."

"He asked for a name and I gave him one," Seokjin mutters, finishing with a tight smile. He tugs Yoongi closer, grabbing him by the back of his shirt before the person speeding right in front of them could bump into Yoongi, then adds, "It's part of the mission. I'm using Jin as my agent name from now on. Makes me sound... mysterious."

Yoongi rolls his eyes. "I dunno about mysterious, but he sure looks like he's got you figured out. Sort of. He seemed really fond of you, though," he whispers, then he's pulling away, walking over to the next kiosk, arms locked behind his back. Clenching and unclenching his fists just before looking over his shoulder and offering Seokjin a tight smile, before beckoning him with a curt nod and mouthing, 'Well, what are you waiting for? Your coffee shop guy's not coming back.' Jealous? Seokjin has half the mind to ask, but soon he's hearing the host's voice booming across the hall, soaring high above the loud thumping in his chest, at the base of his throat, the quickening pulse at the back of his ears–

–but not quite above the little voices in his head, whispering, if you want to save yourself then look away now, Jin, look away now when he catches Jimin looking at him from a few meters away, when he catches Jimin wrinkle his nose in the cutest manner, when he catches his heart leaping in his chest and sinking to the pit of his stomach at the gentle quirk of Jimin's mouth blossoming into the brightest smile.

 

 

When Seokjin said before that he's a hundred percent sure bad luck runs out of steam after the third strike, he wasn't really... challenging Life and Destiny and telling them to prove him wrong. In fact, he was surrendering to the powers of Fate and Nature, telling the unseen forces that fine, fine, he doesn't stand a chance against them and that he's already accepted that fact so could they please stop ganging up on him and making them their guinea pig? He wasn't calling out to them, Bring it on, Gods! Throw one challenge at me after another! Give Jimin all my customers and I promise you I'll win them back in the next five, ten minutes! Just you wait and see! He wasn't even saying anything! The last time he'd looked to the sky was this morning, just before stepping inside Code: Coffee, wishing it wouldn't be one of those rainy days he and Caramel – Kara, he swore he heard Jimin groan in his ear – hated the most. Wishing was different from complaining. Wishing was supposed to be safe.

But then spring has finally passed and it's now summer in earnest, which means rains are almost always a staple. Which also means he's probably stupid for forgetting to make sure Yoongi hadn't snatched his umbrella before heading to his radio schedule in Gangnam, leaving Seokjin umbrella-less and vulnerable to whatever bad luck the rain gods are planning to hand to Seokjin as a present he didn't even ask for. "Take care, hyung! Don't get sick! And don't get wet!" Hoseok had even called out after him before punching out, but oh well. "Guess who's gonna get sick now," he grumbles to himself as he takes shelter in the dumpling place near the station and watches rain come crashing to the asphalt, the cold, hard ground, to his feet. Maybe he should ring either Hoseok or Taehyung up, disrupt potential sexy times or whatever strange equivalent is for them, for two people who keep dancing around each other, and ask to be picked up at the little restaurant in exchange for two extra days off (or three, fine). Maybe he should grab something to eat in the mean time, while waiting for the rain to come to a gradual halt. That should solve the hunger problem and ease the burn in his stomach. Then he'll be recharged enough to attempt to make the rain stop through some method that he's seen in one of the animations he'd watched with Hoseok in the past, save the citizens of Seoul from the heavy downpour, conquer the world–

"We've got to stop meeting like this."

Seokjin chokes on his own spit. Nine out of ten times, his hearing is perfect, crystal clear, immaculate to a fault, and even during the busiest days in the shop he's never had difficulty hearing speech properly. He has years of experience living with Yoongi and his friend's inability to enunciate words properly to thank. That, and he finds it difficult to split his focus into many different fragments, instead honing in on just one thing, pouring all of his attention there – in this case, the sound of pouring rain cracking at the prompt of a familiar voice. He blinks a few times, then, looking around, leaning to his side a little when he catches sight of bright orange hair, and heaves a sigh. The lighting in the dumpling shop may not be the best or the most flattering, but he can I.D. this smile from a mile away, even if the winds of the summer storm whip at his vision and blur everything in sight. He can try to deny it, but Jimin's smile still burns at the back of his eyelids from when they'd seen each other in COEX weeks back, passed each other by countless times as they hopped from one kiosk to another, from when there was nothing but a few good feet and meters of breathing space keeping them apart. "Yeah, we probably should."

"At least there are no cats involved this time around?" Jimin tries.

Seokjin laughs. "At least you don't have to save cute little Caramel from evil kids anymore."

Jimin scrunches his face. He squints, quirks up his lips at the corners in a weird cross between a scowl and a smile, but the glimmer in his eyes isn't lying. And the lilts in his voice betray him even as he says, "Either you're obsessed with caramel or you really just want to piss me off for some weird reason."

Not piss you off. More like– Seokjin bites the inside of his cheek long and hard even before he can say a thing, even before his speech can turn against him and give him away. So instead, he says, "I don't like sweet things," and digs his hands in his pockets, wiggling his fingers in an effort to thaw himself out. "And 'Caramel' is a better fit. I mean, she does have orange-y... golden fur, after all."

"Strange preference," Jimin murmurs, voice soon thinning into soft laughter. Or at least Seokjin thinks that's what he hears because the next thing he knows, Jimin's nudging him in his side, cocking his head in the direction of the entrance to the dumpling shop, asking, "Wanna grab a bite? I mean, I don't think we can go anywhere near home in this rain, not without an umbrella–"

Or they can just pretend they don't know each other even if the shed just outside the shop is only big enough for two people their size. Or Seokjin can turn Jimin down even before Jimin can think of other, crazier ideas. Or Seokjin can ball his hands into tight fists in Jimin's shirt, hold him back from talking to one of the shop's staff and asking if they could borrow an umbrella, We'll return it tonight, we promise! We just have to go back to the coffee shop to get some of our stuff, but too late. Jimin manages to con someone from the staff to lend them an umbrella just big enough for a person and a half to fit in. And Jimin's tugging at Seokjin's shirt sleeve, looking up at him with bright eyes as he says, "So? Are you coming or not?"

"Where are we going?"

"My shop," Jimin answers, voice peppered with little lilts and laughter like he can't believe Seokjin had asked such a silly thing. "Pretty sure we have a few spare umbrellas there. I just forgot to bring one. I mean, I wasn't really expecting it to rain. Forecast said it'll be one of those clear days, buuut looks it was lying..." He trails off, then he's giving Seokjin's shirt another light tug, wrapping his fingers around Seokjin's wrist in a loose, loose fist, drumming heartbeats on Seokjin's skin with the thundering pulse in his palm. "If not, then we can use some of the baking pans, I guess. Better than nothing, right?"

Better to die in your coffee shop with you than get drenched in the rain? I don't think so, Seokjin wants to groan, but he can't even argue that the only thing he wants right now is to be warm and dry in an enclosed space. Which means hopping on the first train to Dangsan and collapsing on his bed the first chance he gets, but the rain isn't letting up and the winds haven't died down yet and Jimin's still looking at him like the answers to all the questions in his world are at the tip of his tongue, just waiting for a clumsy enunciation. "Well?"

"You better have spares there," Seokjin groans, then he's yanking the umbrella away from Jimin and wrapping his fingers around the handle in a tight, tight grip. Never mind that he's shaking a little – it's just from the cold; it shouldn't mean a thing – or that his knees feel just a tad weak; both of these can be remedied by a place where he can feel warm, and the sooner they can get to Hug Cafe, the sooner he can up his chances of getting home and crashing in his wonderful bed, far, far away from Jimin, from everything that shouldn't feel a lot like home. "And move closer. We're not gonna fit here if you stay a foot away from me."

Jimin nods. Two steps, then his body is snapping to Seokjin's own, drawn to Seokjin's limbs like a magnet with a pull so strong Seokjin can't even try to wiggle himself free from the tight, tight fit. It isn't uncomfortable, though, doesn't even leave Seokjin with a searing, burning pain in his arm when he drapes it on Jimin's shoulder to pull Jimin even closer. If anything, it feels... nice, even more so when Jimin snakes a hand across his waist and wraps his arm there, when Jimin's side sticks to his own and sets off these tiny, tiny explosions where their bodies meet. It makes a prickling heat bloom on his skin, makes Seokjin shiver when the winds blow and leave goosepimples on their skin in their wake, but it keeps them just warm enough to tide them through the next few steps, as they inch closer to Hug Cafe's entrance, as they count down the seconds until they have to pull away.

Jimin drops his hands to his sides and reaches for the knob, giving it a slick twist as he pulls out the key. "Welcome to Hug Cafe, I guess? Sorry if it's a bit dark," he whispers, swinging the door open as he does so, then he's guiding Seokjin inside with a hand pressed to the small of Seokjin's back, pushing him forward, showing him the way. "The controls are a bit far from the entrance but– Alright, there you go."

Hug Cafe feels a lot cozier at half past eleven in the evening. For one, there isn't a rattling noise anymore, no loud voices to shatter Seokjin's eardrums and make him feel like screaming at the top of his lungs, 'will everyone please shut the fuck up?' The lights are a lot warmer, as well, still the same shade of yellow that they are when the shop is packed with students and employees and people who can't decide whether to grab a cup of coffee after eating or to go for dessert. There are no fragments of many different colors to break the soft rays of light anymore, though, just Jimin's figure hovering, inching closer to Seokjin, setting two cups down on the table closest to the counter, the one most illuminated by the lights. "Would you care for some... warm water while I get you something else? Tea, hot chocolate, coffee–"

"Coffee, please and thank you– God, we're too formal," Seokjin grumbles, but makes sure to punctuate his statement with soft laughter, a small smile, a faint 'thank you'. He reaches out, hoping to give Jimin a light jab on the arm, and the next thing he knows he's feeling something soft land on his face, drape over his eyes, keep him warm. The first thought that occurs to him is, that's a bit too soft for a baking pan?; the second, and that's a bit too close for comfort– You can stop right where you are now– But to no avail – Jimin is taking a few more steps forward, drawing near, resting his warm hands flat on Seokjin's head, the pulse in his palms still thumping loudly even with the thin veil of a towel to cushion the beats. Seokjin can bury his face in Jimin's chest if he wants to, if he's feeling a bit too tired, relenting, crazy, and while the rain makes him do quite a number of weird things, getting a bit too cozy with a stranger probably isn't one of them... he thinks.

Still, he pushes the thought to the very back of his mind, managing a, "You won't be able to make coffee for me if you keep doing this, you know," in between Jimin ruffling his hair and giving his scalp a light massage. There's no denying the way his breath hitches when Jimin motions for him to lean forward, though, coaxes him to press his forehead to Jimin's chest, for them to collide. For them to fall into another one of those snug fits that, for some strange reason, feels so, so right. "I can dry my hair just fine, it's alright–"

Jimin hums. His voice is warm, steady, solid even if the pounding in his chest is anything but, even when his grip falters a little and his ruffling comes to a gradual stop, a sickening standstill. Seokjin looks up, then, peering from the narrow slits of his bangs, from where the edge of the towel just hovers his eyelashes and blurs the image of the indiscernible look in Jimin's eyes just a little, and... He holds his breath. Gulps hard in an effort to loosen the tight knots in his throat, to still the lurching sensation at the pit of his stomach, to calm the racing heartbeat in his chest. I said 'coffee, please, no more toweling my hair dry,' he's tempted to say, to lash out, to push Jimin away, but he can't even feel anything beyond the relentless beating in Jimin's chest or the tightness in his throat anymore. It's as if the cold outside has numbed them and has taken away Jimin's ability to hear things clearly, to hear anything at all, to hold back. "I said, I can dry my hair just fine–"

–but Seokjin never mentioned anything about being able to still the heavy thumping inside him. He hasn't made any claims about being in full control of the voices in his head, the thundering pulse at the back of his knees, elbows, the base of his throat. He never said he could keep his brain from thinking, thinking, wondering how it would feel to have Jimin's hands cupping his face, instead, and if Jimin's breath trickling down the bridge of his nose would feel just as warm. So when a voice at the back of his mind screams, what the hell is happening, and raps at his temples until he's shaking all over, when Jimin drops his hands to Seokjin's shoulders and just stares, Seokjin breathes out, "Ji...min?"

Jimin's body gives a violent jerk. It isn't enough to jostle Jimin awake just yet, eyes still unfocused, caught in a daze, but it is enough to loosen his hold on Seokjin a little and allow Seokjin a split-second of respite. It's enough to make him withdraw his hands from where he may be accidentally-on-purpose brushing the pads of his thumbs on Seokjin's skin in light, gentle strokes. And it's enough for Seokjin to realize how near they are to each other – some three, four, five inches apart, just close enough that he can see the stubble that has formed on Jimin's chin, the bright red skin stretched across his lower lip that Jimin has been nibbling so hard these past few seconds, and the way Jimin's gaze flickers into focus, honing in on nothing, no one else but him.

Jimin's lips tremble. His cheeks flush, his eyes widen, and his chest heaves, and all of a sudden he's taking a step back, gulping hard, pulling away. Pressing his lips together into a straight, straight line that Seokjin sort of wants to mess up, turn crooked, pull up into a smile. But why would he even do that? Here Jimin is, already giving him ample breathing space, giving him options, ways to escape, and the only thing that makes sense for him to do is to push himself off his seat, thank Jimin for the warm water and for drying his hair then apologize because he's going to get it so fucking wet again, and then run away.

The first thought that crosses Seokjin's mind is, that's so fucking impractical, don't be stupid; the second, stop looking for reasons to stay.

"Black coffee, right?" Jimin asks after a while, already on the other side of the counter, closer to the machines now than where Seokjin is. Part of Seokjin wants to walk over, to join him there, ask for a bit of warmth, but then he hasn't even finished his warm water yet. And there's the promise of coffee to thaw him out later, much later, in the next five minutes, anyway. So he stays firmly in place, clasps his hands in front of him, and takes a deep, deep breath before nodding, smiling, giving Jimin the green light.

"You know me well," he whispers just before Jimin turns on his heel and picks up the portafilter. To the voice inside him, asking him why, what, how in endless circles, he answers, I don't know what's going on. I have no fucking clue. And I don't even want this to stop now… or anytime soon.

 

 

 

Confession time: the black coffee Jimin has just served Seokjin is actually good.

Good, meaning that it actually tastes like coffee and not hot water with raw coffee beans and around three, four tablespoons of sugar. Good meaning it's okay, nothing Seokjin would want to throw into the drain as soon as the liquid touched his tongue, something he'd actually want to savor for the next fifteen to thirty minutes. It's not as strong as Seokjin's regular brews in Code: Coffee, probably not even half as bold and rich in flavor as the standard Americano in Seokjin's shop, but it's passable enough that Seokjin doesn't find himself grimacing at the first sip, or the second, or the third. See, this is what happens when you get all judgey with coffee and throw cups away even before giving them a shot, murmurs a voice at the back of his mind. He'd try to wrestle that thought to the ground if he could, if he had the energy to, but it's already past midnight and, honestly, there's an ounce of truth to the statement. After too many bad experiences with baristas in little coffee shops only pouring one shot of espresso into his Americano, regardless of the size of the cup, he'd resolved to himself to never trust anyone else when it comes to making black coffee, whether the classic Americano or the timeless brewed coffee. The same goes for French press coffee – he'll never let anyone but his very own baristas attempt to make coffee for him using a French press unless the unknown barista allows him to take him through the entire process, from determining how many tablespoons of grounds to pour into the container to applying just the right amount of pressure to the plunger while filtering the coffee and stopping the brewing process.

So okay, maybe Jimin's black coffee is more than just good. Seokjin likes it, and he can probably get hooked on it if he tried hard enough to not compare it to the coffee he makes at home or in the shop. But then what can he expect? Jimin doesn't take pride in bringing the finest basic brew to the table; he flaunts his flavored coffee to everyone and tells them they're in for the experience of a lifetime as soon as they take their first sip. He tells them he's adding a twist to the standard latte and spicing it up with the most peculiar flavors in existence. It's the secondary flavor Jimin latches onto as his coffee's selling point, not the actual bold and rich coffee flavor contained in every cup he serves. Whatever it is that Seokjin isn't looking for in coffee, Jimin is shoving right in his face.

Not this time, though, when Jimin leans back against the counter and watches as Seokjin takes another sip of the black coffee that he's just been served. Not when Jimin looks like he's seconds away from screaming out loud, Will you stop holding back and just tell me whether you think my basic black's a complete flop or not?

"Say it: it's bland," Jimin mumbles now, the corners of his lips pulling down into a frown. His shoulders slump forward at the same time that he heaves a sigh. For the most part, he looks like he's exaggerating everything, even the cute little pout that surfaces on his lips or the little shake of his shoulders when Seokjin says, "Nah, it's fine. It just– It can be improved?" but if there's anything that Seokjin has learned from all the times he'd watched Jimin from four, five tables away as Jimin hopped from one group of coffee drinkers to another, on all those days that he spent his last few minutes in Hapjeong with his gaze fixed on nothing, no one else but Jimin, it's that Jimin's eyes never lie. He may be grinning from ear to ear but he will never be able to hide the fatigue in his eyes. He may laugh off a weird comment from a customer, but he will never be able to blink away the panic in his shocked gaze. And he may try to keep the atmosphere light and his jabs at Seokjin playful now, but Seokjin's no stranger to seeing a flash of hurt in Jimin's features. The first time he did was when they bumped into each other a few weeks back, when Jimin looked more concerned about Kara instead of his aching knees and legs. And, well, Seokjin isn't sure if he wants so see the same look on Jimin ever again.

"I've been working really hard on getting the grounds to water ratio right but it never works out. I don't– It doesn't make sense!" Jimin adds after a while, when Seokjin gets off of the chair he's been lounging on for the past few minutes. Slowly, Seokjin inches closer to where Jimin is, wiggling his toes in his shoes in an effort to thaw his limbs out in full once and for all. His knees still feel a bit weak and the sharp pain at the back of his hands hasn't waned yet. His nose still feels like it would fall off from the sheet of cold still holding onto his skin for dear life. And there's still a good three feet between him and Jimin, pulling them closer to each other and pushing them further away in equal amounts, that he could have easily been just imagining things, but he doesn't miss the way Jimin's breath hitches when Seokjin finally slips behind the other side of the counter, bumps his hip into Jimin's own, gives Jimin a gentle nudge. "I've been following the steps in Youtube videos, coffee cookbooks or whatever they're called, been following Jeonggukie's instructions, but nothing's been working at all. I mean, it tastes like black coffee a.k.a. it tastes like soil and the earth and all, but I can't seem to make it taste like... the stuff they offer in bigger coffee chains? Like Starbucks?" Jimin continues, voice thinning into something just above a whisper, then he's meeting Seokjin in the eye, looking up at him through the curls of his bangs, breathing out a long and loud exhale. "Which is why I try to dissuade people from ordering our black coffee, to be honest. I mean yeah, I'm good at making coffee. Jeonggukie's even better, but his specialty isn't giving people recommendations on which black coffee to drink just based on the type of diet they're following or how receptive their tummies are to acid or even boldly telling them hey, I heard you telling your friend your body doesn't seem to agree with the usual Ethiopian beans so maybe you should try–"

"The Nicaraguan beans," Seokjin continues, craning his neck and squinting in an effort to read the labels on the coffee containers lined up at the counter. "They pack just as much flavor as the Ethiopian or Sumatran ones, but they're far less acidic and dark. I guess you can say they're... kinder to the palate? Sort of?" He'll be completely honest – Jimin's selection of beans puts his to shame, only because Jimin's shop is relatively new yet already stuffed to the brim with all sorts of beans while Seokjin only keeps four to five types of beans, at most, in his stockroom at any point in time. Because you don't need too many to come up with the perfect blend, a voice in his mind will always argue, but then he can only come up with so many combinations with the limited stock he has. He can only explore so much and stick with his classics too little. He can't– He can only take so many risks.

He laughs to himself. It's already enough that he and Yoongi almost got themselves on a hospital bed by putting together many different kinds of beans of varying roasts, though. Once, they blended Sumatran and Guatemalan beans in one batch and roasted them together, hoping to come up with a nice, earthy flavor for their coffee, but they'd only ever ended up having to cleanse themselves for an entire week with nothing but clear soup, kimchi, and warm water because boy, was the roast the darkest and boldest it could possibly be. "Never again," Yoongi had groaned as they curled up on the couch, limbs in a tangled mess, and Seokjin's only somber response was a grunt and a whisper – "I'm gonna write this on my stomach's tombstone – death by coffee and Min Yoongi. Seriously, exactly how many times can you actually attempt to kill me?"

Yoongi didn't say a thing, didn't even make a sound beyond heavy breathing and the occasional loud gulp. Seokjin heaved a sigh, then, closed his eyes when he felt his insides lurch, and only then did Yoongi murmur in response, "Probably less than all the times you've actually killed me. Probably."

Seokjin snorts. There's a reason why all of Yoongi's attempts at sweeping him off of his feet have remained nothing but mere attempts – the kid was too chicken to set the tiny flower crown he made for Seokjin on Seokjin's head when they were much, much younger and, instead, just shoved it in Seokjin's chest. Yoongi was much too scared to hold his hand all those times they watched horror movies in their flat and, instead, just balled his fingers into tight fists in Seokjin's shirt sleeve. And Seokjin could have, would have taken the leap if Yoongi so much as showed the slightest interest in jumping off with him, but nah – what they've always had is nice, warm, safe. And when you're a thirty-something trying to juggle your health and a business and your sanity, the last thing you'll want is to lose your best friend just because you've finally decided that fuck this, you're gonna kiss the living daylights out of him and make him come forward with his feelings for you once and for all.

"I think my coffee just... screwed with your brain completely. Or you're sick," comes Jimin's voice now, barely above a whisper but just loud enough to ring in Seokjin's ears, to wrap around his nape like a quilt, just loud enough to steady him and his thoughts. Jimin inches closer, then, one hand dropping to the cold, hard counter, and the other reaching up to brush against Seokjin's forehead in a feather-light touch. "Okay, not sick. That's a relief. Oh wait, the spare umbrellas, right–"

"Your black coffee is good," Seokjin rushes just as Jimin twists his torso, motioning to put enough distance between them, to pull away. Jimin jerks back a little, furrows his eyebrows his question, but remains hovering over him like a buoy trying to stay afloat. And he's smiling a little now, the corners of his lips no longer caught in a tight, tight frown. You look weird when you're not smiling, though, a voice in Seokjin's head whispers, knocks at the back of his teeth, urges him to speak, but nah. That's not a conversation for tonight. Right now, what Jimin needs to know is that Seokjin appreciates both the effort and the coffee, and how he can improve the drink with a few simple tricks.

Seokjin laughs to himself. Don't be stupid, groans a familiar voice in his head, Don't tell me you're actually going to help him out, but the next thing he knows, his tongue is getting the better of him, enunciating raw words that have yet to be roasted to perfection. "But you can make it better. Stronger. More... flavorful."

Jimin nods. He licks his lips, parts them with a gentle flick of the tongue, then he's pressing them together again like he isn't sure if it's his turn to speak yet. It feels a bit strange, Seokjin muses, seeing Jimin a bit more apprehensive than usual, but if this is the window of opportunity that Jimin is giving him then he's going to grab it before Jimin decides to take it back. Before he decides to bite back the strangest urge to share whatever he knows with Jimin in the hope that Jimin might come to share the same love and enthusiasm he has for coffee someday.

So he clears his throat and says, "I can teach you," pausing only to gulp hard, to ease the tightness in his throat. The look in Jimin's features flickers – his lips quirk up a little and his eyes glimmer and widen and he lights up – then Jimin's draping a thin veil over himself again, between them, under the guise of a careful, careful smile. Any minute now, chirps a voice at the back of Seokjin's mind, he'll crack any minute now and I don't even know why you let these things stick to your mind, Jin. I don't even know why you care, but then he's always been shit at shunning nice people away. He's always been the worst at pushing people who help him dry his hair and offer him coffee and hold him with firm hands instead of just a fleeting touch, people who make sure he's all warm and cozy in the enemy's territory, people like Jimin whose best manifestation of being evil is beating him to getting the last pack of coffee grounds in the shelf and staring at him longer than three seconds, studying him too much, being too close for comfort, as far away from him as possible. And Jimin may be the best and worst tease he's met in years, but there's no denying that if Jimin really were the work of the devil then he probably wouldn't have let Seokjin in his domain, wouldn't have offered him warmth in the form of a cup of coffee.

"Only if you want me to, though," Seokjin continues after a while, when his chest no longer feels too heavy and when the curls at the corners of Jimin's mouth have softened into something more relaxed. More... natural. "I mean, you do own a coffee shop, after all, and you probably know more about roasting than the common coffee consumer and–"

"I'd love to," Jimin whispers. "I'd... love to learn from you. Pretty sure there's still a lot that I need to know." He sucks in his lower lip, inches closer until Seokjin can take in the way light dances on the tips of Jimin's eyelashes when Jimin blinks once, twice, thrice. "It's–It's getting late, though? I mean, weren't you supposed to go home already or something?"

Seokjin looks to his side, peering through the glass painted with raindrops and a blurry image of Hapjeong at night. In hindsight, maybe they should have just walked to the station together from the dumpling shop, promised to return the umbrella the following day since they both work in the area, anyway, but too late – they're trapped here now, in each other's orbit, in these few inches keeping them at a safe distance from each other. And the rain doesn't look like it will let up anytime soon, not with the way it keeps pounding on the roof of the cafe and drawing squiggly lines on the windows. "Might not be safe to take a cab in this weather," Seokjin reasons, then, but does a double-take as he says, "Oh, but Caramel–"

"You're really going to stick with that name for her, aren't you?" Jimin asks, little sparks of laughter breaking up his speech, making his shoulders shake. "Kookie's taking care of her. The cat's taken a liking to him, actually. Every single cat I know chooses him over me– Stop changing the topic. Really, if you weren't cute, I swear to God–"

"You swear to God what?"

Jimin takes a deep, deep breath, holds it all in even as he tilts his head, squints, shakes his head as if saying, Are you really asking me that? Do you really want to hear the answer? Do you? And Seokjin has a pretty extensive list of statements to attach to Jimin's words, has questions, hunches, and probably a few promises here and there to stick to the loose strings dangling from Jimin's lips, but he knows better than to finish somebody else's sentences in his head. He should know better than to make things up in a little corner in his mind. He should have learned by now. So he drops it – the subject, his gaze, his hands to his sides, then digs them into his pockets when Jimin doesn't let on yet, doesn't pull away from where he's been hovering.

He laughs to himself. It's funny how someone so small, so tiny, can cage in on him without preamble and trap him with a soft, gentle touch. It's funny how Jimin can still smile despite the thundering pulse in his thumb when he wraps his fingers around Seokjin's arm and gives it a squeeze. And it's funny how through all these things, with Jimin shooting hoops and earning points and rushing past Seokjin, getting way ahead in their little game, not once has Seokjin thought of keeping score.

Not once has he thought of bringing Jimin down and pushing Jimin to the ground. And not once has Seokjin thought of claiming victory with anything but his hands balled into fists in Jimin's shirt–

"I swear to God, you'll be the end of me," Jimin finishes, then he's pulling away, reaching for the canisters of coffee, arranging them on the counter, closer to Seokjin than to the cold walls. From where Seokjin is, he can make out Jimin shaking a little – from the cold, from the lack of food in his system, or from fatigue, Seokjin can't tell, but he can see the slow-forming smile on Jimin's lips as Jimin says, "So, what are you gonna teach me tonight, sonsaengnim?"

It doesn't take long for Jimin to be able to fully grasp the concept of mixing different kinds of beans – not more than thirty minutes, give or take, or maybe just a little over that because Jimin likes asking the why's and how's of everything, loves checking and double-checking all the information he's taking in before absorbing them in full. "Okay. So you're saying, if I want to retain the... richness and sweetness of the Costa Rican grounds but temper the boldness a bit, I can try mixing some of the Nicaraguan grounds with it? Because Nicaraguan grounds are really mild and will... actually help even out the flavor of the other beans?" he asks after a while, chin propped on his clasped hands, and Seokjin has to pause for a bit, bite the inside of his cheek, suck in his lower lip else he won't be able to keep himself from letting out a long and resounding wow.

You learn fast, kid, he whispers to himself, to no one, nothing else but the voices in his head, all letting out little sounds of approval and pleasant surprise. To Jimin, he says, "Why don't you give it a shot? See if it actually works and if you'll like the result enough to serve it to your customers?"

"But you said I should never mix grounds when they're already... grounds." Jimin scrunches his face, shakes his head, waves his hands right in front of him, and all of a sudden Seokjin's hit with the strangest urge to just... cup Jimin's cheeks with his hands and tell him, Stop. Breathe. It's alright, I won't roast you alive if you give me a wrong answer. That, or to ball his hands into tight, tight fists, and remind himself that letting oneself be controlled by wayward thoughts isn't the best thing to do when faced with a stranger. Or an acquaintance. Or someone who isn't quite a friend yet but may or may not be seconds away from being exactly that. "I mean, you said it's better if I actually start mixing stuff during the roasting process," Jimin adds after a while, then he's scratching the slope of his neck, drawing a red line along his pale, pale skin as he continues, "Rule number two, right? 'Unless you're actually lazy and can't be assed to properly blend grounds, do the mixing before you roast–"

You actually remember, Seokjin almost blurts out. Who the hell even remembers these silly rules– He manages to bite back his words with a cackle, though, a gentle shake of the head, with fingers threading through Jimin's hair and giving the tuft a light fluff. He can feel Jimin shiver a little, can hear the hitch in Jimin's breathing, but if he ever feels the need to tease Jimin with these, he doesn't. Instead, he drops his hand to Jimin's shoulder and gives Jimin's arm a squeeze as he says, "You forgot rule 2.1 – if it's midnight and you're just doing this for demonstration purposes, then mixing grounds isn't a mortal sin."

"Just a teeny, tiny sin. Alright," Jimin singsongs.

Seokjin huffs. Jimin will be the death of him, not the other way around. The kid better get that right. "Just get to mixing."

Jimin laughs. His voice cracks when it peaks, but the smile on his lips is unfazed, unyielding. "Teach me how?"

'Teach me how' means Seokjin telling Jimin exactly how many scoops of Costa Rican grounds he should be using as a base, means Seokjin trying hard not to laugh when Jimin accidentally pours an extra scoop of the Nicaraguan grounds into the mix. "That's fine. Just make sure to keep track of your scoops next time," Seokjin whispers after a while, right in Jimin's ear as Jimin dips the spoon he's holding in the mound of grounds in the container. "Then fold the Nicaraguan grounds in, little folds– Alright, that should be good. Now, pour in the hot water – hot, not boiling – veeery slowly. You don't want hot water spilling on your hands, trust me–" Then he's wrapping his fingers around Jimin's shaking hand, the one holding the kettle up, not the one steadying Jimin on the counter and keeping him anchored to something, keeping him balanced. Seokjin watches as the liquid turns the grounds a darker shade of brown, as the steam sticks to the walls of the container in a thin sheet of white, as Jimin's lips tug up into a small smile, blooming into a grin with each passing second, with every whiff they take of the sweet scent of coffee filtering through the narrow opening of the French press even if Seokjin has already covered the container.

Jimin drums his fingers on the counter the whole time, waiting for four long minutes of brewing to pass. For the most part, Seokjin keeps his focus on the timer, on the digital clock on his phone counting down to when Jimin can finally stop filling the silence with gentle taps of his fingers, but he doesn't miss the way Jimin steals glances at him out of the corner of his eye, through the narrow slits of Jimin's bangs, as he pours the brewed coffee into a cup. The first sip has Jimin wrinkling his nose; the second has him easing the furrow of his eyebrows, the tight press of his lips, lifting the careful look off of Jimin's features to allow something more familiar to settle in. Then Jimin's laughing – bright, loud, bordering on obnoxious because it's past midnight and nobody's allowed to look so alive at such a late hour. Nobody in this world, not even Jimin with his bright, bright eyes and his big smile and his resounding cackles thinning into soft, warm chuckles, has the right to be aglow at half past twelve in the morning as he says in spurts, "I actually like it. I–I actually like it! I can't believe this– I actually like black coffee!"

Unfair, Seokjin whispers to himself, and bites the inside of his cheek when Jimin meets his gaze. Half of him wants to duck, crawl away from the scene, and grab the first umbrella he sees on his way out so he can get himself out of this deep, deep grave he's dug for himself, but the other half of him kind of likes it how Jimin keeps taking sips, gulps, long swigs of the black coffee they had prepared together.

And then a tiny, tiny fraction of him, a part of him the size of the smallest voice at the back of his mind, wonders if coffee would taste a lot sweeter on Jimin's lips, if it would still taste like coffee, at all, because Jimin has a penchant for ruining everything for Seokjin – the stillness in his mind, the infinite calm inside him, his plans and his goals and his very simple fantasy for the night of crashing in his bed and getting a good night's sleep instead of giving Jimin a crash course on coffee mixing and how to get Seokjin to help out a rival in three easy steps.

"You're something, Jin," Jimin whispers after a while, lips still glistening in a sheen of coffee. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes are soft and Seokjin looks hilarious in the reflection in Jimin's eyes, but Seokjin tries his best not to gulp hard when Jimin licks his lips, anyway, tries to save face, tries to stay dangerously still when Jimin lets his gaze flit to Seokjin's mouth for a torturous few seconds. "You're something."

He tries to keep himself from raising his hands in the air, waving the white flag once and for all, losing all sense of control. His limbs may be weak, but his resolve isn't. He won't–he can't lose now. He can't give in just yet.