Actions

Work Header

nightlands

Work Text:

On June 30th, 1995, they meet for the first time.

But in the late night glow, watching the smoke swirl in blue hues around them, Jimin knows it might be the last.

He's been in love for four years.

Watching the cigarette burn out, a crumpled stick in the corner of Taehyung’s worried mouth, Jimin feels like sinking. It's hot from the wound, from the bullet that Taehyung now has in the pincers between the two of them, from the rising fever and subsiding adrenaline.

Oddly, Taehyung doesn't mind the blood as he clenches the bullet in his fist. He pockets it and finally pays attention to his smoking.

"After this," he begins, watching Jimin poke at his patched side carefully, "are we still partners?"

They've never met, not like this, but Jimin has never loved anyone so much.

But partners of their kind can't get too close. He looks up, feeling Taehyung’s warm hand on his chest. Over the heart. Jimin's regular aim when he’s in for the kill.

On June 30th, 1995, Jimin falls in love all over again.




i.

 

They’ve been partners for four years. Jimin can never be sure what first compelled them to break so many protocols and make the first call.

But it must’ve been something about that night that Jimin doesn’t remember, the ripples in the hot summer air, or the weather he was so not used to.

Jimin is of the opinion that a person’s job is often determined by their personality. The outgoing type that he is, planning and decision-making doesn’t suit his preference. He is told who needs to die, and where and when. He doesn’t have to make arrangements but instead prefers to follow, complete the piece. That’s why there is Taehyung.

A faceless partner that should always remain so. But they’ve been together for four years and Taehyung is more than his chicken scrawl on fax paper.

Jimin often wonders if they see each other by accident, in the daylight or deep in the night.

Maybe in any of those dimly lit shops that Taehyung used to break into after hours to act out his childhood dreams. They were meat shops, barber’s places, hole-in-the-walls. As a kid he always wanted to own a shop like that and tend to all sorts of people. Make someone’s day.

After long nights of his illegal generosity, Taehyung would often fax one of his codes, a riddle that led to a page number, directing Jimin to a pay phone somewhere on the outskirts of downtown noise. They’d talk, lazy and worn thin, until the morning.

That ice-cream incident is still one of Jimin’s favorites, where Taehyung’s long-abandoned habit is concerned. It initially started as a give out to the only customer that night but ended in a proper city trip in an ice-cream van full of people. Taehyung at the wheel, the customer, a pony-tailed man that seemed a little on edge, and his enormous family. They blasted shitty radio all night. He dropped them off at around four, all of them full and content.

"They weren’t saying much," Taehyung told Jimin, "the weirdest bunch. But they were having a really great night, I think, Jiminie."

Jiminie.

The names are only allowed like this, during forbidden phone chats in undefined corners of the city.

They still talk of their days and things so inane it feels the most intimate. They talk of Taehyung’s favorite series and old habits; of Jimin’s home, of all the corpses he has seen and the remnants of their previous lives, now fully covered for the rest of the world.




ii.

 

Across from the subway overpass is Jimin’s rathole of an apartment. Basked in greens and yellows of the neon signs from behind the narrow glazed windows, it reminds Taehyung of a crate. The shape of it, just like on a ship.

The keys are in the same place, hidden in the window pane, and Taehyung reaches through a broken section of orange glass to feel for them in the hollow of the frame.

Inside, it’s as damp and stuffy as it always is in summer, and the fluorescent tubes come to life when Taehyung flicks the switch. Huge Casio clock-face flickers too, dull but casting turquoise. Taehyung makes a note to dust its hands.

He is far from tidy but he finds himself cleaning Jimin’s washed out habitat way more than he should’ve over the past years. In a way, it’s a form of intimacy.  

Taehyung has always had a penchant for invading spaces in the most polite way, with the best intentions and quiet excitement.

Gloved up and clad in navy blue and black leather, he moves about, studying, taking in new pieces, notes the empty spaces. The TV, a small plastic thing with almost insect antennae, is a calming background music of foreign voices and blue pictures.

Here it always feels calm, lazy.

His skin itches under the face mask as he dusts the shaky shelves and lamps, changes the covers for fresh plaid ones, and mops the mosaic tile of the floor. It’s a simple small-scale pattern. He moves the old washcloth with his socked foot.

Fixing a new perforated roll in a fax machine, he remembers to put the aloe juice in the fridge. Their first year on the phone, Jimin mentioned coming to like the taste of it. Now he is forced to drink it all the time, Taehyung thinks, smiling.  

He closes the small shutters after smoking, wincing at the grime the old iron frame leaves on his fingers, and checks his hair in the mirror. The lighting is dull but his new color, very lowkey brown, looks good.

It’s weird how he sort of senses Jimin nearby. Must be deep underground now, in the tiled yellow depths of the subway, surviving the night ride after his hit. Today it was just three people, seemingly easy to handle. At least it looked like it when Taehyung was checking the place.

There’s a new note on the table, messy but clear in its intention. Another random page number on it and a simple riddle.

Taehyung checks his writing again and looks around. Jimin feels closer now.

He puts his shoes on and turns off the TV.



﹍﹍﹍



Taehyung works nights. Most people waste away from nine to five, in suits and daylight, but Taehyung prefers sketchy corners after dark. His job is easy. He gets a call over a page line, a voice message, and goes out to visit some friends. Nobody he will ever care about or meet again, especially not after Jimin’s job is done.

These places, usually small diners filled with steam and clatter and irritating human volume, or hidden shops designed to appear harmless, always seem to be tied to cheap street gambling. Taehyung is just another link in the chain, he wouldn’t know of their direct employers. A tipper, he knows more than Jimin, but barely on the surface.

It’s a good job, to act and charm a way through the surroundings, and new way every time. There’s something about him that catches people’s eye, just enough for him to work his magic. Similar to Jimin, he is the regular but magical kind. But Taehyung is also the becoming kind.

Tonight he is munching on greasy sundae, tasting the best of lung and liver stuffing between lazy drags at his cheap smokes. The diner is narrow, meat-soaked, and somehow feels fogged.

It’s boring and small enough to memorize the outer layout easily but he has to wobble his way through dingy back rooms to seek the actual illegal nest.

He picks a stray tomato off the counter and sneaks past, unnoticed, to navigate the narrow corridors. He’s intentionally unsteady on his feet, drifting in the semi-dark until there’s a doorway with transparent rubber acting as a flimsy cover.

It’s orange, flowery. Reminds him of Jimin’s windows.

He lingers outside just enough to stock up the details of the small room, green peeled paint and electric fans, a group of loud men going hard at mahjong in the middle. Their shirts are open, covered in tacky print of wildest colors, and guns in clear view.

He counts the guns and their loud mouths. Seven mouths, nine pieces. Possibly ten.

Feet already set on escaping through the back door at the end of the hallway, Taehyung is suddenly faced with a giant sickly mug that suggests years of colony. The man is presumably on his way to restock on whatever pissy beer they’re chugging. Flabby cheeks, distant glint of awareness in his eyes. Huge ugly mouth.

Ah, the eighth. And there’s also a gun, of course, and the man’s fingers are circling around it.

But Taehyung’s smile works wonders, a charming tipsy pretence. He leans against the wall and blabbers nonsense, one eye squinting the way he knows makes him appear almost innocent. He bites into his tomato and grins wide, trying to convey harmlessness.

Scoffing, the man moves past him to the main area, flashing his gun like some kid with better new toys.

As soon as Taehyung is out the door, he breathes in the night air, feeling his entire being inflate. Adrenaline summers of petty crimes. All end in deaths. The becoming kind that he is, blood is far from his skill or immediate comfort. That’s why there is Jimin.

On the subway, he always presses closer to the window when the train rushes out onto the patch above the ground.

Hands forming a spyglass of sorts, he leans in to look, almost childlike, to try and catch the lights of Jimin’s dingy apartment. It’s too fast for that but he always pretends to notice Jimin’s form behind the orange windows, even when he knows there’s nobody inside.  

Back in his room, windowless and purple from ultraviolet fixtures he uses for his potted leek and lavender, he draws the map. It’s far from being a masterpiece but Jimin only needs the outline of the rooms, the numbers. Before faxing it, Taehyung draws a face with tongue sticking out and a tiny dick at the bottom, one of his lovely signatures.

He thinks past the rooftops and traffic noise, imagines Jimin pulling the map out of his fax machine. He’s probably smoking. It’s too hot to have a shirt on. Curled in his unmade bed, Taehyung drifts away, imagining, waiting for the message.

After the approval comes through, he’ll have to pull out his bill counter and write it all up. Then drop off the money at one of the stations, in a check-room’s locker which number has already been paged.

For now, he thinks of Jimin getting ready, lacing his beat up sneakers, fixing his jacket over the too tight shirt, tucking two guns behind the belt. It’s a routine job but Taehyung still thinks of holes in Jimin’s side every time.

He is calm but. Still, his heart is loud for Jimin.



﹍﹍﹍



The targets are always reached by cabs of relatively untraceable kind. No parks, no IDs. Driving at this hour always feels like swimming, to Jimin. The traffic unhurried and the noise almost even, it is a way of mediation before a job.

Color rings usually soothe his mind so he always watches the streets from the back seat. The pinks blink at him from the rearview mirror. The night crowds swarm like moths in the artificial lights.

Tonight’s diner is, as Taehyung described, an odd clash of bright lime and light blue, and still somehow dull, fogged up. Maybe it’s in the cold of bare halogen lamps, maybe it’s in their twin minds. Night dwellers of unhappy kind.

Jimin usually moves through this natural element almost lazily, one store after another, through dark glassware and chaffed plastic. Something always crunches underfoot. Peeled paint or crumbled plaster; broken ceramics and, after him, blood and another type of mess.  

He pushes resolutely between plastic tables clotted with starving and half-sober people, and to the staff entrance.

Passing the kitchen, he flashes a smile at the lady doing the dishes there. With her arms elbow deep in soap, she smiles back. It can’t be helped, really, faced with one of his small and not entirely shy smiles, polite and a little flirty.

The corridor does seem yellow, just as Taehyung mentioned, like looking at the world from behind a visor. At the doorway, he pauses, fixing the gloves and counting his targets from behind the rubbery curtain. Dull light leaks through its flowery pattern, and Jimin touches the corners, imagining Taehyung doing the same earlier.

He tends to guess the little objects Taehyung might’ve touched in every place he knows they shared.

The men are loud enough to drown the noise of him pulling the safety off. Pushing the curtain aside with one barrel, he walks in, a little amazed that he is still unnoticed. Later, Taehyung will berate him for the lack of theatrics, but Jimin is only good for stage antics when the timing feels appropriate.

But now, when he is finally faced with the first gun of the night, is clearly not one of those times.

Two consecutive shots to the heart is his usual business, easy and sure. Sometimes he tends to be too efficient or not enough, sometimes too loud, never sloppy but rarely keeping to the exact same pattern.

He keeps within a certain style though, one which Taehyung teasingly assumes to be dark and charming, swaying into broody. But to Jimin it’s just a job.

This, tonight, is slightly on the messy side. Too many people and little finesse on his part. He’s been running out of patience lately, for reasons still unclear to him, whether it’s seasonal or lies somewhere deep in his worn out nature.

Even though he is  ridiculously outnumbered, they are too drunk to put up a decent fight and their blood is too liquid. He feels some of it splash on his face. The room is small, making it hard to stay clean, but Jimin doesn’t blink as he finishes them off one by one with such ease it almost annoys him.

The last target is too slow and has no time to scream at the press of Jimin’s gun against his temple. His eyes are wide but there isn’t any fear there. He’s either lagging behind or just plain dumb.

Jimin clicks his tongue and pulls the trigger.

Headshots this close are a rare thing for him, someone who likes to abstain from washing brains out of his clothes, but something in the air tonight has him quietly reeling. Which never happens, because it’s just a job, a thing that comes with clinical motions and little emotion, almost office-like routine.

But there’s something in the air tonight, and way earlier, it must’ve been the tone of Taehyung’s writing. The edge to his words in that voice message that recited the numbers.

Tonight Jimin has been feeling more of Taehyung and it makes him ache, makes him shiver. So he pulls the trigger and watches the man fall with a heavy thump. The pose is unnatural, a little scary. A sack of bones.   

In the echo of the shot Jimin blinks, his eye itching from the blood. He presses the heel of his hand to wipe the blood off and scoffs at himself. How messy, more than usual. The subway won’t be too kind on this look, so he’ll have to wash up somewhere. McDonalds? They rarely give a shit at this hour.

As soon as Jimin is out the door, he breathes in the night air, feeling his entire being inflate.

It’s actually a butcher’s shop he gets an opportunity to clean up in, perhaps one of those Taehyung used to break into in the past. Another place to wonder where they might be touching indirectly.

At the station, he navigates the rows of steel lockers that remind him of hospitals with their small dark green combs. Inside their box is a typical brown paper bag that feels heavy with bills and is quickly shoved into his backpack, all imitation leather.

Pocketing the key, he touches its metal edges for any traces of Taehyung. Silly.




iii.

 

Taehyung is a little odd for other inhabitants of the hostel. Sangsu Apartments is a cluttered cheap hive with low ceilings and old furniture. There’s comfort in knowing that Jimin doesn’t share that general ugly idea, of him being odd, even though the two of them have never met.

To these people Taehyung is a little odd but he pays his rent on time. He lingers in this dingy geometry between the assignments and overwatched stack of videotapes. All of them carry just one face. Taehyung is afraid for it to begin fading.

The cops rarely visit after Taehyung quit his eccentric habit of breaking into people’s shops. Perhaps he was acting out on his promises, fulfilling his childhood dreams, to own a shop like that and tend to all sorts of people. Make someone’s day by sharing something he loves, be it a butcher’s shop or hairdressing salon. Sustain his family while being his own boss.

He never got back to his Robin Hood night adventures but only remembered to complain about any of this to Jimin after being confronted with an indignant “the fuck you never told me some dickbag is doing time for you?”.

The dickbag did resemble him, mostly the cheekbones and the eyes, which was enough. The cops only had a grainy colorless CCTV shot and bought it easily. His prison number is supposed to be 1205.

Jimin believes him to not be a bad person. It’s always been clear even through their tangible geographical distance, and Taehyung might have agreed somewhere along the way.

Perched atop the apartment’s old washing machine in the stuffy laundry room, a habit he’s been holding since his father took the job of assistant manager here, after their move from Daegu, Taehyung is smoking, eyes glued to the last year’s volume of Rurouni Kenshin, and wondering what the hell those cops might be doing here again. Has someone picked Taehyung’s old habits? Or is it the actual bad type? Like Jimin, perhaps.

It’s a silly thing to believe, but Taehyung still does, still thinks of Jimin as a good person. So, maybe not like Jimin. Someone actually bad. Maybe just an asshole with a gun.

If the cops showed him Jimin’s picture now, asking whether he had seen this criminal, Taehyung wouldn’t be lying. No, he hasn’t seen him. But fuck, does he want to. It’s possible but not a matter of choice.

Just as he’s done with the laundry, he finally gets an order, first one in two weeks. He dials another line.

“Paging 9309. I’d like to leave a message. I’ll meet his friends tonight. Where and when?”

Jotting down the address in his favorite highlighter pen, Taehyung throws his body back on the bed. In his small and messy room it smells of strawberry and weed and Jimin’s cologne. One of the shirts Taehyung has stolen. Jimin rarely uses perfume, says it makes his nose itch. Which is another question, why this one smells like a distinct something, a scent so obviously artificial.

He has to get up, though, there’s some scouting to do.

“Going out?” the new assistant manager doesn’t look up from the small TV set.

Taehyung uses it to watch his tapes, deep in the night, when the common room is empty.

“Sure.”

He hates public transport.



﹍﹍﹍



When Jimin ends up on mass transit, he knows that chances of brushing shoulders with his old life are higher than ever. Even low-level assassins have school buddies. This time it’s a junior high memory who recognizes him, an asshole of special sort.

“Park? Is that you? Park, really? Junior high, little Kim, remember? You and here, of all places! Funny, that’s funny. Last time I saw your ugly mug—was it Geumjeong—you weren’t too chummy. Lost some weight, huh?”

Same old shit as always. How come you’re in Seoul? Got a job? What do you do for a living? Married, any kids? A fucking dog, maybe?

Another set of life coincidences decided to throw at him this asshole who is now moving to the seat across, even though the night bus is mostly empty. This asshole here works in re-insurance now, apparently, but Jimin stopped listening somewhere between “remember the honkers on that chick, class below ours” and “we’re getting married in two weeks”.

“What about you?”

And sure Jimin is married. Got a picture to prove it, the 1990 version of him and a lovely girl sharing an innocent kiss. Seulgi from 588 was happy to do him a favor. He isn’t sure if she is still cleverly avoiding her old employer or alive at all.

The kid in the second picture is a rather happy-looking child of the streets, the little flea cruising around his daytime job at the market.

And for all these bits of the past that drift back into his view on night buses, Jimin is a young entrepreneur, married, one messy-haired spawn at their side, and no stories to tell. He indulges these people with just a few words and plenty of smiles, pretending to listen or care for good measure.

The dude shoves a wedding invitation, his and “that chick with huge honkers”. Jimin wonders what it says about people who refer to their future spouses like that as he stares at the blank piece of glossy paper. It says that they’re massive cocks, probably. It’s never pleasant to overhear these dudes talk about women.

“Just fill in your name, okay? It’s not gonna be big but, like, super crazy. Come, okay? I’ll put you up with some of my insurance buddies, your business needs some of that, right?”

Finally left alone, Jimin wonders what it takes to insure a hitman. What would he put in as his sources?

Getting off at the intersection, he promises to skip the wedding and to check up on Seulgi whenever he lands himself near Cheongnyangni.

 

iv.

 

Taehyung has a real job now. Minatozaki-san, his boss and the shop’s owner, loves his family more than anything.

The place is small but with a feeling to it, a color that taught Taehyung of his past mistakes. Every shop, same as people, has its own feeling, crafted and kept intact. He shouldn’t have disrupted them like that. But maybe Taehyung just missed people. Missed learning their colors.

Late nights before big holidays he watches Minatozaki-san record video messages for his family.

Is mom okay? Happy birthday, princess. How is Sana? Dad loves you very much.

It might not be the best way to ease their longing but Taehyung is sure it still feels very special. These days he doesn’t record anymore but bores holes in the screen instead. Eyes wide and red-rimmed with exhaustion, but forever glued to the footage he has long learned by heart.

Even if he still did make tapes, who would he send them to? Certainly not Jimin.



﹍﹍﹍



It’s one of the stable-like beauty salons, just a cover for the rooms in the back reserved for sex. Passing the rows of low-slung storefronts trimmed in plastic, already shabby and dirty white, Jimin wonders why he has never had a job in Cheonho before. Tiny fake hairdresser shops, all pink-lit and too obvious in their real nature, because he can see high platform shoes in the racks and little details of red district glitter.

He still hasn’t checked up on Seulgi at 588.

He turns up his collar, brushes his bangs and walks through the second door, no stranger to cramped working spaces and stale smell of sex.

Shabby plywood furniture and faded flowery curtains, rough plastic of hair dryer machines. All yellow with time or cigarette smoke or something nastier. In the lack of fresh air the girls are idle, fanning themselves with stacks of colorful tabloid paper, and not sparing him a glance.

Weird. Walking past the rows of swiveling chairs, he sees two little kids climb under the mirrored table. For the first time, he wonders about the nature of this particular client. Catches his own movement in narrow mirrors, a dark spot against the dappled wallpaper. His hair looks wet and in need of a haircut. Can he still get one in this place?

Finally reaching the back rooms that Taehyung had marked with a tiny cross and another set of instructions, Jimin throws one last glance over his shoulder to check on the girls and the kids. The pair is now cocooned by someone, might be their mother, might be anyone. All covering their ears.

This time it’s said to be just these four tazza enthusiasts but something itches at the back of his head, a feeling, a sort of premonition he has learned to trust.

But in cases like this Jimin doesn’t crouch like an asshole, or sneak around, or practice intricate stealth. So the shouting is expected when he enters the smoke-filled room, his guns ready. He has little time to duck and rearrange himself as the bullets follow right after, in the mess of shattering glass and loud voices, but soon after there is a pause. The men move so loud, crushing the shards with their feet.

It’s easy to catch them, one between the eyes and another to the chest. It’s mostly clean and they don’t stain the floor much.

Jimin moves to the hallway, carefully avoiding the glass and the perforated plastic. The other two somehow lose him in the drapes strung low in the narrow corridor that seems to lead to another shop.

They sniff around blindly and it all starts to feel very stupid to him. He aims at the legs first and finishes them off once they hit the floor, screaming. Two to the heart each.

Jimin has no choice but to back away, restricted by the narrow space, until something cool and prickly touches his neck. He turns and sees a potted ficus.

A girl is chilling in its plastic shade and sparkling with fake gold. Her hooped earrings shake as she nods at the beaded curtain that presumably conceals the passage to another adjacent shop.

The radio is still coughing up something slow and foreign. The girl sways her leg to the beat and waves off his wordless question.

Why are you here? Go.

It’s just another Thursday, man.

Through the curtain he can see the others, alert but unmoving, with their guns already out but unsteady. Must be too green, the three of them, judging by the ironed undershirts and clean faces. So afraid to make the first move.

He steps inside, not bothering with the beads, and notes that the place is almost identical except for the peeling piebald wallpaper.

The boys face him with wide eyes and crooked mouths, making Jimin pause. He can’t let them go but something about the room and the row of muddy aquariums at the back softens his resolve. The lights blink at him, dull and orange. Only one tank is inhabited.

Nothing happens for a beat and the sound of distant sirens and cracking radio is sipping in, almost drowned by his targets’ heavy breathing.

The one on the right is sweating so profusely he reminds Jimin of a fish, with his mouth gaping and scales shimmering. None of that orange and gold that lives in the tank behind his back but a flash of dull grey. Just like the boy’s gun, too big for his rookie hands.

Letting out a weird squeak, one of them finally makes a move towards Jimin and drops dead just as quick. His ironed undershirt is slowly soaking through, deep red on the chest. The other two are actually eager to put up some sort of fight, rather weak in Jimin’s opinion, because their shaking won’t stop and it might be too hard to see behind the sheen of sweat that itches at their eyes.

Jimin really does aim straight, shooting the first one in the heart but somehow slipping along the way and acing a head shot. Acing is too big a word because that head near fucking explodes. It’s so sudden and messy Jimin just stands there, blinking rapidly, his own head feeling bomb-like.

“Oops,” he says and checks his face for any traces of brain. “Total accident, I swear.”

He usually pretends those sudden blurbs are for Taehyung.

The pair are an awkward pile on the floor, slowly getting soaked in oozy liquid from one of the lifeless aquariums. He only now sees the broken glass. It’s an eerie picture of mire and blood. Skin still wet and eyes like greasy paper plates, they remind Jimin of floored guppy fish.

One of them, now sickly yellow under the mirror lamps, is indeed missing a noticeable part of his head. Looking up, Jimin sees the human-guppy’s dark blood dripping off a hair dryer, its ancient bubble head crooked and painted with brain matter.

He tries to remember what it used to make him feel, a long time go, before he fell into the rhythm and necessity of it. The rattle of the door reminds him that cooling off his balls after the kill is kindergarten level of hitman life. He leaves promptly, tapping his gloved knuckles on the pink-tinged glass on the way out.



﹍﹍﹍



“Are you sure it was the right place?”

It’s the first thing that comes through the receiver, and Taehyung has to lean back and glare at its red plastic for some sort of comic effect. His hilarious skills are always wasted in the dark privacy of their calls.

“What kind of fucked up question is that? One hundred percent. Why?”

“Dunno, just. Something about it seemed—fuck if I know. Maybe the light was off.”

“The light was off. Yeah, listen, you’re not a fuckin’ electrician and this isn’t porn. You, like, kill people and shit.”

“And shit.”

“And shit.”

They laugh after that, and Taehyung imagines it bubble out of Jimin’s frame like sweet fizzy drink. There are the types of laugh that make your chest full, turn your lining softer. Does Jimin laugh like little shakes or throw his body into it or cover his mouth? His hands are steady, that Taehyung knows for sure.

“So, you know, nothing to worry about.”

“Always so optimistic,” says Jimin.

“I try to stay happy.”

Taehyung wonders if sometimes it might be a little too much.




v.

 

Jimin dislikes his apartment. It seems to occupy its own hole in time, a cardboard dead-end that smells like a swamp and buzzes with lowkey anxiety. Reminds him of the hole within himself. That part of him that used to hold all of his family reflections and felt ocean-like and now long gone. Parched and empty.

He wonders if it’s harder for Taehyung to manage a chest-hole like this. If it’s harder to juice the joy for Taehyung, whose orient has always been his family.

He never directly asks him about the hostel or ice-cream or the videotapes unless there’s a shake to Taehyung’s voice. He also never asks about him not moving out of the Sangsu Apartments because here Jimin is himself, piled in a rusty can of a home, knee deep in dust.

“Does it remind you of anything? Your life?” Taehyung asked once, maybe in the cold months of their second year.

“Like a bare lightbulb, sort of. Lightbulb living.”

The greens and yellows bleed under his skin, making him feel ancient, as old as these dingy parts of the city.

And the room stays rotten until Taehyung sweeps this shithole with his presence, his touch and scent.

After Taehyung, the textures always shift into cosy and sweet, making it smell as if somebody actually lives here but not the unpleasant kind. Every post-Taehyung instance in this room feels homely and nostalgic, a feeling that aches deep in Jimin’s chest but still makes him want to keep it forever.

Jimin takes a gulp of aloe juice that was left him as he finishes cleaning his guns.

It’s another ritual, to methodically disassemble and clean and reassemble his tools. Keeps his mind clean.

The table is clean too, the dust replaced with Taehyung’s trace. There’s a lipstick stain on the narrow mirror above the tabletop. Taehyung is fucking with him and their silly tropes, as always.

Today’s map is sloppier than usual and Jimin makes a note to ask about the shaky magic pen and what has been bugging Taehyung.

He still dislikes his apartment and the ancient hole inside his chest. But these days it’s been getting harder for Jimin to keep up, to still view the job as routine, to tolerate his living. He wonders how he managed it before, not being able to recall a feeling of previous apathy. Because as scorched as they are, his insides, some of that family orient bleeds into him through Taehyung. He finds himself missing the sea, as trite as it seems.



“Are you frowning again?” is Taehyung’s most popular question these days. Fuck knows how he manages to sense it.

And it’s the truth, Jimin has been wearing a very confused semi-frown lately.

“I’m going to punch it out of you,” says Taehyung a lot too. The frown, the feelings, the unwelcome fear.

‘Stop frowning,’ says Taehyung’s chicken scrawl on today’s map, just above the tiny dick at the bottom. Jimin wishes he could keep these horrible drawings, all of them an artist’s nightmare, but their place is always to be crumpled up in his pocket. Burned after reading.

He crumples this one too before leaving, with the guns under the belt and backpack jingling with coins. Somehow he’s never managed to get a wallet.

Stepping over the cigarette butts under his balcony, he hopes to come back to see Taehyung’s touch in his home.



vi.



Closer to the tents under the freeway, is the street food shop that provides Jimin with his daily job, even though most of his memorable hours drag after the sun sets.

The legend is that Jimin is good at tteokbokki. Designated ‘Kwon’s bitchin fish cake jam’, after the name of his spot’s owner, Jimin’s deft hands could be a local celebrity of their own. The swarming market quite obviously holds illegal workings behind its tents and roll up doors but this time Jimin has no business with this particular snake nest. He’s just that fish cake guy. Caters to anyone who walks by or parks in this makeshift square.

Tonight there’s a familiar black Kia Concord, on which beat up trunk sits none other than Im Jaebum, in his nice tailored working suit which he can barely afford, sits with a rather aloof vibe, like a sort of an asshole, and appears to be hoovering up a beefbowl. Their eyes meet and through the steam of his deep fryers Jimin sees a smile.

“What’s today’s special?” Jaebum asks as soon as he jots in front of the queue.

Tteok-fuckin’-bokki, what do you think? To the end of the line, JB.”

“Ah… ‘JB’. I thought we had something deeper between us.”

“Yeah, you tend to project your thirst a lot.”

Jaebum makes a short displeased noise, still smiling, but struts to the end of the line. Hands in pockets, dark hair free of product for once. Jimin wonders what Taehyung’s must look like. Or feel like between his fingers. Should it ever happen, his dream, he’d have to scrub the snake oil out of his dirty hands with sandpaper. For some hours at least, before ever touching Taehyung.

On his break, Jimin finds himself sweating next to Jaebum on the trunk of his car, both of them absently chewing on the fish sticks.

“Saw your boy yesterday,” begins Jaebum, finally. “At Dongdaemun stadium, with some girl. Pretty. They looked cute.”

“Cool.”

It might come off as being unfair, what with Jaebum actually knowing Taehyung’s face and also actually allowed to get close to him, maybe even engage in some chill conversation, while Jimin is caged by his own—their own—protocols. It might be unfair but, to Jimin, it’s of no substance. He doesn’t care about this bit of the story.

Horangi and Cheetahs? Wasn’t it four-one?”

“Yeah. A fuckin’ disaster.”

Korean League to him is of no substance, but when particularly painful flashes of fear or pettiness happen, Jimin tries to mute this mix of whatever feelings with curiosity. He is a curious person, after all. A lot like Taehyung.

“Went there alone?” Jimin asks, teasing.

He is curious about the nature of Jaebum’s anger and whether it's not one but multiple sources. If his nameless partner has anything to do with it, too. It could be a lucky coincidence that made them fall into this easy almost working relationship. Half a friendship, more a series of accidental city dates. It could be a coincidence or Jimin’s own vibe, the calmest, most patient. The deepest shit of them all, Taehyung assured him once.

“No,” Jaebum scoffs, his mouth full of fish. Like hell he went to a match alone. “Ever wonder what his voice sounds like? I mean, not on the phone?”

Wow, Jimin thinks, today’s gochujang tastes amazing. Just the right thickness and consistency. What a good job, Park Jimin, truly a top one.

Nobody is supposed to know about the phone calls or off-work correspondence. But it’s Jaebum. A tired angry fucker who just keeps mumbling over his fish, “It’s no good, what you’re doing.”

He means their unbusinesslike behavior, not the killing and skull trashing. It’s that kind of world.

“Can end up pretty bad.”

“No,” Jimin says. “It can’t.” Could it? Totally.

Jimin often counts his breaks with Jaebum by the number of familiar 588 girls swaying by, asking for a smoke or just to mull over the latest news of the filthy clandestine. It’s never sexual, they’re all scratching each others backs here.

“It scares you, this connection. Doesn’t it?” is Jaebum’s next question that sets off the ripples, runs in shivers over Jimin’s skin. Only slightly but finally a reaction.

“No,” says Jimin and has to think.

It’s a different kind of fear. Not of the connection, because Taehyung is, most likely, the best thing that has ever happened to him. At the wrong place, at the wrong time. But maybe Jaebum is right, it still is a type of fear.

“A little,” he amends.

He thinks of the late non-hours spent at pay phones and landlines of random stores, drowning in Taehyung’s voice, letting it heal his missing parts. If just for the moment.

“Something will happen,” says Jaebum and gets up to throw his paper plate in the nearest bin.

At that Jimin has to pause whatever intimate moment he’s been having with his snack.

Taehyung says that once you are faced with something new, a concept, an idea, it’s better to flip it. Look at the other end.

Something will happen, huh.

“I want that maybe a little too much.”




vii.

 

One night Taehyung asks him about home. Not the proper one, but a vague definition of a place that could never be as real as Busan, as his previous life. Taehyung means the first one in Seoul.

It takes Jimin some time to conjure up the words, but,

“It wasn’t the first one.”

Jimin briefly shared an apartment in Chinatown with a woman who had a habit of keeping between four and seven first aid kits and various emergency surgical kits at a time. Some of them of military type. Beyond that, she had kept an extensive collection of over the counter drugs and, for a brief period of negligence, some dope ass coke.

Her name was Song Qian whom Jimin first met his second week at the market.

“How does that shit even happen? Like, in real life?” Taehyung asks, chewing on something. Possibly dry squid, today being Tuesday.  

“In real life—”

—it started with being a situational bystander of a conversation, hers and some almost comically cliche dude of the sketchiest appearance imaginable, in a hawaiian shirt. It started with a question.

“Puis-je avoir un peu d'espoir?”

“What the fuck?” Taehyung sounds rather appalled even with his mouth full of squid.

“Yeah, I know.”

The effect was a little underwhelming, in the moment, because Jimin was fresh from the fight with the owner’s tax dogs and still picking up the pieces of his resolve that had to be glued back together. For him to avoid being an asshole, a rare quality in these parts.

But he just kept blinking into space. She was so lean and graceful and so out of the blue, he forgot how to use actual words in a human conversation.

“You’re not Hope.”

“You weren’t Hope,” says Taehyung.

He wasn’t Hope.

“Come on, Vic,” said Hawaii.

Lowering her glasses, the woman appraised Jimin and the box of old tangerines he was hugging so close to his chest, as if implying a deeper emotional connection between him and the fruit.

“You’re not Hope,” she repeated.

“I’m not Hope.”

“Where is Hope, love?” she fixed her hair and scanned the entirety of Park Jimin who wasn’t Hope.

“He wasn’t here when I came in.”

“Really?” she didn’t look convinced. Her high ponytail didn’t look convinced. Jimin himself began to lose all conviction. “Who are you then?”

“Jimin.”

“Cute. You in charge here?” Not really, he wasn’t. “Doesn’t matter, actually. Do you need a job?”

“And that’s it?” Taehyung asks, incredulous. “From random con jobs to whacking people? Skipping on the entire Song drug transit? And in French?”

“Kim Taehyung, are you jealous?”

But Jimin doesn’t even remember what he said back then, to the woman who determined his future thriving career of less than prestigious or not at all well-paid professional killing. But in the days that followed that first hopeless meeting he remembers feeling slightly less cut off the real world. Up until that night, he had been deep under, ever since Busan.

She took him in, pulled him a little closer to the surface. Enough for a new kind of comfort to form in his scraped out chest.  

“We were all classy, like. Went to the ballet and shit,” Jimin is only half-joking but Taehyung scoffs all the same.

Once she took him to a dance festival, a rather small scale event for local enthusiasts. It took place in a large building that not only looked but smelled of great decay. Which was the point, she told him.

That evening was full of something so warm that only close-knit family could provide and the exact sort of which he had been so painfully deprived. He never got the same feeling of belonging back.

Sometimes he swings by the brightest places of drug trafficking just to have the family taste of being next to Song Qian and her kids. She keeps Seulgi safe, that he knows now.

She used to keep all sorts of things a mother would, if you don’t count the cocaine, in his father’s fishing tackle box. She used to patch him up on very rare occasions of his sloppiness.

“So that’s why your shithole has more surgical kits than food?” Taehyung concludes.

Jimin opens his eyes then, to the fuzzy yellow of the street lamps that shine bright over the counter behind which he is so rightfully chilling. The kiosk smells strongly of cheap paper and rotten wood. His gun lays heavy on his stomach and his shirt is still soaked in red. What in the hell has been happening to his professionalism lately?

“I wanted to tell you something,” he says, more to himself than Taehyung. Try as he might, he can’t remember what it might have been. “Shit. Can’t remember.”

“Long day, Jiminie. Go to sleep.”

He shouldn’t, not at the deserted market. Or on the damp wood layered with old newspapers. But it’s Taehyung, so Jimin might as well listen.



viii.

 

Jimin visits this bar a lot, likes the calming smile of the bartender and the laid-back atmosphere with too few new people trying to get chatty. Hyoyeon, the bartender, has a comforting type of energy to her, light hair and large earrings that always glint pleasantly in the low light.

Sometimes, Jimin talks to Jaebum, who prefers to be that broody type in the corner. Jimin has never voiced clearly his issues of longing when it concerned Taehyung, but there’s this quiet truth about Jaebum and how he might understand it all too well.

Jimin knows Taehyung comes here to sit in the same spot.

“Makes me feel closer to you,” Taehyung said once, voice as cracky as ever over the phone static. A little shy in his raw sincerity. “Cos, like, you know. We’re the type of people who can’t get too close.”

Jimin’s been leaving him clues of his actions and whereabouts and always finding Taehyung’s touch afterwards. The bar, his home, little city corners.

“There was someone,” says Hyoyeon, refilling his glass. Of course she knows who it was. “Listening to your song. Was glued to the jukebox like it’s a sex toy or something. Could’ve sworn he was ready to jizz all over it.”

They have a song. And it’s ridiculous but another bit of the shelter they built all over the city, a type of language only known to them. Sometimes it felt like bits of home, sometimes spoke of things so plainly sexual.

He knows that this music makes Taehyung shiver in the best possible way. All very sensual, and yeah, maybe enough to hump the poor jukebox. He imagines Taehyung strutting up to it to punch in the number and then leaning against its glass, soaking in the glowing colors.

He knows Taehyung loves to wear shiny leather and feel it stick to his skin whenever he presses his body to whatever surface is deemed acceptable. He imagines what Taehyung’s face must look like, smoothed out in arousal.  

“He left you this,” she’s sliding a piece of paper, cheap yellow notebook kind that first graders normally use.

It’s another number, one he should dial from a closed newspaper shop in some secluded market corner, and soak in Taehyung’s real voice, not the taped kind. Stay with him until he runs out of coins.

In the dark clarity of the bar mirror, he sees Jaebum looking at him, and it’s more guarded tonight. It’s a beautiful face with sharp angles, not unkind but a little cunning. Pleasant to look at. Jaebum and his partner don’t have it this easy, or silly, or both, Jimin supposes. Could it be jealousy? Jimin doubts it. He should still ask the next time they share his fish.  



ix.



It’s like a secret religion between them.

“Fuck you, we ain’t no cult.”

So what if Jimin disagrees. Taehyung has lost count of the petty fights they’ve had over every other little point of imagined domesticity. But they always fall back together just as quick.

Taehyung still has a point, though. Two people who lost too much to keep any of their old homes intact. Mutually fulfilling in that absence of old selves—

“—and all that shit.”

“Whatever you say. You sound like Namjoon.”

Namjoon is another manager in these parts who is now taking care of the new weird kid. No that they’re supposed to know any of this.

“Maybe you should listen to him more often, Jiminie.”

“Again, fuck you,” he hears Jimin laugh on the other end, tired and so, so close.   

They both know business partners of any sort shouldn’t get too close, not like that. And it has been enough, pretending to be uninvolved and totally business-like through this physical distance. Still safe, even if laughable. Taehyung also knows that for Jimin it’s something more than the issue of abandonment, deeper than all his family-rooted fear.

So it has been enough.

But here he is now, with his hand tugging down his pants and all shame forgotten. Moaning on Jimin’s bed, into Jimin’s shirt, Taehyung finds his mind hazy from the scent filling his senses, and the tight leather of his own clothes.  

In this airless room, he can only think of Jimin’s voice whispering into his ear as gently as their phone murmurs, and Jimin’s steady hands jerking him off roughly and having him spill all over the leather and the covers.

Biting on the soft fabric, Taehyung imagines what it would feel like to taste himself on Jimin’s fingers, what their thickness would feel like stretching him open. How the two of them would fit, bodies hot and sweat-slick, how they would sound together, in this still air and heavy longing.

The taste of Jimin’s mouth isn’t real and the burn inside of him is from his own fingers but the colors are so vivid, and Jimin’s voice is forever at home in his head, soft and guiding, calm but so alluring. Taehyung comes all over his stomach, white streaks on the shimmering black of the leather, and rides it out on his own fingers, into his fist closed tight around his cock.  

Four stations to the east, Jimin wipes the blood and what appears to be skull off his lapels.

With his nose still deep in the soft cotton of Jimin’s shirt, Taehyung strokes himself lazily, suddenly feeling incredibly tired. The last time here, he was just rutting against the plaid covers of the bed and washing them frantically afterwards.

Just when he’s sure this—whatever this is—can never shift any further, this fucking happens. It just keeps coming. His cock is soft now and his ass is unpleasantly sticky with lube and he himself is spent.  

He cleans up and leaves, not forgetting the trash.

Descends into tiled yellow depths of the subway, switches to the Line 6 and closes his eyes, because there are no lights to seek from behind the train’s window.

“Take a walk with me,” said Jimin last week and he was talking abt his clues, those stupid bread crumbs left for Taehyung all over the city.

“You need to rest,” says Jimin now, hearing Taehyung’s voice shake. “You know you want to.”

It’s no use to be so expressive but Taehyung still shakes his head. He’s at home, finally, sitting high on the abandoned counter, inside the hostel full of ghost-like people. He shakes his head, chewing on his chapped lips, and keeps the receiver pressed tight to his ear.   

“Please rest. You know you want to,” says Jimin.

Taehyung just wants a taste.




x.

 

A long time ago Taehyung believed himself to be capable of special type of closeness. Back in Daegu he was the outdoors type, finding the right approach with anyone he met.

Jimin calls it his mother sky days. Those days stay like that, at the back of his head, in the softest pink of his mother’s smile. The red of her cheeks in the fresh of the field work. Her palms, too, stained red, full of ripe berries.

Wash them, Taehyungie, your friends would surely love some.

Some nights, free of scouting or mindless drifting through the streets or coming all over Jimin’s covers, he still catches himself with a tall glass of ice-cream and soggy cornerstore strawberry, a sparkler sizzling on top. It melts quicker this way and there, dozed in front of blue bubble-shaped TV, he realizes there are two glasses too many.

Maybe it was obvious to everyone else that his abandoned Robin Hood days started with breaking into an ice-cream shop. Who was that everyone? Hard to tell now. He adapts all too well but sometimes it stings, the thought that he might have lost his magic with people. Not on the job, but the one that was still alive in Daegu.

His father turned quiet after taking the position of assistant manager. They both were subtle in many ways but never so quiet, never as quiet as then. After escaping that petty conviction Taehyung never managed to get rid of the glue that had stuck to his skin. It was all in his father’s tired eyes that skimmed through his very being after the police had left that night. This something hung between them and seemed to have stayed forever.

Taehyung never came back to his habits but that night he messaged Jimin, looking for something, a key and maybe an answer. Why won’t it stop hurting?

“Jiminie,” that night he dialed from the half-empty parking lot, feeling sober and trapped in equal measure, “you really piss me off.”

“How so, Taetae?”

“It’s already weird enough and sad enough and stupid enough. Stupid as fuck. And there you are.”

“Here I am?”

“No, it’s there. And all I’ve seen is just some shitty sneakers and your trash.”

“You can learn a lot about a person from their trash.”

“There’s nothing left to learn, Jiminie.”

“That’s stupid. Of course there is. Otherwise people don’t last very long.”

Taehyung wondered if he truly believed that. “Is that why you won’t let go?”

“You know why.”

That and some other. The fear had grown in Jimin like vines, over the years, like the legends of his old life and another thick layer of protection.

“Fuck that,” Taehyung said flatly.

And something else after that, in the creeping anxiety of the conversation, but he doesn’t remember. He knows Jimin still wants him to move out. Scared for Taehyung to be sealed in the faded depths of the hostel.



﹍﹍﹍



Tonight is one of those loud shifts that come with a sensory overload, it’s all so vivid even in the hot dimness of the shop. Taehyung finishes another set of teppanyaki, their type is cheap and not at all flashy, and slides the plate to Momo, who is tending the bar with him today. He likes that her green apron matches the counter's faded trimming. Here she keeps her hair in a tight bun and dances with sauce bottles when nobody is watching.

Looking up to take in the crowd, he is faced with a new customer who has just settled in the only squeaky swivelling chair available.

“Welcome,” Momo greets in Japanese, in protocol. “For one?”

The man nods. Only a slight movement, could be easily missed.

“Beer?” Momo goes on. That, too, is protocol.

His open palm, now raised above the counter, hovers for a bit. Taehyung sees that his hands are heavy with rings, all bands are large and glinting faintly, giving more weight to his lean appearance.

Eventually, the man nods, showing three fingers. Momo is already putting three ceramic cups on the counter. The man’s smile is odd, teeth shining in the low light of bare bulbs.

He treats the two of them, just like that, and Taehyung wonders what this man might be missing tonight. Those same people or places or maybe something less boring?

Squinting at her already empty cup, Momo simply shrugs at Taehyung’s silent question and sets her mind back on the job. She’s the most precise kid he’s ever seen.

Later, he catches their generous customer talk with Minatozaki-san, and there is that smile again, reminding Taehyung of a train’s lights for some reason. Blinds open and close and you are left wondering what has just happened.

“What’s happening?” Taehyung asks absently, unable to hear the conversation.

“The dude wants to know how much it is to set up a place like this,” Momo says, disinterested, currently in the middle of wiping the patchy counter top.  

Too young to be doing that, Taehyung notes, throwing the man an appraising look. He’s broad, wearing a loose cotton shirt with no collar, tucked at the waist. Looks kind and bright-eyed, and somehow very tired. But he's so young. And a bit lost, maybe. Isn’t so many earrings last year’s trend? Who wears gold hoops anymore?

“If you decide to start your own place, call me, son,” Taehyung finally hears his boss say, voice so unnaturally brisk. “Will help any way I can.”

The odd man leaves after that and Taehyung wonders if for Minatozaki-san he’s just another surrogate kid, similar to Momo and Taehyung himself.

There was something about the guy, a sort of fog, a sound, and Taehyung would love to get his people-magic back, if just for this moment. Perhaps with his old tricks he would have gotten him better, they could have become friends.

Momo pulls him out of his dumb reverie by flicking lemon water right in his nose. He shakes his head, a little annoyed but, for the most part, properly endeared.

She’s totally right. Because these days he doesn’t believe in that obsolete closeness. He meets new people every day and some of them might stay by his side. But it hurts more now.




xi.

 

Jimin, quite naturally, is a lot about control, liking it and possessing it to some rational degree, which doesn’t really extend to further ambitions.

Like leadership or decision making.

His job, despite common expectations, doesn’t pay that much. Sometimes it pays a lot but all of it depends on luck.

His daytime job might be more of a front and a sense of normality but he does need a steady income. It means jack shit for his general financial stability, though, so god knows why he goes about tiny shops asking old dudes about investments in the sort of places they keep.

That Japanese place just felt like something he and Taehyung could hold onto, one day, but only in fairytales with Hollywood-like endings. With sunsets and hopeful string music and all that shit.

Not only prices of human life, but a lot in his life depends on luck, actually. All his control kinks be fucked.

For example, letting his love clouds interfere with his job and without his immediate knowledge. A few sloppy details for him to miss here and there—like wiping his ancient sneakers from blood on the pot of that ficus in Cheonho—and it’s enough for some dickheads to show up at the market.

And, for a second, it’s his normal actual fucking life he’s talking about here? Retail and honest sweat and, like, taxes and shit? Even in a nest like this, it’s a thing worthy of respect. Some boundaries, within the community, like.

But here they are, three giant square-shouldered balding freaks with two guns each and flimsy moss-like growth around their mouths instead of facial hair.

It’s after hours and he has been loitering just for the sake of feeding some stray dogs and seeing Seulgi to the bus stop, so the audience quite literally consists of said dogs and some old ladies at the newspaper kiosk further up the street.

“You left something of yours,” says the biggest of the hoard, holding up an earring.

Ah, he wondered where he’d lost that pretty pin. How the fuck did they track him?

“That good pal of yours at Cheonho provided a nice picture of you.” Ah, shit. One of Seulgi’s friends. Well, he sure doesn’t blame them. “So Mr Lee was kind enough to return this.”

“Aw, man. Sweet.” Jimin pauses, looking for something equally snarky and elegant to fire back with.

Cautiously, he puts his unlit cigarette behind his ear. Curses when it tangles in his too long hair instead. Debates whether it’s the right time to turn on his sass. His radar of appropriate responses has been on the blink lately.

“Got anything else to say before I blow your brains out?”

Jimin does. “Get fucked.” Inelegant yet effective. Taehyung would approve, maybe.

“How rude for a pretty face like yours.”

“That’s pretty gay, dude.”

And that is a confirmed 10 ring gold.

Because the next second he’s ducking behind the counter, barely in time to escape a good couple of headshots, the kind he sure would not appreciate making himself, on a normal day.

Tonight is also just the night he has decided to leave his guns at home. Which leads to him crawling in a rather elaborate pattern to the adjacent shop, almost getting tangled in the curtain on his way, and rolling out through the back door.

It takes a good couple of minutes of chasing through the market to the echo of gunshots and unintelligible threats until he lands on a farmer’s display, and those old newspaper ladies begin to scream. It’s just some glass, why do people always have to scream?

The dudes end up being surprisingly good at running and shooting at the same time, up until the parking lot under the darker corners of the flyover. Good at chasing but not so much on the agility front, Jimin notes, near prancing around cars and thanking his mother for seven years of kendo.

In the end, however, those seven years don’t mean shit. Then again, maybe it wasn’t the best call to dramatically slide over the car’s hood—the last on his way to freedom—because right there in his mid-roll he feels a horrible sting in his side. Evidently, he’s an idiot with the wrong sense of timing for theatrics.

“You cock sucking fuck,” he concludes, already on the ground and almost kissing the tire.

“That’s pretty gay,” he hears and can’t help but chuckle. That was pretty funny, he’s got to admit.

Maybe it would be a good end for him, though completely unromantic. No fanfare, no tears or grand purpose. Groaning, he rolls to the curb and prays for a miracle.

“Hey, babe,” says the apparent miracle.

He looks to the side and sees a couple of leather shoes, new and shiny, and long legs clad in well-pressed dress pants and, above all the tailored suit glory, Im Jaebum’s face that holds the habitual expression of exquisite boredom. Edging on condescension.

Jimin just has to ask, “Why the fuck you keep dressing like an asshole if you’re a broke as shit freelancer?”

“It’s about style, my man. Not everyone can pull off this type of hobo chic you got goin' on. Also super gay, by the way.”

Jimin closes his eyes then, feeling a lazy smile spread over his slowly numbing face, and lets his head drown in the mundane music of gunshots. When he comes to it, Jaebum is crouching, checking his own pulse and then Jimin’s. Presses his hand to Jimin’s side and shakes his head.

“It’s chill. Just a flesh wound. Wanna go to the vet’s?”

“Nah, I’m good.” He’s just broke as shit. “Just drop me off at Sindang.”

“It’s not a fuckin' cab service.”

But Jimin knows he will. Jaebum would've paid for the vet and for the meal as well, but Jimin prefers to save on his favors whenever he can.

The old Concord rattles closer. “You gonna chill there for long? ‘Cos I’m on the clock here?”

Taking a deep breath, Jimin rolls to the side and braces himself for a push. He stands up, presses at his wound, which hurts like motherfucking hell, and climbs in the car with a rather peculiar grace.

“Nice,” Jaebum provides generously.

By the time they reach the intersection, Jimin remembers the lost earring left on one of the corpses.



﹍﹍﹍



Just as promised, Jaebum drops him off at the station and, throwing a lazy salute, makes a very underwhelming exit. No tire screech, no engine revving, no nothing. Taehyung would shake his head a lot, probably.

The way to his place is a struggle up the echoing stairwells and irritating summer heat. The night bugs keep sticking to his neck. Qian’s tackle boxes and first aid kits are on his mind the whole way as he rummages for courage within himself to face another night of pincers and antiseptic vapors. He hates pulling bullets out of his body. It’s exhausting.

Over the years he learned the tricks of this weird business as well as the ways of Taehyung’s inner workings. It has also been in a scent and a certain ripple in the air, their places, whatever the occasion.

So, before even touching the flip, Jimin knows that someone is in. “Why are you reading in the dark?” Jimin asks that someone.

Even with a very annoying flesh wound, Jimin wants to ask real questions. Because the shadow on his bed, who he assumes to be Taehyung, holds a paperback to his chest.

“Just feelin’ the vibes,” the voice is casual but so obviously shaken.

Jimin knows where to look for the changes, having four years of practice and observations, all very heart-specific. And it makes sense for Taehyung to be here, because Jimin never comes back this early. Or at all, on Fridays.

“Are you—are you jacking?”

Because even with a very annoying flesh wound, Jimin still wants to ask real fucking questions here.

Taehyung immediately sits up, back straightening, and flicks his wrist to get rid of whatever gross bodily fluids his fingers might be covered in.

“Did something happen? Turn on the lights.”

“Bossy,” Jimin scoffs.

And there is something about this, suddenly, that makes it harder to breathe in some very new way. The pressure in his side and exhaustion peak up as well as the burn in his lungs, which he knows isn’t entirely physical.

Taehyung is here, which Jimin knows he often is, but not like this. Taehyung is here and the sense of things is about to change and, with them, the sense of his entire self.

“Turn on the lights, Jimin.” Taehyung sounds odd, not really angry but somewhat pissed.

When Jimin does, it all becomes too much too quickly. The lamps are dim but hurt his eyes and he sees Taehyung blinking from behind his open palm. Hiding his frown.

It’s that cook, the quiet smiling beer enthusiast, from the Japanese shop.

It’s you, you fucker, he wants to say but doubts that Taehyung remembers.

Taehyung makes a strange little strangled sound, some complicated mix of anxiety and frustration. Did he recognize him? Is it something else?

“What the hell happened?” Ah, right. Jimin’s been shot. “Why aren’t you at the vet’s?”

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

“Just a flesh wound—you moron. Sit down.”

There’s no time to marvel at the circumstances of their groundbreaking meeting, so Jimin eases himself in the chair with no protest. He cranes his neck to follow Taehyung’s form, so unfamiliar and shiny. Might be a little creepy to find that Taehyung knows his way around so well, but it’s warmth Jimin feels instead. And something else, just as gross.

Closing his eyes, Jimin tries to find focus in this new but oddly domestic music of Taehyung’s footsteps and kitchen fuss, the thump of his own heart overflowing the night traffic in his ears.

He opens his eyes and listens to another train zooming past. Taehyung is back, already perched on the table top and humming under his breath as he rakes through the aid kit. Nervous singing, one of his habits.

“Take off your shirt,” Taehyung tries very hard to appear casual in everything for both their sakes.

“Can you even afford me? I’m no eighty grand slut.”

“Never,” he’s smiling but it’s subdued.

Jimin can only guess, too new to this whole hand-on Taehyung experience to make solid assumptions, but the sounds of Taehyung’s smiles have long been catalogued in his cotton head.

A siren approaches as Taehyung goes to work with his liquids and pincers. In their line of work, alarms tend to trigger a certain set of instincts but this time it’s an ambulance, Jimin guesses. He decides not to look at the hole in his side. It didn’t feel serious, but he doesn’t want to see any of the blood right now.

Taehyung’s lips are slightly parted, breath stilted, as he digs the lead out of Jimin’s body. He knows Jimin hates it.

“Fuck, it is exhausting.”

He raises it higher and watches Jimin’s face. There is something in Taehyung’s expression that suddenly makes Jimin’s skin warmer. The led glows dull brown, between them, like some sort of tacky and very bold embodiment of all the bad shit that is about to descend.

“Fuckin’ muffs,” Taehyung says, a little cracky. It’s his flu voice or, more accurately, his scared shitless voice.  

He seems to know it, too. Seems too serious-looking to turn them into a joke now, but for a moment Jimin imagines them as two irrelevant characters in some B-rated romantic comedy, two boring and vaguely middle class people about to embark on some vanilla type of coffee shop date disaster that would last an hour and a half and leave you annoyed and unsatisfied. That’d be nice, he thinks, feeling ridiculous.

With the bullet now pocketed and a serious look settled over his face, Taehyung fishes out a cigarette, Jimin’s brand, and struggles with his lighter.

"After this," he finally gets a tiny flame out of it and watches Jimin add finishing touches to his patched up side, "are we still partners?"

Jimin doesn’t need to check for the way Taehyung smokes to know it’s mostly nervous biting and hair flicking right now.

He looks up, suddenly feeling Taehyung’s warm hand on his chest. Over the heart.

He could stay, if only till the night runs out. “Stay with me tonight.”

Taehyung nods and lets his hand drop.  



﹍﹍﹍



They don’t fuck that night. Or touch beyond this odd type of innocence, a beginner's intimacy. Nighttime so early in summer and close to the light’s edge usually makes Taehyung anxious. He feels as if his corners have been turned, like dog ears in old books.

Jimin’s heart is a steady thump under Taehyung’s ear, and he thinks about the ways of synchronized clockworks and whether he would ever match Jimin like this, and if it should matter at all. He’s sticky under the sheets but feels cool in points of contact, even though Jimin is still overheated. His own human furnace with big, big heart. Taehyung wishes to stay awake through it all but Jimin’s fingers play something so soothing in his hair.

“Always wanted to do that,” Taehyung mumbles, cheek squished against Jimin’s naked chest.

“Huh?”

“Like, play with your hair and all that. See your hands.”

“What if I was ugly? What if you were ugly? Huh, smart guy?”

There’s a palm in Taehyung’s face now, waving lazily, and he scoffs. “Fuck off.”

Instead, Jimin intertwines their fingers and closes his eyes. Taehyung puts little pressure as he traces Jimin’s inked arms, afraid to shake him up or go too far, and it somehow eases his own heartstrings. They both smell of rubbing alcohol and sweet soda drinks.

This calm descends on them, a very odd sense of clarity in the half-awake dead of night.

It’s in Jimin’s breath and his touch, the mismatching sound of his entire being.

Taehyung doesn’t know if they will see each other again, like this, or ever, but as they swim in the luminous heat he decides that it’s okay. He will soak in their shared warmth and innocent touch while he can.

He shifts, feeling the hand drop from his messy hair, and nuzzles under Jimin’s jaw. Suddenly, everything feels very silly. Shouldn’t it matter? He inhales, plants feather kisses under Jimin’s ear, down the column of his neck, to the dip of his collarbone.

Something gnaws at him, in the distant light of the street. At the corners of his draped mind. They are old words, Taehyung realizes, the ones Jimin tended to use in times of stress and bone-deep exhaustion. But suddenly they seem so obvious.

“Felt you so much tonight,” Taehyung whispers against his skin and tastes salt.

Jimin has drifted into sleep, murmuring out fragments between soft snores, and Taehyung draws back.

He slips out when it’s still dark, leaving all his traces behind, as always. Letting the apartment stew in his presence. Jimin looks peaceful draped in white and glistening with sweat. Taehyung watches him through the entirety of his cigarette and then puts on his scratched shades. It looks orange now, like an old picture.

Out in the street and he can’t see shit in his sunglasses. He’s guided by a stupid superstition, wondering if he could keep Jimin’s form on the tinted glass and never wipe it and never forget.



xii.

 

Two weeks after Jimin gets shot he pages in. Two weeks of radio silence to pile up the courage to ask Taehyung out.

The place is too generic to be a random pick but Taehyung knows it’s not a date. Jimin wants to tell him his decision in person. And it can only end in three possible outcomes for which Taehyung has already build up responses and shades of protection, for later.

It ends up being the third one. Jimin doesn’t show up.

Taehyung waits until his pack is empty and his pockets still full of coins. He doesn’t know who to call. In the end, it’s the shop’s owner who wades him off into the bustling streets with an odd feeling of nostalgia in tow.

There’s something nestled deep in his chest, not anger or sadness or anything bad, really, but a soft sense of finality. He’s been expecting that so the ease never changes but, he supposes, he’s still in the stage of denial.

The real shit will come later.

And it comes in a form of a brick to the head once he gathers his jumbled up hours and shows up at the bar some days after the non-date.

Hyoyeon looks reluctant with her words but eventually slides a coin over the counter. “He said his lucky number is 7130.”

The number is for a song in the jukebox. It’s a message.

“Of fucking course.”

Taehyung struts up to the jukebox to punch in the number and presses himself to the rainbow glass, feeling the sound soak through him. The message makes sense, because he was there to belong, always waiting for Jimin to shake off the fear. For Jimin to finally make a decision of his own, which he sure did but, apparently, was too lost to find proper words.

“You’re so stupid,” Taehyung moans, equally stupid. He’s turned on and fogging up the glass.

That night he drinks and drinks and then finds himself an eager stray, sniffing out the other becoming kind in the night. He finds them, young and carefree, and they are just right. He sticks with them, drinking more and laughing in the rain, but still remembers not to cross any boundaries.

On the subway, looking out for Jimin’s windows, he decides it’s the last time he goes underground for this. He’ll have to find new wheels and different colors.

Back in his bed, in the static of his room, he keeps quiet, his nose pressed into Jimin’s old shirt and fist tight around his cock.

In the laundry room he smokes, his favorite Kenshin volume laid open in his lap, and watches the loud washing drum tousle his cum-stained clothes. The light on the panel blinks back at him, as dull as his own, and by the end of the cycle he has come to the end of the chapter and a decision.

He moves out of Sangsu Apartments with an early notice and a small plaid bag that belonged to someone else. He takes the tapes with him.



xiii.

 

The men on his last assignment remind Jimin of round-faced dock workers from back home, sturdy men that wore the sun on their skin over the ink, all of them fading fast in the industrial dumps of the harbor. They would frown at the swarm of kids, with him at the center, and look incredibly intimidating with their coarse stubble and tattoos turned meaningless by time.

Being the last favor to Qian’s boss, this one has never meant to be efficient. It ends in a bustle at the back of a butcher’s shop which natural vibe is hard to disturb with any type of shooting. So he has one thing less to feel guilty about, spilling more blood than needed.

The last of the docker look-alikes, not a man but more of a living brick, has him in a suffocating hold, and in the moment it feels welcoming, almost as if Jimin could just go with the flow until his vision fades.

This is stupid, the inner voice supplies, you're stupid.

Moments later Jimin is pinning him to the ground, pressing hard on the man’s solar plexus and only seeing static. Still, they struggle until their lungs hurt and Jimin is leaning so much closer, smelling copper and cheap smokes. Large hands threaten to close around his throat again, and Jimin sees red and reaches out fast, his eyes wide, slams the man’s head hard against the floor.

The skull lands with a dry thump, at first. Jimin doesn’t stop, and the sound soon turns wet and thick, splashing in the pooling blood. Nothing of this seems real. The squelch is weaker now, but Jimin keeps going.

When he comes to it, his face feels hot and the front of his shirt is a pattern of red. Could pull some Rorschach shit out of it, he thinks, shaking.  

Seeing a thick pool of dark gooey red, almost black, the soft looking skull and sticky hair, some of it glued to his palms and cluttered under his fingernails, Jimin imagines himself a tiny dot at the other end of the telescope lense, somewhere very far away, by the homely shores and still untainted.

The wet winter sand under his heavy boots and his brother’s gloved hand in his. Polaroid snapshots still kept safe and clean.  

He half-expects to not feel anything at all, but in another man’s washroom, running cool water over his fingers and wrists, digging under his nails, he chokes on dry tears. Looks up and finds unnaturally pale skin and wet cheeks reflected back at him.

He then falls into one of the breathing patterns Taehyung taught him. Then opens his mouth wide. No sound comes out but it’s good. Taehyung told him it reduced tension.

In the tiled grayscale he keeps shivering, feels his lungs re-calibrate, and evens out. Looks at his hands. At his face. He is alive. He brushes his hair and watches the wet strands fall into his eyes. Incredible, really.

After that, he quits his job at the market and never looks back.

 

xiv.

 

He quits not longer after Jimin, quits subway rides too, buys a cheap Honda scooter and keeps the smokes. He still watches over Minatozaki-san, a man now as faded as his shop, and takes Momo to Adidas Cup. They always find new ways to sneak on the field after the matches and fool around on the grass until the last lights go out.

It might have been an odd couple of months to remember. Taehyung can never be sure the first time he got back on track, back to some sort of clarity.

He lives at nights and swims through the city’s neon, filtering through it all like a wind-up vessel of his own. It feels full in the half-finished bottles and shallows of blue smoke.

His new room is in a place close to the university, with the entrance lit by bright pink and stamped in bold advertisements. From his new wheels he can still watch people blur past but prefers to roam around, stopping at small shops, new and old, and meet new faces or check up on the ones he’s come to recognize with a sort of fondness.

He is good with words and better with faces, putting on his own and reading others. He can talk to strangers and make them feel like old friends.

He never went back to the bar in fear of hearing the song again.

This life feels foggy and small and very far away.

More often than not, he finds himself buried in Jimin’s clothes, just in his mind, a weird attempt to cling to an idea through scent. A memory. Sometimes it feels more than that. He’s always known the language of clothing and has been good at it. Another type of wordplay to him that sometimes leaves others clueless.

Riding through brightly lit tunnels of green and concrete he often imagines what Jimin’s arms would feel like wrapped tight around his waist. If the breath on his neck would feel hot in all this wind and traffic currents.



﹍﹍﹍




Tonight he skirts around for longer than usual and, by the time he rolls up to his favorite fast food joint, his mind is pleasantly aired out. Inside it’s empty, just like in his head. The best kind of two in the morning empty.

He finds Eunji at the counter. They have been vaguely aware of each other’s habits. She told him once he looked like he didn’t belong anywhere in this city. But he used to, didn’t he? Maybe he never did but something was in the way of knowing.

Tonight the food court is as yellow and bright as it usually is, and he lands himself at one of the middle tables, ready to dig into his fries and soggy burger. Dabbing already cold fries in mustard one after another, he thinks how fitting the color of this place is for Eunji’s own. The smile, the little sparkles.

His elbow starts to feel numb from the hard plastic of the table, forcing him to wiggle and turn in search of a better position, and a single black dot floats into his view.

It’s someone a little hunched but still looking like there’s a pole shoved deep up his ass, and Taehyung feels a fond smile spreading.

Not good, not good, this is no good.

He’s over there in an instant. Strutting up to the table while trying to maintain his suave presence. He thinks he might be acing it just fine when Jimin looks up and they both freeze completely.

“Can I sit here?” Taehyung blurts.

He squints at his own question and looks around the empty food court to make some sort of point. After getting a dumb nod in reply, he plops down with an exaggerated sigh.

“So what brings you here?” he asks around a mouthful of fries, pretending not to feel the hot knot forming between his shoulder blades.

Jimin seems to have lost the ability to form words. His eyes are glued to Taehyung’s bleached hair.

“You haven’t touched it since—”

“I know,” Taehyung says, tugging on a long platinum strand.

The last time the dye was barely there, just yellow feathers in the messy nest of his hair, and his father was washing it in the hostel’s kitchen sink, following his mother’s habit from those cotton candy days, and he was elbow-deep in soap and curses. It ended in loud words and heavy weights.

When did you dye your hair? You can’t just do it like that. Taehyungie, you can’t just do it like that anymore.

“So, um, what's up?”

What possesses Taehyung to blurt this particular line is beyond him. Um. He cringes. Um.

“Just, you know, surviving.” Jimin’s fingers are wrapped tight around the carton of his mud-like coffee. Who drinks that at two in the morning? His Park Jimin.

“That’s good. Good. Sounds exceptional. Very optimistic.” This is so fucking awkward.

At that moment he’s glad for his ever-present habits of oral fixation, because Jimin’s lips are forming a small and very gentle smile.

“You’ve always been the optimistic one,” Jimin runs a hand through his long hair, messing it up and making it stick in odd places.

Taehyung’s mind is in overdrive as he tries to drink in the details. Jimin’s hair is dark tonight, a little coppery in the light, and his eyes are deep brown.

“Well, hey,” Taehyung says, transfixed by every little movement, “let’s take a walk.”

A real one this time, on his own terms. In a world so glass, and taste the rest later.

Jimin finishes his drink, desperately trying to appear calm, glances at his empty wrist and then at the large clock on the wall. Taehyung has to steady himself as he reaches out, hesitant. Jimin’s wrist is thin in the circle of his fingers but the skin there is smooth. Jimin’s eyes are unreadable, cautious and seem liquid, when they center on Taehyung.

He nods, a small motion, very sharp, “Sure.”



﹍﹍﹍



Outside it’s raining. They’re crossing the street, covered by Jimin’s flimsy jacket, in the glow of traffic and steaming vendors. Taehyung feels the creases smoothing out, inside of him and on Jimin’s tired face.

They run, jumping around puddles and shoving each other as they try to fit under the thin piece of fabric, and laugh just the right amount. They’re splashing in shallow water and the undersea light around them that somehow drowns out the irrelevant crowd and street racket.

At the bar, the light still clings to them, curling around the necks of bottles and dull metal of low hung lamps. The jukebox is different here, or maybe they’ve been gone for too long.

They’re at a wall table, and it’s too red in the half-lidded space filled with whirring of fans that struggle to filter the smoke. Jimin’s hands shake a little as he takes another drag. Taehyung is dressed in shades of grey, tight jeans and loose cotton that shows collarbone and a bit of shoulder.

As they smoke, face to face for the second time ever, they speak of irrelevant things but seem to be falling together somehow. Their hips are touching, just a little.

“Why’d you dye it?”

Taehyung shrugs, reaches to tousle up his hair, which must look ridiculous now in its damp feather-like glory. He certainly feels like it. Like a very pretty but ruffled up fly-bird.

“It’s easier to remember this way.” It sounds bad, he realizes, and panics a little. “I didn’t—I’m not that—”

“No,” hums Jimin, “you’re very special.”

Later, Taehyung watches Jimin move with the music, and it’s their song again, it flows and Jimin follows in slow waves and a type of fluidity that seems impossible to Taehyung. He gets up, moves on shaky legs to lean into Jimin and touch. Touch, touch, touch.

Their dancing turns slow and only half-decent, with Jimin’s palms fitting under Taehyung’s shirt, on the small of his back, and Jimin’s breath hot at his open collar. It’s so close, fanning over his neck, his collarbone. Taehyung throws his head back, digging his fingers into Jimin’s hair and sees Hyoyeon pointedly not giving their dark corner any attention.

Distantly, he registers his arousal spiking and presses closer.

Great, Taehyung thinks, feeling the heat between them. Now he will think you’re only here for boners. But Jimin won’t, of course he won’t, that would be so stupid.

They lean into each other and Jimin whispers something. It’s so impossibly loud in Taehyung’s head that he almost misses it.

“Feel you so much, all the time.”

Guiding Jimin’s heavy and very tired head on his shoulder, Taehyung lets out a sigh. Full, almost sad. Content.  

Park Jimin, Taehyung thinks, the paramount of romance.

 

﹍﹍﹍

 

Taehyung finds that he is pressed against the tiled wall of the bar’s surprisingly decent restroom, his breath coming out ragged and harsh with the heat of Jimin’s mouth around him. Trapped in the strong grip on his hips and the stilted air he fists his hair and keeps the whines inside.

It’s hard not to look at Jimin kneeling on the dirty floor, his hollowed out cheeks illuminated by bare lightbulbs, and mouth a shade darker, redder.

Taehyung sees splashes of color but there is nothing here to make Jimin’s skin look so pink. He needs release but doesn’t dare move, letting Jimin take it at the right pace and with purest intentions.

It feels like lust and horrible ideas. Taehyung watches Jimin bob his head eagerly, his lips stretched wide, the veins now prominent in his neck. His mouth is glistening with spit, and even on his knees he seems to fill up the space.

They shift, Jimin moving his hand to hold at the base of Taehyung’s cock and then reach under.

“I’m—ticklish there—” Taehyung can’t believe the giggles that burst out of him and covers his face. “It fuckin'—Jimin—”

Everything turns into surreal very quickly when Jimin releases with a pop and laughs with him. Laughs low and pleasant against Taehyung’s naked thigh.

“Okay,” he says, “no balls in this court, then,” and traces the skin where his cheek is pressed, so tender and feather-like, his fingertips sliding up to Taehyung’s hip.

It all seems to calm down until Taehyung feels a lick at his tip.

“Fuck,” he says with a weird nervous laugh.

“You can,” Jimin mouths at his cock, licks at the underside, “fuck my mouth. Or,” swirls his tongue over the head and then plants a ridiculous kiss there, “I can jack you off or something.”

They should be taking it somewhere else and stop acting on the immature impulses of their missed teenage years but, in the moment, Taehyung can’t think of any reasons why they should move, or stop, or not kiss.

“Wanna touch you,” he says and pulls Jimin to his feet.

The dim glow makes their lines sharper and turns Jimin’s eyes almost an eerie black. His hair is damp and messy and Taehyung can’t help but reach out and touch it, like he’s always wanted, run his fingers through soft strands and watch as Jimin almost fawns upon him.

“Kiss me.”

This excitement in him feels more subdued now, with Jimin’s soft lips on his and the cool of the rings soothing on Taehyung's skin as Jimin cradles his jaw.

They press together and Taehyung sighs at the feeling of rough fabric against his naked thighs. The kiss turns full and, between the barely audible sighs and the shift of clothes, Taehyung finds his mind filled with something warm, shimmering in its incredible ease. He whimpers, feeling his cock press to the cold metal of Jimin’s zipper.

Jimin touches him then, strokes him leisurely and swallows their sounds, tentatively builds up a steady rhythm as they kiss deep and wet.

Arms locked around Jimin’s neck, Taehyung steadies himself to soak in all the contact he can get. He fucks into Jimin’s fist and struggles for breath, drifting, swimming.

“Let me,” he breaks the kiss, finally, and feels the cool of Jimin’s forehead on his, “let me—”

Jimin laughs that laugh of his that feels just right. Touches their noses, his fingers a soft caress under Taehyung’s jaw.

He nods at the request and goes in for another kiss, softer this time, no teeth or tongue or blood. They kiss like that and then deeper as Taehyung ruts against Jimin’s clothed thigh, moaning at the rough texture against his skin, almost laughing at the thought of Jimin having to walk around with wet patches of washed out cum for the rest of the night.  

They slide, mouth to mouth and skin to cotton, and when Taehyung spills it’s in Jimin’s hand and on his shirt. They breathe heavy against each other’s mouths, unable to keep up with the kiss.

“Shit,” Jimin says and laughs. It will be a long walk home.

“You look like shit,” Taehyung giggles at the sight of Jimin’s cum-stained shirt. His pants are wet and there’s also a noticeable bulge there. “Lemme help you with that.”



﹍﹍﹍



The rain has subsided to a light drizzle, and they watch sparse traffic in the calm streets. An old radio in the still open barber’s shop keens slow pop. Something muffled and trite, it fits in their calm perfectly.

They smoke, feeling like old paper, something expired and dusted. Of a bygone era. Jimin coughs through his cigarette and Taehyung watches his form, still damp and unsure, wound up in the swirl of smoke and easy night hues. Jimin looks cleaner than his clothes and his forced sheet of calm is creasing, because Taehyung sees shaking fingers and nervous goosebumps.

It could be the rain, still cool in the puddles that flicker the yellows back at them. It could be that Jimin is scared shitless. Maybe it was all just another non-hour and the slow romance of summer showers. The heavy clouds are still visible in the night sky, dark purple and swallowing the world’s light.

Absently, Taehyung extends his arm, pretending to wipe at them, miming a washcloth in the clear air. He wishes for the rain to never end.

He feels the moment slipping between his fingers. It reminds him of Jimin’s fish stories that painted visions of flopping guppies and humans struggling for air. There was blood and glassy eyes. Jimin is right next to him and all of this feels like a slippery fishtail that he fails to hold onto, clumsy and a little lost.

He takes Jimin by the hand, feeling it tremble, and studies the rough skin of their palms.

“Jiminie,” he begins, surprised by the calm within him, “we—we shouldn’t see each other. After this.”

“What?”

Taehyung could swear that Jimin turns to look at him with an audible whip. Jimin’s hair is brighter in this light, copper and gold, and his eyes are wide.

“No, I mean—not like that. You’re still—I’m not sure I can deal with this, not like that.”

This is all so fucking awkward again. Taehyung has to say something more, he’s good with words, isn’t he?

“You’re shaking.”

Not that.

Baby, you’re shaking, comes his mother’s voice, muffled by the heavy towel in which his entire tiny person had been wrapped to dry from heavy summer rain. It smelled a little stale but, faintly, of fruit fabric softener. He feels like that now, cocooned in his own linen mind.

“No, listen,” he begins, seeing Jimin turn pale, it looks almost sick, and the glow around them is colder now. “I mean. This was an accident, right? It never happened when I was actually looking for you.”

“Once.”

He must be thinking back to the weird night at Minatozaki-san’s shop. Crowded and not at all a moment of fate.

“Still, it never happened. So,” he licks his lips, still bearing Jimin’s teeth marks, “just. We walk away. And wait for another accident to happen. Then I will know for sure.”

“Know what? Fuck that. Are you—do you hear yourself?”

“It’s stupid as shit.” But he needs this. “If we never meet again, then, you know. My bad.” He scoffs and squeezes Jimin’s hand tighter. “But if we do, then I will know for sure. I will know.”

The silence stretches and pulls at Taehyung’s heartstrings, thinning his freshly mended lining and, along with it, his resolve. He will stand his ground on this, something so silly but so needed. Right now it seems very important.

Jimin turns to look at the heavy clouds and mimics Taehyung’s wiping gesture from before.

It’s still a slow process of wrapping his mind around Jimin, his actual physical presence, and Taehyung tries to look for any change in Jimin’s features. He looks lean and soft in the buzzing fluorescent light and still so scared.

Baby, you’re shaking.

Something pulls harder in Taehyung's chest, so very tight, threatening to collapse his person. The noise fills his ears and creeps into his vision like white static. It’s so hard to breathe but he sees it reflect in Jimin’s chest, his expanding ribcage under the thin shirt.

In the years of following Jimin’s footsteps, Taehyung has learned him to be stubborn, always so damn stubborn, even with all those habits of polite yielding. So Taehyung isn’t exactly expecting to be dignified with a proper answer.

“Okay,” Jimin says. His voice is kind, tender, and the words somehow feel very round. “Whatever you want.”

So in the end, there’s that. Always, always whatever Taehyung wants. The awareness of them spreads in Taehyung’s chest, because it speaks of the trust Jimin has in him as a constant.

But the cold is still there, unsurpassed, and Taehyung wants them to fit back together and share their taste again but all of it is done. It’s done for now. He can’t take the rest.

“So,” for some odd reason, Taehyung is smiling.

It feels like music by the puddles and dim lightbulbs when Jimin raises their linked fingers to his lips. Breathes in and presses a soft kiss to Taehyung’s knuckles. It’s ridiculous. Taehyung feels his throat closing up as he watches Jimin disappear around the corner.



xv.

 

These days Momo has been looking at him strangely, as if afraid he might crumble under her careful touch. Though they still sneak around, under the bright lights of the empty stadium, their hair is of matching color and their clothes are bright cotton and terry.

The streets outside their shop’s translucent drapes, past the bold characters he can barely read, are often a mass of dripping lights and words so utterly dire it all has been making Taehyung sick.

He moves through the mundanity of it all, acceptably content, moves in the underwater life from shops to bars to half-forgotten holes, but never breaks the law.

He rides the city cobwebs and makes home in its underbelly but ends up roaming near empty streets in the early morning. Alone and by foot. His steps echo in the alleys, bouncing off wooden power poles and strange concrete structures, steel high rises and glazed windows. A clash of new and old in a picture that fades with the last street lamps and burns on the back of his eyelids.

There are so many people but Taehyung finds himself glued to his already washed out tapes. He watches them over and over again. Every other night he’s back in his stuffed room, space so small and edged red, smelling of something he has never experienced but knows through Jimin’s stories.

Sitting high on his creaky table, as if it were a nest, shoving spoonfuls of melted ice-cream with soggy dry frozen strawberry, he watches the last tape.

It’s dated two years ago, just shy of a month to the anniversary. His father is in the clouds of steam, stirring nakji bokkeum, because it was her favorite, because it was one of those days they felt the emptiness at their side just a little too much.  

Watching his father cook makes him happy and he can breathe with ease.

The next shot is of a weird white couple trying to check in and refusing to speak English and his father, in all his undershirt glory, appears to be calm but so clearly at the end of his patience. His glasses always kept sliding off the slope of his nose. Taehyung’s mother found it endearing.

The couple left and it was then that his father noticed the camera and chased Taehyung through the hostel, flicking a kitchen towel around, threatening to tweak his ears until he saw rainbows.

Taehyung laughs, his voice cracking, and knows he won’t have that fried squid or horrible army stew again. But he will never forget their taste.

It cuts to what Taehyung knows is the last shot, having learned it by heart. Deep in his chest it feels like a lithograph. Putting the now empty glass away, he slides to the floor so the fanned air reaches his bare feet. It tickles a little.

On the screen, his father is grinning so large but it’s a little crooked and, to Taehyung, the exhaustion is obvious. It’s tucked at the corners of his father’s wrinkles and smiling eyes, but still he is there, round face filling up the entire screen. It’s too close to the lense, and Taehyung can barely see through the blur, but the contours are enough and the colors are plenty. The low sound of his distorted voice is so close to the camera it comes out muffled, unintelligible, but seems so far away.

“You again, huh? Let go, Taehyungie, come on, you little—let go.”

Taehyung chased him through dim corridors and stuffed rooms until they reached the kitchen and the end of the tape.

The room fills with the hissing static. It hurts his eyes.

It wasn’t long after the police raid that his father passed. Taehyung had taken him to the hospital and stayed by his side until the morning.

Sleep well, he wrote on one of his yellow notes that morning.

Sleep well, on the next, to Jimin.

Staring at the shimmering white noise of the screen now, awash in the weak air currents, he succumbs under all this weight. Sprawls on the floor and drifts in the hot shallows.

He doesn’t go to bars. He doesn’t look for Jimin. His skin breaks out from unhealthy liters of too sweet strawberry soda and cheap fast food. It’s so vague and impossibly loud inside of him.

Behind his eyelids there’s a face, gentle fingers washing the dye out of his hair, the cold of the kitchen sink.

Taehyung isn’t missing places or things, he just misses his dad.

He reaches to touch his face. It’s wet with tears. He closes his eyes, trembling.



xvi.

 

No matter what his old coworkers thought, Jimin has always been good with words and better with faces, putting on his own and reading others. When he feels like it, he can talk to strangers the way someone would to their favorite high school pals off the top of their phonebook. He finds little homes in the night city’s nests of commerce and desolation, and feels his expiration date approaching.

At the age of seven he ate an expired can of longan and along with it got the idea of expiration stamps that all people surely had. Back then he failed to find his, no matter how hard he studied his body. Now he knows it’s more a thing of a person’s mind.

The time must be approaching, because his being has been as wobbly and stagnant in the thick syrup of his mind, just as that formative longan. His night world is big but the far walls seem to be made of cheap tin.

His new place is neater. It’s in a hostel and, at night, it’s never still. Through the walls he can hear tired voices, the clinking of dishes, and tiny dramas that tend to unfold towards the late hours. He never touches the lives of others anymore and moves through his days with effort. It feels as if he needs to let go of something.

“Let go,” he says to himself, not knowing of what.

He gets into the tub, still fully clothed, and feels the fabric immediately stick to his skin. The water is lukewarm and reaches to the tips of his ears.

Once in Igidae, he took his brother to watch the sea in a mild storm, the winter kind of gale that moved with such power and deafening clarity it made it almost impossible to imagine their tiny forms breathing anything else but that air. It had been so loud and the sky was that idle grey. Their heads were spinning.

They developed a language after that, a silly game just for the two of them, as loud and obscure as that weather. Something similar to the way Taehyung took apart the clouds.

Later, hugging his brother’s smaller body close, both of them wrapped in woolen blankets, Jimin broke out in a song he had learned from their grandmother, an easy and clear folk melody. And his brother, with his back flush against Jimin’s chest, hummed along, giggling, as they watched the sunset break through the storm clouds.

“Let go,” he says and watches his hands and the scraped pink of his knuckles.

He dips under the water until the back of his head touches the bottom. He can still see the blurry ceiling through the pale green waves. He remembers all the people who took him in and watched him shed his old years like another type of skin. They all could be anywhere, really.

Surfacing up for air, he keeps his eyes wide open and focused on pale square tiles. He suddenly tastes oil. Dives back, feeling his ears fill up.

“Jiminie-hyung,” his brother said, looking entirely adorable. His favorite person. “Here you are.”

Once his head is out of the water, he gasps for air, quivering, and sees it all on the ceiling now, all the blood he has been washing off his body through the past years. His lungs are filling with something hot and he feels all togged up.

Something sharp presses at his insides, on his chest. It froths up, sputtering, sinking, gone.

And in the absence of his lost brother he starts to cry.  



xvii.

 

Staring at a warm bowl of haejangguk, in this crowded small noodle shop at five in the morning, Jimin finds himself unable to taste it.

The place reminds him of one of the steamy beef diners that fronted tazza gamblers. It feels as washed out and blue and swirling green, fogs up his vision as if he were a camera lense. He wonders if he could wipe at the cornea and make it all disappear.

The early hangover crowd is grating on his nerves but he is never prone to quick anger. That was Jaebum. Is he doing better, Jimin wonders, has he found his place? He should probably go to Namjoon with those questions.

A glass flies past his head and shatters on the floor, amid the oil stains and peeled blue plaster. He puts down his spoon and sighs, completely unenthusiastic about the drunk fight he’s about to be dragged into.

Through the past few months, Jimin has learned an odd art of passive acceptance, one his mother failed to impart to him in the early years. So he lets the loud and booze-soaked men drag him in their lazy scuffle.

He doesn’t touch any of them and takes all they decide to throw at him, but they don’t seem to notice. Their proximity comes with the stale smell of night gambling. It’s hard for anyone to move in this humid morning space, let alone a bunch of flabby drunks, and Jimin is left alone soon enough, half-sprawled on the plastic table.

His face is numb and is sure to swell very soon. Which means he won’t be able to shave for another century or two. He tastes blood and almost chokes. Spitting some of it, he pats at his pockets, not remembering if he still had cigarettes, and laughs. There isn’t any.

When the sting somewhat fades, Jimin looks for his bowl and sees its contents on the floor. He apologizes to the very bored looking old lady at the counter and offers to pay for the damage.

It’s then that Jimin sees him, still very blonde and dressed so bright. Like a technicolor print taped to the pale wall to stand out in the cutting morning light.

It’s five in the morning on a muzzy yet sticky September day, and Jimin meets Taehyung for the first time all over again.

Taehyung looks right back, his metal chopsticks poised above the steaming noodle bowl. This time he feels softer, draped in loose reds and forest green, and smiles sweetly over the balmy warmth.

“Jiminie,” he says carefully, pushing the bowl away, “you look like shit.”

And just like that Taehyung is in his space, cool hands soothing his battered face. His hair looks just as glossy, touched by bleach and intricate coloring.

“Oh, baby, look at you,” Taehyung says, voice so impossibly soft and tender. His thumbs are gentle on Jimin’s stinging cheeks. “What a mess.”

Jimin feels silly and slightly on the verge of tears. “It’s cool. Just tired dudes with tired lives who have fuck all to do.”

“Jiminie,” he makes a dramatic pause, “let’s eat.”

Huddled in the corner near the muddy window, Taehyung cleans Jimin’s face as best as he can, and his touch bleeds calm and with a mixed blessing of home. They share the food then, hearing the traffic pick up. They are touching at the hip and their hands are in a tight lock.

Maybe it’s the ripples in the stuffed September air, or the weather he is so not used to, but this morning everything seems right. Getting his face smashed up is not included, but the cops are also not here, so. Small miracles.   

“Need a ride?” Taehyung nods towards the entrance, to where Jimin assumes the scooter is parked.

“That’d be nice,” he is smiling back, feeling his chest expand. So light, so stupid. “Take me home?”



﹍﹍﹍



Early Seoul light hurts his eyes but the traffic currents are cool on his skin as they wade in the rows of morning carbon rush. Jimin looks down at the dark greys of the road, feeling the heat there, everywhere. Though they promised a cold spell soon.

He is floating in their proximity, pressed close to Taehyung’s bright back, arms wrapped tight around his waist. Looking up, he watches the power lines sweeping past, stark threads against the greyish-pink sky.   

Their Honda dives into the deep green of a tunnel and Jimin imagines them in a pool, both warm and always, always fitting.

He hasn’t been on a scooter since he was a kid, a well-tempered teenager taking his brother to the beach and waterside parks. It’s all left in the fading gloss of old pictures now, but Taehyung is here, bright and colorful, constant.

He can guess that Taehyung is smiling goofy and wide and leans closer to press a kiss to his ear. The skin there is flushed red from the wind. Jimin plants little kisses down his neck, thinking he can hear Taehyung giggle.

This moment, full and lucent, will soon pass as it always must. But they will be home soon.