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‘It’s not the real one, is it?’ Seokjin says.

Seokjin knows the truth. Taehyung knows that Seokjin knows the truth. He doesn’t know whether to credit his perceptiveness or the clarity of the truth, or maybe both. But the fact remains that Seokjin knows the truth, and there is this kind sort of smile on his face as he looks down at Taehyung that makes Taehyung’s skin crawl.

And as if there weren’t enough things making his skin crawl, Taehyung feels this as a cold wave of realisation. It’s slow and fast at the same time, the way water from a spilled glass spreads over the table while you watch on, helpless, and reaches the edge to trickle down from it. Slow, fast, glowing.

Seokjin knows the truth. Taehyung knows that Seokjin knows the truth.

‘Taehyung,’ he says, when the silence stretches too long to be anything other than denial. ‘The ring.’

Taehyung looks at the floor, clean and grey, and then the walls, clean and cream, and then the ceiling, clean. He takes a deep breath.

‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s not the real one.’

 

▽△▽

 

In his defence, he had already planned to pull off a show in case Seokjin didn’t react on time. In Seokjin’s defence, he had no way of knowing the ring was fake until Taehyung actually slid it on his finger. (In fact, while Taehyung is slipping it down to the last knuckle, he thinks, for the umpteenth time, to the absurdity of not trying it on beforehand. But then again, it’s only been a fortnight since he turned twenty-one; he doesn’t imagine that the guardian ring, even the real one, would kick in so soon anyway.)

The ceremony is flawless in every way imaginable. Whoever means anything on either side of the sea is present, no matter what flight they were almost too busy to catch despite the dates having been sent out all the way back in September. The cold of January doesn’t make it through the whiskey-bottom window glass of the Parkview Room, and Taehyung would’ve expected as much.

They haven’t gotten snow. The childish part of him that is actually invested in this, is a little disappointed. If there are going to be pictures in the papers anyway, he’d rather the headlines say something like The Kim Heirs Celebrate A Snowy Engagement as opposed to Well, It Rained A Little. He supposes that he can’t have it all; and honestly, the lack of snow is much less complicated than the lack of other vital aspects of the ceremony.

In his defence, the ceremony is still flawless. Taehyung would never bother to deny that on any given day, Seokjin looks more phenomenal than the rest of the room combined. Today, however, radiant can hardly cover it. (At any rate, that adjective and its siblings are reserved for Taehyung, regardless of how beautiful Seokjin looks on any given day.) But if radiant can’t cover it, neither can anything else in Taehyung’s dictionary. Seokjin’s ensemble is hardly the star of the show, despite the tuxedo’s make and the knot of his tie, or even the fact that he humoured his mother for a change and wore the earring she had made for him.

‘Beautiful champagne,’ approximately the fifty-second gown-clad beaming lady of the evening says to Taehyung, who smiles back and turns immediately to Seokjin. (As a general truth of life, Taehyung is not allowed to talk to those whom he refers to as Adults and Seokjin refers to as actual people of the corporate world. It’s not that he doesn’t like being social; the problem is precisely that he really likes being social.) ‘Are you waiting to get us drunk before getting on with it?’

‘It’d be a shame to sit through it sober, wouldn’t it,’ Seokjin sings back. ‘After all, we can only hope to clean up as well as our parents do.’

No; for Taehyung, the star of the show is Seokjin himself, despite everyone keeping their eyes on Taehyung. He doesn’t mind the attention, but it does get exasperating, being hounded with questions and congratulations when it should be split two ways. It isn’t as if most of this engagement doesn’t revolve around him already; he was the one they were waiting for; the date had been decided based on his twenty-first, and not Seokjin’s.

(As a general truth of life, neither Taehyung’s nor Seokjin’s parents ever did anything fancier than teaching them their manners and then leaving them to their respective major-domos. It doesn’t go to say that they were never involved in the principal decision-making; rather, they were the ones who sat him and Seokjin down when Seokjin turned twenty-one and Taehyung eighteen, saying it was time to talk. It doesn’t go to say that he and Seokjin had no idea of what discussion was about to come.)

‘Oh, you do clean up,’ she says, ‘don’t worry. You clean up too well; picking two of the most eligible bachelors off the market in one fell swoop! Think of the rest of us!’

Seokjin leans forward and smiles down at her; it doesn’t reach his eyes, but only Taehyung can see that. ‘That’s what the champagne is for, madame.’

No; the star of the show is Seokjin. Not because of what he’s wearing (there’s never been a day when Seokjin hasn’t dressed like he just stepped off a plane, and very few days when he’s not stepping off planes in the first place) or because of what he’s doing (he’s handling this with the easy grace of someone who might as well have gotten engaged six times before and gone through the very same ceremony, all graceful nods and bows and feigned surprise at the presents) but because of how he smiles every time Taehyung locks eyes with him.

It’s not necessarily fake; they’re best friends, they’re happy. But with the way he smiles, Taehyung is almost convinced that Seokjin might actually be in love with him. And what’s worse is that he’s almost convinced that the ring he’s going to put on Seokjin’s finger could just be real, after all.

That is why Seokjin is the star of the show; Taehyung could never put up such a terrific performance. One part aware and one part not, and pulling it off anyway. A surge of guilt rises, pulsing in time with the fake fake fake Taehyung thinks every time he sees the ring; he swallows it down with the “beautiful” champagne.

(As a general truth of life, Taehyung is as disinclined towards relationships as Seokjin is towards romance itself. If nothing else, it’s made for a hilarious adolescence and continues to bring Seokjin a lot of amusement. Taehyung has lost count of the number of times he’s sent Seokjin 4 AM texts, varying both in content and rate of panic. She’s making me breakfast!!!! SOS!!! is run-of-the-mill, with the odd theft of a watch or a throwaway phone and, on one memorable occasion, a why am i in paris.)

Actually, he thinks, it’s exactly that. He could never put up a performance like Seokjin, which is why (in his defence) he already had a plan for the moment that he half-feared: the Parkview Room silent except for the piano in the background, waiting and waiting for something to happen. A plan for the anger in Seokjin’s eyes; the ring; precious but without power. It’s only been a fortnight. Maybe the guardian ring doesn’t kick in so soon.

However, those are (were) conjectures, quickly disappearing with every millimetre of Seokjin’s skin the ring touches on its way down to his knuckle. What is real is that the ring is on Seokjin’s finger; what is not real is the ring itself. And what is both is Seokjin’s reaction— not a bat of his eyelashes, not a split-second of delay in the grin on his face, not a moment for the room to find out that whatever was supposed to happen, hasn’t.

(23:13 is this even paris.)

Seokjin just softens his grin to a smile and takes Taehyung’s hand, the one with the only real ring of two, and he raises Taehyung’s hand to his lips, kisses it chastely. It’s sweet and looks beautiful, and it’s the picture that’s going to be under Well, It Rained A Little.

‘That was fast,’ Seokjin says, turning to the guests and laughing, so good-natured that even Taehyung can barely take it. ‘I can feel it already.’

Taehyung heaves a dozen sighs of relief in his head and discards the idea of lighting their hands up. There’s no need; of course Seokjin managed. He’s glad that the guardians aren’t able to channel the power right away; he’ll need a good few months of time training with Seokjin to make sure that they can coordinate well enough to pull off the lie.

‘Does this mean I can’t beat Booty Call Number Forty-Three at Black Ops anymore?’ is the first thing his sister asks, even as his brother congratulates him and Seokjin. Taehyung rolls his eyes and ducks away, choosing instead to smile at his and Seokjin’s parents like he isn’t tricking all four of them.

In his defence, and in theory, the ceremony is flawless in every way imaginable. The more minutes trawl by after the anticlimactic climax of the engagement, the more the details of the party gain sharpness and colour for Taehyung. The fabric of his suit, the shine of Seokjin’s, their hair, their shoes, their hands with their new rings. All the gowns and dresses and tuxedos; their parents’ laughter; the sky heavy with rain but not the snow he wanted; the faint smell of food that isn’t supposed to have a smell.

Before he knows it, he’s back to his beaming self, and doesn’t recall deviating so much from it in the first place— only Seokjin must have noticed. Just the way only Taehyung can notice the change in Seokjin’s smile, that no longer convinces him of their fabricated fairytale love or his fabricated fairytale ring. In his defence, in theory, the ceremony is flawless; and in execution too, for anyone who isn’t Taehyung or Seokjin.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung supposes that at this point it's a little ridiculous to be wondering whether Seokjin will be angry at him or not. He doesn't know what he expected, actually; from what he's been told throughout his life and what seems like throughout everyone else's lives, when the ring slides into place, he's supposed to feel…complete. Whole. Words that Taehyung doesn't really have enough concern to express his dislike of. It's not that he minds the concept of feeling complete with someone else; to put it in the polite words his parents have always taught him to use, he couldn't care less about the concept as it applies to others. What he does mind is the universal— inasmuch as the universe extends to the walls of the Parkview Room where Seokjin pretended, without missing a beat, that he felt something when Taehyung slid the ring onto his finger— assumption that he's been waiting for this. To feel complete.

He doesn't feel any more complete than he did four hours ago, but the thing is, Taehyung doesn't really have enough concern to be a rebel without a cause. There's no room for satisfaction at not feeling complete. No matter how much he would want it to be, at least currently it's not because of his own strength or conviction in himself that the rings didn't make any difference. The rings didn't make any difference through fault that is entirely their own (and a little bit his).

‘It's not the real one,’ he says, and supposes that at this point it's a little ridiculous to be wondering whether Seokjin will be angry at him or not. Not to mention a little late. ‘Seokjin…’

To be fair, Taehyung has never seen Seokjin angry a day of his life. Not with a hot kind of anger, at least; Seokjin always prefers to keep a cool head and smile his way through everything, make whoever is unfortunate enough to be on the opposite end feel like their life has been reduced to his pocket change. (Taehyung doesn't want to be misunderstood, though: Kim Seokjin doesn't carry pocket change.)

To be fair, Seokjin has never been angry at Taehyung a day of his life, beyond the occasional gentle admonishment when Taehyung doesn't put his camera away when he's supposed to put it away, or when Taehyung makes plans for yet another unpronounceable mountain hideout that aren't really plans as much as concepts. The thing is, Seokjin has that very look on his face right now as he usually does when explaining to Taehyung precisely why he cannot take a fortnight off to explore the set of caves that someone told him about at National Geographic's Ocean Wild exhibit, a month before the engagement. In the first place, you shouldn't even have been in Santa Barbara. It wouldn't be as unnerving if Taehyung could actually figure out whether the patient little smile on Seokjin's face is because Taehyung lied, or because of what he lied about.

Seokjin takes his time to unscrew the base of his single earring, as nimble yet careful as always. From where Taehyung is looking— standing in the doorway with his arms crossed, not quite sure what to do with himself— he can only see Seokjin in the mirror. The dresser is off to a corner of the bedroom, polished wood and velvet-cushioned chair, Seokjin perched as easily on it as if he were undressing after school. Taehyung stays in the doorway with the salon to his back, and waits in silence as Seokjin puts the earring back in its box. They're both still dressed; the shoulders of Seokjin's jacket catching the fluctuating light of the chandelier above their bed, and Taehyung reserving a percentage of guilt for the state his own suit is going to end up in if he keeps curling his nails into the insides of his elbows. He only hopes that the chandelier won't act up any more than it already is.

It's not even his ring on Seokjin's finger; not the one that's supposed to be his, anyway.

While Seokjin works at his perfect bowtie, Taehyung stares at the chandelier. It hangs anxiously low over the centre of the king, and with the way the nervousness gathered in his palms is making it brighten then dim then brighten again, it looks like it might fall off at any moment; square bits of glass winking and winking quicker than the city lights behind the half-drawn curtains. Seokjin, in the corner of the room and Taehyung's vision, looks just like he always has in the yellow light. Calm, patient, beautiful.

Aware.

‘Stop messing with the chandelier,’ he says, turning around with his folded tie in his hands. ‘Sit down. I'm not angry.’

'I know,’ Taehyung says automatically, and then shrinks a little on himself when Seokjin raises one dark eyebrow at him. 'I'm sorry.’

‘Sit down, Sparkles.’

When Taehyung had first moved to Tokyo, he was ten years old and still affronted over the fact that the moon was not actually luminous, something he considered the treachery of the millennium. He remembers it in bits and pieces. He doesn’t remember stepping into his new room for the first time, what it must have first looked like to him, furnished but lifeless until he started liking things and not just people. (Taehyung only has one photograph from Busan. Only one that matters, anyway.) He doesn’t remember what he was thinking when the plane touched down at Haneda, or whether he was even awake for it. What he does remember is how terrifyingly tall the buildings looked; or rather, that they looked tall in the first place.

He also remembers meeting Seokjin for the first time. Taller than him, in a thick sweatshirt, frameless glasses on his nose. My name is Kim Seokjin, he had said slowly, carefully, and even back then it was clear that he had somehow memorised the line. I am twelve years old. Welcome to Japan.

They’re not supposed to still be dressed; the clothes were for the ceremony and after-party only, and the fact that Seokjin told their valets that they’d take care of undressing themselves was actually Taehyung’s first red signal. Seokjin might be the the definition itself of finesse, but he has never trusted Taehyung to take a shirt off properly. Which is entirely justified, given that Taehyung is still clawing away at his polka-dotted sleeves even as he settles gingerly on the bed. The chandelier seems to calm down with his increased proximity, and he swallows a sigh as it returns to steadiness.

Seokjin looks so gorgeous, with one leg folded under the other, smudged kohl under his eyes, skin a fascinating gold in the now-steady light. The part of Taehyung that feels guilty for the sleeves counters a part that wonders if Seokjin would really have reacted the same way, downstairs at the ceremony, if the ring had been real.

‘Tell me,’ Seokjin says. ‘What’s going on?’

When Taehyung had first moved to Tokyo, he was ten years old. And the ten years before Tokyo that he had lived out seem like a part of a dream now. School; his siblings, so small it took their fists to hold his thumbs; his parents, never around but for dinner and in Tokyo half the time. The orphanage. Not too big but nowhere near small, an initiative of his school’s trustees (his parents included, of course). Right next to the school like a dormitory, and the children in separate classes for reasons Taehyung never understood until he met Seokjin and listened to all his explanations with blatant hero worship playing radio noise in his ears. The orphanage was an initiative, and that was all it was.

‘Taehyung,’ Seokjin says, again. ‘Chandelier.’

He looks up and regrets it immediately; just because he makes light doesn’t mean he can take everything he makes. Right now, for example, the brightness of the stupid fixture is so high that it immediately puts stars in his eyes, and not the good kind. He curses lowly and swats a hand in the chandelier’s general direction. It goes out, and immediately he feels a responding sting in the insides of his wrists. It wouldn’t hurt, normally, but he’s the slightest bit stressed right now.

‘Darling,’ and Taehyung snorts despite himself because Seokjin only calls him that for one (or both) of two reasons: to annoy him, or to cajole him, which only works to annoy him. ‘Where is the ring?’

Taehyung abandons all respect for what his clothes symbolise and falls backwards onto the bed. The ceiling is still visible from the other lights of the room, but only just. He can’t see Seokjin anymore, which only works in his favour. As fun as it is to find answers to questions, it’s not as fun to have an answer that’ll get you into trouble. See, Taehyung’s a fan of trouble, but only the right kind.

This isn’t the right kind.

‘Busan,’ he says. ‘It’s in Busan.’

The chandelier flares back to life.

 

▽△▽

 

‘Sorry, could you run that by me again? He’s a what?’

From what his parents have told him (and his siblings, their partners, their rivals, Forbes Asia, and a couple of cabinet ministers) Taehyung first exhibited his power at the age of four. Ever the epitome of grace (he still re-earns the right of that title even at the brand new age of twenty-one) he had apparently pointed at a light bulb, gurgled happily, and turned to his father with a wide toothy smile when it promptly shattered. While he has no memory of it personally, he wouldn’t put it beyond himself to have done exactly that; he buys the story. Whoever has the chance to interact with him in any manner for a time upwards of three minutes also buys the story (Seokjin included, or rather, leading the group).

As far as powers go, light isn’t the strongest he could’ve done, but it might just be the fanciest. After all this time, he still hasn’t figured out whether he should call it creation or manipulation, because it’s a little bit of both and he doesn’t like the sound of either. He can’t argue as much about the sound of the various titles he’s been given (the prince of light might just be his favourite, and not even because he thinks he’s a prince. He has his feet on the ground; he’s the heir to a conglomerate. Not a prince) but the truth remains that he only genuinely likes to go by two names.

Jeon Jeongguk, apparently, only likes to go by one.

‘Composer,’ Taehyung says, still staring at the sparkling white marble of the island countertop that he turned his eyes to when he first brought this up. ‘He’s a composer. Goes by Jungkook.’

‘Jungkook,’ Seokjin repeats. The nicest and saddest thing about Seokjin’s tells is that they are so subtle that only Taehyung can find them. Right now, with the careful way in which Seokjin is rolling his omelet and the distant voice he’s using, Taehyung knows that it’s taking him all his goodwill not to sound sarcastic. He appreciates the effort. ‘I see. And what kind of music does he compose?’

Taehyung swallows. ‘House, mostly. A little bit of techno. I actually read that there’s a bit of influence from G.—’

‘Taehyung.’ For someone who is now technically his fiancé, Seokjin ends up, too often, looking like his babysitter. ‘I don’t mean to offend you, but I think there’s a more pressing question in this suite right now.’

‘Hey, you’re the one who asked—’

‘I take back my question,’ he cuts in gently. Taehyung deflates a little and resumes staring at the countertop, while also adding in the occasional picking of the sleeve. At least they’ve changed out of their clothes now; even a missing guardian ring doesn’t warrant making midnight breakfast in the same Dolce and Gabbana that they had dinner in. ‘Why don’t you tell me why your ring is with a house music composer in Busan.’

‘Seoul, actually.’ His cursory research while Seokjin changed out of his tuxedo had led him through the friendly gossip of his once-classmates who ended up finishing their entire schooling together, to a couple of stray interviews which mostly spoke about the underground scene on the whole. The same three or four pictures of Jeongguk, head down, hood up. Known, but not that known. Almost like Taehyung himself, if Taehyung wants to pretend at humility. ‘Apparently he’s in Seoul now.’

‘Seoul, then,’ Seokjin says. He slices through his roll and holds out a bite to Taehyung, who takes it despite himself. It’s delicious, of course; it’s Seokjin’s cooking. ‘Chew. Why is it with him?’

Because I was…because I was.

Is that so important? He knows that, frankly speaking, Seokjin puts up with a lot of his bullshit, and so he knows that Seokjin just might put up with a statement of that sort, but he’s sensible enough to understand where he can and cannot be contrary. So he chews on his delicious omelet piece as slowly as he possibly can and tries to come up with an alternative.

Seokjin, as always, comes to the rescue. ‘As long as it’s not something risky. My risky.’

Risky means two relatively different things to Taehyung and Seokjin. To Taehyung, risky is something that could bring physical harm to his family, or Seokjin, or Seokjin’s family. Leaks, pneumonia, fires. To Seokjin, it’s everything that doesn’t matter to Taehyung— the helicopters Taehyung jumps out of albeit being secured with harnesses; every time he takes too long to resurface from underwater while Seokjin, distressed, sips his margarita indignantly on the deck of the family yacht; activities that test legal boundaries in varying amounts. Anything that could hurt their reputation. He knows it’s exactly that difference of judgement that made their respective parents decide to hand over the reins of the conglomerate to Seokjin instead of Taehyung, and he’s never been more in agreement of a business decision. At least, not since the time they allowed him to do his photography anonymously, or the engagement itself. Getting married to his best friend is the best business decision ever made, actually.

‘Nothing risky,’ he says. ‘I left it with him when I came here.’

‘You were ten.’

‘That I was.’

‘You amaze me every day,’ Seokjin says. He takes one last bite off his roll— for all his etiquette, Seokjin is a terrifyingly fast eater— and sets his chopsticks down, reaching for the champagne. ‘Hey, we haven’t toasted the engagement yet.’

‘I’m pretty sure half the country saw us toast.’

‘Between ourselves, I mean.’ He pours out the champagne into two flutes and passes one to Taehyung, smiles his off-camera smile; and that’s how Taehyung knows it’s all right. They can put this behind them, head over to bed, watch a movie. Nothing ever really has to be awkward with Seokjin, after all. It’s just Seokjin. They got engaged, they’ll get married this fall, and life will continue. That’s the thing about doing everything with your best friend. ‘Raise it.’

‘I don’t raise on the first night, you know— Jin! Argh!’

Taehyung makes Seokjin chase him to the bed, both of them laughing and screaming like teenagers, and he doesn’t know who spills more champagne on the way. His flute is definitely empty, but the bottle in Seokjin’s hand is also frothing at the mouth. He really hopes housekeeping thinks it was some kind of foreplay and that it leaks out on social media somewhere, because that would be a riot; the only thing funnier than marrying Seokjin is the idea of sleeping with him. That’s also the thing about doing everything with your best friend. You don’t actually do some things, even if the world thinks you do. (He’s no stranger to the skeptics, but the vast majority of the population is actually as misty-eyed about their engagement as they themselves are pretending to be.)

When they’re finally settled, leaning against the pillows and laughing at the chandelier— Taehyung’s making it do a deliberate disco flicker— Seokjin raises his glass again. He really is beautiful, and Taehyung reaches out and brushes a lock of his hair out of his eyes. Seokjin smiles and kisses the heel of Taehyung’s hand, and raises the glass a little higher.

‘To us and the fake ring,’ he says, and Taehyung clears his throat and bites back a smile, mirrors him, nods.

‘To us and the fake ring,’ he repeats, and takes a drink. They can watch a movie and if he manages to convince Seokjin, he’ll plant a pair of leopard-print handcuffs on the headboard for housekeeping to find in the morning.

‘So,’ Seokjin says once they’ve put their glasses down. ‘When are you leaving to get the real one?’

Taehyung chokes.

 

▽△▽

 

There is no way of not sounding terrible when he says that he’s used to luxury in a way that makes the word lose meaning for him. Sometimes, he feels that it isn’t so much about the detail and quality of his life as it is about the sheer size and convenience of it. It’s not that he’s ever thought that having a chopper is the norm, or that everyone travels the world on the regular; he doesn’t think he’s ever been that unaware of others around him. It’s more like the smoothness with which his wants and needs unfold around him and are resolved is something that he only registers every once in a while. Tasks come with their preliminary layers removed; even if he wants to take one of the cars somewhere on his own, he’s not the one fills the fuel beforehand. If he wants to spend a week in Warsaw, he’s not the one who shops for the jackets. There has only ever been one part of his life that is all him from start to finish, in labour if not in finance.

Taehyung’s darkroom has been jokingly dubbed a dark penthouse among his friends, but he oversaw its construction and furnishing and there isn’t an inch or facility of it that he’s unfamiliar with. A home in his world, or maybe the only thing in his world. It’s not only a darkroom: spanning the loft of his building, it’s got everything from a futon to a kitchenette (that he never uses); the actual darkroom is just one of its chambers.

If he’s sociable enough that everyone has free entry into the loft, he’s also possessive enough that only Seokjin can enter the actual darkroom. Not even his younger siblings are allowed in, and oh, have they tried. His parents are not allowed in on the pure principle of them never having tried. But Seokjin, for the most part, usually knocks from the outside and waits on one of the beanbags that he so detests, while Taehyung finishes up with his frames and steps out, usually with rolled sleeves and flecks of light on his arms.

Today, he’s working with film again, and with a subject he doesn’t usually go for. (Taehyung, for all that he loves people, doesn’t take a lot of professional pictures of them.)

However, special occasions call for exceptions. It’s a frame of Seokjin, on the bed, under the chandelier on their engagement night. His flute of champagne tipped in his hand, but the rim nowhere near his lips; he’s holding it high in the air, waiting for the champagne to pour down into his laughing mouth. Taehyung knows exactly what he’s going to work with; he’s never had to think twice about those things.

From outside, the G.D. vinyl he popped in before entering is still playing, the beat of his adolescence muffled through the thick walls of the darkroom. It’s closing in on four in the afternoon, probably, the sun already going down in honour of late January when he last checked. He’s got things to be doing, or rather, he’s got one particular thing to be doing, but seeing that he’s so aggressively uninterested in it that he’d rather face the consequences of not listening to Seokjin, he’s chosen to work on the film instead.

The chandelier doesn’t take up enough of the photograph to be significant while unlit, but that doesn’t make a difference, because unlit is not something that concerns Taehyung. If it’s present, whether it’s a millimetre of it or an inch, he can work with it. He can work with it even if it’s not present at all; all he needs to do is remember and smile. But it’s present, a sliver of it, up and away from Seokjin’s half-horizontal form, deceptively close to the champagne flute, also half-horizontal. The colours of it are the same as they were when Taehyung actually took the picture; warm and gold, and in a steady contrast.

That’s where he comes in.

The thing is, it might be called a darkroom, but it’s a place where you work with light. And the thing is that when Taehyung works with light, it’s a little different from how the rest of the world works with light. The rest of the world works with borrowed light, trying to bend it to their will and make beautiful things. Technique and technicalities, and more technology than Taehyung has the finesse for. For him, it’s only about the light in the picture, that he calls forward on his own.

He trails a finger a thread’s thickness above the chandelier in the photograph. Slowly, the way it actually happened when he stepped into that bedroom a week ago, the fixture gets brighter. Not with a light constrained in the technical boundaries of its glass, but a light that diffuses as easily over the rest of the picture as if the chandelier were real. With it, it illuminates Seokjin, in shadows and angles that he didn’t have before.

(The way Taehyung works with light is this: he takes a picture, and if it’s on film he develops it; if it’s digital he prints it. When he takes it to his darkroom, it’s already in full colour. His darkroom is dark, a blackness like he’s seen in the night sky only in a few places, so dark it takes up space of its own. In that sentient dark, Taehyung remembers the picture, and remembers a smile and smiles in return.)

The next is the champagne, frozen in its precarious angle of almost spilling over the bed. The things that aren’t supposed to glow are Taehyung’s favourites; his power holds no meaning if he can’t turn the champagne into living, moving sparkles, twinkling in the glass like they would under the actual flickering light of a faulty, too-obedient chandelier. The remnants of Taehyung’s whims trapped in Seokjin’s confident tilt of the glass, as if there was never a possibility of it spilling in the first place. It comes to life the way he wanted it to, and it’s the most beautiful memory he’ll carry of that night, the only real one: his best friend, safe and laughing and bathed in light.

(The way Taehyung works with light is this: he closes his eyes and does the shiny thing.)

 

▽△▽

 

It’s not the first time Taehyung would be visiting Seoul since he left eleven years ago. It’s nowhere near the first time, which perhaps adds a lot more to his retrospective regret than he expected it to. (The reason he hadn’t expected it to affect him is that he still doesn’t think he’ll end up going.)

There are very, very, very few occasions upon which he actually enters into arguments with Seokjin; most of them are resolved with either Seokjin making him see reason with one smooth line, or with Taehyung exiting the situation with one smooth turn of the key in the ignition of his Porsche. The actual arguing in the disagreement is relatively minimal.

‘Taehyung,’ Seokjin begins.

If there are very few occasions upon which Taehyung actually argues with Seokjin, there has never been an occasion upon which Taehyung has ever had to keep his hackles up. Not just with Seokjin; with anyone that he’s ever interacted with. Dealing with the wolves is something that he leaves to others; he doesn’t pretend to know how to do it, much less to be good at it. (Not that Seokjin is a wolf; Seokjin is Seokjin.) And because he’s never had an occasion to keep his hackles up, this is all at once alien and fascinating. He’s never experienced feeling defensive; having something to protect, even if it’s something as small as a ring or the mistakes of his ten-year-old self, is energising.

‘Jin,’ he starts, too. ‘You know we don’t need it.’

Funnily enough, Taehyung had only been told the real story of the guardian ring a few months before he left it in Jeongguk’s small, bruised hands. It might actually have been the fact of knowing the ring’s importance that made him leave it in the first place, now that he (reluctantly) thinks about it. A pair of rings, passed down from generation to generation for whoever has inherited the power. One for him, one for his guardian.

They don’t need it. No one necessarily needs a guardian ring; no one necessarily needs a guardian. The story— or rather, the fact, goes that if you are gifted (and not all that many are gifted, despite it seeming common enough for there to be both lore and regulation about it), there will come a time when the gift grows more powerful than anything just one body can handle. One of the books described it as a slow-crawling illness starting from the chest and spreading outwards, blooming on the sunset of the twenty-first birthday. What Taehyung describes it as is first-rate bullshit, because it’s been nearly a month and if anything, he feels better than ever.

It’s not even about holding himself in high regard, or improbability. There are more than enough people with powers who have managed to contain it within themselves; whether it’s through training, or meditation, or channeling, they have never needed a guardian. It’s not even about improbability, or about holding himself in high regard. Even if he didn’t have what he thinks is the key ingredient— confidence, determination, conviction— his power can hardly kill him. Someone with the gift of fire— the four elements are unsurprisingly the most common— could burst into flame, but what is he going to do, really?

‘I never said we need it,’ Seokjin says. ‘I just said you’re going to go get it back, and more importantly, I said it a week ago. You are still in Tokyo.’

Taehyung takes a deep breath and swallows the circles his thoughts are making, puts on his best smile— this beaming thing, making his eyes close, almost; something that never fails to melt Seokjin’s heart except for where style choices are concerned. What is he going to do, really?

‘You don’t trust me?’ he asks, laughingly.

‘I never said I don’t trust you.’

Taehyung knocks off the laugh immediately; he doesn’t know why he so truthfully expected it to work. Seokjin has known him for eleven years now; in retrospect, he should just have owned up at some point during those eleven years. When he turned seventeen and woke up howling, or when he turned eighteen. Hey, so our parents are going to make us get married. By the way, our rings won’t work. It’s a long story.

‘I don’t want the ring back because I think you can’t take your power on your own,’ Seokjin says in that slow, steady way of his, immediately shaming Taehyung for his laugh. ‘I want the ring back because I want you to go talk to those friends of yours again. Two of them, right?’

‘Two,’ Taehyung says, nods, purses his lips.

‘Two,’ Seokjin repeats. ‘Look, Sparkles. I never asked you much about Busan, but if you left your guardian ring with that boy, he means something to you. He has to.’

Taehyung opens his mouth, but Seokjin carries on.

‘You can’t tell me he doesn’t deserve an invitation.’

There is something that every book and story has in common. Whether it’s been translated from Spanish or Somali, whether it was written in a haiku or mentioned in a V-log last week. The common fact is this: it starts when you turn twenty-one. It ends before you turn twenty-two.

Taehyung’s inability to imagine the everything of life ending within the year, this year, is so thorough that he’s offended at the thought of anyone saying otherwise.

‘To the wedding, Taehyung.’ Seokjin is raising his eyebrows. ‘I want to invite them to the wedding.’

What is he going to do, really? Light up and die?

 

▽△▽

 

In a place out of time, it happens like this.

‘Do you ever feel,’ Taehyung says as he presses his palm against Jeongguk’s, fingers spread and so much longer, ‘that we are like…one person?’

Jeongguk frowns, and Taehyung knows he is frowning because his fingers are tiny. They aren’t tiny for real, though. Hoseok hyung from drawing class says that other people’s fingers aren’t tiny, but Taehyung’s fingers are just really really long. Even though Taehyung’s not so good at drawing his parents still send him to drawing class, and they also send him to piano class, because they say his fingers are really good for doing pretty things and his father said it’ll stop him from doing other things. And Taehyung doesn’t really understand that, but it’s okay. Taehyung doesn’t really understand a lot of things. Anyway, Hoseok from drawing class says that other people’s fingers aren’t tiny, but Taehyung’s fingers are just really really long.

Jeongguk frowns.

‘Like you and me?’ he asks, patting the tips of Taehyung’s fingers with his own. Jeongguk’s fingers are tiny (not for real) but he makes his hand climb over Taehyung’s so that their tips can reach his tips. It always makes Taehyung laugh. ‘Or like you and me and Jimin and Hoseokie hyung and—’

‘Just you and me,’ Taehyung says. He tilts his head to look at their hands from below. If he does that and crosses his eyes a little, the tiny space between their palms becomes all white and glow-y. It also makes Taehyung laugh. ‘Jeongguk and Taehyung.’

Jeongguk grins. Taehyung grins, too, because he thinks Jeongguk has the best smile in the entire world. Taehyung is seven years old, and Jeongguk is almost seven years old, but Taehyung knows that his world is a little bigger than Jeongguk’s world. He thinks he's seen more of it than Jeongguk has, because Taehyung’s been on a plane so many times but Jeongguk hasn’t. But it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t. He doesn’t really care how big the world is, because Jeongguk will still be the best thing in it. He always grins really wide and when Taehyung is sad, he just thinks of how Jeongguk’s face looks when he’s happy, and then Taehyung is happy too.

Jeongguk grins.

‘I think that all the time,’ he says. He curls his fingers around Taehyung’s. And that makes Taehyung laugh too. Everything about Jeongguk makes Taehyung happy, even when he’s not supposed to be happy sometimes, when being happy makes him white and glow-y and a little bit strange.

‘Do the shiny thing,’ Jeongguk says. Taehyung thinks that there are not a lot of people in the world who love every bit of him, but Jeongguk always asks him to do the shiny thing. And Taehyung always does what Jeongguk asks, so he pulls his hand away and closes his eyes. He doesn’t really care how big the world is. Jeongguk is still the best thing in his world. Jeongguk is maybe the only thing in his world.

 

▽△▽

 

It isn’t until the pilot announces twenty minutes to touchdown that Taehyung actually starts to get excited in earnest, but he’s been thinking about touchdown for the past four hours, so he supposes that it’s more or less the same thing. He knows himself enough to know when anticipation actually kicks in, enough to be able to count on himself to always, always have a thudding heart in the sixty seconds before a jump, dive, twist of the bike lever. Sometimes it feels like all he’s doing is angling for the next time he’ll be counting down to something for sixty seconds.

He admits that it stung a little that Jeongguk couldn’t reply to his message, but considering how lost he gets in his own photography, he can allow the guy an artistic free card. Jimin was the one to reply first (or at all) with just the kind of stilted cheer and politeness that Taehyung’s learned to expect from old acquaintances and never learned to extend in turn. (Taehyung doesn’t try to be more awkward than he naturally is; his personality ensures enough silences and raised eyebrows on its own without him making things worse by trying to be careful.) No, in response to Jimin’s ahh, wow, it’s been a long time, Taehyung, I didn’t think you’d remember (which was in response to Taehyung’s IS THIS REALLY THE PARK JIMIN WHO USED TO EAT CHALK) Taehyung opted for immediately scheduling a Skype call to catch up verbally.

While Taehyung has had only one slightly overexposed picture to go by, he still hadn’t quite expected the Jimin from that picture to grow up into the Jimin he saw on his screen a week ago. Once short-cropped dark hair grown into a cut that kept falling over his eyes, a light shirt with an uneven collar, sleeves rolled. Somehow, sillily, Taehyung had expected him to be dressed in the same red T-shirt and blue shorts that he was wearing in the picture. Somehow, he had expected a younger Jimin, not the sweet, handsome twenty-one-year-old that smiled and nodded his head at all of Taehyung’s excited rambling. (At least his smile was the same, and Taehyung still owes that to their sporadic contact for the first three or four years after he left. Nothing beyond a hey, I was hoping the reception number would be the same, but just enough to count, maybe.)

To his credit, through all the talk that kept bubbling up in his throat, Taehyung managed to keep quiet about the wedding itself. He might be impulsive, but he’s not the type to blurt out a save-the-date across Skype. All he fixed was his date and time of arrival, and the address of his hotel. (Jimin rejected the latter, of course; something Taehyung had expected, if not considered. He might be impulsive, but he hadn’t asked if he could actually stay with Jimin and Jeongguk.)

‘It’s not what you’re used to,’ Jimin said, picking at the top button of his shirt and looking into a corner of the screen, ‘but if you’re coming all the way here...’

‘I’m not used to anything,’ Taehyung replied, smiled wide, easy. ‘I mean, I was in a shack in the Akaishi range last month. No heating, even.’

‘...right,’ Jimin had said, blinking, after a pause. ‘Well, you’ll be pleased to know we have heating.’

Twenty minutes to touchdown. Less, probably, thanks to his little retrospective trip. Taehyung fishes his boarding pass stub out of the in-flight magazine just to have something to squint down at. Admittedly, if this had been his own jet, he would’ve been visibly fidgeting in his seat and fiddling with his wine until Seokjin glared at him in a non-verbal I WILL turn this car around. And maybe it’s because of that, that it’s for the best that he chose to fly commercial. He actually thinks there’s something a little more emotional about meeting up with Jimin in the common terminal, picking his bags up from the conveyor belt, rolling them towards Jimin with a smile and a wave and a hug. (The fact that he doesn’t have any baggage checked in is, of course, secondary. Maybe he should’ve arranged to have an empty bag checked in just for this.)

Ten minutes to touchdown is when Taehyung can no longer swallow his grin. He lets it stretch over his face, biting his lower lip and pressing his temple to the window, laughing soundlessly down at the sprawl of Incheon's fabric, swathed in lights and streaks of traffic. As they get bigger, he thinks to the bracelets he’s packed away in his weekend bag. Silver chains, both of them, and they can always adjust the sizes. (One of the most important things his parents taught him is that he must never go anywhere empty-handed.)

Five minutes to touchdown is when he wonders what Jeongguk looks like now. Really looks like, not through his laptop screen, not those pixelated impersonal pictures that don’t really speak to him at all. He knows he’s not going to see Jeongguk until after dinner; that much Jimin was able to relay to him in the afternoon, before the flight. (Jimin, not Jeongguk himself. Taehyung hasn’t necessarily, technically heard from Jeongguk yet.)

When the flight starts to descend, Taehyung turns away from the window and closes his eyes. His heart is in his throat, finally. It’s so loud and demanding that he doesn’t waste time angling for the next time he’ll feel this way. He’s feeling it enough to last him a lifetime, he thinks, purely on accident.

 

▽△▽

 

The Incheon arrivals are as sparklingly clean as ever. No matter how much he travels and how fluent he is in Japanese and English, there’s just something about seeing his mother tongue as the first one on a direction board, followed by others. He’s not going to pretend that this is home, but it’s satisfying all the same, even if strangely disorienting. (Taehyung doesn’t have more than one personality; his original personality is messy enough to contain about twenty. But he still feels like he slips into slightly different versions of himself with every different airport that he steps foot in.)

The Taehyung stepping into Incheon is maybe a touch quieter than he is usually— which isn’t very quiet at all— and shy. He hasn’t been shy around anyone since he was ten years old and meeting Seokjin’s family for the first time, and he still thinks that was just the travel fatigue. If anything, he’s meeting Jimin, who he’s already spoken to and known the existence of for a good fifteen years. His nature works in his benefit inasmuch as his shyness doesn’t manifest, and is quickly eaten by his eagerness. The more steps he takes towards the waiting lounge, the quicker his breaths come. There’s no point in hiding the fact that he wants to break into a run, but there are some things that even Taehyung knows are not supposed to be done. Running at one of your childhood best friends with your scarf trailing behind you is one of those.

He adjusts his scarf around his neck on principle and changes his grip on the leather of his Mulberry. The golden pillars of the hall reflect every light bright enough that no fluctuation on his part will be noticed, which he’s glad for; he might not run into Jimin’s arms but he could very, very possibly beam a flash into his eyes by accident, which would already be awkward between the two of them but highly embarrassing if others are involved.

His smile still wide on his lips, he takes a moment to pause his steps, and laughs, just one huffed exhale. Shut up, he thinks to himself valiantly, but it’s no use. He might not really have been in touch with Jimin or Jeongguk, but all that matters is that he found them again, and that he’s going to see them soon. He’ll never understand if he’s the different one or if they’re just that important, but he hasn’t forgotten a single thing from all those years ago. The way they all used to play together, the way Jeongguk’s sleeves always used to come all the way down to his knuckles, the much-used much-abused Lego set at the orphanage (and unfortunately, the light disapproval on his parents’ faces that came with it all too).

Doing the shiny thing.

God damn it, he really does wish that Jeongguk could’ve come to the airport, after all.

Of course, it’s when he’s adjusting his coat around his shoulders and brushing his hair out of his eyes that he sees him, and Taehyung hopes in full sincerity that it’s just his own vision and not the hall itself that seems to dim so that his figure is in relief. It doesn’t happen a lot; he can count on one hand the number of times his vision has actually failed— or tricked— him. Usually it’s other, electric, lights that act up— the fuse of the television giving out, reading lamps buzzing when he’s annoyed, the chandelier the night of his engagement. It’s almost never he himself who flickers.

Still, it helps. In the crowd of Incheon, Jeongguk’s form against the pillar stands out so solidly that Taehyung wonders why he ever thought Jeongguk wouldn’t come. He can’t even see his face yet, just the kind of jacket he’s seen him wear in one of the pictures; lined in grey, thrown over what looks like a white shirt. His shorts, comically, a little heartwrenchingly, similar to what he was wearing in the only photograph Taehyung has of him. The khaki strap of his bag clutched tight in one fist, his white shoes, black cap on his black hair.

Taehyung’s heart falls from his throat back to where it’s supposed to be, and thunders there, terrified with a kind of indignation.

He wants to call out, say something, wave and grin the way he was planning to do, hey, big guy, it’s been a decade, what. But his heart took his voice with it; he breathes in and breathes out and breathes in again and can’t seem to do anything else, only following his filtered brightness to where Jeongguk is standing, still with his head down, flexing his hand, staring at it.

The ring is on his third finger. Taehyung feels for just a moment like the floor is falling away; he looks up to make sure all the lights are still on.

It’s making his eyes burn, just a little, all this checking and squinting and swallowing his breath. He closes them for a second and opens them again, and this time, Jeongguk is only a few feet away.

The lights around them grow dimmer and this time Taehyung can’t look away to check if it’s him or if it’s the world around them, because his is restricted to this six-foot diameter where Jeongguk is standing and looking at him and Taehyung is looking back. He won’t even call it clichéd because it isn’t; it was supposed to be Jimin, not Jeongguk, not Jeongguk in these hauntingly boyish clothes that Taehyung can’t seem to stop taking in along with the rest of him. He can barely see the slope of Jeongguk’s nose this way, the way his hair curls over his forehead, around his ears. Taehyung can’t stop staring.

As if realising it himself, or maybe just feeling Taehyung’s gaze on him, Jeongguk looks up, sharp and quick. And really, if Taehyung had spent the five hours of the flight actively preparing for this, it wouldn’t have been enough. (If Taehyung had spent the past eleven years actively preparing for this, it wouldn’t have been enough.)

Jeongguk is beautiful with an immediacy that shines into Taehyung’s consciousness the way the glaring sun does when he steps out of caves, or the tall, protective trees of forests; when he resurfaces from underwater. In the fistful of seconds during which Jeongguk has no expression on his face, only attention, he looks...he looks. He looks at Taehyung, his lips parted slightly, his eyes big and dark the way Taehyung remembers them, just the way he remembers them.

The fistful of seconds slips through his fingers, and Taehyung could never have prepared for this:

Jeongguk’s big, dark eyes narrow visibly, his lips coming together in a thin, painful line. The speed at which his gaze transforms makes Taehyung’s stomach drop; he’s never seen a single person in his life look at him this way. Cold, so cold, and so cold that he is almost seething with it.

Taehyung’s voice struggles to climb back into his throat; it fails. Jeongguk’s doesn’t.

‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ he says.

 

▽△▽

 

If he’s being very, very frank, Taehyung has absolutely no idea how he makes it to the car alive. He thanks every single thing he ever learned about packing for travel that led him to make the decision to take all his things in hand baggage; he doesn’t know what he would’ve done if he actually had something on wheels, that he would have had to put in the boot.

The reason he’s grateful for this long-stringing consequence is that when they reach the car (after having walked to it in utter silence; furious on Jeongguk’s part and terrified on Taehyung’s) he automatically opens the back door, and what’s worse, he does it after a pause during which he remembers, uncomfortably, that he’s supposed to do it on his own.

As if it wasn’t bad enough, Jeongguk actually catches him at it before he can correct his mistake. He doesn’t say anything (he hasn’t spoken a word since his what the fuck are you doing here that chilled Taehyung down to the bones quicker than the ridiculous air conditioning in the plane cabin actually did), but the simple, incredulous way in which he levels a gaze at Taehyung makes his fingers curl nervously.

‘Just for my bags,’ Taehyung says, tries a laugh. To say that it doesn’t work is being kind to the sound he ends up making. ‘So, uh, Jiminnie...’

Jiminnie,’ Jeongguk says, as if he’s reserved a special ice tray for that particular name, ‘got held up at work at the last moment, so Jiminnie sent me to pick you up instead. Is that okay?’

‘Absolutely,’ he says. On his way around the back to the passenger side door, he tries to take a few seconds to compose himself. It’s not like he exactly has the time to figure out what’s going on in the first place, let alone why it’s going on. All he can do is react in real time and remember his manners, and think a stray Seokjin, where have you sent me, the way he remembers roughly one in three anime protagonists doing it at some point in time.

He’s not going to pretend to be an accurate judge of character in a five-minute time frame, but he still has an inkling that the reason there is no music playing despite the system being perfectly functional is the fact that Jeongguk wants to seethe in silence, and make Taehyung acutely aware of its happening, to boot. The silence in the car is as absolute as it was on the way to the car, the only thing breaking it the sound of the other cars on the road and the occasional honk. At least, until Jeongguk curses under his breath and pulls over a few excruciatingly slow minutes later.

Taehyung only registers where they are after a moment, blinking in surprise at the greenish neon glow of the lights around them, the light smattering of woods on either side, the glass doors of what looks like a convenience store.

‘I need to put in fuel,’ Jeongguk says to the steering wheel. ‘You stay in here.’

Taehyung takes another moment to look down at himself. He’s sitting as properly as he possibly can, back straight, knees pushed together and his hands folded on top of them. He doesn’t know from where Jeongguk got the impression that Taehyung will have the courage to be moving anytime this century, but he makes a note to do better next time. Especially when the expression on Jeongguk’s face as he fills the car up looks as if he’s seriously considering adding a lit match in there.

Some ten minutes later, when Taehyung sees that they still have about twenty minutes to go before they even enter the city, he can’t take it anymore. One of the most constant aspects of his personality is the fact that he has to talk. He has to talk if he’s happy, or sad, or scared, or angry. In that way, he supposes Jeongguk got what he (for some reason) wants: the quietness of the drive is making his skin crawl, but he’s still so shocked that he can’t think of a single thing to say.

Until: ‘I think...something— something sounds off in the engine.’

It doesn’t. On the life of God, even if it did, it’s not like he would’ve been able to tell, not with the heavy, demanding weight of the very silence he’s trying to break.

And anyway, his effort was in vain; Jeongguk ignores him completely except for one brief look out of the corners of his eyes. Taehyung regrets opening his mouth, and opts to stare out of the window at the highway instead. The tall lights are the only thing he can really notice, and he doesn’t even owe that to his concentration; it’s nature. For all he knows, they could be driving to someplace altogether different and he wouldn’t be able to figure it out or do a single thing about it.

Then Jeongguk snorts. ‘Do you even know how to drive?’

Taehyung turns, slowly, to look at him. Whatever rebuke had half-formed in his head fades at the sight of him; hands curled around the leather grips of the steering wheel, face golden, then dark, then golden again with the passing lights, nighttime shadows so sharp across his lips. Jeongguk’s still looking straight ahead, as if he hasn’t spoken at all, and Taehyung doesn’t feel like talking anymore either. He looks, instead, at the way the tall lights catch on the ring around Jeongguk's finger.

 

▽△▽

 

Jimin, at the very least, does not look like he’s highly inclined to wipe off Taehyung’s entire existence. He smiles wide the moment he opens the door, and Taehyung lets that tide him over while Jeongguk pushes roughly past him into the entrance of the apartment, already kicking his shoes off.

‘Hey,’ Jimin says, and Taehyung is so stupidly relieved to find no animosity in his voice, even if he hears a little bit of the awkwardness he expected. ‘How was the flight?’

‘Didn’t crash,’ Jeongguk calls from wherever he’s disappeared to. Taehyung smiles wanly at Jimin and shrugs.

‘What he said,’ he says. ‘It was all right. I heard you got held up at work?’

‘That’s right,’ Jimin says, holding a hand out to take Taehyung’s bags. ‘I didn’t want to make you wait.’

‘Yeah, he’s such a busy man,’ Taehyung hears, again, from inside the apartment. ‘So considerate of you, Jimin.’

Jimin heaves a visible sigh and smiles at Taehyung again, stepping aside a little. ‘Come on in, Taehyung.’

Taehyung slips his shoes off as far from Jeongguk’s white Chuck Taylors as he possibly can given the size of the shoe rack, and follows Jimin down the hallway. Despite everything, it looks more or less like he had expected; cream walls and bright lights, a couple of pictures here and there. They’re high enough in the building that the living room balcony shows a little more than just the facade of the apartments across; he can see other city lights in the distance even from the couch he’s gingerly sitting on the edge of.

‘I’ll put your bags away,’ Jimin says, and leaves the room before Taehyung can protest or say something like please don’t leave me alone here with him; and sure enough, it’s only a few seconds later that Jeongguk shows up in the doorway of what is presumably a connecting kitchen, since he has a steaming mug in his hands.

Jeongguk leans against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest, the mug in the hand with the ring. He looks at Taehyung without blinking, and Taehyung can only look back for split-second fragments before turning his eyes back to the floor. Every time he looks, he can see Jeongguk calmly drinking whatever he’s made and still staring at Taehyung as if they’ve never met before and Taehyung is some interesting object to be studied.

Interesting is fine. He just doesn’t want Jeongguk— or anyone on the planet, actually— to look at him the way he first did at the airport. He’ll take a hundred scrutinising stares over that one look, especially when he doesn’t even know the reason why.

Jimin’s re-entry prompts Jeongguk to follow him into the living room and throw himself on the single armchair farthest from Taehyung. Jimin settles on the one closest to Taehyung, thankfully, and leans forward and smiles again.

‘So,’ he says. ‘Taehyung. It’s been a long time, man. What’s been going on?’

Taehyung does feel sorry for him, he honestly does. Going by the way Jeongguk is acting, Taehyung can at least gather that Jimin already knew about Jeongguk’s mood. Managing all this despite that and the little desperate edge to his polite smile right now, almost as if he’s begging for Taehyung to talk, say something, anything; Taehyung really does feel sorry for him. So he ignores the fact that they thoroughly caught up only last week, and, somehow equally for Jimin’s benefit and Jeongguk’s, starts again:

‘Well, I got engaged earlier this m—’

‘Oh, we heard,’ Jeongguk says, and Taehyung’s gaze snaps to the floor again. ‘Believe me, everyone heard.’

Taehyung lets a few more moments pass during which he frantically searches for his next sentence. He’s not completely unaware; bringing up the details of the engagement is useless if the papers here covered it so well too, and he doesn’t want to unwittingly earn any more of Jeongguk’s hostility than he already has in the past hour. It’s then that he remembers the contents of his weekend bag, that he was previously so excited about.

‘I got you guys something,’ he says brightly, grinning at Jimin. ‘I—’

‘Oh, he got us something.’

‘Jeongguk,’ Jimin says tightly.

‘It’s nothing too big,’ Taehyung says after a hurt pause. ‘A couple of bracelets—’

‘More jewellery! Just what I was hoping for—’

Jeon Jeongguk.’

Give him a chance, Taehyung tells himself, although he has absolutely no idea what he is supposed to be giving Jeongguk a chance for, and why. There is really no mistaking the open call in Jeongguk's eyes, some sort of invitation to retaliate that Taehyung really, really isn't interested in taking, not in the least because it's not in his nature to fight, and also because he isn't here to fight. Even if he was, he wouldn't envision it this way— someone so blatantly picking each and every opening to have a go at him, and so loudly. Give him a chance.

‘It's a couple of bracelets,’ he says again, slower this time. ‘I don't know if you guys usually wear them, but, well.’

His conversation is slipping through his mind. Usually he's great at all kinds of talking, whether it's small talk or a heated discussion about who was the sexiest Bond, or pointless make-believe sessions with the pale-faced grandchildren of one or the other of his parents' friends. What he isn't good at, is being cornered. A business conference where he can't even pretend to be paying attention while being on his phone, or one of those rare days when his major-domo decides that he needs to be reminded of what clothes he really shouldn't be wearing outside, or this. Right now, his conversation is slipping through his mind, any counters he could have, anything he could say that might sound smart and polite and the way he's always supposed to be, no exceptions. He doesn't know if it's the excitement of the past month or the exhaustion of the flight or quite simply the fact that he has never had to be in this kind of situation in his life. He doesn't know what to say, and his mind isn't willing to sit up and help him.

Jimin comes to the rescue, once more. ‘No, really, we really appreciate it. I didn't really get anything—’

‘You didn't have to,’ Taehyung says immediately; at least those lessons of his upbringing are habit to him. ‘I mean, I'm staying here, that's more than enough.’

‘Oh, yeah, it is.’ That was Jeongguk again, and for a very, very brief moment Taehyung feels a flash of heat in his head. By the time he regrets turning around to face Jeongguk, the boy is already intercepting what must be Jimin glaring daggers at him.

‘All right, all right,’ Jeongguk says, raising his hands, palms out. ‘I'll be nice. I can be nice.’ Just the way in which he says it makes Taehyung's head cool down again, but not pleasantly; it's the same chill he's been having every time Jeongguk says or does something. A kind of foreboding, or maybe even some kind of hopelessness; as if he already knows that this isn't just a mood or a bad day.

‘So, Taehyung-sshi,’ Jeongguk says, falsely bright, insincere grin on his beautiful face. ‘When's the wedding?’

‘September first,’ Taehyung squeaks.

He credits his nuanced perceptiveness for being able to tell that this particular look of sarcasm on Jeongguk's face is a few degrees more hysterical than the rest of the range that he's been exhibiting in the past hour. His eyebrows, which were already only barely visible under his bangs, climb high up into them, and the smirk he pulls on is entirely incredulous.

At this point, Taehyung has already understood that there's no point engaging. He turns a questioning gaze to Jimin instead, who looks just about as sorry as Taehyung feels.

‘That's, uh,’ he supplies, ‘Jeongguk's birthday.’

‘Ah,’ Taehyung says weakly. It takes three more seconds of viewing Jeongguk's offended visage before he himself finally works up some annoyance. And so, it's with reasonable indignation that he says ‘Well, it's not like you remember mine—’

‘I don't need to,’ Jeongguk says, with more ice in his voice than Seokjin when encountering Crocs. ‘The newspapers inform me every year. Tell me, how was Cuba?’

‘Cancún,’ he says before he can stop himself, and this time he's really the only one to blame for Jeongguk's reaction: the boy throws his hands in the air again, and the next thing he knows, Jeongguk is striding out of the room and slamming some door in the interior of the apartment a minute later.

Jimin stares tiredly at the doorway of the living room, then turns back to Taehyung, smiling anew.

‘So, how was Cancún?’ he asks, kindly.

 

▽△▽

 

Me [00:05]
reached safe. seoul’s great!

Jin [00:09]
And your friends? Did you have a nice time catching up?

Me [00:14]
yeppp! absolutely. jeongguk’s a riot.

 

▽△▽

 

When Taehyung has had a chance to sleep off the flight— and what he stepped off the flight into— he takes a minute to appreciate just how wonderfully lived-in the apartment looks. None of the pictures on the walls seem like arbitrary choices, not even the big one in the guest bedroom, a night shot of Seoul. Scarves hanging off random corners; the handle of a tennis racket peeking out of a closet door left ajar; cotton blinds half-pulled up, letting pale winter sunlight in to warm the floor under Taehyung’s feet as he finds his way to the kitchen.

The only other place Taehyung ever feels the same in is his penthouse; and even then, there is something different about seeing those same traces of familiarity here, where they are not really familiar at all.

When he carefully treads into the kitchen, Jimin is already dressed and at the counter, struggling with a coffee jar. Taehyung squints sleepily at what is very clearly a coffee machine right next to the jar, then shrugs and coughs out a good morning, smiles in thanks at the espresso Jimin fills out for him from the machine.

‘Can I help with something?’ Taehyung asks after about three minutes of watching Jimin blearily resume his manual attempts at coffee. (Taehyung doesn’t strictly do mornings. He has no idea what time it is and sincerely hopes that he isn’t late for the lunch Seokjin said he’s supposed to attend. On the other hand, if having missed it means he can go right back to bed, that isn’t so bad either.)

‘Thanks, I’m good,’ Jimin says. ‘Plus, this is Jeongguk’s coffee. It has to be exact.’

‘Right,’ he says, a little quieter this time. It’s silly, it really is, but so far he had conveniently forgotten that there is another resident in the apartment, and one who is really not happy with things. Or Taehyung in particular. ‘Right, Jeongguk.’

Jimin might have sighed, but since Taehyung doesn’t do mornings, he can’t be sure. Instead, he shuffles over to the small table for two near the refrigerator and pulls out a chair, blinks down at his espresso. Right. It’s morning, and what’s worse; it’s one of the mornings where he actually has to wake up and deal with the world. Jeon Jeongguk, to be specific.

When Jimin joins him, Taehyung has already finished his coffee and is contemplating asking for another purely in honour of remembering Jeongguk’s glare from last night, but Jimin looks so apologetic in advance that he thinks better of it.

‘Listen, Taehyung,’ he says. ‘I’m really sorry about last night. Jeongguk’s a little...’

Murderous? Yeah, Taehyung chooses not to say.

‘He takes a while with people,’ Jimin finishes after a pause. ‘After the orphanage, it wasn’t easy. He’s had a bit of a rough time.’

Taehyung swallows and nods, blinks quickly. There isn’t a single thing he can say in response to that; he doesn’t have the right to even begin to imagine how it must have been for the two of them. He hasn’t asked— he would never ask— but from what he’s gathered, Jimin and Jeongguk left Busan after high school and have been on their own ever since. He wishes that when he said on their own he didn’t mean it in the most accurate sense of the phrase, but those are things that he only learned belatedly and not when he was actually skipping class to sneak into the orphanage to play with Jeongguk every single day. No, back then even Jeongguk didn’t know better than to turn his smile up as bright as it would go, a full-on grin to match Taehyung’s.

Somewhere, some part of Taehyung had thought, while walking towards Jeongguk at the airport, that there simply wasn’t any other smile that Jeongguk would greet him with. And that...really, that’s how he knows that Jimin isn’t explaining everything that he could be. The way Jeongguk looked at him, spoke to him— at Taehyung, who had done nothing but breathe— that wasn’t someone who takes a while. That was someone who was furious at the sheer idea of taking even a moment in the first place.

He taps the tabletop with his fingers to give them something to do, and nods again, looks at the floor. Opens his mouth to say it’s me, isn’t it, but just then, there’s a muffled ‘morning from behind him.

Habit makes him look up before he can stop himself, and lack of it makes him blink and start again at the reminder of Jeongguk’s entirety. He isn’t dressed either, just like Taehyung; a pair of boxers and a sweatshirt, hair pushed clumsily off his forehead into a mess of dark locks. Taehyung turns his flustered gaze back to his own legs, the grey of his sweatpants fading into the white of the floor, and he wonders at the surreality of it all.

He almost expects Jeongguk to shoot something like oh, you’re still here at him, but maybe he isn’t the only one who’s slept off last night’s adventure. Jeongguk only steps further into the kitchen and makes straight for the counter where the mug Jimin prepared is sitting.

The silence in the kitchen is too cautious to be domestic, and Taehyung doesn’t know how much domestic Jeongguk does anyway. Nor does he know if Jeongguk, like him, also doesn’t do mornings, so he keeps his cautious silence.

Until Jeongguk speaks up.

‘Hey, if you got engaged, didn’t you exchange rings?’

Taehyung looks up slowly, but Jeongguk only sounds inquisitive, so he replies. ‘We did.’

‘And what about this one?’

The kitchen clock hushes itself. Jeongguk’s holding up one hand, sleeve halfway down his arm. The ring is glinting as merrily in the sunlight as if it’s also aware that its existence is being acknowledged for the first time. And it is; Taehyung never brought it up last night, even though it was right there on Jeongguk’s finger for him to see. And Jeongguk never brought it up last night, even though he clearly knew that Taehyung had seen it. Now that he’s tilting his head towards it so casually, Taehyung doesn’t know what to make of it.

Taehyung, actually, doesn’t know what to make of its being on Jeongguk’s finger in the first place. Seeing it sit as perfectly there as his own is sitting on his, he wonders how he could ever have thought that the rings aren’t important, or that he would never once come back to see if Jeongguk had still kept it. He still doesn’t intend to take it back, not a single bit, but just seeing it, remembering how he left it, realising that it’s been here all these years, makes him a little lightheaded. It’s as if a thread to the past that he had never noticed the existence of is pulling taut suddenly, yanking on him, reminding him of what he left. Jeongguk, standing in an unfamiliar-yet-familiar kitchen, with a ring Taehyung left with him precisely so that a thread would remain.

Jeongguk raises an eyebrow, and Taehyung coughs. Looks away, presses his thumb against his own ring.

‘Oh my God,’ he hears. Jeongguk sounds delighted, maliciously so. ‘Oh my God, you gave him a fake one. You gave the poor bastard a fake one.’

Taehyung doesn’t even need to look at Jimin to know that the boy is aggressively trying to become one with the kitchen floor in this moment, and to be honest, he shares the sentiment. There isn’t a single way for him to reply to Jeongguk that could be considered safe, so he chooses not to speak. Curls a finger into the handle of his espresso cup, locks it there for something to do.

‘Won’t you need the real one for the wedding, though?’ Jeongguk continues after an uncomfortably long minute. And it’s hilarious, really, because somewhere, some part of Taehyung— probably the same part that thought Jeongguk would be as happy to see him as he himself was— had thought, upon considering, that Jeongguk would be reluctant to hand the ring back. That if he had actually ended up keeping it all these years, it would mean something that he wouldn’t want to let go of. But here he is, offering not twelve hours after they’ve met, and when Taehyung hasn’t even asked.

Maybe it’s exactly that which makes Taehyung’s irritation flare up again, or maybe it’s the entire situation, and the fact that he has been taking every dart Jeongguk’s been throwing at him without knowing the reason for his viciousness. Maybe it’s also that in the past month, all he’s had on his mind is the question of how to prove— in advance— to everyone that he doesn’t need a goddamn guardian. He isn’t patient enough to wait it out and let time do the talking, come out alive at the end of a year, twenty two and victorious. He wants to prove it now, prove it already. He doesn’t want the ring; he never fucking did.

‘I won’t,’ he says, so quietly he can barely hear himself. ‘I’m not here for the ring.’

‘Sure you aren’t,’ Jeongguk says. ‘Just so you know, if you don’t take it, I’m not exactly keeping it—’

‘Throw it then.’ His gaze is so focused on the cup, little and white and infuriating, that Taehyung doesn’t even register that he’s the one who said it for a moment. But maybe that’s because he doesn’t recall ever using that voice before. And if nothing else, he knows that Jeongguk has definitely never heard that voice before, because when Taehyung looks up at him, his eyebrow goes higher and his smirk changes. He’s backing down.

(The thing is, Taehyung really doesn’t do mornings, and he can only be nice about that for so long.)

‘More coffee, Taehyung?’ That’s Jimin, again; Taehyung needs to buy him flowers just for the past half day, honestly. ‘Ah, that’s right, it’s Friday. Jeongguk, will you be going to Yoongi’s tonight?’

‘What?’ Jeongguk takes one last drink of his coffee before setting it down and pushing himself off the counter. ‘I am. I’m playing tonight.’

And right, that’s right; this crackling bolt of animosity is actually a music composer on the side. How could Taehyung forget, really, when all Jeongguk’s been doing is being an auditory delight. If he didn’t have a lunch appointment, Taehyung would be trudging back to bed right about now.

As it is, this is one of those mornings where he actually has to wake up and deal with the world, so he glares at the back of Jeongguk’s head as the boy leaves the kitchen, huffing and looking away after a moment.

‘Well,’ Jeongguk says in the doorway, ‘bring the rich boy along if he wants to see a real club.’

Taehyung has a lot of things to say to and about that, but when he turns to Jimin, he swallows them. After all, he didn’t stop to wonder if Jimin does mornings.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung doesn’t know which reflects worse on his character; the fact that he’s relieved that the chauffeur of the car that comes to pick him up for lunch is obligated to be polite with him, or the fact that he’s relieved simply to be somewhere else for a moment, period.

Seokjin is just the right balance between understandingly sentimental and unwaveringly sensible that Taehyung never seems to strike accurately; just because he’s been sent to Seoul to reconnect with his friends doesn’t mean he gets a free pass out of reconnecting with acquaintances. And then again, the head representative of the management of the Korean side of the conglomerate is hardly an acquaintance, and if Seokjin had the slightest idea that Taehyung doesn’t remember the man’s name he would already have started making arrangements for his funeral.

Jimin is already at work by the time Taehyung leaves, but Jeongguk is on one of the living room couches with his laptop and coffee. If it wasn’t Jeongguk’s damn apartment, Taehyung would say he has half a feeling that the guy is deliberately hanging around him. As it is, Taehyung’s paranoia has yet to reach those specific levels of ridiculous, so he thinks nothing of how he senses Jeongguk’s gaze on him while he pulls his shoes on.

‘I’ll be back in a couple of hours,’ he says to Jeongguk’s shoes.

Stay gone, they reply.

The head representative is, at best, twenty years older to Taehyung. Just the beginnings of crow’s feet, a glint of silver at his temples. The more pleasant his small talk, the more Taehyung feels the half-tug of confusion and guilt that he always does when it comes to these occasions. More than some coy air that he could be putting on, the fact of his lack of involvement in the conglomerate is an embarrassing reality. He knows what they do, what his parents did before they cemented their partnership with Seokjin’s parents; knows what the Kim names mean. But when the only comment he can make at lunch is about how the menu has been so thoughtfully tailored to his taste, he has to admit that he’s wanting in the information department if Seokjin isn’t along with him.

Luckily, no one around him has really ever expected much either. His parents accepted it long ago, when he tried to hang up one of his first pictures in the foyer on his own and fell off the stool, spraining his ankle. He was seventeen, then, and had never really needed to verbally declare his lack of intent and interest in business matters. And something that Taehyung has learned is that if a decision comes from above, it doesn’t take long to spread everywhere that counts.

The head, then, is as aware of what discussion is viable when it comes to Taehyung, as Taehyung himself. Expansion and market talks are a formal minimum, but he’s enthusiastically talking about every interesting event to expect in the country this year. Some music festival in Busan, a retreat in Jeju, some kind of exclusive furniture exposition a couple of months down the line. What makes Taehyung feel worse, actually, is that normally those details would be sharp in his mind and not vague bits and pieces that he’s picked up during the conversation.

Which brings Taehyung to the exact reason that he thinks the afternoon is shaping up to reflect as badly on him as possible: he doesn’t have the slightest idea what restaurant they’re sitting in, what he’s actually eating, what the head representative’s name is, or what he’s talking about. There is no part of him that isn’t still unsettled from the morning, or even last night. It’s almost as if he’s never had to deal with as much consternation in such a short period of time— or as much consternation at all, ever— and his mind is rejecting it frantically. Taehyung might not be the best human being on the planet, but he’s never been disliked, not once. He doesn’t remember anyone ever being unnecessarily harsh with him, or spiteful, or even impolite. Never a situation he couldn’t beam and laugh his way out of, never a friend he couldn’t win over with a wave of his fingers and an impromptu light-show. Even the head, if Taehyung chose to randomly light up the flower vase on the table right now, would ooh and ah with complete sincerity.

(See, some might think that he’s letting others’ words get to his head, but Taehyung knows he’s different. He knows what he can do with his hands, and what he can do even without them— it’s not like he would’ve been any different if he didn’t have his light. It’s a contradiction; a power that makes him who he is in the eyes of others: and a power that he gives life and meaning, in his own eyes.)

The fact remains that every part of him that hasn’t settled yet is also a part that refuses to accept Jeongguk’s enmity, no matter what the reason once he finds out. Jimin might try to pass it off as aloofness, or wariness, or both, but if Taehyung isn’t stubborn then he doesn’t know who is. There isn’t a chance in hell that he’ll leave Seoul before at least finding out, no matter—

In his defence, or actually, to his credit, his reflexes are so quick that he’s already bent down to pick up the shards of his champagne flute before he registers that he dropped and broke it. On the flip side, it’s the worst time for the scene to come back to him— he’s kneeling on the floor in a suit that doesn’t go on floors, picking up wet pieces of glass while the head, scandalised, cries at him to stop. And really, the afternoon is one of the most bitterly amusing ones he’s ever had; can’t hold a conversation, can’t understand commerce, can’t understand Jeongguk, can’t drink champagne. Can’t even sit still and let someone who isn’t half as clumsy do the job of cleaning up.

‘Taehyung-sshi, you’re hurt!’

And oh, he is. It’s nothing too big, a shallow scratch along his right index, welling bright red, fast and distracting. The sting is insignificant compared to the insult of having one more thing to add to the list of everything that’s gone wrong in the past day. Despite himself, and what he was thinking only a minute ago, Taehyung sincerely reconsiders the entire visit as he stares down at his finger. What was Seokjin thinking— what was he thinking, really? That it would take only the number of outfit changes that fit into a weekend bag to hand Jeongguk and Jimin invitations and expect them to turn up? That either of them would believe that he’s sincerely here for them and not for a ring he hadn’t even thought about in eleven years?

Out of nowhere, he wonders if the representative is wondering if Seokjin can feel the cut. It startles a laugh out of him, the ludicrous timing of the thought, and he shakes his head and straightens up.

‘Doesn’t hurt,’ he says.

 

▽△▽

 

That evening, Jeongguk drives again and Jimin takes shotgun. Taehyung has never been gladder about anything in his life; if he hides in the shadows behind Jimin’s headrest just so, he can stare at Jeongguk in peace and the guy will have no idea.

Objectively speaking, Jimin’s transformation is more drastic than Jeongguk’s; dark, tight shirt; trousers replaced with faded, fitted jeans the kind Taehyung would never dream of Jimin even knowing of, let alone possessing; hair brushed back; the works. Regardless of where his attention is right now, it’s true that it’s Jimin’s appearance that gave Taehyung a keen kind of whiplash for a moment; the day’s twentieth reminder that he’s missed out on over a decade of action and knows essentially next to nothing about Jimin or Jeongguk, Jimin and Jeongguk.

But through that, there’s no point in hiding that the moment he saw Jeongguk step into the living room, dressed up, every other thought flew out of his head. The tightest jeans that could go on a pair of legs; a shirt, a thick knit of metallic grey, pulled low over them; the ring still stark and silent on his hand. Maybe Taehyung would spare it more attention if what remained of his mental capacity hadn’t immediately gotten occupied with Jeongguk’s face.

(Taehyung loves people, loves other people. Taehyung also doesn’t do relationships, like mornings. None of these facts are mutually exclusive, and it’s the best combination of preferences and traits that he thinks anyone could have; the number of beautiful faces and laughs that he’s taken to parks and operas and bed is, to him, one of the best ways to enjoy life. He makes light, for God’s sake. If he doesn’t have an eye for beauty, he doesn’t know who else is supposed to.)

Jeongguk’s wearing his hair up, and somehow, its thick spikes combined with the lines of kohl under his eyes bring Taehyung’s attention to parts of his face that he hadn’t focused on before— the slant of his dark eyebrows; the beauty spot near his hairline; the shape of his lips; a scar, small and otherwise inconspicuous, stroking across one cheekbone. From Taehyung’s position, perched on the backseat and watching the different neon lights of the city wash over Jeongguk’s face, there really isn’t anyone who wears the emptiness of focus better. Jeongguk’s eyes trained on the road, the hand with the ring curled around the steering wheel, his hair blending now and then into the frame of the window beside him.

Taehyung has brought his camera to Seoul, and in this car; he doesn’t go anywhere without it, precisely because of moments like these. But as he stays still long past the point when he would normally have pulled it out and started adjusting the lens, an insistent part of him says that there’ll be a better time.

‘The club we’re going to,’ Jimin is saying when Taehyung forces himself to look away from Jeongguk’s profile, ‘belongs to a friend of ours.’

‘Yoongi, right? I caught the name.’

‘That’s right. He’s a producer, Jeongguk used to play at his place before he caught his break.’

‘Still do,’ Jeongguk says.

‘Still does,’ Jimin corrects. ‘Taehyung, just so you know, Yoongi’s a little...’

Taehyung offhandedly wonders how many times Jimin is going to have to introduce someone by saying he’s “a little” with that sad sequence of trailing off, but takes it in his stride. ‘Don’t worry. Contrary to popular belief, I have seen real clubs.’

Jeongguk snorts loudly. Taehyung looks outside his window at the bright streets outside, and allows himself a smug smile.

 

▽△▽

 

All right, so he might have spoken a little ahead of himself. The thing is, he absolutely wasn’t lying when he said he’s seen real clubs, but he had also conveniently omitted the fact that having the VIP entry under his own name had shown him a slightly different side of things.

They still skip past the queue, and the bouncer nods at Jeongguk with the same kind of smile that Taehyung’s used to receiving himself. As they step into the heart of the place, the walls and the lights are the same as every other place of this sort that Taehyung has been to (a place where they know what they’re doing, he means; lights in ice blue streaks following the music jealously, everyone dressed in metals and whites, the cold, almost-clinical scent of alcohol cutting through the heat of the movement) but what changes is the fact that no one at this particular club really knows who Taehyung is.

He doesn’t mind the ensuing lack of attention; welcomes it, in fact. What makes it complicated is, well.

‘What’s this,’ Yoongi drawls, looking Taehyung up and down so slowly, deliberately and salaciously that Taehyung feels his ears start to burn.

Jeongguk barks out a laugh and turns away, puts his hand to his mouth. When he turns back, he’s still got so much amusement on his face that Taehyung doesn’t mind in the least that it’s at his expense. He focuses instead on Yoongi— it can only be Yoongi— who is, at least, the most scandalously dressed of the lot; jeans so distressed they might as well not exist, and actual mesh on his shirt. Taehyung, in his jacket and jeans, feels ridiculously out of place in more ways than one.

Yoongi is about Jimin’s height, which makes him shorter than Taehyung, but if there’s anything Taehyung’s learned growing up, it’s that the owner of a place will always be the owner of a place. Yoongi looks like he wouldn’t give a shit about what he just said even if he knew who Taehyung is; his grin is unapologetic and toothy, mint hair flopping back into place when he runs his hand through it as he continues staring at Taehyung.

‘Old friend,’ Jimin says. ‘Way, way old.’

‘God damn,’ Yoongi says. ‘How come I don’t have old friends like that?’

‘You have me, you asshole,’ Jeongguk laughs, and Taehyung marvels again at it. Twenty-four hours isn’t any better than five minutes when it comes to character evaluations, but Taehyung would really never have pinned Jeongguk to have any sense of humour at all. He supposes it’s a small victories thing, though; at least he might not be pushed into the line of fire for the night. It’s almost as if the cold lights are cooling Jeongguk down too; as if he is slipping into a slightly different version of himself. This version smiles.  

‘Okay,’ Jimin says once Jeongguk and Yoongi have made off to the turntables and he’s had the chance to bring Taehyung a drink, ‘So, this is Jungkook the composer.’

‘Right. Jungkook.’

‘Three rules of Jungkook’s life.’ Jimin grips his own drink with his thumb and index, raises his remaining three fingers in the air. ‘Coffee, crowds, and crying.’

‘Coffee, crowds, and crying,’ Taehyung repeats blankly. ‘Fascinating.’

Jimin laughs; it’s also the first time Taehyung has heard him laugh, and it’s such a sweet, refreshing sound that he finds himself smiling along automatically. How Jimin finds a way to look innocent even in lights designed for the opposite, Taehyung doesn’t understand, but he’s glad for it anyway. As the beat of a new song takes over the previous one, Taehyung finds himself rolling his shoulders too, leaning forward to catch what Jimin’s saying next.

‘Jeongguk hates crowds,’ Jimin says. ‘Rule number two is stick to loud places.

Taehyung’s pretty sure there’s supposed to be a conjunction there; Jeongguk hates crowds but sticks to loud places. Jimin, however, is apparently done with imparting wisdom for the moment, since he just nods at Taehyung and then proceeds to knock his drink back at an inhuman speed. Taehyung watches as his throat works, laughing in surprise.

Bankers must lead stressful lives.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung likes to go by two names. The first and known one is Kim Taehyung, fun if clueless first-half-in-line to the double thrones of the Kim conglomerate. The right clothes, the right shoes, (most of the time) the right hair. A smile that he can often actually manage to tone down so that the cameras don’t think he hasn’t aged beyond twelve. A stance, a way of standing with Seokjin so that everyone understands that rivalry is beyond the question and that best friends are best friends. His appearances at his siblings’ school events, their graduations, their performances. Whoever the hell that kid was who dropped the champagne flute this afternoon and gave the head representative a veritable scare.

The second one that only a handful of people know to attach to the first one at all, is V. The photographer; light photographer, to be precise, because his work is nothing without his hands. He keeps it religiously anonymous, because they can call him the prince of light all they want but no one is going to look at his frames from the lens of knowing it’s the Kim heir who took the pictures. It’s in these ways that he guards his light for himself and those he loves, while managing to share it with the rest of the world (and anyway, Taehyung does love other people; other people).

‘Hey, cute boy,’ Yoongi says, somewhere around Taehyung’s third drink. It feels like 11 PM, couldn’t be any earlier, and the scene seems to be just be getting started; people trickling in, the bar actually being set up. Yoongi probably doesn’t open for the public before 11:30, going by the look of the place. And just as well; Taehyung’s enjoying this. ‘Have you ever heard Jungkook’s shit?’

‘No,’ Taehyung confesses. He hasn’t. He’s read about it, and he’s read interviews, but he’d figured that if he was ever to listen to any of Jeongguk’s music, he should do it in person. (Now, of course, there might be a change of plan; there’s no way Jeongguk will ever show him directly, so he might as well look it up on his own.) ‘I haven’t.’

‘Well, you will, soon. I line him up every Friday, but the little shit only shows up twice a month, probably. Just sulks around the bar, too, you know the type.’

Taehyung, surprisingly, does know the type. His thirst for adventure extends naturally into nightlife; when he’s not creeping around in random forests and scaring the life out of Seokjin by not replying to calls three days in a row, Taehyung actually enjoys his alcohol, his music, and his parties. (He has different groups of friends for all his interests, and all of them have said at some point or the other that it’s ridiculous for one person to contain so much affinity for trouble, but then, that’s him. Taehyung’s a fan of trouble, the right kind.)

In all his travels, he’s met more than his fair share of people on the music scene, particularly the underground. They all have a thread that seems to run through Jeongguk too; and somewhere, even Yoongi; a sort of aloofness that makes you think the person is never completely present in the room, no matter how hard they’re yelling, how hard they’ve worked on their tracks, how much they’ve had to drink.

‘Will he mix tonight?’ Taehyung asks.

They’re on one of the inner VIP balconies, drinks balanced on the flat rail and sweating under the strobes. Jimin has gone to acquire more alcohol than Taehyung plans to drink on his first night out with them, and Jeongguk is downstairs, still near the turntables where Yoongi left him to join Taehyung. From above, and in the neon lights, he looks even more unbearably white-lined than before, the edges of his shirt sharp against the colours of the club and crowd, and at least the light that never goes out in Taehyung’s mind keeps focusing on his ring as he imagines it clinking against a glass of vodka, a shot of rum. (Jeongguk throws back alcohol like it’s water, and probably pills too.)

‘You’re in luck,’ Yoongi replies. ‘He’s in the mood.’

When Taehyung was a child, his parents had bought him an instant camera. Nothing too fancy, some pastel-coloured Polaroid make that looked almost fake and felt even more fake; he still remembers being skeptical about its working at all, and he was ten. They’d given him a pack of film with it, ten glossy rectangles of paper to load in one by one and hope to print properly on.

The first picture that he had taken was with Jimin and Jeongguk. He hadn’t let anyone else take it, even though his arms were clearly too short; he can see it in the Polaroid whenever he brings it out of its casing— Taehyung, on his toes, desperately trying to capture all three of their faces in the frame. Jimin, red T-shirt, blue shorts, grinning hard enough to make his eyes disappear. And Jeongguk. Slightly overexposed— he had always been a little bit paler— and with a small smile on his face, looking not into the camera, but at Taehyung.

Two months after that picture, Taehyung had left for Japan. He never touched that camera again— or any camera, for that matter, until six years later.

Jeongguk seems to have forgotten that Taehyung is there, and maybe Jimin was actually telling the truth about him taking a while with new people (as new people as it gets with Taehyung). Because as much as it stings, it’s evident that the more Jeongguk’s losing awareness of Taehyung’s presence, the more he’s relaxing. It could be the drinks or the progression of the evening, but Taehyung is wearing Tom Ford's Pessimism tonight. And well, at least he’s got Yoongi, no matter how outrageously the man is flirting with him; he’s got Jimin, smiling wider, talking louder, visibly working the week off.

The summer after he turned seventeen— he remembers that it was the first official day of summer; school had let out, tickets had been booked, Seokjin had come home for the first time from university— there was one morning, the first morning, when Taehyung had woken up crying.

He doesn’t remember the nightmare itself, but the fact of it being a nightmare is enough. Taehyung doesn’t get nightmares; he only dreams in light, of light, dreams light. In strokes sometimes, following the movements of the characters in his unconscious; a rose-tinted swirl around his little sister, a clear green twining around Seokjin’s fingers. In flashes at others, the most common indicator of his breaks between dreaming. Those, Taehyung is used to. Hell, when Taehyung was a teenager with a temper less benign than what it is today, he was used to light following him everywhere. Edison’s brat, stomping his foot and breaking light bulbs.

That, Taehyung is (was) used to. Nightmares, no.

With the way the turntables are set on a pedestal already, Jeongguk’s figure slicing through the darkness might as well be built in the image of God. Taehyung doesn’t understand why Jimin said Jeongguk hates crowds; the amount of power he holds over this particular one just by standing there— he hasn’t even started yet— and moving his head to the music already playing, is astounding tenfold because Taehyung knows it’s Jeongguk down there. He thinks he hears Yoongi whisper watch this, but he can’t be sure. Everything is so loud and Jeongguk is so silent, even though his lips are parted. Taehyung can see him so clearly even from this distance. The lights turning as if only to focus on him, his face constant through the times they blink out and the times that they come back on again, fracture-frames of his hands moving to the controls, his fingers, the ring.

When he was seventeen, Taehyung woke up crying. Loudly, so distractingly loud that he woke himself up, and wondered how it was even possible to do that in sleep. He doesn’t remember the nightmare itself, but he remembers what it left him with. A kind of electrically, hysterically tragic pain coursing up and down his body, and a sting in the centres of his palms, so strong that the second thing he registered after the tears upon waking up was that he was beaming straight rays of pure white light into the mirror right across the room, blinding himself.

At that point, the last time he had held a camera was six years ago. At that point, nothing felt more natural than to try to distribute the agony into the pictures he suddenly wanted to take. Mountains, oceans, forests, cities burning bright from the inside. Anything larger than life, anything that could demean his pain and contain it both— because what he did, always, was hang up and hammer in and paste on patches of light, doing the shiny thing over and over.

He never told anyone. Not Seokjin, not his family, not his friends. Somewhere, he expected to run out of that pain, expected the photography to die down by itself.

Five years later, he doesn’t know why he ever hoped for it to diminish— because when Jeongguk, or Jungkook, or both, puts on his first track, it not only rises back up like a sickly triumphant wave, but rises higher than ever, reaching for the parts of his being that Taehyung only ever focuses on when he wants to hurt himself to make something fantastic.

He thinks he should be saying something, at least a hushed oh at the way the beat climbs through the crowd and Taehyung’s feet up his legs into his gut and then his chest, like a drumming from the inside. He should be saying something at the tones that sound like they come from the different depths Taehyung is always swimming to, deeper and deeper, down and under, tugging so smoothly as if they were always meant to. He should be saying something, but he’s been struck silent and the kind of numb where he doesn’t think he can walk again.

It hushes something inside him while stirring it up at the same time; he’s never felt this way before. No matter where he’s been, what he’s drunk, who he’s with; this is different. This is filling him up from head to toe as if there was always a layer of film in his body where this was supposed to be imprinted; as if it was written for him. He thinks about Jeongguk writing this with the same hand that wears the ring he said he’ll stop wearing. He thinks about Jeongguk wearing the ring, wonders when he started, when it started to fit, when he took it out of whatever box he must have kept it in. Why. He wonders why, as he grips his drink and stares down at Jeongguk staring— up—

Staring right up at him, with a rage so calm it leaves no expression on his features. The lights of the club come and go in their timed flashes, or in untimed flashes courtesy of Taehyung’s head; after five drinks he stops thinking about anything that can’t keep his attention for longer than a blink. But every time they come and go, Jeongguk is still looking up. All that magnetic power he holds over every single person in here right now, all of that concentrated in the sharp, deliberate brilliance on his face as he looks into Taehyung’s eyes; and Taehyung, pinned to the spot in a place that doesn’t stop moving, unable to even blink.

From beside him, Yoongi lets out a low whistle, and Taehyung is about to ask when Yoongi does it first.

‘The fuck’s on your hand, man?’

Taehyung tears gaze away from Jeongguk and looks down, and frowns.

It’s the cut from the afternoon, except that it’s...glowing. A pale blue mirroring the lights of the club, sharp and perfect like a brush stroke, but fading as if the paint has leaked into an inner layer of the paper. Now that he’s looking at it, it hurts again, but with a different kind of...heat, almost.

It must be the rings, he realises. In fact, it has to have been the rings all along. Both the real ones being in the same room, it’s bound to mess with things a little. That would explain the airport too. He can’t believe he didn’t consider the consequences of reuniting the rings, however strangely; regardless of what he and Jeongguk have (or don’t have) to say to each other, the rings must have recognised their companion. Of course.

‘I make light,’ he explains to Yoongi, and curls his finger into his fist.

 

▽△▽

 

‘You clumsy motherfucker,’ Namjoon says the moment Taehyung picks up the phone. He’s actually amazed that Namjoon took three entire days to call him up and make fun of him, but the man is definitely much busier than Taehyung. ‘You dropped a glass? What, we need to give you sippy cups now?’

‘Shut up,’ Taehyung laughs. ‘You didn’t even come to lunch.’

‘The reason I can’t come to lunch is because you’re going to lunches instead of actually handling shit, which I then have to handle.’

He winces and laughs again; it doesn’t actually hurt because it’s a truth that everyone has long since accepted (including the head representative, who was, in fact, Namjoon’s representative). He supposes that there must be a few people who talk about how the handling of the Korean affairs of the business went to his cousin instead of Taehyung himself, but it’s not like he really cares about what people have to say anyway. (If he did, he would’ve done a management degree like his parents politely expressed their desire for him to.)

‘Fair enough,’ he says. ‘Are you actually in town, though?’

‘New York, baby.’ Taehyung pauses mid-inspection of his nails and laughs at Namjoon’s accent. ‘My man called me up in the ass end of the night to report that you chopped your finger off.’

‘That’s dramatic,’ he says. ‘It’s literally one cut, hyung.’

‘Son,’ Namjoon says. ‘If Seokjin didn’t have his guardian ring on, that cut could cost you your life.’

This time, Taehyung’s laugh comes out a little weaker, but he doesn’t think Namjoon notices. And yes, of course, here comes someone else’s worry on his account again. It’s true that Namjoon’s statements are a dozen times more valid than anyone’s; he shares Taehyung’s exact power and is a few years older to boot. (Married with a beautiful wife and a kid on the way; doing life with the kind of planned perfection Taehyung’s parents probably wish he would emulate.) It’s true that Namjoon wouldn’t talk through his hat, but he still thinks the drama is disproportionate. It’s one cut.

‘But hey,’ he hears when he looks away from the cut. Outside, he can hear the blender whirring in the kitchen; it’s almost dinnertime. (Jimin can actually cook, a fact that hasn’t quite stopped amazing Taehyung despite nearly a week having passed.) ‘As long as you weren’t leaking light, you’re good.’

At leak, Taehyung stops. ‘Uh, what?’

‘Yeah,’ Namjoon says. ‘I mean, death by light, you know? I mean, you should’ve seen me before I figured it out. You were, what, fifteen? Man, I was spilling light left and right. You could’ve used one of my papercuts as a torch.’

The fuck’s on your hand, man?

Taehyung looks down at his cut again. It’s still inconspicuous, still innocent, a dark red dotted line along his index, painless now. But as Namjoon’s voice fades into the background, he remembers the sight of it glowing blue in the dark hum of the club.

‘Good thing Seokjin’s got your ring already, huh?’

It’s not the rings, then. If anything, the rings are supposed to prevent it.

‘Good thing,’ Taehyung says absently. ‘Yeah.’

 

▽△▽

 

January crawls into February with a slowness that he can feel on a daily basis. At the same time, every time he sees Jeongguk it feels like they only met at the airport a minute ago, and for all that Jeongguk has thawed out a cautious degree— actually joining them for meals and biting his food instead of Taehyung’s ego— he is still shamefully more of a stranger than Jimin, or even Yoongi, who Taehyung has already met on three nights. Even within the bracket of his trip so far, it’s become like some sort of routine; make social calls that never seem to end in the daytime, and sneak off to Yoongi’s club on the odd night. (The weekend bag, having proven utterly useless, has gone through a repeat already, and Taehyung notices that observation on the tip of Seokjin’s tongue when they Skype five days in.)

On the tenth day of his stay, Taehyung offers to make good of his hotel booking. He doesn’t think he’s actually stayed so long in someone else’s house before, and it’s protocol that Seokjin hasn’t been offering any insight on. But Jimin looks offended at his suggestion, and he doesn’t think he’s seen that before either.

‘We have a guest room for a reason,’ he says through his mouthful of salad. (The way Jimin has thawed out delights Taehyung in the most wholesome rush of companionship. Since Jeongguk doesn’t really talk and Taehyung is out himself during the day, their dinners have progressed from the dining table to the front of the television, with beers on the side. Jimin is a film junkie, among other things.) ‘It’s really not a problem, Taehyung.’

What bothers Taehyung is the way his stay looks indefinite right now. He never actually bothered to pretend that he’s in Seoul for anything other than meeting them and inviting them, and after meeting Jeongguk, only made a feeble attempt to hide from Jimin that curiosity (or stubbornness) is making him stay on. He knows he can’t stay here forever, and honestly, figuring out what he’s actually supposed to be doing here seems to be taking that and more.

‘At least split the groceries with me,’ he says, sighing when Jimin shakes his head immediately. ‘Come on.’

‘It’s called a guest room for a reason,’ Jimin says. ‘Besides, I’m going to wring every bit of your hospitality out when I come for the wedding. Relax while you can.’

Taehyung laughs at that, but so does Jeongguk, and it’s a lot less nice. Immediately— as is reflex now— Taehyung looks at the ring instead of Jeongguk’s face; it’s easier. His hand is curled around a mug of coffee, grip tight.

(What bothers Taehyung is the way his stay looks indefinite right now.)

‘I think you’ll get along with Seokjin,’ he says to Jimin, smiling at him. ‘I told him about the soup you made the other day.’

It’s the tenth day, so Taehyung has already learned how to divert the conversation, even though he can’t execute it as seamlessly as Jimin does. After all, Jimin has ten years of experience on him, and Jeongguk’s snark still throws Taehyung off sometimes. He hates how still sounds defensive, like it needs a justification, when he has yet— goddamn yet— to understand anything at all. Even as he talks to Jimin about Tokyo as if Jeongguk isn’t at the table at all, he’s still thinking about Jeongguk. Even when Jeongguk isn’t in the room, Taehyung is still thinking about him. It’s some kind of petty obsessiveness, he recognises the petulant why won’t you like me himself, but he just can’t do anything about it.

‘It must’ve been complicated,’ Jimin is saying. ‘Growing up with all those people talking about you, I mean.’

Taehyung pulls a faux-haughty face, then laughs and shrugs. ‘They called me son of the morning,’ he says. ‘Kind of got a kick out of it, to be honest.’

‘You know who they called that before you?’

Taehyung pauses mid-laugh and looks away from Jimin, at the floor, not even the ring. It’s the first time Jeongguk’s spoken throughout the conversation, voice cutthroat casual, getting Taehyung’s hackles up like he still hasn’t gotten the practice of doing.

‘Who?’ he asks despite himself.

‘Lucifer.’ With that, Jeongguk finishes the last of his coffee. The clink of the mug on the table is triumphant.

 

▽△▽

 

That weekend, Jimin understands, and pulls out the booze. Jeongguk is over at some club that Taehyung vehemently doesn’t want to follow him to, and it might be his anger, but Taehyung feels like the apartment is easier to breathe in now that Jeongguk isn’t there. For someone who remains mostly silent except for a few choice jabs, Jeongguk’s presence is electrically anxious in a way that can only be understood in his absence.

‘No beer, even?’ Taehyung laughs when he walks into the living room. Jimin is cross-legged on the floor next to the coffee table, setting out more glasses than is strictly necessary, and definitely a lot more hard alcohol than is necessary (or even recommended) at all. ‘Big guns?’

‘Big guns,’ Jimin says. ‘It was a long week. The fiscal year is just getting started, so.’

Still, Taehyung doesn’t take him seriously until the last of the living room lights is turned out in favour of one floor lamp in the corner, and until Jimin twists the neon dial of the sound system gleefully to the right. The enthusiasm with which Jimin pours out their first drinks reminds Taehyung that they’re twenty-one; out of university for only a year. He wonders at what age Jimin already started applying to firms for him to have a contract so early on. He wonders if Jeongguk would’ve liked to go to university, wonders what university could even have taught someone with an ear like that.

‘Bottoms up,’ Jimin tells him, nodding towards the screwdriver he’s handed to Taehyung. ‘And this isn’t Perignon, so watch your throat.’

‘Fuck you,’ Taehyung laughs. ‘I don’t even like Perignon.’

Regardless, it’s been a while since he was last out drinking heavily, and in the face of Jimin’s expertise at simply inhaling vodka, he has to take an unnoticeable breather between his gulps of the cocktail. It’s a cold burn down his throat that makes him want to cringe, but he takes it. He’s angry. He takes it.

Taehyung is the kind of person who only needs the kick of three strong drinks to get his evening going. He doesn’t know why being a lightweight is considered a negative; the way he sees it, he gets more fun out of doing less damage to his body. Adding to that the fact that most of the things he does while drunk are things that he would do while sober too, given the chance, he isn’t worried about his drinking capacity at all. It’s like Seokjin says; there exists on any day very little possibility for Taehyung to be more of a disaster than he already is.

By the time Jimin is pouring out something that will push their consumption tally to the double digits, the room is already thrumming in time to the beat of whatever’s playing over the speakers that he wanted to compliment Jimin on choosing but can’t really find the words for anymore. He leans further into the front of the couch, head lolling against the seat cushion as he grins up at the ceiling. He knows Jimin’s trying to work up the courage to talk, really talk, but he’s out of patience. A prompt, maybe.

‘What the fuck is that guy’s deal?’ One of the only annoying things about being drunk is that he can tell his voice is slurring, and still not be able to do anything about it. No matter how much Taehyung doesn’t conform to the concept of embarrassment, he doesn’t like hearing himself sound that way. ‘Huh, Jiminnie? What did I even do?’

Jimin sighs and thunks the tequila bottle down on the coffee table. Taehyung hears it, this thunk on the wood when Jimin puts it down. Thunk.

‘I told you,’ he says. ‘He’ll warm up.’

‘Warm up?’ Taehyung focuses on Jimin. It takes him a moment. ‘I don’t have such high hopes. I just don’t want to be murdered in my bed.’

Jimin laughs, a high-pitched, nasal, entirely ungraceful sound. He picks the bottle up again, clink, and pours it out into a shot glass. Taehyung has trouble picking it up, but he picks it up. Swallows it like something he wants to get over with, the way drinks become tedious after a certain point.

‘You know how romance novels...you know how they talk about all these...these, broody young men?’ Jimin drawls. ‘Who built walls around their hearts and shit?’

Taehyung nods, laughing, and reaches for the bottle. Thunk, it goes against the table once, twice. The third time, he picks it up, drags it over to his glass before his hands can change their mind.

‘Well, Jeongguk didn’t build walls.’ Jimin takes the bottle from Taehyung, pours it out into his own glass. ‘He built fuckin’ skyscrapers and hired those things from Pacific Rim to guard them.’

Taehyung laughs even harder, leaning forward, coming to a stop midway; he doesn’t want to hit the coffee table. His glass is still in his hand, but his skin feels wet. Cold. He’s spilled a little, maybe. Doesn’t matter. Those things from Pacific Rim are fucking...huge. So fucking huge. It’s the best thing he’s heard anyone say about Jeongguk, and he means to say, last week Yoongi called him a malevolently shitty brat of the first degree. Taehyung hadn’t laughed this hard then, though.

‘Skyscrapers,’ he wheezes. ‘Still. Still.’ He’s serious now; serious. ‘No, don’t run from it. Tell me what I did.’

Jimin throws back his shot, groans and clears his throat. Taehyung squints at him, the edges and shadows of his face in the light of the lamp, the light of the lamp fluctuating with Taehyung’s thoughts. The sound of the music is so rhythmic; he keeps zoning out for little pockets of time, where Jimin blurs into tapestry and the ceiling and floor are unimportant; it’s just the lamp, and the beat, and Taehyung and his hurt.

‘Tell me,’ he says again. ‘Jiminnie.’

Jimin looks at him, fist around his shot glass, eyes bright but steady.

‘Nothing,’ he says.

‘What?’

‘Nothing,’ Jimin says, softer this time, smiling. ‘You did nothing. You didn’t do anything. Didn’t do anything, Taehyung.’

Taehyung looks at him. The edges and shadows of his face in the light of the lamp. The light of the lamp fluctuating with Taehyung’s thoughts.

‘When we were twelve,’ Jimin says. ‘You and me. He was eleven. He’s younger, remember?’

‘I remember.’

‘He was eleven. Used to cry in his bunk every night.’ Coffee, crowds, crying. ‘His legs hurt.’

Taehyung looks at him. The edges and shadows of his face.

‘I stayed up with him, saying it’s growing pains, it’s growing pains like a fucking idiot.’

In the light of the lamp, and the light of the lamp fluctuating with Taehyung’s thoughts.

‘Why do you think you did something?’ Jimin says. ‘You didn’t do anything, Taehyung. You weren’t there.

Taehyung looks at him.

‘When we were seventeen,’ Jimin says, in that same calm, smiling voice. This resigned kind of understanding. ‘On the first day of summer—’

On the first day of summer, Taehyung woke up crying. Because he woke up crying, he lifts his shot glass and breathes it in. Jimin cuts off as if he can see what Taehyung can feel— that the spirit has gone down the wrong way, bubbling up in his throat, panic, pain. The burn is vicious, more so on the way back out, and he’ll apologise later but right now he’s coughing and spluttering and the glass is rolling on the floor, and the coffee table is splattered with his terrible timing.

But not only that.

‘What—’ Jimin sounds different now. It’s funny, how quickly fear creeps on.

The tequila is a bright green against the wood of the table, reaching the edge to trickle down from it. Glowing as it moves, slow, fast. Glowing even as it drips to the floor, just that mouthful that he couldn’t keep in, in his bitterness.

Glowing like the cut on his finger that glowed like the tequila is glowing, and Taehyung, Taehyung laughs.

‘So that’s how it is,’ he says, voice scratching. ‘That’s how it is, huh?’

‘That’s how what is? Taehyung, what—’

‘I mean,’ he says, looking down at his hand— it is wet, he really did spill something, God; useless— the cut is almost gone, but what remains is green, too. Matchy-matchy. Matchy-matchy. ‘I mean, when the cut bled light, I thought it’d stop there. Stupid, I know. Stupid of me.’

Jimin falls forward, grabs Taehyung’s shoulders. ‘What. Are you. Talking about.’

Taehyung holds his hand up, then, smiles wide in Jimin’s suddenly terrified face.

‘Matchy-matchy,’ he says, then giggles.

Jimin doesn’t laugh.

‘Is that—’ His eyes are wide, so wide, trained on Taehyung’s cut. ‘Are you—’

‘I guess I am,’ Taehyung says. ‘But tell me. When we were seventeen, what?’

‘Taehyung, the rings—’

‘On the first day of summer, what?’ Taehyung pries Jimin’s hands off his shoulders, turns to face him fully.

‘Taehyung. The rings.’

On,’ Taehyung waves his hand, raises his voice just enough. ‘The first. Day. Of summer. Jimin.’

All at once, Jimin seems to come back to himself, looks away from the cut and right at Taehyung. He seems to come back to himself, but a different himself, slipping. Slipping into a slightly different version. Lips trembling, face pale, eyes wide. Scared. Terrified.

‘On the first day of summer,’ he says. ‘Fuck. Taehyung.’

‘On the first day of summer.’

‘He was sixteen. Oh, God, Taehyung, you need the ring. You need the ring.’

‘I don’t need any fucking ring. He was sixteen.’

‘He’d just learned to ride,’ Jimin says to the glowing tequila in that same voice. On the first day of summer, Taehyung woke up crying. Loudly. ‘Rented a bike, took it out.’

Taehyung looks at the edges of his face.

‘The car came out of nowhere,’ he gets out roughly after a moment. ‘Out of nowhere, Taehyung. Came out of nowhere.’

‘No,’ Taehyung whispers. ‘No, come on.’ A cold sort of dread is filling up his insides, his knees already turning weak. Dozens of horrendous possibilities rush through his head and he doesn't want to believe a single one of them, doesn't want to believe that Jeongguk had something like— something like that happen to him—

He suddenly understands so much, so much, so very much about Jeongguk that his fingers shake with the onslaught of information. His silence, so unlike what he used to be. His strange smiles, his way of carrying himself as if he’s being caged in from all sides. And through it all— through it all one selfish thought. One selfish thought flashes through Taehyung’s mind as he blinks down at the still-glowing tequila, mouth open, eyes open— could it have been different? Could it have been different, if he had—

Regret strikes him, keen like the pain that coursed through his body when he woke up crying on the first day of summer. He closes his eyes to collect himself, but the only thing he can see is Jeongguk’s face.

‘Taehyung, the— your hand. The rings, Taehyung.’

‘I’m fine,’ Taehyung grits out. ‘Jimin, sober up. The car. Then what?’

And to his credit, Jimin actually makes an effort in that direction. He pulls himself up higher against the front of the couch, takes a deep breath, then takes another one, eyes looking here and there, above at the ceiling, down at the floor; his despair is so unsettling that what happened might as well be happening right now instead of five years ago. Five years ago, on the first day of summer, when Taehyung woke up crying. And now he knows why.

‘Taehyung,’ Jimin says, again, and every time he says Taehyung’s name it’s in the same desperate voice. ‘You have to understand.’

‘Understand what?’

‘He was leaking light,’ he says. ‘He was bleeding light. He was dying on that bed. I had to do something.’

‘Jimin—’

Jimin looks up. Taehyung looks at him, the edges and shadows of his face in the light, the light fluctuating with Taehyung’s thoughts.

‘Taehyung,’ Jimin says, and this Taehyung he’s never heard before. ‘The ring. I’m so fucking sorry.’

 

▽△▽

 

In a place out of time, it happens like this.

Park Jimin, on the other hand, doesn't have the time to cry. He doesn't have the time to do anything other than get work done; he doesn't remember the last time he did in his seventeen years.

The man goes by Zico. Jimin spares a thought for the idea that if he was strong enough to mean anything, no one would know that his real name is Woo Jiho. But he's not here for strength today. He wouldn't be here at all if he could have his way, but he doesn't remember the last time he did in his seventeen years.

Woo Jiho, who likes to go by Zico, looks as unimpressed as he is unimpressive. He looks like he knows what he's supposed to look like, and couldn't bother to go even halfway. Thick, ugly rings on his bruised fingers, a couple of chains around his neck and clothes as dull as the wall behind him is bright. His bleach-fried hair, his apprentice leaning against the bright wall, looking not a day older than Jimin himself. Everything about Zico is in half-hearted agreement with the room in which he and Jimin and the boy are sitting, and everything about him makes Jimin want to turn tail and run.

Zico, who can't bother to go even halfway, sighs and raises an eyebrow at Jimin, and Jimin wants to turn tail and run.

‘And how do I know it's real?’

It's not like Jimin hadn't expected the question, but expecting it hasn't done him any help in coming up with an answer. He can't ignore it, not when he hasn't felt a single thing while having the damn ring, putting it in a box and bringing it over here, calling thirty people on the way, voice getting higher and higher in the back of the taxi. Panic. Jimin doesn't like panic. Jimin doesn't like Zico. Jimin doesn't like the ring in the box on the table between them, next to the ridiculously fancy carved hunk of glass that is Zico's ashtray.

In the corner of his vision he can see the apprentice shift and straighten up, then going back to lean against the wall. He hasn't said a word the whole time, been so still that Jimin hasn't even looked at him properly. He might as well be a fixture.

Jimin stares at the ashtray. He doesn't have time for this. He called up thirty people on the way and he's hoping that five of them will come through. He'll do anything. He'll do anything. He stares at the ashtray, thinking that he'll do anything.

‘You can weigh it and just pay me for the platinum,’ he says, still staring at the ashtray. Then he takes a breath that goes down the wrong way behind the noose of his black tie, and looks right into Zico's sharp, darkly-lined eyes. ‘Or you can trust me.’

‘Trust you,’ Zico repeats. Expectedly, he can't be bothered to sound amused. He seems almost contemplative, actually, which would be fine if Jimin had the time for it.

He doesn't.

‘I don't have to trust you,’ Zico says, then, and Jimin blinks, looks down for a moment at his dusty shoes before looking up again. He doesn't dare to speak. Then Zico exhales, raising his eyebrows and looking over his shoulder at the apprentice in the back. The young boy finally steps forward, and the room didn't look as large a moment ago as it does now when he takes all the time in the world to step to the forefront of Jimin's vision.

Up this close, a coffee table's breadth away, he looks even younger than Jimin. Pale face and wide, wide eyes, a large hooded sweatshirt hanging off his narrow shoulders and going down his jeans. He looks like the schoolboy they're both technically supposed to be, and also looks like he, like Jimin, didn't have the time for school.

Jimin can see on his face what he's capable of before he even does anything. And when he does move, it's not to physically hold the ring. The quiet way he's been standing in the back tells Jimin that he doesn't need to do silly things like touch, to tell. No, the boy just levels his unblinking, unnerving gaze to where the ring lies in its open box, and stares at it for a long moment.

Jimin's heart is in his throat. Jimin wants to turn tail and run.

Then the boy turns to Zico and waits for eye contact. The moment Zico turns, he nods. Just once, so slowly that he might as well not have moved. Jimin doesn't dare to exhale or relax or move in any way, because a nod could mean anything from I verified it to kill him; he’s instinctively wary of everyone in this room.

Then again, he doesn't remember the last time he wasn’t in his seventeen years.

‘Name a price,’ Zico says, and Jimin takes a breath.

 

▽△▽

 

Of course, it figures that Taehyung would be too frazzled to eat on the one occasion that Jeongguk actually, sincerely invited him out. It would also figure that Jeongguk isn’t eating either, which leaves Jimin half-embarrassedly making his slow way through soup and starters.

In his defence, it actually doesn’t have anything to do with Jeongguk, or at least, he hopes. He is still expecting the guy to pour a bowl of soup down Taehyung’s shirt or something of the sort, but Jeongguk is being true to his word.

(‘Look,’ he had said a day ago, looking himself at anything and everything but Taehyung, ‘I have a friend who owns a kind of fancy place. You must be sick of home cooked shit.’

Taehyung was silent, carefully quiet and completely unsure what to make of it. Unsure what to make of the ring that Jeongguk was still wearing, because of course he was— is— still wearing it: he didn’t— doesn’t— have the slightest idea that it’s not the real one. Somehow, the visual of it with that new context kept— keeps— tugging at Taehyung’s chest even more than before. All that fierceness for something not even worth all that fierceness— and Jeongguk, standing there, with not the slightest idea.

Taehyung was carefully quiet until Jeongguk said hey’, and then he looked up. And Jeongguk was looking at him then, that brief instant of no expression on his face that Taehyung had seen at the airport, stretched now so that Jeongguk was looking as carefully at him as Taehyung was being quiet.

Jeongguk raised his hands silently, palms outward, inclined his head. ‘I mean it, okay? We should go out.’)

It figures that Taehyung would be too frazzled to eat, and all right, it might have more to do with Jeongguk than not. The past few days altogether might have more to do with Jeongguk than not: Taehyung had gone to bed after Jimin’s confession, completely sober but still with enough alcohol in his system to wake him up every hour with stars and spurts of light, gasping in his bed, trying to breathe. And the next morning, when Jimin was busy trying to figure out if Taehyung was going to fly into a rage or not, Taehyung was busy staring at the one little scar on Jeongguk’s cheek and wondering if it came from the car that came from nowhere. Wondering what Jeongguk must have looked like, sixteen and glowing on a hospital bed, dying minute by minute while Jimin blazed through the city, trying to find a buyer.

He’s too frazzled to eat. Every glance he takes at Jeongguk is one glance too less; he’s five years late but he keeps wanting to verify for himself that Jeongguk is still here. And he is, sitting as innocent as he can be when Taehyung looks at him with fresh understanding. Light shirt, dark jeans, his hair in a clumsy side part; effort, albeit minimal.

Even the way he picks at his soup makes Taehyung tense with dejection.

Jeongguk sighs and puts his spoon down, pushes his plate an inch away.

Jimin only spares Jeongguk a brief glance before directing a longer one at Taehyung. And really, Taehyung doesn’t know if he’s more glad for himself or for Jimin that his body hasn’t been acting up since the night they drank. He understands, objectively, that he should be a lot more furious at Jimin than he is— which is, not at all— after all, the boy sold something that never belonged to him in the first place. But when it comes to the truth of it, Taehyung bought a fake himself, and five years before Jimin had to, and for reasons so different (and yet somehow related to Jeongguk, sitting as clueless as he can be). Also, when it comes to the truth of it, it’s not like coughing up light that evening has changed his mind about wanting the ring. He doesn’t want rings, real ones or fake ones, and actually— knowing that he can’t get what he is supposed to be here for makes it easier for him to understand why he’s here.

With no concrete goal holding him to Seoul, it’s both liberating and binding to accept that the reason he is still here and will stay is to look at Jeongguk like this and tell himself that he’s alive. Angry, but alive. And now, when Taehyung knows the why behind all that anger, it gains rich meaning and turns Jeongguk into a different version of himself, for a different version of Taehyung.

The number of things that can change in less than a hundred hours are sitting at this dinner table in silence. Jimin, looking at Taehyung as if he’s waiting for Taehyung to start screaming at any moment. Jeongguk, looking at his soup as if he genuinely wishes he could eat it. Taehyung, looking around at the lights, dim again.

When it comes to the truth of it, something came loose inside Taehyung that night with the tequila. It shakes a little, unsettled with every breath he takes. For all that he’s had a smooth life, it feels so strangely familiar in a way that he can’t put his finger on, and that in itself is more upsetting than the feeling itself. A foreboding that he really shouldn’t have experienced before, or shouldn’t be experiencing at all. In the way Jeongguk is staring at his soup, in the way Jimin is staring at Taehyung. The dim lights.

‘This place is beautiful,’ Taehyung says, and grins at both of them. ‘I’m just saving room for dessert, honestly. I’m going to eat an entire cake.’

‘I don’t put that beyond you,’ Jimin says, laughing, and Taehyung raises his eyebrows. It’s worth talking past his anxiety; Jimin visibly relaxes and attacks his salad with renewed gusto. ‘You’re missing out on the soup, though.’

‘Eh, I’m not a soup man.’

‘What is that even supposed to mean.

Taehyung is great at all kinds of talking. He hasn’t really had the occasion to employ small talk as disguise, but his personality carries him over and he manages to keep Jimin amused even as he keeps glancing an eye at the lights. They are dim. And this time, unlike at the airport, he really can’t convince himself that it’s just him. Not after the cut and the tequila, and especially not after Namjoon’s phone call. He might not need the ring, but that doesn’t mean that he can stop acting up at will— at least, not yet. It’ll take him some time to figure things out; it’s only been days, and he isn’t stupid, he knew there would be some complications in the beginning. Dimming lights is probably one of them.

They are dim, but so were the ones at the airport. It’s only then that he realises that he shouldn’t be trying to check the lights themselves, but rather the reactions of all the others sitting in the restaurant. It’s the only way to find out if something is actually going wrong or if it’s just his head and vision again. That’s when he looks down and around, carefully, this time. But Jimin is happily eating, pausing to take a drink of his water, talking about what Taehyung registers is the menu for the main course. All the other customers are unbothered, too, chattering away, clinking their cutlery against their plates, tapping their shoes against the floor. Taehyung turns from their activity, and back to—

Jeongguk, who is sitting still, frowning and looking at the dimming lights one by one, looking like he’s about to say something each time, and each time thinking better of it.

When Taehyung first moved to Tokyo, before responding to the common tremors (which Seokjin, for all his alertness, slept— sleeps— through like the dead) became habit to him, he used to take a moment to register what was happening. A moment where he would squint and try to focus, to feel it again. Then, something would shake. The bed, or his table, or an overturned Hot Wheels collector’s car on the floor. Something would shake and he would realise. It’s the real deal, get out of the house.

Jeongguk’s brain seems to tell him get out of the house at exactly the same moment that Taehyung’s own does. And a few seconds before he can make sense of that, Jeongguk turns, sharply, to look right at him. In the second before he can make sense of that, the lights go to their dullest, and set off so beautifully the panic in Jeongguk’s eyes that Taehyung is almost happy.

‘Taehyung,’ Jeongguk whispers, and that’s the first time he’s said his name.

But before Taehyung can make sense of that, the lights go out with whispers like candles, and Jeongguk’s face is the last thing he registers before darkness rushes over.

 

▽△▽

 

He wakes up to the sound of something shattering. It’s not too loud, not like it’s happening right beside him. But his ears register how unnatural the sound is and alert him awake anyway, and he’s so focused on it that it takes him ten seconds to realise that his body is on fire.

Come on, he says to himself. Move. Come on.

It takes him another ten seconds to understand where he is. The guest bedroom. The light coming through the curtains is white. Night, then.

But it doesn’t feel like night. The light through the curtains is...all over. Everywhere, reaching every inch of the room somehow. Brightening the whole place. Not in the way moonlight usually does. And if it’s a ceiling lamp, then it’s not night. Late afternoon, maybe.

Wasn’t he at dinner?

Move.

There isn’t an inch of Taehyung that isn’t burning. He doesn’t mean in pain, although the pain is very much a part of it. He means literal heat— like the first almost-cold tingling that invades when he steps into a steaming bath. That almost-cold tingling, roaring all over his body, every inch.

He was at dinner. Jimin liked the soup, Jeongguk wasn’t hungry, the lights went out.

Taehyung grits his teeth and turns to his side, and tries to close his mind off from his body as he pushes himself up. Stares at the window for a second, tries to remember why he’s awake.

On cue, there’s a low, dull thump from outside. He turns to look at the door, and then at his feet. He’s still in the clothes he was wearing at dinner, and it’s still night. It can’t have been that long, then.

Come on, move.

Only one of the hall lights is on, and he winces; after the brightness of his room, a sole bulb is too harsh. This little sun in the hallway, flashing too harsh in his eyes. Too harsh. The bulb could be him, though, making it brighter than it’s supposed to be.

On the hand, the apartment is so silent that it explains why he could hear such a far-off sound; on the other hand, the apartment is so silent that he doesn’t know where Jimin and Jeongguk are. He passes the closed doors of their adjoining bedrooms and thinks of trying the kitchen when he notices the living room light, and then their voices. Jimin’s, to be precise, so low that Taehyung can’t make out the words he’s saying at all.

But when he walks into the living room, the visual is clear enough for him to put it together, and when Jeongguk cuts off Jimin’s speech, his voice is loud enough, too.

‘I trusted you,’ Jeongguk breathes, so raggedly, so close to Jimin, that Taehyung already finds himself wanting to look away from the intimacy of it. He has Jimin pressed up against the wall, white-knuckled fistfuls of his collar stretched up to his jaw. Jimin’s eyes are closed. He can see it, in the combined light of the floor lamp and the bright, big moon from the balcony. The lamp is brighter, though, sharper too.

Taehyung knows he shouldn’t be interrupting, especially because he now knows exactly, exactly what Jimin was saying before. He now remembers what happened before he woke up, why he’s still in his dinner clothes, why every step he took to the living room seemed like ten.

He takes ten more even though he knows he shouldn’t be interrupting, because he knows Jeongguk already knows he’s there. Steps forward—

The hand Jeongguk throws up in his direction is shaking so violently that it shouldn’t be scaring Taehyung as much as it is. Jeongguk isn’t even looking at him, not even out of the corners of his eyes; he might as well not exist, even though it’s his ring under question.

‘I trusted you,’ Jeongguk says again, smoother this time. ‘Jimin.’

Jimin opens his eyes, and if he notices Taehyung, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He looks right up at Jeongguk instead, and a part of Taehyung notes that they’re both still in their dinner clothes too. It must have been two or three hours, at best. Maybe even less, he doesn’t know. They look pale, beside the same floor lamp that Jimin is so fond of. It is bright, painting them so much lighter than they’re supposed to be, even Jeongguk.

‘You were dying,’ Jimin says. ‘There was no money. You were dying.’

‘And you didn’t let me,’ Jeongguk replies. ‘And I still forgave you.’

Taehyung looks away. He knows he’s already seen more than he was supposed to, and even though he itches to know more about Jeongguk, know more about them, know more, he can’t overstay a nonexistent welcome into something like this. He has that much dignity intact, at least.

But when he makes to step off the scene, maybe try his luck in the kitchen for painkillers, Jeongguk raises his outstretched hand higher. Taehyung understands the gesture, and since he doesn’t think now is a good time to let Jeongguk know that he can barely stand, he chooses to step backwards and lean against the side of the couch, staring at his bare feet.

He looks pale. Not paler, but pale. And Taehyung isn’t pale, not like Jeongguk, so the sight is disconcerting. He tells himself it’s the lighting, the dark wood of the floor, the fact that he’s tired. It’s the bright fucking floor lamp— now that he’s closer to it, it’s so much brighter— He tells himself that, but believing it is another thing entirely. Not when he puts his hands out before himself, the figures of Jimin and Jeongguk, however stark, blurring for a moment as he stares down.

The lines of his palms are lighter than his palms themselves. Not glowing, thank God, but light as if someone had raked nails over them, pressure chasing the blood away, and then left them that way. As if something stopped them from recovering.

This is hilarious. There is anger, the kind he never thought he would have to learn the existence of, unfolding right in front of his eyes and he can’t even focus on it fully because there is something else unfolding much closer to home. It’s the real deal, get out of the house.

He doesn’t even realise Jeongguk is talking to him— which is doubly hilarious— until there are fingers briefly touching his palms. If he wasn’t focused on how Jeongguk’s skin looks dark against his, he would have more than just one skip of his heart to devote to the sensation that the touch of his fingertips brings. Really, Taehyung wishes it was romance. It’s not; it’s one brief spark of a frayed electric wire, and then it’s gone.

‘Hey,’ Jeongguk says. ‘Are you with us?’

Taehyung looks up from his again-empty hands and into Jeongguk’s eyes. At least they’re still as dark as ever.

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘So, he told you.’

‘And you,’ Jeongguk says. He looks off to the side and exhales in a sardonic laugh, and Taehyung understands. This is hilarious, and he really should’ve tried the soup before collapsing in the middle of the restaurant like he never even had a chance at negotiating this thing. Get out of the house. ‘All right, look. Listen.’

‘It’s all right.’ Taehyung looks down at his hands again, then looks up again. Jeongguk is still looking at him, face overexposed like in Taehyung’s favourite photograph. It’s a wonder that Jeongguk isn’t squinting; he’s so close to the lamp. ‘It’s not your fault. It’s not his fault either.’

‘I—’

‘I told you, Jeongguk,’ he cuts in. ‘I was never here for the ring.’

‘Are you fucking dense?’ That might just be the most direct barb Jeongguk has flung at him since the day at the airport, what the fuck are you doing here. ‘Are you— are you seeing yourself?’

‘So I got a little dizzy,’ Taehyung shoots back. ‘What, you’ve never seen that happen? What’s that got to do with the ring?’

Jeongguk only looks at him in pure disbelief, and seems at an absolute loss for words. Taehyung’s not seen him like this before, and either way, there’s nothing he can do about it. So he passed out. So he missed soup. So everything hurts a little. He’ll fix it; he knew there would be complications. He’ll sleep it off and they can go back to eating breakfast quietly and he’ll give it a week and give them the invitations, he’ll—

‘Good God,’ he snaps, and he hates how simply impolite his voice sounds, but it’s enough. ‘Can someone turn this fucking lamp off?’

Jeongguk keeps looking at him without a word. It’s Jimin who speaks up from behind him, finally.

‘Taehyung,’ he says. ‘It is off.’

 

▽△▽

 

Jin [14:52]
Your mother called, Sparkles. They’re extending their Spain stay and taking Italy off the schedule.

Jin [14:53]
She was asking about you, I haven’t told her about where you’re staying. Thank me later.

Jin [19:30]
Taehyung, not to be your babysitter, but I haven’t heard in a week.

 

▽△▽

 

‘Okay.’ Jimin puts his laptop down on the breakfast table with an aborted kind of motion that suggests that he was about to drop it. Taehyung wonders if office workers really do drop stacks of paperwork on each other's desks or if that's just in the movies, but before he can swallow his mouthful of yogurt and ask, Jimin is pulling the chair back and sitting down. ‘I've been looking some things up, and—’

‘What things?’ Jeongguk asks over his shoulder. Taehyung lazily turns to look at where he's making his coffee, and immediately wishes he hadn't; Jeongguk's nightshirt has ridden up a little at the waist and it's an observation Taehyung doesn't need to be making in the ante meridiem.

He doesn't think any of them do mornings anymore than they did the previous week, but in face of the mind-numbing extent to which things have changed since the previous week, cooperation has gone up a level in the apartment. That is to say, not only does Jeongguk give more than monosyllabic contributions to a discussion, but he also makes the effort of glaring at both Taehyung and Jimin. Jimin, in his turn, has been mostly silent for the two days that followed their disastrous attempt at dinner, but he looks fresh and determined this morning, which immediately gets to Taehyung.

‘About Taehyung, mostly,’ he says in reply to Jeongguk. ‘The...well, you know. I was reading up on the symptoms—’

‘What symptoms?’ Taehyung puts his spoon down. ‘I told you, Jimin. It's gone now, I'm fine.’ He isn't even lying; the pain of that evening vanished as suddenly as it came, confined to that window of an hour or two at most; it's gone so thoroughly that he can't even remember what it felt like.

‘Everything you touch lights up,’ Jimin says, and Taehyung would take it as some kind of poetic compliment if the tone accompanying it wasn't that of patient exasperation. ‘That's not “fine”, Taehyung.’

‘Okay, this spoon hasn't lit up.’

‘Please be serious for ten minutes.’

‘It hasn't lit up though, you know.’ That's Jeongguk, and Taehyung's gaze shoots immediately to him; he's turned around now, coffee mug in hand— he always uses the same one, this matte grey thing that shouldn't look as domestic as it does— and he shrugs when he catches Taehyung's eye. ‘I'm just saying.’

Jimin must be as shocked as Taehyung himself at the principle of Jeongguk coming to the rescue, but he swallows it and sighs, and opens the lid of his laptop. ‘Look, guys. It apparently differs from person to person, but going by the average curve, since Taehyung's birthday was in December and this is February, I'm going to say we have about a couple of months.’

‘Until what?’

‘Until, well, shit gets real for you. People gifted with light, in particular—’

Taehyung looks up from the spoon. It's lit up now, and he's proud to say that it's of his own volition but also wishes that that wasn't such an unreliable thing in itself this week. ‘Park Jimin,’ he says, enunciating, ‘I'm fine.’

‘You're fine now.’ Jimin doesn't quite glare at the spoon, but definitely stares at it pointedly enough that Taehyung is shamed into cooling it down. ‘You won't be a month from now. And we have to fix this before then.’

‘All right,’ Jeongguk says. ‘How do you propose to fix it, mister salesman?’

Jimin does glare at him. ‘Well, for starters, I've tracked down my buyer. Not that there was much tracking to do, he's still right where he was.’

‘I'm actually curious,’ Taehyung says, leaning forward in his seat. He notices Jeongguk's disdainful gaze peeking where his nightshirt is hanging low, but honestly, Taehyung never asked to have a series of mornings in a row where he'd have to get up and actually deal with the world. He's still in his loose pyjamas, a pair of white hotel slippers on his feet, and he isn't here for any of this. ‘What kind of man actually buys a guardian ring off the black market? Who even introduced you.’

‘You'd be surprised,’ Jimin says. ‘And if you get dressed, you can even find out by this evening.’

Taehyung leans back and stares at him. Jimin stares back, prim in his work clothes and presentable hair, basically the only person in this room— or most rooms— who is actually prepared to get up and deal with the world.

‘Okay,’ he replies. ‘This evening.’

In the periphery, Jeongguk raises his mug to his lips. Jimin nods.

‘And make it fast,’ he says. ‘I took a month's leave this morning, and it's unpaid.’

When he leaves— for the first time disregarding the unspoken rule of Taehyung and Jeongguk should not be alone in a room— Taehyung hazards a look at his silent companion. Jeongguk is staring at him again, with the same clinical expression as the first day in the living room, in the very same pose. Hair ruffled, though, and nightshirt still showing his hipbones.

‘He’s scary, huh,’ Taehyung tries.

Jeongguk ignores him.

 

▽△▽

 

Umma [08:00]
Hello, sweetheart! Seokjin told me you’re in Seoul. Get lunch with Namjoon this week, okay?

Umma [08:02]
If you need anything, let him know. Call me sometime! Your father misses you.

 

▽△▽

 

‘Min Yoongi,’ Jeongguk says flatly. ‘Really.’

‘Look,’ Jimin and Yoongi say at the same time, which makes Taehyung snort and choke on his soda. (The general consensus was that Taehyung probably shouldn’t be consuming anything that isn’t water or the elixir of life, which, of course, made him buy a six pack from the first convenience store he could convince Jimin to stop at.)

Yoongi takes the torch. ‘You guys were kids, man. I was just trying to help, and I mean, if I’m not gonna know a few people here and there, who is?’

And this— this is exactly what Taehyung meant when he said that the owner of a place will always be the owner of a place. The way Yoongi says a few people is so easy and casual, and yet every bit of meaning that is supposed to be understood from the words is clear. Yoongi’s right: if he wouldn’t know who to go to, no one would. Yoongi is who you go to.

Taehyung shifts and runs a thumb over the smooth knit of his seatbelt. Really, ever since he came to Seoul, all he’s been doing is sitting nervously in the backseats of cars; he hasn’t had his own hands on a wheel and he’s itching to ask Jimin if he can take theirs out for a drive. He doesn’t think he’d have been allowed even before all this started, and it bothers him to no end. (The thing is, when Taehyung needs to get away— he does. Physically, and with whichever car keys his fingers first land on. He hadn’t realised how integral a part of his life it was until now, when he doesn’t have access to it.)

He can’t get away right now.

But he can laugh, and he can do it well, so he doesn’t see a reason why he shouldn’t. Especially when Yoongi pulls his car into a parking lot that has graffiti on its border walls. Neon greens and pinks, spelling out useless things like freedom and revolution. Just the one wall beyond the windshield screams of fashionably angry youth, and Taehyung can already imagine what the club itself must look like.

‘Really?’ he asks, tapping his nails against the thin steel of his soda can. ‘I—’

‘You really don’t want to look like a bigger asshole than you already do,’ Jeongguk cuts in smoothly.

Taehyung swallows and concedes. And when he turns to actually face Jimin, he feels just as chastised as Jeongguk wants him to feel— Jimin’s grip on the wheel is noticeably tight, as is the look on his face. He’s staring ahead at the wall with a tenseness that makes Taehyung’s throat clench with guilt even though, for a change, he isn’t directly responsible for it. Taehyung takes a moment, then, to imagine Jimin coming to this same place five years ago, all of seventeen years old with nowhere else to go and Jeongguk in a hospital somewhere.

He swallows again, unbuckles his seatbelt. The soda has started to go flat, and he wasn’t all that thirsty anyway.

The entrance of the club is, to its credit, exactly how the entrances to most small clubs look like— a nondescript heavy door swinging outwards and leading to a deliberately soundproofed cloakroom. Now that Taehyung has caught onto Jimin’s nervousness, every critique that his mind comes up with for the location makes him feel like a terrible person— and his mind, conditioned to different things, won’t stop presenting critique. How the single attendant in the cloakroom gives numbers instead of printed slips, how the payment is in cash, and most importantly, the way the bouncer slides open the internal door into the rest of the club with a practiced air— they want him to feel the realness of it, and with such obvious effort that it negates the point.

He knows how he’s supposed to react at the sound that invades his hearing when the second door slides open— the club opening up to them suddenly, the four of them thrust into its action, a high-intensity, buzzing contrast to the muffled quiet of the cloakroom— he knows all of it, understands it. Understands all the more why this is where Jimin ended up coming. The lighting is warm, cocktails of the day on wooden boards on what is an exposed brick wall on the far end. It’s more of a pub than a club, and it makes perfect sense. Taehyung doesn’t doubt for a moment that it’s deliberate; he knows what places like these are trying to hide, knows what rooms there must be further underground, the kind that a bouncer only slides the door open to if you know whose name to take.

‘Drugs?’ he asks Yoongi, who laughs and nods.

‘Principal operation,’ he says, which also makes perfect sense. It isn’t as if other clubs don’t deal in it— everyone does on this side of the midnight stroke. It’s more that some establishments run on those rings, and they’re the ones that look like this.

God, and Jimin, seventeen. What the fuck was Taehyung doing when he was seventeen? Shrieking on the dunes of Dubai, he thinks, taking pictures of the sunset and sunrise and everything in between. (Crying in his bed at around the same time that Jimin must have stepped into this club.)

The bouncer standing in front of the door that Yoongi weaves through the crowd to reach doesn’t look the least bit surprised that they know it’s an accessible door. When he raises his eyebrow, Yoongi merely gives his full name and waits for him to step aside and open the door. Taehyung wonders if it’s as simple as that all the time, or if the man— whoever he is— is only in town today, because Yoongi asked for him.

Taehyung looks over his shoulder at the floor of the club one last time, and catches Jeongguk looking up, frowning as he tries to hear the music.

‘It’s mainstream,’ Taehyung supplies, and Jeongguk immediately looks away. ‘I know, cat wailing to your ears, huh?’

‘Just keep walking.’

 

▽△▽

 

If there is anyone who could play Zico’s role better than he does, Taehyung would honestly want to award them with something. Everything from his hair— toxically bleached and unapologetically frayed— to his clothes— black, basic— to his very shoes; the rings on his hands, stained thick silver pressed right up against his red-purple knuckles; the sharp black kohl on his eyes. All of it is textbook; the marketable side of rebellion, apathetic with planning.

It makes his skin crawl.

Behind where Zico sits is another exposed brick wall, graffitied within an inch of its life so that the bricks are not technically exposed anymore. It’s overwhelmingly colourful even in the dim lights of the room, and the contrast with Zico, who sits against its backdrop entirely unaffected by their presence, is almost funny.

‘Suga,’ he says, and it takes Taehyung a second to realise that he’s talking about Yoongi. Why he thought Yoongi wouldn’t have one of those fancy names himself, he doesn’t know, but at least he stands corrected now. ‘What’s with the entourage?’

‘Business as usual,’ Yoongi replies, winking exaggeratedly. Zico actually laughs at that, a feat Taehyung had already chalked down as way beyond him. The sound makes Jimin tense beside him; not visibly, but enough for Taehyung to feel it, especially the curl of his fist pressed the slightest bit against Taehyung’s thigh. He would genuinely reach out to take Jimin’s hand if the boy wouldn’t kill him for it, but as it stands, they are currently sitting in the proverbial lair of a drug lord. There is something called timing.

Zico, as it turns out, has almost forgotten about the ring, except for remembering the sordid fact that it apparently did not sell for much when he tried to make money out of it. The almost-disgusted disappointment with which he talks about it makes Taehyung feel like a part of him should be offended; after all, it’s his ring and it isn’t even a lie that had Jimin been unkind— or smart— enough to reveal that fact, it would have sold for much more everywhere. And that’s exactly it— no part of him is offended, because when he went to a jeweller in Tokyo and asked for his own ring to be duplicated, he wasn’t thinking once about the fate of the one he left in Seoul. (Well, he knew where it was; he knew who it was with.) His family would’ve have paid millions to recover it; it’s just that he didn’t care enough to inform them of its being missing.

‘It was a bad deal, honestly,’ Zico says, leaning forward to tap his cigarette out in his ashtray. It’s huge, carved out like a skull; this place is a parody of itself at this point. ‘It didn’t cost me much, but I wouldn’t have made it.’

Jimin’s nails make a low, low sound against the fabric of the couch. One that only Taehyung can catch, and maybe Jeongguk, from his other side.

Taehyung straightens up and makes sure to brush Jimin’s arm on the way.

‘Well, you still made it,’ he says as politely as he can. (For all his experience with talking, Taehyung has never really spoken to someone like Zico before. Too many layers have been removed between him and personnel in this outing alone, and he doesn’t know what to make of the discomfort that brings.) ‘And if you’d like, I can more than compensate for your sour deal.’

No one speaks up, although he knows that Yoongi would be going watch out, rich boy in that sharp way of his if he wanted to. The fact that he doesn’t, however, gives Taehyung more confidence.

‘But for that,’ he continues, ‘you’d have to tell me what I need to know.’

‘I would if I could,’ Zico answers without missing a beat, raising an eyebrow. He doesn’t seem fazed in the least by what Taehyung thinks was definitely a show of power, which instantly makes him realise that things probably work very, very differently down here. He feels silly, but before he can dwell more on it, Zico carries on. ‘I’ve long since lost track of that transaction, kid. I’d gladly take your money but you have no reason to give it to me.’

Well, that makes him feel even sillier than before. He isn’t mature enough to be above contemplating doing something fancy with his hands just to have some hint of surprise show on Zico’s face, but then again, someone who could look at a supernatural ring only from the lens of how much money it could bring wouldn’t really be sold on a little light show, or a big one, at that.

‘Your apprentice.’

Taehyung has to physically turn to look at Jimin, that’s how far he’s leaned forward in his attempt to talk to Zico. Jimin is still sitting the same way he was, fists clenched beside himself on the couch, and he looks paler than Taehyung has ever seen him. His heart goes out for a moment, the imagined visual of a younger Jimin sitting in the same place, and when he turns back to look at Zico, he looks at him through those eyes— and the man turns terrifying, tenfold.

‘Your apprentice,’ Jimin says again, a little stronger this time. ‘The one who checked the ring. Would he know?’

Zico raises his eyebrows, and if Taehyung didn’t know better he’d say that’s a smile on the corner of his lips. Then he’s looking beyond Jimin and nodding at presumably the bouncer.

‘How’s your club doing?’ he asks Yoongi in the silence that follows. ‘I heard the expansion went down the drain.’

‘Changed my mind,’ Yoongi replies sweetly.

The silence that follows that is unbroken. Taehyung feels more deeply for Jimin than ever before, and he hopes it’ll be over soon; if not all of it, at least the work they have to carry out in this room.

On cue he hears the door sliding open again, and Zico’s gaze turns upwards. He smiles immediately, genuinely, and if for no other reason, Taehyung wants to see what someone who can make Zico emote, looks like.

He stares.

‘Ah, D.O.,’ Zico says from behind him.

D.O. doesn’t move from the doorway. He looks directly at Jimin.

‘Let’s go somewhere we can talk properly,’ he says.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung stares, and the boy stares back.

He looks like he’s fifteen. Sixteen, maybe, seventeen or eighteen at a generous best. Everything from his large hoodie to his jeans to his perfectly-laced Converse (high-tops) screams of this kind of youth that even Taehyung left behind a couple of years ago. And his face— eyes so large and wide, and yet managing not to express a single thing— pale skin, his dark, curly hair a shocking top to it. If he looks like this now, Taehyung can’t even imagine what he looked like before; except a small part of his imagination is telling him that maybe he looked just the same.

Going by the fear Jimin can’t manage to keep off his face when Taehyung glances at him, maybe he’s not all that wrong.

‘Park Jimin,’ the boy says, finally. ‘Sit. Call me Kyungsoo.’

The study— a study, complete with a carpeted floor and respectable indoor lighting and a goddamn bookshelf, Taehyung could cry— was only a ten-minute distance from Zico’s respectable scandal of a club. Walking that much at this time of the night means that Taehyung found at least three things he would’ve loved to whip his camera out for, but of course, he couldn’t. He will, later, when all this is over.

He takes a seat to Jimin’s right, with Jeongguk at Jimin’s left. Yoongi, in unforgivable Yoongi fashion, is already standing in front of the bookshelf with a hand on his hip, looking up and down without the slightest regard for Kyungsoo’s hospitality. Taehyung wonders if he gets away with it on the principle of audacity or if he actually gets told off on occasion.

Either way, Kyungsoo couldn’t be less interested. He’s pulling up something on his laptop, typing away with one hand and scribbling something in a journal with the other. Taehyung watches him work in silence, and wonders who in ever loving hell he actually is.

‘Park Jimin,’ he says again. ‘June 2013. Whose ring was it?’

‘Mine,’ Taehyung says, and Kyungsoo looks up at him sharply without moving his head, hands still flying over his sheets. ‘I mean...’

‘I know what you mean,’ Kyungsoo says. ‘Do you want to know what I do?’

Taehyung swallows and looks around him. Jimin is steadfastly staring at the edge of the desk, and Jeongguk is frowning at Kyungsoo. He doesn’t think there’s any possibility for this to be a trap; for starters, Kyungsoo has no motive. He doesn’t seem to use more words than necessary, either, even though everything he says is light and polite.

‘Yes,’ he tries, and Kyungsoo nods.

‘I sense the undercurrents in the environment around me,’ he says. ‘It's not really a power. It's more the ability to sense others'.’

Taehyung raises his eyebrows and nods, but before he can say anything else, Kyungsoo's gaze shifts to Jimin, briefly, and then comes to rest on Jeongguk. There isn't any change in the cold simplicity of his expression, and at the very least, at least there is finally someone who isn't put to unease in the slightest by Jeongguk. It must be such a refreshing existence.

Then Kyungsoo looks at Jimin again. ‘That's how I knew the ring was real.’ Then back to Taehyung. ‘His ring.’

Jimin says nothing, and Taehyung can honestly extrapolate a little and imagine how unsettling it must be for him to be here; he's only meeting Kyungsoo for the first time and can already feel the chill of it going past his jacket. (Over by the wall, Jeongguk remains still, mostly unaffected.)

Maybe it's the fact that his own vision still keeps betraying him, unnaturally brightening things that aren't supposed to be, and putting dark spots in his eyes in plain sunlight. Maybe it's because he's worried that if he chokes on his next mouthful of soda on the way back to the apartment, it'll also come out glowing freakishly. Whatever it is, he can't stop his thinking now that he knows what Kyungsoo's gift is. He wonders what something like that gone out of control would be like. Maybe too much input, hypersensitivity? Maybe something like a set of speakers being too loud for a room, deafening, almost, overwhelming—

‘I’m sorry,’ Taehyung says, and before he can lose his nerve he blurts out his question. ‘Are you...’

‘I’m twenty four,’ Kyungsoo says. And when Taehyung recovers from the sheer shock of the fact that Kyungsoo is older than him, he realises the implication. Past that age, then, and no rings on his fingers. Taehyung is so childishly envious at the sight; it's really all he wants, all he's wanted, more so than ever now. He might only have seen Kyungsoo for the first time this evening, but he has no trouble believing that the boy was able to contain his power on his own, and perfectly.

He nods at the floor. When he looks up again, Kyungsoo is already back to work. Honestly, Taehyung thought he'd elaborate on his own but apparently that phase of the conversation is over, or it was a one-time thing. One question free.

‘I'm sorry,’ he says again. If Seokjin was here, he'd be dealing so much smoother, finding out everything he wanted with a tilt of his head and a quirk of his lips. ‘I'm actually…’

‘Yes, I know,’ Kyungsoo replies, without looking up this time. When he does, it's at Jeongguk again, then at Jimin, then at Taehyung. ‘You are failing, aren't you?’

Taehyung doesn't know what stings more, the truth of the statement or the fact that Kyungsoo did not think it important to soften it in any manner. But then, that's how truth works, if what he's learned in his short time in Seoul holds any merit. The truth doesn't exactly care that Taehyung has never had to deal with it in such a manner before. And the truth is that he's failing. He's trying; it's only been a few days since his body started revolting, or the power started revolting, or both— and he's struggling. He can drink all the soda he wants in some misguided form of bravado; he can spend as many sleepless nights as he wants listening to everything from Melanie Martinez to G.D. to violin solos and say it's time well spent; he can avoid Jeongguk's piercing gaze all he wants.

The truth is, he's failing. Already, because that's just how he does things. Quickly and thoroughly, or not at all.

As Kyungsoo resumes his work, Taehyung looks past Jimin, and at Jeongguk. Despite himself, the flow of the conversation is lost to him, and for nothing— because he can't seem to focus properly on Jeongguk either. Which sounds about right.

 

▽△▽

 

In a place out of time, it happens like this.

Tokyo is big and scary, in a way that he didn’t know things could be big and scary in. It slaps him in the face, quick and hard, and the more growing up he does, the more he sees how much he still has to do. Living in Busan and going to a new European capital every summer made him think that the world would only be as big as he’d want it to be, the only cities in it the ones he’d been to.

Tokyo doesn’t care. Tokyo doesn’t care that he suddenly feels like the kid he forgot that he is. Tokyo doesn’t care that he doesn’t speak proper Japanese yet, or that it’s easy to make friends with his smile but hard to keep them without fluency, or that he misses home, and Jeongguk, and Jimin. Taehyung has never been in a city that doesn’t care, and it’s on the third Sunday of looking up at its tall, cold buildings, that he realises what he’s done.

He doesn’t regret it. He didn’t say that he regrets what he’s done; he said he realises what he’s done. Regret would mean he thinks he wasn’t supposed to do it, and that’s not true. He doesn’t care what his father, or his mother, or anyone else in the world, has to say about it. What he does care about is what his father and his mother (and the rest of the world) are going to say when they see that he doesn’t have both the rings like he’s supposed to.

On the third Sunday of looking up at Tokyo’s tall, cold buildings that don’t care, Taehyung panics.

Apart from the fact that the rings are probably the two most important things in his life, they are very, very simple. Twin bands of platinum, too big to fit even around his thumb yet, and about half a centimetre wide. There's nothing else to them, nothing at all. Taehyung's lost count of how many times he's been told the story of the rings, but apart from the story, the rings are very, very simple.

If he thinks about it, the story, also, is very, very simple. A pair of rings, passed down from generation to generation, and each generation with one child who has the power. It works the same in every family around the world, but Taehyung thinks another simple truth is that theirs is louder about him. He hasn't met anyone else with his particular power yet, but he's met others with powers. And he doesn't think any of them had their rings already.

He feels so very ten years old.

A pair of rings, passed down from generation to generation. One for you, one for your guardian.

On the third Sunday of looking up at Tokyo's tall, cold buildings that don't care, Taehyung pays for a ring. It’s platinum, too big to fit even around his thumb yet, and about half a centimetre wide. He can't tell it apart from the one he pressed into Jeongguk's small hand three weeks ago, and he looks at it, over and over, under ten kinds of light. A streetlamp, the small overhead light in the back of one of his father's Mitsubishi's, under the reading light in his new room in his new home.

He looks at it, over and over, under his own light. Holding it with his own ring on his left palm while holding the right one over it, feeling the warmth of his light gathering in his palm before he shines it onto both the rings.

Twin bands of platinum, too big to fit even around his thumb yet, and about half a centimetre wide. It's not like he's ever going to wear either of them, anyway, but he's looped a silver necklace through his own, just to be sure. He puts it on, just to be sure. He's got eleven years before he needs to worry again, anyway.

 

▽△▽

 

Kyungsoo waves them off with the promise of a lead within the week. Taehyung knows he means it, and knows that it'll be much lesser than a week in reality. He shouldn't be feeling as reassured about it as he does, given how he's understood that things can change drastically in less than a week— but if he can't take the word of someone like Kyungsoo, then there's no point in this chase.

February is easing out into its short latter half, but the cold hasn't let up even slightly, yet. It could just be Taehyung, but Jeongguk is also roaming around in the same sweatshirts that he was wearing last month— and God, has it been a month already?— Jimin is probably a human furnace for being able to progress to T-shirts. Taehyung can barely leave the apartment without a scarf, himself.

The nights are still long. And that isn't just Taehyung— he knows, because as miserably surreal as it sounds, he keeps checking with whoever else is awake. What is more surreal (and not miserably so) is that that whoever else is Jeongguk, more often than not.

(The first couple of nights, it had been Taehyung, alone, looking for something to drink in the kitchen while hearing only the most muffled of rhythms pulsing out from Jeongguk's bedroom door. It was nowhere near a surprise, Jeongguk being a night owl; the real surprise came when on the third night Jeongguk actually opened the door.

He didn't step out, no; all he did was leave the door ajar so that Taehyung could hear better— he knows it couldn't have been for anything else. And Taehyung— well, Taehyung rested his head on the breakfast table with his mug of coffee warming his palms, and Taehyung listened. To the beat, never as sharp as he'd fear it to be. The way of its unraveling, and then pulling together, and then unraveling again, and then quieting itself down. And if the beds of Taehyung's nails flickered along with it, well.)

Jeongguk, more often than not, is awake when Taehyung is, no matter how late the clock says it is. And now, he sits with his laptop in the living room. But Taehyung, who doesn't even trust the digital displays before his eyes anymore, always ends up slipping a question casually into the silence.

‘Still dark outside?’

‘Still dark.’

It's really the only time that Jeongguk speaks to him without bite, and Taehyung wonders how fast this will disappear from between his hands when he gets that wretched ring back. He's never disliked anything— hated, almost— as much as his head goes cold at the thought of that ring, and it's astounding, really, that he could be so embarrassingly human enough to vent on an object he hasn't seen in years.

Tonight, Taehyung has his camera out. He knows it's beyond the question of even turning it in Jeongguk's general direction, but regardless of everything, the balcony does have a beautiful view of the city. Just the kind of stuff that Taehyung likes, and the kind of pictures he took first, early on, when he hadn't wrapped his mind around how to work his photography into his travel, and his travel into his photography. (When travel didn't have a purpose other than travel itself.)

He has his camera out, even though he knows that anything he'll try to click at this point is not going to look the way he thinks it does. Even if he has Jeongguk who calls night night and day day and tells the difference for him without a word, Taehyung has his own eyes and Jeongguk has his own. No one else can come see the world for him the way he does, not even Jeongguk.

The first shot comes out with a focus blur, the windows of the buildings spread into crisp bokeh, blue and green and grey overlapping each other in a string of pearls across the night sky and the structured dark swatches of the city. He leaves it in, because it's beautiful.

The second one is a little worse, and the colours seem to change right in front of his eyes— not quite the same palette as before, and certainly not the one he wants to capture. He leaves it in.

For the third one, he steps out onto the balcony. He knows Jeongguk won't follow, but he can feel the alertness anyway, the gaze focused on the back of his neck. It's so, so cold outside; he wouldn't be able to stay out for long even if he wasn't weak. The night breeze is chilling, but thankfully gentle enough that it doesn't whistle in his ears or part his hair. He doesn't know what more he could ask for these days.

(When Taehyung doesn't want to drive, he usually runs away to the rooftop. He isn't powerful enough to make his favourite stars brighter than the rest, but he can pretend. And anyway, his favourite ones are the brightest.)

The cold makes the camera heavy in his hands, or maybe that's just him and his hands. It's harder to get a grip even though he's been using this one like an extension of himself; when he presses on the shutter, his hand shakes.

It comes out as sharp as he wanted it to, but with the parallel lines of the city lopsided against the dark blue sky, so that the world seems to be tipping over. He'll work with it, and he knows how to work with it; when he runs his fingers over it, he'll make the light of the windows tumble forward on the decline, and maybe he'll have it gather in a corner of the frame; the light.

‘It's cold,’ Jeongguk says.

Maybe he won't, though. It can always run off and away, trickling down the corner of the frame and out of his hands.

 

▽△▽

 

An afternoon or two later, when Taehyung has verified that it is indeed the sun that is high in the sky and not his imagination, he leaves Jimin and Yoongi mid-conversation when he hears the telltale beat of Jeongguk's work start up again.

If he wasn't determined enough already, the fact that every fall of his feet on the way seeps out flares into the gaps between the wooden paneling under them would convince him that there are bigger things to be feared than the closed door of Jeongguk's room. Much, much bigger things— too big, in fact, for his body to comprehend.

He wants to laugh.

Jeongguk's door isn't any different from the other doors of the apartment, except that when it's closed, there is nothing to be done about it. Except that Taehyung is determined to do something about it— all the more determined because of the fall of his feet seeping flares.

He raises his hand and knocks. Once, twice, and thrice because leaving it at two still terrifies him a little.

‘It's open,’ he hears from inside after the music pauses, and he takes a deep breath. It's not now or never, really; he's beginning to realise that everything is now or never and nothing really takes precedence. It's not now or never, but he still has to take a deep breath, and after he takes it, he opens the door and steps in.

His breath stops short in his throat.

Taehyung loves photography. He's glad he found it, and he's glad he found it when he did— living with the pain of Jeongguk nearly dying would've been impossible otherwise. He's glad the first thing that he thought of when he managed to drag himself out of bed on the first day of summer five years ago was to get a camera. There are so many things about photography that he loves— what he can do with it, what it can do for him.

But what he loves the most, perhaps, is the way he gets to present it to the world. Even though he works with every picture and coaxes light into every single shot of his that actually makes it out of the darkroom, there are only a few that actually remain that way when they are finally released under the name of V. What he loves is that he gets to choose— like how he chooses who enters the darkroom— who gets to see them in their original glory.

He knows his craft well; even if he might not want to ensure, personally, the glow of his pictures, he makes sure that they come through with their uniqueness wherever they go. Galleries are instructed to install black lights for his displays; books are sold with recommendations. Whether it's his own magic or not, his photographs will always light up under ultraviolet.

And then, for a select few galleries, for a select few expositions, Taehyung goes himself. It's always between him and the officials, a binding understanding not to reveal his identity if they want to continue relations. For those expositions, Taehyung goes himself, and at least for the opening there are no black lights. It's just him and his hands, and the select few people who have made it into the hall.

When it comes to that, all Taehyung has to do is close his eyes, and sweep a hand over the photographs, and do what he always does: and then they come to life. Lighting up slowly at the breeze of his fingers, and staying steady even as he steps away from the frames. There is always some form of acknowledgement from his audience that is white noise to his ears, because he always needs a moment to look at his own work— light against the darkness of the rest of the room, clean strokes and shapes taking a little bit of him with them, but never enough.

‘Oh,’ Jeongguk says. ‘It's you.’

Jeongguk doesn't have a black light.

Taehyung's work, a thought-stopping amount of it, is arranged on the walls of the bedroom, shining into it in a way that it was never, ever supposed to. The pictures— every single one of them taken by Taehyung, every single one of them— are the (only) source of light, because every stroke in them is illuminated, casting glows of the very colours he had in mind while working with those pictures.

It's him, he realises dully even as he keeps staring at the pictures. It's got to be him. It's got to be Taehyung and how his power doesn't agree with him anymore, but at least his art still recognises him. A piece from last year, the lanterns of a beach over the shallow waves of the shore; one from when he was nineteen, a mountain range that he can't make himself recall the name of right now, and these beams of light from between the peaks; Tokyo's skyline, shrouded in luminescent smoke.

Luminescent.

‘It's— it's an anonymous photographer,’ Jeongguk says, and even through this...this heat filling him, Taehyung can process how different he sounds, startled into civility. ‘V.’

‘Yeah?’ Taehyung's voice is so thick it's a wonder it's even audible. Jeongguk doesn't know. Of course he doesn't know; if he did, he wouldn't look at Taehyung's camera as casually as he does. He doesn't know.

‘They— I used to think it's because of the ring.’

‘Yeah?’

‘It must be tritium.’

It's not tritium, Taehyung wants to say. I wouldn't make it that easy.

Instead, he says, ‘I missed you.’

‘You didn't,’ Jeongguk replies immediately, and his voice is back to normal, toneless with a vengeance. Taehyung refuses to care, but he pulls his gaze away from the pictures and looks at Jeongguk, actually takes the rest of the room in. ‘What the fuck.’

‘I didn't,’ Taehyung says. Jeongguk's bed is the kind of mess that is probably the reason why Jimin always looks upset, blankets bunched up at the foot of it and a set of headphones dangerously close to the edge. Jeongguk's laptop is beside them, open but abandoned, because Jeongguk himself is standing. In the centre of the room, in the centre of it all, with so much of Taehyung's work on him that he might as well be a part of it. ‘Not in the way you did.’

‘I didn't—’

‘I didn't,’ he says again. ‘I didn't miss the you that I didn't know. But I missed who I knew.’

The sting in his eyes propels him forward, and when he shuts the door behind him Jeongguk doesn't even blink. He's still standing near the bed, looking at Taehyung with that quiet expression, that lack of expression, like he's been here for so long that he's forgotten where he is. And when Taehyung steps forward, again and again, he doesn't look down to check if his feet are still lighting the way, because it doesn't matter anymore.

‘Jeongguk, please,’ he says. ‘We were best friends.’

Jeongguk is as unmoving as he seems unmoved, like the stone he must've put over his heart. And there— right there, never has Taehyung felt such helplessness against something. He comes to a stop so close to Jeongguk that he can sense his inhales; arms spread a little, fighting the urge to look imploringly at Jeongguk like a child. Because maybe, if not for this Taehyung, maybe Jeongguk will soften for the little bright boy he once loved.

And he does. It takes ages, minutes, even. But then Jeongguk shifts his gaze from Taehyung to the floor, and he doesn't close his eyes, but he might as well have. Taehyung takes the reluctant invitation— or rather, lack of rejection— steps forward again, and Jeongguk doesn't step back.

The first contact is nowhere near as earth-shattering as Taehyung thought it might be. It's his own hands that pull it to slowness, with the way they climb so carefully over Jeongguk's body: the tips of his fingers at Jeongguk's waist first, and then his fingers, and his palms, pressing over the ridges of Jeongguk's ribs and slowly moving up to his shoulder blades. When their chests touch, it's nowhere near as earth-shattering as Taehyung thought it might be. Jeongguk doesn't move to hold him back, and Taehyung never expected him to. That is the least earth-shattering of all.

But— Taehyung looks out beyond Jeongguk's shoulder, and at the pictures on the walls. At a him that Jeongguk missed without knowing who he misses, like the wailing wind of grief on the first day of summer.

Emotion wells up in his chest then, curling like thick smoke in his throat and blocking his exhales even when he makes them through his mouth. His lips tremble with it, the onset of tears catching on his jaw, on the breath that shakes and shakes, and shakes.

Get out of the house.

For the first time that he is willing to admit to himself since all of this started, Taehyung wishes everything would stop. That just for a little while, he could stand here like this. No cars, no rooftops, no need to talk. And Jeongguk wouldn't even have to hold him back.

(Jeongguk doesn't even have to—)

Under the path of Taehyung's trembling thumb, the column of Jeongguk's spine is a soft streak of blue. Powder, neon, edged with gold, the everything of life as Taehyung thought it might be.

‘Are you doing the shiny thing?’ Jeongguk's voice is low, half-amused, and Taehyung is a handful of phosphenes away from crying. He nods where his talk fails him, and lets his eyes close when he catches Jeongguk's sigh right against his chest.

Hopes against hope that one day, one day Jeongguk will close his eyes too, just for a moment.

He's almost not surprised when he hears the knock on the door; it couldn't have lasted forever. He doesn't think he would've been able to take more than this, actually. The slow internal collapse of his own consciousness is already doing enough to his form; there's only so much he can take. He's almost thankful when he hears the knock on the door, but that's a fainter almost.

It's open,’ Jeongguk says when Taehyung is at a distance, and his voice doesn't sound different at all.

The light of the hallway is a glaring reality, cut out in a rectangle by the frame of the door. And if Jimin has anything to opine about finding them together, he's clearly saving it for later. For now, there's an uncertain look on his face, and what's more is that he doesn't even spare Jeongguk a glance.

‘Taehyung,’ he says instead, ‘someone's here to see you.’

Peering curiously over Jimin's shoulder, looking like he just stepped off a plane, is Seokjin.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung, for someone who takes awkwardness in his stride as a core of his personality that he’s resigned himself to, has endured a great variety of awkward silences before in life. A few stellar examples would be that first car ride with Jeongguk where he tried to play mechanic. The time one of Taehyung’s one-night-stands tripped over one of his dogs (and fell into the arms of his sister, who had her toothbrush dangling from her mouth). Also, memorably, the time he told his father’s best friend that he thought Ocean’s Eleven was better than The Godfather.

Of the variety of awkward silences that Taehyung has had to endure before in life, this has got to be the most excruciating.

The sunlight coming through the balcony doors makes Seokjin look so offensively good that even Taehyung can sense it. If the first few days of being here had been a whiplash of a reminder of what he’d missed in the past decade, Seokjin’s presence in the same living room is another reminder of what he’d lived. It’s almost as if in the past few weeks, Taehyung had started forgetting. Not forgetting, maybe, but at least losing the habit of constantly thinking about things from that side of life— something that had never happened completely even when he hid away in the mountains for weeks at a time. (It was the reason he used to hide away in the first place.)

‘So, Jimin,’ Seokjin says. Jimin, who has been staring at his own interlocked fingers for the better part of five minutes with the kind of tiredness on his face that indicates that he is really not shopping for small talk at this point, looks up immediately. ‘Taehyung mentioned that you’re at work a lot.’ (Taehyung absolutely didn’t.) ‘What is it that you do?’

Jimin takes a moment, during which Seokjin’s smile takes on the slightest hint of strain that only Taehyung can catch.

And the thing is, he appreciates what Seokjin is doing; he does. If talking is something that comes naturally to Taehyung, civil conversation is something that Seokjin has honed his natural talent at over the years. He always has the right thing to talk about, unlike Taehyung, who, depending on the time of the day, might only be interested in intense discussions about lens filters or last summer in Bali, and nothing else at all. Seokjin isn’t like that. Seokjin is smart. He knows what others like and picks up threads of conversation as if he’s pursued a doctorate in that particular subject. Everything from fashion to politics, a new recipe, the Volkswagen scandal.

So he appreciates what Seokjin is doing, valiantly trying to dispel the silence with something, anything. Taehyung, whose brain had given up roughly thirty seconds into him stumbling forward and clutching Seokjin like he was the only source of good in the world, can understand why Jimin and Jeongguk aren’t very chatty either. With the way everything seems to have been going on, a new entry is...well. And a new entry whose first words were the clothes are on the way; you must already have repeated your shirts by now is...well.

He doesn’t know what makes the silence worse— the fact that Seokjin has clearly noticed the decline in his health and he’ll have to explain one more fake ring to him later, or the fact that Seokjin is here in the first place, sitting prim and proper on the edge of the couch, right beside Taehyung, in this apartment, in Seoul. Actually, it’s probably the way Jeongguk is staring absolute daggers at a deliberately oblivious Seokjin, as if to say ‘Really? Really?’ with his eyes. It’s also probably the way he’s only been doing that since he noticed the ring on Seokjin’s finger, and the way Seokjin is politely pretending not to notice the one on Jeongguk’s.

Taehyung half-sincerely wants to pass out. Seokjin, the very embodiment of Taehyung’s life in Tokyo, sitting right across Jeongguk, the very embodiment of disdain for his life in Tokyo: passing out would be great.

‘I work at a bank,’ Jimin says, finally.

‘Oh, you’re in banking!’ The pleased tone with which Seokjin comments already has Taehyung wincing and looking at all three of them out of the corners of his eyes, as if to soften the visual blow for himself. The contrast between Jimin’s demeanour, and Jeongguk’s, and Seokjin’s, is too severe to even be comical. At least, to Taehyung. To an outsider, it must be absolutely hilarious. ‘I’m in banking too!’

Taehyung freezes. Surely Seokjin, with all his alertness and perception and sense of when to say what— surely Seokjin won’t choose this, of all the occasions in the world that he could choose to emulate the kind of behaviour that makes it off-limits for Taehyung to talk to Adults— surely Seokjin wouldn’t.

‘Oh?’ Jimin looks genuinely surprised, and Taehyung turns his thoughts inward. Pass out. Any time now. Any time now would be fantastic.

‘Yes!’ Seokjin beams, and his heart sinks. ‘My family owns a few banks across the peninsula.’

What gets to Taehyung the most is that Jeongguk doesn’t even bother to glare at Seokjin for the tinnitus-inducing quiet that follows Jimin’s pained ah, I see. No, the moment the words leave Seokjin’s mouth, Jeongguk swivels in his position to level an utterly icy, dead look at Taehyung, as if Seokjin is merely the middleman and all of this is entirely Taehyung’s fault. Jeongguk’s expression says about as much, the most subzero rendition of are you fucking kidding me right now that he has ever, ever been on the receiving end of.

Any time now. Really fucking fantastic.

 

▽△▽

 

‘I see,’ Seokjin says after a minute. (That delay is already so unlike him that Taehyung knows he’s in big trouble this time.) ‘And when were you planning to tell me that you are going gentle into the good night?’

As obnoxiously spot-on as the reference is, he can sense the barely-concealed emotion behind it. Yes, Seokjin has never been angry at Taehyung a day of his life, but with the now or never pattern that things are following these days, he could honestly take his shoe off and hurl it at Taehyung’s face and it wouldn’t be surprising. If he can have money offers politely rejected by kohl-wearing drug dealers, anything is possible. Even Seokjin throwing footwear.

‘I didn’t want to worry you,’ he says, looking at Seokjin’s scarf, lying at the foot of the bed.

‘And you thought I just wouldn’t notice that my fiancé was, I don’t know, dead on our wedding day?’

And honestly, Taehyung has no answer to that. He doesn’t know, in retrospect, what he was thinking at all by trying to hide any of this from Seokjin. It’s just that somewhere, a part of him kept saying that the day he would have to admit it to someone other than the people who witnessed it themselves— that would end up being the day he admitted defeat. And Taehyung might be failing, but failure is not acknowledgement. Not in Taehyung’s books, at least, and it never will be.

Seokjin sighs. ‘Have you heard from the informant yet? Kyungsoo?’

‘Jimin said he’s calling this evening.’

‘And your parents?’

‘Spoke to Dad the other day.’

‘And why does Jeongguk look at you like he would slap you if someone offered him a banana in exchange?’

‘Long story.’

‘And why is this ring gone?’

‘Same story.’

When he feels Seokjin’s hand on his, the metal of the ring so cold, he has the silliest urge to cry. He doesn’t know what he was thinking, trying to hide it from his best friend. Now that Seokjin is here, he provides the kind of contrast that Taehyung didn’t have before— no matter how friendly everyone is here (well, barring one), no one is quite like Seokjin; who knows everything Taehyung is thinking before he thinks it, who knows about how Taehyung hates swimming underwater without goggles, who knows, simply and without demand.

Seokjin turns Taehyung’s hand over in his lap and runs his fingers over the pale palm, and when even he can’t hold back a hiss of displeasure at the flickering lifeline, Taehyung closes his eyes against built-up, vindictive fatigue.

‘Look, Sparkles,’ Seokjin says. ‘What we are going to do is, we are going to find this ring and put it on, and then you can go back to hiking in the Swiss alps and I will go back to looking up videos of chinchillas. Okay?’

‘Okay,’ Taehyung whispers. ‘Yeah, okay.’

 

▽△▽

 

The club almost feels like home.

In a place that would finally recognise their names, Seokjin uses his in combination with Kyungsoo's to ensure that the guest list includes them all, even with the regular capacity of two hundred. Taehyung, as tired as he is, feels life come back to him in nothing more than muscle memory as he looks at the surroundings, familiar in a way that these places will always be no matter where he goes.

He's the only one to keep his coat when the cloakroom attendants come to them, and while Taehyung has never really cared to dress for the weather, the fact that he needs the extra layer inside a club speaks a lot more about his condition than he ever will. It's chilly; it really is.

‘Is this the kind of adventuring you've been doing?’ Seokjin asks with a smile. ‘Because this isn't half-bad.’

Not half-bad is a big, big downtown nightclub, the kind that Taehyung spends entire summers in without realising where the nights go. He's lounged on those sofas in Miami, messed insolently with that kind of cool, impersonal neon lighting in Amsterdam. It's all of his partying experiences brought to the forefront of memory; the kind of real club he means when he says he's seen real clubs. The conceit-cold counter to clubs like Yoongi's that are word-of-mouth underground; this is the kind of club that makes it to the tabloids— even though the paparazzi only wishes it could get in.

Taehyung can sense Jeongguk's acrimony rolling off him in waves.

He's almost sorry; put in this context it feels like he's encroaching upon the one territory that Jeongguk would normally have full control in. But of course Jeongguk, so viciously underground and unpalatable to anyone but those looking for him, of course Jeongguk would feel out of place here. And of course Taehyung, who is only slowly— and uncomfortably— realising how used to attention he is, would feel at home.

He misses Yoongi all of a sudden; if the guy was here, he'd shoot back at Seokjin with some kind of quip about Zico's club that would ease the tension, and even if it didn't, Seokjin's general horror when confronted with an existence like Yoongi's would've been the highlight of the moment instead of this: all four of them waiting for their guide in a private lounge, two of them so used to this that it loses colour, and two so alien to it that they can't process it. Taehyung tries to remember what going to his first club had felt like. He was underage, definitely, and riding the coattails of his older cousins while Seokjin rolled his eyes.

The lounge could be the same as the lounge he first saw, for all that the making of it is so carefully standard in its own way. The dark, dark walls, the leather of the couches, the inlaid wires that light up the marbled plane of the counters. It's the kind of place that you lose your sense of time in— although, to be fair, every club does that. Maybe these ones just do it smoother; if the bouncers at Zico's club were determined to push them into a world of sound, here the beat is something that they can almost feel through the floor instead of as an assault on their ears.

‘Kim Seokjin?’

Seokjin looks up from his phone; he's already back to himself— not that he ever slipped— effortlessly casual, unconcerned in an almost mollifying way. ‘That would be me.’

‘Would you all follow me, please?’

The simmering head rush Taehyung feels when he pulls himself upright is new, but he files it away for later. Ridiculously enough, he didn't sleep well last night when, in fact, Seokjin had dragged him to the hotel he was originally supposed to be staying in (where his darling fiancé, of course, reserved half a floor) and by all means it should've been more comfortable than the guest room at Jimin's. Put that way, actually, it doesn't sound that ridiculous. (And it's not like he's been having the best of sleep this month anyway. Still dark outside.)

The passageway down which they follow the clicking of the boy’s boots is nondescript enough, just like he would've expected. The room that they end up in is also what he would've expected— glass paneling for walls, glowing a blue strong enough for the room to be visible with all its black Barcelona chairs and low-set tables.

What he hadn't expected, however, is what the two owners present on those chairs would look like.

‘Key and CL,’ Jimin had said, nose scrunching at the names, ‘They're apparently the big guns in Zico's cartel. Exclusive boutique clubs around the city, celebrity affiliates, the works.’

‘Sounds like your kind of place,’ Jeongguk had sneered immediately at Taehyung, and then cut off midway when Seokjin entered the room. (Taehyung, even a day later, cannot get over the concept that Jeongguk is truly, sincerely intimidated by Seokjin.)

What Taehyung had expected when he heard Key and CL was maybe two tall guys, wearing low-hung jeans and long-sleeved sweatshirts and unnervingly friendly expressions on their faces; a luxury line blend of Jeongguk and Yoongi, the way producers and owners amble on their properties like they're beach mats. What he hadn't expected was the kind of power couple that even he's never seen outside of media. They're clearly older to him; even though the man, for all his piercings and undercut, looks fresh out of university, the woman beside him carries the kind of authority that would hit anyone in the face the moment they saw her. The way of commanding a room's attention that only comes with age and experience, and something that he (and Seokjin, even) is still learning.

‘Why, are you Kim Taehyung?’ The man says, and if Taehyung hadn't already decided that he's much older, he would be having serious doubts right now. The sweet, nasal tilt of his voice is doting in a way that would normally make Taehyung bristle, but one that he's still too surprised to mind.

He nods, and the man smiles.

‘Kibum,’ he says. ‘Namjoon drops by once in a while.’

Taehyung exhales; of course Namjoon would, the royal bastard, being an ass even now. But at least that's an opening, and that means that for what it's worth, Kibum— Key?— isn't being insincere.

‘Please, sit,’ CL says, then. Taehyung takes a moment to see how she actually looks, then; honey blonde hair, darkly lined eyes, a high-collared shirt that is suffocating just to see. ‘How can we help you?’

Jeongguk doesn't sit. Seokjin and Jimin settle next to one another and turn to Kibum and CL with such vastly different expressions that Taehyung would laugh if he had the energy. As it is, the room is beginning to shift the slightest bit from his axis, and he really, really hopes that it's not a consequence of the two fucking minutes it took them to get from the lounge to here. Whether he likes it or not, it probably is. But still, he doesn't sit, chooses instead to keep standing beside Jeongguk, keeping a casual hand on the doorframe in case his knees decide to give out. He doesn't care how odd it must look; it'd look more odd if Jeongguk was the only one.

‘Well,’ Seokjin begins, ‘I'm not sure how much D.O. told you—’ —how everyone around him is so infuriatingly efficient, he doesn't know; he'd already forgotten what name Kyungsoo goes by— ‘—but it's concerning an old transaction. June 2013.’

‘Kyungsoo only tells you as much as you ask,’ Kibum laughs. ‘He told us about the ring, yes, and it's definitely been to our offices, we verified.’

‘From there,’ CL continues, ‘how can we help you now?’

Her voice seems to go quieter; in volume, not tone. At the same time that one of the blue panels in the wall buzzes shortly, Taehyung sways. His grip on the doorframe is useless—

But Jeongguk's, on his wrist, is not. In fact, it's the strongest touch he's felt in a long, long time.

‘Sit down,’ Jeongguk says roughly. Taehyung avoids his gaze, and those of everyone else, and sinks into a chair. To say he's mortified is redundant; he still isn't used to being so weak. So exhausted all the time. Especially not like this, with the way the evening seems to be biting at his energy. His head is still spinning, but at least he won't be sprawled on the floor like the last time.

‘Well, then,’ Kibum says. ‘I definitely see how we can help you.’

 

▽△▽

 

So far, Taehyung had been spoiled; the snapping quickness of all of their interactions made him think, somehow, that whatever negotiations they would have to do with Kibum and CL would be over within the evening, or the next afternoon, at best.

Instead, he realises that (when he finds himself in their club for the third time in the week and now knows their assistant by name; Jaehyo) the fact of the universe not always adapting its velocity to his personal needs is a fact that is stupid to ignore. Despite their best efforts— or what Taehyung likes to think must be their best efforts— the progress on tracking down the (hopefully final) location of the ring is slow.

‘It's been four years,’ Kibum explains on the third evening, smiling down at Taehyung. ‘You can imagine that we must've made quite a few deals in the past four years.’

That is imaginable. The more time he spends at the club, the more he understands how thoroughly Kibum and CL are on the top deck of a large number of operations netting the city. So much so that he's amazed that they're pulling out even this much time for him. (Then again, he is dying a little, and in Kibum's own words, you're really cute, I like you.)

He only wishes he had half the energy to enjoy the club the way it's supposed to be enjoyed. All those private rooms, and the main floor fixed with hundreds of bulbs designed to do the bidding of every disc jockey that swings by— and all those disc jockeys that swing by. The things Taehyung can do with club lights are half of what make him such a welcome guest wherever he goes; there's been more than one occasion when he's joined the god of the night on the pedestal just to snap his fingers and make the lights change colour and heat and speed, just to hear the screams of his friends (and everyone is a friend). He misses it, so sorely now that he looks at his helpless hands and sees that they're always shaking a little.

Later, for sure. When all this is over, when they find that goddamn ring and he manages to make peace with himself for needing it, when all of it is over, he'll come back to Seoul and this time he won't let anything or anyone ruin it. He'll return to this club with Namjoon and his other friends, and he'll make Jimin taste Seokjin's cooking, and when Jeongguk— well.

Taehyung looks away from his hands— how often does he stare at them these days?— and to his side. Off in a corner of the room, Jeongguk is hunched over in his seat, flipping through one of the lineup brochures of the club. Probably trying to spot familiar names, glaring at the unfamiliar ones.

The thing is, as boring as it sounds, he and Jeongguk are the ones who are the least involved in the week's fun times despite having the highest stakes. (He attributes his own anxiety to Jeongguk because he's sure Jeongguk is practically waiting for all this to end so that Taehyung will get out of his hair.) Seokjin and Kibum have taken on the job of sweet-talking various agents in the game (or well, Kibum does the sweet-talking and Seokjin nods along as if he can hear what the person on the other end is saying) and strangely enough, CL, who hasn't really spoken a lot with the rest of them, has taken a liking to Jimin. Sensible Jimin with his home-ironed shirts and starched collars, who, for all his efficiency, is still unable to look CL in the eye the last that Taehyung checked.

As satisfying as both pairs are to watch, it leaves Taehyung and Jeongguk with not much to do other than sit as fixtures in the same room and remind the others why they have to hurry through their work. (If not for Taehyung's face, they will definitely cave for Jeongguk's.)

It isn't as if he can do any of the dirty work, either. That's what Jaehyo is for, to pore over records and actually hand Kibum the numbers he's supposed to ring up. Taehyung has never felt so useless before, or rather, he's never realised just how little work he ever has to do in any given situation. Filling in the fuel, shopping for jackets.

He misses his camera.

Jeongguk senses Taehyung's eyes on him and looks up, raises an eyebrow in question. Taehyung has neither an answer nor the energy to look away, so he keeps looking. They're across the room from each other, but it's both too big and too small. And Taehyung doesn't have the energy to figure that out either.

Jeongguk breaks the stare first, looking off at something else, and then closing his expression off completely. Taehyung follows him and finds Kibum looking back down onto his tablet.

He doesn't miss the smile.

 

▽△▽

 

On the fourth night, Taehyung caves and brings his camera along, and Kibum doesn’t do much more than wink at him and say ‘No paps allowed, only private photography, okay?’

As a general rule, Taehyung doesn’t photograph people a lot— only when a sight, usually their interaction with brightness, is too perfect to resist. For all that he loves them and they make up his life, he’s always considered that he’s better at interacting with them than making subjects out of them. It isn’t the type of picture he takes.

Trying to verbalise why he is now inclined to take pictures of his friends is beyond redundant. If anything, he has a bleak regret at not doing it before; regret that his second, locked Instagram is only blurred shots from his phone and the essence of a moment instead of the essence of a person. The small windows of flight cabins with St. Elmo’s fire catching on the edge of a wing, the setting sun in Santorini— entire weekends spent in a haze, but never the exact capture of the weekly arm-wrestling matches that his brother and sister still have over the breakfast table whenever he makes it to referee.

He has to put his camera back in his lap after every shot; it’s too heavy for this. (Too heavy for him, now, but one way or another this will be over soon.) The first thing he notices— and he laughs at how he now needs a special lens to take in the details that were previously an integral input to his brain— is how loud Kibum’s clothes are. The azure of his thin, long scarf, stark against his fair neck and sharp collarbones, the low cut of his shirt, the way his jacket sits on his shoulders. When Taehyung focuses, there are so many things to notice, and he wonders how much he’s actually been missing.

The inanity of it doesn’t hit him until he catches himself scrutinising every picture he takes after that, trying to test himself on the most mundane details— the part of Seokjin’s hair, if Jimin closes his top button or not, if CL was wearing the same nail paint yesterday. Maybe it’s not the inanity; it’s actually the futility. Now or never is three coughing fits away from too little, too late, and tomorrow when he’s lying awake in bed after the same dream, trying to collect himself by remembering the time his father took him out for his first drive, it won’t matter.

It won’t matter, so when Jeongguk leans over his laptop and his hair falls into his eyes, Taehyung points the camera at him. And Jeongguk, sensing it, looks at him without straightening up. Looks right into the lens so that Taehyung can see the challenge on his face right through the viewfinder.

I dare you.

One dizzied footstep into too little, too late is the reminder that here, nostalgia is undeserved: the hollow of neglect is too deep and it needs more memory than history. Taehyung, who no longer has the time for either, puts his camera down. But because lack of time doesn’t mean lack of fight, he keeps looking at Jeongguk until Jeongguk breaks the stare.

 

▽△▽

 

On the fifth night, Jeongguk caves and asks if he can try out one of the private rooms.

For two people who so often end up in the papers, Kibum and CL are surprisingly hard to get to know. Especially Kibum, who talks a lot about everything and nothing and manages not to let a single fact about himself slip. If there is anything of real weightage lost between his oh, but royal blue would look stunning on Taehyung here and so that ended with me having to personally pull the Heimlich on her, Taehyung sure doesn’t catch it, for one. What he does catch is that the balance of being that he’s always considered impossible for himself— that is, being someone who laughs and talks all the time and yet manages to be one of the most intimidating people in the room— Kibum has made second nature out of that, and Taehyung should learn.

CL, on the other hand, is the picture of stoic adeptness that isn’t even fathomable for Taehyung. She never falls short of being courteous, but prefers work to talk and drinks to work. As admirable as she is, Taehyung hasn’t interacted with her enough to do anything more than, well, admire. From afar.

On the fifth night, Jeongguk doesn’t go to either of them, but asks the room at large instead. ‘I was wondering if any of the rooms are free.’

Kibum waves a hand and stands up, and Taehyung is stuck between being envious of Jeongguk both for winning Kibum's favour in equal measure and finding a way out of the room that is slowly beginning to drive Taehyung up its own fancily lit walls. It's too late to deny the sharp downturn a good part of his energy took the first night they came here; despite the way they started, the symptoms are constant now. Scarily so.

The most demanding of his attention is the visual of it— the way a thin film of haze seems to have fallen before his eyes so that everything is a little brighter, with reduced contrast so he isn't as good as telling apart details as he used to be. Or rather, that he isn't able to tell the details anymore, just that in its simple truth. He can't liken it to smoke because at least smoke has movement and dissipates; this pallid wash of grey stays clinging to his faculty, almost remaining even in sleep. (And in his broken sleep these days, he has the same dream over and over again; and that's demanding of his attention too.)

He doesn't have any space to deny it anymore. He even catches CL looking at him from time to time, and wonders what he seems like to her. Twenty one and fading out already, with so much money but nothing to buy him his strength back. After all, there she is; hair tied back so sleek and shiny, eyes sharp and quick, never a thread of her clothes out of place. There Kibum is, glittering and smiling his way past barriers, and finding the breath to laugh about it all. And then, then there’s Taehyung. (And then, when CL looks away, he remembers that he is the sole person in the room who thinks in those kinds of dramatics. The only other one is busy spinning discs in some other part of the building, probably furious at having to deal with it all.)

It's only a couple of hours after Jeongguk disappears. Taehyung is on his phone for whatever two minute windows he can stand to look at the screen, sending vague replies to his siblings' texts that they will pass off as him being drunk or plain uninterested, yes, I'll get you real moonshine; no, your brother can't have any, you know he's a lightweight like me; yes, you and mom drink better than us men.

A couple of hours after Jeongguk disappears and Taehyung lowers his phone from his watering eyes, he hears the kind of curse that would probably make his mother burst into tears on the spot. And what’s more, when he looks up, it’s CL and Jimin who’ve let the colourful word fly in perfect sync. Taehyung snorts at the same time as Kibum does, so at least he’s got that little bit of laughter left in him.

‘You are good,’ CL says to Jimin, audibly enough that Taehyung has to put a hand over his mouth to stop a giggle. It might as well be happening; his life is already in shambles hysterical enough to allow for CL, in all her bell-sleeved authoritative glory, to be saying that to Jimin, who burned toast this afternoon and is currently looking like he, too, is remembering that he burned toast this afternoon. ‘Where do you even work?’

Before Taehyung can try to stop that particular landmine from going off again, Kibum steps in. ‘Find something?’

‘Absolutely,’ she replies. ‘Send for the musician, he’ll love this.’

Taehyung straightens up a little in his seat. He doesn’t know if that was sarcasm or not, given that Jeongguk has not exactly expressed any more happiness at all of this than Taehyung himself, but at the very least their find should be interesting.

Then CL turns right towards him, with Jimin slumping visibly once he’s out of her range.

She smiles.

‘What do you know about G.D.?’

 

▽△▽

 

It speaks volumes about Jeongguk's shock that he doesn't even repeat G.D. in that dead, sarcastic voice, the way he usually does to express surprise at the new way in which current affairs have managed to ruin his life. He just blinks at Kibum for a good thirty seconds before seemingly giving up. Taehyung understands, because it's exactly what he did about fifteen minutes ago.

‘I was telling you,’ he whispers to Seokjin, now. ‘His music. The influence.’

‘Sparkles, I don't remember this at all.’

‘Oh, don't even try.’

To be fair, Taehyung had never really treated the fact that he and Jeongguk share an adolescence hero very seriously until this came up. For someone whose face nobody has ever seen and voice nobody has ever heard, G.D. has more or less been a household presence for almost a decade, one of the omnipresent pillars of the industry.

And now, apparently, he has Taehyung's fucking ring.

‘I honestly didn't expect the kids to be this starstruck,’ Kibum is saying to CL, and Taehyung wants to argue against that, we grew up with him, but he's having a fucking moment again. Funnily enough, just like Jeongguk, Taehyung tries to keep telling himself that he's seen it all, this time he's definitely seen it all; but every time, some or the other bit of new information comes in that throws him completely off. ‘I mean, good for them.’

CL sighs and spreads her hands in a classy what can you do, before tapping her long nails on the clipboard in her hands. ‘The good news is that we know for sure that the ring couldn't have moved further. G.D. is usually the final buyer in the game.’

‘And the bad news?’

‘It's not exactly bad news, per se.’ CL throws Jimin a half-smile for his question, which makes him nod emphatically at his shoes. ‘The so-so news is that he's notoriously secretive. Not even we know his whereabouts most of the time.’

Taehyung, despite himself, feels a little thrill go through him. Honestly, club-hopping of the wrongest kind aside, now that this situation has presented itself he realises that a little part of him was still hoping for some more excitement. Which even he can recognise is absolutely immature— especially given the fact that it's his own life that hangs in the balance— but can't refute. And now, well. An untraceable musician, a missing ring, and—

‘But you can know?’ Jeongguk sounds utterly uninterested, and that's a first. Regardless of his displeasure at most of the proceedings and added thorns reserved exclusively for Taehyung, Jeongguk is usually active in the biting remarks, if nothing else. He never sounds dull, or flat. ‘There's a way for you to find out?’

‘We have contacts,’ Kibum replies. ‘It'll take us a bit to track him down, but we can.’

‘Good,’ Jeongguk says, a little lighter this time. He raises his eyebrows and nods, says it again. ‘Good.’

There's a beat of silence, after which Kibum smiles at Jeongguk. It isn't fake or sharp; it's just a smile, and with an uncomfortable prickling Taehyung realises that he never did that himself. Not once— not even the first time, because he was so— struck—

And then Jeongguk is turning around. It actually takes Taehyung a moment to put his actions together and understand that Jeongguk just left the room, without a word, and another moment to put together the potential consequences. He's still blinking at the spot where Jeongguk was standing only seconds ago, just come in from his (interrupted) exploration of whatever private room Kibum showed him— and now he's left again.

If Taehyung could move beyond the brusqueness of the gesture, maybe he'd have a try at putting together the implications too. As it is, he has the brief, irrational fear that Kibum will be offended— he has every right to be— and all the past week's goodwill will go down the drain, and he can't think beyond that.

Then Kibum turns straight to face him. He isn't smiling anymore, and there is actually a focus to his gaze that Taehyung didn't realise was missing so far until he actually sees it directed at him. Lasting only a few seconds— until Taehyung moves— it's Kibum being straightforward. He looks at Taehyung silently, sharply enough that even he can understand what's expected.

‘If you'll excuse me,’ Taehyung says to no one in particular, and, ignoring the pins and needles in his temples at standing up, heads for the door to follow Jeongguk.

 

▽△▽

 

By the time Taehyung manages to find Jeongguk's room in the dimly-lit maze that is the lower level of the club, his legs are already protesting the strain, and Jeongguk's already started playing.

In a way, he's been processing Jeongguk's music so disjointedly that it never really occurred to him that Jeongguk must be venting through it too; it's like the fact was so obvious that it never really sank in until now, when he can see for the first time how clearly his mood reflects in the track that he's playing. It's angry, and low, and sharp; the bass line a lone, single sound from the depths of hell. It's not even Taehyung's exhaustion that makes it so unnerving; it's Jeongguk's composition alone.

Taehyung, who's been having hot flashes now, is back to being less warmly dressed than Jeongguk. He looks at Jeongguk's black shirt, the way a light sheen of sweat is already on his forehead, the way he seems almost as out of breath as Taehyung even though he's just standing there.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asks, without looking up from the turntables. ‘Shouldn't you be helping?’

‘We all know how helpful I am right now,’ Taehyung replies. It's funny, actually; they really haven't broken the Taehyung and Jeongguk should not be alone in a room rule all that often after all, and with Jeongguk bristling with preparatory anger like this, he should be nervous. But he isn't. If anything, he feels something similar beginning to build up in him, too; the impulse to clench his fists, raise his voice for no reason. ‘So…’

‘Don't.’ Jeongguk still isn't looking up, and it's that which is slowly angering Taehyung. He's caught onto it now, and he'll do anything to change it, because he's childish like that.

‘I wronged you.’

‘What's this new thing? Coming into random rooms and talking bullshit? Have you really got nothing else to do?’

It's deliberate. This isn't the same antagonism Jeongguk used to show him before; Taehyung knows that had started to evanesce, even if only sneer by sneer. This is deliberate, this is Jeongguk telling him to get out of the room, get out of the house.

So he keeps his silence, until Jeongguk speaks up again.

‘At least you'll be skipping off home soon, won't you?’

‘I imagine you won't be attending the wedding.’

Jeongguk laughs, and it's so brusque that Taehyung can't even be ashamed of himself; he's triumphant. ‘God. You're amazing, you really are.’

‘You just stormed out of a room full of people, and I'm the amazing one.’ The heat is building up now, moving from the tips of his fingers up his palms and wrists, and if Taehyung is lighting up in response, he doesn't have the time to check. Maybe if he's a little bit brighter, Jeongguk will fucking look up. ‘No, can you tell me what the hell that was?’

‘Ooh, strong language. Now I'm scared—’

Stop it,’ Taehyung growls out, and he sees Jeongguk freeze for a fraction of a second before he finally raises his eyes to face him, a half-amused smirk on his lips. ‘Yes, I'll be out of your hair soon. What more do you want? Do you want me to wipe off my entire existence?’

‘Shut up,’ Jeongguk says, and that's low, genuine. Taehyung steps forward at that tone, even as Jeongguk leaves the defences of his turntables and comes to stand in front of them, leaning lightly, arms crossed. ‘Are you capable of leaving a single thing alone or have you been spoiled too much? You've never met someone who doesn't want to answer you?’

‘No one like you,’ he says. ‘And believe me, I've met a lot of people—’

‘Haven't you, now.’ The track keeps playing, as if it could loop indefinitely, or at least until they fight out the ugly ultraviolet that has been clinging to them since the first fucking day. ‘You— you're never just— the whole damn world is so interesting, isn't it? Your world?’

Taehyung's taken aback for a moment at the suddenness of the question; that's nowhere near what he meant when he said he'd met a lot of people, or at least, he thinks he didn't. The way Jeongguk worded it, pulling out threads that show just how derisively his life can be taken— it makes his blood boil. Everything is making his blood boil; Jeongguk's eyes, bright with combat and lined with kohl and still the most beautiful things Taehyung has ever seen; the little scar on his cheekbone that Taehyung still doesn't know the story of; the strobe playing out shadows on his face— all of it. All of it. The whole damn world is so interesting, isn't it? Your world?

‘Yes, it is,’ he says. ‘And you are in it.’

It's Jeongguk's turn to blink. For just a fistful of seconds, he's caught off-guard, gaze flitting from Taehyung's eyes to his lips, back to his eyes, to the door behind him, back to his lips, eyes big and dark, just the way Taehyung remembers—

The fistful of seconds slips through his fingers.

‘You don't fucking get it,’ Jeongguk says, that terrible smirk back on his face, as if Taehyung will never get it, as if Taehyung is a wooden fucking block standing in this room, with no understanding of anything at all. ‘You're surrounded by a thousand people, you'll never fucking see—’

‘See what, Jeongguk? How much my presence burns you up? Because believe me, I see that really well!’

The heat is collecting in his chest now, for brief stitches of time where it thickens like smoke, then thins out in a thousand electric pinpricks across his skin. Coming in waves, each stronger than the last, his head beginning to spin again. Good God, he didn't ask for any of this. He never asked for any of this, Jeongguk so close to him now, and so angry and glitchy, finally malfunctioning in the face of this— this— between them.

‘You do burn me up,’ Jeongguk says. ‘You've been doing it all this while, without even looking at me once— all these fucking years.

All these years?

‘How the hell would you know what it's like to wake up and see that all the lamps are broken again?’ Jeongguk steps forward, and Taehyung has to will himself not to step back. ‘How the hell would you know what it's like, to not be able to sleep because you can't stop seeing pictures in negative like— like—’

They're close enough now, that Taehyung can see the way the shadows turn Jeongguk's hair into a deep, deep, deep blue; the unsteady ascent of his breath, the touch of his coffee on his lips, and more than anything else: the way Jeongguk is looking at him as if he's seeing Taehyung's face for the first time.

‘How the hell would you know what it's like to know you?’ he whispers. ‘To not be able to look.’

All these fucking years. You've been doing it all this while. You'll never fucking see.

‘This is who I am,’ Taehyung says, and his lips are tingling so much that they're numb with it. ‘Jeongguk. This is who I am, and if you hate everything that I am so much, then maybe you shouldn't be looking!’

Fuck you,’ Jeongguk breathes, and kisses him.

It goes all through him, strikes him in the chest— so very real, so very physical that Taehyung has to tear himself away from Jeongguk's mouth for a second, gasping loudly, screwing his eyes shut against the pain— and then he's surging forward to kiss Jeongguk again, actually feeling his lips this time. It doesn't hurt anymore, not urgently; it just feels like all of his being is pushing at his skin and trying to escape, the way his power is too big for his body now, the way it keeps him up at night.

Jeongguk's hands are cruel and greedy; they don't care that Taehyung is lighting up at the seams and that the seams are showing, they don't care how brittle his bones have become; they are harsh in the way they grab the hair at the back of his head and the handholds of his hipbones. They are harsh in the way they move over Taehyung, as if Jeongguk is only able to see whatever of Taehyung he can touch; his neck, his shoulders, thumbs catching rough on the corners of his eyes as Jeongguk bites at his lower lip.

God and Jeongguk are suddenly synonymous as kiss after kiss beams light onto the beat still surging through Taehyung's veins, the air still cold between them, the very core of his thought. It's like nothing he's ever felt before, nothing that his body would have been able to feel if it hadn't been broken by the hands of the mistake that ties them together. One for you, one for—

‘Your light,’ and Jeongguk's voice catches and thickens, and his face screws up. It's not pretty, the furrow of his brows is not pretty, it's beautiful. He wears pain so well that Taehyung's greedy fingers twitch for a lens, even though this isn't the type of picture he takes— not people, never again— and what would he call it? Boy, tears, light? Jeongguk isn't even crying; coffee and crowds, and a hundred other things that Taehyung doesn't know about him.

‘My light,’ he says against the corner of Jeongguk's mouth, fists curling tighter into the back of his shirt.

‘It's inside,’ Jeongguk says. Presses his thumbs to Taehyung's temples and curls his fingers, and then pulls away. ‘All the way inside, Taehyung, please take your fucking ring and go.’

Taehyung can't even lean forward after him.

‘Please take your ring and go.

The track fills the hollow space in the room, and Jeongguk is still standing right there even though his hands aren't on Taehyung anymore. He's looking up at the ceiling in a haunting display of helplessness that Taehyung wishes he'd never seen, and there is nothing more to say.

 

▽△▽

 

When Kibum steps in after knocking on the door, he doesn't bother to acknowledge how they're both frozen in place. And they don't bother to acknowledge it either, only turning to him in silence.

‘We have a lead,’ he says, solemnly, as if he knows. (He probably does.)

Taehyung smiles wanly at him, and wonders how it came to this.

 

▽△▽

 

‘The dinner,’ CL explains, ‘is absolutely exclusive.’

Taehyung stares down at the card in his hands and tries to, through clouded memory, remember why the extravagant title sounds so familiar. Private reception. Temporary exhibition.

Armchairs.

He’d laugh to himself if he still had the will to do anything other than what’s asked of him, but he settles for an exhale instead. He’s almost completely sure that this was one of the events mentioned by the head representative all those weeks ago, when he wasn’t paying attention, just like he isn’t paying attention right now. At that, he makes himself look up and focus on CL, who’s still talking.

‘Getting the invite was half of it,’ she’s saying. ‘We ensured that half for you, and we’ve also relayed the information to G.D.’s private office.’

‘From that point,’ Kibum continues, ‘it’s all up to him.’

‘What do you mean?’ Seokjin has had an arm around Taehyung’s shoulders ever since he and Jeongguk returned to the room, and Taehyung doesn’t know if it’s for his own benefit or Jeongguk’s. (Seokjin, he’s learned in the duration of this stay, can be more overtly protective than one would think of him.)

‘See, Choi Seunghyun here,’ CL replies, ‘is the one actually hosting the reception. G.D. is his financial partner— that’s right— and we know for a fact that he’s going to be present at the party. What we don’t know— not even us, no— is whether he will choose to approach you or not.’

‘Are you telling me,’ Taehyung says, looking back at the card in his hands, ‘that it depends on how important he thinks this is?’

‘Well, if you want to put it that way.’

What’s funniest is that had this been a few months ago, Taehyung wouldn’t have wanted to put it that way. He’d have done anything to say it politely, defensively, apologetically; maybe he’s busy, and after all, he doesn’t know us. But now, with neither time nor energy, he prefers to say things as they are: truthfully. For example: whether he will retrieve the ring or not depends on how interesting a powerful stranger finds him. Whether he will live or not depends on his retrieval of the ring. Whether Jeongguk will forgive him or not depends on how hard he can fight himself. Whether he will ever be able to kiss anyone else again in his lifetime— well.

‘Should’ve dressed better,’ he says to Seokjin, who snorts and shakes his head.

‘Well, you have ten days for that,’ CL says. ‘The dinner isn’t until next week.’

Ten days. He wonders how much he’s going to unravel in ten days. Anything could happen, really; he could wake up tomorrow unable to see, or the grey sheen over everything could turn to silver and then white until everything is in negatives. He could burn up with a fever on Thursday night and have to stay in bed.

But he could also hold on, and make one last attempt to keep steady through all of this, because it’s only ten more days.

A cheerful ‘Shots?’ brings him back to the conversation. When he looks up, Kibum is grinning around at all of them, then pulling a face when no one reacts.

‘What?’ he says, mock-petulantly. ‘This is good, isn’t it? You’re almost done here. Shots, guys.’

When one of the bartenders rolls the trolley in, Taehyung looks at the glasses with automatic anticipation. Low-cut and square, arranged in front of a Stoli Elit box. It’s the Himalayan edition, and the sight of it brings so many memories back that it takes him a second to remember that he can’t be drinking right now. Doesn’t know when life will resume again.

Still, Kibum— personally— pours out six shots, not five, and Taehyung knows it’s not a mistake so he doesn’t reach for it, doesn’t bother to decline either. Instead, he sits back and looks to his heart’s content at all the people in the room as they take their glasses in hand. Kibum, smiling wide and easy; CL with only a quirk of her lips; Jimin, looking more relieved than anything; Seokjin, ever the picture of poise and politesse. Maybe dying is really the most banal way to realise how friends and loved ones fill up a life, but it’s not every day that he’s dying.

The air seems so empty around him, then, taking on the greyness of his vision like defeat. Seokjin’s smile, Kibum’s laugh, Jimin’s wide, sincere eyes; they’re losing colour moment by moment, the way Taehyung— only once in a while, and never on purpose— sometimes loses himself in the middle of a crowd, only able to look at the light for an anchor, the world ceasing to make sense around him. How he ended up here, he doesn’t know; he’s been living through it slowly and he doesn’t know. In the dead of the night, so many nights, a thread of hopelessness snuck up on him, and with the way it pulled away his love for life, he doesn’t have even the will to be sad.

‘Drink,’ Kibum says, and they do. Taehyung smiles at his remaining glass as he hears the clinks of the others being set down.

A hand closes around his glass, then, and he keeps smiling. Because actually, what’s funniest is that Jeongguk never took off the ring.

When he looks up, Jeongguk is looking at him. A rage so calm that it leaves no expression, except that it isn’t rage at all, not anymore. He keeps his gaze locked on as he lifts the glass, and only closes his eyes when he swallows Taehyung’s shot.

(Late, late into the night when they’re finally leaving, Kibum pats Taehyung’s cheek and grins down at him, more confident than anyone else that he’ll live through this. And when they’re stepping out into the cool evening air, Taehyung stops ahead of Jeongguk a few feet from the doorway.

He raises his camera, and Jeongguk doesn’t even protest.)

 

▽△▽

 

Namjoon [23:34]
Stay off stimulants
I’m sending meds they’ll help

Namjoon [23:35]
Take cold showers

Me [23:57]
who told you?

Namjoon [23:59]
Don’t die, kiddo.

 

▽△▽

 

Summer is hot, the kind of breezeless, stationary heat where nothing you do feels like you're actually doing something.

Jimin's unpaid leave is coming to an end, a fact Taehyung only knows despite his long-since faded perception of time because Jimin brings it up every time someone is short with him (which doesn't even happen a lot, considering that Taehyung more or less thinks Jimin deserves every good thing in the world, and Seokjin thinks Jimin deserves to work at one of their banks). That someone is hence Jeongguk, who has gone back to taking the entire world as his sworn enemy, which makes Taehyung wonder why he thought for even a moment that it was otherwise.

Among all of the other seemingly minor things Seokjin has been changing (or, as he would probably put it, rectifying) the most noticeable one is definitely the fact that he practically sat in Jimin's living room with one leg crossed over the other, directing deliberately patient looks until all three of them packed their bags (Taehyung still with his miserable Mulberry stationed on the small desk in his room). Knowing how much Jeongguk is bemused at Seokjin's general existence, Taehyung considers it a miracle that even he agreed to wait out their ten-day layover at the hotel instead of the apartment. To what end, Taehyung doesn't know.

While he thinks of having an actual bed to sleep in as more or less useless at this point, the concept scandalises Seokjin, who actually insisted that Taehyung sleep in the same room as him when Taehyung voiced his dissent. “Sleeping”, then, is Seokjin waking up every twenty minutes to check on him, and the sky a constant grey outside the window where he leans his head to stare at the constantly grey sky.

Breezeless, stationary. Nothing he does feels like he's actually doing something, and the colours don't change, wherever he goes.

The first two days, he manages to stuff rice and soup down his throat and not even the smell of the steak Jimin cooks manages to entice him. (Which doesn't dissuade Seokjin from asking for the recipe once he finds out Taehyung likes it; and one way or another, he does get to see the two of them in the kitchen together— he just wishes the sight wouldn't lodge in his throat like a gathering of tears that he is too tired to cry. He also wishes that he would stop saying things like that.)

On the third day, Seokjin makes his favourite meal and brings it to him in bed, balancing the tray carefully in both hands with his eyes trained on the food. When he sets it in front of Taehyung, he sits too, and looks, long and hard.

‘I didn't know three months were enough to take it all out of you,’ he says. ‘Where are you, Sparkles?’

‘I am on a mountaintop somewhere,’ Taehyung replies grandly, without missing a beat. Grins at Seokjin for a brief moment and hopes it's enough, that it brought back who he used to be even if just for a second. ‘Meditation, you know. My body is here but my mind is in a cave. I am chilling.’

‘Eat up, then, chill boy. Caves only have moss.’

‘Correction. You know the Waitomo caves? Down south? They have glowworms.

‘Taehyung.’

‘Imagine if you'd decided to call me Glowworm instead of Sparkles. How tacky.’

Seokjin sighs and lifts some noodles with the chopsticks, holds them to Taehyung's mouth. When Taehyung swallows, they're definitely too spicy for him even though he can tell Seokjin really tried to modify the seasoning, and because of that alone he smiles and flashes him a thumbs-up, and leans forward for more.

It's not like he doesn't understand Seokjin. He's always been the loudest child of the house; not even his younger siblings could compare. If anything, they've grown up a lot more sensible than him just because (in his father's words) he devoted his life to being a cautionary tale for them. Don't be like your brother, children. Be calm. The same reason Cancún made it to the papers; the reason he has two Instagrams, one locked with a nondescript username; the reason Seokjin had three bags packed and followed him to Seoul. The reason Taehyung has never allowed himself to talk to those who won't like his irresponsible passion for life and adventure: the reason is that Taehyung is that person who clambers up next to the disc jockey at a club and points at the lights to make them do his bidding, God for a night. Taehyung is the first one to dive into the blue, the last one to resurface into the shimmering pieces of the sun on the veneer of the water. Taehyung is—

Taehyung was always the one who high-fived too hard, laughed too loud, grinned too wide. Bubbling over with a decade's worth of memories to relay to Jimin the first time they Skyped; bounding over towards Jeongguk with all the idealism of a child; grinning now, even though every time he comes back from the lull of the morning dew to himself he says that he doesn't feel like smiling anymore.

What his lack of energy makes more obvious than anything else is that somewhere, the stubbornness hasn't left him. It has no regard for how weak his body is; his spirit, that is. Oh, it ends up being subdued now and then, but flares up at the most inconvenient of times. When he gets carried away pretending to be fine while speaking to his brother and actually starts laughing. When Jimin says something particularly acidic behind Jeongguk's back, rolling his eyes and then smiling apologetically. Yoongi's hysterical texts, ranging from STILL ALIVE YOU BASTARD, CLUB MISSES YOUR FASHIONABLE ASS to TELL JUNGKOOK TO PICK HIS DAMN PHONE UP. And more than anything, when it dies down, he's left with this kind of regret.

See, Taehyung has a personality messy enough to contain about twenty. The advantage of that has always been that one of those ends up being funny enough to make him likeable. Right now, when one laugh costs him five minutes of steady breathing, every interaction leaves him so apologetic, thinking over and over, You should've met me at my peak. You haven't seen my good side yet. I'm so sorry.

You just haven't seen my good side yet.

Summer is hot. Nothing he does feels like he's actually doing something. Everywhere he goes, he sees the same sights.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung doesn't know how many more days pass, but there isn't any sense of urgency on anyone's face just yet, so he doesn't think it could've been that many. Maybe they're halfway through, or maybe it's just the third evening and he had those spicy noodles in the afternoon and it only feels like it was so long ago because, well. Every action takes the kind of strain that makes him rank them all the same in difficulty; climbing a flight of stairs is the same as lifting a toothbrush (not that anyone lets him do the former anymore).

He doesn't know how many more days have passed, but he knows it's night, not because of the clock whose ticking chases his heartbeat in his chest, but because Seokjin is in his night clothes, fast asleep on the bed. And the faint sound he can hear confirms that it's night— he doesn't really remember Jeongguk playing during the day.

Taehyung leaves a note beside Seokjin, In Jeongguk's room, don't come looking we're totally holding hands, and quietly opens the door to the salon. The sound is less muffled, and louder, and it is purely by tracing it that he ends up outside Jeongguk's door with his fist raised until he realises that the door is ajar.

Still dark outside?

Still dark.

He pushes the door open carefully, and sighs in relief when he steps out of the overwhelming warm lamps of the salon into the blissful darkness that is Jeongguk's room. (Not that it's ever completely dark now, but he'll take what reprieve he can get from the civil twilight of his vision.) Even Jeongguk's screen looks like it's on its lowest setting, and Taehyung thinks of how he doesn't deserve it, any of it; remembers how his photographs light up the walls of Jeongguk's home and thinks of how he doesn't deserve it.

Closing the door behind him (its purpose has been served) he advances towards the bed, sits on the edge of it. Jeongguk doesn't turn in his chair, and that works just fine with Taehyung. Despite all his senses being frayed, the track playing doesn't hurt him at all. It's not like the first time, when he heard it at Yoongi's club and felt like he was coming apart on the inside. No, this is different. Smoother, softer somehow, and the only thing it does is soothe. If he closes his eyes the beat gives rhythm to his vertigo, and with every pulse, siphons it away until it's been replaced completely.

Nothing can be done about the fatigue, but the tones ease it from the other side of agony into the kind of ache that brings sleep closer, but then, nothing can be done about the sleep. Taehyung feels that familiar resignation all over his body; yes, I know you're tired, I wish you could sleep too. But when it turns into an urge to lie down on the bed, he comes back to himself and remembers that Jeongguk's silence doesn't mean invitation, and he doesn't know if he has a welcome he can overstay.

Then he opens his eyes, and Jeongguk has turned around. And Taehyung can still see him. It's a funny exchange; he's given up seeing details but instead has this twisted copy of night vision. He can see Jeongguk's loose shorts, his usual hooded sweatshirt— if it's cold in the room, Taehyung has no idea— the way his hands are in its pockets. Jeongguk looks so tired, too tired to fight, and Taehyung had known that already.

‘So, G.D., huh,’ he tries.

Jeongguk blinks at him for a second, then snorts. ‘That's your opener? So, G.D.?’

When he puts it that way, it does sound a little ridiculous. Considering that the last (and only) time they had a full conversation was when he was flinging fireballs in Jeongguk's direction and then kissing him, so, G.D., huh might not have been the best icebreaker of all time. So Taehyung laughs along and shrugs a little, what can you do.

‘I read online that you really like his music. He's one of your influences, right?’

‘Oh my, did you stalk me before coming to Seoul? I'm flattered.’

‘I absolutely stalked you.’ His back is aching now; he leans his weight on his hands instead, grins at this Jeongguk for the first time in his life. He wishes he had the headspace to confirm the enormity of it to himself, but his back is aching. ‘I didn't know you like photography so much, though.’

‘How would you?’ It's a little bit of everyday magic, but Jeongguk seems to realise himself that the barb was unnecessary for once, and clears his throat in the only form of apology he will ever give. ‘Yeah, I do. You wouldn't believe it, but Yoongi gave me the bug.’

‘What! Yoongi? What does he specialise in, fake ID's?’

Jeongguk laughs.

Taehyung stops smiling, frantically makes headspace, wrenching it from here and there so that his focus is no longer on his elbows shaking under his weight.

Jeongguk laughs, then stops when he realises he just laughed. The silence lasts for four pulses of Taehyung's heart, and then Jeongguk gives in and laughs again.

Taehyung has never heard anything like it. It clears through the mist and renders Jeongguk in sharp contrast for a moment, the upturn of his lips, the way he doesn't bring his hand up to cover his mouth even though Taehyung had imagined he would. The way he shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling and shakes his head again and laughs, as soft as the song that's still playing.

‘I love this song,’ Taehyung says, because he could mean either song and he's shameless like that. ‘You don't play it very often.’

Jeongguk breathes in, then breathes out loudly, looking forward again. ‘It...you asked about photography. I was obsessed with light photography for a while there.’

‘Yeah?’ He thinks one of his favourite pictures was hung up next to Jeongguk's window. The moonlight over waves of the ocean, taken from inside the water. Bright, burning blue. ‘If I'm responsible, I'm sorry.’

Jeongguk shrugs, and Taehyung looks at the lines of his shoulders, the curve of his neck, how he's just as unbearably beautiful alone against the evening, as he was alone against the crowd. (In his broken sleep these days, he has the same dream over and over; Jeongguk, bright. Jeongguk; alight.)

‘I had...things to work through,’ he says. ‘My music wasn't...the photos you saw in my room.’

‘I remember them.’

‘They...helped. It worked, with them.’ A version of Jeongguk wins an argument with a slightly different version of himself, and he manages to look up and right at Taehyung. ‘It...right now. It worked, with you. The sound...it…’

‘Settles,’ Taehyung finishes. ‘Into the path. Like a river.’

‘Like a river,’ Jeongguk says after a pause. ‘Yeah.’

Taehyung misses him then— not just the him that he knew, but the him that he didn’t. Wonders what he must have been like, all these years. If he laughs more often when Taehyung isn’t around, or if he stopped laughing after that first day of summer. What food he likes, what his favourite colour is. If he’d like it if they went swimming past midnight in the ocean, if he’d like to meet Taehyung’s dogs. And then he wonders why the hell he wasn’t around to ask Jeongguk all that, all these years. Why he wasn’t around when Jeongguk, sixteen and frail, had the life knocked out of him like breath from his chest. Why he wasn’t around to draw strokes of light in the air, show Jeongguk what it looks like when it’s not killing them.

He'd always thought that if one day, just one miraculous day, he and Jeongguk managed to hold a discussion without Jeongguk going straight for his jugular— then that conversation would be laden with anxiousness on his part. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop, overly careful of his words, thinking everything through four times before letting it come out of his mouth. And for that not coming true, he has his own failings to thank. If he didn't feel as strung out as he does right now, he wouldn't be at ease the way he is.

So he smiles and leans forward, winks exaggeratedly at Jeongguk. ‘Although, I'm sure I do a much better job than your precious V.’

‘Hey,’ Jeongguk says, but he's got laughter in his voice again. ‘Don't shit-talk my favourite photographer.’

‘I'll shit-talk who I want to,’ he replies, and when Jeongguk laughs again he fights against a hundred thoughts. The memory of kissing him, so vicious, so possessive. The memory of holding him, before that, surrounded by all those fucking pictures that Jeongguk would hate if he knew the origins of. That Jeongguk knows him without knowing him.

That Jeongguk looks so tired and gentle that he has to tell himself a thousand times over that no, he can't just climb into his lap and cry, or kiss him, or sleep. He can't, because when he does things it's quickly and thoroughly or not at all. When he loves Jeongguk— and he loves Jeongguk— he doesn't do it without loving him. When he loves Jeongguk, and he loves Jeongguk, he loves every version of him that has ever existed and every version that ever will. When he is quiet like this, and when he is quiet in the middle of a crowd, and when he is quiet in the middle of the night— and when he is loud, with his anger and hurt and the sound of his songs, standing with his arms spread, a figure built in the image of God.

In his broken sleep these days, he has the same dream over and over. And he lies down on his side; Jeongguk looks away, hands still in his pockets.

‘I can't sleep,’ Taehyung whispers.

‘I know,’ Jeongguk replies.

 

▽△▽

 

On the first day of summer, it happens like this.

In a place out of time, Taehyung wakes up, crying hysterically before he can even open his eyes. The last time he cried was six years ago, giving one of his rings away at the doorstep of an orphanage. He can't seem to stop right now, and it wouldn't be half as bad if he knew what he is crying about. All he can see with his eyes closed is phosphenes going out of control and flaring like lightbulbs in the middle of the night. Bright, bright, bright and more painful than anything he has ever felt before. A kind of horrifying agony from head to toe, and more than that, a keening, wailing sort of sadness where his heart is rooted in his chest.

On the first day of summer, it happens like this: In a place out of time, Jeon Jeongguk crawls out of the carnage of a car and presses his cut up palms to the crumbling gravel under them to hoist himself up. He calmly goes to sit by the side of the road, and then collapses as gently as a candlewick.

 

▽△▽

 

On the last afternoon— Taehyung knows it's the last afternoon because Seokjin has called up their valets and is instructing them in the salon, probably the same set of instructions that he's had to give to their driver about things like discretion and minor flu and whatever other sugar-coated explanations he must have come up with— Jimin pokes his head into the suite and says ‘Got a minute?’.

‘Time is all I have,’ Taehyung responds, laughing as loudly as he can when Jimin sighs. He still takes a slow moment to get out out bed and actually follow Jimin to the kitchen, but at least he made his joke. (Taehyung also knows it's the last afternoon because Jeongguk has been pretending he can't see Taehyung since morning.)

Jimin looks...weary. In a way that he doesn't, usually, with this hint of near-impatience that makes Taehyung tense despite himself. He feels questions gather in the back of his throat, but swallows them down along with his nervousness and turns to the counter, taps his fingers on the rounded marble edge of it while Jimin tinkers around with the drawers.

‘Hey.’ Taehyung frowns and looks up. ‘Watch here.’

Jimin is tapping a tall mug with his spoon, eyebrows raised. Taehyung doesn't miss that his eyes are red-rimmed but he swallows that down too; it's one thing to be in a constant haze of his own making, but another to think that no one else is tired.

‘I'm going to teach you how Jeongguk takes his coffee,’ Jimin says. ‘He's amazingly low-maintenance but he's a little shit about his coffee, so you better watch carefully, all right?’

Taehyung doesn't remember Jimin speaking so much all at once in the past week, probably. He nods, and Jimin puts the mug aside, picks up the coffee jar instead. It's only then that Taehyung notices that it isn't the same coffee as the one the hotel uses, as Jimin dips his spoon in.

‘First, exactly one teaspoon of coffee. And when I say exactly, I mean exactly. You gotta pile it on and then scrape the excess off so that it's flat. What're you doing? Grab a mug!’

Taehyung laughs, startled, and Jimin cracks half a smile too, just enough to put him at ease. He isn't completely sure of how well he'll handle glassware right now, but it's good practice for the evening when he'll have to laugh and pretend that his hands aren't always shaking now. And the strange thing is that he knows Jimin is perfectly aware of this. It's not exactly the best time to ask such precision of Taehyung, and yet.

As he tries to measure out the coffee for his own mug, Jimin puts the spoon down and leans against the counter, folds his arms over his chest. ‘You know, it's like, we have a coffee machine back home and he still goes for the powder. That's Jeongguk for you.’

‘I mean, it sounds like him.’

Jimin doesn't say anything until Taehyung finishes emptying his coffee into the mug (he's a bit behind on account of it taking him three tries to flatten the powder). Then Jimin pulls close the sugar jar, measures out two teaspoons into a smaller cup.

‘No more, definitely no less. He likes his coffee sweet. Mind you, this is fine-grain. Not powdered, none of that chunky shit, and God forbid if you ever use a cube.’

Taehyung snorts and pulls the jar towards himself, puts his spoon in, measures out the sugar, puts it in the mug. Puts the spoon in again and takes a breath, drops it for a second. It's not exhaustion, really, it's just his inability to keep up for more than three minutes at a time. (He doesn't know what he's going to do in the evening.)

Jimin doesn't say anything then, waits for Taehyung to collect himself while he fills the kettle. ‘Okay, he isn't around to complain right now, but he really hates it if you pour the water in before it's boiling. He will make you do it again.’

‘Right,’ he says. As he watches the kettle come on, he leans more of his weight on the counter. In the morning, Seokjin had opened one of the bags he'd packed for Taehyung, to pick out a suit. It was only then that Taehyung had realised that even after Seokjin arrived, he had still been wearing the clothes he'd brought with him in the small weekend bag when he first landed. The same shirts, swirled so many times now in Jimin's washing machine that they smell completely like his detergent.

‘Do you like this one?’ Seokjin had said, in the morning, and Taehyung didn't have the heart to say anything but yes. ‘I think it's going to look wonderful on you.’

The kettle is beginning to steam, and Jimin rushes to take it off the heat.

Taehyung has no idea what he's doing here.

When Jimin pours the water into the mug— at least he's not making Taehyung handle that— and puts it away, Taehyung picks the spoon up again and starts stirring. It's a comforting motion, clockwise, over and over, the thick glass of the mug only letting half the warmth reach his palm. Wasn't it just yesterday that he was laughing about spoons not being lit up? Hotel slippers and morning sunlight, a matte grey mug. Wasn't it just yesterday?

It was only yesterday, he thinks, and stops stirring. Puts his hands to his face, slumps against the counter. All at once he wonders if this is how Jimin feels every day in the morning, stirring until he can't recognise the motion anymore.

‘You forgot the second teaspoon,’ he hears, and looks up. Jimin's sipping his coffee, eyebrows furrowed, genuinely concentrating. ‘If I gave him this right now, he'd snark you off to Mars. I didn't know the sugarcane crops had been affected this year.

‘I'm sorry,’ Taehyung whispers, and Jimin puts the mug down. Smiles so kindly at him that Taehyung has to grit his teeth and look away.

‘You know how you live through things?’ he asks, and Taehyung shakes his head. ‘Like this. You develop the most fucked-up precision for coffee, you stick to loud places, and you never cry.’

Coffee, crowds, crying. Taehyung finishes that off mentally with a sarcastic show-tune, and laughs through the lump in his throat when he does it— Jeongguk's actually rubbed off on him, then.

‘But hey. Even if you forget the sugar, you're still alive.’

He looks up, and Jimin's eyebrows are raised.

‘You're alive,’ he repeats, after a pause. ‘So you learn.’

 

▽△▽

 

The sun is still out— or maybe that's Taehyung— when Seokjin comes into find him still standing at the counter, three different mugs positioned in front of him, a dusting of both sugar and coffee on the white marble. Because he is Seokjin, he says nothing, and because he is Seokjin, he doesn't hesitate to reach out and take Taehyung's wrist.

‘Let's go, Taehyung,’ he says softly. ‘It's time to go.’

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung doesn't know which is more spectacular, the reception or the unadulterated fury that is enveloping Jeongguk's entire being at having to wear a suit. On the one hand, the reception is amazing; a palatial hall, floor-length mirrors, chandeliers, the works. On the other hand, the literal jut of Jeongguk’s chin isn’t something that he already gets to see once a month.

The reception is flawless in every way imaginable. Taehyung, who made a textbook assignment out of memorising the names and faces of important acquaintances back in Japan, is unfortunately as lost as a newcomer when it comes to the crowd here. He doesn't have a single doubt that Seokjin knows all of them and is probably on a first-name basis with half the room, and for the first time, at least doesn't feel alone in being clueless. Jeongguk and Jimin, from the looks of their carefully blank faces— well, if Jeongguk's fantastic sulk can be called a blank face, which it can; here, anything that isn't a smile is apathy, and sometimes smiles mean apathy too— aren't even able to process the dressing of everyone around them.

Which is understandable. It's been a refreshing while since the last time Taehyung was at a party like this, the last time being his own engagement— God, it feels like it was years ago, his sister's pearls, Seokjin's brother clapping his shoulder— and with all that's been happening, it comes as a bit of whiplash even to him to walk, all of a sudden, into a place where everyone is dressed to the nines like they're being paid to do it. Each outfit louder than the previous one, skirts longer and tighter, suits going from his favourite polka dots right down to flower embroidery, noticeable even though he barely notices anything nowadays. He can already imagine Jeongguk thinking words like useless and gaudy, and wishes that this were the kind of the occasion where Taehyung could explain himself, explain why it's not— and why he doesn't blame Jeongguk for thinking it is.

(Although, at least now Taehyung has a funnier reason as to why it's probably for the best that Jeongguk would never step foot into the wedding.)

Seunghyun himself, of course, is thankfully too busy to do more than smile at all of them and look right through everyone but Seokjin as he apologises for not making it to the engagement. Taehyung has half a mind to raise his hand and wiggle it to indicate just who Seokjin got engaged to, but being murdered by both Seokjin and Jeongguk in one evening doesn’t sound like the way to go. Plus, Seunghyun genuinely looks like a nice person. Tall and intimidating at first glance, definitely, and strikingly handsome too, but with a rather soothing, low voice and the kind of excitement about his armchairs— armchairs— that is heartwarming to see glimpses of.

However, there are the armchairs. No matter how Taehyung enjoys seeing Seunghyun gesticulate from a distance, the fact remains that none of his undergraduate modules really taught him how to appreciate armchairs. It actually ends up making Seunghyun look even more pleasant, and Taehyung is also reasonably sure that half his brain has left the building on account of physical exertion, so he just goes with it.

‘I have never been more uncomfortable in my entire life,’ Jimin says, then, in the most serene voice Taehyung has ever heard a human being use. He wants to laugh, and he finally can, so he does. It's the kind of party where he doesn't have to fake it, or swallow it, which usually causes more difficulty. ‘I have never seen such a huge hat in my life.’

‘To be fair,’ Seokjin says, ‘I don't think I've seen such a huge hat either.’

Taehyung has absolutely no idea which hat they're talking about, and enough of his good humour has returned for the moment that he knows he'll burst out laughing if he actually spots it, so he focuses on his drink instead. It's only water, not even any ice, but he's nursing it carefully so that no one thinks it actually is. Looking like a lightweight is one thing; but God forbid if he looks underage. Namjoon will never let him live it down. His own mother will probably never let him live it down.

‘Do you think he's already here?’ Jimin lowers his glass a little, tries to look around with as stony a face as possible. ‘Oh my God, he's the one in the cardigan. I know he's the one in the cardigan.’

‘Jimin,’ Seokjin says gently, ‘I don't know who you are talking about but let me personally assure you, not a single person in this room is wearing a cardigan.’

Taehyung looks down into his glass again and wonders how life would be different if his power was turning water into vodka instead.

Jeongguk is leaning against the bar right next to the stool Taehyung is sitting on (his elbow occasionally nudging Taehyung's) and not saying a word. Taehyung thinks he might just have given up on bothering with the talk after the initial shock of the party, because every time he sneaks a glance, Jeongguk is just carefully looking around like he's the only one in the group who is actually focused on finding G.D. instead of talking about finding him (Jimin) or the finer points of knitwear (Seokjin).

(Not that Taehyung doubts either Jimin or Seokjin for even a second, though. Seokjin is known to be able to jump into a conversation with terrifyingly accurate input while simultaneously sending back ordered scarves on his phone. No, really, Jeongguk caught him at it once and possibly hasn't looked at him the same way since.)

‘Aren't we supposed to be waiting, anyway?’ Taehyung says. ‘Should I send out smoke signals? Light signals?’

Seokjin makes sure he's only visible to Taehyung before smiling one of his now, Taehyung smiles. 'Sparkles, I'm not asking for a lot here.’

‘Right,’ Taehyung says, raises his hands as the umpteenth suit-clad gentleman of the evening steps up, probably to greet Seokjin. (They’re always there to greet Seokjin; Taehyung now understands why he was supposed to make all those social calls upon his arrival. No one even looks at him.)

‘Lovely exhibition, I’m going to say,’ the man is saying as Taehyung goes back to contemplating vodka. ‘I’m glad to see you here.’

‘The pleasure is all mine,’ Seokjin replies, and Taehyung wants to laugh because the strain of scolding him hasn’t disappeared from Seokjin’s voice yet. (It’s not often that he slips up like that, but it’s always hilarious when he does.) ‘Seunghyun-sshi has always had such an eye for these things.’

‘Oh, absolutely.’ As they pick up the thread of conversation as if they had been interrupted midway before, Taehyung smiles politely at the man and wonders how tired he must look for Seokjin to not have prompted him to make a greeting (even though he scrambles off the chair when he realises). Pretty damn tired, he’s sure; as it is he took the coldest shower he could bear before getting dressed, so that he could hold onto some semblance of control.

Going by the man’s appearance, it’s actually quite possible that it’s not all that important for Taehyung to be introduced to him in the first place. It happens all the time; Seokjin, who might as well be the yellow pages, navigates through entire conversations while Taehyung is effectively winging it, smiling at whoever is on the other end and hoping that they don’t bring up some dinner in Casablanca that Taehyung is supposed to remember. He definitely looks like one of those people; his suit is as simple as Jeongguk’s own (although Jeongguk’s is actually just as expensive— Seokjin refused to let him or Jimin escape from the tailoring, already distressed at the thought of not having time for custom suits). Grey and form-fitting, and his hair styled up, squarish glasses on his face. He doesn’t look familiar, but again, at least Taehyung’s not alone.

Jimin and Jeongguk are both just as quiet, and casting Seokjin and his friend sideways glances. The conversation is going in the direction of other modern art now, which Taehyung wishes he could contribute to, but well. At least he smiles back when the guy makes eye contact, even though the way Seokjin tenses beside him, he’s acutely aware that he probably smiled too wide. God, he will never learn.

‘Ah, and you must be Seokjin-sshi’s fiancé,’ the man says, and Taehyung smiles again, bows.

Every once in a while (and, of course, the eternal reason why Taehyung doesn’t speak to Adults) Seokjin gets this look on his face when they’re outside, the kind that Taehyung can only describe as scandalised parent unable to do anything about being scandalised. It usually happens when Taehyung does something like complimenting someone’s shoes because they caught his eye, or asking how someone’s wife is doing six months after a divorce. It really shouldn’t be happening, but it still does.

Seokjin has that exact look on his face when Taehyung replies with a that’s me, laughing. Taehyung doesn’t consider himself an expert on manners at all, but he really doesn’t think he could’ve gone wrong enough with a that’s me to warrant for that look, but then again, it’s very possible that his fingernails are glowing, or something like that. (He checks, just to be sure.)

They must be old friends, then; despite himself he feels just the smallest twinge of jealousy as he watches Seokjin laugh. It’s no big news that Seokjin has an entirely different set of acquaintances from Taehyung even though they grew up together, but every once in a while when a stranger turns up like this, he always needs a moment to grow up. It just figures that Seokjin would come across some university buddy or ex-teammate from basketball at the most important party of the year for them.

Of all people, it’s Jeongguk who echoes Taehyung’s sentiment. Taehyung can feel him bristle just a little beside him, and his hackles go up, but before he can even fully register the pre-emptive horror at what he’s sure Jeongguk’s about to do, Jeongguk is leaning forward a little, smiling pointedly at Seokjin in a way that’s visible to everyone.

‘I’m so sorry to interrupt, gentlemen,’ he says, and Taehyung wants to sink to the floor for how cold his voice is, ‘but I do think we’re a little occupied this evening.’

Vodka. He doesn’t know what is louder, Jeongguk’s we’re kind of busy here, asshole, or the bright-eyed smile Seokjin is levelling in Jeongguk’s direction which means there is very little in this world that I wouldn’t give up to push you into a sewer right now. And Taehyung can’t even stand to look at Seokjin’s friend directly, only out of the corner of his eye.

Then the man tilts his head to the side and smiles, soft and benign like he wasn’t just insulted by a twenty-year-old.

‘I wonder about that,’ he says.

Before Taehyung has the time to let that sink in, and as if things could get any worse, they’re joined by another party. When he realises that it’s Seunghyun, who has chosen this of all times to come over with his drink, he wonders if he’s actually going to survive this evening.

Then Seunghyun looks down at Seokjin’s friend and smiles, slides an arm around his waist.

‘Why, Jiyong,’ he says, ‘I didn’t know you’re acquainted. Introduce me?’

Choi Seunghyun is the one hosting the reception. G.D. is his financial partner.

We know for a fact that he’s going to be present at the party.

If anything, Jeongguk is the one Taehyung feels sorry for. Neither Seokjin, nor Jiyong— Jiyong— have stopped looking at him, not even acknowledging Seunghyun. Taehyung looks at the arm around Jiyong’s waist, imagines what Jeongguk’s face looks like right now, and tries to swallow a hysterical laugh.

What we don’t know is whether he will choose to approach you or not.

He is so, so, so very fucked.

 

▽△▽

 

Taehyung has been in museums louder than the interior of this limousine.

Waiting until the end of the reception would have been painful enough as it was, but considering that out of the forty-five minutes they spent in one of the inside rooms, about forty consisted of Seokjin very quietly staring at Jeongguk, Taehyung can safely say that it was beyond agonising.

He doesn’t know why he thought the car ride would be any better, but since he did, he stands corrected. The silence is even more ridiculous given the occasional sound of the traffic outside, and he wonders why the worst moments of the year so far have been made up of him and Jeongguk sitting in cars with an overwhelming desire not to be. And this time, Taehyung gets to see it in high definition, since Jeongguk is sitting much closer to him, currently glaring right across at Jimin.

Jimin, for his part, looks so very tired in this irreparable, world-weary way, that Taehyung really does wish he could fulfil the boy’s nonverbal plea of I just want to go home right now. He’s visibly trying not to lean his head against the screen that he’s next to, sitting ramrod-straight with his hands in his lap instead and trying not to look at anything in particular.

Arguably, Jimin’s position is the most unfortunate; Seunghyun is on his other side. Seunghyun, who switched off any and all pretence at mannerliness the moment they actually settled into the car, and is now as slumped in his seat as his height allows him to be, scrolling through something on his phone. He hasn’t said a word, and doesn’t even look like he’s actively trying to offend anyone. That’s the most amazing part of all.

On Seunghyun’s right is the star of the show. Taehyung still can’t figure out whether to call him Jiyong or G.D., which technically does not pose a problem since he hasn’t gotten the courage to talk to him yet. If he feels so intimidated by the man after knowing his identity, he can’t even imagine what Jeongguk is thinking. It’s not every day that you meet the musician who influenced you to start composing, and it’s definitely not every day that you effectively tell them to go screw themselves.

G.D.— Jiyong— is the only other one who doesn’t look uncomfortable in the least about the silence pervading the car. Taehyung knows that Seokjin has the most civil smile on his own face right now, but the very way in which he’s sitting is the biggest red signal ever. He’s never seen Seokjin angry, but this just might be it; honestly he’s praying for Jeongguk’s self-esteem once they’re back at the hotel.

That’s when it hits him. Why they’re in the limousine, where they’re heading, who they’re with. For just a moment Jiyong— Jiyong— stops looking like the G.D. of Taehyung’s adolescence and starts looking like the kingpin in the path his guardian ring has travelled. Jiyong might not have mentioned it a single time yet— indeed, he hasn’t spoken to anyone but Seokjin since when he sweetly replied to Jeongguk back at the party— but it’s not exactly something that needs to be said. Everyone knows where they’re going— except for Seunghyun, possibly— and everyone knows why they’re going. It’s going to be over, and they’re going to be back at the hotel, and Taehyung is going to stop feeling like he’s coming undone even at the effort of pushing his coming undone to the back of his head.

Now that it’s going to be over, it feels like he just landed at the airport, that this is that first disastrous car ride with the desolate fuel station and Jeongguk’s ring glinting in the streetlights. His ring is still glinting in the streetlights, and so is Taehyung’s, and so is Seokjin’s, and—

There’s a ring on Jiyong’s left hand too, a thick silver band just like Taehyung’s. For a moment, Taehyung feels cold shock creep up his neck, but that could mean anything. Instinct kicks in and he looks over at the grip Seunghyun has on his phone.

Another ring. Taehyung knows for a fact that Seunghyun isn’t married; Seokjin filled them in on all the relevant information before the party. At least a part of him is relieved; if one set of best friends can pull off the guardian bond, then so can he and Seokjin. That one last bit of doubt that his own engagement couldn’t rid him of, for obvious reasons, dissipates— but leaves behind the strangest kind of disappointment, a wistfulness, almost.

(And he doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean. He doesn’t do relationships, and he never once counted on having a guardian in the first place. That he’s in love with one of the five hands wearing rings in this car right now is second to the truth of the real ring lying wherever Jiyong is taking them.)

Jeongguk’s hand is curled into a fist, and Taehyung looks away from it, towards Jiyong. He’s looking at his phone now, as quietly as before, and again a thread of hysteria weaves itself through the moment. He’s been in museums louder than the interior of this limousine.

Beside Jiyong, Jimin has progressed from looking at nothing to trying to sneak glances at Seunghyun’s screen. Taehyung is glad that Seokjin is too furious to focus on anything in particular, because Jimin would definitely be on the receiving end of the withering stare of the year if Seokjin caught him at this. Taehyung, on the other hand, has always harboured a healthy amount of schadenfreude and wants to see if Jimin actually manages to look.

Then Seunghyun stops scrolling and looks at Jimin out of the corner of his eye, and Taehyung feels only pure sympathy as Jimin slowly understands that he’s been caught and can only painstakingly look up and make eye contact with Seunghyun.

Seunghyun raises an eyebrow and tips his phone towards Jimin, holds it out a little.

Jimin looks like his will to exist has left the visible world.

Taehyung manages to look away, back at Jiyong, who puts his phone away, then, and removes his glasses. He smiles benevolently at Seokjin, and Taehyung wonders if there’s vodka in the car.

 

▽△▽

 

The sight of the mansion shouldn’t be making Taehyung as uncomfortable as it is, but exhaustion is filtering back into him the way it always does every time there is a lull in activity. It’s almost as if he has to keep moving, laughing, thinking even if it hurts— because the moment he stops and accidentally focuses on his body, he remembers just how much of it has been hollowed out with his power. The way he can feel it with every pulse of his blood through his veins, sore, tired.

The mansion is huge, as he expected it to be. It’s different from where he lives back in Tokyo, but no less grand, and Taehyung has only ever made a home out of his darkroom anyway. The young trees leading up to the entrance have lights installed and he picks that to focus on as they walk. If he just stares at the lights, he can make it to the door.

He does. It’s perfectly in proportion with the building, large, dark wood. When they step inside he has to blink to adjust to the change in brightness; recessed lamps line the ceiling, down a long hallway with various entrances on both sides. Jiyong waves them in and walks straight, ignoring all the glass doors on either side of him.

‘I can imagine it’s been a difficult few months,’ Jiyong says, and it takes Taehyung a moment to understand that he’s being addressed. ‘I had my music but I still went through a rough time when I was your age.’

His music. Taehyung is never going to be able to talk to this man if he simultaneously keeps remembering and forgetting that he owns more vinyls of G.D.’s name than he cares to admit. And now he’s stepping foot into G.D.’s house, with the man himself explaining a power Taehyung didn’t even know he had.

‘Wow,’ he says, because if Jiyong knows he’s dying then he’ll excuse the lack of intelligence anyway. And if he doesn’t, well, Taehyung’s dying. ‘So you…the music…’

‘Oh, yes,’ Jiyong says, smiling. ‘I thought it would be the best way to utilise my gift— I sense and manipulate vibrations.’

‘I see. I’m…I— make light.’

‘And now you need a guardian to help with it.’ Jiyong is still smiling, and Taehyung feels that strange sense of reassurance again. In retrospect, the more they moved up the hierarchy, the less whoever they were negotiating with appeared to care about him. Far from taking it the wrong way— although it was initially a bitterly humble pill to swallow— he’s starting to find solace in it. The end of his world isn’t the end of the world itself, and after all, it’s the world he loves, not just what he makes of it in his camera.

Taehyung really wants to ask about Seunghyun— it’s the first time he’s heard of a genuinely platonic bond. After all, he and Seokjin are still supposed to pretend to be lovers, at the very least. Jiyong and Seunghyun don’t seem inclined to do that at all; in fact, Seunghyun is trailing behind as absently as if he’s only along for the ride. When Taehyung turns to look back at him, he has to immediately swallow a laugh— trying to keep up with Seunghyun’s strides so as not to be the very last one in the group is Jimin. Seunghyun is utterly oblivious of this, still looking at his phone. The visual is simply so unbelievable that Taehyung doesn’t even question it, turns right around as Jiyong leads them to one of the staircases going downwards.

‘Would you rather use the elevator, Taehyung?’

He really would, but habit makes him decline. It doesn’t look like a lot of stairs anyway, and he might get to speak to Jiyong more. But as they begin to descend, Jiyong slows a step and turns around.

‘Which one of you two is Jungkook?’

Taehyung freezes. There is a painfully long pause before Jeongguk replies.

‘That’s me,’ he says, in the most hilariously quiet voice Taehyung has ever heard him use.

‘Ah, the busy man,’ Jiyong says, raising his eyebrows and smiling just as cheerfully as before. (Taehyung is beginning to notice the common points between Jiyong and Seokjin, actually.) ‘I heard about you recently. I must say that I really like your work.’

Taehyung wishes he could be impolite enough to turn around on the stairs and personally be able to witness the colour leaving Jeongguk’s face as he registers that G.D. has listened to his music. Unfortunately, his fatigue is hitting the point where doing such things on inclined surfaces is really not the best idea, so he holds onto the banister a little tighter and hopes that someday he’ll be able to experience something this hilarious again.

‘I—thank you,’ Jeongguk says hastily. ‘That’s— thank you.’

Jiyong’s reply is drowned out in the roar that always fills Taehyung’s ears nowadays when he stops moving all of a sudden. The stairs have finally come to a stop, and across a stretch of marble floor is a wooden door. He catches his breath while Jiyong puts the entry code in, then straightens up and takes a deep breath. Catches Seokjin looking at him— this close to relief, he’s allowing himself to show emotion other than cordiality. Taehyung nods at him, and Seokjin nods back.

Let’s go, Sparkles, he repeats to himself. Time to go.

The vault, too, is just as he had expected it to be. Larger than people would think a vault can be, and pure white from floor to ceiling, chrome lights fixed in neat rows along the meetings of the three. It’s a collector’s vault; glass cases positioned at perfect distances from each other on podiums; vases that look like they could shatter at the merest touch; paintings on the walls. He’d never once imagined that he would be in G.D.’s underground vault, but now that he is, it lines up perfectly with what he’s always thought of the musician, the artist. The recluse.

‘I have to apologise in advance,’ Jiyong says. ‘I am rather fond of jewellery, so there’s a reasonable amount that you’ll have to comb through.’

Before Taehyung can ask what he means, he comes to a stop in front of a particularly long display. A thin, long, stretching rectangular case, all glass over white velvet.

Inside it is a seemingly unending row of rings. All of them silver, arranged according to size and gleaming under the lights. For just one moment, Taehyung has a vivid recall of the jeweller’s showroom, when he first came to Tokyo. The fear he had felt, the stark reminder of how decidedly non-unique he was, how easy it was to get a replacement for something that couldn’t be replaced. He’s confronted with it again as he stares at the rings— laid out in a glass case, lost and stolen, bought and sold, and with all that magic trapped inside them. All that power.

He breathes out and questions his luck.

‘It’s going to be the slightest bit complicated.’ Jiyong, too, is poring over the rings when Taehyung looks up in response. ‘The only logical way is to try them on, but I’ve had the risks verified and it doesn’t seem like a viable option.’

I’m dying anyway, Taehyung wants to say, but Seokjin is beginning to look genuinely distressed and he doesn’t want to add to that. He looks back at the rings and wonders if he can try to pick out his size, hold his real one out to compare, something—

‘Can you open the case?’

They all turn to look; even Seunghyun looks up.

Jeongguk looks like he did that night in the hotel room. So quietly tired, the resignation clear in the slope of his shoulders. It’s only now, days later, that Taehyung recognises it for what it is— some hurt sort of acceptance, but of what, he doesn’t know. And right now, it doesn’t matter that five minutes ago Taehyung was laughing about all of it, or wondering when Jeongguk would take his ring off, or wondering if Jeongguk was rejoicing on the inside. Right now, all Taehyung wants to do is step forward and take his hands and apologise for his wretched choices.

‘Can you open it?’ Jeongguk asks again, looking right at Jiyong. Taehyung doesn’t take his eyes off Jeongguk’s face, so he only knows it’s open when he hears the beeping and clicking.

Jeongguk doesn’t look at anyone else, then; turns his eyes down to the rings and steps forward, right up to the glass surface shielding them.

Taehyung watches with his heart in his throat (and his hands, and hammering against his ribcage as if it’s already understood what he’s still trying to understand) as Jeongguk closes his eyes and reaches inside the case, trails over the row of rings with one pale hand. The same hand that still wears— in the face of Taehyung, and Jimin, and Kyungsoo, and Kibum, and CL, and Seokjin— still wears the silver evidence of his wretched luck.

He comes to a stop a little before the middle; fingertips pausing over a particular band and pressing down as if to verify with touch.

Jeongguk opens his eyes, and they’re duller than before.

‘It’s this one,’ he says tightly. ‘Don’t ask me. Don’t fucking ask. I know it’s this one.’

No one speaks for what seems like ages, the silence after his statement full of restraint. Then Jiyong reaches forward and pulls the ring out carefully, and presents it to Jeongguk.

Jeongguk doesn’t take it.

‘I like your work,’ Jiyong says, in a voice even softer than he’s been using so far. ‘After this, I can show you how to work with his light.’

It…

Settles. Into the path.

Taehyung loves the world, and everyone in it. Taehyung doesn’t really take pictures of people, but when he does he fills them with love the only way he knows how— by filling them with radiance. When he frames the world with his hands and his eyes and puts it down for others to see, he blows over it and strings it up, beautiful, and spinning, and bathed in light. He loves the world with the kind of loyalty that makes him smile even when he comes back to himself from the lull of the morning dew and the haunting loneliness that presents itself in screenshots when he howls his happiness into a crowd.

There is a smile on Jeongguk’s face that is breaking his heart.

Like a river.

‘It’s not me,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘The ring’s not—’

He cuts himself off with one of those bitter laughs that Taehyung has come to know like the back of his hand, and just like that, Jeongguk is slipping into a slightly different version of himself. The one glaring at breakfast on a Tuesday morning, the one that picked Taehyung up at the airport four months ago, when a decade was the only thing between them. Taehyung feels the loss almost immediately, as if Jeongguk has caught hold of the air in the space between their bodies and twisted it with a fist, to pull it out and throw it away, and all their glowing closeness with it.

‘That would be me,’ Seokjin says, then, and the spell breaks. ‘We’re—’

‘Of course,’ Jiyong cuts in absently. ‘I’m sorry, clearly I’m not keeping up today.’

When Jeongguk steps away to let Seokjin come forward to take the ring, Taehyung knows he should be looking at that ring. Feeling such palpable relief that it’s finally back where it’s supposed to be, wondering if it’s changed its appearance over all these years that it’s changed hands during. A part of him wants to bound over and smile down at it, remember seeing it for the first time, remember holding it and trying to fit it on his thumb, remember leaving it with—

Jeongguk twists his ring off and puts it in his pocket, and turns his back to Taehyung.

‘Taehyung,’ Seokjin says softly, stepping into his field of vision. ‘Shall we?’

He’s acutely aware of all but one are looking at them. Jiyong, still on the other side of the case. Seunghyun, leaning against the wall, phone finally in his pocket. Jimin, on tenterhooks, waiting as if he’s holding his breath.

Taehyung closes his eyes for a long moment, then opens them, and smiles up at Seokjin. God, he’s so beautiful; Taehyung loves him so much. The smile he returns is so gentle and kind and everything he remembers his best friend to always have been, and when he removes the fake ring that Taehyung should never have lied to him with, Taehyung feels a weight slip off his chest.

Seokjin holds the new (well, old— so old) ring out and Taehyung takes it, runs his thumb over its cold metal. Here it is finally; and he’d never even thought, when he turned twenty-one, that he’d be holding it again.

Over Seokjin’s shoulder, Jeongguk is bowing his head.

Taehyung takes Seokjin’s hand and lifts the ring, and slides it on.

He exhales and smiles, and Seokjin smiles back after a pause, and parts his lips to say something, congratulations again, probably. But Taehyung is focusing on his breathing; he wants to feel the change with every atom of his body when it begins. Wants to feel the pain recede, wants to feel the heat fade, wants to feel how he used to when he did this best: weightless, and happy, and ready to laugh any time of the day.

And then it begins. He feels it in his throat first, of all places.

It starts to close up.

Taehyung breathes in, and breathes out again, and then breathes in again and breathes out again, but each is shakier than the last, each of his exhales painting the air whiter and whiter as if his breath is still trapped in the mist of winter.

Before he can even notice Seokjin’s growing fear, his attention is caught by the lights of the room. And he wants to laugh, he really does, because he’s so tired of checking over and over if anyone else is looking at him like he’s a freak, if anyone else can tell that he’s messing with the lights even though he doesn’t want to.

This time, as they turn a thread brighter second by second, no one is looking at them. They’re looking at him, and not at the lights, not the lights. And the lights are so bright now; they must be showing in his eyes, at least, because he feels like he can’t see anything other than them—

Until Jeongguk whirls around, his own eyes wide and bright and alarmed, looking at the lights around them, and then at Taehyung. And Taehyung has never seen him look as beautiful as this. The growing white in his vision makes Jeongguk look like he does in the dreams Taehyung has; filled with emotion that he never shows Taehyung otherwise, his skin like the first snow, eyes big and dark the way Taehyung remembers them, just the way he remembers them.

Taehyung has never seen Jeongguk look as beautiful as this, never as terrified. He takes in a breath that knocks against every inch of him and smiles, and thinks about how much he misses life. When all this is over, and it’ll be over soon, he’ll go back to life louder than ever, and he’ll take more pictures, and he will never think about Jeongguk again.

He exhales.

Jeongguk rushes forward, then, and his voice is loud when he speaks Taehyung’s name. But Taehyung, Taehyung has always been bad with earthquakes.

Jeongguk’s face is the last thing he registers before light rushes over.

 

▽△▽

 

In a place out of time, it happens like this.

‘Do you ever feel,’ Taehyung says as he presses his palm against Jeongguk’s, fingers spread and so much longer, ‘that we are like…one person?’

Jeongguk frowns, and Taehyung knows he is frowning because his fingers are tiny. They aren’t tiny for real, though. Hoseok hyung from drawing class says that other people’s fingers aren’t tiny, but Taehyung’s fingers are just really really long. Even though Taehyung’s not so good at drawing his parents still send him to drawing class, and they also send him to piano class, because they say his fingers are really good for doing pretty things and his father said it’ll stop him from doing other things. And Taehyung doesn’t really understand that, but it’s okay. Taehyung doesn’t really understand a lot of things. Anyway, Hoseok from drawing class says that other people’s fingers aren’t tiny, but Taehyung’s fingers are just really really long.

Jeongguk frowns.

‘Like you and me?’ he asks, patting the tips of Taehyung’s fingers with his own. Jeongguk’s fingers are tiny (not for real) but he makes his hand climb over Taehyung’s so that their tips can reach his tips. It always makes Taehyung laugh. ‘Or like you and me and Jimin and Hoseokie hyung and—’

‘Just you and me,’ Taehyung says. He tilts his head to look at their hands from below. If he does that and crosses his eyes a little, the tiny space between their palms becomes all white and glow-y. It also makes Taehyung laugh. ‘Jeongguk and Taehyung.’

Jeongguk grins. Taehyung grins, too, because he thinks Jeongguk has the best smile in the entire world. Taehyung is seven years old, and Jeongguk is almost seven years old, but Taehyung knows that his world is a little bigger than Jeongguk’s world. He thinks he's seen more of it than Jeongguk has, because Taehyung’s been on a plane so many times but Jeongguk hasn’t. But it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t. He doesn’t really care how big the world is, because Jeongguk will still be the best thing in it. He always grins really wide and when Taehyung is sad, he just thinks of how Jeongguk’s face looks when he’s happy, and then Taehyung is happy too.

Jeongguk grins.

‘I think that all the time,’ he says. He curls his fingers around Taehyung’s. And that makes Taehyung laugh too. Everything about Jeongguk makes Taehyung happy, even when he’s not supposed to be happy sometimes, when being happy makes him white and glow-y and a little bit strange.

‘Do the shiny thing,’ Jeongguk says. Taehyung thinks that there are not a lot of people in the world who love every bit of him, but Jeongguk always asks him to do the shiny thing. And Taehyung always does what Jeongguk asks, so he pulls his hand away and closes his eyes. He doesn’t really care how big the world is. Jeongguk is still the best thing in his world. Jeongguk is maybe the only thing in his world.

 

▽△▽

 

Black and white.

When he opens his eyes, for a moment he can see only in black and white. It’s not only the ceiling; it’s the entire room. The curtains, the sheets over him, the clothes of whoever’s sitting next to him.

He hadn’t expected this of death (or life), but he doesn’t let the terror sink in. Takes a deep breath and winces as it hurts his throat, and blinks slowly, over and over.

Every time he opens his eyes anew, a little bit of colour returns to his surroundings. They’re still desaturated, faded like old pictures, but at least this is something he’s used to. This, he’s used to.

It’s Seokjin, beside him. He realises when he manages to focus, looks at the colour of his shirt now, notices that it’s not perfectly buttoned or tucked in; for Seokjin that’s as disastrous as someone else wearing the shirt inside out.

He must’ve been worried. He was worried; he’s looking down at Taehyung with an expression that betrays the delayed reaction of his composure; if Taehyung squints hard enough, he can see the smears under his eyes from where he tried to conceal the shadows of staying up.

Then Seokjin takes a deep breath and reaches for the bedside table, lifts up a glass. ‘Ice chips, your throat must be killing you.’

It’s only at that point that Taehyung begins to realise that the room isn’t one that he’s seen before. He tries to place the relative simplicity of it, how it’s luxurious but still minimal, but he can’t. Not until Seokjin supplies him with the answer.

‘You’ve been out for two days,’ he says. ‘They want you under supervision for the rest of the week, too.’

‘Oh God,’ Taehyung groans. ‘Did I really pass out in front of G.D.?’

He wants to make Seokjin laugh, because he sees more than just attempts at hiding fatigue on his face. He wants to laugh himself, too, because if he only has so much to live, he’s going to fill it with as much laughter as he can. He wants to make Seokjin laugh because if he only has so much left to live, he wants his best friend safe, and laughing.

‘You did,’ comes the smiling reply. ‘It was very dramatic. You gave me quite a shock there.’

‘One could say I scared the—’

‘Please don’t.’ It’s a whisper, and Taehyung looks away, immediately ashamed. He meant for laughter; when the very sight of him must be hurting Seokjin right now, he has no business increasing that pain.

Beyond the paleness of Seokjin’s face and within arm’s reach of Taehyung is cool, soothing truth. He already knows what he’s going to find when he takes it in his hands and turns it over; there is no mystery here. He doesn’t need to remember how exactly he fell to the floor two days ago when he remembers the calm that he felt despite his laboured breaths. So many answers to so many why’s, brushing fingertips with him as gently as dawn.

He already knows what truth he’s going to find, so he doesn’t look at it.

‘Where is he?’ he asks instead.

‘He’s in the city,’ Seokjin replies. ‘He’s trying to figure it out. Said he won’t return until he has answers.’

‘Touching,’ Taehyung laughs. ‘God, Yoongi’s going to kill me. He hasn’t been to the club in weeks.’

‘Taehyung.’  

‘Although it’s almost romantic, don’t you think? The guy’d still slap me, I’m sure, but look at him. On the quest for the magic potion that will cure me, the fountain of youth, etcetera—’

‘It’s not the real one, is it?’ Seokjin says.

Seokjin knows the truth. Taehyung knows that Seokjin knows the truth. He doesn’t know whether to credit his perceptiveness or the clarity of the truth, or maybe both. But the fact remains that Seokjin knows the truth, and there is this kind sort of smile on his face as he looks down at Taehyung that makes Taehyung’s skin crawl.

And as if there weren’t enough things making his skin crawl, Taehyung feels this as a cold wave of realisation. It’s slow and fast at the same time, the way water from a spilled glass spreads over the table while you watch on, helpless, and reaches the edge to trickle down from it. Slow, fast, glowing.

Seokjin knows the truth. Taehyung knows that Seokjin knows the truth.

‘Taehyung,’ he says, when the silence stretches too long to be anything but denial. ‘The ring.’

Taehyung looks at the floor, clean and grey, and then the walls, clean and cream, and then the ceiling, clean. He takes a deep breath.

‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s not the real one.’

Here is the truth. Not a truth, not one of the general truths of life that they’ve grown up whispering to each other under blankets and trees. Here is the truth: the ring isn’t the real one. It won’t be the real one, this ring or any other, when Seokjin is wearing it. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, yes, but it’s not the real one.

It must be tritium.

They— I used to think it’s because of the ring.

‘I was thinking,’ Seokjin says, ‘once we get back to Tokyo, we’ll start looking at cakes and dessert. I know you’ll want the world’s most unnecessary wedding cake.’

‘Yeah?’ Taehyung smiles, and Seokjin smiles back. ‘We still haven’t figured out the flavours, though. You know I don’t like strawberry.’

‘I know, but I’ve hired a hypnotist to accompany us to the baker’s. It’s going to be just fine.’

‘Terrifying, Jin.’

Seokjin shrugs and throws him a wink, and Taehyung laughs and shakes his head. Here is the truth: he misses life, misses the everything of life. With only so much left to live, he will never be able to hold that everything again.

‘And then,’ Seokjin continues, ‘we’ll run from our own wedding reception and get into one of the planes, and we’ll set off to the Maldives. The world’s best honeymoon spot. I’m going to kick your ass at Black Ops.’

‘You know he’s the only one who can save me, right?’

‘Actually, the Maldives are probably not so good at that time of the year.’ Seokjin goes on talking without missing a beat, as if Taehyung hadn’t spoken at all. ‘All right, how about Venice? I know you want some place by the sea, but—’

‘You know it’s not about the rings, right? It was never about the rings.’

‘Although, if we’re trying to enjoy fall we might as well go to New York. Very urban chic, I know, but Namjoon—’

‘You know you can’t tell him, right?’ Taehyung watches Seokjin trail off, his words replaced by a small, faraway smile on his lips, eyes locked on the window of the room. ‘Don’t tell him afterwards. Don’t let him live with that.’

Your light.

My light.

It’s inside. All the way inside.

Here is the truth: when Taehyung gave that ring to Jeongguk a decade ago, Jeongguk held onto it so tight that when it was taken from his hands, he never even realised. And because he never even realised, he lived through it. Waking up to see that all the lamps were broken again, not being able to sleep because he couldn’t stop seeing pictures in negatives.

All those years.

‘So, what was that about Venice?’ Taehyung says after a pause, when he’s brought his breathing back under control. ‘You think I’m going to sit in a damn boat when I could be killing it scuba diving?’

Seokjin doesn’t reply, but he does attempt a laugh. Even though he cuts it off before Taehyung can catch him, it’s the cutting off that makes Taehyung smile.

‘Crying doesn’t suit you, you know,’ he says.

‘I know,’ Seokjin replies. ‘That’s why you’re going to politely look away.’

And Taehyung does; he turns his head and looks outside the window while Seokjin takes his hand and kisses it, leans his forehead against it. It’s only a while later that he speaks up again.

‘I want one last exhibition.’

 

▽△▽

 

In a place out of time, it happens like this.

‘What is this?’ Jeongguk asks. He frowns and looks down at his palm, and Taehyung wants to shake his shoulders and yell at him, but he can’t. They’re leaving so soon, so very, very soon. Taehyung’s old enough now to understand what, exactly, makes his parents less than happy. He’s pretty sure this falls under those things, and he doesn’t have time as it is. They’re leaving so soon, they’re leaving right now, one car already gone, one waiting for him. He doesn’t want to yell at Jeongguk right before he goes.

‘Look, just keep it, okay?’ he says instead. He closes his palm over Jeongguk’s and curls his fingers, and looks down at them. Jeongguk’s hand is so small, still, and Taehyung’s fingers are so long, full of blots of ink from Japanese class. Jeongguk is still a little fairer, and it should make Taehyung laugh, but Taehyung’s not in the mood to laugh. ‘Don’t lose it or my dad will kill me one day.’

‘Why? Taehyung, what’s going on?’

Jeonggukkie, just—!’ Jeongguk’s eyes widen a little when Taehyung raises his voice, but Taehyung can’t be sorry right now. Jeongguk knows, he’s known for weeks that Taehyung is leaving, that he has to go away, for a while, for long, he doesn’t know. He knows it’s Taehyung’s last day here, knows that when Taehyung says they’re leaving it doesn’t mean for holiday, it means that one of the cars is outside and it’s going to take Taehyung to the airport.

And the car that’s outside honks once. Just once, because Taehyung might be ten years old but he’s still Kim Taehyung. He knows it already.

He turns back to Jeongguk and looks at his face. Just looks at his face; his smooth cheeks pale in the lights of the orphanage entrance; his big, dark eyes so wide and confused; the corners of his lips almost turning down instead of up like they always do and always should. It makes something hurt in Taehyung’s chest.

He lunges forward and throws his arms around Jeongguk, and closes his eyes tightly when Jeongguk hugs him back. He knows it’s not possible, but he already feels like something more than just their arms is connecting them. Stronger. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just Jeongguk’s arms, tight around his waist as Jeongguk presses his nose into Taehyung’s shoulder.

‘I have to go,’ Taehyung says. His voice sounds ugly and thick and he hates it because he’s not supposed to cry anymore; he’s grown up now. ‘I have to go, but I’ll be back. Real soon. I promise, okay?’

Jeongguk nods against his shoulder, and his voice doesn’t sound thick. When he says ‘okay’, it sounds like he believes Taehyung like he always does.

He’s almost at the gate when Jeongguk calls out to him again. And he knows that if he’s any later than this then his parents are going to go from less than happy to downright mad, but he turns around anyway, because it’s Jeongguk. It’s Jeongguk, but he shouldn’t have turned around because it’s Jeongguk and Jeongguk looks miserable.

‘What?’ Taehyung asks in that same ugly, thick voice.

‘Do the shiny thing for me?’

He looks miserable but his voice is still the same, and Taehyung doesn’t remember one time in the past five years that it hasn’t made him smile, or laugh. So he laughs now even though his nose is tingling and his eyes are welling up, and he runs back across the garden, past the swing set he remembers sitting on with Jeongguk and Jimin, past the slides, the monkey bars, the little flowers. He runs past it all and up the stairs to the entrance where Jeongguk is already raising his hand.

It’s the hand that’s still holding the ring. Taehyung takes a deep breath and then grabs Jeongguk’s wrist, pulls Jeongguk closer to himself. It’s cold but Jeongguk’s only wearing a T-shirt, and Taehyung would wrap his own scarf around Jeongguk if he had the time. But he doesn’t so he pulls Jeongguk close and raises his right hand, touches the tip of his finger to the inside of Jeongguk’s elbow. He doesn’t have time, but he’s still slow when he trails his finger down to where he can see Jeongguk’s veins on his pale wrist.

Even against the pale skin, a line of pure, bright white follows his finger, a glowing trail that his touch leaves when Jeongguk asks it to. And Jeongguk looks at it and laughs like he always does, and Taehyung knows that he’ll be back soon, that he’ll keep his promise, because that laugh is one of the only things in his world.

Then he drops Jeongguk’s hand and pulls away, and then he’s waving, and turning, and running. Then he’s leaving.

 

▽△▽

 

The gallery is Seoul’s best, but the hall is bare.

Taehyung supposes that after all, in so many ways that he never really took special notice of because he was so busy taking them for granted, Seokjin has always been spoiling him. He doesn’t remember a single time he didn’t get what he wanted, exactly how he wanted it— at least in the physical world. Seokjin has always made sure that the food is to his liking, the clothes are to his liking, the locations, weather, schedules.

The hall is bare, because Taehyung asked for it to be. It’s no less grand for not having anything on its walls; if anything, the emptiness makes it looks all the more beautiful. The floor with its giant marble tiles, clean and bright under the ceiling lights. The pale, almost never-ending walls with not a single frame on them, none of Taehyung’s past work, and, on three out of four, none of his recent work either.

Galleries are like clubs in their own way, in the way that makes you forget what time of the day it is once you step inside. Once you step inside it’s only you and the art, and the cool artificial air that only serves towards making you forget what time of the day it is. Taehyung only holds some exhibits of his work where he attends personally, but whenever he does, he feels more pride than he can express in good nature at creating something that can be displayed in places like this one.

It’s cold inside the bare hall. He shouldn’t be complaining, not really, considering that it’s a small miracle that he’s upright so soon. The doctors had said that it would take a fortnight’s worth of rest to get him functional again, and yet here he is, a week later. Dressed up in a suit that he picked out himself, the scent of his own cologne familiar on the insides of his wrists, and the same kind (if not intensity) of thrilling anticipation that he always gets before unveiling one of his works.

It’s cold, but he’s not going to wear anything over his suit. He intends to look his best, even though nobody’s going to be taking pictures of him— not today. There won’t be any headlines and he’s not worried about the weather either, because in a place like this, the weather doesn’t matter. The time of the day doesn’t matter; those things are for the other side of the doors.

He’s not going to wear anything over his suit, but he’s alone right now, so at least he can put his arms around himself and shiver once or twice. He looks away from the bare walls and turns around, to the wall behind him, to look at it once again.

There is only one picture on this wall, and it’s not a picture yet. It’s nothing but a tall, rectangular sheet of glass covering a completely black surface under it, hanging in the middle of the white smooth plaster, looking for all its value like a dark intrusion, something that shouldn’t be there and is catching attention because it still is.

The hall is bright right now, but it won’t be once his audience finally arrives. And it’s not all that grand of an audience. A handful of people; not even his own family. Seokjin and Namjoon, Yoongi. Kibum and CL. Jimin, maybe, if he’s allowed an hour off the mindless search that they’re still pulling across the city. A few others, not more than ten or fifteen; he even asked Seokjin to invite any of his close friends if he wanted. It’s not only about the picture itself— although it is, it really is— it’s the fact of Taehyung doing this for the last time. It’s the fact that he’s going to enjoy this for the last time and he wants an audience that makes it feel more like an exposition and less like a funeral. He wants someone who doesn’t know him, someone to whom he doesn’t matter beyond his name and his work. He wants that, because if they remember this sight he never has to worry.

Taehyung has always loved photography. What he could do with it, what it could do for him. Why it took him this long to associate it with capturing memories is anyone’s guess, but in the now or never of life, at least he realised on time. And if there’s only one thing that he can leave on this white wall to stay much longer than he will, it’s this darkness covered in glass.

The hall is bright now, but it won’t be once his audience finally arrives. He’ll have them turn the lights off— once, he used to do it himself— and nothing will be visible. Just like always, nothing will be visible, but with the tug of his heart and his hands, Taehyung will know where his masterpiece is. And even though it will be dark, he will close his eyes and lift his hands, and the picture will come to life— and they will clap, and whisper, and ask him questions. And this time, he’ll answer. Secrecy holds value when life protects it— after, no one might be left to tell the story.

He hears a soft hey from behind him, feels hands on his waist.

‘Still won’t tell me what it is?’ Seokjin murmurs, and Taehyung hums, shakes his head.

‘What’s the point of a surprise then?’ he says. ‘How long to go?’

‘An hour. Jimin’s on his way already, but I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a delusional art nut who’s more interested in photography while my fiancé is sick.’

‘I think after Seunghyun he’s pretty much immune to delusional art nuts,’ Taehyung says drily, and Seokjin laughs. ‘I’m glad it’s only him, though.’

Seokjin tenses. ‘About that…’

Taehyung blinks and looks away from the picture, then turns around to blink again at Seokjin. He looks exactly the I replaced your favourite ice-cream with yogurt kind of sheepish that Taehyung remembers from when he was fifteen, and Taehyung knows what that means when applied to different situations.

‘Seokjin, what did you do?’ he asks quietly, and Seokjin turns his eyes to the floor for a moment, then looks up right at him.

‘I haven’t told him why,’ he says. ‘But I did call him here.’

‘Why?’ This changes everything. He’d never intended for Jeongguk to see any of this; when he said you know you can’t tell him, right, it wasn’t some kind of ridiculous sacrifice play. He really meant that Jeongguk shouldn’t know about any of it, should just think that Taehyung failed spectacularly at every single attempt he made to get his power back under control. Failed at holding it in on his own, failed to keep the rings safe, failed, even, to share it with Seokjin. And it was going so well; Jeongguk never came to visit throughout the week that Taehyung was at the hospital, and it was going so well. He’d told himself that the last time he saw Jeongguk in person would be at the airport, again, if Jeongguk even came to say goodbye. And now—

‘You don’t think he deserves to know?’ Seokjin is still looking at him, long and steady. ‘You’re already hiding one thing from him. You don’t think he deserves to know whose photographs are in his room, at least? What makes his music work?’

Taehyung looks away and closes his eyes, stops his hands from curling into fists. ‘Is he coming with Jimin?’

‘I don’t know. Taehyung, I’m not going to apologise.’

‘I know you’re not,’ he says, sighs. ‘God, I’m so embarrassed, this feels like high school all over again.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Seokjin is smiling, then, and Taehyung smiles back automatically. ‘You were never embarrassed in high school. That was the entire problem, remember?’

‘Oh, shut up.’

When Jimin arrives, Taehyung feels a rush of warmth in his chest. He looks like how he used to before Taehyung crashed into his makeshift peaceful life. Work clothes, hair neatly parted and brushed, the stress of Wednesday afternoon in the slant of his eyebrows. He looks like the flustered boy Taehyung had called up on his computer months ago, is this really the Park Jimin who used to eat chalk, and Taehyung is going to miss him so much.

Jimin, when he catches sight of them, sighs visibly in relief. His entire frame relaxes, and then he’s striding forward. Before Taehyung knows it, he’s being pulled forward— gently— into an embrace, Jimin’s arms going around him so tight and warm, his head resting on Taehyung’s shoulder for a long, long moment.

‘Is this a hey, big guy moment?’ Taehyung asks lamely, and Jimin snorts.

‘Be quiet for a second,’ he replies.

Explaining the black picture to Jimin is much less complicated than Taehyung thought it would be, the principal factor being that Jimin doesn’t raise a single eyebrow when Taehyung reveals his photography pseudonym, only nodding with an ahh, right.

‘What?’ Jimin says when Taehyung stares at him incredulously. ‘You seriously think I didn’t suspect that you’re V?’

‘Your flatmate sure seems to have missed the train,’ Taehyung replies, indignant despite himself. ‘You never shared your thoughts?’

‘My flatmate,’ Jimin says, ‘is the kind of human being who doesn’t really care about his surroundings, as you might have noticed.’

The joke gets to both of them, and they end up breaking the mock-angry facade and laughing.

And Taehyung wants to cry as much as he’s laughing; this— this is what he thought he’d be getting when he first stepped into the airport. Laughing and catching up with his friends, asking them to take him to this restaurant, that park, eating food off the street and taking pictures that would go on his second Instagram. Taehyung has always had the world, and because he has always had the world he’s wanted so little from it after all— just the people he loves, laughing, and laughing some more. Just to make sure the laughter never fades, and to not be there if it does.

With half an hour to go, he asks for the lights to be turned out. He’s never needed to have a trial run before any of his exhibitions, and if there was just one time that he wishes he could directly unveil his work, it would be this. But the weak truth of his unpredictability overpowers his sentiments; he needs to make sure he’s doing it right before the guests arrive. He can’t burn through the picture— he doesn’t have the strength to take it to the darkroom again.

When the lights are turned out, he can still see everything faintly in the darkness. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is, or what the weather is like; now, Taehyung can’t stop seeing even when he closes his eyes. He never thought it would be as terrifying as it is, especially after everything he’s been experiencing, but it is. The only thing he can tell himself is that it’ll be over soon, and when he goes back to Tokyo he’ll watch his siblings chase his dogs and the other way ‘round, and he’ll never step outside where he can tell what time it is. He’ll tell himself that the sun is always out and that’s why he can always see, and after Tokyo, he’ll go back to life and the world he loves so much.

It isn’t darkness, then, because he can still see everything faintly. The black isn’t black, but the grey is too dark to be grey. He can just barely make out the edges of the picture on the wall, and he hopes that his art still recognises him as he recognises it through his failing eyes.

He focuses on the picture as best he can, and takes a deep breath. Raises his hand.

He hasn’t had an exhibit since the engagement, so it’s the first time he can feel his ring on his hand as he makes the usual motion. He knows that this, of all times, is the wrongest occasion to have it on— but since it does nothing anyway, he keeps it. As a reminder, more than anything else.

He knows Seokjin and Jimin are looking, and he’s glad they are. He doesn’t have to worry about this story being swallowed in the night as long as they’re there, as long as they see what he’s about to do. And that’s all that matters anymore; it’s all that matters.

And even though it is dark, he closes his eyes. Raises his hand higher, splays his fingers, shifts them through the cool air towards the picture.

He does the shiny thing, and he waits.

Does the shiny thing, and waits.

Does the shiny thing.

Even though having them closed makes no difference at all, he doesn’t want to open his eyes. It’s only now that he realises how unconsciously brave he’s been so far; he’s never once wished to not open his eyes. He’s never once wished not to see life before him in all its realities, whether they mean well for him or not. But now, as he stands here with static silence around him and not a change in the nameless dark, he’s afraid of opening his eyes. He’s afraid of confirming what he already knows, afraid of confirming the reason behind Seokjin and Jimin’s silence.

But the house he’s supposed to get out of is crumbling at the foundations anyway. What’s one more blow?

When he looks, the picture is as dark as it was before, not a stroke of change on its surface. And he knew he would, but he surprises himself anyway when the first laugh slips out of him. It’s soft and tired and unsurprised, and the second one is all of those again, tenfold. There’s his story, then, the one he never wanted to leave behind: the prince of light, dying in the darkness, without one ray of the sun.

There’s his story, and there’s his congratulations to himself: a picture that he was never supposed to take, hanging on a wall he was never supposed to see, dark in a way it was never supposed to be.

‘That’s all, then, gentlemen,’ he says cheerfully, without turning away from the picture, even though his eyes are trained on the floor now. ‘I’m afraid it’s a bit of a failure, but some things can’t be helped, huh?’

‘Taehyung,’ Seokjin begins, but Taehyung raises a hand and shakes his head even though he knows Seokjin can’t see anything in the dark, not the way he can. There are footsteps behind him on the floor, and he can see the floor so well. He can see the lines where the marble tiles meet each other; he can see their swirls. At least he can see details again; at least there’s that.

‘Can you do me a favour and try to make up some artistic bullshit story out of this later? Just tell them this is my super-philosophical message. Darkness lives in all of us, blah blah blah.’

‘Taehyung.’

‘You’re always saving my ass in social situations anyway,’ he laughs. The footsteps get closer, and really, he hopes neither of them are going to try to touch him right now. He can’t guarantee what he’ll do if they try; and he’s sick of losing consciousness in front of his friends. He’s sick of everything, sick of being sick. ‘Take a last one for the team—’

Taehyung, the picture—

But he sees it. Before he looks up, he sees it reflected on the floor, one flare of pure white that lasts a second before disappearing as quickly as it came. And he sees it, he sees every stroke of light fall and diffuse on the floor, and his heart beats its way out of his chest and up his throat, and he looks up so fast that he’s dizzy with it.

Another flare, a second longer, this time. White and sharp, the way it was supposed to be, defining the subject of the picture for one fraction of time before falling away again. He doesn’t understand— can’t feel anything in his own hands, isn’t willing for it to—

There’s a sound from behind him, a thump of something falling to the floor. And he wants to keep staring at the picture but instinct makes him turn around, and when the stars in his eyes settle down from the movement and he looks at the still-dark floor, his heart swoops to his chest again.

Jeongguk is on his knees on the marbled floor, one hand out to abort his fall, looking as shocked at finding himself there as Taehyung is to see him. As if he didn’t mean for it, as if his knees gave away on their own; Taehyung’s worn that look himself. And Jeongguk’s eyes are trained to the wall behind Taehyung, where the picture hangs.

He looks as close to devastation as Taehyung has ever seen him, and less devastated than he does when Taehyung dreams of him. The way his lips are parted, how his chest is heaving as he struggles to catch his breath, the way even the arm he threw out to stop himself from collapsing all the way is shaking like a leaf, the way the other one is on his throat. And Taehyung looks at his hands, his beautiful hands, and he sees no rings, and that’s when he looks into Jeongguk’s eyes.

And that’s when he knows that Jeongguk knows, because the way the picture behind him is breathing and dying and breathing again, the way it’s reflected in Jeongguk’s eyes— there is no way for him not to know, now. Taehyung could count out every realisation that Jeongguk is inhaling with the rise and fall of his chest; every earthquake. That it’s Taehyung’s work that gives light to Jeongguk’s music. That all those years ago, Taehyung didn’t need to leave the ring to prove what their souls had already known. That despite the fact that Jeongguk has nothing on his fingers anymore, he is the one pouring light into Taehyung’s last picture.

Taehyung sees it flicker and come to life again in Jeongguk’s dark irises, and he tears his gaze away to look at the wall— no matter what, no matter what his heart is doing at the sight of Jeongguk, what’s on the wall is his masterpiece.

The picture flickers, and flares, and flickers, and then shines so bright that Taehyung has to shield his eyes for a moment. It lights up the empty hall the way the sun would if it could creep in through a window right now, unearthly white rays easing into one another yet cutting through the air, just like he wanted them too, just like he remembers them, just like he remembers—

Jeongguk, stepping out of the doorway of a club, with his face turned to the side so that his profile is sharp. Jeongguk, immortalised in black and white the way Taehyung will never be, the near-silhouette of him framed by the light streaming out of the doorway, sharp and bright near the edges of his form.

Jeongguk, angry and alive and full of light, a figure built in the image of God.

 

▽△▽

 

In a place out of time, it happens like this.

Jeon Jeongguk is seventeen years old. The gallery three streets down from his first ever club has managed to score some full-blown frames of a hotshot light photographer who travels the world, and Jeongguk might not care a lot about many things but what he does care about, he will do anything for. Deciding to walk into the gallery doesn't mean anything big in particular; deciding to walk out of the club is what takes it out of him on the best of days, and there is no best of days.

Jeon Jeongguk is seventeen years old when he walks into the gallery three streets down from his first ever club and comes face to face with the kind of pictures that he's only seen in his dreams. It's not drama; it's the sheer fact that someone has managed to put in a frame what he sees when he sleeps. Mountains with vertical, parallel, unnatural rays of light cutting their ragged, rocky edges. Oceans with the crest of every wave luminescent in a searing blue, forests with golden squares hanging from the lowest silhouetted branches of every tree. Cities, even, with moonless skies and the kind of fog that only reaches rooftops, glowing from the inside.

Jeon Jeongguk is seventeen years old when he comes face to face with the kind of pictures that he's only seen in his dreams. He doesn't cry, because he never cries. But he clenches his fists at his sides and stares at them quietly for so long that he doesn't remember what time of the day it is anymore, or what day it is, or how long he's been there. They are bright, shining in his face as if trying to mock him in the gentlest manner possible. He mocks them back by looking at them without blinking, and his fists are still clenched, and the ring, red hot, digs into the skin of his palm. The ring is red hot because of the pictures, bright, shining in his face, and he knows this. If he ever made the mistake of hoping that almost dying would make it stop, he's long since corrected it.

Jeon Jeongguk is seventeen years old when he finally turns away from the pictures shining in his face. He doesn't notice a single one of the strange looks he's given as he walks out of the room, and he doesn't notice that the pictures lose their luminosity and the strokes of light on their backgrounds turn back to strokes of white. When he steps out of the gallery and the flickering streetlight comes to life in relief at his presence, he doesn't look at it. When he puts up the first of V's pictures in his room and it glows like a nightlight, he doesn't look at it.

Jeon Jeongguk is seventeen years old. Jeon Jeongguk is eleven years old. Jeon Jeongguk is fourteen years old. Jeon Jeongguk is twenty years old. When he walks past the dark, it lights up. When he walks past the light, it lights up.

 

▽△▽

 

Something that Taehyung has never heard anyone talk about, or never seen in a movie, is the fact that between two earth-shattering events, there is usually a transition period of twenty minutes, or thirty, depending on the traffic. The transition consists of getting from one place to another, whether it’s by car or by foot or by plane. No one talks about the piano music playing in the four-hour plane rides before you step down to see the love of your life. No one talks about noticing the sound of crickets in the distance when you’re walking down the front lawn to the door of someone who might hold your life in their hands.

No one talks about being pulled by the wrist to leave still-dark halls while the most important picture of your life hangs shining on one of the walls of aforementioned dark halls.

‘The picture—’ he tries even as he allows himself to be pulled to the exit of the gallery, Seokjin bowing and nodding at anyone who crosses them without stopping his feet. ‘Jin, the—’

‘I’ll have it taken care of,’ Seokjin says, not even turning to look at him. He’s looking straight ahead, signalling their chauffeur with his hand. ‘Don’t worry.’

It’s the most ridiculous visual, but right beside them, Jimin has the same kind of grip on Jeongguk’s wrist. Taehyung has never felt more like he’s being babysat, and he’d laugh at all of it if he could catch his breath for a second. But he can’t, and now that he’s looked at Jeongguk, he can’t look away.

Jeongguk still looks dazed, just as dazed as Taehyung feels. At least Taehyung had already known; he can’t imagine what must be going on in Jeongguk’s head right now, with the truth having quite literally knocked him down to his knees. He wonders if Jeongguk has actually realised that they’ve started moving towards the cars, because his eyes aren’t focusing anywhere in particular and he’s following Jimin without really seeing where they’re going.

On cue, Taehyung watches his face change. He blinks and in a second the daze is gone, the expressionless peace that was there only a moment ago replaced by— anger of the degree that Taehyung has never seen yet, not even on Jeongguk.

Jeongguk doesn’t so much stop walking as he starts struggling. It’s just him trying to free his arm first, but when Jimin doesn’t let go, he snarls and starts putting up a real fight. Taehyung watches on with a muted sort of sympathy, almost, as Jeongguk moves with his entire body and tries to push Jimin away, so violently, like Taehyung’s never seen him be.

‘Let me go,’ he says, hisses it, even. ‘I said, let me go, Jimin.’

‘I’m sorry’ is all Jimin says in reply, and Taehyung lauds his courage; confronted with the absolutely white-hot rage on Jeongguk’s face, he would’ve bowed at the first second. ‘You’re coming with me, Jeonggukkie.’

‘I’m not coming with you,’ Jeongguk spits, and God, he’s struggling so hard that Taehyung wishes Jimin wasn’t all that strong. He’s twisting now, bending his legs at the knees to stand his ground, to stop walking. ‘I’m not going anywhere, just leave me the fuck alone, let me go—’

No one talks about your visual heartbreak being aborted midway because the source of it has come to the gallery in a different car. Even as Taehyung stares, Jimin manages to wrench out his car keys from his pocket and unlock it from a few feet. (If Taehyung lives through this, the first thing he’s doing is telling everyone he can about the unglamorous flip side of fate.)

Seokjin pushes him into the limousine even as Jeongguk continues to fight with Jimin, and Taehyung doesn’t even know how to formulate his protest. Please let me watch the fight, this is so exciting. Let me have one last laugh, come on, things have been so boring, Seokjin.

But then Seokjin is climbing in after him and closing the door, and telling the chauffeur to start driving in the most strained voice Taehyung has ever heard him use.  Between two earth-shattering events, there is usually a transition period the duration of which depends entirely on the traffic. It’s kind to them today; he sees Jimin’s apartment building loom over the meagre collection of trees near its entrance only some fifteen minutes after getting into the car— and Jimin’s car is pulling up right behind, too; he doesn’t want to be dramatic but he thinks he’d recognise its sound anywhere now. I think something sounds off in the engine.

Yet another thing that no one talks about is the silence in important elevator rides, the one that you could light on fire with one scrape of a matchstick. Taehyung is leaning against the mirrored surface of one of the inner walls, head tipped up towards the top of it, trying to find cracks and failing. He’s doing it so that he doesn’t have to look at anyone’s face, because this way he can pretend that they’re returning from G.D.’s mansion and the rings worked. It’s so much better this way.

But (and this is one more thing that no one talks about) he lost track of when exactly life stopped adhering to his convenience; before he knows it they’re on their floor, and there’s a hand curling around his wrist again. But the hold is much different from Seokjin’s, and the tug so much more ruthless.

Taehyung, who would’ve liked to tell everyone (if he lives through this, that is) how he would be able to recognise Jeongguk even if his eyes were closed, just through the sheer trail of his fingertips over Taehyung’s skin— well, Taehyung is going to have to omit that, because he only realises that Jeongguk is the one pulling him forward when Jeongguk unlocks the front door of the apartment and bangs it open louder than anyone else ever would.

He supposes he doesn’t exactly have the chance to take his shoes off, since Jeongguk isn’t pausing anywhere. It’s an idle thought, but somehow he latches onto it to the point of actually saying it out loud. ‘My shoes—’

‘Fuck your shoes,’ Jeongguk says, and Taehyung doesn’t say anything else. They make their way through the living room where Jeongguk first asked when’s the wedding, Taehyung-sshi, and the entrance to the kitchen where Taehyung first started falling in love with Jeongguk, and the hallway with its single light powerful enough for its entire length. And when they finally reach Jeongguk’s door, Taehyung turns around to at least smile in apology at Seokjin and Jimin, but before he can do much, Jeongguk is throwing the door open and pushing him inside, turning his back for a moment to face the hallway.

‘Leave,’ he says in a voice so low that there’s no chance of anyone disobeying it. And then he’s slamming the door shut, turning the lock twice.

Taehyung looks away from him and up at the room, and he doesn’t know why it even makes him smile that his photographs are still intact and still alight— if they wouldn’t have been, he would’ve genuinely worried. But they’re right where he remembers them being, the ocean at night beside Jeongguk’s window, one of Taehyung’s favourite stretches of woods above the headboard of the bed. It’s late afternoon now, dusty sunlight just coming in through Jeongguk’s blinds, but it’s unnecessary; the pictures are doing a good enough job, after all, like they’ve been doing for the past five years. Watching over Jeongguk as he watches over them.

Taehyung laughs, and that single action tires him to the point of dizziness, but he doesn’t want to stop. So he laughs again and eases himself to the floor, leans his back against the side of Jeongguk’s bed while Jeongguk stands by the door, staring at him.

‘Why won’t you leave me alone?’ Jeongguk asks, the volume of his voice escalating with each word. ‘What’s it gonna take, huh? I held onto your stupid fucking ring until I almost died, and I still held onto it even though all of you have nothing better to do than run around getting fakes—’

Taehyung thinks the picture above Jeongguk’s desk is a relatively rare one. It’s indoors, which he doesn’t do all that much. Long rigid lines of light slanting from the ceiling to the floor, forming pyramids of chilling blue. He can see why Jeongguk would want that above his workspace, but he’s surprised that he managed to acquire such a good copy. (Taehyung has the original above his own desk, back in the penthouse.)

‘—and then— you just fucking walk in, just fucking waltz in after a decade of radio silence, and you fuck everything over—’

Jeongguk sounds so loud. He’s so loud, and he’s so angry; he’s furious. He’s seething with it, hands curled into fists, visibly struggling to breathe properly. And it’s funny, because it’s the exact opposite of how Taehyung feels. Taehyung is tired, and calm, and Taehyung hasn’t felt this good in months. Nothing hurts except the slow crawl of his own light in his chest, a flickering filament in his ribcage that probably makes it visible in flashes through his shirt. He can feel its warmth now and then, but it doesn’t alarm him.

‘I found you your fucking ring,’ Jeongguk says, stepping closer until he’s standing only a couple of feet away from Taehyung. Taehyung stares at his white shoes, his jeans, his fists. ‘I found you your stupid fucking ring and you still won’t go, you still— you won’t— you won’t goddamn leave—’

‘Great,’ Taehyung says. ‘I’m dying, and my soulmate is yelling at me.’

Don’t you fucking say that,’ Jeongguk hisses, but he’s already going to his knees beside Taehyung, almost falling for how graceless the action is, but Taehyung doesn’t care. Taehyung doesn’t care. ‘Don’t you fucking say any of that.’

‘Which part offends you? The soulmate bit? We caged ourselves in real good this time, didn’t—’

‘Look at you.’ Just like that, just like that, the fight has gone out of Jeongguk’s voice and in a way that makes even Taehyung’s throat clench. Those words come out almost in a whimper, and he still doesn’t dare to look at Jeongguk’s face, but then he feels Jeongguk’s hand on his own. And it’s— it’s so careful. It’s so gentle, it’s so weightless, only the tips of Jeongguk’s fingers touching his temple, and his cheekbone, and his jaw, before they curl away. ‘I was so scared. I was— I was so fucking scared.’

And here is one more thing no one talks about: love doesn’t come as a lightning strike every time. Sometimes, it comes as lightning from the inside, lightning crawling from the inside and leaving its mark where no one can ever see it, but where it can be felt with every breath you take. In his darkroom with his fingers moving over frozen fragments of time, in the way his feet dig into the sands of the shore, in the largeness of the world and how it turns small enough to hold in his hands when Jeongguk is within arm’s reach.

‘Why did you do it?’ Jeongguk whispers. He whispers but his voice still breaks, and Taehyung will feel it with every breath he takes after this. ‘Why did you leave it with me, Taehyung? Why did you do that to me? Just tell me that. I’m not even angry anymore.’

The story is very, very simple. It’s one that Taehyung was told a few months before he left the ring with Jeongguk; probably the reason he left the ring with Jeongguk. A pair of rings, passed down from generation to generation, and each generation with one child who has the power.

It’s only when Jeongguk asks that he realises that it isn’t a story so much as history. A pair of rings, passed down from generation to generation— that’s history. It’s the when of it, the how of it; it’s not the why of it and if there’s anything that Taehyung has learned during his slow-motion death, it’s that the why of things is always the most beautiful.

‘What do you want me to say?’ he says, and he finally looks up at Jeongguk and sees exactly what he expected. The kind of pain that leaves his face holier than any light Taehyung has ever made with his hands or felt in his heart. The anger that goes around the everything of life and shows itself in the mirror as love. ‘What do you want me to say? That I always knew it was you? That it had to be you? That my mind and soul already knew each other?’

A pair of rings, passed down from generation to generation. That is the when and how of the story; not the story by itself.

‘I was a child, Jeongguk,’ Taehyung says, and his own voice is on the verge of breaking. He’s so tired. He’s so tired. ‘I fucked up. I fucked with—’

I always knew it was you.’

Taehyung stares, and stares, and he sees the precise moment that the first tears fill up Jeongguk’s eyes. They catch the light of the room, Taehyung’s light, their light, as they tremble on the dark-lined edges of Jeongguk’s wide, dark eyes.

‘I always knew it was you,’ Jeongguk repeats, and when his lips tremble, Taehyung reaches up to cup his face with one hand. ‘I always knew it was you.’

The story is this. Or, rather, the truth is this:

‘Do you know why we think we need those rings, Jeongguk?’ he asks, and Jeongguk shakes his head, his temple brushing against the tips of Taehyung’s fingers. ‘Let me put it another way.’

Do you ever feel that we are like…one person?

The truth is this: the powers, whatever they may be, are all amazing. Taehyung was blessed with one that looks every bit as beautiful as it feels and is— but all the powers, all the gifts are amazing and have always been. So amazing, in fact, that they angered God and the world. So amazing that they grew too powerful for their own good— so amazing that they started to grow too strong for just one body. So amazing that Taehyung can’t stop seeing even when he closes his eyes, so amazing that they kept Jeongguk awake for a decade. So amazing that one body alone would burn up with lightning from the inside, trying to keep all of that love-light in.

And then— beyond the threshold of soulmate, beyond the limited concept of fate, beyond what a simple hand in yours could ever do. Beyond love, a pair of rings as placeholders for faith, passed down from generation to generation. One for you, one for your—

‘Guardian,’ he finishes, and the first tear slips over Jeongguk’s cheek and down the inside of Taehyung’s wrist. And when Jeongguk turns his face into Taehyung’s palm and screws his eyes shut, Taehyung leans his head against the edge of the bed and smiles. ‘You always knew it was me.’

Love isn’t a lightning strike. Love is the thought that he wants to take Jeongguk to every ocean and see him go under, see him come up into the glaring sun, shining into consciousness the way Jeongguk did when Taehyung first stepped towards him, four months ago, ten years ago, at the beginning of his life. Love is how Taehyung’s world is so, so big, and he wants Jeongguk in all of it.

And love, for Jeongguk, finally isn’t synonymous with resignation. Love, instead, is him crying so quietly into Taehyung’s hand that it’s a wonder that the tears don’t stop themselves in the silence, and the glow of every single one of them, river trails crossing Taehyung’s visible blue veins. Love is when Jeongguk takes a deep breath and straightens up, and takes Taehyung’s hand between his own.

When he gently twists Taehyung’s ring off and places it on the floor, and pushes down on his fingers to make them curl; when he presses his lips to the skin where the ring used to be— that is the surge of lightning from the inside. It makes Taehyung’s back arch for a moment, heat flaring up his spine, and lighting up the winter of his vision so that the mist melts away in seconds.

‘Leave again and I’ll let you die this time,’ Jeongguk says, and flicks the inside of his wrist when Taehyung starts to laugh. ‘I’m serious, you asshole.’

‘Death threats later,’ Taehyung replies, leaning back against the bed. (No one talks about how recovery isn’t a lightning strike either; he still feels tired, and winded, and like he might need to sleep for a month to shake this off.) ‘Let the rest of my body get the memo first.’

‘Like you know how a fucking memo works, prince of light.’

‘Not anymore than you do, Jungkook,’ Taehyung shoots back. ‘I guess we’ll have to consult Jimin. Also, by the way, Yoongi is going to—’

Lightning from the inside, incidentally, is also Jeongguk leaning forward and pressing their lips together. And this time, they can both feel it; he catches the flickers of it where his hand rests against Jeongguk’s chest, and he can feel it in the breath Jeongguk lets out in a rush, like he’s been wanting to do this since the last time they did it. Taehyung closes his eyes and smiles against Jeongguk’s lips— not because happiness is sudden and sharp and bright, but because in the blessed, soothing darkness that is finally behind his closed eyes, he can feel the first candle flames of it start to rise up, like lanterns in the evening sky.

‘I’m sorry,’ he breathes when they part for air. ‘I’m so sorry, Jeongguk. I’m so sorry.’

‘You should be,’ Jeongguk replies. ‘I look terrible in that picture.’

 

▽△▽

 

Seokjin, if possible, expresses even lesser remorse at cancelling the engagement than he did at cancelling the exhibit. Taehyung doesn’t know how that works, given that the exhibit was completely private and the engagement was, well. Arguably much less private than the exhibit.

The damage control alone takes two months, even though Seokjin keeps up the unabashed litany of no publicity is bad publicity and refuses to feel chastised in the least even when both their parents (and, much more terrifyingly, major-domos) gang up on them in an empty conference room with the blinds drawn and three orders of tea.

On the other hand, Taehyung, who has always maintained a friendship with the least amount of friction with both his parents (and Seokjin’s, in fact) gets the brunt of it. There’s not a single percentage possibility of denying that the engagement is broken because of him, nor is there a possibility of denying that he’s broken the engagement in favour of a hipster house music composer who refuses to stop wearing black socks with his white Converse shoes. (That last bit almost makes Taehyung’s mother tear up, her grip on her teacup so tight that the drink inside trembles on the surface.)

‘I don’t know what this business would go to if Seokjin wasn’t taking over,’ Taehyung’s father says for about the seventh time since that morning. ‘How many things do you expect to get away with, Taehyung?’

Taehyung supposes that it isn’t exactly the best time to mention that the reason all of this came about is because he left a family heirloom in the hand of a nine-year-old and consequently bought a fake. Luckily enough, his major-domo also arrives at the same conclusion and merely glares at Taehyung with cold eyes instead of speaking up to further Taehyung’s propensity of getting into the wrong kind of trouble.

In the absence of Taehyung’s siblings (who were deemed to young to witness the roasting of their older brother over the grills of the conglomerate and expressed their disappointment very heartily; he had to promise them Snapchat coverage to get them to stop sulking) it’s Seokjin’s older brother who attempts to come to the rescue. Taehyung’s always known he can expect sympathy from him, since he, too, has always been disinterested in the business and instead chose to go off into engineering and other terrifyingly technical things.

‘They’re young,’ he says. ‘Really, uncle, what did you expect, wanting a barely-legal shrimp—’

The emphasis, then, is on attempts. Taehyung manages to get his statement and Seokjin’s barely-concealed snort within the ten-second limit of his video, and sends it to his sister captioned dragged left and right, hope ur happy.

At the end of the day, Seokjin’s parents let him off with sighs communicating everything from oh, children to if your father gets too angry call us up. His own parents, however, are a different story altogether. Since they actually have no idea of everything that Taehyung has been through in the past six months— and he’s amazed that after all, only a few people ever even found out— they don’t have the minutest qualm about letting him have it, thoroughly.

The problem is that thoroughly, when it comes to his parents, is more the theoretical concept of we are going to ignore you for a good few weeks because you have wounded our pride which, when brought to execution, translates to both of them texting him secretly behind each other’s backs. Honestly, your mother is a bit dramatic. We can still go off to the country house this weekend, you have to see the orchard.

Hot Wheels Enthusiast #2 [21:39]
did u bring me moonshine

Me [21:40]
first of all i’m right in front of you, would it kill you to just speak

Hot Wheels Enthusiast #2 [21:40]
mom said not to talk to u until jin oppa’s promotion
where’s
the
moonshine

Me [21:41]
i’ll have it sent over
give your brother a sip of it and i’ll tell dad who keyed the porsche

Hot Wheels Enthusiast #1 [21:43]
she’s keyed more than one of the porsches u know

The party that Seokjin throws upon ascending to the position of CEO is exactly as unapologetic and obnoxious as a party thrown by someone who is CEO at the age of twenty-four should be. Everyone who attended the engagement is right there, because regardless of save-the-dates and conferences to be in and vacations that are supposed to be enjoyed, Taehyung doesn’t think anyone in their circles hates life enough to want to miss out on seeing if he and Seokjin don’t speak to each other anymore, or something equally ridiculous. No one wants to be the last to know the gossip.

Unfortunately, for a goddamn change, Taehyung isn’t going to be providing any of it. Not only (as obviously expected) has nothing changed between him and Seokjin except for the fact that they don’t wear their rings anymore, but Taehyung is also laying considerably low for other reasons. The most important one of those being—

‘Wait,’ Jeongguk says. ‘Oh my God, Taehyung. Don’t look right now, but I think Yoongi’s trying to hit on CL.’

‘That’s it,’ Taehyung says. ‘I’m never turning around for the rest of the evening.’

‘I mean, you do want to see this at some point.’

‘No, Jeongguk. I want to see the Catacombs. I don’t want to see Yoongi hitting on CL.’

‘Trying to,’ Jeongguk emphasises, and Taehyung groans and takes a long swig of his drink.

See, he’s still learning what it feels like to be constantly defensive of something, to change the connotation of that word from the negative to something much gentler— like protection. He’s still learning what it feels like to have something to protect, and even though he stumbles and goes too far sometimes, he loves every moment of it.

The reason he won’t be providing gossip at least for tonight and for a safe amount of nights to come is because he doesn’t want Jeongguk to be touched. Not because he thinks Jeongguk can’t take care of himself, but because he shouldn’t need an occasion to prove that. Until things settle, he doesn’t want to put rings on their fingers— they’re only placebos, and he’s not going to have the public in an uproar over placebos when he can just as easily hide Jeongguk away from them. Until things settle and they begin to let each other into their lives comfortably, Jeongguk is only a mysterious friend. He knows that’s going to cause even more speculation than he wanted, but speculation is better than confirmation. He wants Jeongguk safe and laughing. It’s about time.

‘You look like you think someone’s going to kidnap me,’ Jeongguk says, leaning close to whisper in Taehyung’s ear. It makes Taehyung jump so hard that he almost knocks his drink over, and he turns to glare at Jeongguk.

‘Do you have to do that?’ he asks. ‘And also, I do not. I’m just observing.’

‘Oh, yeah, I’m sure all of this is so new to you, your highness.’

And the funniest part is— it is. It really is. Now that he’s back he realises that even though he never really felt like he could fit in properly, no matter how much he tried to, he actually missed the very feeling of being a misfit. He missed being able to see every detail of the room the way he can now— the curtains, the wooden floor, even the inlaid lights of the bar counter he’s leaning against. He missed being able to see every detail of all the people in the room. The diamond stud on Seokjin’s ear, the rich purple dress that the lady next to him is wearing, the fact that he can’t remember her name. He missed being a misfit. He missed Tokyo, missed life—

‘NO,’ Jimin says, leaning suddenly into Taehyung’s space with his eyes widened in a comical approximation of anger, and Taehyung wants to tell him that he has a smear of chocolate sauce on his lower lip but Jimin continues before he can say anything. ‘Do you know who the fuck is here, Kim Taehyung?’

‘Uh, hang on, is this a three guesses thing? Miyavi?’

Miyavi,’ Jeongguk repeats scathingly, but apparently Jimin is having none of Taehyung’s jokes. He takes in a deep breath, almost red in the face.

Choi Seunghyun is here with his musical boyfriend, Kim Taehyung,’ he hisses viciously. ‘I am leaving this place.’

Taehyung isn’t sure what to do first, laugh his ass off at the distress on Jimin’s face, correct him about Seunghyun and G.D.’s relationship, or rise on his toes— his mother will kill him— to look around and spot Seunghyun and G.D. in the crowd. It’s been a while but a thrill still goes through him at the mention of G.D., and if he’s here— wait, why— what the hell is Jiyong doing here, at Seokjin’s blue-blood version of promotion dinner?

‘Oh come on,’ Jeongguk fills in where Taehyung’s sarcasm fails him. ‘That’s your buddy, Jimin, isn’t it—’

Jimin turns on Jeongguk instead.

‘If “buddy” counts as someone who keeps sending me carefully curated pictures of the chairs hashtag on Instagram, then yes, he’s my buddy.’

‘Give him a damn chance, man—’

‘WHAT CHANCE AM I SUPPOSED TO GIVE HIM,’ Jimin whispers furiously as Taehyung finally catches sight of Jiyong. He looks amazing like the last time, a suit just as sombre as last time, hair so neat, Seunghyun just as bored next to him but refraining from pulling out his phone. And to think no one knows that G.D. is among them, no one but him and his friends— ‘What does he want me to say. What do I say about chairs?’

‘What’s this about chairs?’

Taehyung closes his eyes and sighs; of all the times for Yoongi to choose to grace their conversation, he would definitely go for the worst possible one. Yoongi’s the kind of person who, when offered twelve different alternatives, cheerfully and full of faith, heads for the wrongest one.

‘What do I say about chairs, Yoongi? Oh, that’s nice!’ Jimin says brightly, with a hysterical sort of sarcasm, and in what he probably thinks is the imitation of a posh accent. ‘I love how this one has four legs.’

Taehyung takes a deep breath even as Jeongguk bursts into laughter, and decides to take his leave and grill Seokjin about exactly what the hell is happening in this hotel hall right now. Even though he wants to make a swift escape from Jimin’s wrath, he unfortunately still ends up catching Yoongi’s last words.

‘Anyway, I was talking to Chaerin,’ he’s saying to Jeongguk, and Taehyung can’t believe he got on first-name basis with CL before any of them, ‘and you bastard, you mouthed off to G.D.? To G. motherfuckin’ D.? Jungkook, you never even talk.’

Considering that they were fiancé’s three months ago, it takes an embarrassing amount of crowd-weaving for Taehyung to get to Seokjin, principally because Seokjin is at the end of the room furthest from the bar as he should very well be. When he sees Taehyung walking towards him, he puts on the same kind of smile that he always used to, and while that’s very sweet and all, Taehyung’s having none of it.

‘G.D. is here,’ he says to Seokjin, who’s already making eye contact with someone else and nodding. ‘Jin, what is G.D. doing here. Did you invite him? Did you invite Seunghyun and he just brought G.D. along?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Seokjin says pleasantly, bowing in the direction of some fifty-year-old who is less relevant than Taehyung’s insole. ‘It’s a big party, Sparkles. A lot of people are present here.’

‘This is so unfair,’ Taehyung whispers brokenly. ‘You never even had a G.D. phase.’

‘You, however, did. And look where that got you.’

The thing about doing everything with your best friend is that everything that is perfectly natural for the two of you might not be the same for any and all onlookers. Taehyung is uncomfortably aware of this reality, and hence has to restrain himself from latching onto Seokjin’s side like a rich boy gremlin and not letting go until Seokjin gives him answers. Taehyung is also uncomfortably aware of the reality that Seokjin won’t give answers if he doesn’t want to give answers— but attempting to get them in ways that are more respectable given their recently broken engagement is not beyond Taehyung.

‘Seokjin,’ he says through gritted teeth even as he shoots a smile at Namjoon’s wife and mentally notes to ask when he can come see the baby, ‘Just tell me what Kwon Jiyong is doing here. I’m not interested in jokes. I have alcohol to consume, I’m a busy man.’

‘Hmm,’ Seokjin says in lieu of a real reply. ‘I wonder about that.’

‘I cannot believe,’ Taehyung says, ‘that you just I wonder about that’d me. Did you just I wonder about that me? You just did that.’

With that, apparently, Seokjin is done answering questions for the evening. He completely, and with a shameless sort of cheer, ignores every single thing Taehyung has to say after that particular point, including a range of threats and pleas that demonstrate the varying degrees of Taehyung’s curiosity. (As a general truth of life, Seokjin spoils Taehyung silly but refuses to budge when it comes to certain things, and apparently Taehyung and Jeongguk’s favourite musician— possibly the only point the two of them agree about apart from the nonexistent merits of green tea and how Jimin deserves the best girlfriend in the world— is one of those things. Which just figures, honestly.)

‘I will find the truth one day, Kim Seokjin,’ he says. ‘I will—’

(As another general truth of life, Taehyung has a particular voice when he’s about to say something that will annoy Seokjin for a time period during anything from an hour to a week. Seokjin is very adept at recognising this voice.)

‘Do not,’ he says to Taehyung.

‘I will shed light on it, as it were,’ Taehyung says solemnly. He might be the younger one and also the one responsible for the current drama in the papers, but when he wants the last word, he has it. ‘Have a good evening, darling.’

With that, he steps away from his supremely tired ex-fiancé and makes his way back to the bar, even though the assortment of people currently standing there is possibly the worst that he has ever seen in his life, including last month’s conference hall emergency meeting. If he chooses to look at it in a certain way, none of the faces are new. He sees Jimin often enough, even though he’s gone back to work with a vengeance. In fact, over two months ago, when Taehyung and Jeongguk finally stepped out of his room with their shoes still on and their eyes burning but bright, the first thing Jimin had said was oh, thank fuck, can I end my leave now? (Over two months ago, when Taehyung and Jeongguk finally stepped out of his room, Jimin had only managed that after three tries through his emotion.)

Jimin is fine. Jimin is one of Taehyung’s best friends and Taehyung’s going to make him fly out to Tokyo once a month whenever they’re not in Seoul themselves, because that’s just how these things work and he wants all of his friends laughing and laughing some more. Not that Jimin is laughing right now, since his worst fear incarnated in human chair enthusiast form is currently drinking a whiskey next to him. That is one of the things that makes the assortment of people at the bar the worst that Taehyung has ever seen in his life. The fact that Choi Seunghyun not only did not stop to congratulate Seokjin, but also made a beeline for Jimin despite what Taehyung is sure must have been Jimin’s best efforts to hide himself. He doesn’t think Seunghyun even knows Jimin’s name.

Kibum and Namjoon are catching up over vodka, and Taehyung has enough experience to know what combinations to avoid by this point. However, considering that his only alternative is Yoongi and Jeongguk, he really has to choose between two evils over here. Kibum is definitely going to try to reel him into Ibiza for the last week of summer, and any form of denial is going to lead to twenty minutes’ worth of teasing about the honeymoon period and other embarrassing things, despite Namjoon being the one who’s domesticated beyond ridiculousness.

On the other hand, the moment he comes within earshot of Yoongi and Jeongguk again, he regrets his decision dearly.

’No, but hey, for real,’ Yoongi is saying, looking so gravely at Jeongguk that Taehyung’s worried that he’s about to terminate their work contract or something like that (not that Taehyung knows how those work between producers, or anyone in any industry for that matter). ‘This is like, for science. Does it glow? When he, you know.’

Jeongguk doesn’t reply for a long, long time. He’s actually looking into the distance with this peaceful kind of furrow as if he’s trying to recall a long-lost memory, and continues doing that while he downs his shot.

Then he replies. ‘Yeah, it does.’

Jungkook,’ Yoongi inhales in awe, and holds his hand up for a high five. The thing is, Taehyung has already seen enough in this one evening to make up for a complete lack of human interaction for the rest of the year— barring Jeongguk, of course; and it’s not even about Taehyung literally having trouble living without the guy— and he’s really not inclined to see any more. And yet— since the world has completely lost habit of catering to him and doesn’t look like it’s going to pick up anytime soon— Jeongguk actually gives Yoongi a high five.

Yoongi immediately turns to Taehyung, face blank like stone. ‘You have my blessing, son.’

‘Thank you, man who was hitting on me six months ago,’ Taehyung replies flatly— and at least that’s another last word for him, because he can focus on placing his order to the bartender while Jeongguk loses his peaceful expression and turns slowly on Yoongi with his eyebrows raised. Taehyung’s already decided that he’s going to order Seokjin’s least favourite cocktail and then hand it over to him while he’s talking to an Adult so that he can’t refuse. Then he’s going to watch as Seokjin tries to drink it. (Headlines: Second-In-Line Attempts To Woo Back Ex-Fiancé After Public Breakup. Words Are Had.)

Life, as Taehyung missed it so desolately on its own threshold, hasn’t quite returned to him in the way he thought it would. Sometimes— more often now, he feels, even though he has the instinct that it’ll pass soon— he still has to go up to the rooftop and stare at the sky, or get into a car and drive for hours. But nowadays, when he’s driving, he puts on new tracks and lets them fill the silence, and he parks the car off the side of the road and pushes his seat back and closes his eyes.

They’re still learning, both of them, but in a way they’d found their rhythm years ago. Now, when Jeongguk composes, he tries an arrangement and then looks up at Taehyung with his eyebrows raised and lips parted, an endearing sort of query on his face that always makes Taehyung smile when he replies. Now, when Jeongguk composes, Taehyung can see what he is seeing— and Jeongguk always says it’s the other way ‘round, that Taehyung saw it first. That the light is Taehyung’s even if the music is Jeongguk’s. And Taehyung disagrees, but the two are so intertwined that it’s hard for him to tell either way— and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s thinking that later tonight, he’ll hand one of his cameras over to Jeongguk and say show me what you see, then. Because that is how they’re learning to talk to one another— with pulled out pieces of the world between them and the worlds they lived in before. A transcript from Jeongguk’s first year of high school— he played football, apparently— or the first picture Taehyung ever presented to a gallery. The composition that got Yoongi to take notice of Jeongguk, or the hidden folder of pictures on the hard drive, of Taehyung’s disastrous first night out.

They’re still learning, and Taehyung would never let the world see this.

‘Death glare alert,’ he hears, and he sighs and rolls his eyes.

‘I’m telling you,’ he says. ‘You’re so used to being around your hipster glare specialists that you think anyone who isn’t smiling is glaring.’

Hipster glare specialists,’ Jeongguk echoes incredulously. ‘Who did you take comeback lessons from, Jimin’s girlfriend?’

‘Jimin doesn’t have— oh, go to hell, Jeongguk.’

‘Strong language. It’s like the little prince went off into the wild and he was never the same again.’

‘Are you angling for a shut up, make me moment? Because I’m not that simple, you know.’

‘Oh, I know,’ and something about the change in tone makes Taehyung look up— and it’s a mistake. The way Jeongguk is smiling, not completely but at least undeniably, makes something flutter inside Taehyung’s chest and it’d better not be luminescent butterflies; he’s self-aware now, he knows he’s the most unnecessary exhibitionist in the room after Seunghyun and his (hashtag) chairs. No, Jeongguk is smiling this half-smirk of an amused thing, and Taehyung regrets the return of full eyesight. He can see exactly where the line of kohl under Jeongguk’s left eye tapered too sharp near the end, and he can see his scar, close enough to kiss. (‘Where is it from?’) He can see the beauty spot near his hairline, also close enough to kiss. He can see all of Jeongguk, finally, again— and Jeongguk can see him too. ‘I know you’re not simple. You’re the slow one here, little prince.’

(‘Where is it from?’

‘Does it matter?’)

Before he can formulate some kind of scathing reply, he’s being interrupted. Seokjin has materialised beside them suddenly, wearing an expression of mild, graceful distress that he most definitely shouldn’t be at his own promotion party. Taehyung is already gearing up to go talk to some Adults about upsetting his best friend, but before he can formulate a battlecry about that, Seokjin is speaking up.

‘Sparkles, can you go see to your friends?’ he says in a slightly pained voice. ‘The producer one with the unfortunate hair is trying to get the Lees’ daughter’s number.’

‘Yoongi,’ Taehyung says, fingers going to pinch the bridge of his nose. ‘Actually, if you let him be, he’ll retreat on his—’

‘That is not the issue here,’ Seokjin cuts in, sounding even more nervous. ‘She keeps staring at Jimin instead.’

Taehyung freezes, and so does Jeongguk, and he knows it’s for an entirely different reason. He lowers his hand slowly and looks at Seokjin to make sure he isn’t joking— and he isn’t; his eyes keep going over to where Yoongi must be, without fail, trying to obtain the Lees’ daughter’s number, and honestly no amount of terrible cocktails would equal the kind of pleasure Taehyung is getting from this.

‘I’ll take care of it,’ he says, but it’s only when he remembers Jeongguk’s joke from minutes ago that he realises he’s having a simultaneous third and fourth last word. So before he turns around to head over and fix the rightest kinds of trouble that he and his laughing friends could fall into, he makes sure to grin unapologetically at Jeongguk. ‘What was that about—’

‘Just go,’ Jeongguk sighs. ‘Just fucking go.’

The everything of life isn’t a lightning strike. It isn’t lightning crawling from the inside, either. Instead it filters back into his hands the way the first rays of the sun come through curtains in the morning, only in streaks that he can handle; mirroring his strength and growing with it so that the zenith occurs only when he is sure that it won’t burn him out. The world stopped revolving around him a while ago, but the adjustment period is kind and gentle as if making up for the initial blow of it all that almost killed him.

In theory, it’s full of flaws and setbacks and stumbling steps. But when Taehyung looks at it through his lens, it settles into the path like a river.

 

▽△▽

 

Jeongguk doesn’t have to make his hand climb over Taehyung’s to touch fingertips anymore. Sometimes, the way Taehyung’s heart aches at the sight makes him wonder if he’s trying to imagine how that change would’ve occurred over the years, slowly, and then completely, before either of them would’ve been able to realise.

He doesn’t have to make his hand climb over Taehyung’s anymore, but the concentration with which Jeongguk is looking at where their hands are aligned makes Taehyung smile anyway. Jeongguk was leaning back against the pillows only minutes ago, catching his breath without a word, eyes turned towards the ceiling while Taehyung chattered on like he always does. But when Taehyung quieted down and held out his hand, Jeongguk straightened up, leaning forward with his eyes only on how he was lining his palm up with Taehyung’s, pressing their hands together. Quietly, quietly.

There is a fascination in Jeongguk’s eyes that hasn’t disappeared even after a year. Today, he isn’t wearing a ring, and neither is Taehyung— their fingers slender and careful against each other without metal in between. It doesn’t go to say that they never wear rings— it’s been long enough that they can do it, and Taehyung loves to. Gold one day, inlaid emeralds the other. He doesn’t care about anyone catching on or not; if it took them long enough to understand that every ring is magic if they know it to be, and cost them enough, that they’re allowed to flaunt it now. And if Taehyung can’t spoil Jeongguk then he doesn’t know what else he’s supposed to do.

Today, Jeongguk isn’t wearing a ring, and there is a fascination in his eyes that hasn’t disappeared even after a year. Like the easy press of his fingertips against Taehyung’s, it is a sight that makes his heart ache, and the evening is so young that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to hold back if he looks for too long. The only lamp of the room that Taehyung lit in gold when they were kissing each other breathless minutes ago, is casting these pale shadows across Jeongguk’s bare chest that mingle with the colour of the light coming in through the window. The evening is young, and so is summer; sneaking through the doorways of the gaps between their fingers with a whisper this year.

(There is a fascination in Jeongguk’s eyes that still hasn’t disappeared, and when Taehyung looks at the way the translucent white of his shirt slips loose over his shoulders, his heart is so full that words turn to candle flames.)

He shifts to look at their hands too, the way Jeongguk is looking. He can only just see the space between their palms, but it’s so much more than enough. When he smiles at it, he feels his heart in the inside of his wrist for a moment, and then the space glows itself awake. Filtering through their skin, the white is tinged pink and golden and blue, but where Taehyung is looking it’s only silent light. And he doesn’t have to check to know how Jeongguk must look right now; half-smiling, half-pained.

Recovery isn’t a lightning strike. When Taehyung took his first photograph— not the Polaroid that is now framed on the wall behind Jeongguk, twelve years old now but just as vivid as it was on the first day— all he could think of was how he wanted the pain to leave his body, soul. All he was aiming at was to rid himself of that grief so that he could let the rest of life in. And as he tried to chase it away and it chased him back, he made his world bigger and bigger, letting not the rest, but the everything of life in.

The everything of life, then, is the first dawn stroke of realisation that what lies in his soul will always lie in his soul. Jeongguk will always take his coffee with fine-grain sugar, and Taehyung will always feel a retroactive, nostalgic ache when he looks at Jeongguk in the youth of the evening. It is that which makes the light brighter, and the world bigger, and the space between their hands smaller.

Just you and me. Jeongguk and Taehyung.

‘Do the shiny thing,’ Jeongguk whispers, and Taehyung doesn’t really care how big the world is. When he drops his hand to circle Jeongguk’s wrist and then trail up his forearm with light in its wake, he doesn’t really care how big the world is. And Jeongguk closes his eyes as if he already knows what the sight of it looks like (he does). He keeps his eyes closed when Taehyung leans forward and kisses his wrist, and his arm, and his shoulder. He keeps them closed when Taehyung presses his lips to his neck, and his jaw, and his cheekbone; keeps them closed when Taehyung kisses him, because Taehyung knows that he can always see. He knows what they look like on their bed in the first hour of the evening, with Taehyung kissing Jeongguk long and slow and tender.

(These days, when the sun is waiting to go down and let the stars come out, the sky, cloudless, is coloured with the kind of magic that can only be seen if your eyes are looking for it. It changes the colours of everything else— Jeongguk’s skin, his big, dark eyes. The shadows change colour, turning so soft and seamless that they make Taehyung think he can press Jeongguk into the sheets again and again and kiss him all over, and night will never come.

It changes the colours of everything else; not the way the blanketed calm of winter snow does, but with the naïveté that lies in his soul and will always lie in his soul— all the smiles and laughs that make him who he is; the version of himself that Jeongguk loves and loves with abandon.)

The first day of summer is the light between their hands and the clock-hand beat of Jeongguk’s heart against Taehyung’s palm. It is all the candle flames that flicker in his chest, all the words turned radiance that he can’t speak with the hush of emotion in his throat: Listen, Jeongguk. There are beaches where they string up lightbulbs and the water is never cold. There are mountains where you can always hear rivers until you go so high that the only sound is your heartbeat in your ears. There is the ocean, so big and beautiful, and when you come up from under the water the sun shines into your consciousness like life is all yours.

Taehyung doesn’t really care how big the world is. Listen, Jeongguk.

‘Let’s go,’ he says, when their hands are splayed against each other’s again, fingers bare and sure. ‘We’ll go following it around the world. When it’s ending in the north, we’ll run to the south.’

‘We don’t need to chase summer everywhere, Taehyung,’ Jeongguk laughs. It’s as quiet as the rest of the evening, the single golden bulb, the rustle of the sheets.

Taehyung doesn’t really care how big the world is.

‘Look,’ Jeongguk continues, and then he shifts his hand and locks his fingers with Taehyung’s. Takes their joined hands and points out the window at the blue, blue, blue of the sky outside. But when Jeongguk tightens his hold, Taehyung realises what he’s actually showing to him: the hands themselves.

‘It’s always been ours.’

 

The wound is the place where the light enters you.
— Rumi