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Play Dead

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In the coldest summer that ever struck California, wind burning the sides of his face like boiling water, Taehyung saw the side of a mountain disappearing around the corner of his life. Two weeks in after the summer solstice pushed a little extra time into his life and stole his structure away, things went downhill - or, well, as downhill as they can go when you're living in Sunnyvale. There were a couple things on Taehyung's mind when he made the decision to board the plane. One being gardenias, and the other being red. Red hair, red asphalt, red lips, red puddles - the color was a still frame in his mind, and it was also the disengagement of his safety.

Now, summer was never something Taehyung thought of negatively. His favorite weather - the kind that was so charged with the sun, but down with a gentle breeze - always made its rebirth at this pleasant time, along with more free time to roam the beach. The school year only allowed a few of these times, and Taehyung was lucky enough if his father allowed it with a quirk of his distracted head. Granted, Taehyung didn't need any help getting his grades down. It was best that he wasn't allowed to venture into the yellow sand to pick seashells or do random treasure hunts, because this randomness - a bit of rarity that flows in his blood - cost him on too many occasions for him to count with his long fingers.

Summer was never something Taehyung thought of negatively.

No, Taehyung dreamed of no season with hatred, only finding these thoughts of the passage of time as catalysts to better things. Fall and winter were a cool, lackadaisical time, whereas the spring made him believe in himself again. The summer was his time for healing, to live alone, and even more so now that he was a graduate. He let the world slip between his fingers in these months as the waves passed him by. Nothing changed from year to year. Taehyung was content to live in this kind of routine, as if every aspect of his life was free to live without impact. And if this worried him, he gave no account of anxiety or a shuddering breath - no, Taehyung swept any burgeoning feelings under the rug with the tip of his beat up converse, the mountain only growing as he continued his life with a bright grin glued to his face.

In a space of time that seemed so unlike the reality of his situation, Taehyung decided on a gap year. With some kind of miraculous sensitivity, Taehyung’s father acquiesced to this request, allowing his eldest son to venture over land and sea to his hometown in Korea. Initially, Taehyung believed his hopes to be false; there was no conceivable way his father would allow him to “take a break” when this only meant less chance for Taehyung to continue on to graduate school or even start, but somehow, the man saw his melancholy through the façade of a wobbly grin and said, yes, Taehyung. But if I have to drag you back into school because you lose your way, I will, with all the power within me.

Taehyung never doubted his father, and he didn’t begin now.

So Taehyung boards a plane that will bring him on a flight much too long, and waves a hollow goodbye to the ground that grows smaller as he reaches the sky. He doesn’t see blood on his hands when he looks down. This is what he convinces himself of between even breaths, and he begins to believe it more and more with every minute passed.

Slim does the hour grow when Taehyung realizes upon waking up that he’s closer to Korea than he thought, the ocean below giving way to land now. The flight attendants are walking around with their happy smiles and little trash bags, asking politely for the passengers to give up their waste instead of leaving it behind. After a few moments, the loudspeaker announces that they will be landing soon, and Taehyung breathes a sigh of relief. Finally, he can feel reality seeping from his bones and into the open air. Finally, he is away from what has been scaring him for the past months. Summer can’t feel bad here, he convinces himself, and he believes this through the thin air of above.

Landing proves itself lightening, as Taehyung takes a deep breath of the comfortable air and walks out the gate feeling different. Not too much so, but just a little; running away has always given him some reprieve, but he wonders how long this will last as his hands grow shaky. He goes through the process: walk out, find luggage, find rental car, find home - but it is not without hesitancy or confusion. Perhaps the most confusing is the way the house looks when he finally finds it, hidden by bushes and winding flowers that crawl up the creamy yellow boarding.

His notice for his arrival was minimal; he called his aunt a few days ago with urgency, but did not tell his younger siblings anything. They were only a few years younger than him, but the age gap felt considerable when they used to look at him, eyes pestering. There always seemed to be a bridge that was unlike age, unlike personality differences, and Taehyung took it in stride. Them, not so much.

When he opens the car door, he’s assaulted by the smell of honeysuckle, the sweet aroma invading his senses and leaving him deprived of awareness for a moment. It smells so irrevocably like home, like chocolate chip cookies and soft kisses on his cheeks, when his mother was there to hug him and pull him close in his moments of darkness. It does nothing to take away the coolness of the house, though; Taehyung looks at the exterior and feels nothing but blandness, even though he wants nothing more than to go inside and be consumed by his aunt’s gardenia perfume.

Younger times called for him being raised like any other child, but his aunt always made it better. She taught him everything he knew about art, from shading to theory, and the sugary scent of her perfume always seemed to cling to his mind long after they both retired to bed. She was always the nicest to him after his mother passed and their personalities all dimmed, and it’s most likely the only reason he managed to keep the good parts of himself inside.

Of course, this tenderness did not last forever. Soon enough, he was being shipped off to California to live with his quiet, stern father, while his siblings stayed back out of obligation. He left in search of something different, and found that nothing quite kept him like home.

He eventually musters up the courage to knock on the door. He still has a key, but it feels foreign for him to use it now; after so long, he’s become a stranger to his own house, no longer having a right to the spare key hidden inside their tire swing, taped to the inside so it won’t fall out, and the door knob in itself, so often left unlocked due to his younger brother’s carelessness. It was always Taehyung’s job to make sure it was locked.

It’s not long before he hears the thud of feet and a more gentle pattering, a deep bark sounding out behind the homey white door that makes him smile, even if he doesn’t want to.

“It’s Tae,” he yells out before anyone can ask, and when the door opens, he laughs as he’s nearly tackled to the ground by a large fluff ball. “Soonshimmie, I missed you too.”

“Taehyung, stop letting that dog lick you so much!” His aunt yells from the porch. Taehyung peers up to see her face alight with something fond though, hands on her hips in a gentle disapproval. “You haven’t seen your aunt in nearly six years, and this is all I get? You rolling on the ground?”

When Soonshim’s excitement quiets to a wagging of the tail, Taehyung gives a breathless laugh and meets his aunt for a hug. It feels good to be wrapped up in her embrace, that same flowery smell pressing into his face with copious amounts of nostalgia.

“I missed you so much, Taehyungie. I can’t believe you’re back.” She pats his back then, hands wandering up to smooth his hair away from his face.

“Ajumma, stop it! I can’t look good like this.” He grimaces, but sticks his tongue out when she frowns at him.

“Still so vain, I see.” She pats him gently on the cheek. It feels great to be here already, and Taehyung can feel it tugging at his heart as Soonshim wanders around his legs and practically pulls him inside with his teeth. It’s warm and cozy, the living room filled with a sofa covered in throws and arm chairs filled with pillows. It’s so monumentally different from his dad’s house, where the tile flooring and empty space made everything perpetually cold.

“Where’s Taehee, Taejoon? Are they back from school?” He settles into the soft couch at his aunt’s insistence, staring for a few moments at a lamp lit in the corner that wasn’t there before. So much has changed in these years he’s been gone.

“Ah,” his aunt hesitates to speak, coming back into the room with a plate of cookies at hand. “Um, Taehyung, about that-”

“Oh no. What?” Taehyung perks up a little at his aunt's tone, Soonshim’s constant presence at his side doing little to calm him down now. “There's nothing wrong with them, right? They're not sick?” His anxiety is growing rapidly, but it quells at his aunt's gentle pat on his shoulder.

“Taehyung, there's something you need to know about when you left. Things weren't quite the same once you went to live with your dad.” She sighs then, something that creates a clench in the muscles of her body and leaves her looking stressed. “A lot has changed, Taehyung-ah.”

“What do you mean?”

“Taehee is two years older than Taejoon. She's always had this sense about her, yes? She's always been so smart,” his aunt says fondly, petting at Soonshim when he approaches her with a whine. “Even when you told her you'd be leaving, she cried and cried and asked you why you couldn't stay. And she was only eleven then; we figured she wouldn't really understand the implications of it all. She knew you'd be gone for a long time. She's seventeen now, and Taehyung, she's different. So much so from the past.”

Taehyung remembers it like it was yesterday. The day he began to pack his bags Taehee found him, only to yell and cry at the first sightings. She flung his clothes out, across the room, balled them up in her fist like paper before trying to hide them fruitlessly. The desperation broke something in Taehyung, but it wasn't his resolve. Taehee cried when he left, too. There was little he could do to console her.

“For better or worse?” But his aunt looks at him with a lopsided smile, telling.

“I couldn't stop her crying, Taehyung. Taejoon was too young to understand, he never held it against you for leaving, but-” she's cut off by the sound of a shutting car door and murmurs, the sounds of running feet and a yelling voice echoing behind a laugh.

The door opens with a bang, revealing Taejoon, no less than two inches shorter than Taehyung, his hair a mess from, presumably, running around.

“Noona threatened me, ajumma! She said she's going to pour water on me in my sleep if I don't make it to her car on time after school- what?” He halts with an almost laughable expression on his face when he sees Taehyung sitting there with an awkward smile on his face. The flush in his face from running grows darker before he smiles, teeth showing a full grin that shoots relief through Taehyung's veins. “Hyung! What are you doing here, oh my god - noona!”

Taehee is still grumbling when she reaches the house, shutting the door behind her and locking it after her careless brother. “God, I ask him to be out no later than three minutes after me, is that too much to ask for? Why don't you just ride the bus if you-” she turns, suspiciously silent when she eyes Taehyung. There is no surprise or happiness, just a face of pure apathy, like she's simply looking at Taehyung. “What is oppa doing here,” she mutters, kicking off her shoes and putting them carefully on the shoe rack. She's always been meticulous, even as a child. It's a surprise to see it hasn't worn out as she's grown up.

There's no response from his aunt, so Taehyung searches for a reply. “Visiting,” he settles for, dragging his fingers through Soonshim’s thick coat in search of relief.

“After all these years,” she scoffs, a little condescending laugh tumbling from her lips. Taehee glares at him before gathering her hair on one side of her neck and righting her backpack on her shoulders. “‘Visiting’,” she mocks, quirking an eyebrow. “Taejoon-ah, make sure you remember your project, okay? Noona is going to do her homework. Have fun with oppa.” She walks off calmly then, ever the picture of tranquility before a thunderstorm.

Taejoon pauses and settles his backpack in an open spot by the door. “Um, okay. Well, I'm happy to see you, hyung!”

Taehyung can't help an unfortunate laugh.

Often times now, Taehyung wonders when the process of grieving winds down to a finish. He's been through it so many times by now that anyone would think he'd have it down to an art - tragedy, sadness, and healing - but he doesn't. Every time misfortune whispers his name, Taehyung breaks open a scar anew and lets it bleed until the skin heals up again, similar to the one before but so much thicker.

He's learned to deal with it more as he grows up. Art had always been his best outlet; between writing and drawing, Taehyung sometimes didn't have the time to dwell on his problems. Lately, his paintings had been coming out awfully dreary though, painting his canvas red and black until his eyes were stained with the color. On those nights - the bad ones - Taehyung has to press the heels of his palms his eyes and try to forget. It's been nearly two months now, and the burn shouldn't feel as it did before, but - it does. No matter how much he runs, it always catches up to him. When the glory of being at home, in his own bed, fades away into normalcy, Taehyung is left with no happiness to his name.

And his aunt can see it too; she knows, has known, but is surprised by the shift in his emotions after the first day passes and the excitement has worn off. It's better than being in California, he guesses, because everyone there looked at him with immeasurable pity. He didn't mind when people felt bad for him, but he certainly hated it when they didn't even try to conceal it. That is where the line planted itself.

Funnily enough, Taehee’s presence becomes his favorite. He thinks that she doesn't know what's happened, and it's for the best - she has no idea how to react to her older brother than with anger, so being around her is as silent as being on the beach, digging his fingers into the sand to pull out little bits of shells and shiny rocks. Her hair is as dark as the waves when he used to walk along the shore at night, and her fury as turbulent as the ocean on a windy day. Taehee is his greatest sense of his other world at home, somehow qualifying to represent both parts of his life within her small frame.

However, this does not stop the guilt nor change the feelings he has towards her, the kind that make him bunch up his sweater in his hands when he realizes that she hates him. Hates him for leaving her, all those years ago, even if Taehyung had little to no choice in the matter. No, all those years ago, Taehyung's father forced his eldest son out of Korea after the death of his ex-wife, and Taehyung did not beg for that to happen, either.

“Don't you miss any of your old friends?” His aunt asks him this one day, watching as he bundles himself up in one of the throws and settles into the couch.

It's not something he thought about lately, because he didn't have time to think about it. Between graduation and the tragedy that struck his side of California, Taehyung was too caught up in emotion to think that going home would entail seeing his friends. His more consuming thoughts revolved around crying at midnight and painting away the pain in the backyard, leg swung over the edge of the porch in a way that often made his toes brush the soft grass. Being here was just short of perfectly healing.

“Not really,” Taehyung says quietly, honestly, and doesn't miss the way she frowns, worrying. The expression makes his fist ball under his cloak of warmth.

When everyone is away from the house, Taehyung finds time for himself. The large space of the backyard porch has become his home; he sits in his comfortable shorts and t-shirt and lays down on the wood boarding, Soonshim finding a place beside him in the shade. Sometimes, he'll find it within himself to sketch out something, closing the book almost as quick as he opens it. Other times, Taehyung ventures out into his old world, simply taking pictures or writing about his experience. It's a distraction above all, the kind that makes him happy these days - or as close to it as he can be.

“Hyung, come with me to the store,” Taejoon whines one day, tugging on his arm.

“And who's driving?” Taehyung teases. The younger was a bit impatient to learn how to drive, but he was still waiting one more year until he was able to. When Taejoon pouts, begging Taehyung with his eyes, Taehyung eventually succumbs and drives them to the local store. But being out seems to be more of an attempt to get him out if anything, because Taejoon isn't exactly perusing for things he needs. He simply walks around and throws random stuff in the basket, two seconds later putting it back with a, “oh, I don't need this.”

In a sense, Taehyung appreciates it. He did need a few things and it does open up his lungs a little, makes breathing somewhat easier, as he walks around and sees the familiar scenes of his childhood. He even sees a few familiar faces throughout the big supermarket, something that makes him a little anxious but also filled with warmth.

“Hyung, can you go get some soap? Noona says I can't use her body wash anymore, but it smells so good!” Taehyung laughs but gives an affirmation, leaving the cart behind with Taejoon.

“Alright, I'll be back. Stay somewhere around here, okay?”

Upon getting to the correct aisle, Taehyung has a bit of a dilemma. Taejoon didn't say what soap he wanted; he only indicated that Taehee's soap was apparently good. He stands back, not even really looking at the soaps, only considering what Taejoon would like. It is in this silent time that he hears a familiar call of his name, the voice much deeper but still holding the same tone that it did six years ago.

“Taehyung?”

Taehyung turns - somewhat aware that on that side of the aisle, there are definitely condoms, oh god - and sees Jeon Jeongguk, standing there in all his adult glory. He's as tall as Taehyung now - if not a few centimeters shorter, maybe even taller, but he can't tell from this distance - and his smile is ridiculously large at the sight of him. Taehyung walks towards him, only to be startled at the sighting of a tattoo peeking from the opening of his hoodie at the neck. It's some kind of flower, this much he can tell, the petals pulling up from his collar bone up towards his ear.

“Is that Jeongguk?” Taehyung smiles and jumps when Jeongguk walks forward to pull him into a hug. He smells like soap and just a hint of cologne, something fresh and pleasant that doesn't burn Taehyung's nose or give him a headache. “Oh, okay!”

And, if it seems that Jeongguk has gotten any more affectionate or has lost his coldness, it only reflects in his actions. He stands back after that, a grin plastered on his face, but the words seem to lose him as soon as he's done.

“How have you been?” Taehyung decides on, watching as Jeongguk considers the question.

“I've been okay,” he reveals honestly, side-eyeing the condoms to his left and moving away from them. “Better than okay, actually.” He sounds a little bit breathless with his happiness, as if he’s relieved to say so. His hands pull at the sleeves of his hoodie, awkward, and it’s then that Taehyung notices the ink that sprawls up from his wrists as well. Jeongguk - sweet, baby Jeongguk - is a lot different from six years ago, when he cried because someone stole his toy car and Yoongi - oh, Taehyung must have forgotten - tugged Taehyung along because they were big kids and they couldn’t let the little guys get hurt.

The small pause must get to Jeongguk, because he reaches a hand up to brush his hair away from his face and fumbles for words a little dramatically. Guiltily, Taehyung chuckles, and watches as Jeongguk rolls his eyes when he realizes that maybe, it’s a little ridiculous to be scrambling for words when you’ve known a person so long, so long ago.

“And you?” Jeongguk asks, and his eyes don’t dart to the side again at the conspicuous placement of his body. He clears his throat. “Yeah, you?”

Jeongguk tosses the ball back with strength once he gains his fragile confidence back, and Taehyung was not expecting it. If he was honest, he’d say that he’d been doing less than okay - he was doing terrible, and the weight of the world on his shoulders wasn’t getting any lighter now that he was away from the ocean and busy streets, away from curious eyes and his hands always red with-

And you? Taehyung worries his lip and crosses his arms, betraying. “Good,” he settles for. “I’ve been doing well. Long time no see, huh? The last time I saw you, Yoongi-hyung had you in a headlock, now-”

“Yoongi-hyung’s about a foot shorter than me,” Jeongguk laughs. “But don’t tell him I said that. I mean, if you see him. He’d have my head.”

Taehyung’s heart bleeds just a little bit. The warmth overcomes him, oozes into his body like melted chocolate and sets a softness to his eyes, which have gone mellow with his cadence. Jeongguk - well, Jeongguk seems like he wants to hug him again, even if physical affection was never his thing, and Taehyung has been looking for a new hand to hold like bits of gold hidden in sand. Fury and pity do not wrack Jeongguk’s face. Only patience, a delicate kind that wakes Taehyung up from a two month long period of fury - with himself - and dashes an unattached love into the pockets of his collarbones like it’s a place for him to keep, keep, keep.

“He’s still here?” Taehyung asks instead of, ‘It’s so nice to see you again, my heart burns with it.’

Jeongguk nods pleasantly. “Yeah. We were staying together for awhile, but he met this guy and-” Eyelashes flutter like a series of words, Jeongguk saying that Yoongi left him, in so many words. Not bitterly, just honestly; maybe he thinks it’s a little funny. “We still see each other a lot. I’m the only person Yoongi trusts with a tattoo gun.”

“Oh,” Taehyung acknowledges, now looking purposefully. “Actually, I’ve always found it interesting? Tattoo artists always seem to have tattoos, and I always wonder if there’s someone out there-”

Jeongguk tilts his head thoughtfully, readjusts his footing. “Well, imagine you went to a therapist and straight off the bat, they told you they had never been through anything even moderately stressful and will have no connection to what you’re saying at all. Where’s the empathy in that, right?”

And with his questionable, almost faulty, connection, Jeongguk carelessly picks a box of condoms from the aisle and places them in his hand basket.

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says, and laughs when Taehyung does, just a little. “Just - I realized a while ago that it didn’t matter if I was inked or not. Life is temporary, these tattoos are permanent - see my dilemma? Regardless, tattoos are pretty great. I love mine.”

And from the way Jeongguk’s now looking at the bare skin of Taehyung’s arms, almost analytical, he can guess that he’s planting pictures of his imagination onto the tan canvas, a little smile on his face.

“Ever consider it?”

Taehyung shakes his head, no. He’d never thought of it, not until now, with Jeongguk staring at him curiously and looking like he wants to turn all of this empty space into something more interesting. “No, I haven’t-”

“Hyung?” Taejoon comes sprinting down the aisle, cart with him. “Have you found the soap? Are you okay?”

Taehyung rolls his eyes and turns. “Yes, I’m okay.” Jeongguk’s grinning when he turns back around, almost playful. “I need to go, sorry. This kid is really impatient.” Ignoring Taejoon’s indignified squawking, he pulls in Jeongguk this time, letting the small bit of affection wash over him in a way he didn’t before.

“See you. Maybe you should consider it?”

It’s Taehyung’s turn to silently consider his reply this time as he begins walking away, shooting Jeongguk a mock-salute. “I will, sir. Bye!”

“Hyung, who was that?” Taejoon asks later, placing items on the conveyor belt with almost practiced speed.

Taehyung smiles lightly, free in a way he hadn’t been able to muster before. “A friend, I guess. Yeah.”

Nearly two weeks in and a call from Taehyung’s father keeps him up all night, although the words are of no consequence. Things had been getting to him a lot more lately, and maybe this is why his father’s conversations are a bit short and, in a sense, sensitive, because otherwise he’d be hammering him for words that just won’t come up. Seething with practically no emotion and hope that he finally would find some, Taehyung hung up the phone that night and pressed his hands to his eyes as if he could throw away his object permanence and the world wouldn’t be there (as long as he wasn’t looking).

Alas, it is, and he opened his eyes to see Taehee staring - or rather, glaring - at him in a confused, almost mocking way. As if she knows all of his pain by book and has been thumbing away at these problems until they started to hurt even more. When she caught him looking, a brief moment of softness was pressed into the closing of her eyelids before her pupils were back with a fury several times worse. Her hate seems to know no bounds, and her words still haven’t fled past simple phrases.

“You alright, oppa?” She emphasizes harshly, something she asks more out of spite than care. Their aunt is in the room, and if there’s anything Taehee seems to care about, it seems to be her. Taehyung can’t get to her, even in his moments of hilarity.

Maybe in moments of more clarity, where being so tired and disdainful of himself didn’t cloud his perception to the point of stagnancy, Taehyung would feel the pang in his heart where the words hurt him the most. Or where ever emotions come from, because Taehyung has tried holding his hand to his chest when he was younger and it never stopped the words from sending his limbs into a shaking fit - Taehyung always felt the brittle break of his heart because he was just the slightest bit sensitive and only want to hear praise. Instead, Taehyung has shed some of that carefulness and ignores Taehee’s words in the same way someone closes their ears at night with styrofoam plugs to keep the noises out. Except now, he does not need any object to help; only his brain, which has built walls so high even Taehee’s shouting couldn’t get in.

In another space and time, where objects are not tangible and the world does not whistle past him with the breeze of privileged AC, Taehyung breathes out a sigh as the light stands at a stale green, cars driving past without care for pedestrians as long as the road has legally cleared for them. Taehyung has been riding his bike in the same circle for nearly thirty minutes now it seems, and nothing is becoming any clearer. The day is hot, the touch of his skin hotter, and people cease their watching of him as soon as he passes by with a smile.

A voice is tinkling just on the outside of what he can perceive, causing him to glance back from his abnormally high standpoint on his bike. His legs falter on the turning of the wheels but do not stop, only pausing to hear that voice just a little clearer. It is familiar in a way that doesn’t make sense, from some stolen time or another in which Taehyung cannot recall.

“Taehyung! Berry! Honey! Puppy! Taehyung!”

Taehyung tilts his head this way, that, but cannot manage anything besides a frown. The people walking on the sidewalk don’t know him. They don’t. They are a sea of nameless faces with other worries etched into the curve of their brow, and they do not concern Taehyung, who is strange in a flannel that stretches to his knuckles and a dark shirt that absorbs all the heat underneath. His torn jeans and converse are the normalcy in this hot sun, and when he’s feeling particularly brave on this back and forth route, he places a hand on the denim to finger at a tear or fray. He steers with one hand, closing his eyes, and stops looking back-

“Tae? Hello! Taehyung, brat!”

Taehyung frowns. Only, looking back this time produces results, and here is a face that is tracking him down with a bright smile and eyes that squint under the bright smile. Their feet are touching a moving board and skating close to Taehyung now, mouth quirked.

“I caught you,” they say, breathing heavy with exertion. “I caught you, now pay up.”

Taehyung slows his cycling to match the person on the skateboard, who is merely poking the ground with his feet to move along the sidewalk. “Pay up? How?”

The person rolls their eyes, hand flexing at eye-level now. “You said if I caught you, you would give me five dollars. So?”

“I don’t remember that.” Taehyung’s eyebrows pull together involuntarily. “Who are you?”

They frown now, confused. “Who am I? Are you serious?”

Nodding, Taehyung cycles harder now. He wants to beat this strange person, who is following him on his skateboard and demanding five dollars even when the past events don’t answer this. Before, Taehyung was just cycling. There was no rhyme, no reason - just a repetition to find a home. Taehyung has always wanted a home. The dream always felt so far away. No matter where Taehyung goes, home never sinks into his bones or finds shelter in himself. Maybe this is what the circling was, to find a home hidden in an alleyway or a corner, because he’s never found it in plain site-

The person catches up to him, now even more puzzled. “Taehyung, are you okay? What-”

“Who are you?” Taehyung demands again after slowing down to a reasonable pace. Here they are, in the same circle. There is that same stop light, still green, still stagnant, the river of shiny cars still passing by without care. When the light finally turns red, Taehyung ignores the stranger to continue on. Finally, he thinks, he will be able to pass the street and make it home. He cycles as fast as he can, just meeting the crosswalk when the little glowy white figure numbers down to five. Realistically, he can get across if he continues this pace, so he keeps going.

“Taehyung! Wait, what’s up? What’s wrong? Taehyung-”

Taehyung breathes a sigh of relief as he makes it across, but the air is sucked right back into his lungs at the sound of a booming crash, shattering any semblance of alertness in Taehyung’s bones. The scene turns dark, the rain starts pouring from the sky, and Taehyung is still out of the ordinary in a flannel that stretches to his knuckles and a dark shirt that absorbs all the heat underneath. Everyone has a large coat, a big umbrella, and Taehyung makes a halted jump and turn off his bike until his feet are planted steadily on the ground. In a tumble of noise, the bike falls to the wet cement, Taehyung uncaring for the hours he spent making sure his bike was always taken care of, because it was his main source of transportation.

There’s red everywhere. On the ground, on the stop sign across the street, on the tires of cars that roll pass carelessly despite the skateboard, now broken to bits on asphalt. Taehyung feels his knees give out to meet the ground that is now cool despite the hot sun just a moment ago - but where did that go? He feels rain collide and fall down the angles of his face, his arms. It all lands in puddles in his hands, facing palm up towards the sky as if asking for forgiveness. Taehyung looks down at the rivulets, but they come into contact with the red that is now staining his hands, mixing to create something grotesque-

“Are you okay?”

The world has bent into a deep black, and Taehyung’s back is arched into the comfort of a soft bed. The sweat surrounds him, making his shirt stick to his back in an uncomfortable way; despite the blow of a fan in the corner, Taehyung feels hot in his t-shirt and boxers, especially as he looks up to see Taejoon staring at him in alarm. The light of the hallway glows through the crack in the door, the same crack Taejoon must have forced his way through.

“You yelled, hyung. A nightmare?” Taejoon - sweet, wonderful Taejoon, who has shown nothing but kindness in his big eyes - leans forward and tugs his hyung out of bed, like he’s the older brother. He gives him a glass of water in the semi-lit kitchen with just one light on and ignores the stars that seem to be mocking them from their place outside the sheer lilac curtains of the kitchen window. Just over the sink, they wave in the gentle breeze created by the barely cracked window, which Taejoon actually closes once he catches sight of it.

Perhaps he did change, after all this time.

“I’m fine,” Taehyung practically begs, stapling a sleepy smile on his face once he’s downed the water by Taejoon’s command. “I promise.”

Taejoon’s face skews. With gentle fingers, he presses into the fabric of the table cover, a question in the biting of his lips. “Hyung-”

“What?” Taehyung asks more harshly than he’d like. “What?” He repeats, softer this time, and watches as Taejoon considers and considers.

“Hyung, what’s your fault?”

“What do you mean?” Sweat still gently pouring, heart still beating, hands still shaking and still so numb, Taehyung tilts his head back to watch the ceiling spin and closes his eyes until it all goes away. Maybe he should drink some more water.

“You were,” Taejoon hesitates. “You were yelling, saying it was your fault. What’s your fault?” Taejoon pauses again, but this time he refuses to meet Taehyung’s eyes. “Why are you here again?” His voice has faded to something small, and this pulls awareness to the forefront of Taehyung’s mind and forces him awake. He should be having more of a reaction - Taejoon now knows more about him than his dad does, and yet he simply smiles and taps a beat on the table. He doesn’t want Taejoon to see any more than he has to, being so young; maybe it’s wrong to shelter his brother as if he’s younger than he actually is, but there’s a part of him, the brotherly aspect, that ruins any semblance of truth that resides on his tongue.

“Nothing, Taejoon-ah. Don’t worry about your hyung, okay? It was just a nightmare.”

“But-”

“What time is it?” Taehyung answers the question himself by glancing at the oven clock, the neon green letters staring back at him. “What place stays open twenty-four hours around here?”

Reluctance screams in Taejoon’s features. He falters, staring at Taehyung deeply, before nodding his head in dismissal. “Okay, hyung. Okay.”

Taejoon's words lead him to a diner somewhere just five minutes from the house by car, a little hole in the wall that serves his favorite food and just happens to stay open for other people like him looking for somewhere to go in the late night. He sits himself down in a booth in the corner, a strange sense of loneliness coming over him as he looks out the window into the dark night and sees a glimpse of his own reflection. He'd been avoiding the mirror lately. Suddenly he's glad for as much, because he looks terrible, even from this shrouded perception. The darkness under his eyes tells of his restless nights from the nightmares and the guilt and Taehyung - Taehyung may have lost himself somewhere.

His heart has broken enough, though. Congratulating himself in some morbid sense, he orders more than he needs to and waits with a hoodie pulled over his head, hands covered by his sleeves and just barely keeping his nodding head up. He brought his sketchbook this time, determined that this weird time would bring something about in him, but-

It doesn't really, so Taehyung shoves it next to him on the booth.

Being alone is something he hates. There's too much time for introspection, not enough for distraction, and he can only keep himself away from the edge by ticking away with his shaking knee or watching a waitress go through the same process with other patrons with her somehow still smiling voice, even if she's serving drunkards and young men like him who lost their way home, just can't find a place to stay where they don't destroy something, someone-

Jeongguk. Yes, somehow, he's included, as he walks in ten minutes after Taehyung who is still waiting patiently for an order he knows will come. Jeongguk looks tired, so much so, and he barely looks up until he does and he sees Taehyung. Brightening, he trudges over with a smile that seems exhausted and asks before plopping down in the booth across from him.

“Why are you awake?” Jeongguk asks almost smugly, but he's quiet and oh so emotionless at this hour.

“I could ask you the same question.” Taehyung fiddles with the edge of a fork touching a napkin, hearing the distant clink of silverware and plates as people silently eat. And if this isn't its own modern purgatory, a place turned upside down at night from its typical setting of happy families and people who are being productive, Taehyung doesn't know what is. He has some freedom though, even if his mind shackles him down to a train of thought that is running thirty miles over the speed limit. The foot that just barely grazes over his under the table is accidental but entirely affectionate still, the kind of feeling transpiring through it that makes Taehyung think he's doing great at this whole improving thing. Really, it just means Jeongguk's giving this feeling like a present and presents are temporary with their feelings, so Taehyung will feel alone and shitty tomorrow even if he remembers the heavy smell of Jeongguk's aftershave or exactly how many inches of space Jeongguk's shoulders take up.

“I might have insomnia, might not,” Jeongguk explains, as if he's saying the weather’s nice today, right? Taehyung nods thoughtfully, lips just slightly pursed as he stares at the table. “I work late, can never go to sleep when I come back to my apartment. Life's hard.” And then he chuckles, oddly full of life. “And what about you?”

Taehyung doesn't know if he should be honest or not. He settles for something in the middle. “I have nightmares sometimes,” he says rather stonily, which Jeongguk frowns at. “I just happened to wake up completely tonight and, well-”

“No need to explain.” Jeongguk throws his hands up in mock defeat.

Jeongguk is perfect for Taehyung right now. He is perfect, because he does not ask any more questions or pity Taehyung with his doe eyes. Instead, they talk about the range of tattoos that are now visible on Jeongguk's arms, from a little stencil of a dog on his outer wrist - apparently, he allowed his apprentice to practice on him - to a quote written in small print on the back of his neck - Jeongguk loves the quote, and that's enough. Jeongguk has accumulated a lot of little pieces of permanence on his body, from a full sleeve on his right arm to a half done one on the other. Taehyung asks about the ones he can see, and even the ones he can't, but that makes Jeongguk laugh in a private way.

“I haven't gotten much outside of my arms and torso. Don't know if I plan to go beyond this,” Jeongguk says. He's allowing Taehyung to wrap his thin fingers around his wrist and twist it around carefully, looking at all the designs and intricate details pressed into his skin.

“So pretty,” Taehyung murmurs. “I don't know if I could handle the pain, but these are so beautiful. My favorite is the flower, though.” Jeongguk raises an eyebrow, smirking funnily when Taehyung wiggles his fingers expectantly. He leans over his coffee which is now filled with creamer and just a little bit of sugar to allow Taehyung an affectionate but not necessarily telling touch, the kind that grazes skin but does not permeate deep like a needle. Taehyung has no lasting effect with the platonic breach of his fingers nor does Jeongguk act like it; they are simply strange friends meeting up by accident and finding comfort in this strange, elusive connection that binds them once again.

“I meant to ask,” Jeongguk begins after watching Taehyung eat like a madman for five minutes. Time is passing a little faster now when Taehyung is not alone and not allowing his mind to wander like a curious cat. “What have you been doing?”

And what a loaded question that is, being so vague. Taehyung hesitates, not sure how to answer, and realizes Jeongguk probably won't care either way. No, Jeongguk will smile and like the information even if it's not monumental or life-changing.

“Art,” Taehyung decides on with a smile. “Well, my dad forced me into business, actually. It's never been my thing. I have to go back and finish up with it within the next year.”

It's funny really, how Jeongguk seems to offer up his touch and skin to Taehyung unabashed, but words sometimes seem to falter him completely. He's searching for them frequently, but is quick to allow Taehyung to trace over the patterns on his soft skin, almost as if he can tell that Taehyung's breathing evens out with the steady looping of his fingers.

“Funny,” Jeongguk comments, swirling his spoon in his coffee absent-mindedly. “I always figured you would turn out to be a zoologist or something.”

Taehyung laughs. “I didn't like animals that much, did I?”

Jeongguk only gives him a look.

Weary feelings slip into Taehyung's veins as the time passes, his eyelids sinking and fluttering with every passing second. But he wants to wait out these seconds if it keeps him from falling back asleep, so he pesters Jeongguk who is still wide awake and clutching at his own perception with hands that are much stronger than Taehyung's exhausted ones.

“Tell me what happened to everyone we used to know,” Taehyung murmurs. The condensation from his cup of water has left small blots of wetness on the table, uncomfortably seeping into the pieces of fabric from Taehyung's hoodie he doesn't seek to save.

Jeongguk nods, eyes wandering as if in thought. He's a spontaneous coalition of shy smiles and secondhand information, breathing out tales and memories like the coffee-stained class notes you wrote but can no longer perceive; every word about the past said with the slightest bit of hesitation, because with this slight bit of timidness and only odd bursts of mirth he is merely a player in some terrible two-player game of telephone where the words are murmured and stilted and barely conceivable. He acts as if every word is a question, every thought a hesitation; only sometimes does he sit up straight and address Taehyung with a confidence one would expect from someone so - sure.

“....Yoongi-hyung is an intern at some architecture firm. He met some guy there - that same guy he moved out on me for - and they've been pretty happy. Namjoon-hyung is doing fine with his music actually, and he's got a girlfriend I think, but he won't talk to us about it. Ah, I haven't heard from Seokjin-hyung in a while, um-”

Jeongguk has wondrous eyes. The kind that make Taehyung believe he's still younger and very aware of every blessing life has to give, rather than the minuscule flaws in the design of every human’s dynamic. Unlike Taehyung, so he fits well with him, and makes Taehyung feel away from himself in some sense.

“Hyung, you look tired,” Jeongguk says somewhere in between conversation and comfortable silence. Taehyung jumps, not knowing if Jeongguk means in general or just now, and he's hoping it's the latter because the last thing he needs is another person worrying so much, all he wants is to feel normal again, please-

“I think you need to go back to sleep,” Jeongguk advises with a smile, taking another sip of his coffee that he kept refilling. “Find some inspiration in your dreams, huh? No nightmares.” As if commanding it would be enough; Jeongguk laughs.

He helps Taehyung from his seat after they pay and even offers to piggyback Taehyung home, which is initially denied until Taehyung realizes that so long ago, they were best friends. They were the kids who went over each other's house every other weekend and spent the night or built forts with pillows and blankets just so they could feel like they had the world to themselves. So he allows Jeongguk to heft him onto his back and laughs when Jeongguk struggles somewhere halfway through, but not enough for alarm; he merely tugs Taehyung up higher while he listens to his sleepy voice recounting exactly where his house is. It's not too far from Jeongguk's apartment apparently, because they're both a walking distance from the restaurant they just happened to see each other in.

“What about you?” Taehyung briefly worries with a tone that sounds tired even to his voice. “I wanna walk you home.”

“You're in no condition to even walk yourself home, hyung.” Jeongguk chuckles, the sound only disrupted by the sound of the light breeze against the grass and crickets, singing their short songs with their loud voices. “Besides, no one bothers me, and I do this all the time. I mean, I keep mace on me so-”

“Mace?” Taehyung nearly chokes.

“I felt like it was the least hardcore thing for me to be carrying around if I'm ever walking at night. Actually, usually I'd be in my car but it's been in the shop so transportation has been a bit-” Jeongguk suddenly lowers his voice, fingers clenching around the meat of Taehyung’s thighs. “God, we’re loud.”

“You are,” Taehyung begins, wrapping his arms tighter around Jeongguk's neck, “a roller coaster. One second you're this way, the next second you're that. Settle down, young one.”

“I'm still choosing who I want to be, give me a break. You on the other hand-”

“What? I'm only like a year and a half older than you - something like that. I can still do this, too.”

Taehyung can practically feel the roll of Jeongguk’s eyes, settling them into a comfortable silence as their walk continues on. It's only been a few minutes, but Taehyung wants to fall asleep like this. The warmth of Jeongguk's body is a pleasing feeling against his own. He can feel himself desiring something like this constantly, because it almost seems like it would be easier to go to sleep peacefully if he didn't feel alone all the time now, including the times when he's not even awake.

Tucking his head next to Jeongguk's, Taehyung rests his chin on his own arm. “It's so nice to see you Jeonggukkie. You're the only one.”

“Only one who what?” Jeongguk asks quietly.

“Only one who treats me like a normal person - like I'm not sad. I don't wanna be sad.” Exhaustion has pulled his lips out of shape, too loose, words tumbling from his tired mind that has lost the key to the doors of privacy and let them jump open with a rush. “It's so hard to not be sad when everyone treats you like you should be, you know? When everyone keeps asking you, what's wrong? Tell me about it? Please, recount whatever is making you upset, thank you.” Taehyung giggles wearily, feeling Jeongguk tense up again as he continues on.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk calls hesitantly, the tips of his fingers pressing harder into Taehyung’s knees subconsciously. “Why are you back? I was curious, but I forgot to ask.”

“I'm mourning,” Taehyung whines. It's too cold to be outside right now, he realizes, but it's still humid. Perhaps he's just colder than everyone else. “I did something bad, Jeonggukkie. It was my fault, I didn't mean to but-” he hiccups, accidentally knocking his head into Jeongguk's. “Sorry.”

“So - so you came back home? To mourn?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung affirms groggily. “Yep, my dad doesn't know how to be emotional, y’know - so he said okay! You can go back to your aunt and your siblings but, oh god, Jeongguk. My sister hates me, I think.”

“But Taehee loves you! I mean, loved.” Jeongguk's head lifts, and Taehyung uses it as his clock - they must be getting close to his house.

“Taehee is mad I left. I left her so long ago by herself right after my mom died and she had no one to rely on. Our aunt had only just began to take care of us and Taehee wanted to leave too, she wanted to go to America but dad said no, I'm not sure why. I think she felt like I didn't care, but I - I care so much, Jeongguk-”

“Okay, okay - hyung, we’re almost at your house. Don't cry, okay? You're delirious and you're really gonna regret it in the morning, I promise.”

“That is,” Taehyung laughs shortly, “the worst reason you could give me to not cry, but I think it worked. You're magic, Jeongguk.” He hugs Jeongguk closer when he feels Jeongguk pause, presumably to look at the houses they're near.

“We're here, hyung.” He kneels down slightly, so Taehyung can dismount carefully onto the cement. He does with just a bit of a wobble, Jeongguk righting him with a quick grab of his wrist. “Be careful. Get some sleep, okay hyung? You need it. Just take care of yourself, okay? That's the only thing I can ask of you.”

“Okay, I got it. I will do my best, so you do yours, okay?” Taehyung watches Jeongguk nod with finality, waving goodbye as the boy watches him to make sure he makes it into the house okay. Still, it does nothing to keep Taehyung from peering out the window to see Jeongguk begin to walk away from the house, a small smile on his face.

There is nothing good about playing dead.

Taehyung thought that shutting himself down would lead to the best results. He'd cut his heart out to relieve the pain, kiss the spots that hurt and cover them with a bandage, put a thick blindfold on - Taehyung was determined to ignore the pain that shrouded his mind everyday because of what he did. But it's hard, and grieving is a task that takes more time than he wishes it did. It is a perpetual state of regret, one in which he can't forget a single facet of what he wants to the most, because if he forgets he no longer has to feel.

Sloppily, Taehyung pushes his thoughts to the side like a messy desk and pretends things are alright. He pretends they're alright until they're not, until one day he rips up all of his familiar drawings with that same red (regretting it right after) and throws away two of his shirts, both smelling like roses (there's not much regret here, the sensory images were too much).

If sweeping things under the rug eventually means a mountain, Taehyung does not care. If shaking his heart out like a dusty blanket means that the good feelings go along with the bad ones, he does not care. What matters is this: Taehyung survives, and he does not want to die like he did nearly two months ago, blood staining his hands even when he washed them ten times.

After he has destroyed and destroyed, Taehyung has learned a lesson, and that is that life is temporary. It is short, and it is spontaneous, and he has no control over it as long as he has these weak hands and heart.

( Life is temporary, these tattoos are permanent- )

He gets his dilemma.

Taehyung think about it. He wonders, and he does exactly what Jeongguk asked him to do - consider - before realizing that maybe, this is what he needs. Something to ground him that isn't harsh or self-deprecating. He eventually chooses the most ridiculous thing in the world, almost as ridiculous as Jeongguk's little stencil of a dog that his apprentice dutifully doodled on him. He finds out the name of Jeongguk's parlor and decides that he's going to do something, even if it's simply walking in. He thinks he can do this, maybe.

His feelings don't change a week later, when he's walking into the shop to see a somewhat young girl behind the counter in a black tank top, an intimidating array of tattoos lined up on her arms as well.

“Hey,” she says, tossing her hair out of her face to see Taehyung better. Before her are two large books that must be related to class work, but she throws a binder down on top of them before he can look any longer. “I'm Seulgi, how can I be of service to you?”

“Too formal!” Someone yells from the back.

“Shut up!” She yells back, rolling her eyes. “Jeez, I'm just trying to be nice. I'm either too shy or too formal, what do they want from me?”

“We want a normal person at the front desk, rookie!” Another voice calls.

Taking a deep breath, Seulgi smiles and looks up. “Just - ignore them, okay? What are you here for?”

“I wanted to get a tattoo, actually. Something really simple.”

“Any requests?” Seulgi says, opening up the binder to reveal what must be appointments. “I know this is written so we look like we're in the stone ages, but I promise we update these in an online system as well. Sometimes.”

“Jeongguk. Um, he's my friend.” Seulgi looks up at this, pleasantly surprised.

“What's your name?” She asks.

“Taehyung. Ah, Kim Taehyung. Sorry.”

“No problem. Your name sounds slightly familiar, so that's a good sign. Jeongguk only talks about people if he really, really likes them.” She spins her pen in her fingers before tapping her index at an open spot, writing Taehyung's name it in a looping cursive. “This will be your consultation day. I've got a morning and an afternoon time, what's better for you?”

“Afternoon, I guess. I'm fine with either, really.”

Seulgi shrugs, scribbling his name again in the afternoon slot. “Whatever the customer wants!” She glances over her shoulder, eyebrows raised in expectation. “Any thoughts on that, boss?”

“Better!” The same voice from before says, and she smiles.

If Taehyung was to separate his life into patterns and sections, he'd label two months ago “before” and this time “sometime after before”. In between hanging out with his family and drawing on the back porch, Taehyung has little time to do the deep thinking he was prone to back in California. It was so easy to find patches of time on the beach, time where he'd stare out at the calm waves until the sunset and usually, someone would come and tap him on the shoulder, always gentle-

But Taehyung had performed the game of operation on himself, careful not to touch the metal edges and set off any alarms; he'd removed those times from his memory in a temporary way, simply hoping they'd stop haunting him. Taehyung had long stopped searching for beauty in the small cracks of sidewalks or the rays of sun that just barely crested across his bed when the curtains were cracked just so; the manifestation of it had hid itself under the blanket of his insecurity, fear, guilt, cloaking itself into invisibility. Beauty was hard to come across anymore, but he was forcing it if he could. To lie to himself about being happy was better than not being happy at all, so he found little reasons like this tattoo or just knowing he'd see Jeongguk again - maybe even Yoongi, if he was really lucky - and ignoring the pain was good enough for now.

Getting a text from Jeongguk makes him more excited than it should. He says, “I got your number from a little birdy, sorry. Heard you're coming into the shop for a consultation?” He even adds an emoji, something oddly juxtaposed with the often cool look of his exterior. But Taehyung had long figured out Jeongguk was more than his lack of emotion or sometimes, even the excess of it, and realized that Jeongguk was just a person who was hard to figure out.

That's the best thing, Taehyung thinks. Jeongguk has the dimensions of someone who is just too mysterious, and it's interesting to find himself learning something new about him everyday. Rather than just one type of personality, he gets a friend who's goofy, serious, energetic, and hot-tempered all at the same time. Like a puzzle without any matching edges, Jeongguk just manages to come together in a beautiful way, a way that keeps Taehyung entertained instead of bored with stagnancy.

Texting back, Taehyung decides on a few eye emojis as the correct response, an illusive avoidance of the topic in its entirety.

Next Wednesday, Taehyung comes back into the parlor significantly more nervous than before. He's not sure why. It could be that he's solidifying this whole experience by actually having a consultation, it could be that he knows Jeongguk will be here today, and he's trusting him with such a vital part of his existence. This will be permanent, and not many things in his life have been thus far - if anything, life has been perpetuated by series of temporary events, forcing him to lack attachment to anything and everything-

“Taehyung?”

He jolts, facing Jeongguk who is smiling at him in that soft, soft way of his, like he's always remembering every single time they played together as kids.

“Yeah,” Taehyung blurts, walking towards him. He can see Seulgi at the desk in his peripheral vision, seemingly staring at them. “Surprise?”

“Not really a surprise, hyung,” Jeongguk laughs. “Follow me, okay?”

Taehyung does, because it's been the easiest thing for him to do since he's been here (follow Jeongguk). Somewhere in the hall where Jeongguk guides him to, Taehyung feels a pull on the corners of his lips, and realizes that this distraction has been the best he's constructed since he's been here. It doesn't fix everything or stop him from being emotionally destructive at night, but it does keep him from doing that right now, and it's okay.

“So hyung,” Jeongguk starts mock-professionally when they sit down, “what were you thinking of getting?”

“Something really simple, um-” Taehyung hesitates, feeling oddly anxious about the whole deal. “I was thinking of getting a seashell. Like extremely simple and small, I don't even care about shading or anything-”

Jeongguk writes something down, but he puts the pen on the table as soon as he finishes. “Calm down, hyung,” he says. “What's wrong?”

“Just nervous. Weren't you nervous?”

“Not really,” Jeongguk answers honestly, eyes shifting to his paper to the little tubs of tattoo ink immaculately sorted in boxes to his side. “When you make a decision like this, it can be nerve wracking, but you have to be sure enough that you want it.”

“Okay, I might not be nervous for the tattoo. I don't know.” And it's a strange feeling, not knowing exactly why he's nervous, but it washes over him in a tidal wave of emotion. He looks down at the sparkling tile of the floor and the deep burgundy of the walls, almost jumping out of his seat when he hears the roll of a chair and fingers on his arm.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk says firmly, clasping both of Taehyung's wrist in a loose grip, almost playfully pulling until he's closer. “We've known each other since we were like, five. And as much as I can tell you don't want me to, I worry about you, and this is definitely one of those times. I need you to trust me, okay? You must have trusted me enough to be here right now.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung whispers, feeling his throat clench up without his own consent, hands wriggling in Jeongguk's grasp. “I do, I really do, I'm just-”

“I know - just, think about it. Then tell me what you want. I don't want to get the wrong idea about this tattoo, it's going to be there forever.” He squeezes a final time and rolls back. Taehyung misses the feeling already but does not beg Jeongguk for it again.

Taehyung takes a few long breaths, nodding. “Okay, I wanted a seashell,” he says, calmer now. “I want a seashell, I don't know exactly where because I don't think I care. I want it to be small, and I brought something I drew, but it'd be cooler if you drew it I think.”

“Okay, hyung,” Jeongguk smiles, taking the drawing dutifully. “I can work with that for sure.”

No longer than forty-five minutes, and that's the worst case-

Jeongguk talks to him a lot before they actually start, and maybe it's an effort to help him calm down. Taehyung thinks it's funny because Taehyung used to do that, he used to do a lot of things actually, and now everyone is doing them for him because he's sailing through a universe that is just on the boundaries of his own. Even going as far as fluffing up the hair at his nape, Jeongguk takes on the role of someone who cares so much more than anyone else has. Taehyung wonders when he learned to be so intuitive and grown-up.

Inner wrist will hurt a bit, hyung. In comparison to somewhere else, at least, but it's a small tattoo so-

Taehyung sits down in the allotted seat and deflates when Jeongguk squeezes his knee, the array of colorful tattoos on his arm only serving to make him more apprehensive. Laughing, Jeongguk grabs Taehyung's hand at his grimace and assures him that everything will be alright.

“It might not be bad, but I'm not gonna lie to you. There are worse areas to get a tattoo on, though.” Jeongguk gently grasps the wrist Taehyung decided on, swiping a thumb over the thin skin of his inner wrist.

Just below sounds a little bit better, do you want that? We can just test it out to make sure-

Sometime after Taehyung's calmed down considerably, Jeongguk heads off to some “thermal fax” machine to copy his stencil. It's in this time that Seulgi actually comes in and prepares Taehyung's wrist for the whole ordeal, talking to him about random things that make Taehyung laugh, her soft-spoken voice actually a blessing while he's so high strung.

Right before she goes, she ruffles his hair with a funny face and winks. “I can tell Jeongguk likes you,” she whispers. “I'm jealous!” She nearly sprints out the room when she hears him coming back though, leaving Taehyung flustered with the knowledge.

“What'd she say,” Jeongguk asks monotonously when he sees Taehyung's flushed face, and he shakes his head when Taehyung playfully pretends to zip his lips.

Taehyung does calm down enough with banter and the friendliness that exudes from being there, cozy in his chair with Jeongguk prepping to ink Taehyung. The placement is perfect, the small seashell bold and cute on the tan flesh. Even Jeongguk says as much, which just emphasizes how good Taehyung feels about it.

“Ready?” Jeongguk has Taehyung with his arm flipped palm up now, his gloved hands feeling much more cold than his bare skin grazing over Taehyung's.

Nodding, Taehyung lets out a deep breath, the sound of a gentle buzzing cascading into his ears.

“So tell me,” Jeongguk says carefully, ten minutes into their start, “tell me why you're getting this, if you want.”

Taehyung knows that it's a gentle push into relaxation, but it ends up making him more stressed than Jeongguk probably intended. He still hasn't learned how to settle these emotions; distractions only go so far, and eventually the thoughts will plague him once again when he runs out of track and the clearing makes its appearance again.

“Well,” Taehyung takes a deep breath, careful to keep his arm still for Jeongguk. So far, it hadn't been anything too terrible, but there had been a few moments where he had to grit his teeth. “I had a friend. Back in California, I mean - we used to go to the beach all the time to collect seashells. I don't really think about tattoos at all, but I think they're a great opportunity to leave meaning on your body. He meant a lot to me, so I want something to remember him by.”

Jeongguk hums, his grip on Taehyung's upside down palm not faltering with the admission. “It's cute. I have a few things on me for meaning, but I don't think so hard anymore when I have this much on my body.”

“It looks good on you,” Taehyung blurts, and blinks when Jeongguk looks up at him, smiling.

“Thanks. If it didn't, I'd be pretty done for, huh?”

Taehyung sputters a disagreement, because he thinks that Jeongguk would look good no matter what. Especially now that he's grown up and into his features, there's nothing even moderately unattractive about Jeongguk, and it seems to reflect in his confidence. Growing up, Jeongguk had always been smaller, and now that he's gotten taller and his figure a little broader, Taehyung feels a strange kind of security being around him. Just like Jeongguk would carry him home after a late night trip out, Taehyung trusts him to keep him safe in other ways, as well.

“So,” Jeongguk says after a moment silence. “This friend of yours - what happened to him?”

And this is where it truly gets difficult, as Taehyung feels himself get uncomfortable in his dropping stomach and the racing of his heart. His free hand grasps onto the armrest just a little tighter, but if Jeongguk notices he gives no indication.

“I,” Taehyung starts, staring at a painting on the wall, something abstract and entirely too complicated for him him to comprehend, “I'm not sure if I can talk about it.” He smiles lopsidedly, forcing it even brighter when Jeongguk pauses and looks up again, questioning. “It's difficult for me to talk about. Maybe another time, though.”

Jeongguk doesn't ask him about the meaning at all after that, which Taehyung is thankful for. Instead, he asks about Taehee and Taejoon, his aunt, even his dad. He seems to pick through conversations a little more carefully after that, which helps to calm Taehyung considerably. Before he knows it, his tattoo is finished, Jeongguk wiping it down to clear away any excess ink.

It's small but ridiculously adorable, and it does exactly what Taehyung wanted it to do. The bold lines make it stand out on his skin, but it's small enough that a person would have to be searching his body to find it.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, nearly hopping with excitement when he looks at the imprint on his skin. This will be with him forever, he realizes, and does not find himself feeling guilty for it. “I love it.”

“I'm glad.” Jeongguk grins at Taehyung.

And if Taehyung were to build up more of those patterns and sections; if he were to cut off another small part of his life, he'd call this the beginning. So muddled with confusion, with pain, but with enough hope to carry himself onward.

It's safe to say that Taehyung wasn't entirely thrilled when his aunt told him he needed to pick Taehee and Taejoon up from school for a week. Taehee was still, well, Taehee, although he had no issue with Taejoon. Really, his only problem was the way Taejoon looked at him sometimes, full of curiosity and questions that sat right on the tip of his tongue. After that one night, the night he found Taehyung after his nightmare, Taehoon acted incapable of normalcy around him, which only
made things awkward.

“Why?” Taehyung whines. His aunt merely looks at him and rolls her eyes.

“Taehee's car is in the shop right now, and you're available.” She shrugs at his groan, even seeming to smile a bit at his pain.

It's not until he's on the way to get his younger siblings that he realizes they easily could have ridden the bus, and his aunt must have conspired this plan to make them spend time together. Really, it's just a time when Taehee pointedly sits in the backseat and plays on her phone the whole time, while Taejoon awkwardly fiddles with the radio and air conditioner for the ride. Taehyung is simply fidgeting in the silence, Taejoon’s jolty movements doing nothing to help.

“Oh, hyung!” Taejoon suddenly blurts. “I've been meaning to ask, how's your art?” And then, a sigh of relief, as if he's glad to have come up with the question to fill the silence. Taehyung is, too, but his art seemed to be a tough topic when it was constantly making him want to jump off a ledge.

“It's fine,” he says instead, smiling a bit. “Nothing huge, you know - I kind of wavered when dad forced me into business.”

Taehee makes a little noise in the backseat, but when Taehyung looks in the rear view mirror, she's still eyeing her phone.

“What?” He asks, staring back at the road. He hears rustling before Taehee's settling on an answer.

“Forced you?”

“Yeah, forced me. I wanted to do art, I really did. It's the only thing that calms me down anymore, really - but dad told me the arts aren't a realistic career choice.”

“They aren't,” Taehee scoffs, but not mockingly, just seriously. “How often do artists make it big anymore?”

“There are still a lot of opportunities to be creative,” Taehyung explains. “It's just more of a challenge. Besides, what's done is done - I know that it was probably a better choice for me in the long run.”

“Are people always making your choices for you?” Taehee says, only this time, Taehyung makes eye contact with her through the mirror. She's staring at him with intent, and this is when he realizes that she is not scared to mock or question him; despite their age, Taehee is completely unafraid of any consequences that may come from being so brusque.

Maybe Taehyung has always been a pushover, or maybe the guilt has settled like lint on his shoulders, but Taehyung takes the words with a blink and keeps driving.

“No,” he answers honestly, almost laughing when he sees Taejoon going back to his awkward habits. “Just sometimes, people are looking ahead for me while I'm too busy looking back. It's nice to have help at times.”

“Ah, I bet,” Taehee responds and leaves it at that. It leaves Taehyung wondering if they will ever make progress.

“Who's your friend who did your tattoo?” His brother asks after a dull moment, head quirking. Taehyung said something in passing, but he didn't realize that Taejoon would remember up until now, eyes questioning.

“The guy I saw at the grocery store.” He figures that's vague enough. “We knew each other when I still lived here.”

“He seems cool. He makes me want to get a tattoo. Oh, and work out-”

“Taejoon-ah, you’re absolutely beautiful the way you are!”

“Hyung, stop being so cheesy.” Taehyung can practically feel him rolling his eyes from the passenger seat. “Anyway, I just want to work out to be healthier. You know, like the best version of yourself or something.”

“This is about as good as it gets,” Taehyung sighs, ignoring Taejoon's strong look of ridicule. “I love to eat, so I can't.”

“You're the worst, actually - remember when you said you loved to eat, but it was better if I had to clean it up? What's wrong with you?”

“That's the dream! I eat, but I don't have to clean up after myself.” Taehyung knows they're getting closer to the house now, and he's almost thankful for it. It gets stunningly awkward with Taehee's ability to word things in the worst of ways, and he knows Soonshim is there to heal all of his pain and sit with him on the back porch. Taejoon was warming up, but his curiousness still struck Taehyung as discomfiting.

“Whatever, hyung. I'm not cleaning after you,” Taejoon says when they arrive, unbuckling his seatbelt. “A real man cleans after himself.”

“Philosophy one-oh-one with the mighty prophet, Kim Taejoon,” Taehyung announces, laughing when Taejoon mockingly raises a fist.

All is well, Taehyung believes, but he can't help feeling apprehensive when Taehee doesn't even glance his way before leaving.

“Long time no see.”

Yoongi is - something. After so many years apart, Taehyung is surprised to find that their first meeting would reveal Yoongi in all his beautiful glory. His almond eyes are perfectly framed by his face, his nose and mouth wonderful additions to the adorably round quality of his visage; Taehyung finds himself completely envious of his luster, even the faded pink color of his hair. Taehyung had always wanted to dye his hair, but his father made that dream impossible.

“I love your hair! You're so tiny,” Taehyung says, not even recognizing the excitement in his voice.

“I hate him again,” Yoongi says to Jeongguk, who is standing somewhere behind Taehyung.

It was really all Jeongguk's idea. Apparently, Yoongi and his boyfriend (who has yet to be named or discovered) were going to some bar, and Jeongguk was invited and therefore believed it'd be a great time for them to all catch up. Taehyung is grateful, because after so many years apart, he didn't really know if the opportunity for something like this was even realistic. Yoongi, out of all their old friends, was the one he wanted to see the most - they had been the closest, after all.

“Yoongi doesn't like to be called small,” Jeongguk explains, “he's um, metaphorically big. Dynamic. Yeah.”

Yoongi rolls his eyes, uncaring. With his sheer black shirt and tight black pants, it only emphasized the thinness of his body, and Taehyung couldn't help blurting out how small he looked in comparison to him, who'd grown up to be a lot taller.

“About the hair,” Yoongi nods his head, newly alert, “I could help you dye your hair, too. How long you here for?”

“Not sure,” Taehyung smiles, but it's a little lopsided. “I'm having something of a gap year before I go into graduate school. What a mess, right?”

“I don't doubt you have your reasons,” Yoongi says rather emphatically, a complete contrast from his disposition, which is frank and unaware. He glances to the side, away from Taehyung, and blush blooms on the apples of his cheeks like cherry blossoms. “Whatever makes you happy is the best choice, isn't it?”

Taehyung would like to think so. However, everything has always seemed predetermined for him, whether it be through his family members or the call of fate, weaving in melancholies like buttons on a t-shirt. Choice has always eluded him, and Taehyung has never had the free will to determine things like Yoongi seems to have - from his hair to his degree - so, in some sense, Yoongi has a privilege that he does not.

Sometime long ago, Taehyung stopped looking for ways he could avoid fate or run into alleyways to avoid it; no matter what, it seemed to be meant for him, through tragedy or blessing. Even now, he looks at the little seashell on his wrist and feels simultaneous pangs of hurt, guilt, and worry - he loves it, but he worries carefully for what his father will say when he sees it.

“You okay?” Jeongguk whispers to him when he notices him growing quiet, and Taehyung nods after a small jolt, looking over his shoulder at Jeongguk. They're in a less crowded area of the bar, about to be seated in a few moments, but Taehyung feels crowded. Even if he assures Jeongguk he's alright, the man seems to perceive elsewise, as he wraps an arm around Taehyung's shoulders that feels comforting and grounding in his moment of introspection. “Hoseok’s coming.”

“Who's Hoseok?” Taehyung asks quickly, but Jeongguk simply points in the direction Yoongi was staring at, watching as a man comes and hugs Yoongi with a smile. It's almost funny the way Yoongi lights up at the other man's excitement, his gums showing in a ridiculously bright smile as he drags him over to Taehyung and Jeongguk.

Yoongi can't seem to settle down now as he approaches them. “This is Hoseok,” he introduces to Taehyung, gesturing towards them both. “This is Taehyung. Hoseok is my boyfriend, Taehyung is my childhood friend.”

Laughing, Hoseok shakes hands with Taehyung and tells him it's nice to meet him. His cheerful demeanor has the ability to make even Taehyung happier for a moment, especially when Jeongguk squeezes his shoulder for a brief second, the comforting pressure enough to make Taehyung jolt back into commission.

“You guys-?” Hoseok begins, looking from Jeongguk to Taehyung, and Jeongguk slides his hand from around his shoulder to the middle of his shoulder blades, reducing the obviousness of the connection.

Jeongguk shakes his head. “No, hyung,” he laughs. “I'm good friends with Tae-hyung, too. That's all.”

“I should have known,” Hoseok replies with disappointment, shaking his head and clicking his tongue. “Jeonggukkie always gets my hopes up.”

Jeonggukkie just has a lot of friends,” Jeongguk stresses. “You make it seem like I'm always…”

Hoseok fixes him with a stare. “Taehyung-ssi is especially cute, though.”

“These things have no correlation, hyung, but I won't disagree.” His voice has grown unsure, but Jeongguk still smiles awkwardly at Taehyung.

“Ah, anyways - how has business been?” Hoseok asks. “What's the latest addition?”

“Business is good, latest addition is this.” Jeongguk points to the tattoo Taehyung always sees peeking out of his collar, the flowery bloom filled in with vibrant colors. Hoseok oohs and aahs at it, but does not touch, making Taehyung feel odd for always wanting to reach out and feel, as if trailing his fingers on the surface of Jeongguk’s neck would be similar to touching the soft petals of a flower.

It's not long before Jeongguk withdraws his hand completely, leaving Taehyung feeling cold in its wake. The concept of physical affection, especially platonically, was always something that plagued Taehyung a little differently than others; he craved for it in a way that left him withdrawn if he was deprived of it, and with the environment he grew up in, with his father as his only source of affection (or truly, the lack of it), the small touches Jeongguk gives to him are somewhat of a heaven to Taehyung. Although he has grown wary of giving out his own touches due to the rejection he was given at home, it feels good when Jeongguk accepts his own or even dishes it out, allowing Taehyung to feed into this desire of unhinged affection.

They sit in the booth, and Taehyung goes through the same routine that he's been going through when it comes to meeting people he used to know. Yoongi asks him about his family, his life in California, what it was like to major in business, how his schooling was - everything, really. Yoongi was his best friend before he moved, maybe even closer than Jeongguk; although he had always had a callous sense about him, he was always filled with an infinite, almost odd sensitivity for Taehyung, who was taunted and mocked for being “strange”, or in kid-speak, stranger than the rest. On the first day they met, Yoongi invited him to play on the swing set, and the rest was history. Yoongi had always wanted to care for people - to make sure they were doing alright, even if it was in the smallest, most insignificant way - helping others in ways that most others wouldn't think of.

He was always oddly considerate. Taehyung loved it about him.

“Why are you back, Tae?” He asks later into the night, when all of them have calmed down after eating and feel mellow with the sound of chatter and music around them. “Just curious, although it's great - no, amazing - to see you again.”

And Taehyung, he never wants to say, but he calms himself down enough to consider the words and let them slip off his tongue. “My best friend died,” he says as nonchalantly as possible, hands pressed into the seat below him. He's conscious of the way Jeongguk's hand rests just near his, their pinkies just grazing under the guise of darkness. “I needed some time to myself, it was really stressful. Y’know, because I was really distracted still - I never got the chance to mourn for my mom, and then that happened and yeah.” He's run out of breath, but he finds it doesn't pain him the way it did a month ago, when he'd just arrived and the wound was still fresh. It still makes him whither, but not with the monumental quality it had before - now, he just frowns and sits back, careful.

“I'm sorry for your loss,” Yoongi says dutifully, and when Taehyung looks up he's got his own sad smile, but it's not pitiful. It's then that he realizes he looks almost empathetic, and Taehyung comes to understand that everyone here, in these lost six years, has been through more than they did when he last left them. It almost saddens him to realize that he must go back to California, and all of this will seem like a surreal half of his life that existed just on the boundaries of his reality.

It's only later, when they've exited after a round of drinks and stepped into the humid air of the outside world, that Yoongi haltingly gives Taehyung a hug and even pecks him on the cheek. Taehyung almost laughs at the absurdity, but only holds his cheek and smiles.

“I love you, Taehyung-”

“He's a lightweight and gets affectionate when he's tipsy - forgive him,” Hoseok explains, shaking his head.

“No, I do! I hope you feel better, Taehyung, okay? Call me sometime so we can talk again.” He rights a jacket Hoseok handed to him on his shoulders before waving to Jeongguk as well, grinning. “We were - no, are - friends for a reason.”

“It went well, huh?” Jeongguk asks when Yoongi and Hoseok have departed, the feeling of Yoongi’s kiss still lingering on his cheek. “Hyung has changed a lot. That's the only reason I forgive him for leaving me in the apartment alone. Hoseok has changed him for the better, did you notice?”

Taehyung nods, subconsciously creeping closer to Jeongguk as they walk to their cars.

“It's amazing, how a person can make you want to act without even realizing it.” Jeongguk grins.

“A hopeless romantic? Are you really Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk shrugs. “What? It sounds nice, is all. I love the idea of love. I just never know if anyone will ever fall in love with me.” Insecurity peeks out in his tone, but it leaves Taehyung perplexed - there are so many amazing qualities about Jeongguk; of course someone would fall in love with him.

“Why wouldn't they?” Taehyung says somewhat incredulously, grimacing when Jeongguk raises an eyebrow and laughs quietly.

“I know it's a little weird. But I've always obsessed with the idea of being in love, and simultaneously believed that no one would be capable of giving it to me. Like I’d always be on this unrequited boat of feelings and everyone else would be in love.”

“Jeongguk-ah, someone will definitely fall for you. I know they will, there are too many good things about you for them to not!” Taehyung adamantly wraps an arms around Jeongguk's, pulling him into his side. “Otherwise, you will always have me. I'll always be by your side.”

“That's a big promise, hyung,” Jeongguk laughs, and his smile looks so childish in comparison to his adult structure, almost free.

“I just don't have a reason to want to leave,” Taehyung sighs. “If I could stay here, it'd be great. I'd be so happy.”

Jeongguk and Taejoon were never supposed to meet, but they do. Taehee also wasn't supposed to meet him, but she does.

Due to coincidence and timing, picking up his siblings clashes with hanging out with Jeongguk, and the four of them end up in his car with silence as their only friend. Something about Taehee always seems to draw in silence, which is bothersome to an always loud Taehyung, but eventually Taejoon builds the courage to clear his throat.

“This is your friend?” Taejoon asks hesitantly.

Jeongguk says his name, introducing himself. “I know who you and Taehee are because your brother and I used to be great friends before he moved away.”

“He talked about us a lot?

“Of course. Hyung would talk about you guys probably fifty percent of the time-”

“What?” Taehyung practically shouts. “No, that's such an overstatement.”

Jeongguk makes a noise of contemplation, disagreeing.

“I like your tattoos,” Taejoon suddenly says, breaking the feud. “Are you a tattoo artist?”

“Yeah, how'd you know?”

“I didn't, I just guessed. Good intuition, right? I wanna get one when I'm older, too.”

“Your brother has one!” Jeongguk reveals proudly, but Taehyung only groans when even Taehee makes a noise of surprise. “You didn't tell them?”

“I didn't tell anyone. I didn't want my family to freak out like they inevitably would-”

“Dad’s gonna be so angry,” Taejoon says, almost excited.

“He's not, because you're not going to tell him, and he's not going to find out.”

Taejoon mocks him, but does not otherwise dig too deep into the tattoo. It's almost appreciated, because it opens up a conversation with Jeongguk and Taejoon, who discuss tattoos and the visible ones on Jeongguk's arms. They get along in a way that almost makes Taehyung jealous, but then he realizes the way Jeongguk looks at him - with infinite tenderness, softness lingering in every aspect of his countenance - and finds that the thought was one of irrationality. If anything, it feels good to see them getting along so well, Taehee even making a few odd comments here and there when the conversation steers into something she likes.

“I approve, hyung,” Taejoon says appraisingly sometime after the conversation has wound down, causing Taehyung to raise an eyebrow in confusion. “What? I’m saying you can keep him.”

“First of all, you can’t keep humans,” Taehyung argues. “Second of all, Jeongguk is definitely not mine to keep. And lastly, since when do you have any influence on my decisions? I’m older than you.”

“Hyung, you need someone to protect you, and that person can’t always be me! I have to be on the lookout for potential.” Taejoon sounds so self-assured, rustling sounds coming from the backseat as he rummages around in his backpack and fidgets with his seatbelt. “Someone has to be looking out for which of your friends are fakes, anyways.”

“Oh, and you should be that person,” Taehyung says sarcastically. “Of all the people in the world-”

“Yes, because I love you! But Jeongguk-hyung seems to be an alright guy, I mean - look at his cool tattoos. He’s also so perceptive. What an ideal man.”

Struggling not to roll his eyes so hard they fall out of their sockets, Taehyung just clenches his fists around the wheel and ignores Taejoon’s announcements on Jeongguk’s amazing qualities while said man sits back and, rest assured, preens internally. He can only wonder how Taejoon got such an amazing read of Jeongguk within ten measly minutes, but everything he’s saying seems to be rather accurate, if not glorified to the point of astounding flattery.

“What else should I know about hyung?” Taejoon asks, and the car is silent before Taehyung realizes the question is directed at him.

“Uh,” Taehyung mutters eloquently, glancing down at the radio “Jeongguk is my friend from when I was younger-”

“Really, hyung? We’re past that, I want something new.”

“Give me a second to think, jeez.”

“Does it take that much energy to think of my good qualities?” Jeongguk groans, making Taehyung laugh.

“No, I just need to say something new. So, um, Jeongguk is a good listener. You know how I can get kind of off-topic, right? And I’ll go completely off the grid, so it’s always great to meet someone who will listen. Jeongguk is also really - different, in the best way. I learn a different thing about his personality every day, so it’s never boring.” Taehyung hums, pausing. “How do you sum up feelings like that in a sentence? I don’t know - Jeongguk’s my friend, and I like being around him. He’s happy, I’m happy, it’s great.”

“Aw, that’s nice, hyung!” Taejoon exclaims. “I can really tell that Jeongguk-hyung is the guy for you, seriously-” He cuts himself off, and it’s like the gear are turning in his head slowly, as he sits in his own silence. “I mean, in a platonic way, yeah-”

Taehyung makes a quick glance at Jeongguk, one that lacks calculation on his part, and feels like he shouldn't have looked; Jeongguk is staring at him with clear adoration, and it's an emotion Taehyung can't help but feel odd when on the receiving end of. He's used to apathy, even amusement, but the plain, unadulterated look of affection throws Taehyung off guard, forcing him to stare straight ahead instead.

It's not that Taehyung has never thought of Jeongguk that way. His sexuality had never been clearly defined, so he's dated an array of different people, and it never struck him as odd to think that Jeongguk would be the type of person he'd like to date or simply understand that he's attractive. Taehyung just never thinks about these things deeply - attachment not being his forté - in a way that realizes being around Jeongguk truly is nice. It's not often that you can find someone so inclined to your devices, and Taehyung never realized that maybe, Jeongguk is the type of person he wants to be around often, to discover even more pieces of who he is beneath the surface.

Taehyung curses Taejoon for bringing the topic up and readjusts his grip on the steering wheel. He, of all people, knows how important it is to keep your eyes on the road.