Jungkook bolts out of the subway car so quickly he’s pretty sure he leaves a whoosh of air in his wake.
A trail of rushed “excuse me”s and “sorry”s follow him as he ducks through the crowd of passengers. He takes the stairs out of the station three at a time, glancing every now and then at the bulky watch on his wrist. It’s not that he’s late, exactly, just that Mijoo’s mom is the type of person to take offense at even the slightest delay. It doesn’t help that they already hate him: Mijoo’s mom and the rest of the parent crew. Showing up late will give them yet another excuse to side-eye him and “forget” to invite Seoyeon to their playdates.
It’s miracle enough that they invited her to this one. A little boy in Seoyeon’s class had asked her if she was going, right in front of Mijoo, her mother, and Jungkook, so of course Mijoo’s mother had to extend the offer. He knows the parents meet up when their kids play, too, to discuss school and jobs and eat finger foods. She hadn’t extended him that invitation. He wouldn’t have accepted even if she did.
Jungkook jogs through a street of pretty townhomes with tiny, well-kept yards and shiny SUVs parked in front. Mijoo’s home has a neat doormat and a wreath hanging around the peephole. Their yard is nice, a pink bicycle in the lawn that must be Mijoo’s. He’s always envied families with yards; Seoyeon would have loved one. He hops up the brick stairs and knocks twice.
Mijoo’s mom opens immediately. “Jungkook-ssi, we were wondering when you’d arrive.”
She’s full of shit. He’s barely five minutes late. “Ah, sorry, there was a holdup at the subway. Is Seoyeon ready?”
She glances down. He follows her gaze and flushes. The sleeves pushed up to his elbows reveal forearms covered in tattoos. He yanks his sleeves past his wrists, and she looks back up. “Seoyeon, sweetie, your dad’s here.”
As soon as Seoyeon steps into the doorway, Jungkook’s shoulders relax. She has a plastic bag of candy held tightly in one hand: goodies from the playdate. Her purple bow sits slightly askew.
“Hey, baby,” Jungkook coos, holding out his arms. She walks into them, tiny hand tugging at his shirt until he picks her up. “Did you have fun?”
“Uh-huh,” she says, voice muffled in his shoulder. Jungkook knows right away that she’s lying.
“Say thank you to Mijoo’s mom, Seoyeon.”
She removes her head from his shoulder dutifully to say, “Thank you, Mijoo’s mom. I had a lot of fun and the candy is really yummy.”
“You’re welcome, honey, thanks for coming.”
With a tight nod at Jungkook, Mijoo’s mom closes the door between them.
Jungkook carries Seoyeon down the stairs then sets her on her feet. “What’s wrong?”
She scuffs her sneakers against the ground, holding the bag of candy even closer to her chest. They picked her outfit together that morning, resulting in an interesting combination—blue and green striped tights with a purple frock. Jungkook straightens her bow, smoothing a hand down her long, dark hair. He’s been trying to get her to the hairdresser, but she refuses to have hair any shorter than it is, even though she complains about brushing it every night. “They don’t like me,” Seoyeon finally says.
“Who doesn’t like you? The other kids?”
“Why do you think that? Did they say something?”
She shrugs. Her nose scrunches up.
A tight ball of panic unfurls itself in Jungkook’s chest. He knows what it’s like to be lonely because no one in class wants to talk to the shy kid. It doesn’t help that the other parents probably talk shit about him in front of their kids, doesn’t help that they give him looks when he comes to pick her up after school. Doesn’t help that everyone thinks he shouldn’t be raising a little girl all on his own, that he can’t, not with his age and his tattoos and his gauges and the way he looks like he wants to fight even though he never does, never has. He knows that being his daughter makes her much less appealing to the rest of her classmates.
“Sorry, baby,” he murmurs, because he doesn’t know what else to say. He catches her small face in his hands and kisses her nose. “Sometimes people are just really mean, yeah? You just gotta forget about them.”
She nods, but her lower lip continues to wobble. Jungkook’s mother used to tell him that when he cried she felt like her whole world was ending. He didn’t understand that until Seoyeon.
“We don’t ever have to come another one of Mijoo’s playdates again, okay? We don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“Wasn’t there some manhwa you were telling me about the other day?” Jungkook says, grasping at straws. “From the bookstore near your school? How about we go there and get some sweets and the manhwa you like? We’ll forget all about those kids.”
She doesn’t react for a second. Then she sniffs, nods, and holds her arms out to be picked up. “Okay.”
Jungkook wishes he could tell his kid what to do when the people she so desperately wants to befriend snub her. Wishes he could tell her to raise her fists and tell them to fuck off when they tease her, wishes he could tell her to be herself and give them a piece of her mind when they try to make her otherwise. But he couldn’t even do that when he was a kid. He still can’t, not really, that’s why he lets the other parents walk all over him like they do. He doesn’t know what to tell Seoyeon when he’s never known what to tell himself.
Cheering her up with a present and sweets feels cheap, but he just wants her to smile. And there’s not really anything else he can do. So when they get to the quaint bookstore with a little café inside, just down the street from her school, he lets her have free reign.
She runs around the children’s section with him trailing after her, pointing out toys and books and puzzles, talking at a mile a minute. He’s trying to listen but he’s too busy smiling because she’s smiling. It’s easy to get kids to forget.
He’s careful to keep his sleeves pulled around his thumbs. Getting them kicked out of the bookstore because of his tattoos is the last thing he wants.
“Appa, can I be a boxer?” She holds up a manhwa with a muscled guy in boxing gloves on the cover. They’ve strayed from the children’s section.
He takes the book, examines it, and puts it back. “Sure, you can be a boxer. As long as you promise not to kick my ass when you don’t wanna go to bed.”
A little further down the aisle, somebody else giggles, too.
Jungkook and Seoyeon look over at the same time. The guy standing there in sinfully tight black jeans and a tucked-in polo hides his face in a light novel. Jungkook raises an eyebrow and turns back to Seoyeon, who shrugs at him, lips downturned cutely. He shrugs back.
Seoyeon wanders from the aisle eventually. He follows, realizing that in his mad dash to get her, he forgot to pee. Using the bathroom when he’s out with Seoyeon has always been a struggle. When she was a baby, he used to call places ahead of time to make sure they had family restrooms, as most men’s rooms don’t have changing tables. Now she’s too old to take into the men’s bathroom with him but too young for him to feel comfortable leaving her outside alone. Usually, he’ll suck it up and take her in with him, shooting a stink eye at anyone who glances at them, but the bookstore feels fairly safe.
“I gotta use the bathroom, baby,” he tells her. She follows him dutifully to the restrooms. “I’ll be super-fast, so just stay right here, okay? Don’t move an inch. And—”
“Don’t talk to anyone. I know.”
He leaves her by the water fountains just outside the restroom door. He pees in record speed, but when he comes out, Seoyeon isn’t there.
It’s hard to clamp down on the resulting panic. “Seoyeon?” he calls, beginning to search. “Seoyeon!”
His palms have started to sweat when he finds her. She’s with the guy from the aisle. He sits on the ground cross-legged before her, looking at her with the biggest, sweetest smile Jungkook has ever seen. It curves his eyes into crescents and dimples his cheeks. Seoyeon has a children’s manhwa in her hand as she explains something clearly very important to him.
He reasons away the protective instinct that flares at the sight of Seoyeon with a stranger. She looks fine, and the guy looks harmless, so he approaches with less urgency than he intended. “Seoyeonie,” he says sternly. “I told you not to move.”
At the sound of his voice, she squeaks, hiding the book behind her back and shying away. The guy looks between them, and if possible, his smile grows even wider. It’s kind of distracting.
“Sorry, Appa,” Seoyeon says.
“Come here.” He beckons. She stands in front of him, refusing to meet his eyes. “What do you do when I ask you to stay in one place?”
“So why didn’t you stay?”
“Because.” She points at the guy, who’s still sitting on the floor. “He was about to get the wrong book. I had to tell him this one was better.” She waves the manhwa at Jungkook.
“Sorry, Appa. I won’t do it again. Promise.”
“All right.” He turns to the guy. “Sorry. I hope she wasn’t bothering you.”
“Oh, no, not at all!” he exclaims, waving his hands to deflect Jungkook’s words. A nametag is pinned to his shirt; he must work here. He pushes himself to his feet, thighs straining in his tight jeans. His brown hair falls apart over his forehead, and his lips are full and pink and stretched in that pretty, pretty smile.
He’s kind of gorgeous. Jungkook is kind of enamored.
“She’s cute,” he says.
“Um, thanks,” Jungkook answers, rubbing the back of his head, more flustered than he would like to admit.
“Jimin!” someone calls from another aisle. “Hey, Jimin, where’d you go?”
“I gotta go,” the guy—Jimin—says. He bends down to shake Seoyeon’s hand. “It was nice meeting you, Seoyeon. Thanks for the suggestion.”
He straightens, waves at Jungkook, and walks off through the stacks of books. Jungkook lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and looks down at Seoyeon.
“I saved him from a really bad book,” she says.
“Good job, Seoyeonie. You’re saving the world one book at a time.”
She looks pleased. It isn’t until they leave the store that Jungkook realizes he forgot to roll his sleeves down after washing his hands. Jimin, the pretty bookstore boy, hadn’t looked down at his tattoos once.
“Late,” Minho intones without glancing up from where he bends over the front desk, sketching a design.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Jungkook gasps for breath, leaning on his knees for support. He had run all the way there. “Seoyeon’s teacher wanted to talk to me. Is my appointment—”
“You were late.” Minho shrugs. He’s entirely too blasé considering he just told Jungkook they lost a customer paying for a million won tattoo.
“But—but it’s only been like ten minutes—”
“Quit scaring the kid, Song,” Natasha says, emerging from the back. She smacks Minho’s head with a notebook. “Your appointment hasn’t even gotten here yet.”
Jungkook falls onto the couch meant for waiting customers with a tremendous groan. “Fuck you, hyung.”
Minho finally looks up from his design to grin, eyes twinkling. “Gotcha.”
“When are you gonna bring Seoyeonie over again?” Natasha asks as she sifts through a binder of tattoo designs. “I miss her.”
“I second that,” Yongguk says, popping out from the back to join his sister. “She cheers me up.”
“Whenever she’s here the customers are more likely to book with us,” Minho adds, a teasing tone to his voice.
“You can’t use my daughter for advertisement.” He knows Minho is only joking, but he can’t help how offended he sounds.
“Leave him alone,” Natasha says, exasperated. “He’s a tired dad. He doesn’t have time for your shit.”
“Noona,” Minho whines. “Why are you so mean —”
She hits him on the shoulder. “Go in the back and do something useful with yourself.”
He slinks away.
“And Jungkook, get your ass over here. I don’t pay you to lie on the damn couch.”
He pushes himself up to join her.
Jungkook owes Natasha and Yongguk everything. Sometimes he’s not sure if he can ever pay them back. If Natasha hadn’t found his designs on his Instagram one day by pure luck and offered to train him, he doesn’t know where he would be. Fresh out of high school with a newborn baby, no prospects or hope for the future his parents had always planned for him—for a while Jungkook had wondered if he would ruin Seoyeon’s life.
But he’s fine, and she’s fine. He never got to go to university like his parents wanted, and his apartment is tiny with a leaking roof and no yard. He can’t buy Seoyeon the prettiest dresses or all the books she wants, but they’re doing okay. They’re doing okay.
(Even if people look at him weird because he has too many tattoos and his parents still tell him he’s a terrible father for working at a place that’s technically illegal, that’s technically precarious, even if the cops don’t really care anymore.)
Jungkook joins them at the counter and opens his sketchbook to review the design for his first appointment despite having looked at it a million times. He’s about to head to the back and prepare his space when the door chime jingles, and they all look up.
It’s the pretty bookstore guy—Jimin.
Jimin looks right at him, and Jungkook looks right back.
“Oh,” Jimin says. “Hello.”
“Hey, how can we help—” Yongguk is cut off abruptly by Natasha’s elbow in his side. He gapes at her.
“Jungkook’s got this,” Natasha says, eerily perceptive as always. “Come help me clean the store.”
Before Jungkook can question them, they’ve left him alone at the counter. Jimin still stands in the doorway. Today he’s wearing these jeans that have rips all the way to the thighs and a black pullover that flatters his narrow shoulders. Jungkook, once again, finds himself rather tongue-tied.
“Um—did you—sorry, what can I do for you?” Jungkook flushes, fighting the urge to duck his head. He has a kid. He should have matured enough by now to not turn into a bumbling mess talking to a cute boy, but here he is, the same as always. It doesn’t help that he hasn’t been with anyone since Seoyeon’s birth.
“I wanted to get an estimate for a tattoo. I, um, have a design.” He carefully unfolds a piece of drawing paper from his pocket and lays it on the counter between them.
Jungkook has to do a double take. Blinks to clear his eyes. Not that the tattoo is surprising, he inks stuff like this all the time, just that it’s, well. It’s pretty bookstore boy. Pretty bookstore boy with a design for a tattoo that says “babydoll” in swirling script, curling up the ribs of the torso he’s drawn to match it.
He glances at Jimin, who looks back expectantly. A slight blush colors Jimin’s cheeks, even though he meets his gaze confidently.
“This’ll probably be two hundred thousand won. Close to two hours of work. Do you have an artist preference?
Jimin nods. “Are you Jungkook-ssi?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“I’ve seen your work on the shop’s Instagram. I really like it.”
“Thanks.” Jungkook’s blushing, too. He can’t believe he’s blushing. He’s literally a dad. Doesn’t something about being a parent move you past the awkward blushing teenager phase? “I can book you an appointment.”
“That would be cool.”
His fingers fumble over the mouse at the clunky desktop they still use, searching through his schedule for an open spot. Babydoll. He’s gonna fucking tattoo babydoll on a guy who makes him blush like he’s fifteen. “I’ve got an opening a month from now. Friday the 18 th from noon to two.”
“Is this your first tattoo with us?”
Jungkook pulls out the waiver and slides it across the counter.
“It’s my first tattoo ever.” Jimin’s voice sounds kind of small when he says it. He looks down at the form instead of at Jungkook. “Does it hurt a lot?”
Jungkook’s not going to lie to him. “It’ll hurt more because you’re doing your ribs.”
“You’ve got a lot.” Jimin gestures to his arms. “Did they hurt?”
It’s nice being at work and not having to cover up the tattoo sleeves on both his arms. Most people his age don’t look twice at his tats; it’s the older generation that does. They stare even more when he has Seoyeon with him. “It’s not so bad. At least you’re not getting it on your foot. That hurts like a bitch.”
Jimin smiles, slightly less worried. Jungkook wonders if he’ll ever be able to look at that smile without his heart speeding up.
“You’ll get a call a few days before your appointment with more details. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
After Jimin fills out the waiver and takes a business card, he thanks Jungkook and heads for the door. “Tell Seoyeon I said hi.” He slips out with a grin.
A few days later, he picks Seoyeon up from school crying.
It’s hard to describe exactly the way his blood boils when he walks her down the street and she bursts into tears, telling him she doesn’t ever want to go back.
“You can’t make me,” she sobs. “I hate school.”
It takes him fifteen minutes crouched in front of her on the sidewalk, crooning words of comfort, for her to calm down enough to tell him what happened.
“Jiyeon was playing with a puzzle so I went to play with her but she said I couldn’t because I was weird. And Mijoo started laughing and so did Sungmin and there weren’t any other toys for me to play with so I had to sit in the corner by myself.”
Jungkook wishes he could snap those little brats into line, call their parents up with every detail of the ugly words they’ve said to his daughter. But he knows that won’t help. They’ll only resent her more. Seoyeon is brilliant and unique and she comes up with the best ideas and asks the cleverest questions and he just wishes they could see that, too. Wishes they knew her like he did.
“If they don’t want to play with you, then don’t bother with them. Play with the other kids. They’re just missing out on how fun you are.” He swats at her stomach, drawing a giggle as she ducks away.
It’s not enough. He should tell her something else, make a lesson out of this like a good parent would. But he doesn’t know what to say.
“Can we get cupcakes from the bookstore, Appa?”
“Sure, baby. We can do whatever you want.”
They enter through the café side of the bookstore. At this point, Jungkook shouldn’t even be surprised, given the amount of serendipity already present in their past meetings. Still, he starts when he sees Jimin standing behind the café counter with an apron and a nametag.
He waves. “Seoyeonie! It’s good to see you again.”
Seoyeon hides her face in Jungkook’s leg as if she hadn’t lectured Jimin on the best children’s manhwa the last time they met.
“Seoyeonie, say hello.” Jungkook curls his fingers in her hair. She unearths herself briefly to say a quick hello , then shoves her face right back into his leg. He chuckles. It’s a struggle shuffling over to the counter with her attached to him. At least the café is entirely empty save for them, so he doesn’t have to worry about holding anyone up.
“You can just call me Jungkook.”
“Then you can call me hyung. I’m older than you, right?”
Jungkook flushes. “Yeah.” He remembers the surprise with which he looked over Jimin’s waiver. He’s too small to be two years older.
“Seoyeonie,” Jimin coos, leaning over the counter to look at her. “Did you forget me already?”
She peeks an eye out. Shakes her head.
“She’s shy,” Jungkook offers.
“I see how it is,” Jimin says with an exaggerated pout. “I was going to tell her all about the manhwa she recommended, but I guess she doesn’t even remember me.”
“I remember you,” Seoyeon says quickly. “You’re Jimin oppa. Did you read it?”
“Yup. My friend read it out loud to a bunch of kids who came to the bookstore.”
“Out loud?” Seoyeon blinks curiously.
“In the back of the bookstore, you know where the stage is?”
“My friend, Taehyung, reads books to kids who come to see him. He acts them out sometimes, too.”
“Appa, can we go?” She tugs on Jungkook’s arm. “I wanna see.”
Jungkook looks to Jimin. “It’s on Sundays,” Jimin supplies. “One in the afternoon.”
Sundays are Jungkook’s rest days. He works during the week, and on Saturdays he likes to take Seoyeon out to do something fun, or they’ll stay in and watch cartoons together. But Sundays he lets her occupy herself while he takes care of things around the apartment and rests as much as he can manage.
“Please?” Seoyeon asks. Her eyes are imploring. Jungkook thinks about how he picked her up crying and how maybe the kids at this book club are nicer than the ones in her class.
“Sounds like fun. We’ll be there.”
Jimin smiles. “So, what can I get you?”
“Large iced with a shot of espresso for me. Seoyeonie, go pick out a treat.”
She bounces over to the display case and peers at the various confections with her nose pressed against the glass. Jimin moves over, resting his arms atop the case and his chin atop his arms.
“I can’t decide,” she tells him very seriously.
“What are you stuck on?” Jimin asks.
“This one and this one.” She points between a strawberry cupcake and a chocolate cake pop.
“Good choices. I don’t think I’d be able to decide, either.”
“Close your eyes and pick,” Jungkook suggests. She does and ends up with the cake pop. But after Jungkook pays and Jimin hands it to her, he takes the strawberry cupcake out, too.
“On the house,” he says.
“You don’t have to do that.” Jungkook rubs the back of his head.
“I want to.”
Seoyeon glances at Jungkook and waits for his nod before taking the cupcake, too. “Thank you, Jimin oppa,” she says sweetly and takes a big bite that leaves frosting on her nose.
“Thank you,” Jungkook says. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Jimin’s answering smile is the perfect balance of shy and aware. “You’ll come to the book club on Sunday, then?”
“We wouldn’t miss it.”
Jungkook is nervous.
He can’t remember the last time he was nervous to meet someone. He stands in front of the mirror for longer than he should, messing with his hair and fiddling with the collar of his shirt. It’s not even like he’s dressed up. He’s just wearing a button down, skinny jeans, and red boots. Natasha dyed his hair the other day because she was bored; now it’s a very light brown with hints of blond. Seoyeon likes it, but he’s not quite sure how he feels yet. He ends up covering it with a beanie.
Seoyeon waits impatiently by the door. She let him pick her whole outfit that day, a rare occurrence. Whenever she does, he always puts her in a dress. Today, it’s a pale blue with white stockings and tiny, lace-up shoes. He even picked out a matching headband. He’s particularly proud of today’s outfit. Lately, Jungkook has been perusing children’s fashion Instagrams when he’s bored. It’s a far cry from the early days when he struggled to clip a bow in her hair.
She chatters all the way to the bookstore, and her excitement has him bubbling with it, too. A group of kids has already assembled by the small stage in the children’s section, and a guy close to his age sits on a stool, playing with a lion hand puppet. When they walk up, he stands and waves the hand covered by the puppet.
“Hi, you’re new.”
Jungkook has to nudge Seoyeon for her to step forward and introduce herself. “I’m Seoyeon.”
“Nice to meet you, Seoyeon. I’m Taehyung. Everybody, say hi to Seoyeon.”
The kids intone their hello’s. Seoyeon beckons to Jungkook. He bends down until she can whisper in his ear, “You can go now, Appa.”
To say he isn’t offended would be a lie. He wonders if she’s prematurely preparing him for her teenage years and walks away with a huff.
The book club is only an hour long, so there’s no point in going home. He makes his way to the café side to kill time. Jungkook glances behind him every now and then to catch a glimpse of Seoyeon sitting with the other kids. She’s fine, he knows that, but he worries.
Jimin finishes up with a customer right when Jungkook walks in. His smile brightens so considerably when he sees Jungkook that confidence flares in his chest.
“Hey,” he says, hands in his pockets.
“You came,” Jimin answers. “Is Seoyeon with the others?”
“She shooed me away. I’m embarrassing her already.”
Jimin laughs. It’s the prettiest sound, sweet and tinkling. Jungkook could listen to it forever. “Wait ‘til she’s a teenager.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
“I’m just about to take my break if you want to have coffee together.” Jimin offers so easily that it flusters Jungkook.
“Oh—uh—yeah. Um, that sounds cool.”
Sitting across Jimin at a tiny café table feels awfully more intimate than Jungkook expected. He fiddles with his coffee to occupy himself, trying very hard not to stare. It proves a more difficult task than he’s up for. Jimin leans his chin in his hand as he speaks to him, eyes sparkling, sucking up some sugary, whipped-cream laden drink through a straw. Even though Jungkook glues his eyes resolutely to Jimin’s or to his hands—his tiny, cute hands—if he’s desperate, they can’t help but stray to the plump lips wrapped around the straw.
“Did you always want to be a tattoo artist?” Jimin asks when the conversation lulls.
“Sort of. I was always really into tattoos, drew a lot of designs. That’s how noona found me—um, my boss. My parents wanted me to go to university and shit, but then Seoyeon happened.”
“Would you have rather gone to university?”
“No. I like being an artist. I don’t think I would have liked more school.”
The way Jimin listens to him, like he really cares, makes his chest ache. It’s been a while since anyone listened to him like that.
“What about you? Did you go to uni?”
“I was a dance major. I teach kids dance at a studio across the city.”
“Wow. Dance.” That explains the killer legs, for one.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Jimin swirls his drink around. Jungkook knows what’s coming. It’s the inevitable question. “Where’s Seoyeon’s mother?”
The inevitable question, the million dollar one. Everyone always wants to know how he’s raising a little girl without her mother. “She’s not around.”
Jimin nods. He doesn’t push it.
Jungkook used to resent her for leaving. He used to hate her sometimes when the reality of parenthood overwhelmed him. But her parents weren’t like his; her parents were harsh words and cold judgement. Her parents were threats and unashamed cruelty. She had wanted to be there, in the beginning, until her parents’ vitriol got to her. Now that he’s older, he doesn’t resent her anymore. He understands. Hating her only made him bitter. And in the end, it doesn’t matter—Seoyeon is everything to him.
Jungkook leans back in his chair, enough to catch a peek into the bookstore. Seoyeon is still there with the others, listening to Taehyung with rapt attention. She’s fine.
“She’ll be fine.” Jimin smiles. “Taehyung’s really good at keeping them entertained.”
“You seem like a really great dad,” Jimin says, like he can see the self-doubt etched into every line of Jungkook’s face.
“Thanks.” His voice breaks a little. He clears his throat and looks away.
“Come around more often, yeah? The book club is really nice. Seoyeon will like it.”
“She needs something fun to do outside of school.”
“Don’t all kids?” he says wryly.
“So, I was talking to my friend the other day, and she said her rib tattoo hurt so badly she cried.” He looks at Jungkook accusatorily.
Jungkook smirks. “I never said it wouldn’t hurt.”
“I have a really low pain tolerance, you know.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be getting a tattoo.”
“Says my tattoo artist.”
“I do know best.”
“So why babydoll, huh?”
The blush that spreads across Jimin’s cheeks and nose is so pretty, Jungkook’s enraptured. “I dunno.”
“That’s a pretty bad answer for a permanent body mod.”
“Fine. I thought it was hot.”
“Yeah, it is,” Jungkook answers so naturally he surprises himself, then bites his lip and stares at his coffee.
The answering silence is loaded and maybe a little awkward. Fortunately, it doesn’t last long. Jungkook hears the commotion of the kids speaking and leans over to look. They’re done. Seoyeon looks happy. The relief that floods him is palpable.
“I’ll see you next week?” Jimin says when Jungkook stands.
“Yeah,” Jungkook murmurs, the image of Seoyeon’s bright smile stamped in his mind. “Next week.”
Tattooing Jimin is an experience.
Jungkook has had attractive customers before. He’s given a gorgeous girl a tattoo on her breast and a guy so hot he made Jungkook’s mouth water as he tattooed his ass. He knows how to focus himself when he’s working. But Jimin’s different.
He knows Jimin.
By the time Jimin comes in for his tattoo, they’re practically friends. Seoyeon loves him; every day they walk past the bookstore to get home, and she asks if they can go say hello. He has to explain to her that bothering Jimin every day at work is probably unwarranted. Every time he takes Seoyeon to the book club, he has coffee with Jimin. He knows that Jimin only ever has sweet drinks unless he’s stressed, and that one time when Jimin was in college he thought a famous rapper was a store employee and asked him where the underwear section was. Jimin knows that Jungkook is a not-so-secret genius at Overwatch and that Seoyeon sings in her sleep.
So tattooing Jimin tests his focus rather more than usual.
Jungkook knows he’s in for it as soon as Jimin strips his shirt to reveal his toned chest and narrow waist. He always looks good, but he looks extra pretty that day, his eyes shining and his lips pink. Or maybe it’s just that Jungkook is extra nervous. The others are certainly no help, either, winking at him when Jimin isn’t looking and making suggestive comments.
For a while, Jimin takes it fairly well for his first tattoo. He scrunches up his nose and purses his lips but says little and doesn’t cry. Jungkook tries to talk him through it, tells him stories about Seoyeon to make him smile. After he asks for a break, Jungkook disappears to pee and stretch his hands.
“Popped a boner yet?” Minho asks cheerfully when he emerges.
“Shut the fuck up,” Jungkook hisses, glancing at the curtained area where Jimin waits.
“Only a matter of time,” he singsongs, clapping Jungkook’s shoulder with false sympathy.
Jimin’s munching on a granola bar when Jungkook slips past the curtain.
“How’s it going?” Jungkook asks.
Jimin pouts. It’s adorable. Jungkook’s weak. “I have really low pain tolerance.”
“You’re doing pretty well.”
They resume when Jimin’s ready. Jungkook has finished the “baby” and works on the “doll” now. In the middle of the word, he wonders what it would be like to whisper babydoll in Jimin’s ear. He imagines, briefly, running his lips along the outline of the tattoo. He blushes so hard he’s sure it goes all the way to his ears.
Jimin’s endurance wavers for the next hour. His eyebrows furrow, and he bites his lip until it looks like it hurts. A flush spreads across his cheeks and nose, over his neck, down his chest. His lips are bitten red and swollen. Eventually, pinprick tears cling to his lashes. He keeps his eyes squeezed shut, and they don’t fall.
Retaining his focus while he finishes tattooing feels like the hardest thing in the world.
And when it’s over, and he’s cleaned Jimin up and given him care instructions and sent him on his way, Jungkook realizes maybe he’s got it worse than he thought.
Seoyeon loves the book club. She talks about Taehyung every day, repeats the same tales about the other kids in the club to Jungkook while she brushes her teeth each night. One of the boys invites her to his birthday party, and when Jungkook picks her up at the end of it, she smiles all the way home. For the first time in a while, Jungkook feels like maybe things are going all right.
So when he gets a call from her school in the middle of the day, he doesn’t see it coming.
“She did what ?” He paces the back of the tattoo shop, fingers clenched tight around his phone.
“She pushed Jiyeon onto the blacktop in the middle of recess. Jiyeon is fine, just shaken up. But Seoyeon ran away.”
“You lost my kid ?”
“Jungkook-ssi, we’ve been searching nonstop. She can’t have gone far.”
“How the fuck did you lose a child? Don’t you have teachers out during recess? Did everyone have their goddamn eyes shut?”
“She ran out the gate when no one was looking. Jiyeon said she went down the street. We have half our staff out looking.”
Half their staff isn’t enough. Their whole staff isn’t enough. Seoyeon is somewhere out there in the middle of Seoul, alone and terrified, and it’s his fault for not realizing sooner that her problems at school were growing too big to handle.
He yells out a brief explanation as he runs from the store. Seoyeon is good with directions for a five-year-old, but there are only a few places she knows well enough to go on her own. He checks their apartment first, scours the lobby and the halls outside, asks everyone he passes if they’ve seen her. She’s not there. He checks the park three blocks down next. He runs all the way there, the stitch in his side irrelevant in the face of his panic. She isn’t there, either.
He stands in the park wondering where to go next when his phone rings. It’s Jimin. He lets it ring, but Jimin keeps calling.
“Hyung, it’s a bad time—” he says when he answers the third call.
“Seoyeon’s with me.”
“What?” He falls onto a nearby bench. His breath comes in choked bursts, the effect of running miles from place to place catching up to him. Suddenly he wants to cry. “She’s there?”
“We’re at the bookstore. She’s fine.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“She doesn’t want to talk right now, Jungkookie,” he says it gently, like he knows how those words will make him feel. “But she’s fine, yeah? She’s just upset.”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
He stands up, winces, and breaks back into a jog.
When Seoyeon was born, it felt a little like the end of the world. He was 18. He didn’t know how to take care of himself, let alone a baby girl. The first time he tried to put a bow in her hair, when she was a little older, he started crying because he couldn’t figure out how to do it. Because raising a child seemed out of his hands, because the last thing he wanted to do was ruin her life as a result of his own incompetence. It wasn’t the bow; it was everything.
She’s five years old, now, and he can tie a bow with his eyes closed, but everything still feels out of his hands. It’s not the end of the world anymore. She’s his world, now, and he doesn’t want to imagine one without her. But the fear lingers in the back of his mind at every turn: what if he’s doing it all wrong? What if he’s all wrong for her? No one else seems to think he’s capable of raising her well on his own, after all. Maybe they’re right.
He finds them sitting on a bench attached to the window in the café. Seoyeon munches on a chocolate cupcake, eyes trained on Jimin as he speaks to her. He’s still in his work apron and hat; his coworker mans the counter. Jungkook pauses in the entrance, out of breath, maybe from running, maybe from relief. She looks fine. Her eyes are red and swollen like she cried, but she looks fine.
Jimin wipes a blob of chocolate from her cheek with his thumb. She nods at something he says, rubbing her nose. Jungkook moves deeper into the café.
She looks up. Her eyes widen. Jungkook wonders if she’ll turn away from him. She puts her cupcake down, hops off the bench, and runs straight for him.
He drops to his knees so he’s at her level and scoops her into his arms. She’s tiny and fragile and his hands shake as he strokes her hair, holding her close like he never wants to let go.
“I’m sorry, Appa.” Her voice is muffled by his shoulder. The wetness of her tears seeps into his shirt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s okay, baby, it’s okay. I’m here.” His voice cracks. He sucks his lip between his teeth, squeezes his eyes shut, swallows past the lump in his throat. He can’t cry. He’ll scare her.
“I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t mean to.”
He pulls her away so he can cup her face in his hands, wiping the tears away with his thumbs. He kisses both her cheeks. “It’s okay. We’ll talk about it. It’s okay.”
When she stops crying, Jimin comes to stand next to them. Jungkook had almost forgotten he was there. He puts his hand on Seoyeon’s shoulder.
“Seoyeonie, baby, why don’t you go finish up your cupcake? I have to talk to your appa about something.”
“Okay.” She perches back on the bench, returning to her treat without even a glance in their direction.
Jimin looks at him tenderly as he pushes himself to his feet. He leads him off to a corner near the bathrooms. Jungkook looks around; there are a few other customers in the store. He’s wearing a t-shirt because of work, his tatted arms on display for the world. Tatted arms, a crying daughter, and a shop full of people to witness.
“Jungkook,” Jimin says firmly. His small, soft hand presses into Jungkook’s cheek, turning his head so they’re facing each other. “No one’s looking at you, Jungkook.”
He focuses on Jimin. Nods. The panic catches up to him, floods through his veins until his hands are trembling again. Tears slip from his eyes before he can stop them.
“She’s fine,” Jimin murmurs, still holding onto his cheek. “She’s okay. Call her school.”
“Right.” He wipes away his tears, draws in a shaky breath, and fumbles for his phone. Jimin stands with him while he calls the school to tell them he’s found her. They ask him to come in for a meeting that evening. After he’s done, he leans against the wall, sighing. He runs a hand across his face. ”Did she tell you what happened?”
“One of the girls in her class—Jiyeon, I think—said her mom told her Seoyeon’s dad was a bad person and a bad father. Jiyeon said that made Seoyeon bad, too, and pushed her. But Seoyeon pushed her back because of what she said about you.”
“Fuck.” Jungkook presses his fingers into his eyes. “Fuck.”
“Has she been having problems with her classmates?”
“I didn’t realize how bad they’d gotten.” Jungkook’s shoulders sag. “They give her shit because she’s my daughter. It’s my fault.”
“It’s not. It’s their parents’ fault for being close-minded, old-fashioned assholes. They probably still think tattoos mean you’re part of a gang.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that they give her shit because of me.”
“I know,” Jimin says softly. “But blaming yourself isn’t going to help anything.”
“If I wasn’t such shit at being a parent, we wouldn’t be here.”
“You’re not shit at being a parent. You’re a good dad.”
“My kid ran away from school. After pushing her classmate.”
“Your kid stood up for herself and got scared. When I was six, I ran away from school because my teacher said I couldn’t have ice cream for lunch. My parents did an amazing job raising me. What I did when I was six doesn’t mean anything.”
Jungkook peers at Jimin through his bangs. His head is slightly tilted, a soft quirk to his lips. Something about the way he speaks makes Jungkook want to believe him.
“She needs you right now. She doesn’t need you to blame yourself.”
Jungkook glances around the wall. Seoyeon has finished her cupcake. She fiddles with the laces of her tiny sneakers, eyes cast downward. He looks back at Jimin. “Thanks, hyung.”
Then he heads for his daughter.
She gives him a tiny wave when he approaches. He sits across from her on the bench, tucking his knees into his chest and resting his chin on top. “I heard what happened.”
“Are you mad at me?” she says, voice small.
“No. Jiyeon pushed you first, right?”
“Yeah. But I shouldn’t have pushed her back.”
“Why did you push her back?”
“Because she was saying mean things about you.”
“Thank you, Seoyeonie, for standing up for me. But you don’t have to do that. Look, Appa can take care of himself.” He flexes his muscles until she giggles. “Just stand up for yourself.”
“What could you have done instead of push her back?”
“Tell a teacher.”
“Sometimes you don’t really have a choice, right? Sometimes you have to push back. But this time you could have told someone. Does that make sense?” It’s a hard line to define. Jungkook knows there might be times in her life when she has to fight back, and he doesn’t know how to explain what it means to pick your battles. And he doesn’t want her to think she should let people bully her and do nothing, either.
“Jiyeon and the other kids bother you a lot, don’t they?”
She returns to fiddling with her laces. Jungkook thinks she isn’t going to answer, but then she says, “Yeah.”
“I have to meet with your teachers about what happened today. Maybe we can tell them about it.” That’s a gamble, too, because he remembers being a kid and thinking tattling was the lowest thing you could do. He doesn’t know what Seoyeon will say. But if it’s gotten to this level, he’s not sure they have a choice.
“They’re gonna hate me even more.”
“Seoyeonie, they’re going to hate you either way.”
“I’m sorry. But some people are just like that. It doesn’t matter what you do.”
“Maybe we can tell your teacher to keep it a secret. See if she can find a way to keep an eye out for you and catch them in the act without having to tell anyone that you’re the one who told her. Maybe that’ll work.”
“But if it doesn’t work, she’s going to have to talk to them straight up.”
“Okay.” She nods, and this time when she meets his gaze she doesn’t look doubtful. “That’s okay.”
It’s hard to clamp down on the guilt that he should have done something earlier, should have given her better advice every time she complained about her classmates. But there’s no use looking back. He has to do something now.
“Jimin oppa said he used to get teased a lot by kids in his class, too, until he told his dance teacher because she was his favorite and she told them to stop. They even said sorry and everything.”
“See, sometimes it works. I used to get teased, too. But I never told anyone.”
“Do you wish you did?”
He shrugs. “Maybe.” He doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t work, after all. Adult authority wouldn’t have done much for him. “Should I call your teacher and ask if you can come to the meeting with me?”
“Yeah. You can do it.”
He’s dialing when she leans over the bench to kiss his cheek.
“Thanks, Appa. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Seoyeonie.”
“So.” Minho leans on the tattoo shop counter with a look on his face that spells trouble. “When are you gonna fuck Babydoll?”
That’s the name they’ve taken to using for Jimin, despite Jungkook’s constant irritation. Jungkook sends him a glare from where he lounges on the couch waiting for his next appointment.
“Fuck you, Song Minho.”
“That’s hyung to you, kid.”
“While I generally try not to agree with anything he says,” Yongguk adds, coming out of the back with a customer in tow, a fresh piercing adorning her nose. “Seriously, when are you? I’m tired of your lovesick ass moping around the place.”
“Wait too long and Babydoll’s gonna find someone hotter. Which isn’t hard, all things considered,” Minho says, an insufferable grin spreading across his face.
“You’re trying to call me ugly when you look like that?” Jungkook fires back.
Yongguk snorts and rings up the customer. Before she leaves, she sends Jungkook a smile. “Fighting!”
“Come on, what’s holding you back?” Minho asks.
“I dunno, maybe the fact that I have a goddamn kid.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t fuck Baby—”
“Quit calling him that.”
“Once again,” Yongguk says with a long-suffering air. “I hate to agree with him. But he’s right. Seoyeonie loves Jimin.”
“You think Jimin wants to be with me when I have a kid? He’s so young.”
“You’re young, too, you dumb fuck. If Jimin was bothered by the fact that you’re a dad, he wouldn’t be making googly eyes at you,” Yongguk scoffs.
“Since when did he make googly eyes at me?”
He holds out a hand and begins to tick off his fingers. “When he came to make an appointment, when he had his tattoo done, when we went to his café the other day—”
“You’re holding yourself back,” Minho says in a rare moment of seriousness. “Jungkook, just because it didn’t work out with Seoyeonie’s mother doesn’t mean it won’t work out with Jimin.”
“Stop making excuses,” Yongguk adds. “Seoyeonie likes him, he likes both of you. You can’t be scared forever.”
Jungkook buries his face in his pillow. It’s not as simple as that. He’s scared, yeah, but that’s one problem out of many. If the parents of Seoyeon’s classmates give him so much shit just for his tattoos, how will it be when they find out he has a boyfriend? But then maybe he should take his own advice.
Sometimes people are going to hate you no matter what.
A rerun of yet another mindless cartoon plays on TV. Jungkook fights sleep, curled on the couch with Seoyeon in his lap. She has his arm, the one that isn’t dangling over the couch arm with the remote in hand, pulled across herself. With her little fingers, she follows the outline of his tattoos.
“What’s this one again?”
“What’s a chrysanthemum?”
They’ve been over this many times, but Seoyeon likes to ask. “It’s a type of flower.”
“Why did you pick that one?”
“It means something special to me.”
“This one is my name, right?” She traces the artful letters down his forearm.
“Can I get a tattoo with your name?”
Jungkook laughs, his heart warm. He pulls her closer to kiss her head. “Sure, baby, when you’re older.” Not that she’ll want to.
“I wanna get a lion like Yongguk oppa.”
“A whole lion? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Or maybe a tiger.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want.” He ruffles her hair. She scrunches her nose and moves her head away. “Seoyeonie, can I ask you a question?”
“I want to ask Jimin on a date. Would that be okay with you?”
“Jimin oppa? A date?”
“Yeah. You know what dates are, right?”
“I heard my teacher asked the music teacher on a date last week.”
He chuckles. “Oh, yeah?”
“You should do it.”
His heart thuds painfully in his chest. He kisses her cheek this time. It’s been just the two of them for so long. Thinking about changing that is more than slightly terrifying. But he figures he probably shouldn’t look that far ahead. “Think he’ll say yes?”
“He has to. Jimin oppa loves us.”
“You think so?”
“Don’t worry. If he says no, I won’t eat his cupcakes anymore.”
“Okay, Seoyeonie.” The laughter bubbles out of him unbidden. It feels like relief. “Sounds like a plan.”
Wringing his fingers behind his back, Jungkook paces by the tattoo shop counter. It’s eight and a half steps from one side to the other. By now, he has counted up to a hundred.
The chime above the door jingles.
“Jungkookie,” Jimin sings.
The smile Jungkook gives him is rather pained. “Hey.”
Jungkook had asked him if he could take a picture of his tattoo for their Instagram. Jimin offered to take one himself and send it in, but Minho and Yongguk were hell-bent on having a particular Instagram aesthetic, which meant additions required very specific backdrops and angles.
Having Jimin here for the picture is mostly an excuse.
“If you don’t mind,” Jungkook had said.
“Not even a little,” Jimin had answered.
“Um, we can head to the back,” Jungkook says, jabbing a finger toward the last curtained-off section of the shop.
He leads Jimin there, tugging the curtain snug around them. A photography lamp stands before the white backdrop, offering the perfect amount of lighting.
(“You want to waste our hard-earned money on a lamp?” Natasha had complained. “The better our Instagram, the more customers we get,” Minho had argued. In the end, Yongguk bought the lamp without even telling.)
Jimin strips his shirt off and stands in front of the backdrop without waiting for Jungkook’s directions. He angles himself so his ribs are the focus.
“Perfect,” Jungkook says, eyes trained on his smooth skin and tone figure.
He crouches in front of him with the DSLR and zooms in on his torso. The picture comes out great, babydoll swirling over his ribs, his hipbones prominent above the low cut of his jeans. He’s not supposed to include Jimin’s face in the shot, but he takes another picture that does. Jimin’s sharp jaw and pretty gaze are too ethereal not to.
“Is this okay?” Flipping back to the first picture, he holds the camera out for Jimin to see.
Then Jimin reaches out and clicks to the next picture. Jungkook flushes, makes to draw the camera away, but Jimin holds his wrist in place.
“You’re not posting this one, are you?”
“I heard the camera shutter, dumbass.” A fond smile playing on his lips, Jimin flicks Jungkook’s forehead.
“Sorry. I just—you’re beautiful.”
The words come out without meaning to. They stare at each other, Jimin’s eyes wide and Jungkook’s even wider. “Oh.”
“Hyung. Do you—um—do you—”
His hands on his hips, Jimin stares up at him expectantly. Jungkook doesn’t know how Jimin expects him to speak coherently when he’s still shirtless.
“Would you, maybe, want to go to dinner sometime?”
Jungkook holds his breath. Jimin smiles. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Somewhere outside the curtain, Jungkook is pretty sure he hears the others cheer.