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“When you look up to the stars at night, what do you think of?”

A gentle breeze flutters through tall stalks of grass and rice. The nights are cool and calm, an escape from the labors of daytime responsibilities.

They end their nights in this way; voices hushed, their friendship kept in secret. For the entirety of their eighteen years of life thus far, Taehyung and Jeongguk have tried to keep everything under a cloak of mystery. Nobody needed to know the details. Privacy is a luxury they can afford.

But with a connection built upon differences and opposition, it’s a wonder that they manage to get along.

Taehyung and Jeongguk come from opposite ends of the spectrum, leading distinctly different lives. Jeongguk has no complaints, while Taehyung has many. Still, they find comfort in the safety of each other’s company. Something about the way that Jeongguk would stroke at his hair, or maybe the way in which Taehyung nuzzles into the feeling, their hearts happy and racing and full.

They could spare the details, so long as it meant being together.

“I think about all kinds of things, like the meaning of life, what the future will be like… how pretty you look under the moonlight.”

Taehyung snorts in laughter, slapping at Jeongguk’s chest with a palm while the latter only grins cheekily.

“What about you?”

Taehyung runs a finger along the hem of Jeongguk’s shirt collar, lined with dirt and sweat from working all morning long. “Me? I think about leaving this place.”

 

 

 

[ i. i want to breathe, i want to wake up. ]

 

They meet at the age of twelve, when Taehyung joins Jeongguk’s class in the thick of winter. The school is small, but Taehyung feels microscopic, transparent, verging on non-existent. Even so, Jeongguk finds himself staring at the strange boy, whom he’d never seen before in his entire twelve years of life.

Taehyung has messy, unkempt hair, and dirt smudged onto his cheek. His clothes are tattered and worn, the collar of his shirt all stretched out and stained; hand-me-downs, no doubt.

Jeongguk thinks that he looks a little bit weird, with features much too large for such a small frame, skin muddy and dirtied. He’s intrigued, but keeps his distance for the sake of his ownsafety. His dad did always say to be wary of strangers.

He stands out amongst the children at the school, being the only one looking sloppy and poor. Some of the older kids easily pick him out from the crowd during a short recess, shoving him up against a wall and ruffling his hair up some more.

“What’s with the clothes, poor boy? Mommy can’t afford to buy you a new shirt?” They all laugh, like it was some kind of joke that neither Taehyung nor Jeongguk would ever understand.

“Oh look, he’s crying. What a crybaby!”

Jeongguk wants to intervene, but he thinks that, if he did, the upperclassmen would easily overpower him. Maybe if he were bigger, stronger. he could take them on. But until then, he would remain a mere bystander.

“Bet you don’t even have any money to give, even if we punched you for it,” another one sneers, a sinister cackle making its way into the air as he jabs a finger into Taehyung’s cheek until his nose gets smashed against concrete.

It’s painful to watch, and Jeongguk doesn’t have the stomach to sit through it any longer. He does not watch. He does not help. He retreats back into the safety of the school building.

When their break ends, and Jeongguk is resting comfortably at his own desk, the students from outside gradually file back into the classroom. Most of the other kids look refreshed, their expressions bright and full of life. Taehyung, on the other hand, shuffles his way in, skin looking muddier and dirtier than before, spattered with an array of colorful bruises.

Jeongguk thinks he should feel bad, but he doesn’t. Why should he interfere? His dad always said to 'mind your own business.'

On the walk home, Jeongguk finds himself following the trail of Taehyung’s footsteps, making his own shoe marks right next to the other's, as if to make it look like somebody had hopped along the dirt path like a bunny (Jeongguk was merely killing time, trying to avoid the chores waiting for him back home). Taehyung whips his head over his shoulder, fear in his eyes at every scuff of Jeongguk’s shoes. He walks faster, and faster still.

A brief flash of confidence surges through Jeongguk’s veins, and he almost says hello, but Taehyung is quick to veer off onto a side street, houses barely looking like houses, more reminiscent of tiny cabins and abandoned shacks.

Jeongguk stops, watches him disappear, then decides that maybe, it wasn’t meant to be.

 

*

 

It’s the same routine, day to day, where Taehyung endures the abuse, hands over what little change he has, in return for only two punches this time. Jeongguk chooses not to watch, not wanting to participate in such a barbaric sport, though he still hears all of the gruesome details from the way the imposing upperclassmen brag in the hallways.

But the way he saw it was, as long as he wasn’t actively participating, then he wasn’t a part of the problem.

Taehyung never spoke in class, unless called upon, and even then, his voice was hoarse and barely audible, earning the quiet snickers of those mindless enough to side with his bullies.

To Jeongguk, there was no such desire, no need to feed off of the suffering of somebody lower than him. But no need to intervene or speak up either. He was somewhere in the middle. Neutral. Nobody else spoke up about it, so maybe this was normal.

 

*

 

The weather is nice today, Jeongguk notes, walking home with a bit of a skip in his step. He’d left a little early on this day, because it was his brother’s birthday, which meant cake; Jeongguk really wanted the cake. Taehyung is somewhere behind him, based upon the drag of his sneakers in the dirt.

The wind blows through, and so does Jeongguk’s spontaneity. It must have been the influence of the sun’s rays overhead, and the cheerfulness that came with the promise of cake, that has him feeling optimistic.

“Hey,” he starts, pausing in his steps to spin around on his heels. He wants to take it back as soon as he sees Taehyung flinch in response, feeling guilty for startling the boy. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to say hi. You’re our new kid, right?”

Taehyung’s eyes slowly lift, peeking through a band of thick lashes, with the expression of an abandoned puppy. Jeongguk almost wants to take him home and wash him up himself.

“Yeah, that’s me, and you’re the quiet guy who sits in the corner of the room.”

The raven-haired boy is a bit taken aback, both by Taehyung’s confidence in his answer, simultaneous with the sad, defeated tone of his voice.

“My papa told me not to talk to strangers.”

Jeongguk frowns. His parents had always said the same things, but what was the harm in making a new friend? They were the same age, and he could sense no malice in the other at all. “Well,” he starts, “I know that your name is Kim Taehyung, and mine is Jeon Jeongguk. So now we’re not strangers anymore.”

He thinks he spots a twitch at the corners of Taehyung’s lips: a smile? He’s not sure, but he’d take it.

Jeongguk likes to believe that somehow, he had made Taehyung's day just a little bit better.

 

*

 

Jeongguk begins to learn more about Taehyung. Sometimes through sparse conversations, and sometimes through simple observation. Jeongguk had become somewhat of an expert at observing things, being the introvert of his family. Without much to say for his own, he would listen to others, studying their words and behaviors.

On most days, Jeongguk watches the strange new boy nervously fiddle around with a pencil, its lead staining his fingertips with the grey sheen of graphite.

He notes that Taehyung, while tall for their age, is lanky and weak, his voice soft and reserved, just barely above a whisper. His features are soft, round with the pudge of young age. Bright eyes are wide and delicate-looking, rimmed with a thick line of lashes. He has the gentlest of facial structures, his nose large and rounded at the tip. It’s almost comical, how unreal he looks, but Jeongguk doesn’t think he has much room for an opinion, his own features bigger than the moon.

For a moment, Jeongguk wonders what it would be like if he were the moon, looking down on their little city with much tenderness in his eyes. Maybe that way, he could find out more about the mysterious Taehyung.

He does learn, though, that Taehyung's father supposedly, "didn't let him out very much," and that he only came to this school, "because Mama left, and Papa doesn't trust me being alone at home when he’s working." It's sensitive information, which Jeongguk has no idea how to process or respond to, but he somehow feels honored to be trusted enough for Taehyung to share all of this with him.

Jeongguk likes to think that it's because he has been kind enough for Taehyung to get comfortable. He’s blunt, openly raw, and honest about his life, surprising for somebody who wouldn’t even say a word to anybody else.

There are bruises, old ones, not like the fresh purpling of skin from where he had been shoved into a locker. Jeongguk doesn't know what it means, but he knows it is wrong. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Jeongguk had felt impartial to it all, but after getting to know Taehyung, and becoming somewhat of a friend, he begins to feel a stirring of protective instinct in his gut.

The only times that Jeongguk would ever get bruised up were when he tripped over his own feet, landing face first on his front steps. But they were nothing like the ones splotched onto the frail forearms of the boy, violet and in the shape of a grip too tight.

Jeongguk always had a sick pleasure for jabbing at his own wounds, intrigued by the way they would ache. But seeing them now, flowering across such pristine skin of the purest boy he'd ever met, Jeongguk is sick for other reasons.

Taehyung, however, doesn't seem to talk about it much, never once bringing up the topic of his bullies to Jeongguk on their walks home. The only times Jeongguk saw just how bad they had become were when Taehyung's sleeves had accidentally slid up his thin wrists, or when the collar of his shirt would shift to the side.

The sight makes Jeongguk fidget, like it was something he was never meant to see. And that may be the truth, but the image is already seared into his memory. Maybe it was a good thing that he never developed those superpowers of x-ray vision he’d always wanted.

He’s sure there has to be more—his gut instinct tells him so—but Jeongguk would rather just pretend like they never existed in the first place.

 

*

 

The next time that Jeongguk witnesses Taehyung being hit was in the eighth grade.

Another year older, another year wiser, another year taking punches to the gut. It’s a miracle that Taehyung is even still breathing and alive, not yet fallen apart at the seams. He has Jeongguk to thank, at least, for keeping his mind at ease, but in times like these, Jeongguk is nothing but a coward.

He had spent the better part of the previous year hiding inside and denying that any of it was happening, despite the fresh scrapes on his skin, or the way that Taehyung would sometimes come back to the classroom with remnants of tears still caught in his eyelashes.

Jeongguk used to feign ignorance, because at least in that way, he wouldn’t have to get involved, and he could spare his own skin the blemishes. One time, he’d gained a bit more confidence, mouthing off those bullies, but flinched when they threatened to punch him in the nose. Now, though, things were different.

Taehyung is pleading for them to stop, and although his voice is tiny, powerless, Jeongguk still responds. He feels a tug at his heart. He must make a move.

At age twelve, Jeongguk had watched in horror. At age thirteen, Jeongguk had spoken up. And at age fourteen, Jeongguk fights back.

So much for neutrality.

His grip is steady at the leader’s shoulders, shoving the boy just to get him away from Taehyung. Jeongguk can feel the rage building up, a new feeling even for himself. Never before had he been this angry, this upset over something, especially when he was not the one being attacked directly.

Even Taehyung seems to be in shock.

The first blow lands across the bulkier male’s jaw—a direct hit—and has him stumbling to the side, clutching at his rapidly swelling face. His fist clenches, knuckles turning white as the fury built up. Never had he been challenged like this, nonetheless by somebody younger than he was.

Jeongguk is too full of adrenaline to feel when the real fighting starts.

It begins with a couple of punches, some landing, and some reaching nothing but air. The children circle around, some even cheering on while others watched in horror. Either way, it was a spectacle, a sight to be seen. Jeongguk didn’t care much for the attention, putting all of his focus on showing that bully who was really in charge.

He blocks out all of the cheering, the looks of horror, the way Taehyung watches on, terrified by this sudden turn of events.

Jeongguk doesn’t know how long they stay at it, only knows that their faces and reputations have been tarnished. Some of the head bully’s little minions join in on the fun, pinning him down and letting Jeongguk really take a beating.

Only when their homeroom teacher comes in to interfere does the whole situation come to an end. Jeongguk is thankful.

 

*

 

Jeongguk gets suspended from school for two weeks. Which means he won’t be able to watch over Taehyung for two weeks; he is comforted by the fact that Taehyung’s bullies are also excused from school, and for much longer, at that.

He does think that it’s unfair for him to be forced to stay home, when he was merely protecting his friend, but Jeongguk was never one to argue against rules.

In the very least, he still gets to walk Taehyung home, because he is paranoid, and likes the way that it makes him feel powerful. Their hands find each other, knuckles knocking before they eventually clasp their palms together.

Taehyung keeps startling and looking over his shoulder at the slightest of noises, a look of terror in his eyes. Jeongguk takes notice, and lets his steps falter just enough to walk behind the chestnut-haired boy, guarding him as much as he could with his own body. He was strong, and could definitely take on anything that would come their way.

“Don’t do that again, Jeongguk.”

Taehyung’s voice is still so small, so feeble and weak. Jeongguk wants to bottle up the sound for safekeeping.

“I should have done it sooner. Show them who’s boss and to never mess with you again,” he says with confidence.

“Jeongguk, don’t.”

Taehyung has since stalled his steps, staring down at his toes and kicking at the gravel-lined path. If Jeongguk hadn’t been paying attention, he would have run straight into his back.

“Okay. I won’t.”

“Good.” Taehyung smiles weakly. One that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and in turn doing nothing to soothe Jeongguk’s newfound need to fight. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk, in his own cloud of thought, hadn’t even realized that they were at their stop: the corner two streets away from the street Taehyung lived on. Jeongguk had never quite understood why Taehyung always insisted they part ways here and walk separately, but he had complied, because that was just what he did.

They bid each other a good night, and a promise to meet again the next day.

 

[ ii. i want to cry instead. ]

 

When they finally reach their high school years, Jeongguk believed that they had put all of their negatives in the past. It seemed as though the big fight from middle school was enough to deter anybody from looking down on Taehyung. And that was enough for Jeongguk to be happy.

Taehyung sticks close to Jeongguk’s side, liking the way that Jeongguk would secure an arm around his shoulders when they would pass by somebody just a little bit too bulky and intimidating for Taehyung’s tastes. He likes the way Jeongguk would tenderly draw shapes on his skin, so delicately, as if he was made of crystal. He especially likes the way Jeongguk looks at him so fondly, only to laugh nervously and dismiss his actions. It had taken a while for Taehyung to grow accustomed to all of the affection; Jeongguk had been sure to take things slowly so that he would be comfortable.

Jeongguk says that it’s to make up for all of the abuse his poor skin had gone through in years past, but Taehyung knows it’s just a lousy excuse to make his heart beat ten times faster than normal (he gladly accepts the pains in his chest).

High school is nice. Jeongguk had always heard about it being “the best years of your life,” which sounds promising, but Taehyung says he’s skeptical. Skeptical because there was no way that high school would be the peak of his existence.

“There has to be something better than geometry,” he says with a crinkle of his nose. Jeongguk just breathes out a laugh, shoulders raising as he shrugs.

“I dunno, seems alright to me.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes and elbows at Jeongguk’s side. “You only say that because you’re smart. And because you’re good at sports. And because everybody loves you.”

The words make Jeongguk feel good. He liked the way that they glorified him into some kind of hero; he could get used to that feeling.

“What, you don’t think being trapped in school all day is the ideal way of living?” he asks playfully. Jeongguk can see Taehyung roll his eyes, again, but it only makes him snicker.

“You’re annoying. You’re lucky that you’re my best friend and that I love you.”

Their eyes meet, and the sensation is electrifying. Taehyung clears his throat, and shoots his gaze back into the lines of text in his books, doing a poor job at hiding the rosiness of his cheeks.

It’s quite endearing, Jeongguk thinks, as he leans back in his seat, restless feet tapping against the dirtied carpets of the library. “You’ve been studying all afternoon, Taehyung. Can’t we head home now?”

Jeongguk is given nothing but silence, to which he frowns. “Come on, you need some rest. Won’t be able to ace your test tomorrow if you sleep past your alarms in the morning.”

He can see as Taehyung fidgets, twists his pencil between fingertips calloused and worn.

“Not yet. I don’t want to go home. Not yet.”

“But Taehyung—” Jeongguk pleads, now stretching himself out across the wooden table, peering up at Taehyung with his best puppy-eyes.

Taehyung just shakes his head, speaks a little more firmly this time. “No, I’m not going home yet.”

And Jeongguk gives in, because he always gives in to Taehyung.

Time seems to go by so slowly, though Jeongguk wishes it would move even more slowly, just so that he could admire Taehyung’s focused gaze for just a bit longer. Jeongguk wishes he could be more like Taehyung, determined and concentrated, able to accomplish things he’d never once thought of doing for himself. He can’t complain much, though, because his life was pretty simple, and easy-going, too.

On some days, his uncle would drag him out to the fields to have him sow seeds or groom the horses, but he never really minded all too much. The physical labor could never tire out Jeonguk, the boy who was full of energy and would always want to help in any way possible, to show off his strength and growing muscles. It must have been the competitive spark within him, a fierce battle with his brothers for the title as The Strongest Son; Jeongguk has confidence that the title belongs to him. After all, he could stack his bales of hay much faster than his brothers could.

It must have been the work he’d done early in the morning, combined with the comforting heat of the library, for Jeongguk can feel himself start to doze off after placing his head down on the table. His mind is hazy, dreaming about a fox, sneaking into his crops and stealing berries, and leaving a trail of seeds behind.

The atmosphere is serene; Jeongguk doesn’t think he’s ever felt this relaxed. In the end, he’s glad he’d tagged along with Taehyung, though it wasn’t as if he would have done any different.

“Jeongguk— Jeongguk wake up!”

Jeongguk’s stream of thought is interrupted by the voice, accompanied with the slam of a pencil against the tabletop, startling him and causing him to clench his fists as a reflex.

“I’m awake, what’s wrong?”

Taehyung is already hurriedly shoving his belongings into his bag, not even bothering to close his notebook or organize his pens, some uncapped and leaving scratches of ink along the canvas lining.

“Holy fuck, Jeongguk. We have to go, right now.”

There’s not even the slightest bit of a joke in Taehyung’s voice; he’s never sounded so serious before. His tone, low and a bit shaky, doesn’t read as forceful, but rather that of a scared lamb, like he was expecting something horrible.

Jeongguk doesn’t question it. Even when they’re sprinting alongside the fields, he doesn’t question it.

“Why didn’t you say something?!” Taehyung pants as he clutches at his knees for a breather.

Jeongguk’s brow is furrowed, drops of sweat caught in the creases. He doesn’t know what exactly he did wrong, but he still feels like a scolded pet. “You said you didn’t want to go home yet, so I was just waiting for you to be done.”

“God, Jeongguk,” Taehyung winces, sharp and stabbing pains tight in his ribcage. “I thought I told you I can’t be out after dark.”

The look on his face is unforgettable.

He’d never seen anything like it before, an equal mix of anger and terror, nicely paired with the unmistakable gloss of teary eyes. Jeongguk barely has time to gape—let alone apologize—before the other is running away, surely headed for home before it was too late.

Jeongguk’s gut wrenches uncomfortably, feeling the guilt start to build. Had Taehyung mentioned something about a curfew before? He can’t remember.

He watches Taehyung run, until he turns into a little speck in the distance, turning a corner and vanishing from his sight.

The walk home is a long one, full of conflicting feelings and a deafening silence.

 

*

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know how to confront Taehyung the next day. He even goes so far as to take the long routes between classes just for the sake of avoiding the other. It wasn’t like he was going to do it forever, just until the guilt had finally washed away. Besides, wasn’t Taehyung still upset with him anyway? He didn’t want to be a bother.

Lunch is lonely, though.

He sits alone, munching on a sandwich devoid of its crust, straw poking out of a cold carton of milk. Jeongguk was already missing Taehyung. He can barely remember the times before he’d met Taehyung, life boring and dull. It was all too quiet, without the crack of a can of soda being opened obnoxiously close to his ear, or the soft munch of strawberries.

Jeongguk heaves a sigh. He’s not sure how long he could last.

 

*

 

Thankfully, the cold war does not last for too long. By the end of after-school activities, Jeongguk was thoroughly exhausted, calves aching from his laps around the building. He’s ready to go home and collapse onto his bed, and sleep away the burning pain in his thighs. As he starts to head out on his usual route, he notices a familiar silhouette just a few bounds ahead.

Before Jeongguk can even think things through, his feet are taking him in that direction.

“I’m sorry,” is the first thing that he says, loud and sudden and without context.

Taehyung does a slow turn, fringe disheveled and nose red, lips raw and cracked at the corner—from the cold weather, or something else? Jeongguk isn’t sure. But he is sure that Taehyung looks positively broken. All Jeongguk can do is apologize again.

A scoff. A little downward curl of the lips. “Do you even know what you’re apologizing for?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t apologize if you don’t know what it’s for.”

“You got in trouble because of me. And I’m sorry.”

Taehyung stiffens, hugs his coat closer to his chest, like he had something to hide. “I-It’s alright. It wasn’t that bad this time. Just forget about it.”

Jeongguk perks up, tilts his head in confusion. “This time? What do you mean by, ‘this time’, Taehyung?”

But then Taehyung only shrugs, turns around again, and hurries away before Jeongguk can interrogate any further.

 

*

 

“Have you ever been to Taehyung’s house?”

Namjoon is one of Jeongguk’s friends, whom he had met at the end of his first year of high school, when he had commented on Jeongguk’s music choice, giving a thumbs up and flashing a grin that spoke for itself. Jeongguk had been wary at first, worried that he would be like the other upperclassmen he’d encountered thus far, but he is quickly proven wrong.

He’s tall, intimidating not in physical strength, but in the strength of his mind. Jeongguk quickly learns that he likes to not only talk about music, but the growth of humanity and the deeper meanings of existence (a part of Jeongguk almost wishes Namjoon was into working out and bulking up, because at least he could handle that.)

The times that Jeongguk has his free period, and Taehyung is in his art class, he meets up with Namjoon in the library, trying his best to study but ultimately failing. Namjoon, on the other hand, is a total bookworm. His round-rimmed glasses are nestled neatly on the bridge of his nose, eyes dipped down and concentrating on the thickest book Jeongguk has ever seen; was Namjoon really a high schooler too?

But he takes a break from his philosophical endeavors, to entertain Jeongguk’s questioning (he would never admit it, but he had a soft spot for the younger male). “Taehyung’s place? Nah, haven’t been.”

Jeongguk’s lips curl, face twisting as he was clearly unsatisfied with the answer. “Do you know anyone who has?”

“I barely even see him. I don’t know about any other friends he might have. I thought you would have known; aren’t you guys best friends?”

Jeongguk shakes his head, only slumping further into his seat, all hope for proper posture lost in the disappointment. “We are but… we only ever really see each other at school.”

Namjoon quirks a brow, now going as far as to actually set his book down, a sign of seriousness. “What’s up?”

“Taehyung didn’t come to school today.”

“Okay, and? Maybe he just skipped.”

He frowns, and breathes out a heavy sigh. “He’s not the type. My gut’s telling me that something happened.”

“I dunno, maybe he just hurt himself? You know how clumsy he is. He always has those bruises all over the place. I swear he has a new story every day about how he tripped and fell and scraped up his skin.”

His words are true, but they do little to stifle the wrenching feeling of dread in Jeongguk’s stomach.

“I mean, if you really want to, you can try asking the main office, but I doubt they’d hand that information over so easily,” Namjoon reasons, thumbing back through pages to find his place again. “You’re better off just waiting until he shows up. Probably tomorrow. Don’t sweat it.”

Jeongguk nods in defeat, wanting to whine at not being able to do anything to stop the way his heart beat uneven.

 

*

 

Taehyung doesn’t come back for another two days.

And when he does, he feels like a completely different person. There’s something about the air around the male, stiff and uninviting, like the low mist of a dreary morning. A fresh scratch is visible on the highest point of his cheekbone, a red tinge almost in the shape of a thumb and forefinger.

Jeongguk desperately wants to know what happened. He needs to know what changed Taehyung (it was half in caring for the boy, and half because of his twisted desire to know everything).

But when he slides into the seat next to Taehyung—his usual spot—the other only flinches and shies away, clutching the sleeves of his school uniform tighter to his frame.

It’s unlike Taehyung to move away and deny Jeongguk’s touches, or even his presence. Jeongguk feels hurt. What did he do wrong this time to earn such a reaction? Taehyung was just being unreasonable, clearly still upset over their fight that had ended days ago. Taehyung was just being childish; Jeongguk had done nothing wrong. If he wanted to be upset over things, then fine. So be it.

Jeongguk wants to be mad, reciprocate the feelings just to put up a fight. He neatly folds his arms over his chest, shoulders squared and nose lifted high in the air. Taehyung, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be challenging him in the slightest.

Instead, he sat hunched over his side of the table, his lips chewed raw. Taehyung is already naturally slender, having his metabolism to thank for that. But today, the uniform’s coat hangs off of his shoulders in an unflattering way, gaps where they hadn’t been before. Something about him just seemed… broken. It makes Jeongguk’s heart lurch.

“Taehyung?” He lets his body relax, sitting at a neutral position once again as he gently questions the other, making sure to keep his distance. “Taehyung, is everything okay? You alright?”

And when their eyes meet, Jeongguk swears it feels just like being hit by a train.

But then he smiles. It’s not a genuine one, but it’s still a smile. Jeongguk doesn’t know the feeling himself, but he’s heard it said that even the saddest of people will fake a smile, just in hopes of calming the frayed nerves of acquaintances.

It just makes Jeongguk uncomfortable, because he knows that the smile isn’t authentic, and that Taehyung is trying to trick him into thinking everything was okay. He thinks he sees spots of dried blood on the other’s shirt sleeve, but chooses to ignore it.

“There’s nothing wrong, Jeonggukie. Just had a rough night, is all.”

He knows Taehyung better than anyone else, and he knows for a fact that everything was the opposite of okay, but he felt out of place questioning Taehyung any further. Taehyung had always been open about things before; it would be uncharacteristic to start lying now. They seemingly go right back into their usual routines, carrying on as if nothing had happened at all.

But Jeongguk still can’t shake the feeling of dread.

 

*

 

Taehyung heads home first, at the end of their usual study dates. He insists on leaving well before sundown this time, just to ensure that he was home before curfew. Jeongguk moves to pack up his belongings as well, before Taehyung stops him with nothing but a gentle shake of the head.

“You stay here, Jeongguk. I know you have that bio test coming up, and I know you haven’t been studying,” Taehyung whispers, slinging his backpack over a shoulder.

"Hey, not true!" Jeongguk complains.

“The only thing you’ve told me is that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.”

He had a fair point.

“I can make it home fine on my own, don’t worry! And if anyone wants to fight, I’ll take ‘em on myself.”

Jeongguk’s mouth turns down at the corners. “That just makes me wanna go even more.”

Taehyung shakes his head, gives Jeongguk’s fringe an affectionate ruffle. “I’ll be fine, you big baby. Study up lots. I better see you ace that exam tomorrow.”

And Jeongguk sits and watches as Taehyung heads for the door, his figure turning into a little dot in the distance, because he was never one to go against Taehyung’s wishes.

Not to his face, at least. Taehyung didn’t need to know that Jeongguk was following him home, trailing behind like a lost puppy. It isn’t hard, keeping himself hidden. What is hard, though, is resisting the urge to run up to Taehyung’s side and intertwine their fingers.

Taehyung's house is hidden away at the end of a quiet street, a modest size, just big enough for two people. It's so tiny, compared to Jeongguk's own house, acres of land and expansive floor plans making Taehyung’s look like a house made for dolls.

The male is quick to slip in past the front door, closing it carefully, quietly, like he was scared to make any noise. It's eerily quiet. It almost sounds like an abandoned house, only the whispers of the wind fluttering through closed curtains.

Jeongguk wonders when it would be appropriate to knock on the door and introduce himself. He certainly wouldn't be able to hide behind this tree forever.

The first step is always the hardest. Jeongguk was never a fan of changing his daily routines, and it only made this entire situation more uncharacteristic for him.

The silence in the air sends a shiver down his spine, as if he wasn't even allowed to breathe without fear of being scolded and outcasted. His shoes scrape against gravel. Jeongguk holds his breath.

It almost feels like a dream, or some kind of video game, and he was sneaking up on the final boss in preparation for the last epic battle. He's only a few steps away, gathering up all of his courage to rap knuckles against the solid face of the door, before he hears the unmistakable shattering of precious material.

The sharp sound startles Jeongguk, who immediately takes a few steps back, almost as if it was him who had caused the commotion. His lungs burn from a lack of oxygen, but he doesn't dare to move a muscle.

It's too silent. Not a sound is heard for a few more fleeting seconds, not until the first roar of upset comes.

"What was that?!" A booming voice yells from the other side of the house. Jeongguk can hear the thud of heavy, drunken footsteps heading down the hall, dangerously close to the front door which Jeongguk was currently situated at.

"Taehyung, get back in here. Don't try and run. Did you break this vase?" The voice is calm in tone, but he still sounds angry; Jeongguk can feel the heat from outside. "I thought I told you to be more careful."

"It wasn't me! It was the dog; I swear I didn't do it!" The voice—Taehyung’s, without a doubt—begs and pleads for any ounce of compassion; Jeongguk guesses that he must be cornered, cowering in fear, in terror. It makes Jeongguk’s fists clench white, subconsciously, his protective instincts taking over.

"Are you lying again, boy?” Calm. Collected. Challenging. Somewhere, a heavy object falls and crashes to the wooden floorboards with a thud.

There’s a crack in the front window; Jeongguk can hear the sniffling and soft whimpers coming from inside.

Silence fills the air, but only briefly. The sharp sound coming from a slap against a cheek is unexpected (would his father’s handprint fit in the finger-shaped bruises that were on Taehyung’s face?). Jeongguk stands, in shock.

“No wonder your mom abandoned us," the older and rougher voice barks out, followed by a scoff. “You can wait outside ‘til I get this cleaned up. And you can forget about eating anything for dinner, after this.”

Such harsh words being said, burning into the parts of Jeongguk’s brain that tell him they are cruel and harmful.

And Jeongguk really, really hopes that it’s just his pessimistic mindset that’s telling him Taehyung had been literally kicked outside, locked out on the back porch in the chill of the evening. Broken sobs and little whines of pain only confirm his worst fears.

Why hadn’t he stepped in and done something? Was it because he was weak? No, he was bulking up lately; he’s sure he could take anybody on now. And he’d done it before, for Taehyung, so why not this time? The uncertainty of the outcome? Concern for his own well-being, over Taehyung’s? After all, he hadn’t been meant to witness any of this. If Jeongguk had decided not to sneak over to Taehyung’s home in the first place, would any of this had ever happened? Namjoon did tell him about some theory with a scientist and his cat.

Or maybe he was nothing but a lowly coward.

Unable to listen to Taehyung’s crying any longer, Jeongguk leaves for home, defeated.

 

*

 

Jeongguk swears he was going to talk to Taehyung the next day. He swore on his life, on his entire life savings and future prosperity. But Taehyung's seat was empty. And it remained that way for the rest of the week, and into the next.

When he shows up again, five days have passed.

He didn't think Taehyung could look much worse than before, but he was quickly proven wrong just judging by the tears in his clothing and the dullness of his skin. Jeongguk isn't so confident in comforting Taehyung anymore.

All Jeongguk can do is watch him from the other side of the classroom, and wish that things were different.

 

*

 

Even by the end of the week, Taehyung is not much better. He's quiet in class, he's quiet at lunch, and he's quiet during their walk home.

Should he say something now, or should he just let Taehyung go back to that horrible man he calls a parent? Jeongguk hovers, unsure.

He thinks he might just let Taehyung go, until he remembers the shatter of porcelain, and the way Taehyung was begging to be let back inside. There was no way he would let him go back to that.

"Hey, Tae?" Jeongguk prods, trying to keep his tone as soft as possible.

Taehyung doesn't say anything, just turns his head to glance at Jeongguk, silently willing him to speak. He doesn't need words. The look is enough.

Suddenly, it's as if Jeongguk has lost all words. He has no idea what to say in this moment, paused in their steps and staring at each other so intensely. Taehyung's face is devoid of any expression whatsoever, dull compared to the usual spark in his eyes. Jeongguk’s got cold feet, and he feels trapped, like he wouldn't be able to help Taehyung no matter how hard he tried.

But if he didn't at least try to help in some way or another, wouldn't that make him just as bad of a person?

Jeongguk doesn't speak, instead extending his arm and holding out a hand, palm open and for Taehyung to take. Taehyung stares, stares, and stares some more. He's hesitating; anybody could see it. He looks focused, as if listening for any danger, strong brows knitting together in a look of pure contemplation.

Moments pass like an eternity with every breath, but eventually, he takes Jeongguk's hand in his own. And Jeongguk smiles, so tenderly, and squeezes Taehyung's palm, their fingers intertwining so naturally.

The comfort of holding hands again after so long is enough to have Jeongguk's heart racing (would Taehyung be able to feel it through his palm?). Jeongguk had missed it greatly, even starting to wish that they could always be like this, Taehyung warm and wrapped up in his arms. He hopes that just being by Taehyung’s side, being a pillar of support for the male, is enough of a help to get him through the day; Jeongguk wishes he could do more, but every time he considers taking things a step further, he chickens out at the last minute.

At least the weather turned out nice today, Jeongguk thinks to himself, while looking over to Taehyung’s side. Taehyung looks up in that same moment, and their gazes lock.  Jeongguk blushes, and quickly turns his head away (he thinks he can hear Taehyung giggle in response, but he hopes that it was just his imagination). He can’t bear the embarrassment.

“Taehyung, are you busy this weekend? We should hang out.” I miss you, is what he means to say.

“Oh, I uh,” Taehyung stammers, fidgeting while still holding hands. “I don’t think I can. Dad doesn’t want me outside too much. Says I need to… study more, and stuff.”

Jeongguk frowns, clearly displeased with the response. “But you’ve been studying every day for the past month! You’re just gonna burn out, y’know. All work and no play isn’t any fun!”

Taehyung gives a half-hearted smile, giving Jeongguk’s palm a comforting squeeze. “Wish I could, but I can’t.” He pauses, kicking at the dirt. “You’ll get it one day, Guk.”

To be honest, Jeongguk is dense. It’s a trait of himself he knows well, and couldn’t change no matter how hard he tried. He would always see things at face value, and opt not to pry much further, because it was not his place to do so, and other people had the right to their own privacy. But in this moment, Jeongguk can feel everything start to pile up: the tattered clothes, the frail limbs, the sickly yellowing of bruises. He doesn’t need to pry, because it is so painfully obvious.

He doesn’t want to assume, but Jeongguk thinks he knows exactly what was going on. There was no reason for Taehyung to be coming to school without so many things. Always cold, always starving, always sad. It tears Jeongguk’s heart to pieces.

Taehyung says he’ll get it one day, but Jeongguk gets it now. He holds tight to Taehyung’s fragile hand, fingers clasped tight around skin and bone.

He takes Taehyung around the field, in the opposite direction of their usual route. It’s the scenic route that Jeongguk would sometimes take when the weather is nice enough, and he feels like he needs a long, leisurely, and relaxing walk home after a particularly strenuous day. And the best part was that, after wrapping around the acres of field, the path led straight to his home. Where Taehyung would be safe.

“It’s really nice out here,” Taehyung finally says, giving Jeongguk a soft smile. It’s the first genuine one he’s seen in a long time. He’d take it, no matter how small, his own lips uncontrollably turning upward.

“Yeah, I really like it a lot. I like going this way on days like this.” The days when we’re together would be even nicer.

“Mm, wish it was this pretty on my way home. I don’t have any other fancy routes to take like you do, though. Just straight home, right along the other houses on the street.” Taehyung heaves a sigh, shoulders drooping.

It’s too much to handle, and Jeongguk is struggling to keep up the charade. Unable to hold back any longer, Jeongguk speaks up. “Taehyung, I know what your dad does. How he treats you.”

The straightforwardness of the remark has Taehyung jolting in surprise, pulling his hand back as more of an impulse than anything else. “Wh-what do you mean, Jeongguk?”

“I mean your dad treats you like shit and I fucking hate it. Tae, I hate him.” Jeongguk snarls as he speaks, unable to hold back the disgust he felt towards the other’s father.

A nervous chuckle, a shake of the head. “That’s ridiculous, Guk, stop joking around.”

“I’m not joking, Taehyung!” They’re at a standstill. The distance between them almost feels too vast, too grand, despite only being half a meter apart. It’s almost too cinematic, when the gentle breeze flutters through locks of hair.

“I don’t like the fact that he hits you, Tae,” Jeongguk says in a weaker voice, staring down towards the ground, feeling guilty about his brand new shoes, compared to Taehyung’s which are ridden with holes. “It’s not right. Nobody should be doing that to you. Nobody should be doing that period.”

But Taehyung continues to feign ignorance, even going as far as to plaster a fake smile onto his face. Jeongguk can tell it’s dishonest.

“Okay, Jeongguk, you can stop now. You’re taking this joke a little too far.”

“I heard it all,” he interjects, barely missing a beat and ignoring Taehyung’s pitiful excuse of a change in subject. “I was at your house, because I was worried about you. Before I could even knock on the door, I heard him yell at you, I heard him hit you, and I heard him kick you outside for the rest of the night. Taehyung, people don’t do that to each other.”

Taehyung already looks like he’s about to cry. This hadn’t been Jeongguk’s intent, to break him down further and bring him to his breaking point, but in the heat of the moment, he couldn’t hold back. Perhaps he had taken things a bit too far, too intense and direct. But there was no way he would let Taehyung live another day like that.

“You can’t let him do that to you, Tae. You can’t.” Jeongguk feels so vulnerable, opening up and expressing such helpless emotion.

“He’s my dad and he just wants me to grow up right. It’s just his form of discipline. He does it to show that he cares.”

“Taehyung, it’s not right.”

“He’s my family. He takes care of me.” The words sound so mechanical, as if he was repeating something he’d heard so many times before. Jeongguk wants to throw up.

“You don’t do anything wrong and yet he treats you like that. It has to stop.”

“I don’t have anybody else.”

“You have me.”

Tension is running high. Jeongguk has to hold his breath while their gazes speak volumes. What more was there to say? ‘I want you to be mine, I want to save you, I want to be the reason for your smiles’?

“Taehyung, I—”

“Taehyung, that you? God, fucking finally.”

The voice is familiar, and it isn’t one Jeongguk wanted to hear. His blood already begins to boil. He doesn’t like the way Taehyung’s father looks, drunken and sloppy and absolutely filthy. Exactly what he had imagined.

“I thought you and I had an agreement that you’d start coming home earlier from now on? If it wasn’t for those footprints in the dirt, I probably would’a never found you!” The man has a sickly sweet expression on, already starting to reach out for Taehyung’s thin shoulder.

“Oh, and who is this? A friend o’ yours, Taehyung? How cute. Are you guys in love, too?” Taehyung stays quiet, receiving a sharp prod in between his shoulder blades. “Come on, aren’t ya g’nna introduce your boyfriend here? Don’t be rude, boy.”

“Dad, this is… this is my friend, Jeon Jeongguk. He’s very close to me.”

“Do you guys kiss under the bleachers? Pass notes during class?” Taehyung visibly cringes, and his dad laughs.

 “So, Jeon Jeongguk, huh? Your family the one that owns those big farms?”

“Yes, sir.” Jeongguk may hate the guy, but he definitely needed to be on his best behavior, in fear that he may take his anger and disappointment out on Taehyung.

“Right, well. I don’t want your snooty, rich kind to be influencing my son here. He’s going to learn how to live the right way, making a livin’ for himself, not relyin’ on the allowance from his parents.”

Taehyung grumbles under his breath, much to Jeongguk’s chagrin. “He’s not like that. He’s different.”

His father gives a sharp tug to the collar of Taehyung’s shirt, evidently irked by the sharp retort, a menacing look on his face. “Oh, is that so? I wouldn’t know. C’mon, Tae, let’s try an’ find our way back.” He turns to face Jeongguk, giving a disgustingly honeyed grin. “It was nice meeting you, Jeongguk.”

The look that Taehyung gives to Jeongguk is one full of pleading. His eyes are glossy, lower lip quivering in fear of the inevitable. And Jeongguk can do nothing but watch as he gets dragged away through the dirt.

 

*

 

Jeongguk runs. He runs as fast as his young legs can manage.

There’s the sharp tang of iron at the back of his throat, but it doesn’t stop him from sprinting as fast as his legs could take him.

Where was he to go? Their town was so quiet and civil; he had never once caught wind of any such dilemma, let alone experience it for himself. But surely there had to be somebody who could help him.

Jeongguk could remember seeing the tiny police station down by the school. He’d taken note of it earlier in the morning, for this exact reason. But in the frantic rush of confrontation, Jeongguk forgets it all too easily. Was it right next to the school? Across the courtyard? The next street over? He takes his chances and tries for the opposite end of the city center. Logically speaking, that was the best place for it to be.

Now, more than ever, Jeongguk has his wits to thank. There’s no time to waste. He needs to save Taehyung.

The door slams open, Jeongguk panting and heaving as he stands in the doorway with his hands on his knees. The officers don’t look impressed.

“Hey, kid. Is there something we can do for you?”

“Taehyung—my friend. You have to help him. He’s in danger. Please.” Jeongguk is winded, pupils blown out wide and heart threatening to leap right out of his chest. He doesn’t have the patience or the time to elaborate.

Please,” he repeats.

The two officers on duty share a look. For such a lovely, quaint little town, it came as a surprise that there was any sort of calamity occurring within city limits. Both men jump onto the opportunity, taking Jeongguk along for the ride.

They take two cars. The roads look hazy and unfamiliar, but luckily, they manage to navigate their way down the correct streets. Jeongguk gets the same chills down his spine as the first time he saw the house.

It’s quiet. The house is empty, its rooms dark. It’s an unsettling feeling, one that rattles Jeongguk’s bones right down to the core.

“Listen up, kid, if this is some kind of joke, we don’t have the time. We do very important work and if you think you’re just going to come in here and waste our time—”

But Jeongguk doesn’t listen to his speech. They had to be here. Jeongguk had given them plenty of time to return home, and surely there was nowhere else Taehyung’s father could possibly get away with such heinous crime.

There. He hears it. A faint, yet distinguishable sound of pain, the sound strangled and high in pitch. Jeongguk opens his door with a record speed, dashing out while motioning for the others to follow. They needed to catch him in the act. Otherwise, he could say goodbye to any chances of helping Taehyung.

They sneak around back, sticking close to the side of the house.

The front of Taehyung’s shirt is balled up in the confines of his father’s fist, one cheek swollen and his nose dripping in blood, mixing with the tears that were streaming down his face. The dirt below has a spattering of dark, rust-colored splotches. Jeongguk doesn’t want to believe what his instinct tells him they are from.

“Good for nothing, waste of my time and money, burden on my shoulders. Life would be so much better without you; you know that?”

And Taehyung weeps, because it’s all he can do.

The rest of it comes as a blur. Jeongguk knew that this had been going on, but he’d never seen it with his own eyes. He stands, stunned, in too much shock to move any further. The corners of his vision turn white, and his toes feel numb. The policemen rush in, prying the two apart and making it all stop.

Taehyung is reduced to a bloodied pulp, body fatigued and collapsing into the strong grasp of the deputy, who brings him to the car, and wraps him up in a soft blanket. He shivers, despite the heavy June heat.

Jeongguk can barely stand to look at him, can’t even move to sit by his side, his legs like jelly.

Eventually, Taehyung’s father is cuffed up, and thrown into the back of the sheriff’s vehicle. The deputy escorts Jeongguk back to his own car, tells him how good of a job he had done that day, and how he’d saved Taehyung. There was nothing more to worry about.

He’d done a good job. He’d saved Taehyung. They could be happy now.

 

*

 

Taehyung doesn’t have any more immediate family, not within close distance, at least. Jeongguk is positive that if they were living in the capital city, Taehyung would be whisked away and never seen again. He has to be thankful for their small town in this aspect, at least.

They let Taehyung stay with Jeongguk’s family. The town is small enough for there to be a strong sense of community, not to mention the fact that Taehyung simply has nowhere else to go. Jeongguk’s parents are beyond welcoming.

It takes a while for him to warm up, though, not accustomed to the kindness of Jeongguk’s brothers, or the way his parents would offer warm meals and polite conversation (when Taehyung accidentally drops his chopsticks on the floor, he cries, but Jeongguk’s parents only laugh it off, and hand him a fresh pair).

With their new living conditions, Jeongguk is able to watch over Taehyung. He doesn’t want to be too overbearing, so he lets Taehyung come and go from the room as he pleases. On some days, Taehyung will sit on the opposite end of the room. On other days, he’ll climb into bed with Jeongguk, and hug his side until he falls into a deep slumber.

At times like this, Jeongguk is glad that Taehyung is a light sleeper, saving him the embarrassment of a rapid heartbeat and flushed cheeks.

 

*

 

Taehyung goes everywhere with Jeongguk now. He had saved him, sure, but above all else, he made Taehyung feel alive.

They walk to classes while holding hands, and sit glued to each other’s sides during lunch. They bury their noses into books, and exchange kisses out by the lockers. It feels like a dream, being able to dote on Taehyung like this, with no fear of the consequences. Jeongguk had been wanting to do this for so long, but had only managed to sneak in the subtlest of actions.

Graduation approaches sooner than anticipated. Where had the time gone? Jeongguk could have sworn they had just been through their first year orientation, but now, they were in the middle of the school’s graduation ceremony. It was nothing big, their graduating class only totaling to around 25 students. But it was graduation nonetheless. A passage into adulthood.

Jeongguk isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life, feeling content with things the way they were now. He thinks he’ll keep family tradition and take over the farm when his parents retire their tools. It’s what they would want; who was Jeongguk to go against their wishes?

It would be a nice life. Simple, comfortable. He would have Taehyung by his side. They could finally live out a peaceful life together, until their dying days.

And that was all Jeongguk needed.

 

*

 

“I think about leaving this place.”

Jeongguk pauses, thinking he’d heard wrongly. “Leave? What? Why?”

“Yeah, I wanna get out of here. I have to go as soon as possible, and start over.”

“Why would you want to do that? We already have everything you need here.”

“I hate it out here in the countryside. Don’t you ever wonder what the city’s like, Gukkie? Don’t you ever dream about doing more with your life?”

By now, Jeongguk is sitting up, looking down at Taehyung who was still laying back on the blanket they had set down earlier that night. He’s confused, more than anything else. “Not really. I mean, I’ve got guaranteed success here. There’s not much for me to complain about.”

Taehyung’s brow twitches. “Easy for you to say.”

His mouth gapes, opening and closing a few times before he apologizes with a simple, “I’m sorry.”

“Guk, you were a good student. Imagine learning even more. There’s amazing schools up in Seoul; you’d get in no problem. There’s an endless amount of possibilities.”

A shrug of the shoulders has Taehyung frowning.

“I mean, yeah; I’ve thought about it. But my parents were saying I’d be the best of my siblings to take over the whole, family business thing.”

“Do you even think for yourself, Jeongguk? Or are you just another one of those mindless robots who do everything just to please other people?”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make other people happy—”

“I thought you were different.”

“I—I am different, Tae. Why leave when everything here is perfectly set up? You’re not thinking straight.”

I’m not thinking straight? Are you even listening to yourself right now?”

They share a heated gaze. Tensions are so high that Jeongguk can feel himself touching the clouds. There’s nothing but silence, and the pounding of Jeongguk’s heart against his ribcage.

He has no words left. Jeongguk takes a chance, and leans in. But when his lips meet nothing but the smooth skin of a cheek, he is taken aback.

“Jeongguk. I… I can’t.”

“But Tae— I want to make you happy too. I promise I can do it—”

“It won’t work, Jeongguk. Don't you see it? You want to stay, but I want to go.”

“If you stay here with me, I can do it. I can make you happy—” he pleads, gasping out his words as he slowly comes to terms with Taehyung’s rejection.

Taehyung smiles bitterly. “Figure out what you really want, first. And then you can worry about me.”

 

*

 

Jeongguk only has a week left with Taehyung. He’s going to use all of his money just to cover the train fares into the capital, and start his life anew. No traces of the country will be left in him by the end of it all. And Jeongguk will be left alone, tending to his gardens and fields with his lonesome self, only livestock keeping him company.

Taehyung gives gentle reminders, every day, that Jeongguk could always go with him. He still has a chance. There was no real reason for him to not go. The only problem was his desire to make people happy, giving in all too easily to the wishes of his parents. Taehyung adored Jeongguk’s parents, but he knew that it was time to move on, and do something greater with his life.

Jeongguk could do the same, if only he had an ounce more confidence in himself.

Of course, Jeongguk thinks about how dangerous it would be for Taehyung to go out alone, and how so many things could go wrong.

“It’s fine, Jeongguk. It’ll be scary, but… I have to do it,” he speaks with certainty. “I have to be strong and stick to my guns. I just know there’s going to be something for me up in Seoul.”

And Jeongguk nods, not wanting to dissuade him in any way. For Taehyung, he would always give in. Even when his heart tugs and his stomach drops, he gives in.

 

*

 

On Monday, Jeongguk watches Taehyung leave.

 

 

 

[ iii. please dry my eyes. ]

 

The city is everything that the countryside was not. There are no fields, no livestock, and no dirt roads. Everything was so industrial, buildings made of steel and concrete and glass, tall and towering overhead.

Jeongguk thought he had grown quite tall over the years, but here in the city, he feels smaller than ever.

He’s dressed casually, broad shoulders filling out the fabric of his black t-shirt, bag in one hand, phone in the other. He’s trying to call Namjoon, because he’d stupidly left his keys in the apartment and he really, really wanted to go home and take a nap after work. Namjoon doesn’t pick up, even after the assault of text messages Jeongguk sent.

Typical, Jeongguk thinks with a sigh as he shoves his phone back into his pocket. Oh well. If he was going to be stuck outside for the next couple of hours until Namjoon was off of his shift, he may as well go out and explore.

Jeongguk was never really the adventurous type, always opting to go straight home after his part-time work. However, he had no choice but to stay out today, and enjoy the weather.

Spring was most definitely Jeongguk's favorite season, always delighted with the appearance of blooming flowers and bright rays of sunshine. They remind him of happy days and bright smiles, like the sweet taste of cotton candy. Even the peach trees have blossomed, their pink flowers delicate and light. Jeongguk loves it all, even more than the constant browns and greens of the farm back home. Unexpectedly so, Jeongguk has come to love the city.

He takes the long route circling around the park nearby, soaking up the sun despite the intimidating all-black ensemble, breeze gently ruffling through his hair and cooling his skin. He even stops to take a photo to document the way flower petals fell so prettily to the dirt path (it's his first phone, and he's excited). He breathes in deep, the floral aroma flooding his senses. Jeongguk had always been sensitive to scents, and it was no different now, as he sighed out happily, feeling all too dreamy and romantic until somebody is bumping into his side.

"Oh Jesus, I'm sorry! My spatial awareness is horrible and—Jeongguk?"

A quick glance over to his side nearly has Jeongguk stumbling to the ground. "Taehyung?"

The first thing that Jeongguk notices about Taehyung is the lilac mess of hair on his head, crowned with a pair of reflective, round-rimmed glasses. His skin glows, and he looks healthy. There is an air of confidence about him, with the way he stands tall, shoulders rolled back, head held high. It's so different from Jeongguk's last image of the other: a timid boy who hid in the sleeves of his coat. He can only stare in shock until Taehyung speaks up again.

"Woah, it's really you! I thought my mind was playing tricks on me or somethin'!" His eyes sparkle, and it's like he glows from within. "When did country boy Guk come up to the big city?!"

"Um. Just recently." Jeongguk's words are short, but Taehyung doesn't seem to be bothered in the slightest.

"This is so exciting! Just recently I'd been telling some of my friends about my tragic love from back home, and now they won't be able to call me a liar anymore!" he says with a loud laugh, waving his words off as a joke.

Jeongguk just smiles politely, unsure of what to make of what he'd just said. Even if Taehyung was joking now, he couldn’t help but to wonder: had his feelings really been reciprocated in the end?

"Anyway, Jeonggukie, I got a thing I gotta go to; are you free tonight? I'd love to catch up." Taehyung grins at him so widely, and Jeongguk feels his heart seize up.

"Uh, y-yeah," he stutters. "Got no plans."

"Well perfect! I'll probably be done around nine. I don't know if that's late for you or not but, if you're still up for it, you wanna grab some drinks?"

Jeongguk nods, already unlocking his phone to take Taehyung's number.

"Cool, I'll keep you posted! Gotta run now, Guk, was nice seeing you again!"

Jeongguk can hardly wait.

 

*

 

Jeongguk doesn't think he's ever felt more excited in his entire life.

He paces around the apartment (once Namjoon finally answers his calls), unable to control his nerves. Why exactly was he feeling so nervous? It wasn't going to be anything more than a couple of cocktails, sharing their experiences over the past few years apart. Just a couple of friends, catching up on missed years. So what was making his heart pound against his chest, and his palms collect sweat in the creases?

The hours pass, and Jeongguk grows more and more nervous by the second.

He doesn't get the text until past nine-thirty, prompting him to rush through his (small) collection of clothing, trying to find something halfway decent to wear. Namjoon laughs at how uncharacteristic it all is, with his (mostly) buttoned shirt and dark pants. Jeongguk was more the type to haphazardly throw on a t-shirt and some ripped jeans. Clearly, he was trying to impress.

"Who's the lucky date?" Namjoon snickers from the couch where he was flipping through channels, before settling on a romantic comedy.

Jeongguk only groans and leaves before the older male can compare him to the protagonist of the film. He doesn't forget his keys this time.

 

*

 

Jeongguk has still yet to learn the layout of the city, only knowing the ways to and from work, and a few convenience stores along the way for groceries. When Taehyung texts him the address to the bar, he has to look up directions.

He is welcomed with open arms, and a grin brighter than all of the stars in the sky. Who would have known he would have missed Taehyung this much?

"Jeonggukie, you made it!"

He’s sitting at the bar, radiant even under the dim lighting of the room, waving an arm around like a madman. Jeongguk can’t help but smile.

“I didn’t keep you long, did I?” Jeongguk asks, taking a seat.

Taehyung gently shakes his head, chin resting on a palm as he leans in just the slightest bit closer. “I’m the one who should be apologizing; I got out later than expected. Shoot went long.”

Jeongguk gives a tilt of the head, very obviously confused by Taehyung’s words. “Shoot? What do you mean?”

“Oh!” Taehyung exclaims, perking up immediately. It’s still strange to Jeongguk, how Taehyung could have changed so much, but he supposes he should be glad for Taehyung’s newfound surge in confidence. “For my work. Um, modeling. I’m currently on contract with with a couple different designers! Had a photoshoot today.”

That explains it all. He can see the pieces all come together: the crisp clothing, the expensive looking jewelry, the perfect skin and unbeatable self-confidence.

“That whole country boy backstory; they ate it right up.”

“Ah, I see,” is all Jeongguk can say, eyes scanning over Taehyung’s outfit to take in the full effect of his transformation. Jeongguk may be wrong, but he thinks he catches a hint of blush in the other’s cheeks.

“Anyway, enough about boring ol’ me, let’s hear about you, Jeongguk!”

Jeongguk frowns, because he was dying to hear more about Taehyung. Had he been well? Had he suffered at all? Had he missed Jeongguk as much as Jeongguk missed him? But he doesn’t press, instead letting Taehyung continue on, because he was never going to argue against Taehyung’s curiosity.

“What made you move out of town? I could have sworn you were going to live until your dying days out in those fields,” Taehyung laughs, leaning in closer as he awaits a response.

“I was really planning on it,” Jeongguk laughs too, at just how obviously attached he was to his home for Taehyung to make such comments. “But I actually had to enlist in the army, and commit to my two years of service.”

Taehyung ooh’s and ahh’s, even reaching an arm over to squeeze at one of Jeongguk’s forearms. The touch makes Jeongguk’s mind race.

“I just got off duty last month, and my brothers are watching over the farm. I’ve got an apartment about twenty minutes from here, with Namjoon—you remember Namjoon from high school, right?”

He earns and enthusiastic nod, then a sparkle of the eyes. Jeongguk goes on to tell the details of his life the past few years, how he’d managed to land a safe, but dreadfully boring job during his time of enlistment, despite still having to go through basic trainings. How he’d at least wished to have done something more active (much to Taehyung’s disagreement). How he’d been working another boring, yet stable, job as a barista.

Taehyung laughs at him for being such a cliché (“Imagine you were a bartender instead. Still a cliché, but at least you’d be a hot cliché.”), but Jeongguk only shrugs. “It’s alright, gets the bills paid. And tips aren’t bad. Tips are the best part.”

They spend the rest of the evening like that, exchanging stories and laughter, until the moon shines high above the sky, illuminating the streets with its romantic glow. The later rounds of alcohol on the table go untouched, forgotten in the excitement of reconnection. There’s still at least an hour left until the bar closes for the night, but Jeongguk is feeling far too sober to stay any longer, and he can already see the droop in Taehyung’s eyelids.

“When are you free next? I’d hate to keep you up all night,” Jeongguk speaks gently, eyes tender.

“Oh no, Jeongguk, I’ll be alright. It’s worth it to spend time with you,” Taehyung replies, fingers toying with the rolled-up sleeve of Jeongguk’s shirt. “Besides, I’m not even,” a big yawn, “that tired.”

Jeongguk finds it endearing, and smiles at Taehyung ever so gently, shaking his head at the other’s absurdity. “Come on, Tae, time to get you home.”

And Taehyung wants to put up a fight, but finds his limbs turning to putty once Jeongguk starts to lead him out.

They’re downtown, not too far from Taehyung’s place, supposedly. He claims he can make it home fine on his own, but Jeongguk hesitates. It wasn’t as though he didn’t believe Taehyung, or trust that he could manage himself just fine. After all, hadn’t he been doing so in the years they’d spent apart? Still, he’s feeling wary. After spending the better part of their childhood protecting the boy most precious to him, Jeongguk finds it hard to feel any differently now.

The walk home is short relative to the eternity Jeongguk wanted to be around Taehyung, who was weaving back and forth along the sidewalk (was he already drunk off of those few drinks they’d shared? Jeongguk didn’t think he was this much of a lightweight). When they reach the doorstep to Taehyung’s apartment building, the male is frowning.

“I’m sooo sad, Gukkie. We finally got to see each other again, ‘n I got tired so early! I wanted to stay up aaaall night, ‘til the sun came out!” He whines, bottom lip thick and poking outward. Jeongguk has to resist the urge to tell him that time was all relative, and staying out until one-thirty in the morning was still fairly impressive.

“Don’t worry about it, Tae,” Jeongguk said, reaching out to give a comforting pat on the shoulder. “There’s always next time; it’s not as if I’m only visiting or anything like that. I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.”

His words must be soothing enough, for Taehyung’s face lights up, lips spread wide to reveal a dopey, yet bright, smile. “You’re right! And I’ll text you all the time! When I wake up, when I’m on the train, when I’m on break, when I’m lying around at home… be prepared.”

Jeongguk chuckles. “Alright, will do!”

Taehyung beams for a while longer as they stand in silence, before leaping forward like a sudden gust of wind, his arms winding their way around Jeongguk’s tapered waist. He buries his face against Jeongguk’s chest, eyes closed with a gentle hum and a slight rock on his heels. Everything catches Jeongguk off guard, though he eventually settles into the embrace, strong arms finding a home wrapped around Taehyung’s thin shoulders, his chin propped neatly atop a mess of hair.

Taehyung smells like spring time and flowers. Jeongguk commits the scent to memory as he breathes in, his own eyelids fluttering shut. His whole body becomes enveloped with warmth, and he finds that he doesn’t want to let go.

Eventually, he has to, because Taehyung is pulling back. They’re still close; close enough for Taehyung to keep his fingers locked together at the small of Jeongguk’s back, while Jeongguk gingerly holds at Taehyung’s shoulders. Taehyung has his head dipped down, and Jeongguk almost misses the words that the other whispers.

“I missed you.”

Would Taehyung be able to feel the rapid beating of his heart against his ribs? Surely, the answer was yes, but he made no such indication. Jeongguk holds his breath.

“I missed you a lot. I wish you would’ve been here with me through it all.”

And now Jeongguk just feels guilty, for abandoning Taehyung (despite it being the other way around). “I know, I missed you too.” I wanted to be there with you, too.

“It’s good to have you back, Jeongguk.” The phrase is simple, but it’s enough to leave Jeongguk’s mind reeling. “Let’s see each other again soon, yeah?”

Then they part ways, and Jeongguk heads for home with a burning in his heart.

 

*

 

“You really haven’t changed, Gukkie.”

Taehyung looks amused as he looks at Jeongguk from over the bar, watching as he expertly makes Taehyung’s green tea lattes just the way he likes them—not too hot, intensely sweet, and with just a bit of extra foam to top it off. The best part? Free of charge, only for Jeongguk’s favorite customer.

“What? That’s ridiculous. We haven’t seen each other since senior year of high school. Of course I’ve changed since then.”

“See, I don’t even have to explain it. You just proved it yourself!” Taehyung looks amused as he obnoxiously drags out his words. “Look at you, always so serious. You’ve even got that look on your face again!”

Jeongguk scowls, and Taehyung laughs so heartily, so beautifully, his voice like a melody floating off of his tongue. It does its job and soothes Jeongguk’s grumbling.

“Cute. Anyway, I gotta dash. You’re free Saturday, right?” He doesn’t wait for a response, as he reaches for his paper cup and shouts across the room, already halfway out the door. “I’ll text you!”

And then Taehyung is gone, leaving Jeongguk’s heart feeling like a flower in bloom.

 

*

 

Jeongguk is indeed free on the coming Saturday, climbing into the back of a way-too-expensive cab to downtown Seoul. He’d been spared any further details, only being told to not be late, and to dress nice. That last detail had set Jeongguk into a frenzy, rushing out to the shops just to find something halfway decent.

“You can wear some of my stuff, if you want. We’re pretty close in height,” Namjoon offers, watching with amusement as Jeongguk scurries about the apartment.

“No thanks. I’m not even sure if that would count as dressing nice,” Jeongguk bites back with a devilish grin, as Namjoon feigns offense.

The collar of Jeongguk’s freshly ironed shirt is suffocating; the tie is even worse. When he throws his blazer over a shoulder, he can hear Namjoon whistle obnoxiously in the background, prompting him to leave as soon as possible.

The cab comes to a stop in front of a sketchy-looking place, windows tinted and walls made of stone; Jeongguk wonders if he’d been given the wrong address. But everything seems to check out, so Jeongguk simply thanks the driver, hands over some bills, and exits the car.

Jeongguk had been told before to never judge a book by its cover, but even now, he is stunned.

Exteriors do no justice for the heart of the building, decorated lavishly and sparkling all over. It’s surprisingly spacious, enough room for a bar, tables in the back, rows of seating, and even some strange, extended stage running down the center of the room. Jeongguk hasn’t the slightest idea of what this all might entail, but it leaves him excited and anticipating the night. He would need to find Taehyung as soon as possible.

But the lights are dimmed down low. It’s hard to see much of anything, amidst the masses of people. Was it some kind of socialites’ paradise? A cocktail party, perhaps? He’s grown out of his shell a bit, he could manage that. But he still couldn’t find Taehyung.

Soon, brightly colored fluorescents are lighting up the stage, drawing the attention of all the attendees, most moving to fill the remainder of the seats right up front. Jeongguk, lost in the crowd, has to settle for a spot at the back of the crowd.

The dull throb of a club beat begins, matching up perfectly to his heartbeat. Slow. Even. Sonorous. Jeongguk is, admittedly, a bit lost. But he has no time left to think, to ponder, as spotlights flicker on to illuminate the walkway.

The first one walks in with a confidence strong enough to make the room dense with its complexity, almost blowing Jeongguk back a few steps. She stomps down the runway clad in chunky black boots, legs long and bare underneath a loose and flowing gown. Her hair is pinned up, eyes smoldering with black makeup. What was Jeongguk supposed to feel?

More models come and go, strutting down the runway like it was all they knew how to do. To Jeongguk, it just feels like an extravagant version of window shopping, or like an overly-flowered way of showing off one’s collection.

He’s on the verge of judging the event with every fiber of his being, until the music slows just slightly, no longer matching up to Jeongguk’s heartbeat, catching him off guard, and leaving him anxious—for more? He wasn’t certain.

And then Taehyung saunters out, and Jeongguk’s heart drops into the pits of his stomach, throbs against his lungs, then burns in the back of his throat. He’d noticed that Taehyung had become more confident since they’d last seen each other at the farm, but this, this was something else entirely.

Taehyung, in all the times they had met up in the pasts week, was dressed nicely, of course, but something about this outfit leaves Jeongguk gulping.

A seemingly innocent outfit, dark pants and a thick band of fabric around his neck (Jeongguk had noticed that these chokers were quite the trend these days). He wore a loose, halfway-buttoned shirt, revealing a thin physique, and a flash of something dark, delicate. He reaches the end of the runway, making his poses. So effortless, so graceful, so breathtaking. Jeongguk has a better view of his ensemble now; coated denim, silk blouse, velvet accessories.

Jeongguk gapes, but before he can fully process the sight, Taehyung winks, and turns on his heels to head back down the runway. Jeongguk spends the rest of the show just in awe of it all. Even when the lights come on, he remains a bit frazzled, wandering aimlessly until an over-enthusiastic Taehyung comes barreling into his side.

“Gukkie, you made it! You weren’t here before I had to go backstage; I was worried you wouldn’t have shown up!” Jeongguk only shakes his head.

All of the models are still wearing their stage outfits, showing off the fanciful dresses and elaborately stitched coats. Taehyung looks so breezy in his outfit, lavender hair tousled just perfectly. And Jeongguk can’t help but to stare, eyes immediately drawn to the way the fabrics hung so prettily on Taehyung’s skin.

Taehyung takes notice.

“Oh, Jeongguk, is it weird? This designer was kind of going for that, ‘oh this little number? I just threw stuff on last minute,' kind of vibe,” he explains, with a shrug, and then a pause. “It's not too bad, right?”

And never, in a million years, would Jeongguk say anything to upset Taehyung, who very clearly adored the look, toying with the ends of his choker. The tight clasp of it catches Jeongguk’s attention, and he blushes furiously, having to clear his throat and cough into a fist.

“No, it’s good,” he mumbles as he turns away. Jeongguk gulps, confused, but loving the way fabric hugged Taehyung’s body. “I—I like it a lot, actually.”

Taehyung beams. “Good! Guess I’m doing my job as a model, huh?”

Jeongguk offers up a weak smile, nodding only because he had no idea of what else to do. He thinks that Taehyung could make anything look good, but the sudden shyness keeps him from speaking up.

“Taehyung! Good job today!” A voice calls out from behind, and Taehyung gives an enthusiastic wave.

“Oh, Minjae, you’re here!” Taehyung cheers.

The male strides over, looking casual with his hands nestled neatly in the pockets of his slacks, black dress shoes shining even with the dim lighting. Even in just a simple black top, he looks neat and well-put together; Jeongguk is jealous of his all-black attire, cursing the simplicity of his own white shirt and black tie combination.

“Showed up just in time, too,” he comments, looking to Taehyung with a fondness in his eyes. Somehow, it irks Jeongguk, who just wants to hug Taehyung’s head to his chest and keep them in their own little world for the night. “You’re looking great, as always.”

Taehyung smiles bashfully, arm reaching out to lightly slap at the male’s arm with a sleeve. Jeongguk runs his tongue over his gums at the sight.

“Oh, you, always such a flatterer. You’re being too sweet, really.”

A toothy grin, and a playful pinch of Taehyung’s cheek between forefingers. “You know I’m just telling the truth, Taetae. We all know you’re the most stunning thing in this room.”

Jeongguk scoffs at the way this Minjae insinuates that Taehyung was some kind of object, like he could be compared to a fine piece of furniture, or a dusty lampshade. Taehyung catches the sound, and takes it as Jeongguk’s offense to having been left out of the conversation.

“Oh no, I’m sorry, Jeongguk! How rude of me, really. Here, say hi.” Taehyung reaches to grab ahold of each of their wrists, tugging them closer so that they were facing each other, and within speaking range.

“Jeongguk, meet Minjae. Minjae, meet Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk begrudgingly shakes his hand, and they exchange a brief nod, before Minjae tilts his head to the side to give Taehyung a raise of the brow.

“Jeongguk? You mean—?”

“Yes, this is him! The same Jeongguk from home!” Taehyung beams.

“Ah, I see. Taehyung talks about you all the time. It’s nice to finally meet you, Jeongguk.”

Taehyung complains from the side; Jeongguk is not blind to the rose-colored tint that began to creep up into his cheeks.

“Likewise.” Brief, concise, minimal. It was all that was necessary.

Minjae smirks, their hands unclasping as he turns to Taehyung, giving the other a caress of the cheek, fingertips lingering at his chin. “What are you up to tonight? You down for some drinks? I’ve got a private bar back at the condo.”

For some reason unbeknownst to himself, he feels a spark of something deep in his gut. Was it unease? Jealousy? Jeongguk passes it off as indigestion. Still, he can feel his blood boil hotter, the longer he watches the two. He has to tear his eyes away to stop his fists from clenching.

Taehyung hums in thought, glancing between the two males. “I’ll have to pass this time, sorry. You know I’d love to, but I can’t help but want to spend some more time with Jeongguk. He is my guest tonight, after all!”

Minjae seems the slightest bit disappointed, though his expression eventually settles onto that same smirk from before. “Well I’ll leave you two be for the night then, seems like you’ve got some catching up to do. If you’ve been apart for so long, you must be missing each other so dearly.”

“Drinks next time, I promise. I’ll see you tomorrow then, Minjae!”

“Right. Don’t be late, Tae. Seven, sharp.” And Taehyung nods in affirmation before Minjae disappears into the crowd.

Jeongguk has so many questions; who was Minjae? What were they going to do together tomorrow? What was his relationship with Taehyung? Were they in a relationship? It didn’t seem to be the case, but Jeongguk still worries. He doesn’t know why he worries, but he does.

Taehyung’s love life was of no concern to Jeongguk; what say did he have in the matter?

But then he makes a simple turn of the head, and watches Taehyung glow so beautifully under the light, rays of neon yellow and pink bouncing off of supple skin. Jeongguk is enamored. And when Taehyung turns back to him with a grin and an invitation for drinks, Jeongguk only falls harder.

 

*

 

The walk back is just like how it used to be, taking lazy steps towards home. They find a comfortable pace—not too fast, not too slow—as their shoulders bump and knock into one another.

Miraculously, they make it back without getting too lost, the mild buzz of alcohol vibrating in their skulls like a memento of the night. Taehyung’s shaky palms struggle to find his keys at first, before eventually pulling them out and holding them up into the air with an extraordinary pride. He has the key in the slot, before pausing and whipping his head over a shoulder.

“Do you w’nna come in, Jeonggukie?”

Jeongguk was standing at the bottom of the steps, looking up at Taehyung with his round, doe-like eyes. He had only expected to get this far, only needed to get to this point, to make sure Taehyung got home safely. But with the sudden invitation inside, Jeongguk is caught off guard.

"Oh, no that's fine," he says with a little scuff of his shoe. "I mean; I wouldn't want to intrude."

Taehyung frowns, and Jeongguk almost dissolves on sight. When he speaks again, his tone is lighter, almost like a song. "You're alr’dy here. I would hate to have you go all the way back home at this time of night."

"It's okay, it won't take long to get home. You're probably exhausted after tonight."

"But Jeonggukie—"

Jeongguk is certain Taehyung knows he is pouting and pleading with glassy eyes, but he isn't quite so sure that he knows exactly the effect it has on him. Jeongguk gives in easily, muttering a simple, "okay."

And Taehyung welcomes him into his home, the atmosphere warm and soothing, like a childhood blanket or a freshly brewed cup of tea. Jeongguk sits, awkwardly, on the middle cushion of Taehyung’s couch, waiting for the other’s return (Taehyung insisted on getting them some warm drinks to mellow out with). He taps his fingers at his knees, before tugging at the tie that was still uncomfortably pressing up against the base of his throat, loosening it just slightly. Taehyung returns shortly after.

“You make me coffee all the time, so it’s only natural that I return the favor,” Taehyung says in a chipper tone, beaming at Jeongguk. “Well, it’s hot chocolate, but it’s the thought that counts, right?”

Jeongguk gives a hearty laugh, nodding as he brings the mug to his lips, his body reacting instantaneously to the touch of scalding liquid. He hisses in pain as some drips onto his thigh, projectile drops landing on the pristine white of his shirt.

Taehyung is immediately a mess of sorry, sorry, as he rushes for napkins, trying and failing to remove the stains. Jeongguk says that he’s fine, but Taehyung insists that he get changed.

He’s given a pair of shorts and a baggy t-shirt, the hems worn and stretched. Jeongguk fills them out nicely, but there is no doubt that they would hang loose on Taehyung’s slender build.

They settle back down soon after Taehyung finishes rattling off a list of apologies, much to Jeongguk’s amusement. It’s a nice feeling, to see Taehyung being so open now. Jeongguk’s last memories of Taehyung had been of a shy, trapped boy, sad and beaten to the core. But now, Jeongguk feels happier just by looking at Taehyung glow from within.

“I still can’t believe we ran into each other,” Taehyung comments, slouching in his seat. “What is this, some kind of cheesy romcom?”

Jeongguk laughs, kind of wishes that it was. “It’s kind of a blessing in disguise. My enlistment, I mean. Who knows how long I would have been at that farm if it weren’t for that.”

“Would you have stayed there forever?”

For once, Jeongguk is stumped. Would he have? Back in their childhood, Jeongguk had only ever imagined living on that farm, until his dying days. It was home. But now, just the thought of going back to that dreadfully mundane lifestyle makes him shudder. Could it really be home, when he felt so empty?

“I don’t think so.” Jeongguk thinks he sees a twinkle in Taehyung’s eyes.

“What, really?"

“Yeah, I just… I thought it was everything, that town. When you’re a kid you can only see the positive things, but then you grow up,” Jeongguk pauses, calculating. “I think I just realized that what I really wanted—what I needed—wasn’t at home anymore.”

Their eyes meet, and the feeling is like a current of electricity, strong and tingling in his fingertips. Or like two hearts acting like magnets, attracted and unmovable. Jeongguk is having a hard time determining whether the blushes in their cheeks are from the alcohol, or something else.

“Ah. Yeah, you should always go after the things you want in life,” Taehyung replies with a small smile, skin rosy. Jeongguk agrees more than ever, as he looks at Taehyung, and Taehyung looks back. He very briefly entertains the idea of a dull life on his farm, the sun overhead not nearly bright enough to make up for Taehyung’s absence. Jeongguk shakes the thought, and thanks every cell in his body for his daring move out to the city. Though he supposes he would have ended up in Seoul either way.

Because everything would always, forever, point back to Taehyung.

 

*

 

Jeongguk wakes up the next morning to an empty apartment. Groggily, he stretches an arm out to check his phone, fingers landing upon a slip of paper instead.

Dearest Jeongguk,

Sorry I had to ditch you! Early shoots, y’know. There’s (probably) food in the fridge that you can eat if you want, otherwise you can head out. Just make sure the door clicks shut behind you. I’ll see you tonight, yeah? Keep your 9pm timeslot open for me; we’ll do something fun!

Taehyung

The note makes Jeongguk smile, even in the unforgivingly blinding light of the morning sun, its oranges and yellows peeking through the blinds. He stretches, joints stiff from a deep sleep, eyes struggling to stay open. He makes quick use of the bathroom, splashing his face with cold water and giving his hair a quick run-through with his fingers.

He anticipates the night, when they would be reunited again. It felt like he could hardly breathe without Taehyung around. And he knows it was wrong to an extent, because they both had their own lives to live; their friendship—relationship, whatever this was—was not determined by the number of hours spent together, or validated just in them being side-by-side. It would be silly to define things in this way, when their bond was so much more.

Still, Jeongguk can’t wait for day to turn into evening, so that they could be together again.

 

*

 

Unsurprisingly, everything goes according to his wishes, and Jeongguk finishes his closing shift just in time for Taehyung’s assault of text messages. Jeongguk grins like a love-struck fool.

His own apartment is empty for the night, Namjoon supposedly spending his Friday evening with Hoseok. He’d never pegged Namjoon for the partying type, but he could only assume that where Hoseok was, Namjoon would be right by his side. Jeongguk doesn’t question it; he’s just glad to have the place to himself.

Jeongguk is not entirely, alone, though, welcoming an excitable Taehyung inside with open arms, their chests colliding as Taehyung jumps onto him. It sends him tripping backwards, chest rumbling with laughter.

They eventually settle onto the couch, drinking cheap liquor and shoving spoonfuls of strawberry ice cream into their mouths, and watching reruns of Haikyuu. It feels so incredibly domestic, and Jeongguk thinks he could stay like this forever, their bodies close and breathing soft, hearts beating in sync. Amazingly, Jeongguk feels at home.

The night grows old, and drowsiness has long since caught up. Taehyung, exhausted from his own day, dozes off first, nuzzling into Jeongguk’s chest—Jeongguk hopes that the heavy beating of his heart won’t disturb his sleep. He then presses a single kiss to the crown of Taehyung’s head, wishing him a good night.

(Namjoon comes home that night to Taehyung and Jeongguk tangled together on the sofa, the sugary stickiness of their dessert clinging to their fingers and lips, empty cartons strewn across the coffee table. Namjoon smiles, cleans up, and lays a blanket across the slumbering pair.)

 

*

 

It proves impossible to determine the precise moment in which Jeongguk falls in love with Taehyung. Maybe it was during their younger days, but maybe only after his relocation to the city. Drop by drop, until his heart tips over and spills its contents out in the open, for the world to see.

But even as he wears his heart on his sleeve, they do not label themselves. It makes it hard for Jeongguk to fully grasp what their relationship entails, exactly, though he is far too busy with his lips on Taehyung's neck, to even worry about the details.

Sometimes they're in the comfort of sweatpants, lips moving with the laziness of the morning. Other times, they are in a hurry backstage, Jeongguk careful to kiss only along his collarbones or down the slope of his neck, making sure not to smudge Taehyung's sultry makeup.

Jeongguk's favorite times, though, are after long nights of photoshoots and runways, when he gets to strip Taehyung of his clothes and worship his skin. He always takes careful consideration to peel away layer after layer, relishing in the little sounds Taehyung would make, and the roses blooming across his cheeks. He takes it all in, and makes sure to seal it within his memories. And when Taehyung sighs out in exhaustion, completely spent and satisfied all at once, Jeongguk replays the sound over, and over, and over again.

In the dead of the night, Taehyung and Jeongguk lay side by side, looking up at the ceiling and comparing hands. Jeongguk’s are rough and calloused, the opposite of Taehyung’s perfectly manicured digits. Taehyung doesn’t mind one bit, though, when Jeongguk threads his fingers through his damp locks, nails gently scratching at his scalp.

“Hey, Jeonggukie?”

“Yeah, Tae?”

“Do you ever think about like… soulmates?”

The question is so out of the blue; Jeongguk chokes. Was he insinuating something? “Soulmates? Like all the destiny and fate and stuff? I mean, not really, but I’m not opposed to the idea, I suppose.”

“Ah… it’s just so weird because like, just when I thought I’d never see you again, we bump into each other on the street. When I was doubting whether or not my feelings were out of loneliness, or that you could never feel the same, we only start seeing each other more and more often. It’s so crazy, the way things work out just right.”

“I don’t know about fate and all that, but I’d be in a trashy romcom with you any day,” Jeongguk grins, hooking their pinkies together. Taehyung takes it as an unspoken promise of forever, leaning over to plant the most delicate of kisses on Jeongguk’s cheek, ear, and shoulder. Jeongguk returns the favor, by rolling over and assaulting Taehyung with a litany of pecks all over his face, resulting in the most wondrous sounds of laughter Jeongguk has ever heard.

The moon watches through the window, dreamy and bright, the stars twinkling in the night sky. But Jeongguk has his own personal galaxy, right in his arms, glimmering in the languor and warmth of his lover’s gaze.

 

*

 

Jeongguk is the first in line to purchase his own copy of Seoul’s hottest fashion magazine, though it wasn’t as if he had much competition anyway. It feels so foreign, as he places the glossy booklet onto the counter alongside a couple of snacks as a cover-up, sliding over a few bills to cover the cost. Outside, he’s shy and reserved and quiet, but back in the safety of his own home, he can hardly bottle up the excitement any longer. He quickly thumbs through the first pages, one after the other, until he finally, finally, finally finds what he was looking for.

His initial reaction is to hold his breath, air caught in the back of his throat as he takes in the sight. A sight to be seen; Jeongguk only gapes. Taehyung looks stunning, lips glossy and face otherwise bare, give for maybe a smudge of stubborn leftover eyeliner. His outfit is all black, the color complimentary against his skin, golden in tone but still a pretty contrast to his clothing. Jeongguk wants to kiss him through the page.

It’s that desire that keeps him running through the day, crafting drinks with a kind of energy that muddles the brains of the regulars who are so used to seeing Jeongguk set on neutral. But he pays them no mind, his brain wired to think of nothing but Taehyung, and how he looks forward to seeing him on the job. It isn’t often that Taehyung invites Jeongguk to come watch, with his shoots often in the early morning, at a closed off studio. Today, the photoshoot is outdoors, capturing the sunset of Seoul as a backdrop to perfectly highlight Taehyung’s ethereal beauty.

When Jeongguk arrives on set, his eyes immediately find Taehyung, posing with ease and a kind of movement that makes Jeongguk’s heart jump. Seeing him in photos was one thing, but to actually catch him on the job? Jeongguk didn’t think he could have been any more smitten than he already was, but the thought is quickly proven wrong the instant their eyes meet.

Taehyung breaks character, his eyes crinkling and lips spreading wide as he wildly waves his hand in the air as a greeting from afar. Only when the photographer snaps his fingers in irritation does Taehyung redirect his focus. Jeongguk stands to the side, watches, and waits until his beloved has wrapped up the shoot.

“Jeonggukie! You’re here!” Taehyung sings as he bounds over to meet the male, hands reaching out to hold at Jeongguk’s wrist with a wide grin. He’s warm, in every sense of the word; Jeongguk’s heart feels like it’s on fire.

“I’m here, I’m here,” Jeongguk replies with a soft curl of the lips, leaning in to kiss Taehyung’s cheek. “You look beautiful, Tae.”

Taehyung toys with the thick band of black velvet—it must be a trend, but Jeongguk isn't complaining—around his neck, scuffing his shoes on the sidewalk. “Oh, stop it,” he mumbles, head dipping to hide his flustered expression. Jeongguk laughs, and pets at his hair.

His mood drops in an instant when a familiar figure comes into sight, throwing one arm around Taehyung’s neck, the other moving to twirl strands of Taehyung’s hair between fingers. Jeongguk’s brow furrows, and his lips purse into a thin line.

“Taehyung, you did so well today; I got some great shots. Come get some drinks with me, you look like you could use some winding down. Work been tough?”

Jeongguk remembers the same, slimy voice from before, and the overly-touchy demeanor. From the very beginning, Minjae had given off a poor first impression, and he had done nothing to rectify that thus far.

“Sorry, I’ll have to pass—”

“Aww, babe,” Minjae’s voice drawls out, running a finger along the curve of Taehyung’s jaw. Taehyung’s nose twitches, and Jeongguk thinks he sees a wince. “You’re playing so hard to get lately. I don’t remember you being so against spending quality time together.”

Taehyung had always said that Jeongguk was easy to read, and now more than ever, he hoped that it was true so that Minjae would feel the loathing seeping from his pores, and finally leave.

“If he doesn’t want to go, then he doesn’t want to go,” Jeongguk says firmly, jaw and fist clenched alike. He chooses to ignore Taehyung’s expression of disbelief, and the silent plea of stop, calm down, relax, it’s okay, I’m okay.

Minjae turns his head painfully slow, looking at Jeongguk with laziness, as if he couldn’t even harness the energy to spare Jeongguk a glance. “Oh, it’s you.”

Jeongguk does everything in his power to not land a punch right at the male’s jaw.

“Are you even allowed to be here? I don’t usually like having strangers on my set,” Minjae hisses, though he keeps his expression as charming as could be; Jeongguk doesn’t buy his act.

“Last time I checked, this is public property,” he replies in his calmest tone.

Minjae is about to bite back, before Taehyung is stepping between the two feuding males.

“Okay, okay, that’s enough. Minjae, I invited him here, you can blame me if you want. And Jeongguk, it’s fine.” Taehyung keeps glancing back and forth between the two, caught in the deadly crossfires of their respective glares.

“We can always get you escorted off the premises for being a disturbance to our work,” Minjae says with a sinister smile and a narrowing of the eyes.

“Well that wouldn’t be very nice of you, would it? I’m Taehyung’s guest; I’m sure he’d hate to see me have to go,” Jeongguk gives the same smile in return, eyes twinkling.

“Guys, stop it.”

Jeongguk just wants to keep going, wants to win the war against Minjae. But when Taehyung looks up at him with a stern expression, he cannot help but to give in. He sighs, posture relaxing. “Whatever, we should be heading home anyway.”

Minjae only grins wider at that, an unwelcomed palm clasping at Jeongguk’s shoulder; he wants to shake it off, but he plays nice. “I’ll see you around then. But hopefully not. Be good to my Taehyung, why don’t you?”

Taehyung has to drag Jeongguk away before he gets a chance to fight.

“I don’t like him,” Jeongguk growls once they’re at enough of a distance, their fingers laced together and making Jeongguk feel safe.

“He’s not that bad, Gukkie,” Taehyung mumbles, gaze turned downward. “He’s just like that. He doesn’t mean any harm.”

“The way he looks at you… I just, I hate it.”

Taehyung sighs. “He’s probably just messing around, he’s like that with a lot of people.”

“That makes it worse!” Jeongguk complains, squeezing Taehyung’s palm a little too tight. “You always justify the things people do, Taehyung. Are you blind? Don’t you see the way he looks at you, like you’re some kind of object for him to mess with?”

Jeongguk.” Taehyung’s tone is pointed, like a warning to stop now before he went a step too far.

“I’m serious, Tae. The looks he gives you are so dirty, it makes me feel sick—” Jeongguk’s voice catches in the base of his throat when Taehyung retracts and pulls his arm away; he hadn’t even noticed that they’d reached Taehyung’s doorstep. All of the alarms go off in Jeongguk’s brain, but it’s almost as if his lips move before he can even think.

“I just can’t help but worry for you, okay? You know I’d protect you with my life, Taehyung.”

Jeongguk thinks the words are moving, the harmonious combination of protective and soft, but then Taehyung is frowning, frowning more, standing only a couple meters away but feeling like they were oceans apart.

"I don't need you protecting me all the time. I can fend for myself."

It only makes Jeongguk want to argue, and remind Taehyung about the time he almost got into a fist fight with a mosquito for his sake because it had shocked him. But he stays quiet, observing Taehyung and watching carefully for any signs of distress or upset. Taehyung doesn’t speak, just stands at the top of the steps with his eyes boring holes into the pavement below.

“Tae, look, I just—”

"This isn't high school anymore, Jeongguk."

Somehow, the words hit a little too close to home, the memories of their younger years flooding his senses. Jeongguk wanted to forget about all of it, not in denial, but because of the deep pain it brought him. Remembering a bloodied, abused Taehyung was low on his list of desires. He only wanted to remember the times when they would hold hands in the halls, or exchange kisses in the library; anything but grimy fingers suffocating a young Taehyung. Choking him, killing him.

The images rip through Jeongguk’s solid exterior, right to his very core. Should he say something? Should he apologize? Jeongguk doesn’t even know if he can form words anymore, with the way everything ached so badly. Before he has a chance to say anything, Taehyung is already speaking.

“I guess I was right earlier; you really haven’t changed, have you?” His voice quivers, and no amount of acting can mask the hurt in his eyes. Jeongguk stupidly gapes at Taehyung, too dumbfounded to do anything but watch as he escapes inside and shuts the door behind himself.

It was like his body split into two, a hot and a cold, a tender and a gruff, a tremble and a still. The half that once held onto Taehyung now disintegrated. Jeongguk has no option but to sigh, and leave for home, alone.

 

 

 

[ iv. when i say it, i miss you more. ]

 

Two, three, four days. Four days pass and Jeongguk has not seen Taehyung once. He tries not to let it bother him; Taehyung is a busy, working man after all. He is not a cowardly boy anymore. he can take care of himself. But Jeongguk’s thoughts do little to appease the longing he felt (and he tries to feign ignorance in regards to the argument they’d had days prior).

He sees Taehyung everywhere, and in everything. It could be things as simple as the boring cups of coffee he makes on rainy afternoons, or the sticky purple residue of a child’s lollipop. But the other times, those are the worst. Walking through the city—those same streets where he’d once walked hand in hand with Taehyung—brings an entirely new world of hurt, especially when he sees Taehyung’s face plastered across the occasional billboard, or on the covers of magazines.

Jeongguk knows that he should feel happy for Taehyung and his rise to fame within the modeling industry, but rather than feeling proud, he feels upset. Upset because he has to watch from afar, upset because he couldn’t be by Taehyung’s side. But he supposes he deserves it, for being so assuming and completely overpowering.

He’d never taken the time to think about just how much they had changed in their years apart. Jeongguk himself had felt as though he hadn’t changed in the slightest (Taehyung reminded him of this often), so he’d just made the jump to assume that it was the same for Taehyung as well. He was quickly proven wrong, though, when he’d stupidly jumped to Taehyung’s defense without welcome.

Jeongguk couldn’t hold back the protective instinct, which had only led to his downfall.

He misses Taehyung terribly, moping around with slumped shoulders. Even Namjoon takes notice, giving him a supportive pat on the back, but no more. Jeongguk appreciates it the same.

The drag of each day is unbearable, Jeongguk craving the excitement that came with Taehyung’s spontaneity. Had he changed after all? Jeongguk had always been a man of stability and stagnation. Maybe things were changing for him. Would it be enough for him to try and earn back Taehyung’s trust, or would Jeongguk have to face his monsters head on, and learn from his mistakes? He likes to keep faith, and stay positive in the off-chance that maybe Taehyung would take him back.

(Jeongguk hates acting like a clichéd, lovesick high schooler, but nothing in the world can stop him from eating an entire carton of ice cream while watching reruns of his favorite shows that night.)

 

*

 

“You’ve been staring.”

The voice manages to pull Jeongguk out of his stupor, apologizing with a shake of his head in a weak attempt to clear his thoughts.

“A lot on your mind, I presume?”

Jeongguk shakes his head again, not wanting to drag anybody else into his mess of a mind. “No, nothing. Just sleeping bad.”

The other male quirks a brow, looking unconvinced. “You’ve really got it bad, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You’re absolutely infatuated. Completely and irrevocably. Totally in love. Did you know you do that dreamy sigh every time you see the color purple?”

Jeongguk gives a pained expression, his secret out in plain sight. The dark-haired male only grins wider. “Talk about whipped. Who’s the lucky one?”

“Yoongi, please. I am not about to bore you with the details of my love life.”

“But why not? I’d make the best wingman, and you know it.”

“You wouldn’t even make it out of your apartment to come and be my wingman.”

Yoongi pouts, cat-like face now looking more like that of a hurt kitten.

“You take that back right now. At least acknowledge my theoretical wingman skills.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, but gives in (anything to avoid a repeat of the last time he spoke back to the older).

“But what’s up?” Yoongi asks. He’d hate to admit it, but he definitely had a fond spot for Jeongguk. “You have been really down lately. Not to mention the staring. Almost looks like you’re just waiting for somebody to come bursting in through those doors.”

“Something like that,” Jeongguk says weakly.

“Hey,” the other says with a spark in his voice. “That reminds me, that model friend of yours? I haven’t seen him around lately. He was our most loyal customer! What, did you guys break up or something?”

The look that Jeongguk gives is full of hurt. Words are not needed.

“Oh. Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”

But Jeongguk just shakes his head, trying to dismiss everything. “No, no, it’s okay. I mean. I guess it wasn’t a breakup, per se. You can’t break up if you were never together in the first place, right?”

Yoongi can see right through him, and gives difference in height. “Well technically, no. But judging by the way you’re acting, it’s just as bad, isn’t it?”

“I’m fine, hyung.”

“You’re practically dying just waiting for your… friend to show up,” he emphasizes the word with air-quotes. “I haven’t seen you this sad since you spilled a latte on your Timberlands.”

The memory makes Jeongguk wince. “I don’t think he’d ever want to see me again. I’d better just move out, change my name, and hope that a meteor comes and crashes right on my head.”

Yoongi hums, rubbing at his chin. “You never know; he might be feeling the same way that you do. You never know what you’re missing until it’s gone, distance makes the heart grow fonder, blah blah blah.”

Jeongguk sighs. Yoongi was right. There was no I hate you, no I hope I never see you again, but rather a look of disappointment, one like a plea for him to come to his senses. If that was the only hope that Jeongguk had left; he would have to cherish it.

One last thought: “Am I really that obvious?”

Yoongi just shrugs and gives a smirk, gliding off to take an incoming customer’s order.

 

*

 

Once, Jeongguk spots Taehyung amidst a busy intersection, crossing from opposite ends of the street. Their eyes meet. Jeongguk stutters and tries to say hello. Taehyung brushes past, and pretends like he hadn’t heard. It feels like a stab right to the heart, blood ceasing to pump through his veins and causing him to fall through the cracks of a broken relationship. But it’s the most he’d seen of Taehyung as of late, and he looked healthy, so Jeongguk is happy.

 

*

 

He had finally been starting to get over it all, coping and dealing with the consequences. Life wasn’t all too bad, give for the Taehyung-shaped hole in his heart. But if he suppressed the feelings, he could get by just fine.

Jeongguk is, admittedly, at a loss. He’d tried convincing himself that everything would be fine, and that some things just weren’t meant to be. But would that stop him from continuing to mope around his apartment on lonely nights? Of course not.

He knows that it’s ridiculous, that he should be moving on and not down shots like it was his last day on Earth, but in his defense, it was a Friday night, and Friday nights used to be date nights. He has the right to be a recluse. Even so, he still felt incredibly guilty about the entire argument with Taehyung; in the very least, he wanted Taehyung to know that he did in fact think of him as a grown individual, and that it was wrong of him to jump in and be a hero, when Taehyung didn’t even need saving in the first place.

Plus, Namjoon was out again (with Hoseok, most likely), so who else was Jeongguk going to party with? Netflix was the only obvious answer.

Deep into the worst parts of Goblin (episode thirteen was the worst, by far), Jeongguk is definitely not crying. He is not sobbing his eyes out, he is not clutching a pillow to his chest, and he is not eagerly pulling up his Kakao chat log with Taehyung. It had remained untouched since their big split, Jeongguk not even trying to send a short, “how are you?”, and certainly not an, “I miss you.”

But alas, life is short and unpredictable; what if Taehyung turned into ashes and disappeared forever? Jeongguk couldn’t chance it.

And somehow, in his drunken fumbling, Jeongguk manages to press the “call” button, his lungs no longer functioning and his brain going on full rest mode. He stares, and watches the little ringer animation, hoping and praying that Taehyung won’t pick up.

Taehyung picks up.

“Hello?” The voice on the other end is groggy, words coming out in the form of slurs. “Who is this?”

Jeongguk stills. Should he respond? Or would he be better off just hanging up? He curses his drunken fingers for calling, of all things. Just text messages would have been much easier to handle. It would have been so much easier to at least pretend to fall asleep, but now he was stuck with what he’d done. But then again, it could be worse. It could have been a video call.

His train of thought is interrupted by a rustling on the other end, followed by a little, “Jeongguk?”

“Oh shit, sorry,” Jeongguk stammers, hands suddenly sweating. “Did I wake you up?”

“It’s two in the morning, Jeongguk. You’d wake anybody up at this time.”

Jeongguk could die. He really feels like he could die, in this moment. It was like everything he was doing was just driving him further away from Taehyung, rather than back together.

“Jeongguk? You there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Is something up? You sound tense.”

“No, it’s nothing. I butt-dialed you.”

“On an iPhone? Impressive.”

Jeongguk gives himself a mental slap to the forehead. “I mean, it was an accident—sorry, I didn’t mean to call.”

“Oh,” Taehyung’s voice falls, trailing off at the end. Jeongguk’s heart wrenches.

“Not—not that I wouldn’t want to talk to you!” Jeongguk explains in a panic, body shooting to an upright position. “What I meant to say was, I didn’t want to call you and wake you up. Like you said, it’s two in the morning. I should probably leave before I keep you up all night—”

There’s a pause on the other end, followed by the creak of a cheap bedframe. “I’m already awake now; I wouldn’t mind staying up with you.”

Jeongguk swears his heart stops beating for a second, and he struggles to catch his breath. “No, no,” he refuses the offer, despite every fiber of his being wanting it so desperately. “I’d hate to keep you up. You’re probably busy, all that modeling, and stuff.”

Another pause. “You sure?”

“I insist.”

He must have sounded convincing enough, because Jeongguk thinks he hears the thud of Taehyung’s head hitting the pillow again, followed by a light sigh. “Alright then, if you insist, Jeongguk. I’ll see you around, then?”

Jeongguk is grinning from ear to ear, with a hum and a, “I’ll see you around.”

And to Jeongguk, it sounds like a promise.

 

*

 

For how enthusiastic Jeongguk had been on that night, he’d expected to actually be seeing Taehyung more often, but the reality of the situation is, he doesn’t.

Instead, Jeongguk is stuck with the little glimpses of him in magazines and bus stop ads, but at least they’re on speaking terms again. Their texts mostly stick to idle chatter and polite conversation, with the occasional delve into complaints about not being able to sleep, or the bed being too cold, despite rising temperatures.

This is enough for him, because he feels Taehyung starting to open up again, allowing Jeongguk to carefully slip back into Taehyung’s heart. Jeongguk finds home there, in that special place, and vows to never leave it again.

The distance is still there, though, with Taehyung being obvious about keeping some sort of radius; Jeongguk understands.

On some nights, Jeongguk picks up a call from Taehyung, far too excited about his shoot of the day to relay the message by text. Jeongguk always has genuinely warm and enthusiastic responses.

“Yeah and the director of the photoshoot came up to me after it was done, and complimented me. Jeongguk, you have no idea how scary this lady is,” Taehyung chirps, so excited that his words are beginning to slur together. “I’ve heard she once cut an intern on the spot for making her coffee wrong.”

“I mean, I can kind of see her angle… competition is pretty tough out there.”

“Jeongguk, she doesn’t even drink her coffee.”

“Oh. Well then. I take back my statement. She’s just the devil.”

“I know right?! Must be some kind of power thing.”

Jeongguk hums and nods—more like sleepy bobs of the head—despite the other not being able to see him. He’s halfway into dreamland, ready to fall into a slumber and dream of the apple blossoms and the willow trees falling in love.

“But it was so cool. Jeongguk, she wants me to be in a commercial. A commercial, Jeongguk!”

The repeated phrase makes Jeongguk worry he’d been unresponsive, but then Taehyung is saying it again, and again, and again, as if he could hardly believe it himself.

“Photoshoots are one thing, but to be cast in a commercial?! This is huge, Jeongguk. I might not have to quit this thing, after all.”

“No way, Taehyung. You can’t quit; how am I going to brag about my model beauty of a friend if you quit?” Jeongguk teases, only because he knows the kind of reaction he could get out of Taehyung (the twitch of the lips and shy glances in the other direction were his favorite).

Jeongguk can almost hear his blush through the speaker.

“I mean, you could still do that,” Taehyung says timidly. Jeongguk can only chuckle. And yawn, apparently.

“I definitely could,” he mumbles in a low tone, voice laced with lethargy. “Did you know that I used to do it all the time? When we were together, I think all my friends and coworkers were getting sick of hearing me fawn over you so much. Maybe it’s a good thing we parted ways, haha.”

“Jeongguk—”

“But I’m still hurting, you know?” Jeongguk interjects. “I wish I could take everything back, and make you stop hating me for being an absolute jerk.”

The only pause in his heavy-eyed ramblings is when he yawns again, “I miss you. And I’m not even drunk, this is my sober mind talking. I miss you like crazy, Tae.”

He’s so close to passing out, not intoxicated by way of alcohol, but drunk on the feelings of longing and desire. A deep emotion only surfacing as he lay between wakefulness and sleep. His phone falls from a loosening grip to thud softly against his bedsheets, a quiet snore sounding soon after.

Only when Taehyung is fully confident that Jeongguk is fast asleep, does he reply with a whisper of, “I miss you too.”

 

*

 

Jeongguk is trying his best to calm his nerves. Today was the big day.

Aside from a “good luck!” text an hour prior, Jeongguk hadn’t done much other than fret and pace around his room, likely wearing out the carpet beneath his soles. Taehyung had been worrying over his filming the entire week. The feeling must be contagious, because Jeongguk is almost certain his own hair might fall out from the stress.

Should he send another message? Taehyung had yet to respond. Jeongguk didn’t want to seem clingy, though, and push his boundaries right after him and Taehyung had gotten back onto speaking terms.

Briefly, Jeongguk wonders if there was anything else he could do, but his mind comes up blank. He needed a break from all of this hard thinking, so he heads out into the kitchen for a glass of water.

Namjoon is there, standing with Hoseok in front of the fridge and making light conversation. Jeongguk had never formally met Hoseok, so he works his way around the two, opting to fill up cup with water from the faucet, rather than the pitcher in the fridge.

“You finally taking a break from ruining the floors?” Namjoon asks with a playful tone, one brow lifted, and a smirk on his face. Hoseok seems to be humored as well, which only makes it that much more embarrassing. Jeongguk’s ears burn.

“Yeah, sorry… Was it that loud?”

Namjoon chuckles. “Not the pacing part, but you were kind of talking to yourself.”

Now, Jeongguk only feels more embarrassed.

“I’m gonna skip the fluff and go straight for the big guns; what’s bothering you, Guk?” Namjoon looks concerned, bless his soul. Jeongguk cannot be more thankful for a friend like him. “And don’t try to tell me it’s nothing. I know you.”

Jeongguk sighs, his body slumping against the countertop. “You remember Taehyung, right?”

“Oh yeah, are you guys back together yet? You didn’t really seem like the type to ‘break up.’”

“That’s the thing,” Jeongguk winces. “Ever since we started talking again, all I want to do is grab his face and kiss him, and tell him that I’m sorry for being such a screw-up.”

“Then do it?”

“I don’t want to make him uncomfortable, again,” Jeongguk says, sipping at his water to relieve his dry throat. “The last time I was too overbearing, I started this whole mess. I’d rather just suffer alone than have to never see him again.”

“Jeongguk, that’s super unhealthy. You know your gut feeling is pretty trustworthy, right? Besides, you’re gonna hate yourself later on if you ignore it.”

Jeongguk frowns, blinking as he stares at his feet. “I mean, he has this recording for a commercial today… but I already texted him good luck and he hasn’t replied so he must be super busy today!”

Hoseok looks back and forth between the two, eyes going round and twinkling under the kitchen fluorescents. “Hold on, is this the same Taehyung I know? He’s a model, right?”

Jeongguk’s head snaps up, eyeing Hoseok with confusion. “Wait, what? You know him?”

“Yeah, we’re under the same talent agency. I’m a dancer, and we have studios in the building. We all kind of know each other around there, since it’s a smaller company. Taehyung is actually… somewhat close to me? We’ve gone out for lunch a lot.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Namjoon exclaims excitedly, clasping his palms around his face.

“He’s so much fun, Jeongguk, I could totally see you two as a couple,” Hoseok beams, fawning over Jeongguk like he was his own son. “He talks about you a lot, you know. To everybody. He’s so verbal about everything. I would have thought you were some newly married couple or something, with the way he adores you. And definitely would never have thought that you two aren't together.”

Jeongguk didn't think he could have blushed any deeper, but by now, his entire face is rosy and warm. “Seriously? I thought he would have hated me for at least a good few weeks.”

Hoseok hums in thought, then shakes his head. “Nah. Maybe for a day or so? But it really just felt like he felt sorry for you, like you had a bad day and he was waiting for you to come to your senses or something.” He shares a look with Namjoon, before they both turn to eye Jeongguk with curiosity.

"Do you want me to be the typical best friend who has to explain everything to you in excruciating detail, or are you going to go out there and fix this for yourself?" Namjoon gives him that look, and Jeongguk knows exactly what to do.

Jeongguk doesn’t waste any more time, already halfway out the door.

 

*

 

Taehyung doesn’t respond to Jeongguk’s text for another half hour, while the latter of the two is out and perusing the local florist’s storefront (would a whole arrangement of flowers be too much?).

‘Sorry I didn’t reply, just got home!’ Taehyung replies with a barrage of sleep emojis. This is good news, because Jeongguk had failed to think about the possibility of Taehyung not being home when he would drop by.

‘Aw, hope the shoot went well!’ Jeongguk quickly texts back as he pays for his small bouquet of cotton candy-colored blooms.

He feels a few more messages come through, but Jeongguk dismisses the notifications for now, wanting to save all the chatter for later. The street he walks down is all too familiar, having taken this exact route so many times before; he knows it like the back of his hand. He follows the path to Taehyung’s apartment by memory.

The first knocks on the door lead to nothing but Jeongguk feeling embarrassed. He paces. Contemplates knocking again. Pauses. Paces. In the end, he leans against the opposite wall, running his fingers through coarse hair. In the end, he pulls out his phone, and dials Taehyung’s number.

It seems to ring forever, and Jeongguk wonders if Namjoon’s advice about following his gut was right after all. He’s about to give up, but the familiar voice on the other end has him jolting back to life.

“I’m sorry, I just got out of the shower, almost missed your call! I’ve never run across the living room that fast in my life. What’s up, though?”

“Tae—” It was now or never. “I’m outside your door? Can I see you?”

There’s a silence on the other end, and Jeongguk fears that Taehyung is trying to find a way out of this, until the door swings open right before his eyes.

“Jeongguk, what are you—”

“Surprise?”

Jeongguk is standing across from the door, bouquet in hand. If it had been raining, he would have looked like he come straight out of a film. He smiles weakly, and extends an arm outward to offer the flowers to a stunned Taehyung. “As congratulations, of course. For your commercial.”

Taehyung flushes, and takes the gift with open palms and a whisper of a voice. “Thank you, Jeongguk.”

The air turns still, and Jeongguk wonders if he’d already spent up his time with Taehyung, until the other is lifting his head, and batting his lashes. “Do you want to come in, Jeongguk?”

And Jeongguk’s heart nearly leaps out of his throat. He follows Taehyung inside, with a shaky soul.

His apartment's interior is far too familiar, albeit messier than the last time he’d visited. His body moves on instinct, easily finding his usual spot on the couch, where he’d sat with Taehyung cradled in his arms so many times before. Taehyung sits too, after placing the flowers in some water.

“The flowers are so pretty, Jeongguk, thank you,” Taehyung says, still sounding flustered.

There isn't much else to say. Jeongguk fidgets, his palms sweating. Would it be better to start off with some more small talk? It would certainly be easier. They don't talk about what happened between them any of the other days, but now, sitting face to face, Jeongguk knows he has to clear the air, and make things right.

“Taehyung, I came to apologize,” Jeongguk interjects, leaving Taehyung’s mouth forming the shape of a little ‘o.’ He doesn’t know what has come over him, but he can’t hold back any longer. The pressure was getting to him, and if he didn’t clear the air, then he would only be stuck with this feeling forever. Follow your gut, he remembers Namjoon’s words from earlier. Or maybe he’s just more impulsive and confident, when it comes to Taehyung.

“I don’t even know if maybe you secretly still resent me for what I did, or if you’re just being polite for my own sake, but I need to turn everything around. I can’t live knowing that you hate me.”

“Jeongguk, no, you don’t have to—”

“I have to.”

Jeongguk is firm in his tone, and Taehyung sits back to listen.

“Taehyung, I fucked it up. I know. I was pushy and overbearing and overprotective. And it was my fault that you got upset after I treated you like a kid; I hate that more than anything, making you upset.” Jeongguk’s voice wavers, though he quickly clears his throat and reorients himself. “I was selfish, and thought that I could just keep you for myself, but you’re grown, and you can do whatever you want. Whether I’m in the picture or not.”

Jeongguk swallows the thick lump in his throat. “I just—I need you to know that I don’t look down on you, or think you’re some weak kid who needs saving. Hell, you can be with Minjae if that’s what you want. I’ll support you, because I just want you to be happy.”

“Jeongguk?” Taehyung finally speaks up, dancing around the other’s raw emotion and shaking voice. “I’m not with Minjae. I never was.”

Scratch that. Take everything back. Because what?

“Did you think we were together? I mean, not at the same time you and I were together, but ever?” When Jeongguk gives a feeble nod, Taehyung smiles weakly. “Well, at one point we were kind of a thing, ‘photographer and his model’ power couple, y’know. But he was just so… controlling?”

At this point, Jeongguk doesn’t know whether he should faint, or leap for joy.

“He was even worse than you.” Jeongguk pales at the comparison, and Taehyung frantically waves his hands. “No, no, he was horrible, Jeongguk. I just kept being polite to him because in this industry, it’s all about connections. I’d be out of a job if I acted out at all.”

Taehyung looks at Jeongguk, waits until he looks back. “I let him down easy, promise. Told him I was really, really into somebody else. Like, serious relationship status. I think he's got some kind of commitment phobia or something because he just about ran when I told him that.”

There’s a spark in Taehyung’s eyes. “You won’t have to worry about him anymore.”

“Oh, thank god," Jeongguk sighs out, his next words teasing. "You're not gonna use me like that, are you?"

"Of course not." Jeongguk thinks that he may get some kind of love confession at this point, but all he gets is a, "you don't have any connections for me to exploit."

"Touché. By the way, you know I was lying about that whole, ‘I’d support you and Minjae’ part, right?”

It makes Taehyung laugh, and after so long, Jeongguk feels relief. Uncontrollably so, his arms reach out to grab for Taehyung, delighted to see the other doing the same.

He holds Taehyung so tenderly, like he had the entire universe right in the palms of his hands. Jeongguk’s nose buries into Taehyung’s locks, breathing in deep and cherishing every second while palms run over the smooth expanse of his lower back. Here, with Taehyung nestled against his chest, Jeongguk feels secure. He’s warm, but Jeongguk’s heart feels warmer.

“I’m sorry for being an idiot. I’m sorry that I’m still an idiot,” Jeongguk says softly against the crown of his head.

Taehyung pulls back, looking up to Jeongguk with bright eyes. "Can you say it again?"

"What, that I'm an idiot?"

"Perfect."

 

*

 

Frankly, Taehying is an incredibly ugly crier, puffy eyes and red nose running like faucets. Despite everything, Jeongguk takes him into his arms, holding the boy up against his chest. Because he is in love, and he, himself, is an even uglier crier.

It was never his intent to make the other this emotional, but everything just seemed to fall into place. The chain of events starts with a sniffle, then a stray tear, and finally, rivers streaming down his cheeks. Reuniting had never felt so good before, and when Jeongguk tries to shush Taehyung, whispers to him how much he cares and how absolutely smitten he is, Taehyung only sobs harder.

Jeongguk is strong, hoisting Taehyung up by the thighs and carrying him to bed. It proves difficult to navigate the hallways, when Taehyung is so determined to kiss the life out of Jeongguk, but he doesn’t mind (he isn't even bothered by the salty taste of tears on their lips). Knocked elbows and stubbed toes would be forgotten soon enough. Jeongguk tosses Taehyung atop the bedsheets, before climbing up and hovering above him, caging him in with sturdy arms. He takes a moment to stare down at Taehyung, take in every feature and commit them all to memory.

“Hey,” Taehyung says softly. “What’s wrong?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. Pauses. He didn’t need to hide it anymore. Because now, as far as he was concerned, Taehyung was his, and he was Taehyung’s. “I just can’t stop staring.” You’re beautiful, I’ve fallen for you. He wants Taehyung to be ingrained into the deepest parts of his brain, and on the curves of his heart, where he belongs.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung cuts in. His next words have Jeongguk blushing. “This, now. Romance, later.” And Jeongguk can’t argue with that.

He skips the staring and the admiring for the time being, as he strips Taehyung of his shirt, fingertips digging into the soft skin right above his hip. The latter grumbles in displeasure as he pulls at the hem of Jeongguk’s shirt, complaining something about how he should forgo t-shirts and stick to button-ups, because having to pull away to take them off only means less kissing time. Jeongguk chuckles, and keeps that thought in the back of his mind. For future use.

But for now, he works to rid himself of his clothes in the most efficient way possible, shaking off his jeans with a flick of the ankle.

When it came to Taehyung, though, Jeongguk takes his sweet time. Despite the whines and tugs of hair, Jeongguk slowly works his way down Taehyung’s slim frame, kissing at every centimeter, and breaking out into a mischievous grin when Taehyung squirms (if Jeongguk had even an ounce more patience, he would surely abuse this newfound knowledge, but there was always next time).

Jeongguk had never seen the appeal in wearing such oversized clothing, usually preferring a straight cut or maybe one size up, while Taehyung liked to wear things that swallowed up his whole frame. Jeongguk had never seen the appeal, until now, when he pulls the roomy slacks down Taehyung’s slender thighs, chest clenching at the sight.

He finds that Taehyung really, really likes it when sucks deep bruises to the sensitive parts of his thighs, or bites into the plush skin there. It makes Taehyung gasp in surprise each time, and Jeongguk’s stomach churns.

“Beautiful,” Jeongguk mumbles. Taehyung feels as if he could die, and if there was any way to go, it would be under Jeongguk’s warm gaze, just like this.

The first finger that stretches him open works nice and slow, much to Taehyung’s chagrin. Jeongguk relishes in the whimpers and pleas.

“Jeongguk, please,” Taehyung seems to already be short of breath, muscles clenching and then unclenching again.

“Please what, Taehyung?”

Jeongguk doesn’t want to tease, doesn’t want to drag out Taehyung’s suffering, but he has to hear it.

Taehyung whines. “Guk, Jeongguk, please. Want you so bad, need you—” Overcome with emotion, Jeongguk captures Taehyung’s lips with his own.

He starts the pace out slow, wanting to savor each and every second. Jeongguk’s fingertips dig into Taehyung’s hips, and Taehyung’s into Jeongguk’s shoulder blades. The room feels like it is up in flames, burning through their skin and singeing at the flesh underneath, down to the core.

“Fuck, Guk,” he moans out wantonly.

Jeongguk tenderly wipes away at beads of sweat collecting on Taehyung’s forehead, as they grow increasingly more desperate, the halls filled with Taehyung’s whimpers and Jeongguk’s groans alike; he feels sorry for the neighbors.

But there’s something about the sounds that Taehyung makes, and the way he looks so blissful and satisfied, yet eager all at once. Jeongguk hooks his forearms underneath Taehyung’s knees, tugging him close and pressing damp foreheads together.

“Come on, baby,” Jeongguk pants, fingers curling into Taehyung’s skin. “You can do it, baby.” He can feel the way Taehyung’s thighs seize up around his waist at the pet name, toes curling as he gets right up to the edge. He thinks he hears sighs of more, more, more; how could Jeongguk deny his baby of what he wanted?

The build-up is steady and torturous, the room becoming pure heat, pierced through only by sharp gasps and sounds of approval. Even Jeongguk can feel his muscles clench, both with over-exertion and the promise of impending release. Taehyung comes hard and without warning just a few breaths later, his body pulled tight like string. It doesn’t take much longer for Jeongguk to follow suit, the spasming of Taehyung’s walls too much for him to hold back against any longer. Jeongguk works them both through the aftershocks, eventually loosening his grip and letting his hips still. He has to make the conscious decision not to collapse on top of a pliant Taehyung.

Neither of them are sure they can even talk, chests heaving. Jeongguk sluggishly rolls over onto his side, burying his face in the crook of Taehyung’s neck.

“You’re all hot and sweaty, gross,” Taehyung protests but with a lazy smile.

“You’re not really complaining,” Jeongguk replies, only nuzzling against his skin more, though he sneaks a quick glance upwards just in case.

“Maybe we should clean up?”

At this, Jeongguk is sitting up straight, their eyes meeting; he doesn’t even need to ask for clarification, because he understood without even having to think. A smirk lands itself on his face and his hands are already reaching to heave Taehyung up and over a shoulder, in the direction of the shower.

“Let’s go and clean up.”

 

*

 

They don’t make it out of bed for the better of two days, only stopping for meals and baths. Their phones are long dead, so they take advantage of the silence to bask in each other’s company.

“I missed this,” Taehyung says, first to break the silence.

“What, the mind-blowing sex?”

“No. Well, yes. But that’s not what I meant,” he frowns, jabbing Jeongguk in the ribs with an elbow. “I missed being with you, and being able to lay here with you like this. I just missed you.”

Jeongguk smiles fondly, and kisses Taehyung right in the center of his forehead. “I missed you too.”

They fall quiet again, content in their small kisses and tangled up legs. It must be heaven on earth, and Taehyung is his angel. A stray thought lingers in the back of his mind (because even angels had to have their flaws).

“Why did you take me back so easily?”

A sudden question, but one that Taehyung is prepared for. “Because we’re meant to be? No… I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t at least a tiny part of me that was just waiting for you to come back.”

“You didn’t want to move on? I was kind of a jerk.”

“Honestly Jeongguk, I felt bad for you,” Taehyung says bluntly. “It’s like you were stuck in that seventeen-year-old-Jeongguk mindset. You know, hero complex, must save the world, must protect damsel in distress.”

“Are you my damsel in distress?” Jeongguk asks with a laugh, smothering the sound in the form of a kiss at a stray bruise on Taehyung’s shoulder.

“No,” Taehyung replies. “Which is why I blew up on you.”

Jeongguk dips his head in guilt.

“I thought I was gonna be done with you then but, I started missing you, and hoping maybe you’d come back all brand new and sparkly,” Taehyung motions with his hands, before combing fingers through Jeongguk’s fringe. “I never wanted you to change, per se; I just needed you to realize that things are different now. I figured if you couldn’t do that, then it wasn’t meant to be.”

“So… we’re meant to be?” Jeongguk’s expression is cheeky, and Taehyung rolls his eyes, but wriggles himself closer against the other’s chest with a grin.

“I guess we are, my Jeongguk.”

And Jeongguk’s heart swells with the feeling of their souls meeting somewhere in the middle—a happy compromise, of sorts—before going through the phases of love all over again.

 

 

 

[ v. you give me purpose. ]

 

“Thank god, you finally had some time off. Do you know how hard it is to pack and move all by yourself?”

“Hey, what about us?” Namjoon complains from behind.

“You and Hoseok were too busy making out and I was not going to get in the middle of that,” Taehyung groans, wiping away at the sweat that had collected on his forehead. He’d considered asking Yoongi, but there was no way in hell that he would have come by to help.

Jeongguk sweeps Taehyung up with an arm around the waist, and an apology in the form of a kiss. All is forgiven in an instant. “Sorry babe, school’s been kickin’ my ass. These laws aren’t gonna study themselves.”

“I still can’t believe you want to be a cop, of all things,” Namjoon says. “Who would’ve known you’d choose that?”

“I guess it fits your image, at least, with that poker face of yours. Do you have a reason why though?” Hoseok chirps from beside Namjoon, their fingers interlocked and lips free, for the sake of making conversation (rather than making out).

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Jeongguk remembers when he'd been told by a man in navy blue that he'd ‘done a good job, saved Taehyung, made everything alright.’ But Jeongguk just shrugs, holding Taehyung closer. “Can't be a barista forever, you know. Gotta contribute to this household. It just seemed right.”

Taehyung beams up at Jeongguk, who mirrors his expression, then closes the distance between them with another kiss. Namjoon and Hoseok groan hypocritically.

Some three hours later, when the boxes are packed and their apartment otherwise empty, Taehyung and Jeongguk are laying out on the carpeted floor of the living room. With their bodies too exhausted to do anything else while they wait for the moving truck to arrive, they’d collapsed onto the only bit of open flooring left.

“I can’t believe we’re moving into our own apartment. I lived here for so long, it felt like home,” Taehyung sighs, fingertips drawing little shapes across the wide expanse of Jeongguk’s chest.

From his place on the floor, Jeongguk hums, barely listening as the gentle touches start to lull him into a dreamy doze.

"Do you ever think about going back home? I know you loved it there."

Jeongguk cracks open one eye, Taehyung patiently awaiting an answer. "I don't need to. Home is wherever you are."

“Forever?”

Uncontrollably, Taehyung breaks out into the most brilliant grin, his skin glowing and radiating with happiness. When they hear their moving truck pull up to the sidewalk, Jeongguk takes Taehyung’s hand in his own, kisses at the knuckles, then leads them outside to meet their driver.

He doesn’t need to look back anymore, doesn’t need to run around lost, because he had finally found his way. Now, they could only move forward. With Taehyung by his side, beautiful as ever, Jeongguk doesn’t think he could ever get lost again.

And when they finally step foot into their new apartment, Jeongguk scoops Taehyung up into his arms, and kisses promises of forever against his lips.